Three years ago today I had a very strange conversation with my brother, and my life today is very different because of it.I had occasion to think of this recently when I saw an ad for Yellowstone, that Kevin Costner ranching show, and thought that if I were still speaking to my grandmother I’d probably have a working knowledge of the main cast, the major plot points of at least the first three seasons, and an opinion as to which season marked the beginning of the show’s decline. As I don’t speak to either of my grandmothers, I’ve never seen the show.
The three-year-mark seems to me to mark a shift from the acute to the chronic – my estrangement is no longer recent.It feels more settled, less surprising than it once did, and a new life has grown up around it.
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I can’t remember now who it was, but someone I follow on Twitter mentioned a few weeks back that it seemed as though most writing about grief they’d encountered came from writers who had experienced it within the last few years, when it was still relatively fresh, and they were interested in reading from a longer vantage point. I’ve certainly been guilty of a bias towards recency myself, I think, and am quicker to think of myself as an old-timer qualified to give advice than I am to look for someone who became estranged from their family ten or twenty years ago and try to learn from them.There’s probably a link between family estrangement and transition (besides the obvious causal link) and trying to turn oneself into an expert almost immediately afterwards.
For probably the first year of this estrangement, I couldn’t fall asleep at night without fantasizing about beating all of my relatives to death with a baseball bat, usually with some cheesy Good Morning, Vietnam-style incongruous musical accompaniment.It’s a very gee-whiz, child-of-the-movies, Kill Bill fantasy, and one that I’m both grateful for, and relieved to need less of with time. Time has been kind to me in this regard. It has blunted much, and sanded down many hard edges.
There’s a very fun, campy Stephen King short story called “The Jaunt”that I like a lot, and whose closing line, “Longer than you think, Dad!” has become sort of a catchphrase on Twitter. It belongs to the “teleportation horror” genre, where near-instantaneous travel to Mars and points beyond is both possible and fairly commonplace, although with a significant contingency – travelers have to be knocked out beforehand, because teleporting (here “jaunting”) stretches the limits of consciousness, such that while the body itself travels for less than a second, a waking mind would experience the trip as millions, possibly billions of years in total isolation, without sensory input or human contact. The main character, Mark Oates, describes the history of jaunting to his nervous wife and children in an attempt to put them at ease, worrying mostly that his nine-year-old daughter will be afraid of the anesthesia, only to inadvertently spark the curiosity of his twelve-year-old son, who holds his breath in order to stay awake and see what happens, still slightly too young to realize the enormity of the risk he’s taking:
Marilys staggered toward him, pointing. She screamed again and then collapsed on the floor, sending an unoccupied Jaunt couch rolling slowly down the aisle with one weakly clutching hand. But Mark had already followed the direction of her pointing finger. He had seen. It hadn’t been fright in Ricky’s eyes; it had been excitement…
Ricky who was first to take any dare. Ricky and fear were not well acquainted. Until now. Beside Ricky, his sister still mercifully slept. The thing that had been his son bounced and writhed on its Jaunt couch, a twelve-year-old boy with a snow-white fall of hair and eyes which were incredibly ancient, the corneas gone a sickly yellow. Here was a creature older than time masquerading as a boy; and yet it bounced and writhed with a kind of horrid, obscene glee, and at its choked, lunatic cackles the Jaunt attendants drew back in terror. Some of them fled, although they had been trained to cope with just such an unthinkable eventuality. The old-young legs twitched and quivered. Claw hands beat and twisted and danced on the air; abruptly they descended and the thing that had been his son began to claw at its face. “Longer than you think, Dad!” it cackled. “Longer than you think! Held my breath when they gave me the gas! Wanted to see! I saw! I saw! Longer than you think!” Cackling and screeching, the thing on the Jaunt couch suddenly clawed its own eyes out. Blood gouted. The recovery room was an aviary of screaming voices now. “Longer than you think, Dad! I saw! I saw! Long Jaunt! Longer than you think—”
It said other things before the Jaunt attendants were finally able to bear it away, rolling its couch swiftly away as it screamed and clawed at the eyes that had seen the unseeable forever and ever; it said other things, and then it began to scream, but Mark Oates didn't hear it because by then he was screaming himself.
It reminds me of one of my father’s favorite quotes from G.K. Chesterton, from Orthodoxy, which I’ve quoted here before:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
I have not heard from any of my relatives in at least two years now. To the best of my knowledge none of them have tried to get in touch with me since my father lost his job.Over the summer I heard from a stranger that my father had delivered a sermon at her church, during which he mentioned that his daughter had recently had a second child, which is how I learned that he had returned to preaching, and that I had another niece or nephew.
