A True Story of Shunning
by Philip Foley
as told to khf
For over two decades I’ve been advocating for the welfare and safety of women traumatized and silenced by abuse, as if their pain is my own. And it is—their tears become my tears. What I failed to realize is that the deep, yawning ache I carry on their behalf also belongs to me. And except for different faces and individual circumstances, stories of abuse are all the same: they always end badly. And that the story of abuse is also mine.
I grew up in a home anesthetized by my father’s silence. As if the air in our house was shot through with so much Novocain, everyone walked around in a drugged stupor. My mother and siblings looked through me with confusing, blank gazes of dejection and isolation shadowing their eyes. My father didn’t look at me at all. I dissolved into a hollow blur inside those suffocating, airless rooms. A ghost. A phantom creature. A dead boy floating in a salt lake of tears I couldn’t shed.
My family called me Philip. My father, though, didn’t call me anything, as if my name had dropped out of his head and it was too much trouble to retrieve. When he did speak to me, it was with grunts or short spurts of angry disapproval. Wanting to be a cop is stupid. Mostly he spoke to me through my mother.
“Your father wants to know why there’s a bloody shirt in the garbage can.”
“I tried to defend a kid from a bully. I lost.”
S. I. L. E. N. C. E.
and the slow-burn-sense of combustible fuel building--
a dangerous, tyrannical demon trying to annihilate me.
I was the last of six kids. The tail end of a family evidently already in trouble. Mis-concevied in the rowdy, free-for-all aftermath of VE Day, 1945, I arrived nine months later to a forty year old mother so ill she couldn’t care for me physically or emotionally. And so was relegated to the custody of a neighbor and my pre-teen sister. Other than providing the sperm, my father never bothered with me. Why? No one would say. I figured out on my own that I must have done something wrong. Something terrible to provoke him. Something I tried to remember but couldn’t and I punished myself for my failure to see. That’s when Demon Jesus took up residence inside my scrawny body landing blow after vicious blow onto my breaking heart. And that miserable fuck plagued me for over seventy seven years, never missing its target.
Eventually it occurred to me that I was a bitter disappointment to my father. After all, he was a serious athlete who played semi-pro soccer back in England and I was the son who didn’t care much for sports. I wasn’t competitive and my head was always stuck in daydreams and clouds, absorbed by nature and solving the mysteries of the universe. And I suffered with asthma so severe that I’d pound my skinny chest with fierce, balled fists hoping the pain I inflicted on myself would distract me from the agony of suffocating. A lot of times I couldn’t breathe, much less give a ball a decent kick down the field. No kid like that was ever going to be the star his father wanted.
A plumber by trade, my father was so scrupulous about his image that no one outside of work would ever see Denis Foley swipe greasy hands down the legs of his grimy overalls. Suit, tie and a smart fedora propped on his balding head, that’s how he left the house everyday. On weekends: dress shirt and tie. A fastidious, proper Brit. An immigrant who embraced America with such dedication, he erased all traces of his Liverpool accent and every single day raised the American flag up a commercial-sized pole he’d planted on our front lawn. Raised the flag every day. Without fail. A proud, proud man…concealing a very dark secret. My father lived three separate lives, four if you count that dark secret.
At-Home dad sequestered himself in his own silent, detached world of opera and alcohol in a worn-out recliner pushed into an out-of-the-way corner of a living room no one else used. My parents barely spoke to each other. When they did, their words were perfunctory and carried the weight of a gathering storm that never passed. Still, my mother dutifully cooked my father’s meals, fixed his plate and served him at the head of the table. Head lowered, he would plow through that food in rigid silence. Then push his chair back, walk a few feet to the closet, pull on his coat and hat, and trudge out the front door without saying a word. My mother, shrouded in graveyard silence, busied herself clearing the table. I didn’t know how to be, how to ease the crush of a cement ceiling bearing down on my skull. All I could think to do with that deadweight was to choke it down. So that’s what I did.
Denis-In-Public dad was a man of the people. Highly regarded. Respected. A good natured, dependable bloke with impeccable morals. Everyone looked up to Denis-In-Public dad. This father was considerate. The man to call in an emergency. Denis-In-Public dad never missed a day of work. Gave my mother a household allowance every week. Attended mass every Sunday and holy day of obligation. And was a member of the Holy Name Society. In those days Catholic masses were long-winded trials of endurance. The pews, shoulder-to-shoulder crowded. The church, hot and stuffy. So it wasn’t unusual for a parishioner to suddenly drop like a sack of potatoes. Denis-In-Public dad was always first to jump out of his seat and dash into the chaos to save the day. I sat mesmerized. Glued in place. Wide-eyed and full of pride for my dad. He was a hero. I wanted to know that father, be like that father. People really liked Denis-In-Public dad.
But the father that people really loved, the father who could win any village popularity contest going was Good-Time-Denny dad—a comedian who mugged for his back-slapping friends. A ringmaster at the party with his gang egging him on. A bloke from across the pond with the blood of Liverpool pubs pumping iron through his scouser veins. Loud. Quick with his humor. A fellow familiar with Irish whiskey and a cold pint of beer. Good-Time-Denny dad knew how to pick a winner at the track and play a mean hand of poker. I’d watch my father morph instantly from a brooding husk into Good-Time-Denny whenever his friends popped up—a showoff grabbing the mic and bounding onto center stage to thrill his audience. It was a circus act, a performance I’d stare at from the sidelines. Because as soon as the room emptied of his applause-givers, Good-Time-Denny dad deflated like a punctured tire and At-Home dad was back slouching in his recliner in the corner of the empty living room. And Demon Jesus began knuckle punching my heart demanding to know why… Seventy seven years it would take….. Seventy seven years for my father’s secret to crawl out of its grave and will its way to me.
