Letting the Phantom Fade

This post contains strong language.

He was a singer; he was an artist; he was studying to be a minister. He was unstable; he was a sadist; he was a pedophile. He was my father.

His name was Joseph Edwin Wilkinson, the same as mine and my grandfather's. On May 17, 2010, I discovered he had died from cancer.

The first feeling I could name was relief. Immediately following it was shame for feeling that way. Even so, I knew for certain that he would never be able to harm a child again. Any pain caused by him would come from old scars, not new wounds. I told myself that it was appropriate, that it was justified. This did nothing to assuage my guilt.

My first memory is of me as a chubby toddler crawling past a bookcase in the living room of our home in Vero Beach, Florida. I crossed over into the small room at the front of the house, where I found my mother and sisters huddled and weeping on the ugly, floral couch. My mother lifted me onto her lap when I crawled over. As I looked at my family's scrunched-up, tear-soaked, reddened faces, I began to cry, as well. I didn't know why.

It was May 9, 1988, the day my father was arrested.

No one knows for certain whether my father abused me. I believe he did, though I was blessedly spared from any memory of it. From my earliest memories, I felt wrong, dirty, used and discarded. It went beyond what would be expected from being a pariah. The shame cut deeper; the confusion lingered longer. It sounds melodramatic, but the first time someone explained innocence to me, I couldn't grasp the concept. To this day, I don't know that I've ever understood it beyond rote memorization of its definition and connotation. How can I describe what's missing, even to myself, when I can't remember it being there?

But something was missing. Or there when it shouldn't be. I was different from the other kids, whatever the reason. Asking them just earned me furrowed brows and sideways glances. I began to watch them, to try to discover what it was that made me different. My hope was that they would tell me with their actions what they couldn't or wouldn't with their words. It didn't take long: I saw a father lift his son into the air, tickling him and kissing him and laughing. I dwelled on that image, and others that were similar, and it made me feel like I had a gaping hole in my chest that was going to collapse in and kill me any second.

That must be the difference; that's what will make me whole. I need a dad.

My father had accepted a plea deal, leading to his release after serving just three years in prison. Between his felonies and the divorce, he had no custodial rights, but he was still able to petition the courts for a supervised visit. At five years old, I was going to meet my dad.

What would he look like? What would he sound like? Would he pick me up and hug me? I was a little disappointed that we were meeting at a park instead of my house; playing Mario or Ninja Turtles seemed like it would be a lot more fun. But there was always next time.

He wanted to play catch. I was not good at catch, and I wanted to show him what a good son I was. I wanted him to be proud of me, to be glad he gave me his name. I couldn't let him know I was no good. I couldn't let him know how stupid and useless I was. I was just going to have to play catch better than I ever had before.

I missed the ball, letting it roll away until it hit a tree. My dad smiled and told me to throw the ball back. Even though I tried my hardest, the ball landed less than halfway between us and way off to the left. We went back and forth, but I never caught the ball, and I never threw it far or straight enough.

My dad's smile was gone. His eyebrows and forehead were scrunched up. My eyes were getting watery, but I couldn't cry, not in front of my dad. Girls could cry. Boys couldn't. I walked over and handed him the ball, saying, "I'm sorry. I'm just really not good at this stuff."

My dad knelt down and whispered into my ear, "Then go sit on the fucking bench."

I'd never heard of that kind of bench before, but the look on my father's face and the anger in his voice told me that it wasn't good. I had failed. My father didn't want to be my dad. From that point on, he was just Joe.

I was never really afraid of what might be in my closet or under my bed. The tentacled, oozing, creeping creatures from fantasies were always more interesting than terrifying to me. You could see them for what they were: disgusting, dangerous, demonic. Nothing obviously harmful really scared me, not when the monsters that could hurt you the most were the ones wearing the faces of humans.

If my own father could hurt me so deeply, reject me so definitively, how could I expect anything different from anyone else? He haunted me both in my waking and sleeping. Any time I failed (or didn't quite succeed as completely as I had hoped), it was his face of disapproval, his voice whispering in my ear, "You should have stayed on the fucking bench." When I felt alone and afraid, it was his presence that I felt, never letting me forget that he could come at any moment and remove his unworthy son from the world. In my nightmares, I watched him kill me in all the ways my young mind could imagine. As I grew older, these methods expanded.

For a few years, I did my best to appease this phantom father. Even with all of the fear and emotional pain, or perhaps because of it, I desperately wanted to earn his approval, to prove that I had a right to exist. Nothing I did was ever good enough, though. It's simply impossible to please the personification of your own insecurities and rejection.

