When I was four years old I remember standing in the bathroom staring up at my father shaving. “Watch how hard I can hit, daddy,” - my balled little fist was already headed for his private parts. He responded with a booming, painful yell that sent me scurrying out of the bathroom and downstairs to my mother. Shortly after that incident, my father left for parts unknown and I didn’t see him or hear a word from him for 20 years. This is not an optimal way to resolve the Oedipal Complex. The four year old Son is not supposed to send Father packing and precipitously assume his place as the head of the family.
Twenty years later my father initiated contact with me. I wasn’t aware of harboring any anger or resentment towards this man that I didn’t really know. As far as I was concerned, my life after he left was what it was. As we began spending time together – occasional walks around North Hollywood, outings at Santa Anita and Del Mar racetracks, an occasional dinner and a movie, I soon discovered that emotionally, this man at 55 was much younger than I was at 25. Nevertheless, I didn’t really feel like he needed to be forgiven for anything … except there began to appear increasing clues to the contrary.
One day we began playing Cribbage, a game he taught me as an adult. We started out playing for a penny a point, and on this day, the cards just seemed to magically fall my way. I got dealt hand after hand of 24, and I even remember two back-to-back 29 hands, the highest you can possibly get in Cribbage. By the end of the evening, my father owed me more than $350!! He was making a living as a professional gambler in those days, and he was beside himself at losing so much money to someone who had barely learned the game. What I noticed though was that I took excessive pleasure in this victory, and I wasn’t above letting him know it.
A number of years later we got together when I drove down to visit him at his apartment in San Diego. We were trying to decide on a movie to see. I told him I didn’t care, and that he should pick one. He said didn’t care either, and insisted I pick one. On the way home from the theater he complained bitterly about the waste of money, and what a stupid movie it was, and with little subtlety, how stupid anyone must be who would choose such a film. Without a word, I simply pulled my truck over to the side of the freeway and stopped. “Get out,” I said to him. He refused. I opened my truck door, walked around to his side and opened his door. Then I forcibly pulled him out. He took a swing at me. I stepped inside his swing and punched him with one hand and pushed him with the other. He went down onto the tarmac. I walked back around to the driver’s side of the truck, calmly got in and drove away. I never saw my father again. But that fistfight on the side of the San Diego freeway finally began the long process of my work to actively forgive him.
As I write this, he has long been forgiven. I have cleared his and my own trespasses out of my heart-brain-mind-body, and what I now know is that significant damage resulted to his brain from childhood beatings, life on a chain gang, and the trauma he suffered in World War II. His brain pretty much looked like this is my best guess. And what I know most strongly is that having to abandon his wife and children was unquestionably his own tragic version of Sophie’s Choice.
Yet, the question arises, why couldn’t I simply decide to forgive my father and be done with it long before the freeway incident? There are many answers to that question, but the social neuroscience answer that most matches my experience is that trauma and neglect seem to be embodied experiences, stored away in the very fabric of the body’s tissues. They don’t simply live only as words and memories in my brain. I engaged in many efforts to deal with father (and mother) and forgiveness over the years, from the Fischer-Hoffman Process to the work of Sidney Simon to A Course in Miracles to extended Christian and Buddhist contemplative retreats and practices. In all honesty, I can’t say much helped. And in fact, there is mounting evidence that when we surface traumatic experiences and memories, and don’t somatically integrate and resolve them, we actually do further damage to our bodies and brains. That research also seems to match my experience. Well then, what actually does work? In recent years, with the advent of an increasingly sophisticated collection of brain-imaging technologies and somatic processes, we are creating a variety of healing methodologies that are beginning to show significant clinical and scientific efficacy. Next week I'll provide a list of modalities that I know about from friends or colleagues or have personally experienced that have made an appreciable difference. Stay tuned.