Monsters I Have Known and Loved
Love takes off masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.
- James A. Baldwin
You can’t really know a monster until you yourself, or someone you love—someone ordinary, daily; someone you believe to be trustworthy—becomes one. And that only happens when the masks they, we, have worn—and we all wear them—is torn off, and the monster's face revealed. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you can't know what it is to face a fiend unless you've known their angel.
For us, that was our fathers. We were betrayed by the fiends within them first before we found that we too, harbored demons.
My daughter's father abandoned her on her ninth birthday. He’d promised to be there, but he never showed up. She waited for him. Amid the party, the decorations, the room full of other nine-year-olds, she only had eyes for the door. At the end of the day, she sat by the door with the rotary phone, dialing numbers, trying to find him. He was not there.
She waited by the door.
When she was seventeen and a mother herself, he came back into her life. She was ecstatic. She needed a new place to live, was looking for an apartment for her baby and herself. Her father said, give me the money for a deposit. He needed a hundred dollars. I know of a great place, and I'll rent it, he said. I'll bring back the keys. She gave him the money. He took her cash, and the last of her hope; he took her belief, and her love, and he left.
He's dead now. He died some time ago, at age forty-two of kidney disease related to alcoholism. When I heard the news, I looked up his death certificate on the internet and sent for a copy, which I took with me to visit my daughter, who was living in New York City at the time. Death certificate in hand, we went to Brooklyn Bridge, where we burned it and scattered it to the wind.
What would you call him?
I hoped for closure, but I still sometimes see in her eyes what I saw when she was nine: the far-off look, the wistful light, the same unmet love I have in mine.
To her, he was “daddy.”
In the Fall of 2016, all the monsters converged with the election of Donald Trump. I happened to be helping my daughter with a college essay about Frankenstein.
“If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear,” Shelley’s monster said.
That November 9th, for both my daughter and I, and many other women, it was as though the monsters in our lives had triumphed once and for all. The “pussy-grabber,” chief abandoner, betrayer, and liar had been given the keys to the White House, to a house we’d seen as sacrosanct, as a light, as safe. Our rapists, our predators, and for some of us, our fathers, our brothers, our husbands, had betrayed us and now, with the election of a predator, the entire country had said it didn’t matter. A monster had entered the consciousness of a country, had seized our government’s highest office. Who created him?
As we read Shelley’s novel, we noticed how isolated the monster was. We watched him stare in the window of the cottage belonging to a poor family, saw his gradual realization of what he was missing: companionship, love, the company of others. And we began to, if not love him, have compassion for his plight. He could not connect with others and seemed innocent, for he was created out of one man's desire for greatness, out of hubris. In the end, we were left undecided. Although the monster was not to blame for his plight, wasn’t he accountable for his response, his need for revenge, and his all-consuming rage? Why do some of us accept our circumstances, turn toward the good, while others choose to wreak havoc on the world? And don’t we all make a mess of it; don't we all have demons not so easily banished?
Some people, I told my daughter, say the monsters are within. Some say we are all capable of evil; we are all culpable. Maybe that’s what the saying “There but for the grace of God…” is all about. Not gratitude that disaster didn’t befall us, but the recognition of our own fallibility. Our own inner monsters.
She agreed—we all hold darkness. We all avoid it. In the dilemma duality represents, we tip toward either/or; we split the world in two. If we don’t learn to hold steady, we become one-dimensional, stuck, never fully human. We draw lines in the sand and put each other on opposite sides.
We both knew something about shadow, having faced addictions both together and apart. Having fallen into the abyss ourselves, we could understand what Frankenstein’s monster must have felt, looking into that window at the warmth and belonging that he, a freak of nature, a monster, would never experience.
My daughter and I both experienced moments in our addictions that put us outside the pale. Our obsessions had robbed our sensibilities, had taken everything good and whole from us in a moment. In the grip of addiction and the stigma of being alcoholic women, we lost ourselves.
We both experienced the shame that drunken women know, thrown from the tribe for imbibing alcohol like men. We felt like monsters, loathed ourselves for what society called weakness, for selves we perceived as inadequate, not good enough, selves it turned out we had repressed, that had been oppressed. For qualities that turned out, in the end, to be our passion and strength. And underneath, hadn’t we always somehow felt outside, misfit, not good enough, freaks of nature for our difference? A drunken woman drinks from inside a cage that cannot hold her but does not let her go.
Like Shelley’s strangely endearing monster, we had been out in the cold and could not find our way back to the fire, a fire that had never really wanted us around it, as we were, to begin with. A fire Frankenstein’s monster never found. Stigma is like that. Labels like good and evil, right or wrong, sane or crazy, divide humanity in two. There is us and there is them.
My daughter and I shared more than our addictions and our respective recoveries. We shared fathers we loved, who turned out to be doubles.
