Discover more from William Shunn’s Main Wish Null
Why I’m Not a Fan of Father’s Day
Some thoughts on monsters, child abuse, and why some of us are best advised to steer clear of social media at certain times of the year.
A week ago Monday, I had a fit. Not an epileptic fit. A sobbing fit that went from subdued to hysterical in a matter of minutes. It curled me into a fetal ball, wrung screams of terror from my shredded throat. I begged for mercy, pleaded for it to stop.
Who was I begging? My father. Begging him to stop beating me with that leather belt.
I am nearly fifty-five years old. My father has been dead for fourteen years.
It’s not long enough.
My father, Donald William Shunn, was a monster. He was a teacher, a carpenter, a soldier, a Teamster, a metalworker, a gardener. He was a football player, a car enthusiast, a speed demon, a gadget head, an avid reader, a juvenile delinquent, a failed missionary. He was a church leader, a union rep, an animal lover, a homeowner, an oatmeal gourmet, a staunch Republican, a Germanophile, a Californian at heart. He was a husband, a brother, a nephew, an uncle, a cousin. He was cantankerous and surly and argumentative. He resented authority and frequently barked back at it. He was generous to a fault and self-pitying and stubbornly ignorant. He held a doctorate in education. He was the glue that held his extended family together. But above all, he was a monster.
Some people won’t like me saying that. But what else can you call that creature of unquenchable rage looming above you with the face blazing red like a beating heart, with the wild bulging demon eyes, with the tongue protruding and clenched so tightly it’s a wonder it doesn’t spurt blood? What other name would a shrieking, pleading four-year-old put to the earth-shaking voice ordering him to pull down his pants, to the paw that yanks the leather belt slithering and snapping from around its waist, to the limb hurling down agony and retribution in endless bolts of white lightning? How else to comprehend and encompass a terror seared so deeply into brain and flesh that it replays itself in periods of unbearable stress as if it were still happening, as if it had never ended, as if the monster had risen from its too comfortable grave to satisfy a midnight craving for fear?
I am the eldest of my parents’ eight children (though an older half-brother arrived on the scene in 2019). My next younger sister lived through the same terror I did. Sometimes we lived through it literally side by side. The physical punishment—for sins so insignificant they’ve slipped, lost, between the fingers of memory—eased over the years and eventually stopped, but the verbal abuse and oppression never did. There was nothing I did that could not have been done better. There was nothing I wanted for myself that was not base and depraved and contrary to the will of God. Even as a teenager, practiced at keeping my head down and my heretical thoughts to myself, I could carelessly trip some unseen wire and bring the red-face, pop-eyed monster roaring back to life.
Growing up I often caught myself wishing my father would die. I could not enjoy the thought. My imagination and guilt would spiral out of control as I pictured what might become of our family if that happened. The only fantasies I could enjoy were the ones out of books totally divorced from the world in which I lived. Is it any wonder I started to write them myself?
Missionary service aside, I stayed in my parents’ house for years longer than I should have, convinced by my father belittlements that I was too callow and unworldly to make it on my own. If I said anything that made my father feel badly about himself, my mother would be quick to berate me. Funny how that rarely went the other direction.
Even when I finally got out on my own, it was too stressful just living in the same state as my father. By the age of thirty, I was living in New York City and had publicly proclaimed myself an apostate from the LDS Church. My father would still call every so often to check up on me. Once, in reference to my faithlessness, he said to me, “I should just get my shotgun and come out there and take care of you myself.”
People tell me how much I owe my father, how much he gave me, how fortunate I was. I say, if I’ve made anything of myself, I did it despite him, not because of him.
He has been dead for fourteen years, just like I used to wish for, and now we are once again on the cusp of Father’s Day, my most despised of all annual observances. Late in life, my father stood up at an extended family gathering, where his rambling remarks included something to the effect that he didn’t understand why all his kids hated him. The loving tributes my siblings will soon be posting all over social media will be ample demonstration that he was wrong about that, but I could have explained my own whys to him if he had actually been willing to hear.
It’s because you were a monster, and because like all the worst monsters you still refuse to die. ∅