My Father Showed Me Most of What I Know About the Nature of Evil
A story about how my father's choices turned him into a monster
Family portraits aren’t uncommon, but there’s a lot that’s uncommon about this one. It isn’t anything you can see—it’s what’s inside the people in it, and how their lives are going to unfold.
That little blond guy is me. And if you know me, you might’ve noticed I don’t talk about my family all that much—especially if they come up casually in conversation.
“Oh, you’re from Southern California? Is your family still back there?”
I always struggle with that question. The most honest answer is “I don’t have family,” but that would just lead to more questions. So I say “yeah, they’re still back there,” and then steer the conversation somewhere else.
My family stories don’t make for fun small talk, so I’ve spent most of my life staying quiet about the ugly and painful realities of my past. It’s not because I want to hide the truth, I just haven’t known how to talk about it.
But I just can't carry this around silently anymore.
So, yes, my family still lives in Southern California, which is a place I dislike for a lot of reasons. When I think of it what I remember most is how the horizon is barely visible behind a thick blanket of smog, how wild fires tear through the hills every year and fill the air with smoke and ash, and earthquakes like the one that took away my home when I was 12. There’s also the shallow fame and celebrity that everyone seems to chase, and the ways perfectly beautiful people deform themselves with plastic surgery.
Oh, and then there’s the state’s database of registered sex offenders.
That last one makes this sound like a round of “One of These Things Is Not like the Other” from Sesame Street. But, to me, it’s not out of place at all. There are thousands of people in that database of registered sex offenders, but only one of them makes it significant to me. It’s my father.
For most people, I imagine the moment they found out their father was in prison for child molestation would be burned into their memory permanently. Where they were, who told them, how time slowed down, and the sickness they felt in their stomach. But I can’t recall anything about it.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t care—it just doesn’t stand out. Just like you don’t remember any particular dot when watching snowy static on a television screen, the disturbing events back then were too numerous.
Those who are fortunate get to experience their childhood as an exciting time to explore the world, as an opportunity to play and learn useful things from their parents, and a chance to create formative bonds with their childhood friends and family. My childhood was nothing like that, though.
I grew up watching my father violently do harm to my mother and older brother. I lived in fear because I was told that at any moment an invisible man in the sky was going to murder everyone on the planet who didn’t believe in him. I was told that science was a series of lies sent from Satan. I learned that my father had drugged and raped women. And when I was older, I learned he used a situation where he should have protected a small child as an opportunity to prey on her.
This is my father—the man I came from. He was my first example of what men are like, and how he’s lived has left really deep and painful marks on me.
I can’t overstate how difficult it’s been coming to terms with the ugly realities of the people who brought me into the world. And it’s been remarkably hard to let go of my dream of having loving parents and the belief I could help them. But it was a necessity, and it began to really take shape when I was 20.
I was living with my mother then, who suffers from borderline personality disorder, and her second husband who is a deeply disturbed sociopath (not like the oddly charming sociopaths in movies—a deeply troubled, unpredictable, and cruel man who seems to think people are just objects to toy with and manipulate).
In my teens, things were particularly unpredictable and chaotic in their home. I would live with them briefly, be thrown out without warning, and bounce around from place to place staying wherever I could. But I’d always find myself back there, and before long, the cycle would repeat.
The time she threw me out as a “20th birthday present” (her words) was the last time it ever happened, because it was the last time I lived with her.
I look back now and understand that a lot of people around that age live away from home and support themselves just fine, but things had been so unstable for so long. I never had the consistency needed to pull anything together for myself. I was just trying to survive, trying to make sense of the ongoing storm of unpredictability and the psychological, physical, and emotional violence.
So, I found myself thrown out once again, and this time I only saw two options in front of me: I could live in my car, or ask my father to let me live with him.
My father had been released from prison not long before this, and he happened to live only about two miles from my mother’s home. We hardly spoke, or had anything resembling a relationship. And even though he was convicted of child molestation, he was still living very close to several schools, parks, and churches.
The neighborhood where he lived seemed quiet and safe enough, but his presence there made it a place where a great deal of darkness was hiding.
I made the short drive to his house completely overwhelmed and in a daze. I arrived at his home, knocked on the door, and when he answered I went inside. I sat in his living room and asked the man who I identified as the source of so many of the hardships in my life if he would let me live with him. He said “yes.”
I was surprised and relieved, but also knew this wasn’t a blessing.