Cycles, patterns, are repeated. Science tells us with the latest epigenetic studies that transgenerational trauma lives inside our biology, in our very DNA. It doesn’t go away. According to psychology and religion, consciousness is the key to transformation. Awareness is how we not only transcend trauma but evolve through it. Psychologist Carl Jung said, "If the unconscious is not made conscious, it will direct our lives, and we will call it fate.”
Some say we come into our lives with baggage from previous ones. The pattern of toxic, physically or emotionally absent fathers—beginning with my own life and continuing in my daughter’s—seems fated. Karma is as good an explanation as any, as is the patriarchal system with its toxic masculinity ringing down through the ages. The Bible mentions the sins of the fathers being visited on subsequent generations in multiple scriptures:
“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation,” Numbers 14:18.
I’ve heard the science of epigenetics speculates that genetics may span 350 years, at least fourteen generations. Until I was thirty years old, I knew my father to be a Godly man. He was religious and faithful. He worked hard. He was quiet, aloof, though if angered, he could be vicious. I adored him from afar, though I was also wary and afraid of him. I had no sense that my adoration was reciprocated. We were not close, but I didn’t see him as close to anyone in our family, not my mother or my siblings. He seemed like most fathers of that era: his role was to provide. He worked, he slept, he expected our mother to wait on him. He was also a reader and a fairly good, if modest, musician. He played several instruments by ear—the guitar, violin, and piano. He played and sang the ballad of “Old Shep” for my siblings and me, and often changed the last lines to something like, “So I shot that dirty old dog in the head.” As quiet as he was, even his humor was scary. I loved him, but I kept my distance. The family assumed I had never wanted much to do with him because I was a "mama's baby."
I was a mama's baby, and maybe it was my closeness to my mother that made me wary of my father. Perhaps I tuned into some dynamic between them or into her most profound and unexpressed feelings. Like other parents of their era, their relationship was closed to their children. What went on behind closed doors stayed there—an unspoken rule only grasped in hindsight. We kids rarely saw our parents interact beyond daily household chores. They didn’t argue in front of us, nor did they share affection.
I was thirty when my father turned into a monster in my eyes, when I learned he had molested my niece. I had troubled feelings at that time about him in general, and about myself. I was having flashbacks to an incident with him from when I was three years old, but since I had the cognition of a three-year-old in the memory, I had no words for what had happened. As a thirty-year-old, I was trying to translate its meaning and significance.
When I discovered his transgression against my niece, which had been reported and prosecuted without the knowledge of most of the family—kept secret by a few select members—my world was shattered. The reality I thought I knew turned out to be inaccurate. I was left with a different reality, one in which I had a predator for a father, in which my trauma was long lived, unnamed and unspoken. There is a strange familiarity in trauma, a fated quality. Some part of me recognizes that the monster has always existed; just behind and to the left of me, a shadow.
After this realization, I fell ill with a nasty flu and lay on the couch for over a week, immobilized. Our lives as I perceived them had seemed so average, so conservative. Even wholesome, if not a little old-fashioned. My parents were deeply religious, hardworking, middle class, modest people. They did not dance or drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes; we did not even own a television.
When Trump was elected and took office, many Americans awoke to the monster within their country; a monster we had never come face to face with, that we had ignored and denied. Suddenly it was everywhere—not just in the orange hair and face of the so-called leader of the free world, but in our own mirrors, in the form of our own sexism, misogyny and racism, some internalized, some overt.
On Halloween, we wear costumes, some scary, some not. It’s said we celebrate Halloween to honor the dead. Impersonating the dead and the spirits was believed to be a form of protection from them. Once a year, we dress up and imitate the evil spirits and perform Halloween as a rite, maybe to acknowledge the darkness we try so hard to keep at bay. Who is behind the costume, whose face behind the mask? At bedtime, we take them off and show the children there was really nothing to be afraid of. See? It was dear old dad the whole time.
We, as children, don our own costumes and play at hiding ourselves from ourselves, taking on new personas. Who are we truly?
In the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson posits the dilemma of human duality. He presents the dark side as split off from the angelic and raises the question of who we are at heart. Are we instinctual beasts beneath a veneer polished by social conditions? Are we angels? Can we be both and, if so, how do the two reconcile with each other?
My daughter and I agree we are both—that it is by denying our darkness that we become evil. We act out our shadows, as Jung said; if we don't make them conscious, they become our fate. My father tried to live the good Christian life. As a country, we played benevolent leader and savior to the world, or so we believed. The repression and denial of our imperfection, our flawed humanity, is what creates the monster. While Frankenstein’s monster was a freak, he was also part human. He lurked outside the windows, longed for companionship, for love. Denied, he raged.
