For the last several weeks I’ve been dealing with more health issues, which I’ll report on later. I’ve also been re-reading my book, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian. The excerpt below gives a peek into life with my father, an ordained clergyman. It also describes my inner struggle to maintain my identity as a young white girl in a preacher’s family.
The memory may seem to be about parental authority. In reality, it’s about what it took daily for me to live (and die) due to my father’s overbearing commands, passed on to him by his rage-aholic clergy father.
We’re in a mess these days, dealing with layers of abuse, anger, and self-righteousness passed from one generation to another. Tomorrow is an official voting day. What will become of us? Do we have the courage to step up and out of order? Not just in our frightened hearts or minds, but in the way we live our adult lives regardless of the cost.
I’m about eight years old. I’m sitting at the dinner table, just around the corner from my father. The table is set, the food is spread before us, and we’re all in our seats waiting to begin. We haven’t yet asked the blessing. I’m playing with my dinner fork, just to the left of my plate. I’ve moved it a few inches away from my plate.
My father’s voice interrupts me. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”
I move it to the right, in the direction of my plate. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”
I move it slightly closer. My father’s voice remains firm and controlled. “Elouise, put the fork back where it belongs.”
By now my sisters are watching to see what will become of me. My mother is silent. This has become an event. Slowly I raise my hand to my fork and move it ever so slightly closer to my plate.
My father persists. So do I. Many repetitions later he’s satisfied; the fork has been returned to its proper place.
He proceeds with the blessing. He doesn’t know what I know: the fork is ever so slightly to the left of its proper place.
My father’s mission as a parent was to train us to keep the rules. My mission as his child was to break and keep the rules simultaneously.
Back then, perseverance meant getting through another day, using whatever survival skills lay close at hand.
If my father was persistent, I would be more persistent. If outward rebellions were too costly, I would invent creatively invisible yet superbly effective inward rebellions. If I was ordered to sit down and stop talking, I could continue standing and talking on the inside for as long as it took to comfort myself.
Indeed, this was the better way. In the private spaces of my mind no one could put me down, refuse to listen to me or try to break my will. In a family system intent on turning out obedient daughters, I survived by being secretly disobedient.
This memory from the 1950s, published nearly 20 years ago, is as vivid today as it was then.
The territory I defended was interior. I applaud the little girl who figured out how to do this. Nonetheless, my efforts were costly. They required constant vigilance, no matter where I was.
Abuse of power destroys safe space. It expects and demands behaviors, words, looks on faces, subtle and open signs of unquestioning and subservient submission.
What does it take to create and maintain safe space? Not just in our marriages and families, but in neighborhoods, nations, churches and schools? And how does my personal history connect with the racial history of the USA?
© Elouise Renich Fraser, 29 March 2017, reposted 7 November 2022
Photo of 1938 family dinner found at bbc.com
Story excerpted from my book, Confessions of a Beginning Theologian (InterVarsity Press 1998)