My formerly abusive father is dying. Help me confront him.
January 23, 2022 5:50 PM   Subscribe

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, child abuse. My father thinks he is dying, and based off of what he told me he probably is. He hasn't been abusive towards me since before I moved out. He found religion at some point and has made strides to improve. But I know a family secret involving him that will probably be revealed at some point.

And that is why I need to talk to him: the secret involves my sister, as a toddler. Also, I don't remember most of my childhood. I am hoping he will be willing to help me remember. And, I want a chance to tell him how his choices affected me, long term.

So, my parents got divorced when I was 10. I don't really remember much before that. I remember some specific traumatic events but other than that, it's blank. My father was physically and verbally abusive to me, and neglectful. I remember that much at least.

When I was 14, I wanted answers and did not feel able to talk to my parents (my mom is also abusive). So, I snooped and found court documents, etc., that indicated that after the divorce, my 3 year old sister told my mother that she was sexually abused by my father. In some of the documents, my dad was accusing my mom of making it up. While snooping, I found journal entries of my mother's questioning if my little sister was just saying stuff and if my father was capable of molesting his child. So, based on that, I believe that my sister did disclose to my mom that she was being sexually abused by my dad.

Since I found out this information while doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing, I didn't tell anyone. Until then, I was not aware of these allegations against my father. It was traumatic learning this about my father. Based on my personal experience, it is within the realm of possibility that my dad did indeed molest my sister. He used to look at us in a really creepy, lecherous manner, like when we were in bathing suits. He used to give me shoulder .assages I did not want. And he used to watch us change our clothes. I have possibly reasonable explanations for all of this... and I also have many psychological symptoms of being sexually abused as a child.

Anyway, I have spent my entire life up until a few years ago trying to pretend I don't know what I know. And, since I learned this information over 15 years ago, I wasn't even sure if I was remembering correctly.

So.... since we still don't talk in my family, I snooped again, a few years ago. I found the results of a polygraph my dad took, asking if he sexually abused my sister. He failed it. He had to hand write an explanation for failing. The explanation he gave for failing it was (paraphrased) "a few times I had an erection while the kid was on my lap, a few times I was thinking about porn while changing the kid's diaper, so maybe that's why I failed. and I'm not even sure if any of this actually happened."

Since I found the polygraph report back in 2020, I have estranged myself from my father as much as possible. I haven't told him why. I need to address it, because I am done pretending I don't know what I know. I have been estranging myself with the intention of talking to him about this when I am ready. However, considering that he is now dying, I have to be ready for this conversation sooner rather than later.

I want to give him a chance to explain himself. I would like him to tell me if he sexually abused me.

So, does anyone have any experience with confronting a formerly abusive parent? I have a therapist who is working with me on this, and I know it might be fruitless or he might disown me or whatever. That's all fine. I just need to give him a chance to explain himself before he dies. And, right now, since I refuse to pretend anymore, I have been a bit cold with my father despite his diagnosis. If he explains that he didn't do it, in a way that I believe is true, or if he admits it and asks for my forgiveness and confesses to my sisters, then I would be happy to support him in what he is going through.

I need to do this sooner rather than later due to looming death which is why I am asking metafilter for some enlightenment. There were good and happy times with my dad. I love him. I miss him. I want to be there for him. And I need to look out for myself instead of doing what is best for my parent like I've been doing my entire life.

Thanks for any advice or insight or whatever.
posted by tweedle to Human Relations (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I think there is zero chance anyone - your father, another relative, a random person you never met - would just outright say, "yes, I sexually abused you." Doing so would be an admission of a serious crime that could result in significant legal issues for your father - even if he's close to death. At most you will get a vague apology without any specific acknowledged wrong. Would that make you feel better or worse? For me, it'd make me feel worse.
posted by saeculorum at 5:54 PM on January 23 [13 favorites]

As someone who chickened out in a similar situation, worried that I would be rebuffed again, I wonder if showing him this question with a preface would get the conversation started? You could preface it with something like: "Dad, there's something we need to have a conversation about. I didn't know how to bring it up, so I asked on an internet forum. This is the question I asked."
posted by Thella at 5:58 PM on January 23

It is a wish to have this incredibly damaged and damaging person who you still have love for to become somehow a good person who loves you. The chances of it happening are so small and the chances of it traumatising you further are much much higher.

As someone in a similar history with enormous trauma gaps in my memory, I urge you gently and with much compassion - don’t. I will not see my mother when she is dying. I was not helped by the time I spent with my dying father.