Have I mentioned that my father is part of a religious cult? Well, he is. And for anyone out there thinking “wait, I know some Jehovah’s Witnesses—they’re perfectly friendly and harmless folks,” you are fundamentally incorrect in that assessment.
The deeply troubling nature of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their brainwashing is difficult to see unless you’ve been personally touched by it, and then escaped to see it from the outside.
While I lived with my father, it was a nightly occurrence that I would come home to find him and my stepmother sitting on the couch, watching the evening news in absolute horror. Every terrible thing they were seeing—shootings, murders, robberies, car crashes, gang violence, war—was proof to them that Armageddon was beginning.
My father believes that Satan has a legion of demon soldiers that are constantly attacking him and all the other Jehovah’s Witnesses. He believes that every bad occurrence in his life is proof that Satan is after him, and, by extension, evidence of his righteousness. He is certain that the world is going to be destroyed at any minute, and that his god is going to murder everyone who doesn’t follow what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe.
And he believes that I am one of the people his god is going to murder.
While I lived in his home, I tried to have conversations with him about how he saw the world. I tried to understand what was going on inside of him, and to share my perspectives on things. I wanted to know if there was any malleability to his insane beliefs.
If they were changeable, that would mean that he was changeable. But over and over again the answer came loud and clear: “Nope!” It’s impossible to reason with someone whose identity and beliefs can only survive in the absence of reason.
If you'd like to learn more about Jehovah’s Witnesses...
In 2002 the BBC made a short documentary on Jehovah’s Witnesses called Suffer the Little Children. It looks at the massive epidemic of pedophilia that the organization is hiding, and how they’re protecting known offenders from the law because they believe “Jehovah will sort it out in the end.”
My father is not featured in it (thankfully?), but it’s very relevant to this story and gives insight into some of the circumstances that helped create the man my father has become.
Nervous breakdowns are not fun
During the 18 months I was living in my father’s home I did my best to live my life and better myself. I tried my hand at several jobs to see if I could find something I enjoyed; I wrote a lot of music and performed in various bands; I taught myself all about computers and audio recording; I read a lot of books; and I decided to put myself through school for graphic design.
Another thing I did was collect a lot of information about who my father was. I already had a ton of information about my mother, but my father had only been around sporadically during my life, especially after they divorced when I was seven. I needed this information to complete the picture of my parents.
My father would say "I love you” to me sometimes, but at the same time was ok with the idea of his god murdering me. He told me that my childhood memories of his violence were just lies my mother implanted in my head. He made it clear that he was only interested in me when I did something that made him look good to others.
The puzzle pieces were slowly falling into place, and as they did a picture began to take shape. I didn’t like what I saw, but the truth it revealed seemed self-evident.
My parents were still alive, but I was an orphan.
While I don’t remember why my father eventually told me I had to leave, I do remember the massive nervous breakdown I was in the middle of. The pain I had been in for the last several years was too much, and by then I'd completely dissociated from my body. I would look down at my hands or legs and not recognize them as me. My body just seemed like this thing my consciousness was trapped inside of—a thing that made it possible for people to inflict pain on me.
I felt like a phantom blowing through the world, unable to control my environment or change anything, but able to be manipulated and harmed by everything around me. I saw my body as a prison, and part of me felt I had to destroy it so I could get out.
I’ve thought about killing myself many times, but no matter how bad things have gotten it was never something I was actually willing to try. There has always been a stubborn determination in me to not let the bad things I've experienced win.
While I couldn’t escape myself or the body I felt trapped in, I could escape everything outside of myself that was causing me harm. So I disappeared, and made sure my parents couldn’t find me.
I bounced around, staying briefly with an ex girlfriend, and then rented a couple rooms for short periods of time. After about a year of that aimless drift, I had an opportunity to leave Southern California, and I took it.
The dark tunnel to Seattle
I had never lived outside of Southern California, and had traveled very little. Having only explored a tiny sliver of the world resulted in a belief that everything I hated about California was actually inherent in life, humanity, and the world as a whole.
I wound up in a small town in Washington where I was far away from everything and everyone I knew.
I lived alone with my cat, Pinkertons McGraw, in an empty 2-bedroom apartment on a hill. I was broke, had no furniture, no friends, no sense of what was ahead of me, and no hope.
Though, this was the first time I felt like I was truly free from my parents and the corrosive environment I grew up in. But it didn’t bring the relief I was hoping for.
