My mom said he was charismatic — he drew people in. I am like him in that way.
At 18 years old, I knew my father was bad enough to spend most of his life in and out of prison. My mother left him when I was 2-years-old for that very reason.
She moved us from San Francisco to Denver hoping we could turn our lives around. But, she had her own rough background (an alcoholic mother, an absentee father, two younger siblings she practically raised on her own, and an addiction problem that she wouldn’t get under control for years to come).
The odds were stacked against us.
Everyone in my immediate family has been in and out of some kind of drug and alcohol rehabilitation center or program. Not surprisingly, drunken abusers ran amok in the dive bars my family called home. My mom has quite a compelling flame inside of her that, to this day, lights up the dreariest of places. Back then, that flame drew in every broken, bull-headed, angry-at-life jerk within a 10-mile radius.
If she had really known and trusted that truth about her unique brilliance, perhaps she wouldn’t have fallen prey to those men and their emotional and physical abuse. But, she didn’t know that truth about herself.
And she did fall prey … and so WE ALL fell prey.
Yet, no matter how bad the abuse got with my mom’s boyfriends, I remember thinking: These guys aren’t “bad” enough to land their empty-hearted selves in prison, so maybe they’re still a better option than my father.
I did ask my mom about my dad, from time to time. Loathe to paint an ugly picture, she touted him as charming, funny, creative. He wanted to become a writer and asked big questions about his spirituality. I had his gifts, she’d say. I certainly had his smile.
And even though he couldn’t love himself enough to break his own patterns of abuse and addiction, he sure did love me.
Apparently, he and I shared quite a special bond when I was a baby.
Despite overhearing whispers about guns, robbery and violence, the picture my mom painted of him was the image I carried of my father: Doting, kind, funny.
In my mind’s eye, I pictured the heartbreak in his eyes for his life choices, his regrets. I imagined a good person, torn asunder by a hard life. I loved him in my own, estranged way. I had his charm, his gift for prose … and his smile.
How bad could he really be?
I was too young when we left to have many memories of him in the flesh. So to my surprise, one afternoon, shortly after turning 16, I received a call from him after school before my mom was home from work. He said his name again and again, “This is Jay. Jay Katz*. Honey, this is your daddy.”
I panicked actually hearing his voice … and felt terrified. I knew first-hand how awful the men were who didn’t make it to prison. So what was this man, Jay Katz, abruptly claiming fatherhood, capable of?
Well aware of what high, drunk, desperate men are capable of, my mind went to the worst of places. He was going to kidnap me and ask my mom for ransom. It made the most sense. She was (mostly) sober now. She had a steady job. We lived in a safe, suburban neighborhood. She’d gotten her life together (our lives together) and as far as we knew, he was supposed to still be in prison.
Later that night, my mom and I met him at a public bowling alley, which assuaged my fears.
He gave a million excuses, and not nearly as many apologies.
The experience was surreal. (My mom had never told me I had his eyes, too.)
“Do you want to change?” I asked him. Without so much as a flinch, he answered, “No.”
Almost three years later, I received a call from the Scottsdale police. They’d shot him. I was the only adult, living relative they could find, so could I please claim responsibility for the remains? It took a while to find me and his body was deteriorating quickly.
In the days that followed, I learned from the police, and from an ex-lover of his who asked me for his ashes, that he’d stabbed and killed his paraplegic best friend, stabbed (in an attempt to kill) his ex-girlfriend who was defending her non-ambulatory boyfriend, and searched for (but couldn’t find) that girlfriend’s 13-year-old daughter (who was hiding with her baby brothers) with the intent to kill her, too.
About 12 hours after that vicious crime, he robbed at gunpoint, ironically … a bowling alley.
The police arrived in time to corner him in a field where they returned his gunfire and killed him at the scene.
In that moment, at 18-years old, any lingering childhood fantasies I had about him being a good person went out the window.
I had to face the cold, hard fact that my father — the man whose likeness my family could so readily see in me — was a violent murderer.
In that moment, I had not yet identified ‘forgiveness’ as a superpower. Yet, setting about on the process of forgiving is exactly what I did.
Hurt people, hurt people. I knew this. It would never be enough to excuse his horrific behavior but, it was the basis of my efforts to process the truth about my father. He wasn’t born a murderer.
He was born innocent, like we all are.
My mom said he was charismatic — he drew people in. I am like him in that way.
After all, if my life circumstances had been even a smidgen different, wasn’t it possible that I could have gone that far off the rails as he did? As much as we are all capable of greatness and goodness, aren’t we all also capable of great evil?
I was lucky: My mom fought her way to safety against the odds. My dad was not as lucky as a child, raised by a mother who, after destroying herself in life, put a bullet through her own head.
To make myself clear, forgiveness for me isn’t about excusing my father’s abhorrent behavior.
What he has done in the course of his life is inexcusable. There will never be anything anyone can do to unravel the terror he rained down across two Arizona counties. People’s lives are forever changed by the trauma he exacted with his violence.
