Big Stories

My Stepfather, The Peeping Tom

My mother’s husband confessed to having spied on me in my bedroom and bathroom years ago. Figuring out how to maintain a relationship with him — and with my mother — has been traumatic, even if they don’t consider it sexual abuse.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

My last visit back to Florida to visit my mother was years ago. In the morning I would wake up and find an empty coffee cup and a shining teaspoon waiting for me on a folded paper towel before the coffeemaker, its big glass belly filled with Folgers that had been sitting there for a while, getting gnarly and more caffeinated with the passage of time. Taking my cup out onto the lanai, I would join my mother in the haze of cigarette smoke that filled the room, its own atmosphere. Together we would get amped on coffee and nicotine — mine secondhand.

Once properly lit, my mother and I would head out to the thrift stores that line the highway of her Podunk, nowhere town. In the Goodwill I would grab a shopping cart and work the long dress rack that lined the wall of the store. The cart would quickly become a mound of nautical stripes and shimmering metallics, drapey sequins and printed caftans. I’d next make a swipe at the skirts, the tops, and the workout clothes, in case a random pair of printed Danskin leggings from the ’80s were waiting for me. I’d swing by the shoes, eyes peeled for some fashionably ugly orthopedics or some Floridian sandals. Then I’d push my cart — now piled so high I could barely see over the top — to the dressing room, and spend the next hour trying everything on.

After thrifting maybe we’d take a trip to the senior center, where the local elderly ply their crafts, shockingly artisanal-looking tote bags and quilts that I always threatened to haul back to San Francisco and sell for quadruple the price. Maybe we’d get an ice cream, soon we’d have dinner, maybe Chinese takeout, maybe a stiff, gray plank of Steak ‘Um pulled from the freezer and fried in a pan. Then we’d hit the bingo hall and play a night’s worth of games.

It’s later at night when things would get weird for me. Or — did they get weird? Maybe they were normal. But it’s weird to have such a thing be normal, is it not? That in itself is weird. Either the situation is weird, or I’m weird for thinking the situation is normal, the situation being my mother’s husband, my stepfather, or, to be legally truthful, my father, since he adopted me in a court of law 30-odd years ago, as I entered my teens. This man, disabled with a rare and terrible spinal disease, who sits on the lanai, smoking menthols in a painkiller haze, is also the man who sexually abused me through those teen years.

When we met he had a thick head of blond hair, an earring in one lobe (the not-gay lobe; this was the ’80s), a hand-poked tattoo on one knuckle in the shape of a cross. Since his illness struck he is either bloated and taut, or too thin, his skin hanging loosely on his bones. In his seat on the lanai he bundles himself in a bathrobe and tucks their dog, a skitterish, barky Maltese, into the folds. He smokes and watches television, or he sketches onto paper with the box of colored pencils I bought him. At night, when my mother left for her graveyard shift nursing job was when it would be just him and me, alone together. Normal and weird.

It’s controversial to call what happened between my stepfather and me “sexual abuse”; at least in my family it has been. His crime was peeping. He took advantage of the gaping keyholes in doors of our aged New England home; he availed himself of the chips in the doorjambs that created a tiny space for an eye to peek through. He improved upon the house’s ramshackle nicks and dents, digging his own tunnels into the bathroom door, into the walls of my bedroom. How do I know this? Careful investigation.

Before the investigation were the years of creeping suspicion, a hunch that something really terribly wrong was happening in my house, a hunch I fought. Sitting on the toilet in the cramped bathroom I would hear the creaking of floorboards right there. Flinging myself up from the bowl, I would find my stepfather on the other side of the door, fussing with the cable box on the nearby TV. But why? We had a remote control. Well, I’m sure there was a reason. All those other many times I heard the unmistakable noise of a weight just outside the bathroom door. It’s the cat, it’s the cat, it’s the cat, I’d tell myself as I lingered on the john, a copy of TV Guide on my lap. In my home we called the bathroom “the library because people were prone to locking themselves in with a copy of the National Enquirer. It was hard to focus on reading with the creaking, with the war erupting in my teenaged brain: This is happening/No it’s not/It is/It’s not, it’s not, it’s not, and you’re a pervert for even imagining such a thing. I was about 16.