Before I left Southern California, I was in the middle of a life that was burning down around me. But now that I was out, my focus shifted from trying to escape the fire to dealing with the searing pain I was in from the third degree burns I had suffered.
During that time of isolation and despair I created a lot of things trying to express and decrease the weight of the misery I was experiencing. Some of the self-portraits I made then give a pretty interesting insight into my state of mind. I felt like I was being eaten from the inside out.
During this time I was plagued with questions. Questions like “Who am I? What does it mean that a man like Dean is my father? What does that say about me? Am I going to turn into him?”
I don’t remember ever wanting to be anything like him—even as a little kid—but there’s a persistent myth in our culture that says we eventually turn into our parents. And when you hear something like that over and over and over again, it’s easy to assume you’re hearing it so often because there’s truth to it.
The thing that scared me most was not knowing if I could trust myself. I had never wanted to hurt anyone, but I also had no idea what was behind the kind of evil and cruelty that appeared to have worked its way through multiple generations of my family.
Is evil genetic? Is it an external force? Is it something that’s chosen, or something that violently possesses people?
I had no idea, so I just isolated myself. I wouldn’t allow myself to be around children, and I was afraid that I might somehow hurt women if they came near me. I was so lost and in need of help, but I preferred to suffer alone than risk continuing the legacy of abuse I thought was my fate.
What escaped me was the implication of that fear. There was a seed of hope in the recognition that what I had seen in my father wasn’t what I wanted for myself.
After almost a year, the isolation in Renton had run its course. I needed a change, so I rallied and moved to Seattle. I loooooooved living in Seattle. It was so beautiful, the weather was amazing (yes, the rainy Pacific Northwest weather), and I was finally surrounded by a way of life that I wanted to be a part of.
My new external environment was beautiful, but I had brought my internal world with me.
This is when I begin the long and difficult process of completely dismantling my view of everything. The world, myself, relationships, money, the belief that I had no future because god was going to destroy the world—everything came into question. Every last bit of the toxic insanity I had been taught had to go, then I could replace it with the things I did want inside of me.
We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them. –Albert Einstein
I've noticed that people who sincerely embraced the Jehovah’s Witness belief system seem unable to really get rid of it. My father, mother, and older brother all embraced it wholeheartedly, but even as a little kid it never really made sense to me. I was forced to carry around a mouthful of that poison for the first 14 years of my life, but I never actually swallowed it.
But being exposed to it for that long still did a lot of damage.
The first barrier I had to get through was stamping out my taught distrust of everything that was not coming from Jehovah’s Witnesses. Residue of their omniphobic, naive, and myopically ignorant view of the world was distorting everything I saw.
I began devouring books on science, spirituality, philosophy, creativity, psychology, and anything else that seemed to offer the types of answers that I needed—but I was still battling this internal voice that was saying “That’s a lie! Those are Satan's words!”
I know, it sounds totally insane. It was.
During this time I also began journaling to process what I was going through. Every day I would spend hours sitting alone at a coffee shop reading and pouring whatever was inside of me into a journal.
I have journal after journal after journal filled from front to back with things that are really difficult for me to read now. There was so much anger, confusion, and despair inside of me, and it seemed like I’d never reach the bottom of it.
I’m not proud of what’s in those journals, but I also don’t blame myself for what I was going through. I was doing the best I could to reshape a lifetime of insanity into something constructive, and at the time I had a remarkably limited set of tools to draw from.
But I slowly began to increase my understanding. I slowly began to feel that progress was happening, and I began to see how harboring resentment or hate towards other people was only hurting myself.
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies. –Nelson Mandela
That awareness emerged, but it didn’t come with an instruction manual on how to actually loosen the grip that resentment and hatred had on me.
That would have to come later.
Returning to California
In many ways, I became a new person during my time in Seattle. I was in a relationship with a woman I was very much in love with; I had become part of a group of friends that cared for me (and that I spent a lot of time partying with—it was a valuable, but ultimately not ideal form of coping and self-medicating); and I had begun to create something of a career for myself.
But still, things were far from where I needed them to be. Months where I didn’t know how I'd pay rent were common, I was drinking heavily, and I didn’t see any real potential for me to achieve my dreams if I continued on that path.
Then an opportunity for a job back in California opened up, and I felt like I had to take it.
