I sat alone in the waiting room, nervously waiting for a man whom I had never met. This was the first time I had sought professional psychological help, and I wondered if anyone I knew would recognize my car in the parking lot or worse, actually see me. After about twenty minutes, the door opened. I kept my eyes lowered, pretending to read a magazine. My name was called, and I was invited into the office. After a few minutes of greetings and other preliminaries, I began telling my story.
So where does one begin? The only thing I knew for sure was that I was unhappy. I found little fulfillment in life despite the fact that, on the surface, everything in my life appeared idyllic. Thirty-seven years old, I had been sealed to my wife in the temple almost fifteen years before. I had five children, ages three months to thirteen years. My employment offered challenge and good pay. And, with seventeen years of Church activity under my belt, I currently held a calling of great trust and responsibility.
Everything in my life dictated that I should be happy, but I just wasn’t. My relationship with my wife was strained; I was constantly irritable around my children. And that was what tormented me most. In disciplining the children, I often used belittling words and sometimes resorted to spanking. And the spanking often went beyond the first blow, to a second, much harder blow, and then another and another. My conscience would scream at me to stop, and it would take every ounce of willpower to obey. I would abruptly leave the room, abandoning a sobbing son or daughter.
I was plagued by guilt about my behavior; I felt worthless and felt that Heavenly Father couldn’t possibly love me anymore. Too ashamed to face him, I would cease praying for weeks at a time, only to begin again on a very sporadic basis.
Church attendance became a burden; Sundays were filled with nagging reminders of everything I wasn’t doing—praying, studying the scriptures, holding family home evening, writing in my journal, attending the temple, working on family history, and a hundred other things clamoring for priority on my mental checklist. I felt overwhelmed. Finally, after many long discussions with my bishop, I realized that what was happening inside me was complex and would require great effort to overcome and resolve. He referred me to a therapist, and after an hour of discussion, the doctor agreed that there was much turmoil beneath the calm facade I was attempting to maintain.
I committed to meet with him every week until, as he put it, “you feel you don’t need me anymore.” We continued exploring my current situation, then discussed experiences in my past to find patterns. As the weeks went by, I became more aware that many of my present difficulties could be traced back to my relationship with my father. My remarks increasingly touched upon him in one way or another.
I wasn’t really surprised. Long before starting a family or even seriously considering marriage, I had decided never to pass on what I had seen my abusive, alcoholic father do. Now, as I recalled making that commitment, it was obvious I had disregarded it many times. As my conversations with the therapist focused upon my father, deeply hidden resentments surfaced—ones I thought I had resolved long before. I was astonished at the strong emotions that still burned inside—as if I was still the hurt little boy or the angry young teen all over again.
About two months into the process, my therapist suggested one way to get my anger out and reconcile my feelings toward Dad. He proposed that I write a letter to my father—a letter that would probably never be sent—containing everything I had always wanted to say but had never said.
It wasn’t the first time I’d thought about writing a letter, but the suggestion was the motivation I needed to begin the project. And it was a project! I thought of my years of unhappiness as a child and knew that a few pages of unfocused anger just wouldn’t suffice. If I was going to do this, I was going to do it right. I decided to convey every memory I could think of—bring each one into the light, study it, and determine what each had done to me. When finished, I hoped to better understand myself and, hopefully, my father.
I began the next day, writing a short preamble:
Today is April 22. I will most likely never send this letter to you. It deals with my childhood, growing up in our home. Most of the time it wasn’t really home but a kind of hell. I have many regrets from those years, and one of them is having few memories of really happy, secure times in our family. The memories I recall are mostly ones of fright, anxiety, and sometimes even terror.
I want to let go of the past that has haunted me all my life. Years ago, I thought I had forgiven you. But the baggage remains. I haven’t really felt the full expression of forgiveness.
I hope this letter will help me reach that destination.
So, Dad, here goes. This is going to be painful for me. You may not remember much of it. I don’t think I remember everything that happened within the walls of our home. I did a pretty good job of shutting out much of it—all those times I retreated to my bedroom, my sanctuary, and closed the door to the world outside. Maybe some long-buried memories will come back as I write this. Maybe not. Whether they do or not, I’m just going to start at the beginning and work my way forward and see where the journey takes me.
The journey took more than three months and almost 24,000 words. I prayed for the Spirit of the Lord to bless me so that this experience would turn to my good. The writing became part of my personal history, illustrating the subtle things parents do that can adversely affect their children’s self-esteem, even reaching into their adult lives. I saw that words can hurt just as much as the back of a hand or a leather belt. It was the words my father shouted at me that affected me the most and became the hated habit I was passing on to my own children.
