Words of Shame, Words of Love
When I was very small, my father sometimes told me:
I still love you even when you are bad.
This was his habit after scolding me — although it’s possible he said it only once and it made such an impact that I remember it happening multiple times.
Memory is a tricky thing, especially such early memories, and it’s hard to be certain what actually happened. What I misremembered at the time, and what I’m misremembering now, may be the imposition of adult priorities onto a reconstruction of my childhood.
I’m sure his intention was to reassure me that his anger at me was temporary, while his love for me was enduring, but he had the opposite effect. I didn’t have the vocabulary to express it at the time, I just remember thinking something very much like, “What the fuck am I supposed to do with that?”
What a terrible thing to say to a child.
You are bad.
Not, “I love you even when you misbehave.”
Not, “I disapprove of your behavior, but I recognize that your behavior does not reflect your essence. I confirm my love for the fundamental ‘you’. ”
Instead, all I heard was: YOU are bad.
I, your father, paragon of magnanimity, am capable of resolving the paradox and loving you despite your fundamentally unlovable nature.
That’s pretty fucked up.
If my adult memory is not playing tricks on me, then I do remember thinking “Thanks for that, you condescending fuck,” although I never would have had the testicular fortitude to say it aloud.
I also did not have the sophistication to forgive the imprecision of the words and understand the clumsy but well-meaning sentiment behind them.
He must have reconsidered the implications of those words at some point, because I don’t remember hearing them past the age of 6 or 7.
I do have another memory of my father, though. It was from when I was perhaps 13 or 14. Somewhere along the line I’d developed a fear of heights. On family vacations to amusement parks I would be the only…