Moving back to California felt like renting a room from an abusive ex. “Oh…. hi, asshole. Uhh… thanks for all of the hard lessons you gave me? I know we’re living in close proximity to each other, but I really don’t want to hang out or ‘catch up.’ Alright, see ya ‘round!” But, I was able to maintain perspective on the things I didn’t like about it and I was pretty content.
Then I started to think about Dean.
He was getting older, and I knew he wasn’t going to be around forever. I didn’t need or really want anything from him, but he was the only father I’d ever have. And I wanted to make sure for my own peace of mind that I wasn’t leaving anything unresolved with him.
After a year of being back in California, I finally reached out. He told me over the phone that he was happy to hear from me, and we agreed to meet for lunch near where I was living in Hollywood. I was nervous and excited, and maybe even a little hopeful. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in six years, and I really didn’t know what to expect.
The thing I remember most about our first meeting was looking at him from across the table and trying to wrap my head around how the hell the man in front of me was my father. Since I’d seen him last I had been working to better understand myself and the world; to become better equipped to have healthy relationships with the people I cared about; and to let go of my anger and resentment.
He had apparently done the exact opposite.
He spent our time together speaking hatefully about the people he worked with, how stupid person x, y, or z was, and just generally spewing resentment and bitterness about everything in his life. I sat there looking into his eyes while he spoke, thinking over and over and over again “this is my father, this is my father, this is my father,” trying to make sense of it.
I finished cleaning out the attic, and then the house caught on fire
I need to back up a little bit to mention something that began literally the day I arrived back in Los Angeles.
Things felt like they were really looking up for me then. I had a great new job, the internal calm and equanimity I was experiencing felt like a gold medal for all the hard work I'd done on myself, and I was entering a new chapter of my life.
I thought I was finally stepping through the doorway to happiness and fulfillment. Then the other shoe fell.
It started with a small patch on the left side of my chest going numb. Then the small patch spread until the entire left side of my torso was numb. It then moved down my left leg and I began losing the ability to move my toes. Then I started losing my ability to control my leg.
This decline progressed rapidly over the next several months. I was experiencing symptoms similar to advanced Multiple Sclerosis or Parkinson’s Disease, and none of the doctors I was seeing had any idea what was happening to me.
I was 26.
I was so scared. I had no idea how bad things were going to get. Doctors were poking and prodding me with test after fruitless test, and no one could tell me what was happening or what to expect.
The particularly difficult thing about this period was how unpredictable and inconsistent the symptoms were. There was paralysis; I went completely deaf in my right ear for several weeks; I had difficulty speaking; overnight my vision went from excellent to needing glasses, and there were days it was so impaired I could barely function; there was complete numbness across huge portions of my body; I experienced a complete absence of emotions, passion, or interest in anything for months at a time; and too many other things to mention here.
The stress from my health and from living in Southern California again was too much for me. So after three years I decided it was time to leave again. I called my father to let him know that I had decided to move to Oregon, and that with my health being what it was, I needed help to make it go smoothly. He said he’d be there for me to help however he could.
As my move approached, my health had gotten so bad I could barely walk the length of a city block. I was weak, had no energy, and was struggling to do even the simplest of tasks. I had called my father a few times to check in on his offer to help, but I couldn't get ahold of him. That was fine though. I was still able to arrange the help I needed, everything I owned was loaded into the moving truck, and me and McGraw hit the road again.
When we arrived in Portland I hired movers to help me unpack the moving truck, and then I started the process of settling into my new apartment.
I felt happy.
Once again, I started to think about Dean. I still hadn’t heard from him, and imagined that he wasn’t reaching out because he felt ashamed of not being able to help with my move. The idea of him feeling bad bothered me—everything had worked out, there were no hard feelings, and I wanted him to know that.
I called him, but there was no answer. I left him a voicemail, but he didn’t return my call. A few months later, an email from him arrived in my inbox.
How MySpace destroyed my relationship with my father
I’m kidding—our relationship was already crap.
Let me back up one more time to a few months before I left California. I was at a show in Hollywood, and I ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. He was also raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. We went to the same church when we were kids, and were part of a very small group of friends who were able to get away.
We stayed in touch after that show, and conversations about Jehovah’s Witnesses eventually came up. It sparked my interest in digging deeper into my understanding of a few things, so I started doing a ton of research. I came across a massive amount of videos and blogs that were created by people struggling to overcome the brainwashing from being a Jehovah’s Witness.