I felt like a pervert. Sitting in my bedroom, where I liked to glob song lyrics from the goth bands I loved on the linoleum floor with black nail polish, where I liked to paint my mouth dark and lip-synch in the mirror to Siouxsie Sioux, I would be in my own world, filled with music, and then suddenly, chillingly, the thought that my stepfather might be watching me invaded my headspace and I would freeze. Sometimes I would do strange things. I would scrunch my face up like a monster, stick my tongue out like Kali. I would grab at my breasts grotesquely. It was partly like, You want a show, here you go! But it was more like, If you really thought he was out there, you wouldn’t be doing that, so therefore he is not out there. You are insane. I felt insane. Perhaps this is how people went mad. I shut out the light and jumped into bed, then realized I had to pee and jumped back out again, startling my stepfather on the other side of my bedroom door. He was fumbling toward the refrigerator, “Hungry,” he mumbled as he stuck his head into the cold light. The rest of the house was dark, pitch-black, every light off. Why walk across the house without turning any lights on? I walked quickly into the bathroom, shut and latched the door, and looked at the keyhole, stuffed with cotton, as I peed.

It wasn’t until I was 21 that I began to take my intuition seriously and took to scrutinizing my house. Look at how the nicks in the bathroom door lined up so perfectly with the nicks on the jamb, creating a perfect peephole. Crouch down low and affix your eyeball, behold the toilet bowl, right there with its puffy pink plastic seat cover, the kind that warms your butt when you sit down on it. Notice how the nicks between two separate pieces of paneling on my bedroom wall came together in the perfect little hole, as if manufactured, which it was. If you walked into my back hallway and moved a strip of particleboard propped against the wall there, you would find a big, punched-in looking hole. The hole was covered with a strip of electrical tape, dull and dry from being peeled back so many times. When I peeled it back for the first time it fell to the dusty floor like a dead autumn leaf. When I put my eye to the hole, there was my bedroom, all laid out like a diorama, a doll’s house. There was my bed, the posters on my wall, my stacks of books and records. The writing on the floor, my mirrored armoire. All that was missing was me.

For some nights after I slept in a nest on my floor, my blankets bundled by the door. The more evidence I found, the more I needed to catch him in the act. Anxiety kept me awake all night, dust bunnies caught in my nose. Eventually I moved back to my bed. The last thing my fragile psyche needed was the added psychedelic headfuck of sleep deprivation.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

My stepfather confessed to what he had done one evening in the early fall. All it took was insistence, convincing him that he’d been caught, that no denial would work at this point. He stuck and resisted, then confessed. My mother was at bingo. I was on the verge of moving out, of moving in — far too quickly — with my moody first girlfriend. My stepfather’s tears froze my heart. How dare he cry, how dare he grovel and apologize, how dare he make himself small after looming so large over my interior all these years. How dare he make himself pitiful so that I might forgive him. He begged me not to tell my mother.

The thought of not telling her, of not telling anyone, was repulsive enough to be physical. My body roiled with it. It was as if he was asking me to be complicit in his violation of me, to join him in my own abuse. I’d had no reason to think my mother wouldn’t support me, and here he was, trying to deprive me of that support and love and care, the things I’d need to finally deal with this, to maybe heal from it. I couldn’t look at him any longer in his desperate, pleading state. I went into my bedroom and I slammed my door against him, and when he tried to talk to me through the painted wood I threw things at it — a jewelry box, books, boots, anything I could grab. I screamed at him until my throat was too raw to make a noise: “Get the fuck away from me! Do not fucking talk to me! I fucking hate you! Stop, stop, stop, stop!” Eventually he stopped, shut up, and slunk away to some other part of the house. Of course I would tell my mother. If my husband had been abusing my daughters I would want to know. Not for a second had it occurred to me to keep such thing a secret.

My mother appeared to be stunned by the news. Then heartbroken. She probably stayed both stunned and heartbroken even as she swiftly moved into damage-control mode — minimizing what had happened, highlighting my stepfather’s regret, incessantly speaking on his behalf, pleading with me to dump my “toxic anger” and forgive, on the double.

“You understand, this is sexual abuse,” I insisted to my mother, watching her blanch at the violence of the words. Was it sexual abuse?

“He just liked to watch you reading books in your bed,” she claimed. “He was just in awe of you.” Nothing gross or creepy about that. Totally wholesome peeping-stalking.

To be clear, the government agencies that police this sort of thing absolutely see this situation as sexual abuse. The police, child social services — these bodies list “peeping” quite high in their catalog of such things. My mother had to have known this, even as she attempted to invalidate what her husband had done. She’d pleaded with me not to report him, as he could get his nurse’s license revoked. She had to have known. But the reigning analysis in my home was, he never touched me. Never put a hand on me. That’s sexual abuse. “She doesn’t know what sexual abuse is,” our next-door neighbor bitterly informed my mother when she shared our family drama. Apparently, she did. Her own stepfather’s hands had been all over her body. And it’s true. He never touched me.