Write him a letter. Send it if you want. But put the time and energy this would devour into time with a good therapist, walks in nature, building a better future for yourself - your relationship with your sister if you have that.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 6:16 PM on January 23 [50 favorites]

Best answer: For your own well being, my advice if you feel compelled to speak with him, would be to focus on what you need or want to say to him, so that your goal for the conversation is your own expression and your own agency—regardless of what he confesses or doesn't confess or confesses but you're not sure you believe him. If your own communication is your goal, your chances of feeling more at peace with the interaction are higher. Whereas you open yourself up to more anguish if your goal for the conversation depends on accurate and reliable information from him.

What I hear in your question is the really understandable torment of both 1) not knowing, and 2) knowing based on your experiences. But admitting what you know to yourself may be too much of a live wire to handle, so you are looking, as children do, for a parent to clarify the world for you: either it's not true or, yes that horrible truth is a live wire. But it sounds like your father has not shown himself, over decades, in actions or words, legal or familial, to be a parent who can prioritize your needs. You may, through therapy and self-parenting, have to find a way to live without knowing, or to decide you do know and to grapple with that.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:44 PM on January 23 [26 favorites]

You know, it wasn't until I was an adult with a child of my own that I realized, in having a needed conversation with my mom about a similar kind of abuse, that there was a lot that I had not actually told her when I was a child. I was holding a lot of anger over things which I felt she should have known but that was a child's understanding of how complicated it must have been for her to parse the information she was or wasn't getting from each individual. I think, as a child, there was a bit of "parents know everything" because in some senses, it really seems like they do. I think it is frankly amazing that you have a record of that journey with your parents in the form of the journal even as it raises questions that you feel you would like to know the answers to.

It's also very telling that your father was willing to admit to some inappropriate sexual feelings but those to me seem very over the line. That's a line where a guy needs to talk to a therapist skilled in this kind of inappropriate feelings for underaged children and get help with it. He for sure abused your sister. I think he admitted a little something bad in the effort of not admitting more bad stuff. I don't buy it. And you, if nothing else, absolutely felt how inappropriate and creepy and dangerous your father was. That kind of vigilance in a child can really overtake a lot of your childhood memories. I remember a lot of stuff as a child but I don't remember things being happy. My memories are overwhelmed by bad feelings and bad incidents and anger at the unfairness of it all and total wonder over how dysfunctional was my childhood family.

My father is dead now. And I did love him and he could be a funny, loving, artistic, creative character. But, he completely fractured the father/daughter relationship that was supposed to exist. He apologized multiple times but because I was never truthful, he was also never forced to be truthful (I feel that now) and so there is an incomplete story and I was never able to feel great about him as a father. If he was truly truthful then they should have divorced. And if he was and she didn't leave him then I also have no mother. In any case, I did not have resolution at his death but I personally felt safer and more at ease when I no longer had to have any relationship with him at all. And that is a blessing to me.

Have you spoken with your sister? What does your therapist say? Would writing a letter to him...whether you send it or not, appeal to you? Would you write a letter to your sister? I just feel like there's a lot of healing that could be had by providing the information and transparency to her that she might crave. I think it's great that you have a therapist. As much as you can get support and a sounding board for this process, the better. What's terrible is that I think any answer other than a "yes, I abused you" from your father will feel like a lie. And that's why it may be hard to really get closure from him.
posted by amanda at 7:09 PM on January 23 [9 favorites]

I am so sorry you had to find those documents. Sorry for the rest of it too, but that sounds especially difficult. (amanda, I'm sorry for what you've been through, too.)

So in answer to your question, I had a couple of discussions with my father who was abusive. I was absolutely stunned at the degree to which he denied and claimed not to remember things. What your father wrote in that polygraph comment suggests to me he will do the same. My impression is that that's a really common reaction when abusers are confronted.

I'd like to join those who suggest talking to your sister. Whether or not you talk to your father, really. One of my sisters wrote me a letter, long before I confronted my father, telling me she was there with me and remembered what went on. That was remarkably validating. Maybe the two of you can do that for each other.
posted by BibiRose at 7:18 PM on January 23 [6 favorites]

Let the universe close the door on him. You walk away. There is no closure. What you want is love, revenge is a loveless act. Find your self walking down a sidewalk in a spring, and know he can no longer hurt anyone. Go forward, far and away from this, encourage your sister to do the same. If someone whom you care about asks about your parents say your dad passed away. He was as good a man as he could be. Don't carry this harm into new situations. Once he is gone, your memories will come to you, but you will be safe, because he is dead. Comfort yourself in knowing that you did not, and could not consent to any act of sexual gratification he sought, and neither could your sister. Make peace with you, and find joy.
posted by Oyéah at 7:20 PM on January 23 [14 favorites]

Best answer: You can’t control his reactions to you. You can only control yourself and your actions. What does it really matter if he did the things you (have very good reason to) suspect him of? Giving him palliative support if he admits to guilt, vs giving him palliative support if he does not… it’s both you choosing to support a man who harmed you in the past. For some people, that’s an action of strength, of self-care, to show the kindness you wish had been shown to you when you were vulnerable. For some others, it’s falling into a cycle of guilt and obligations and unresolved injustice. I think you and your therapist and other people in your circle of care are the only ones who can decide what is the right choice for you right now.

