Every name in the book

Here’s my father, in a nutshell (which is probably where he belongs) –

If you don’t know him, he looks pretty intimidating.

If you’re an acquaintance, he’s the best guy in the world.

If you know him well, you have to admit he’s a bit of an ass.

If you’re family, he’s a selfish, hateful tyrant.

If you live with a tyrant, you learn how to negotiate that tyrant. My siblings and I were quite young when we figured this out.

First, you have to realize that his anger is illogical and unpredictable. Don’t try to make sense of it. It’s all about him. You could do the same thing 20 days in a row with no trouble, but on day 21 it might be a capital crime. He’ll start yelling, and you just listen. Under no circumstances should you attempt to defend yourself.

At some point he will ask you why you did something or other. This is a trap. If you attempt any explanation you will only prolong the yelling. Instead, adopt your most pathetic expression and say the words, “I don’t know”. He will yell at you for not knowing, but trust me on this… “I don’t know” is the quickest route to the end, which is your goal.

Be alert for a change in the volume and tempo of his rant. When he begins to run out of steam, this is your cue to start crying. Do not cry while he is still in a full rage. This will cause him to offer to “give you something to cry about”, and it will prolong the episode. When the time is right, begin to cry. Use any device you need at this point. Try thinking of your last hamster that died, or that cute boy who never pays attention to you in class. Providing he has worn himself out a little by yelling, the tears will cause him to feel some guilt. He is a tyrant, but even his cruelty has boundaries, and he can only scream at a crying kid for so long before he folds.

By the time I reached my teen years we had all been working this routine as long as I could remember.  We had it down to a science. But one day… and I can’t explain why… righteous rebellion, maybe… one day I decided that I wasn’t going to play the game. He yelled, I defended myself. He yelled more, I stood up straighter. The time came to cry, and my eyes remained dry. He yelled and screamed for so long that I think the rest of the family got bored. And finally he ran out of things to say. I was hoping he would just wander off at this point, but instead he began what I like to call The Litany of Insults.

He started with something simple, like “You’re selfish!”. I was getting bored myself at this point, so I echoed what he said, “I’m selfish”. Then the next… “You’re ungrateful!”… “I’m ungrateful”… and down the line we went. He called me every name he could think of, some more profane than others, and each time I followed up with the response. It went on, and on, and on, and to his credit, I don’t think he ever repeated a single one. And then finally it happened… my father… master of insults… virtuoso of profanity… had run out of things to call me. There was a pause, and then, from the dimmest recesses of his memory, he found it… one last insult.  “You’re a ne’er-do-well”.

According to the routine we had established in this conversation, my response should have been, “I’m a ne’er-do-well”. But I didn’t say, “I’m a ne’er-do-well”. Instead I stood there, biting my lower lip, and focusing all the effort I could summon into keeping the corners of my mouth from rising. In all of our practice at being yelled at, no one had ever attempted laughing at him, but instinctively I knew this would be a bad, bad move. We stood there for a minute or two, and finally he walked off one way and I went the other way. I ran into my room, buried my face in my pillow to muffle the sound, and laughed like I had never laughed before.

To this day I still occasionally get called a ne’er-do-well by someone in my family (never my father) and it never fails to cause laughter all around. And you can be sure I’m not exaggerating when I say I’ve been called every name in the book!

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20 thoughts on “Every name in the book

  1. I am quite certain I have never heard anyone call someone a ne’er-do-well. Probably not even as a joke, but for sure never as an actual attempted insult!

    I’ll bet you didn’t even have on the obligatory black mustache to twirl, did you??

    More serious note: I quietly seethe with low-grade disbelief and annoyance whenever I hear people (usually it’s politicians) singing the praises of The Family as some bedrock of civilization. Family dynamics no doubt reinforce much in our society…our violent, rape-culture-y, patriarchal, misogynist society. I’m sorry your dad was such a tyrant to the people closest to him.

    Like you, you ne’er-do-welling ne’er-do-well!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Bravo & keep that laughter bubbling inside, you ne’er-do-well, you!
    BTW, my father’s favorite insult was ‘you’re just like your mother’, who had died of cancer when I was 9. When I was 20, my father got in one of his rants (have no idea what that one was about, I suspect I was just a convenient target for excess steam from being nice to others). Anyway, I looked him square in the eye and thanked him for the compliment. (Thought he might choke.) Then added that he had chosen her, not me, so being like her was an excellent thing.
    He never, ever, ranted off at me, again.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Your father may have Borderline Personality Disorder, it’s a very poorly understood mental health disorder, and you can read about it here (not my article): https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200707/borderline-walking-the-line
    At least it sounds like he’s stopped now, but I found putting a name to it meant I could move past that person’s behaviour and move past how deeply it affected my childhood.
    Take care xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He could have any number of disorders, and you’re right, that one sounds like him. And I doubt if he’s stopped at all…. he just doesn’t have me to kick around any more! I broke up with my family in 2001 and haven’t spoken to him since. Walking out the door was what I needed to get past it.

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  4. How does one really get over getting treated like this, I wonder? Distance, I suppose, and healing relationships in one’s current life. My father was not a warm and loving guy but nothing like you describe and I still feel an ache over it. I’m the one standing in the store on Father’s Day putting the cards back into their slots, one-by-one, until I find the most generic one. I’m happy you’ve figured out a way to overcome this abuse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The way I got over it was to hit the road. And I had some therapy, which I don’t discount, but it never had much of a chance while I was still trying to make nice with them. I spent a lot of time crying over how unfair it all was, but finally… after years of separation from them… I’m able to say, “them’s the breaks”, and laugh about the absurdity of it all. And, who knows? If I would have had loving parents I might have been an insufferable bitch!

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