Forgiveness, for me, was (and still is) about doing everything I can to reclaim the energy expended during my own shock, hurt, and fear around my father’s horrific behavior. Forgiveness, for me, is making sure I do not get stuck in any of my own wounds — caused by him, myself, or any other circumstance in my life.
Hurt people, hurt people. The best, most loving thing I can do for anyone (past, present and future) is to heal my own hurt.
I live by a “you spot it, you got it” principle. Meaning, any time I judge anything outside of myself, positive or negative, then that thing must exist in me, otherwise, I couldn’t recognize it in others. So, I asked myself, “OK, Triffany, you’re the person who says forgiveness is your super-power. Where do YOU have more work to do?” That question inspired this public, terrifying article.
I also recently tracked down and ordered over 300 pages of police reports from two different homicides, two attempted homicides, and an armed robbery in two different cities and counties in Arizona … all committed by my father.
I read, in detail, about the terror my own flesh and blood rained down on people he knew and claimed to once love, as well as cruelty he inflicted on total strangers. I’m 43 years old now, and the pain of my father’s legacy hit me anew.
First, I had assumed, back when I was 18 (when the crimes first occurred) that he was strung out on drugs or something when he attacked his friend and his ex-girlfriend. Second, I told myself he hadn’t really wanted to find and kill that young teen girl. She was hiding with her two younger brothers, certainly he would’ve found her if he’d really wanted to, right?
I was wrong on both counts.
Toxicology reports showed he was negative for every substance. He was stone cold sober. And it turns out, he thought he had found the girl sleeping in her bed. My father stabbed the bed (thinking she was in it) multiple times. Merciless.
And so, I found myself, 25 years later, facing the task of forgiving again. Not for his benefit, but for mine. And, by extension, for the benefit of anyone whose life I might touch.
So, how did I find that release and forgiveness?
1. I came to grace with myself.
I asked myself all the hard, guilt-fueled questions: Could I have done something different? Should I have helped him despite his refusal to accept? Should I have gotten all the details at 18 when it all happened? The questions are numerous. They are also irrelevant.
When I check my heart, I know that at every given turn I’ve done the best I could. Even in the areas where I think a different option could occur, that’s me viewing it as a 43-year old adult. At 16 I did the best I could, at 18 I did the same. That was then, this is now.
Thank goodness I don’t have to change the past in order to let go of it, because I simply cannot change it. I am, and always will be a fallible, fragile human who is simply doing her best to do right by herself and the world.
2. I let myself feel how I honestly feel.
Shocked, angry, embarrassed, hurt, scared — I’ve felt it all. Whenever a feeling comes up, I journal about it, meditate on it, or just call a trusted friend and cry my freaking eyes out.
My emotions are a necessary part of my human frailty, which is also the cause of my indomitable strength. So I experience the full range of them, without judgment (or at least, as close as I can).
3. I look for the perfection in the mess of it all
I am so grateful for so much that happened in my past. If not for my hardships, I wouldn’t be as strong as I am … strong enough now to have a career helping others get strong. If not for my hurts I would never have learned how to heal, nor how to help others heal. If not for the wrongs done to me, I’d never have learned to forgive.
And so, I can do both — feel the pain AND find the perfection. For therein lies the truth of my human existence; both reside within me and yet neither define me.
4. I refuse to hide my story.
I cannot be of service to the world if I hide in shame. Will some people judge and ridicule me for my past? Maybe. But that is not where my work lies. I have no control over how others will understand or use this information.
There is a chance, however, that in sharing more and more of my story, someone who needs it will see that they, too, have perfection in their pain, and that they can also heal. We can’t become what we can’t see, so my work lies in staying as honest and truthful as I can. I strive to remain as open and vulnerable as needed on the offhand chance that someone can see the possibility for Light and Forgiveness in their own tragedy.
5. I redefined what forgiveness means to me.
We all have inherent gifts that we easily take for granted because they seem to come to us easily. But these gifts are our superpowers. When we deconstruct, inspect, and share them with others, we open-source our awesomeness and allow others to learn from us.
And in that process, hopefully they discover (or, re-discover) their own superpowers. Boldly owning our life experience (even the horrors in it) brings meaning to our trials and helps us let go of the pain associated with it. We don’t have to suffer.
Countless times, I’ve forgiven my dad.
To be honest, I’m probably not done. Forgiveness, like any of humanity’s virtues, requires practice and it must happen in layers. There is no “one hit and done” when it comes to the softer, yet more powerful, attributes of this human experience. I’m not deceived by what I can see, hear and touch. I refuse to believe that any of my circumstances define me. Instead, I will forever seek my identity from within, where I get to choose peace.
And, while I wouldn’t wish hardship on anyone, I am forever grateful for the hardships in my life that allow me to practice the power of forgiveness. Without those hard blows in life, I might never have learned who I truly am.
* This name is an alias my father used.
This personal essay originally appeared on YourTango.com