The sins of the father shall come back as a curse upon his children to the third and fourth generation. — Paraphrased from Exodus 20:5

The incorrect quote of this verse was burned into my mind at ten years old. I had some basic idea about how God was supposed to be my heavenly father and love me unconditionally. After hearing this verse and the flippant answer I received when trying to get clarification, I came to the belief that I was cursed to grow up to be just like Joe. Suicidal thoughts were not new to me, but that night was the first time I seriously considered it. The only thing that I could think of that was worse than dying was turning into a monster like him.

My mother had been looking into changing her last name to make it harder for Joe to turn up on our doorstep. During this process, she asked my sisters and me whether we would like to change our names, provided she could do so without Joe being notified. I had never really given it much thought, but I knew in an instant what my answer had to be.

"I want my name to be Michael."

"So, Michael Joseph Garrett?"

"No, I don't want his name to be any part of mine. Michael Caleb Garrett."

Some time later, I was looking up the meaning of names and found Liam: "determined guardian, resolute protector, defender." The meaning resonated with me: beyond being able to defend myself, I wanted to be able to protect those I cared about, namely my mother and sisters. I decided that I wanted that as my middle name and that Caleb would just have to be part of my first name. So, at ten, I began going by Michael Caleb Liam Garrett, although we discovered that I would have to wait until adulthood to legally change it.

Abandoning my father's name did not satisfy me, however. It didn't put nearly enough distance between us. I wouldn't be anything like him; I would be everything he wasn't. I knew that he was an artist, so I stopped drawing my little comics. I knew that he was a gifted singer, so I stopped trying out and accepting roles for my school's musicals. If someone called me Joey, Joseph or, God forbid, Joe, I would disregard them completely and permanently. I despised my red hair and desperately wished that it would all fall out.

One of the many inherent problems with becoming obsessed with not being like a certain person is that you are still inexorably tying your identity to theirs. It's just a different kind of slavery. I abandoned things that I loved because of my fear and hatred, which only served to feed my fear and hatred and rage.

Different people tried to tell me that hating him did not hurt him, only me. What they didn't know was that I was going to make it hurt him. In trying to be his exact opposite, I was well on my way to being the violent monster that haunted my nightmares, that I was terrified of becoming. In my nightmares, our positions began to reverse: sometimes, I would be torturing him. I knew that I had discovered my life's purpose: I would change my name; I would track him down; I would make him beg for his life; I would make him beg for his death; I would take my own life, finally free from his control, finally free from his name. My destiny was to put an end to the curse, to end his family line and to end myself before I became a monster like him.

At sixteen, I forgave him. I didn't want to. In fact, the very thought of it made my stomach wrench, but something had to change or my festering hatred would continue to bubble over and hurt the people around me. I didn't want to immediately lose my temper when someone called me Joe to antagonize me; I didn't want to hurl verbal abuse at someone when they thought it was funny to use the archaic meaning of "molest." I didn't want anyone to look at me with fear.

At first, I didn't know how I was supposed to forgive Joe. My understanding of forgiveness was that it relied on feelings, and I most certainly did not feel any better about what he had done. It was one of those situations where you don't even know what you don't know, so you don't know to find out. One night, I happened to come across something that said, "Forgiveness is a choice, not a feeling." Soon after, I was sitting with my head bowed and eyes closed at the end of a youth service and simply prayed, "God, I choose to forgive Joe. Help me to see him how you see him. Help me to be the person you want me to be."

That prayer became a mantra, as I had to make the decision to forgive him again nearly every time I thought about him. Then I began to pray for him. No matter your individual belief on prayer, there is certainly power in hoping and wishing for good to come to those who have wronged you. Eventually, I even began to mean the things I said. The poison in my heart had been transmuted into an elixir; some people found it hard to believe that I used to have anger problems, thinking — and sometimes telling me — that I had to be exaggerating.

By the time my eighteenth birthday came, it seemed more appropriate than ever that my identity would be changed: the person I had become was completely different from who I had been. I really didn't even have much in common with the ten-year-old that had chosen the name. That did not squelch the twinge of guilt that had been growing, though. Wasn't my name change originally fueled by fear and hate? Wouldn't following through with it be proof that my forgiveness was nothing more than lip service, that I was still harboring a grudge against Joe? I suppressed these questions, went to court and followed through with the process.

My name legally became Michael Caleb Liam Garrett on May 17, 2004, the day after my eighteenth birthday. My name turned ten years old today.

The next term, I had an assignment for a "College Success Skills" course that required us to write a letter to someone with whom we had unfinished business. The only person I could think of was Joe. The rough draft was vague: after all, it was only my professor that would read the letter. I set out to make the second draft just a bit more specific, but ended up pouring my heart into it.

I realized that the final version wasn't something that I could turn in, but I took it to class in case I couldn't convince the professor to give me more time. Before I got a chance to ask her, though, she took out a pile of stamp books and envelopes.