I was drawn to law enforcement for its structure and flexibility—the authority to impose order and the opportunity to administer aid. The police force gave me shape and definition, made me visible. The uniform—steam-pressed blues. Gun belt and badge. And steel-toed boots buffed to high shine—put flesh on my bones. And features on my face beneath the brim of my peaked cap. I was the anti-platitude: clothes do make the man. A real-life tale of Tinkerbelle being clapped into existence if Tinkerbelle weighed two hundred pounds and wore a mustache.
City policing is messy—a dance of chaos and boredom. Villains and heroes. And gallons of burnt coffee to wash down the night. The work smells of sweet, sticky blood and sour sweat. Exhaust fumes and cigarette smoke. With the occasional drive-by whiff of heady perfume.
I thrived in that noisy, visual world of order and symmetry and out-of-control madness. I met the man you never wanted to meet in an alley…in the alley. And discovered that I wasn’t afraid. Police work came as natural to me as changing the oil in my car. And over the years I’ve been deeply humbled by the sincere gratitude expressed to me by civilians. Because I was a stranger…with a weapon…barging into their private lives when they were emotionally and physically vulnerable. And I was just doing my job. Ghost Boy never haunted me on the streets.
When the uniform came off though, Demon Jesus was waiting with his brass knuckles and sucker punches. And Ghost Boy was back wandering around the hollow, echoing tomb inside my chest. Obsessing. Trying to fend off Demon Jesus. Endlessly searching for answers I had no questions for—a beggar shaking an empty cup that no amount of tender love or stack of above-and-beyond commendations could ever fill.
Seventy seven years of longing to know why… Seventy seven years it took for the disparate paths of abstract art, the compassion of a loving niece, and a simple question to converge into perfect alignment. Seventy seven years and my answer dropped into my lap like flames exploding from a night sky. And I never saw the blast coming…
In the quiet years of her fading life, my oldest sister peeked out from behind the granite wall guarding the family secret and emerged like a broken bird struggling to fly into the bright light…and whispered its story. Leaving me stunned and horrified. Never did I imagine my father to be a violent man.
When she was seven years old, long before I was born, my sister made the grave mistake of not excelling. For that infraction, my father pulled down her panties—exposing the most personal, the most defenseless part of her little body—and beat her. He beat her tender flesh until it burned red with fire. He beat her until blistering welts spread across her pale skin. He beat her until blood vessels ruptured and turned her bottom into a slab of black and blue meat. He beat my sister until she sobbed with agony. He beat a child until she couldn’t sit down. And the next day, her teacher took notice and ushered my sister—fractured by pain and humiliation—into the care of the school nurse. Alarms bells sounded and soon school authorities were questioning my parents. And issuing warnings. My proud father was placed on notice. And that’s the day the shunning began. Never again would my father call my sister by her name or acknowledge her presence. He turned my sister into a ghost. And she carried that anguish inside her heart until the day she died at ninety years old.
When the shock of my sister’s trauma settled into low-slung grief, a memory unfolded calling me back. Dozens of years after my father vowed himself silent, I was sitting with my mother reflecting on our family’s history when he stormed into the room. If he’d been carrying a pitchfork, I would have been seriously worried. For a man whose basic form of communication was grunting, my father articulated loud and clear that afternoon, ranting on and on about Nazis and communists. And kids spying on their families. Turning their parents over to the secret police. I envisioned gulags. And jackbooted thugs waiting to burst through the front door.
So there it was. Still swirling in the mist above the dining room table. Recorded for all time. Awaiting discovery. The answer. The explanation for my father’s bitter silence. The reason why my father shunned me—his daughter was a traitor and a spy. And all his kids were potential spies. Potential traitors. His silence was both self-protection and punishment. He used silence as violence to punish my sister, his betrayer, who divulged private family matters to the authorities. And those authorities questioned him. Warned him. If my sister betrayed him, I could betray him.
All the broken pieces of the ugly puzzle began falling into place: I presented a threat to my father’s freedom. And everything he built since setting foot on American soil could disappear all because of a kid. He could be hauled off to jail. He could be deported back to the dirty streets of Liverpool because of a stupid kid’s treachery. It’s no surprise then why my father railed against me wanting to be a cop: I would be an authority. I would have power over him. I could destroy his American fantasy.
That day, while innocently chatting with my mother about our family’s past, I was also wearing combat boots and had my off-duty Glock holstered under my sweatshirt. I must have been the demon ghost in my father’s worst nightmare, unknowingly drawing closer and closer to his dark secret. I was talking about castles in Ireland. My father was panicking over jackboots at the door.
So it is that the truth willed its way into the light and followed its path to me to reveal my father’s darkest secret: my father was a violent man. A violent, terrified man who used violence to shape and control his family. When physical violence exposed him, he resorted to emotional violence—shunning. Shunning is violent emotional abuse. I was the victim of my father’s violence, not the cause of it. I had no power to prevent his cruelty and no power to stop it.
With that truth, Demon Jesus and the Ghost Boy dissolved into the light. And I set myself free.
I am free.
After seventy seven years,
I am finally free.