I also found a lot of information about the people who started the organization. How they'd built a secret mansion as a home for the biblical figures they believed were coming back from the dead, and about how the organization had repeatedly predicted the end of times inaccurately, leading their followers to abandon their homes and discard all of their belongings in preparation for an Armageddon that never came.
It was fascinating, and I wanted to share what I was discovering with my friends. This was 2008, so of course I created a post on MySpace. I published the post, and then basically forgot about the whole thing.
Have you guessed where this is going yet?
When I finally heard back from my father, it was an email with the subject “Troubled.” Here’s part of what it said:
“I guess it's only fair to let you know why I haven't responded to anything you've sent. Let me say this first so that there is no misunderstanding. I love you very much and always will. Don't ever think otherwise. The reason is this, I am very, very offended at what [you put on MySpace] about Jehovah's Witnesses.
If I believe that the end will come very soon and I'm wrong, what is the worse thing that I might have to deal with, someone laughing at me and making fun of me? What if you are wrong? You will lose your life along with billions of others who never really tried to prove the Bible right or wrong.
When you say derogatory things about Jehovah's Witnesses… you deeply offend me. I have been upset for a long time and didn't want to just go off, so I waited till I was calmed down before I wrote to you. I done now. Don't forget the first couple of lines I wrote.”
One of the things that blows my mind most about my father is how sanctimoniously he moves through the world with no recognition of the damage he has inflicted with his life. What I sent in response to his email was longer than just the quotes below, but these excerpts capture the essence of it:
“I find it absolutely incredible that you have the superhuman audacity to… have a problem with me.
I continued, saying to him:
I'm taking the time to respond to this [because I’d imagine this is]… one of the last communications we'll ever have.
What's the worst thing that you might have to deal with if you're wrong about your beliefs? I'd say that someone laughing at you should be the least of your worries. I'd say much worse than mere ridicule is missing out on your children's lives, and having no clue whatsoever who they are…
I find it odd too that you're so obsessed with eternal life when I don't [think] you've effectively lived the life that you have [now]. Using your time and energy to be afraid of the world, of god, and to hoist yourself up on your high horse [so you can] look down on the people that you have abandoned, abused, and done all manner of un-Christ-like things to is just incredible.
You are so far removed from the realities of your life and how you have destructively [impacted] the people whose lives [you’ve touched] that it continues to make you dangerous…”
My father is a wolf who believes he can fool everyone by hiding beneath a bloodstained sheep’s skin, and unfortunately, a lot of the people around him have been ignorant enough to buy it.
My biology doesn’t determine my destination
I don’t see pictures of my father very often (because I don’t really enjoy looking through my family photo albums), but when I do, I almost automatically begin searching for physical traits that we share. It’s another version of the questions I was trying to answer when I first moved to Washington, and at the first meal we shared in Hollywood.
How is this man my father? What does that say about me?
Sometimes I catch myself in a mirror in just the right way, and I see a flash of him looking back at me. They’re not my favorite moments, but whether I look like him or not, it says nothing about who I am.
Biology doesn’t decide who I am anymore than it determines who I can become. What makes me who I am is how I choose to live my life. It’s how I respond to the challenges and events I witness, how I choose to treat others, and what I choose to devote myself to building.
My parents handed me a map to hell when I was born, but I was never willing to follow it. I am where I am in my life because of the choices I’ve made—nothing has been predetermined, or prophecy, or fate.
I am not my father.
What is true for me is true for all of us: our choices are what ultimately determine the quality and content of our lives, and over time, the person we become is the sum total of what we consistently choose.
Dean didn’t come into this world as a child molester, a wife beater, a child abuser, or a cult member. The legacy he’s created is the result of many, many choices throughout his life—and it’s what he has to live with.
I am so determined to live a life of purpose and intention because of how little my parents have. I’ve seen some excellent examples of what can come from making poor choices, and I find it horrifying. I will not be remembered for bringing more pain and injury into the world. I will not be remembered as a cautionary tale for how to not live one’s life.
I have one chance to be this person and contribute something beautiful to the world, and I refuse to be careless with an opportunity that precious.
I am proud of the man that I’ve become.
It feels a little weird ending a post like this with my usual sign-off, but I also think stories like this give meaningful insight into why I end my posts the way I do.
Until next time, be kind to yourself, to each other, and venture fearlessly into the awesomeness that is your life.
(I would like to thank my lovely editor, Sheila Ashdown, for her excellent contributions to this article. I couldn't have gotten through this one without her.)