"If you want to turn in your letter for me to grade, hand it in now. I'll see you on Monday. If you want an automatic A, we'll be looking up addresses and mailing the letters out. Some business should not be left unfinished."

Joe's address would be simple to find: it was listed on sex offender registries. I hadn't given any contact information in the letter; it wouldn't be sent from my home. I could send it and he would have no way to find my family. What if he had changed? What if my prayers for him had borne fruit? As quickly and cleanly as I could manage, I scribbled my cell phone number on the letter before sealing the envelope.

I was playing Astro Boy for the PS2 when my phone rang.



"Who is this?"

"This is... I guess you call me 'Joe.'"

We talked on the phone regularly for the next few months. There was a sort of implicit agreement to not discuss our past together. He had remarried, which I already knew. What I was more interested in was whether or not I had any half-siblings; it was fairly disappointing at the time to find out that I didn't. I told him about dropping out at sixteen and that I had already earned my associate degree at eighteen. We simply shared stories.

After our first few conversations, though, I became frustrated at my inability to confront him with some issues that I felt needed to be addressed. I told him that I would be sending him a difficult email, but to remember that the last line was the most important part.

In the email, I outlined the hatred I had harbored for him and how it had led me down a path that very nearly ended with my suicide. It was harsh at times, but I didn't really see any way to avoid that. At the end of the email, I typed: "I needed to be able to voice these things, although I have moved past them. Please remember that I love you, and it is more important to me to have a relationship with you than to hold a grudge for the awful things you did. I simply want to understand."

That night, my phone rang at work.

"I don't understand!" Joe was nearly screaming. "What does it mean?"

"What does what mean?"

"You said that the last line is the most important, but it doesn't make sense. What does it mean?"

"It means that I've forgiven you and love you, in spite of everything else in the email."

"Do you Yahoo?"


"Do you Yahoo? Do you Yahoo?"

"Joe, calm down. What're you..."

I could hear him continue to scream, "Do you Yahoo?" in the background as the phone was taken from him.

"Hi, Joey." It was Cheryl, Joe's wife. "Your father saw the little ad for Yahoo on the bottom of the email. Honey, I don't know what you know about his history. He's bipolar. He's been a little off for a while and is now having a full manic episode. I'm going to get him help, but he probably won't be able to talk for a little while." *click*

I don't quite remember how my family found out I was in communication with Joe, but the fallout was not pleasant, to say the least. They were angry; they had every right to be. It was wrong of me to contact Joe without consulting my family, especially when we had been in hiding from him for so long. It was wrong of me to hide my mistake and continue to talk to him behind their backs. There was a right way and many wrong ways to handle the situation; I chose wrong, and it hurt my mother, my sisters deeply. In the midst of their anger, they forgave me and chose to try to understand why I had done it. In time, my sisters began to speak with Joe, as well. It was understandably an uneasy situation: we all desired a relationship with our biological father, but there was no way to ignore the abuse and the effects it had on us.

A little more than a year after I began speaking to Joe, he offered to fly me up to visit him in Michigan. I accepted his offer, but with great trepidation. He wouldn't try anything, not now that I was, at least nominally, an adult. There was no way of truly knowing what he was thinking, though. My sisters begged me to be on my guard; my mother assured me that we had more than enough money to modify the return ticket in case I needed to leave early. As uneasy as I was, I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to see my father for the first time in fourteen years.

Joe and Cheryl met me at the airport. We went to church together. I met my uncles Rick and Ted, my aunt Sandy and my cousin Seth. We watched movies together, played video games together, spoke about life together. It was an incredibly, surprisingly normal trip to see family.

Towards the end of the trip, Joe and I spoke through the night. I needed answers; I demanded answers. His father was physically abusive, his mother neglectful. When he was eight, the neighborhood teenage girls pulled him aside and began grooming him. Within a week, they had taken his dignity and virginity. Even still, they paid attention to him and their touch wasn't painful. After a few years, they got bored of him.

He craved his father's approval but realized that it would only come if he joined the military. When he was old enough, he did just that. He ended up training dogs on a U.S. base in Japan. Most nights, they would throw parties on the roof because there was nothing better to do. When his service ended, he exchanged war stories with Joe the First. The more he embellished or outright fabricated stories, the more he realized that his own father was doing the exact same thing.

Neither trusted the other with the truth. Neither wanted to be outed as a fraud. They pretended to believe each other's personal mythology in order to carry on with their own.

As fascinating as it was to get answers to questions I never knew to ask, the questions I did ask were still unanswered. "Why did you molest us?" His answer was two-fold:

  1. He did not know why he had abused my oldest sister.
  2. He did not abuse my other sister or me.

I did not call him out on this answer. It was probably some combination of not having specific memories of my abuse and the desire to not damage the already unstable relationship I was trying to build with my father. Similarly, I asked him if he remembered the supervised visit when I was five. He spoke of a toy store, of me hanging on him at every opportunity. No mention of the park, of catch, of the bench.