My family crumbled into the gap between what I knew happened — sexual abuse, a strange, covert kind that messed with my mind for years, twisting my interior — and what they insisted happened, the poor judgment of a sad alcoholic who had since gotten sober and apologized, and why was I so punishing, so full of hate that I couldn’t forgive this kindly, trembling man who now wanted to die — literally die because I would not forgive him and go back to calling him “Dad.” This information was delivered to me via my crying mother who also now wanted to die, because the family was shattered and the fault lay not in her husband’s actions, but in the refusal of her daughter to forgive, her insistence on naming this thing sexual abuse when no hand was ever put upon her.

Sometimes I still look up the varying definitions of child sexual abuse, just to reassure myself I am not crazy, that this thing that has defined and impacted so much of my life and my person is real, that I am not delusional, longing for victimhood, all those things people say about women who cry (and cry and cry and cry) sexual abuse. I looked it up before writing this essay, just to make sure the world still thought peeping counted as abuse. It does. And in the time that has passed since my abuse in the ’80s, it has gotten so much worse. There are digital cameras and cell phones. You can snap a secret naked picture of your stepdaughter and not have to risk imprisonment when you bring the film in for development at your local Walgreens. I’m glad there was no such technology during the era of my abuse.

After I did tell my mother, when we were in the deep, deep dregs of it, the era of “I want to die” and “This is killing him” and “My god, he is sorry, why do you have to be so cruel,” my mother would claim that she’d rather not have known. She’d rather have gone on living with her husband, their relationship unmarred by such a revelation. It remains hard for me to fathom.

I never regretted telling my mother, even as every dream of care and support I’d held swiftly disintegrated. Even as it became clear that leaving her husband was not an option, not even a trial separation, not even booting him out for a week of couch-surfing. Even as I refused to speak to him, and so all conversations with my mother became her speaking on his behalf, letting me know how sorry he was, how miserable. Their unhappiness laid upon me heavily. I was never happy to hear that my stepfather wanted to die; I wasn’t vengeful except at the very beginning, when I felt that I had lost my mind a little. If this man, who had loved me so much, who had acted, on the surface, like such an excellent father, if he could do such a thing to me, then what else had people done? Were all people really two people — the person who was good to you, and the person who steadfastly betrayed you?

My girlfriend at the time, and the small ring of friends we surrounded ourselves with, were also young and damaged, struggling with the aftereffects of toxic families and a larger, even more toxic world. It was the early ’90s, and my girlfriend was struggling with memories of her grandfather sexually abusing her; we inhaled The Courage to Heal workbook, and she convinced me that my birth father had probably sexually abused me as well, because my fantasy life was so violent and perverse. I shrugged; sure, he probably had! I mean, any terrible thing could happen, could it not? Brad had just found out he was HIV-positive while in the midst of separating from his strict Mormon family. Annie and Jessa’s best friend had been gunned down in a school shooting, and Jessa had been sexually assaulted at a party the other night so we all had to find and beat up the boy who’d grabbed her. We were a seething tribe of anger and hurt, a gang of Lost Girls. We would sit together at someone’s house and drink wine and share painful stories. I told them how, when I last visited my mom, I snuck into my stepfather’s dresser and ruined all his porn with QUEER NATION stickers. Inspired, Brad asked for his phone number and crank-called my stepfather, threatening to rape him and give him AIDS. We were barely out of our teens and we’d all been destroyed and wanted to take the whole, abusive world down with us.

My mother took me to task for ruining my father’s pornography after finding some issues of the lesbian sex rag On Our Backs in my old bedroom. “If it’s OK for you then it’s OK for him,” she said tartly. Was my mother really talking to me about my sexual abuser’s porn collection? No — he wasn’t my sexual abuser, he was my stepfather — my father, actually, and if I could just get over my insanity and call him Dad again, everything would be great.

