Letters to Our Fathers

In the first year of SafeKidsStories, my friend Tina Smith-Brown and I went to Los Angeles to conduct a video conversation based on her literary curriculum project, Letter to My Father. Fifty high school girls came, on the first Saturday of their Spring Break, along with their faculty leader, and half dozen retired women volunteers to share their letter-writing experience with five Hollywood divas, we called them: an actor, reality TV-show personalities, and a comedienne. The divas were young and beautiful; the girls a little star-struck. Tina and I introduced, and then made room for the sharing of, the letters. It was performance, sharing, group therapy, school, TV. Like women’s day in a black church there was a luncheon, with specific colors. The event communicated to participants curiosity worthy of genomic therapy about individual and family’s adaptations of general functions: father, daughter, love, protection, play. The structure of the afternoon mimicked the wisdom of folk ritual in its respect for the community’s ability to heal.

The activity is simple: write a letter to your father. Usually, the first draft is written on paper for the sake of privacy, because, at first, this is an inside job. It’s about a mind?—?Tina began with girls, so, a young girl’s mind?—?developing reflection. A letter develops honesty. How to say it? How did I feel then; what’s happened since; how do I feel now? How much of the story is necessary for me to be understood?It is strategic invitation to find a literary rope long enough and sealed bucket adequate to dip down into the hidden well of the self and bring water to the parched surface. That’s how it felt to me when I wrote my letter: that’s the exact metaphor I saw. It came back to me, with all its woman-at-the well allusive power as we greeted these women and girls a week before Easter and Passover. Ancient culture has formed us, God as father, paternity laws from Europe, Who’s-your-Daddy lyrics and videos, and dog-and-bitches idioms. On Friday, Tina and I left pre-dawn 44-degree Philly rain and stepped into 80-degree L.A. sun at Crenshaw, a day ahead of the event, where a 21-year-old school volunteer who had struggled with her letter handed us a piece of paper with no salutation, but rather a wide-open aside and a ringing closing that nailed the themes to come: People think girls with no fathers will be tramps, she wrote, generally, to the reader, which is wrong and unfair, a social wound issuing from the primary hurt of the father’s absence: “You missed every birthday. You missed graduation. You missed my whole life.”

We seldom trust young people with their own minds; and we seldom encourage them to use all their powers of expression to talk about their experience of us. The letter-writer often learns her or his own take on things when asked to write. They remember, but also uncover and discover: experiences with, without, because of, in reaction or response to the father; wounding, desire, fear, delight, celebration, guilt, shame, happiness, assessment, rage, love, need for love, early in life and now, and the soon-to-be adult’s capacity and desire for intimacy. They discover the connection among feelings, ideas, bodily health, behavior, love, and money. How do I feel I was cared for? How do I, will I, care for myself?

The girls read their letters with astonishing honesty and courage. The women read their letters, too, to give to them the deeply affecting gift of vulnerability. This is what the hell happened. This is how I hurt. This is how I adapted. This is how I’m trying, trying, trying, to heal. With their perfect TV hair and nails, their production deals and contracts, they, too, are trying to wrangle love, maturity, happiness, peace, and success from chaotic and wounding childhoods.

Comedienne Simone Shepherd promised the girls that if they could just stay on track through adolescence, they could make it to the other side and find adult resources. “My father’s a crackhead,” she said. “I say that in my routine, like no big deal: ‘My father’s a crackhead,’”?—?she tossed out the line differently; it flew across the room, sharp-edged, hard, lightweight, a found-object boomerang that flew out over our heads and returned to her, funny, but hers to keep; we laughed, of course, a crackhead!?—?“and people laugh, but it’s not really funny.”

Simone Shepherd and Morgan Hardman

She has continued her relationship with him even as he goes into and out of addiction. She’ll visit him in a halfway house back east, and he’ll be working, doing well, and wanting her phone number and photos. Each time she gives them; then he goes back to the streets, eventually, sells his phone for drugs, and she’ll get a call from someone asking if this really is the comedienne, Simone?!!

When he’s clean and sober again, he asks for the new number, and more pics.

A girl with perfect make-up, perfect diction, perfect poise began to read about the father who wanted her to do everything carefully, perfectly, and then, suddenly, family trauma happened in a confusing rush, and the story tears and rumbles off the rails, a trainwreck of a family life, two or three bad switches, no one watching amidst the extreme challenges of hard-scrabble life, and she finishes now, in a foster home, nearly desperate, crying. “I just want to go home,” she says. “I just want to go home.”

One of the counselors made explicit for the girls the connection between promiscuity and father neglect. She used her time at the podium for just a little sharing followed by a sermon urging them toward hard-nosed empathy. “When you see a girl going with everyone, being so free with herself, just think about what got her there, think about why she might be doing it, and then you can decide not to call her out on social media.”

A workshop participant reading her letter.

We will publish letters on Safe Kids Stories, a medium publication I’ve created to feature stories about how people help children thrive. What I’ve discovered, like TED talk’s Brene Brown when she began her research on wholehearted living, is that when we ask people about safety, they talk about harm. So, these events, and workshops by my students at UPenn, and collaborations by brilliant people like Tina, scour the world for ancient wisdom plugged in or unplugged when necessary, and for ways to give voice to hard-earned hope.

The session was videotaped, and we’ve created a short teaser, trying to cut the stone into gem form to catch the shine, and to leverage the deep, rumbling, underground power of these sessions and to elevate them, like blues, and hip-hop, outsider art, or modern art forms and share how these particular people in this place take this human experience, dance it in a circle and share, for a moment, ecstasy.

Toward the end, I walked into the library, which volunteers had converted into a pink-and-purple-and-white soror-ship hall. “What are they doing?” Nellie, who’d catered our lunch, asked it of a volunteer who’d come ahead of me.

The older woman admired the tables. “Cryin’,” she answered in a matter-of-fact voice. Then she went on to admire the plates of sandwiches and chicken salad, sliced cucumber, grape tomatoes, and fruit.

As I quoted at the end from nature essayist Wendell Berry, “Love is never abstract…”

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