Doesn’t how we shun others, those we perceive as unlike ourselves, our angelic selves, tie into the social justice problems underpinning our existence? The monster in the White House is building a wall and using difference as a means to justify exclusion, all the while oblivious to the fact that no wall can save us from the fiends we ourselves become by shutting others out. By naming them as “other” we create false separations banishing not just those we have “othered” from the warmth and sustenance of the fire of the community, but also ourselves. Racism, sexism, all the isms and the false hierarchies we claim. We define ourselves as better or worse, not equal. We build walls, close borders, point fingers. We categorize, label, compare. We avoid looking into the mirror, run at the hint of our own shadows.
And so, our loved ones become monsters. And our Presidents. And so, eventually, do we.
Some of the monsters I ran across early on took the form of boy bodies in high school. Looking back, they seem so young, not yet men. Just boys, like my brother, my grandsons, my nephews. Boys like my father and my husband once were.
Those boys hurt me. As a little religious girl, I was targeted in school and then discarded. They threatened to blackmail me unless I let them, or their friends, rape me. They explained to me that having sex with three different boys as they had coerced me to do, officially made me a whore. They called my home like they had threatened to, and when I answered and pretended to be my mother, they said hoarsely, "Your daughter's a slut." They wrote my name in slurs on the high school gymnasium wall, in big letters for all to see. The adults, teachers, the principal—why did they not remove it? Every day during gym class, I exercised in my blue gym suit beneath that wall. Every day I died.
I was more afraid to tell my parents than I was of the humiliation, rape and abuse I was suffering at school. I knew what their response would be: "What were you doing there?" I had gone behind their backs and met a boy outside our religion, and the message, as I understood it, was that rape was what I deserved. There was no one to blame but me. It wasn't just that I disobeyed my parents. I had disobeyed God.
And so, I began to see monsters everywhere. Even worse, they saw me. They smelled the stink of shame on me. I was raped again—many more times. I was abused, violated, mistreated, and stalked. I drank whatever was available and took drugs indiscriminately. I ran wild among the monsters, but the scariest of all was the one inside that wanted to destroy me. The one that was born inside early on that made me susceptible to the monsters, that came with the belief that being harmed meant I was flawed. I deserved it.
Instead of addressing the darkness in us all, we make our daughters responsible for it. We allow men in the highest office of the land, men in positions of great power, to hide from it, to project it outward.
It’s easy to see the monsters out there. It’s so much harder to see the ones inside, growing in our own hearts and minds. But I am convinced those are the monsters we must face, first and foremost. Those are the ones we must befriend.
I faced mine. Eventually, I stopped running and turned within. Put down the nicotine, the drugs, the alcohol, the projections, and faced it. That was the beginning of my freedom. When I met my own demons instead of running from them, the monster finally felt seen. Its message is a cry for help, an insistence on love. The shameless behavior of the inner beast, of Frankenstein’s creature, is a rejection of rejection—its own, and others.
I face the demons every day, and by doing so, I make peace. I take them by the hand. I don't banish the difficult parts of myself to the shadows anymore. I bring them out into the sunshine; I say, "I see you." We have an uneasy truce. The more I allow it space, the more it trusts me with its secrets, the less it needs to act out of fear. It no longer must hide. I’m not afraid of it anymore.
And because I have that truce with my own monster, I can see past the monsters in the world and into the darkness that holds them. I know from the struggle with my own darkness that no amount of shame, name-calling, or outrage will help. It only makes the monster stronger.
I'm beginning to understand that the only argument a monster can hear is love. And so, I’ve created a mantra:
Love is the only argument I have today.
I can hear the social justice warrior protest those words. We must do something. That something, I’ve learned, is an inside job. That’s my circle of influence.
After three futile years of endless political arguments reaching deaf ears, that mantra has become my guidance. Whenever I am pulled in, triggered to engage in the political discourse on social media, whenever outrage at monstrous acts starts inside me, I try to pause and recall the mantra. If love is my argument, then how would love as an argument respond?
It tells me: Don't engage. Bear witness. Surrender outrage. Sometimes it asks for direct action, sometimes non-action. It asks for a response rather than a knee-jerk reaction. It puts me on pause so I might see not a binary, but a third way. For those I have engaged with are people like me: afraid, terrorized, and held hostage by a political situation they can’t see their way through. They are bewildered, confused, and uncertain. And uncertainty and fear feed the monsters.
If the humans had responded to Frankenstein’s monster with love rather than fear and revulsion, is it possible that he could have come to a different end, come in from the cold, and joined the family at the fire? Could he have reconciled, or at least come to terms, with his creator?
Maybe I sound naive. But if we’re going to face the monsters of America’s twenty-first century it might behoove us to think of their creation and what part we play in it, to choose. While we often cannot take responsibility for the monstrousness of others, we can always choose how we respond. That’s the work of being human.