It seemed rational to not want to have to ever again look at the person who turned a tender swath of your life into a psychosexual nightmare, let alone call him Dad, but my mother could not stop trying to get me to talk to him. And so I stopped talking to my mother as well.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

It is very hard to not talk to your mother, or at least I found it so. During this time, when I was newly in San Francisco, 21 years old, very lost, and seriously adrift, I remember indulging in a strange fantasy as I walked the foreign streets of my new home: My mother was seeing a psychic, who peered into a crystal ball and told her what she saw: Your daughter is walking down a street lined with palm trees, her head is shaved — yes, shaved! She is smoking a cigarette, she’s wearing boots with holes in the soles, taped there with electrical tape. I wanted my mother to see me. I wanted her to see what had happened. I wanted a witness. I wrote down the story of what her husband did and I made copies of it and left it in random places on my trip across the country. Before I’d left, I’d called my grandfather against my mother’s protests, and told him what had happened. “Harumph,” he said. That’s it. Just sat there with it, smoking, until I changed the subject.

Once in San Francisco, I began to write poetry, and the story turned up in the poems. When the poetry turned to memoir, the story was there. People read this stuff, or I read it to them at open mics and literary events. The bars were dark and full of people, full of beer; the heckling got louder the drunker the audience became. TMI was the order of the night, and as I brazenly shared the story of my family, women from the audience would find me later at the bar and share theirs as well. Fellow poets whose work I’d just enjoyed would slap me on the back with compassion. And I got a little bit of what I’d been looking for: an agreement, or assurance, that what had happened to me was sexual abuse. The sharing of stories of other women who’d experienced similar hurts. The validation and love I had tried so hard to wring from my mom came in droves from new friends and strangers. A simple “That’s fucked up.” A sincere “I’m sorry that happened to you.” It’s certainly not the same as getting it from your mom, but I got it. The more I told my story, the more I got it. And I got less and less crazy, little by little.

I couldn’t not talk to my mom forever. After about six months of silence we took back up, long distance now. She felt so far away it spooked me sometimes. I was homesick, in spite of how sickening my home was. It didn’t take her long to resume her campaign on behalf of her still sorry, still miserable husband. I remember feeling confused. Would it hurt me to talk to him? I mean, the conversations with my mother were definitely hurting me; I would have to call in sick to work after a particularly bad one, my face red and swollen from crying; my tears, once turned on, hard to stop; my dehydration headache and full-body exhaustion. Would saying hi to her husband be worse than this? What did it even matter if I talked to him or not? I was trying to prove some point — the point that I should not have to talk to him, that such an expectation was sick and deranged. Guess what? My point was not being taken. Would I tough it out like a lone, ignored hunger-striker until I died?

But then, if I talked to him, was I betraying not only myself but every woman ever abused, every person who talked to me in a hushed tone after a poetry reading, every woman who nabbed me on the street saying, “I read your book. Something like that happened to me, too…”? Would I become a terrible thing, a hypocrite, or a traitor? It didn’t matter. I was emotionally beaten and numbed out. I told my mother I would speak to her husband and the joy in her voice was indescribable.

In our first phone conversation her husband tried to apologize, and I cut him right off. If he said, “I’m sorry” then I’d have to say, “It’s OK,” and it wasn’t OK. If he apologized I would have to forgive him, and I didn’t forgive him. That wasn’t what was happening. I wanted to stop feeling responsible for my mother’s suicidal dreaming, and his own. I cut off his apology and we talked instead about drums. He had played them in his youth, once at a party, backing up Billy Squier. He’d played them until his house caught fire and they melted and burned and then he never played them again. I was playing drums in two bands. I’d bought a busted, incomplete kit partially held together with duct tape and found that I had some sort of natural ability. I thought about all the dance classes I’d taken as a child, keeping time with the taps on my feet. It was like that, but with your whole body. I saved money and invested in a better, complete kit. I loved sitting behind it, like cozying up behind an animal, the drum set a living thing. How lost I could get in the beats, tranced out. That’s what we talked about. Then we got off the phone.

It is true that no one should have to remain in contact with a person who sexually abused them. I believe that asking for that is, in a way, a perpetuation of that abuse. What happened in my family — not just the years of abuse but the horrible aftermath — continues to haunt me, much the way that my initial, teenaged intuition haunted me. Where I once thought, He’s watching me, I now think, How the fuck is it that I am talking to this man? Where I once thought, You pervert, why are you thinking about your stepfather like that, you are disgusting, I now think, God, poor him, he’s in such pain, he’ll die this way, and his whole life has been so miserable and hard, being beaten by his father, being a drug addict, never getting to realize his artistic talents… There is no place to land, because the situation never ended, and so real healing, the kind I dream about, can never take place. Instead, it’s this negotiation, flip-flopping between resenting both him and my mother, feeling anxious and trapped, and then berating myself for still giving a fuck after all these years.