I think having a conversation where you tell him what you think of him and suspect of him is an okay idea, if you go in absolutely fine with any reaction he may have. He might get angry. He might cry and break down and try to make you feel awful. He might apologize or ask for forgiveness - you do not ever need to forgive him. The key is that the conversation has to be the point, and not his reaction to it. You can’t make him do anything. You can only prepare yourself for a range of reactions. And ultimately, would him knowing what you know change how you feel about him?

It’s a hard situation you are in, and I have great sympathy for you. There is a fine line between not burying our past traumas and opening closed wounds. Death, especially expected death, can make people do unexpected things and heighten emotions to such a degree that mistakes get made. Whatever you do, be communicative with people you trust, and make sure you have your own support structure in place.
posted by Mizu at 7:22 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

Your father is not going to answer any of your questions. You already have the answers, anyway. So don't go to him expecting him to say yes or no or paint a picture of your childhood for you. Expecting that will just get you more twisted up inside. You already have the answers, anyway. From what you've written, it's obvious.

If you have something to say to your father, by all means go say it. If you want to go and forgive him, go do that. But don't go expecting that he will say something healing to you. Your life and wholeness can't depend on him. You should only go if you are already whole before you walk in the door, and you're prepared to maintain that wholeness regardless of what he does or doesn't say.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 7:58 PM on January 23 [5 favorites]

This sounds so hard and awful. I am sorry. You can of course confront him, but think very, very seriously about what it would feel like if he says, "No, I didn't." Will you believe him? Will you be crushed that he can't come clean? He may not be able or be willing to be honest with you. He might be someone who lies or tries to gaslight you or diminishes it.

Maybe you can think about what you want and how close you think you can get to that. You can tell him you know what he did. Or, you can tell him you suspect he is guilty and that you'd like to know what happened him if he'd like to unburden himself. But sadly, you can't trick him or force him into saying something. You're only in control of what you say.
posted by Ink-stained wretch at 8:00 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

I don't think you can ask directly, rather, I don't think that'll have the outcome you're seeking. You can ask a vague question, eg, "..did.. something happen during this time? You don't have to say exactly, but I had experiences suggesting it did." And it may be an emotional rorschach. Many of the above answers are very empathetic.

I will say, many people close to leaving us sometimes surprise us with expressions they wish us to know, while they have time to say.

Many people with accountability for traumatic situations may never directly state their accountability, but may try to articulate their experiences or perceptions. (It may be helpful to remember trauma can be learned or generational. Perhaps it stopped with you, and your sister (inflicting it on others, not receiving, very unfortunately)

I think if you can find a gentle, articulate way to approach, you have a 50/50 shot of uncovering interesting information. I'd be very careful, and approach with the knowledge of the above and no concrete expectations. Love often begets love.

I'm sorry about the difficulty and best of luck in whatever you decide.

To emphasize: I would not at all ask directly. Psychological resurgence can affect a person's overall physiology, and even if the person's actions feel irredeemable, he may be resistant to a direct answer for many reasons. An indirect approach that ranges from broad to specific seems best.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:19 PM on January 23 [1 favorite]

I don't know if you can trust any of his answers - and I think you know that. I think if you did talk to him, no matter what he said, you wouldn't fully believe it. And you shouldn't. Because he sounds like someone that habitually lies and is untrustworthy. As is the case with most abusers.

I can't tell you what to do but would suggest you continue with your therapist. My opinion here is that speaking with an abuser is usually useless at best and damaging at worst.

I have been abused, mostly verbally and emotionally. I will, under no circumstance, meet with my abuser. I will not talk to them. And I seek no closure from them. My closure is done and it was something I gave to myself. It is not something an abuser can grant.
posted by Crystalinne at 10:04 PM on January 23 [10 favorites]

My abuser did admit to abusing me, both in front of others and a long letter to me where he seemed to enjoy detailing some things. It was still not exactly comprehensive. He also was a compulsive records keeper and there were medical notes that backed up some things.

