Letters for the week of March 23-29, 2005 

A response from author Stephen Elliott to the letter his father recently penned. And a call to action in the wake of our two-part earthquake series.

"The corrections," Letters, 2/23

The impossibility of truth between father and son
There are truths and lies and there are also interpretations of history, and these are what sit between fathers and sons the way they sit between generations. There are verifiable truths. My father and I are fighting. He's tired of being lied about. But really, that's not it at all. He's tired of me lying about myself. Because it's not the things I say about him, it's the things I say about myself that make him look bad.

If I tell an interviewer that I slept on a rooftop all of eighth grade, it makes my father look like a bad parent. And it's an oversimplification to say I slept on a rooftop all of eighth grade. I left home in October of 1985; I was thirteen. I was arrested in late August of 1986; I was fourteen. Those are facts; the rest is up for debate.

In that near-year I slept at friends' houses, outside next to a fire pit at the canal, above the convenience store under box tops, in a broom closet, in a boiler room, above a fake leather and fur outlet, at a friend of my father's, at my soon-to-be-stepmother's, in the back of trucks, in a jail cell, a youth shelter, a clothes closet, my English grandparents' apartment outside of Sheffield, my American grandfather's apartment in Chicago, in cars, in communes, and several times I went home and stayed with my father beneath an uneasy truce. I slept enough places it would be true to say that I slept almost anywhere. It would be true to say that I was homeless for a year and true when my father protests, "If he was homeless, why did he come home to take showers?" How many showers? Maybe five, possibly ten. Eleven months, maybe two of them spent with relations including my father. It's open for interpretation. During that time I tried to kill myself six times.

It's a fact that I got sick from sleeping outside and went through a period where I could not stop shivering even when I was inside with a jacket on. It's a fact that I tried to kill myself six times. How serious is up for debate. I still have large scars on my wrist. Did I really want to die, or was I looking for attention, or some combination of the two? Is there a middle ground where you are a child living on the streets looking for attention but also sad enough that you are willing to die? That if you slit your wrists or take sleeping pills and you get attention for it, that is good, and if you die, that is also good, a win-win situation?

It's a fact that when I was arrested in late August of 1986, my father had moved and I did not know where he lived. It's a fact that when I asked him for his address, he refused to tell me. It's a fact that I didn't know where he lived for a year, starting about four months before my arrest and continuing until I found his house when I was fifteen while searching his suburb in a friend's car. It's a fact that after I was arrested I was placed in a mental hospital because of the large cut on my wrist, and it's a fact that my father told the social worker that my suicide attempts were done for attention and that I was spoiled. I have the records with the quotes from the Department of Children and Family Services. Some things are verifiable. Others aren't. I'm upset that my father didn't take my suicide attempts more seriously, but I can't prove it.

It's hard to prove abuse. Abuse is an interpretation. My father yelled a lot and called me names. I didn't want to live with him after my mother died, so I ran away. Did he scream at me enough to constitute abuse? Who gets to decide? It's a fact that twice during the almost year between leaving home and getting arrested that my father caught me and shaved my head, though even that gets difficult. He claims he gave me a haircut. Doesn't a father have a right to give his son a haircut? But he used clippers, not scissors, so I say shaved. The second time was worse than the first. The second time he shaved my head he had caught me sleeping in his old house, which he was trying to sell. I had put a cigarette out on the windowsill. I woke up to him punching me in the face. The second time, the clippers slipped and I had bald patches and very short hair. I looked like a mental patient, which I would soon become. How traumatic is it to have your head shaved when you're fourteen? That's open to interpretation. Is there a point at which you're supposed to get over it? Is overcoming your childhood part of becoming an adult? Does it matter if the father never apologizes? There aren't answers to these questions.

It's a fact that at some point during that eleven months on the streets, my father found me and brought me to his old house and handcuffed me to a pipe and left me there for half an hour or more. It's a fact that he told me not to hurt the pipe, and that when he let me go he said I would understand when I was older.

It's a fact that during that time, my father never reported me missing to the police. That I hitchhiked to California from Chicago with my best friend, and my best friend was molested by a trucker but I was not. That my father refused to bring clothes to the mental hospital unless I would take them from his own hand, and when I said I wouldn't he decided not to bring me my clothes. It's a fact that he was charged with abuse and neglect by the state of Illinois and, showing up to court, he tried to provoke my anger by accusing me of killing my mother, who had died when I was thirteen shortly before I left home. It's a fact that the court found my father guilty of abuse and neglect.

And from there, things get better before they get worse. My father and I develop a relationship. We don't talk about the bad years, the group homes, the specialized foster homes. We don't resolve things. I attend college on a scholarship for wards of the state. My father gives me five thousand dollars toward graduate school. I come by his house and I eat his food. I take from him and give very little in return. When I am 24, he gives me money to replace a bicycle of mine that had been stolen. We get better, but we don't resolve anything. I still believe my father to be abusive and he still believes I was just a spoiled child. And perhaps because I am a writer and I give interviews and I write books about children living in group homes who run away from abusive parents, our disagreements are going to come to the front and we are no longer going to be able to get along. But perhaps that would have happened anyway. Perhaps the issues are too big to be left unresolved, or perhaps we are not big enough to leave them that way, a couple of small minds locked in a war of attrition.

My father writes newspapers after my interviews to set the record straight. He says I could have come home any time I wanted, which is not technically true, since for a time I didn't know where he lived. He says the group homes I spent the rest of my childhood in were not bad places. He says I was only in the worst of them for a couple of months, which is factually untrue since I was in McCormick House for over six months and there are records. When my father writes that I didn't encounter much violence in McCormick House, I wonder how he knows. There are no records. I can't prove that I was scared or beat-up or miserable. That's for history. He debates small points, says I left home when I was fourteen, not thirteen. I can't prove him wrong. I told an interviewer I had posted poetry on my wall when I was ten years old and my father wrote to correct that I was actually thirteen when I posted the poetry on my walls. Maybe he's right. My father writes newspapers to tell them that I loved him very much and left home to impress my friends. But for other things there are documents. He says I never missed a year of high school when I claim I didn't go to high school for the first two years. There are transcripts that show I didn't attend those classes, but who would care? I tell an interviewer I went to four high schools and my father says I went to two high schools. This is also something I can prove.


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