I wanted him to admit what happened without me confronting him with it. "Why didn't you ever ask for a visitation after that one?"

"I wanted to, but I thought you all would be better off without me forcing myself into your lives." It wasn't the answer I was looking for, but it was acceptable. His eyes were filled with tears, and I did not see deception in them. He knew what I was getting at, but he just couldn't bring himself to say it. Instead, he answered the heart of the question.

"I did a lot of things that are inexcusable, Joey. All that I can say is that God has changed my heart, and I'm willing to do whatever it takes to convince all of you that that's true."

I left Michigan with hope for the relationship. It would take work, and there were certain things he would never be trusted with — my future children, for instance. Even still, I had hope.

"I'm sorry, Michael. He's not safe." My sister was in tears on the other end of the phone.

To this day, my family still won't tell me exactly what happened. What I was able to patch together in the next half hour was that one of my sisters had been talking to Joe on the phone when he began to say extremely inappropriate things to her. Stunned, she asked him to stop. He didn't.

I called his house. No answer. The machine would have to face my wrath.

"If you ever contact me or anyone I love again, we will have very serious problems. If you come near anyone I love, I will defend them to my death or yours, whichever comes first. If I'm not there to do so, I will find you and make you pay. Stay away or you will be sorry." I was shaking. I was crying. I brought Joe back into their lives, and he had hurt them. It was my fault, and I had to make it right. But nothing would, nothing could. Least of all an angry voicemail.

My cousin Seth was the one that called me. He was angry. According to him, I was being insensitive to my father's psychological disorder. I told him that being bipolar didn't magically turn people into incestuous, pedophilic monsters. Joe was like a father to Seth. I don't blame him for his anger; I don't blame him for calling me out on my threats. I wish I would have handled this situation better instead of destroying my newly established relationship with my cousin.

All contact ceased with that side of the family. Complete silence, just like before. Except now, I knew the loss. I wanted to talk about the Twilight Zone with Uncle Rick, to have the friendship of my cousin. My anger destroyed the opportunity, and I wish with everything in me that I could take it back.

Like so many other things, I buried the emotions stemming from this new betrayal because it was easier than truly dealing with them. The phantom had never left me, and now he had refreshed strength. I was afraid of initiating conversations with the kids in my small group, in the classes that I taught. The phantom whispered, "People will know whose son you are. They'll be suspicious of your intentions. Stay on the fucking bench."

The nightmares returned. It wasn't me being tortured and killed, though. Instead, my father would be horribly mutilating one of the kids from my ministry. In the midst of their cries, he would look to me and say, "I found him because of you." I lived in fear that Joe would ignore my threats. I knew that he was going to turn up one day and prove my nightmares prophetic.

On May 17, 2010, four years ago today, I learned that Joe had been dead for five months. He would never be able to turn up; he would never be able to hurt any of the kids because of me.

I was relieved, but ashamed of my relief.

I buried these emotions, too. How was I supposed to mourn my father? Yes, I had again chosen to forgive him, but he had caused so much pain, abused the trust and hope we had given him that maybe, just maybe he had truly changed. He had claimed that God had completely changed him: what else had he lied about?

This, I know, is true: the man I saw in Michigan was not a monster. He was a tired man that was older than his age because of the burden of his sins. He was ashamed and would have done anything to change the choices that he had made. At one point, that man had been a little boy. That little boy wanted to be a policeman, a fireman or some other childhood idol. I don't know what he wanted to be, but I can assure you that he did not have dreams of being a wife-beater, a rapist or a child molester. He wanted to be great; he wanted to make his father proud. Somewhere along the line, that got sidetracked.

How do I mourn a man that caused so much pain? I don't. Being wholly logical, the world is better off without him in it. No, I mourn for little Joey Junior's dreams that never came to pass. I mourn the loss of the man that he was meant to be. I mourn that he became the man that he did.

I will never have the childhood memories that I wished, hoped and prayed for. I will always have the memories that I have. My father is dead. There is finality, but not closure. I cannot take back the last, angry — perhaps justified — words that I left him. I will always question the truth of the things he told me.

Before I went to Michigan, I had been experimenting with the 3D art program Cinema 4D. My creations were pretty terrible, but Joe still wanted to see them. After warning him excessively about their quality, or lack thereof, I sent him an email with the best images attached. The first night of my visit, he presented me with a gift. He had one of the images printed in high quality and placed it in a wooden frame he made with his own hands.

The picture hangs on the wall of my den. It's a testament to my lack of artistic ability. Even so, my father framed it. He was proud.