Anyways, it made very little difference either to me or my family. In summary;

What it helped with:
- internal doubt about the facts
- feeling my own ability to handle it
- once or twice I’ve used it as a reminder when the family reminiscing about the good old days gets too loud

What it didn’t help with:
- my sibling has said they don’t remember anything before a particular age and don’t want to. I’ve honoured that boundary whether I agree or not because I’ll defend their right to their own journey with everything I have
- the category I think of as (my) “recognizing the pain and damage.” Only actual work (therapy, observation, etc) did this. There’s knowing and then there’s knowing
- family. The thing I realized over time is…my parents were deliberately unaware, at best. They knew. They chose the comfortable ignorance over my well-being. They both also had scars, particularly the one who grew up with my abuser. But everything they needed to know, they knew. So once the crisis of revelation passed, they reverted right away to “yes, but.” Yes, I was abused, but they have never really wanted to hear from me about it in any real way. Certainly not any damage.

I talked to my abuser when he was dying, in my mid-20s. I was nice to him, in a limited way, and he was surprised that I was. I told him at the time that I was going to do what I think is right regardless. It was satisfying, because in that moment, I did feel my own power and how he had not succeeded in taking it away. But it was because I didn’t need anything from him. If I had, it would have been very possible he would have withheld it. He was that kind of guy.

People in my head loved him so much. He was their world and he had a genius for making things special - amazingly good, amazingly bad. I don’t think that last visit helped them either way.

I don’t know where you are in your path and so it’s hard to give advice. Here’s what I see in your post. You know you are right and abuse happened. It sounds like you want to create a path for yourself that goes like “if he admits it now, I can relate to him as he is dying, but if he doesn’t, I can’t.”

I guess my experience is that as much as truth is freeing (and I think it can be), abuse isn’t one incident, and even if he admits to it, it won’t retroactively make him a better person. I know lots and lots of people whose abusers have in words admitted abuse but who have never acknowledged the depth of that act or series of acts. And the very painful reason is, anyone who can be with a child, raise them, see their little selves wriggle in joy, and sob at nightmares…see their vulnerabilities and their capacities…and then use them, beat them, abuse them and put them down, are already in a very horrifying place. Whatever had let you father do that and keep silent is still there. I don’t think it’s likely to change enough to give you a sense that he’s truly taking responsibility in any meaningful way. At best you will add one small positive moment against the rest.

So in your shoes I would do what would work for you either way. For me when my abuser was dying and needed practical help, I decided (pressured by my parents) to be the better person and go. It cost me a month of flashbacks and I dropped out of school as a result (for the second time.) it gave me the satisfaction of knowing that I could be kind in the face of pain, which did help me believe that if I kept on working at it I could be a better partner/parent than my abuser and that kind of helped me keep it together. I sat in truth with evil. But that’s it. There was no Hollywood screenplay moment. Life is messier than that.

I hope this helps, whatever you decide.

There are no magic words you can say that will make him be a different father than he was.
posted by warriorqueen at 4:09 AM on January 24 [15 favorites]

He is not going to give you what you want. Whatever closure you are seeking needs to come from you, internally, because it is not going to come from him.

You also don't mention if you have discussed this with your sister. Her abuse is her story, not yours, and I would be really careful about addressing her abuse with anyone (besides your therapist) without consulting with her first — even with her abuser. As warriorqueen has said, that is a boundary you need to honor and you will need to let her process that (or not process it) in her own way and at her own pace.

I've very sorry this happened to you. <3
posted by Brittanie at 6:42 AM on January 24 [5 favorites]

I'm so sorry that your childhood and family have left you with these lingering, painful questions. I agree that you should go into any such conversation with the expectation that your father will not answer any of your questions or admit to anything. The best case scenario is probably "he says something vague that will neither confirm or disprove your knowledge."

That's not to say you shouldn't have the conversation. Perhaps there are things you want to say that will be healing and important for you to express, regardless of his response to those things. I'm really glad you have a therapist to work through this with, who can perhaps help you come up with the right script for those things. (I also think you might consider whether, given the most likely outcome is that this is a one-way flow of information, you might prefer to deliver that information in a letter. Only you will know whether that would be better or worse for you than delivering it in person.)

I do agree that whatever you do it's likely to stir up some family difficulties for your sister as well, and that you owe it to her to talk with her first. Perhaps she wants her experience to be left out of it, and if so, you should honor that. Perhaps she would like to be part of this with you, and you can support each other.
posted by Stacey at 8:41 AM on January 24

Sexual perpetrators convince themselves that both A. It didn't happen and B. They wanted it.

The way to prepare for confrontation is to write down what you want to say Dad, I've seen the evidence. I know you raped/ sexually molested/ abused Sister. I believe you abused me, in this way: *details* and maybe more and practice saying it to a therapist and maybe a trusted friend.

You may or may not see acknowledgement in his face.

I'm so so sorry he abused your trust, abused his role as parent, denied you what you needed and deserved. I', so so sorry you have carried this enormous burden. i hope you find a little peace.
posted by theora55 at 2:00 PM on January 24 [1 favorite]

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