Mostly this drama happens quietly, on the inside. I’m so accustomed to it, a certain acceptance has set in. This will never be resolved. That is simply how it is.

The first time I saw my stepfather again was a Thanksgiving visit years ago, when they still lived in Boston. I had told my mother firmly that a condition of my visit was that I would not call him Dad. She agreed, eager to have me home. But once there, I came upon my mother with her head down on the kitchen table. “What is it?” I asked, alarmed. Her husband was in the other room, awkwardly watching television with my girlfriend, Meerkat. (Another condition for my visit, was that Meerkat, a bicycle messenger with the intense little face of a meerkat, come along.) My mother lifted her head, her face ruddy with crying, her bangs wet with tears. “It just kills him that you won’t call him Dad.”

“Meerkat!” I hollered, and pulled my girlfriend out of the house, into the November New England landscape, low clouds, a thin scrim of old snow crusting the curb. I was shaking with anxiety and rage. We looped around the block until my breathing evened out, till my own angry tears subsided, and then returned to the house. We plopped back in front of the television and pretended nothing happened. But something was happening inside me.

By the end of the night I had a significant fever, and returned to San Francisco horribly sick.

Eventually my mother let go of her need for me to call her husband Dad. Maybe he let go of it — I have no idea what their own communication around all of this is. My visits, never frequent, became calmer. They moved from New England to Florida, and seeing them in a new landscape was refreshing. My mother and I enjoyed our time together. But there were, and are, things. How she would send him to get me at the airport alone. The long drive from the bigger town with the airport to their nothing town with nothing much was awkward; my heart pounded. He lit cigarettes from the pop-out lighter in the dash; if it was during one of my smoking eras, I’d join in, both of us ashing out our windows as the wild Floridian jungle passed by in a green blur outside. The classic rock station was on so we wouldn’t have to talk, but when we did talk my own voice was higher than normal, cheerier than normal. EVERYTHING’S FINE. I was making it OK that I was trapped in the cab of a pickup with this man. I was making it OK with my high, cheery voice and my casual smile. I had to make it OK, because if it wasn’t OK then it wasn’t OK and then what the fuck was I doing visiting these people in bumfuck Florida, anyway? Anxiety hovered, somewhere in the back of my throat, behind my smile. I swallowed it down.

Another thing my mom did happened during phone conversations. Afraid to ask me if I wanted to talk to her husband, she would simply say, “Hold on,” and suddenly his voice would be in my ear. It was always a shock, an anxious shock, this abrupt switch to being in the groove with my mom to gathering my wits to speak with my stepfather. It always left me rattled and pissed. It took me until this year, after some therapy, for me to finally ask my mother to stop doing that, to please ask me if I feel like talking to her husband before she passes the phone over. She agreed, and we got off the phone, and I cried in the street, bewildered at how shaky the request had made me. It’s become so normal, the ongoing trauma, that sometimes I’m shocked to have a feeling about it.

That’s what happened that one time while visiting a few years ago. After a day of wandering around with my mother she went into work, her graveyard shift. I was to sleep in her and her husband’s bed. I protested — they had a little spare room with a little futon in it; couldn’t I have that? But that room was a mess, had become a sort of storage area, and the bed wasn’t made and couldn’t I just sleep in their bed? They didn’t even sleep in it anymore. They both slept on the couch, taking turns, each of them in bizarre sleep cycles, his due to chronic pain and hers due to work. So I went into their bedroom. Before I fell asleep I rang the boy I was dating to say good night.

“How are you doing?” he innocently asked. And I fell apart. My tears confused me — I hadn’t realized until I was asked how close to the edge I was. Everything felt creepy and my chest was full of dread.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I said, and he said, “Really?” Because he knew. Why would I want to sleep in the bed of the man who sexually abused me, alone in his house with him, expected to conk out while knowing he was out in the other room, druggily smoking cigarettes? My boyfriend’s immediate understanding of the situation and how wrong it was filled my body with relief. Even now, so many years later, whenever anyone acknowledges that what happened, what continues to happen, is not right, my body splits with a relief so sharp I nearly cry.

