By Julie Butler
I learned how to be a girl from atop a coffee table.
“Sing us a French song,” Dad would call to me as visitors sipped tea in the living room.
My mother would shift uncomfortably, offering up an argument to discourage the performance, “It’s nearly her bedtime.” Sometimes, she would slip into the kitchen to freshen the pot, abandoning me to his insistence. I don’t know if she was aware that I didn’t want to sing, or if she felt the second-hand shame like I could.
Dad would ignore her weak protest, lifting me in my Mary Janes onto the impromptu stage. He was always too eager, too enthusiastic. “Sing the one you sang last week… Do that little dance,” he’d press, stepping back expectantly. I rarely put up resistance. I did not want to appear disobedient or whiney or disagreeable with those adult eyes on me. “Do it for Daddy.”
I blushed for him more than for myself. He needed it. He wasn’t enough without my song. Perhaps he didn’t have enough witty things to say to the visitors. Duty put breath in my kindergarten lyrics and exaggerated gestures. I tossed out my own boundaries to him as flotation. I could feel him relax and smile contentedly if I remembered all the words, but I couldn’t bear to watch him, watching me for long. I soaked in his desperate, overcompensating need, rather than a father’s pride.
I felt embarrassed by the visitors’ mild dismay as Dad clumsily interrupted conversation with my act. I felt humiliated when they were not as impressed with my talent. Of course, any child in Madame Bisnaire’s class could have done as well. We all knew Banana Bateau. We all shook our tushes at the chorus. It felt phoney. It felt invasive. It felt guilt-ridden because he could so love and admire me while he couldn’t love himself. But, it was the bargain I made to be his girl. It’s what I learned to do to be anybody’s girl.
I’d grow up in the service of my father’s struggling ego and deeply felt inadequacy. I’d try to minimize the piteousness of his hunger for validation, his braggart’s over-valuation of what his girl could do… I did more. I tried to do enough and be enough so that my performance would not be so incongruous to his needful boasting; that way, maybe I could conceal the lack that so obviously owned him. I always knew his love was not conditional on my delivery, but I could not bear to see him sinking in shame. My own self-worth went down with that ship. I learned to measure my worth and capacity to love by how freely I could surrender myself. I never considered that I could be breeding codependency in assuming the supportive role.
It’s no coincidence that, just as I was losing the best parts of my dad to dementia, I invited a man into my life who shared my father’s soul-deep wounds. He had a sad history that broke my heart. He looked at me with the familiar, inflated adoration I was already grieving. He was shy and self-deprecating. Ease in compromising myself for his sake was proof of my love. Tearing off pieces of myself to mend his hurts and fill his empty places felt like home.
Eventually, I tore away more of myself than I kept. I didn’t notice it happening, it was so gradual. I also didn’t notice the signs that he didn’t really desire what I had to give, but instead craved my compulsion to hand it all over. He could make me feel guilty about clutching anything to myself. This was the manipulative game he played with me while calling me ‘baby doll’; I despised the pet name but I never dared hurt him by saying so.
Before long, his psychological abuse had me performing just like a wind-up toy; he spun my self-esteem in one direction, and then gleefully unwound it in the opposite. I was off-balance, confused, and pre-occupied with searching for a compassionate explanation of why he did what he did. He cultivated my self-doubt. Every certainty I’d trusted faded in his narcissistic shadow. Every good thing he’d loved about me at first was recast as bad; my extroversion was unhealthy attention-seeking, the approval I’d once felt was unmerited, and his accolades, just placating, patronizing niceties. I could not process his shifting behaviour fast enough to digest the contradictions he threw at me. It felt seedy to question the motives and character of someone whom I loved deeply and trusted, so I swallowed the blame he served up. Perhaps I had conned him into thinking I was better than I was. There were moments when I wondered if I was the imposter and manipulator, abusing him.
This lover set another girl on the pedestal beside me, and was sure to let me know that my Mary Janes were slipping. He delighted in our involuntary duet, a plaintiff, twisted ballad I didn’t know by heart and didn’t want to sing. I stayed as now I was the needy one, begging for him to mend the gashes he ripped through my psyche, clinging to him, desperate to not drown in the discard. I was entirely adrift. The identity he had prescribed for me in indiscernible doses evaporated. I belted out sour, foreign notes beyond my range, just to be heard at all, only to have him gloat sadistically at my powerlessness and invite his new girl and a cruel audience to my public ridicule. I heard their declaration that the fall was all my doing. He had pirated my narrative.
‘Pain is pain’, a friend would say. I tried hard not to judge mine. I was bewildered to find myself nursing the same wounds as girlfriends chronically unlucky in love, girls who advertised their vulnerability, girls who had grown up fatherless, or with fathers who were worse than absent. I repressed my agony, but my body would not deny it. My body saved me, sending up flares of acute stress, depression, anxiety, and complex post-traumatic stress disorder. My physical brokenness could not be ignored. In time, I learned that there was a name for the nightmare I had waded into: psychopathic abuse.
How could this have happened to me? I felt prone and dangerously exposed without an answer, so I worked inward. I wonder what my dad would say about scouring my relatively idyllic childhood for his failings. I have felt a dirty-handed ingratitude in excavating through a fortunate past for its defects. It’s bittersweet that Dad is not lucid enough to understand that his little girl underwent the personal unravelling demanding of such reflection. It would gut him; his love and his self-deprecation were real, not some charming decoy.
A scattering of daddy issues does not account for the level of psychological damage that flooded my life. If I had grown up loving and relating to a more healed father, I still would not have been immune. My vulnerability was more about being a girl striving for culturally celebrated female virtues. The world taught me that good girls, girls with value, are nurturing, forgiving, empathetic, generous, healing, thoughtful creative forces. Yet, that sacred feminine can go all wrong. My dip into domestic abuse represents the deficiency, a confusion as to who it was all for. I had made the mistake of excluding myself as recipient of those graces. Like so many other women I had known, from whom I had been so arrogantly, ignorantly happy to distance myself, I thought I needed a male broker to affirm my deservedness. How can any of us cleave our belief in being nice as a virtue, from a collective cultural truth that says being nice is a matter of survival? The loss of the distinction is bred in the bone, and perhaps breaking open entirely is the only way to release our myths.
Women do not think the same way as men. Whether we become mothers or not, we are subject to brain chemistry around our emotional attachments that is strong enough to serve the continuation of the very species. That is a powerful love, with the potential for a powerful self-destruct mechanism. This is biology’s dirty trick on us, life-givers. The only way to balance its risks is to inundate our minds with the mantra, ‘Love yourself…Love yourself… Love yourself’. It’s such a fundamental message, yet it is still so hard for me to take in without some further qualification; ‘loving myself will enable me to be better at loving others’, as if loving me for me alone is not good enough reason.
When old ways of thinking betray you, it becomes simpler to open to new ideas. That is the unexpected beauty of having everything wash away. Fresh territory. The air in my lungs is mine. I am not ready for full-throated song, but I can hum. Just for me. And I am quite sure my feet are grounded.
Julie Butler is an artist, an educator, and mother of five. She is a moving target, a truth-digger and disciple of compassion. In her studio and community work, she is passionate about waking students to the value and power of their own creativity. It is the lesson she keeps teaching and coming back to herself. She is learning.