The letter began with me pointing finger after accusing finger; my writing sometimes barely kept up with my emotions as I recalled nightmarish incidents of physical and mental abuse. I still felt guilt as I recalled the slaps, shouts, and cries heard outside my closed bedroom door. Inside my room, I listened, wanting to do something but too terrified to move, conditioned not to get involved. I wrote of my father’s choosing not to be involved in my life, doing nothing to build trust and respect. I wrote of my wish that a favorite uncle could have been my father instead of the man who sat at the kitchen table with his ever-present wine bottle and glass, oblivious to the needs of his family. I wrote of the most bitter pill I had to swallow—that my father never apologized to me or admitted when he was wrong. I summed up a particularly difficult entry noting that all the little boy inside me wanted was a regular dad, a dad who loved him.
Each week through my prayers and in my discussions with the therapist, the letter helped supply insights and direction. Through the Spirit, I began to see a different side of my father. I realized that Dad’s illness—alcoholism—prevented him from being the kind of father I needed. I accepted the probability that Dad, without realizing it, had passed on to me what he had learned from his father. And finally, I understood that Dad had probably done the best he could with what he had. The Spirit brought me insight after insight.
With new perspective, the mood of the letter began to tilt away from accusation toward understanding. The change is obvious as I write of my parents’ divorce, which occurred when I was eighteen. This was the most difficult part of the letter to write. Everyone paid painful emotional prices during this ordeal, but—and I never before realized this until I wrote my feelings—no one paid more dearly than my father. He lost everything he had taken for granted for twenty years: family, home, job, and self-respect. No one rallied to his cause, least of all his wife and children. He faced it alone.
Now I began learning from the things I wrote; indeed, I found I was writing to myself more often than to my dad. The Spirit helped me see the same patterns of behavior in me that I had seen in him, the same kind of neglect mingled in my relationships with my wife, my children, and Heavenly Father. I recalled Dad’s final plea to Mom shortly before the divorce was final, begging her to reconsider. It was while writing the letter that I realized that I might experience the same thing in my not-so-distant future if I didn’t change.
The last few entries in the letter, while still containing episodes of hurt and disappointment, also included some positive experiences. I remembered clearly a camping trip to Mount Whitney that my father and I took about eighteen months after the divorce. Looking back on it now, I understand that Dad was trying to make up for lost time, trying to create a memory more powerful than all the negative ones stored inside me.
On the second day of the trip, Dad opened up to me for the first time in my life, and we talked all that day and long into the night about anything and everything. I’ll never forget sitting in the dark, the embers of a dying campfire at our feet. As we gazed upward into the clear, starry night sky, we were in awe of the extent of creation—and we just sat together, talking, talking, talking. For a brief period of time, I had the dad I had dreamed about, the dad I had always wanted.
I recognized early in those discussions that if I was to end the cycle of abuse that had plagued my family in past generations, I needed to find a way to forgive my father. This forgiveness had to be complete, honest, and final, or I knew I could too easily return to the old ways. I could not allow it to become a kind of amnesia in which I would just write Dad off and forget him; neither could I let it take the form of a protective wall around me by my pretending the past didn’t happen or didn’t matter. No, I wanted the full measure. I wanted to acknowledge the past without holding it against him anymore. I wanted to forgive him as Father in Heaven forgives all his children—a forgiveness where sins are not dwelt on any more (see Heb. 8:12; D&C 58:42).
Through that process, the Spirit blessed me abundantly. I realized that besides forgiving my father, I needed to forgive myself (see Alma 36:19–21). This more difficult task takes much longer—in fact, I’m still working on it. But progress is being made, and the Spirit helps me and brings me comfort. Meanwhile, I remind myself that there is one who descended below all things, and that no matter how hard or terrible I think my experiences were, they pale pathetically against the suffering of the Son of God. When I fully accept the reality of the Atonement and make it a living power in my life, then I know my true and complete worth as Heavenly Father sees it.
The letter I wrote prepared the way for me to accept the comforting influence of the Holy Ghost and to find the forgiveness for my dad and for myself that I so deeply desired. The recorded memories, insights, and ponderings planted a seed which six months later bore fruit.
For the first time in many years, Dad came to visit me and my family. We had always lived many miles apart since my leaving home, and the distance had made it difficult to get together. The letter was on my mind as he and I went to a nearby pizza take-out to get dinner. We sat in his car in the dark of the evening, waiting for our order. We first talked about casual and trivial things, then about deeper things. Finally we talked about us.
The setting reminded me of the trip to Mount Whitney, and I asked him if he remembered it. He nodded. I told him that in spite of the hard years and the regrets of the past, that would be the day I would remember him by.
“The past doesn’t matter, Dad,” I said. “It doesn’t matter anymore.” And all of a sudden, I meant it. Without a second thought, I told him I forgave him. There are very few times I have seen my father cry. This night was one of them.
And what of the letter? It sits at home, telling the story of my journey from despair to peace and what I learned along the way. The letter concludes with this August entry:
It is my dream that all my children will grow up knowing beyond any doubt of my love for them, that their childhood memories will be filled with happy times, and that they will carry forward a legacy of love to their children—my grandchildren. The road to this dream will not be smooth, but I am determined to see it fulfilled. Between God and my inbred stubbornness, it will be done.