Justine Zwiebel / BuzzFeed

Although I haven’t forgiven my stepfather, I believe he feels forgiven. He takes strange liberties that feel inappropriate given our history. When I began trying to get pregnant, he posted a picture of a sexy, tattooed pregnant woman on my Facebook page. “This made me think of you,” he wrote above it. I stared at it, my stomach caught in my throat, utterly blindsided. For my housewarming gift he sent my mother on a visit bearing one of his drawings, a sketch of the Parthenon. I could tell he’d made a big deal about it by the awkward, urgent way she gave it to me, almost embarrassed. She softly pushed me to call to him, to let him know I got it, to thank him. It was a day or so before my wedding. “I’ll tell him later,” I said, and went back to stuffing favor boxes with pieces of chocolate. She took her own phone into the other room and dialed him up herself. “Oh yeah, she loves it,” I heard her say. I locked eyes with my fiancée, both of our eyes widened. “Do you see how she is about him?” I hissed, and my fiancée nodded, aghast. And I felt that small, comforting flare of understanding.

My fiancée is now my wife and she will never meet my stepfather. A former boyfriend whom I had been with for many years had made many trips with me to Florida, and I felt bad about the way his relationship with the man fucked with his head. “Is it all right that I like him?” he asked me — confused, not wanting to betray me, but I had set him up, hadn’t I? I had set him up to spend time with this jolly man who treated my mother so kindly, who took us to play miniature golf and blasted Aerosmith in his truck and didn’t give a shit that my ex was transgender and took us out for pizza and came home from a run to the gas station bearing bingo-themed scratch tickets for us all to play. In the years before his spinal disease crippled him, this was my stepfather. Charming, chain-smoking, liked to talk about science, a scuba diver. The sexual abuse he had perpetrated was a concept. The man before us was real.

“Of course it’s all right,” I said. “He’s likable.” But in the same way my mom perpetuated the initial abuse by requiring me to stay in contact with my stepfather, so did I bring my ex into the creepy situation by asking him to hang out and enjoy the man who abused the woman he loved. It was bad for me and bad for him.

I don’t want to ever put my wife in that situation. I don’t want her to feel the confusing push-pull, a fierce and noble desire to protect me that I then require her to squelch. And I don’t want to invite her to, in a sense, betray me, as I have, in a sense, betrayed myself. She wants to murder my stepfather for the things he’s done. As she should. That fierceness makes me feel loved and understood, and I’ve learned now how valuable, how crucial that is for me. I’ve been pressured to normalize an abnormal situation, and it means everything that the person closest to me remains grounded in reality, ready to affirm how fucked it all is should I need that.

I probably will never see my stepfather again — only if my mother dies before he does, and considering his rapidly deteriorating health, that seems unlikely. I don’t know if his condition will ultimately kill him or move him to kill himself, or if he’ll live a long, unhappy life, heavily medicated, his spine a mess of pustules and spurs. As a poet I can’t help but think of his disease metaphorically. How his father would beat him powerfully on his back, his spine, with a belt. How “having a spine” means having convictions, the power to stand tall and proud. Since our family fell apart, he’s always been a little bent, whether during the earlier time of being a martyr and wanting to die or the sheen of guilt I always detected in his gifts of scratch tickets and mini-golf. He’s had to live with himself, and his self is now profoundly sick.

“I love you,” he says, when we get off the phone, and I say “I love you” back, because that’s what you do, even though it makes me briefly burn with the audacity of it, makes me burn briefly because I do love him, and I hate that I’ve been stuck in this situation where I’m forced to see my abuser as wounded and human and hurting and perhaps lovable. In a 12-step group designed to help people recover from impossible families such as this they warn not to confuse love with pity. Maybe I am. I wish my stepfather hadn’t had such a fucked up childhood that he made the series of rotten choices that left him where he is today — sick, impoverished, guilt-ridden, and drugged out. I do feel bad for him. I feel bad for the both of us.

I last spoke to my stepfather a few weeks ago, his voice muddied with pills. We discussed the Game of Thrones books I’d bought him for his birthday. His birthday was months ago, but it took him some time negotiating the distracting force of his chronic pain and the mind-dulling effect of the pain meds before he could read them. Now that he was deep into the pages he was happy, and the story was taking his mind off the throb of his spine, his anxiety at recognizing the pain is getting worse, his anxiety when he imagines how he’ll handle it. He doesn’t tell me any of this, my mother does. She still speaks for him, but now I allow it. “How is he doing?” I ask. It seems rude not to. I know they’re both suffering, him trapped in his decaying body, her watching her husband deteriorate, both of them going broke from the cost of the meds and the MRIs. From far away in San Francisco, in the dead center of my amazing life, I listen to their reports, I fly my mother out for visits, I let her talk about how hard it is to be the caretaker for a chronically, terminally ill partner. Sometimes I forget that that partner is my abuser, and my heart breaks for her, for the both of them. Sometimes I remember, and my heart breaks anyway.

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