Both my brother and father are pedophiles. I associate both of them with a strategic cultivation of boyishness that defuses and deflects unwanted attention. I cannot forget that my father’s email address, when he joined the staff at Menlo Church, did not follow the usual convention of first name/last name/name of church, but was instead, simply, Calboy. Their continued insistence on their own childlike innocence, even at the expense of actual children, horrified me. Discovering the scale, duration, and breadth of the secret family conspiracy to maintain and protect their access to children made me feel old, and alone in that oldness, overnight.
I am very grateful for the good things that have sprung up in my life as a result of this estrangement. The good things are new, and possess all the flexibility and ease of movement of new things; the bad news is old, and gets older every day, which sounds like something Kevin Costner would probably say on an episode of Yellowstone.
To the best of my recollection, this was also the last day I spoke directly to any of my relatives – after speaking to my brother, I spoke to my sister briefly over the phone, then later and at greater length to my father. Grace and I had had plans to speak with my mother over the phone after the conversation with my father, but by that point we had already realized the necessity of acting against them and didn’t want to give any warning of what we were planning to do. My parents happened to be traveling on separate work trips, which was the only reason I wouldn’t have spoken to them as a unit. I texted my mother to cancel our conversation for that evening. I think I said I was very tired after talking with my father, but that we’d talk later, since I didn’t want her to suspect anything until it was too late for her to try to stop us.
I don’t know why I haven’t realized this before, but Kevin Costner is really a full-time interpreter of the American West and Midwest, isn’t it? Dances With Wolves, Field of Dreams, Wyatt Earp, Hatfields and McCoys, The Untouchables, even though, like me, he is a product of suburban Southern California.
I should say, my maternal grandmother, who is now morally compromised beyond hope of salvation but who was tremendously hospitable and a lot of fun to play cards with when I knew her, not my paternal grandmother, who chews rats and broken bottles with her teeth.
This probably goes for my mother, too – although she’s not usually the sort who watches conservative procedurals like Blue Bloods or whatever, she loves Kevin Costner, and my father always used to tease her for wasting her celebrity crush on someone so wooden and unremarkable.
I’d also have a natural audience for this complaint: They curse too much on Only Murders in the Building. It’s distracting and repetitive! They shouldn’t curse so much on that show.
I wonder if I have said this before? I can’t remember having done so, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if I’d made the same declaration at the one-year mark. It’s entirely possible that I repeat this claim every few months.
My best advice: Get a friend to help you manage cross-platform blocking. You’ll need help coordinating all the various apps and accounts you don’t want your relatives to use to contact you, and you’ll invariably forget one or two, and it’s nice to have a buffer between yourself and any weird messages they might try to send you. Email and social media might be obvious, but Venmo was weirdly the most difficult – I had the hardest time blocking relatives there in a permanent way, and their names still showed up on my suggested list for ages. It makes sense inasmuch as Venmo has a vested interest in maximizing each user’s network (“capital should never be blocked,” not that the $20 my sister and I occasionally sent one another after seeing a movie together qualifies as capital, obviously), but it was still a real pain.
My favorite soundtrack to this fantasy was the jazzy Bobby Darin cover of “On The Street Where You Live,” which was a particular favorite of both my parents. To this day, I can roughly track my mental health status based on how many times I’ve listened to that song on any given week.
See also A.J. Deutsch’s “A Subway Named Möbius, TOS’ “The Enemy Within,” Alan Nourse’ “The Universe Between,” John Brunner’s “The Infinitive of Go,” The Fly, and Larry Niven’s “All The Myriad Ways.”
But boy howdy, before he lost his job, the phone was ringing off the hook! They sure did want to talk to me then!
Danny, your courage and grace (and that of Grace as well) in separating swiftly and denouncing the evils of your family and their vast complicity will never leave me, and I know that I am not alone. You freed yourself, and watching as you process the transplant shock of your righteous and necessary public estrangement has touched my heart many times for your power, your vulnerability, the complexity of you sorting through the rubble and building a good and honest home with your family that loves you and will not bring you to harm. I still listen to "Prodigal Son" often, stirring and brutal and sardonically unsparing. I am grateful for your work, your body of work, and for you, to risk everything for the harsh disinfectant of truth. Thank you. May all this continue to recede below all that you build and create. Best, @popelizbet.
I deeply appreciate your commitment to not hedging. Phrases like "acting against them," "my father and brother are pedophiles" "morally compromised beyond hope of salvation" are so unflinchingly true and such a deliberate faux pas against the understanding that evangelicals are allowed to talk about "the world" that way, but if we take the same approach we're being rude and aggressive. More rudeness and aggressiveness like this is something we need, I think.