As far as I could tell, Daniel was a good father and a successful businessman. He had a marriage that worked well enough and he had a number of good friends to pal around with. But at 40, Daniel had an ache in his heart that was deep and immovable.
We had been talking about his father, who barely acknowledged Daniel’s existence; and when he did, it was to mock and denigrate him, and to push him away. It had been that way for as long as Daniel could remember. When he turned to his mother, looking for support, she would say: “That’s just how he is, Daniel. Get used to it.” And Daniel did get used to it, especially the sense of a burning shame. Though he couldn’t figure out why, Daniel believed that he deserved his punishment.
By the time he reached his teens, Daniel was steadily building his shameful resume, virtually failing in school in spite of a nimble mind, buying and selling drugs, hanging out with what was then known as the “bad elements” of the neighborhood, and twice finding himself in police custody. That was when his father beat him until he bled. There had been other beatings but they had seemed almost dutiful, as though Andrew—that was his father’s name—was fulfilling some unnamed responsibility. When asked about them, Andrew muttered “no big deal. I can’t even remember them.”
This time, the time of the bloody beating, his father was intensely engaged. It seemed personal. Andrew looked as though he had every intention of injuring his son. Daniel was 16, the size of a grown man, almost the same size as his father. He had wanted to strike back, he had wanted to really badly, but he couldn’t. This was his father, after all, and Daniel understood that he deserved what he got. But he also felt ashamed at not fighting back. He was almost a man, wasn’t he?
Listening to these stories during our therapy hours, it was hard for me to maintain any sense of “clinical distance.” I was furious for Daniel. Heartbroken, too. And feeling a little helpless myself. I had remained quiet for a long time, maybe for the first three or four of our meetings. But I was dying to say or do something useful. Eventually I suggested that Daniel bring his father to our meetings. I hoped that Daniel was exaggerating or that I could bring out another side of his father or that they could talk through their difficulties or… well, some way out of this morass. Or maybe I wanted to take on Andrew, myself.
I was sure that the continuing damage created by this relationship had rendered Daniel incapable of trusting his wife or, more immediately, of building a loving relationship with his first, newborn son, David. Daniel teared up whenever he even mentioned David, and he mentioned him often. He was blinded by what he felt would be his inevitable failure.
When I proposed bringing Andrew into our meetings, Daniel was incredulous: “What the hell would I do that for? He’s such an asshole. He won’t come and I don’t want him here.” We talked a bit about the island our therapy had created, and what an achievement that had been for Daniel. How could we let Andrew breach its shores?
On the other hand, Daniel and I both knew that he was stuck in his life, unable to be intimate with anyone, and how any movement away from this impasse might free him up. Even if he and his father fought like two men—not a man and a boy—it might help.
“How,” Daniel whined.
“You never know,” I replied with requisite profundity. “With a little help, your father might be better than you think.”
Daniel felt betrayed. “I thought you understood what a total jerk he is.”
I agreed that he was, but held fast to my proposal, hoping more than believing that I might draw out Andrew’s human side. Daniel continued to stonewall my request. This went on for at least two months, but at last, I gave up. “You win,” I told Daniel.
But it turns out that he didn’t want me to win. I had held the hope that he didn’t dare to have. Now there would be none. “Damn you,” he said. “I’ll bring him in. Maybe seeing him with your own eyes will convince you.”
To Daniel’s surprise, Andrew agreed readily. At first, he mocked the request, told Daniel what a wimp he was for being in therapy, told him that nothing would come of such idiocy. But, having had his say, Andrew would come to my office.
We managed only one joint therapy session, and it took me a while to understand what either Daniel or I might learn from it. Andrew didn’t seem especially angry or mean. That was a surprise. He was critical when he talked to Daniel—or about him. But his criticisms were low key, matter of fact. Mainly Andrew talked about himself, and what a bad shake he had had in life. He talked about his boss and he talked about his wife. He went on and on about his ungrateful children, about the country, and about “the whole damn world.” No one was giving him a break.
For the most part, he ignored Daniel. He wasn’t interested. Every time I tried to turn the conversation towards their relationship or to generate conversation, he ignored me and continued to talk about himself. Daniel, who sat there, slumped in his chair, sullen and red-faced, was almost invisible. I could barely look at him.
The hour came to a close. Daniel was dejected. I felt defeated and wondered where, if anyplace, we might go now.
When Daniel and I next met, he looked like death. He had tried. He had put his faith in me. Nothing. But I had had a few weeks to think and decided that there was something we could work with. First I apologized for failing to move Andrew in any positive way. I focused on Andrew’s total self-absorption, which seemed even more upsetting to Daniel than the criticism. Daniel seemed surprised at first but then agreed. The fact that he didn’t matter, not so much that he was bad, was the worst. We had learned something.
Then I said, “I don’t think I can move your father any more than you can. You’ve been right, all along. It may be time to give up.” This startled Daniel.
“You want me to give up?”
“Yes, I do.
“I thought I had,” said Daniel.
“Maybe not, Daniel. From what I see, it isn’t your father whose ruining your life, it’s your continued efforts—your obsessive efforts—to repair what isn’t reparable that’s driving you crazy.”
“Maybe you’re right, but I can’t give up.”
“Because I wouldn’t have a father.”
“You’d have to confront your sense of failure, and your loneliness. Maybe by accepting the permanence of your loss, you’ll free yourself from the prison of this relationship.”
Maybe I was reaching. Maybe I was wrong. But I believed what I said and repeated the thought in a few different ways.
Daniel was silent. He said nothing for a long time. Finally, he looked at me with a mixture of confusion and anger, on one hand, and what I think was gratitude, on the other. “OK. Let me think about it.”
He did think about it. For the next several weeks, we explored Daniel’s life as though he was a child without a father, an orphan; and we talked about his desire to do better with his own son. Then a month or two later, Daniel’s spirits seem to lift. He didn’t or couldn’t say why, and he certainly didn’t attribute the change to his father’s visit or to our shared realization that he couldn’t and shouldn’t depend on his father changing. Ever. But you could see a change in Daniel in the way he carried himself and in his renewed interest in his business. He began to joke with me and to talk about ending the therapy. At first, I thought to oppose the ending, believing that now, freed from his obsession with his father, he might work on generally liking himself a little more. He said that he already did. So he stopped coming to therapy.
I’d still hear from Daniel from time to time and as far as I could tell, as far as his reports indicated, his life seemed much better.
Then, about 10 years later, Daniel called. His father was sick and dying, confined to a hospital bed, and Daniel had something to tell me.
“What is it?”
“I’ll tell you when I see you,” he teased.
For almost all those 10 years, Daniel and Andrew had hardly seen each other, and that was fine with Daniel. Then, upon hearing from his mother that Andrew was dying, Daniel went to visit him at the hospital. His response was instinctive—he realized that he no longer feared his father,. There, on his very first visit, with almost no words spoken, they had taken each other’s hands. Daniel couldn’t tell who had initiated the contact. They sat that way, day after day, watching Red Sox games, until Andrew died. It was, Daniel told me, the most serene experience of his life.