Edit the narrative. Change your life.
This is what no one ever told me growing up both loving and hating my alcoholic father.
The story you believe about the man you came from shapes the person you see in the mirror. That story has a hidden power. It can drive your emotions and actions in ways you don’t fully understand.
You can find yourself feeling like a lost hiker in a dark forest, shouting in a place where no one can hear you, wondering how the heck you ended up here.
But what if you could make your father a hero in your story?
You can, if you know a little bit about the proven formulas of narrative and powerful new outcomes editing “tricks” can have, such as adding new facts, changing the point of view and redefining the challenge the protagonist faces.
I’m not talking fiction. This is creative non-fiction.
What I’m trying to say is there may be an authentic alternative narrative that puts your father in a different light and gets you out of the dark forest. Best case scenario: Your bitterness can turn into something resembling forgiveness and healing.
That’s what happened to me.
I thought about the power of a father’s narrative as I listened to the audio version of “Not My Father’s Son: A Family Memoir,” by Scottish actor Alan Cumming. The version available on Audible wrought something primal in me as I drove my car. Talk about distracted driving. Once, I had to pull over to wipe away tears.
The book shares the emotional story of Cumming’s complicated relationship with his father and the deeply buried family secrets that shaped his life and career.
A father’s love can nourish a daughter for life. But the dynamic is somehow different between fathers and sons. It’s more about identity.
His story is the opening chapter of your story. To some extent, you are a “chip off the old block.” But what if you could rewrite your father’s story as Cumming did, in the process giving you more understanding, purpose and power.
What is a story, anyway?
When I was a journalist, I had the privilege of working with an editor who wrote books about a technique called creative nonfiction. I thought I was writing “stories.” Some even won journalism awards.
He showed me those weren’t stories. Those were merely articles.
Stories, sometimes called narratives, have three essential elements:
- A protagonist
- A challenge
- An outcome
When the outcome is happy, the Greeks called that a comedy. When it’s said, they called it a tragedy.
I couldn’t believe the outpouring of emotion from readers when I experimented with this formula.
Articles target the mind. Stories touch the heart.
You forget articles. Some stories you never forget, especially the subjective story about who you are and where you came from.
I have a friend who has spent years obtaining government documents, reading books about past battles and interviewing military colleagues of his deceased, extremely complicated father.
My friend has an emotional, psychological, intellectual, spiritual and dare I say existential need to find the hidden story of who his Dad really was.
Only then can my friend become the man God calls him to be.
“I have felt for a long time like a broken plate that has been put back together, piece by piece,” my friend told me. “Ninety percent of the plate was reassembled. I thought I had to just accept that 10 percent would always be missing.”
Finding new facts has provided some clues suggesting why his father did some of the things he did. This has given my friend the power to edit his father’s story.
Facts are objective. How you assemble them is subjective.
Even small edits about the viewpoint of the protagonist, the challenge he faces and the details of his struggle can profoundly change the story and the hold it has on you.
The process has been transformative for my friend. The plate still has cracks, but that missing piece of his identity has been found, making him stronger than ever.
“I feel whole,” my friend told me.
Who is this man, your father? What’s his story?
Some of us have to wrestle that question to the ground, examining the evidence like a detective, extracting its meaning, years after the man died. Only then can we rewrite the movie script we play over and over again in the deep recesses of our mind.
It took me 50 years and the discovery of my father’s handwritten autobiography in a college-ruled notebook to write an alternative narrative, as I explained in, “I made Dad my bad guy. I was wrong.”
If you have a perfect father like the men portrayed in 1950s sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best,” you can stop reading now.
But if you feel confused, conflicted, angry and sometimes tormented about your father, you might consider these three questions to get you started on rewriting the narrative:
3 Questions to get you started:
1. How do you honestly see your Dad’s story?
2. Might there be an alternative point of view?
3. If there is an alternative story, how might you find it?
The story I published about my Dad struck a nerve. People I grew up with, friends I have not corresponded with for decades, sought me out.
The most common reaction:
“Mark, I had no idea what you were going through.”
Everyone thought my Dad was the fun-loving, athletic father every boy would like to have. Shame compelled me to hide my father’s alcoholism, even after he got into recovery.
I was a writer, even back then. But I didn’t have the facts, the context, the words or the guts to tell anyone, even myself, my father’s story, and how it affected me.
I did feel driven. I didn’t understand why.
One high school friend wrote this to me after reading my story about rewriting my Dad’s story:
“My issues with my Dad (he died) were/are deep and difficult. He was a bastard to me for my entire childhood. He suffered from what I think was a case of extreme narcissism that started when his father blew his head off with a shotgun when my dad was 12.
“I think my dad never matured past 12 years old. I cobbled together a relationship with him in my adult years, and he was a wonderful grandfather, but I’ve struggled even to this day to give up my severe dislike for him.
“I am taking your advice and shifting my point of view. At 56 years old, I’ve grown tired of hating my dad.”
Are you tired of hating your Dad?
You have the power to rewrite the narrative.
You have probably heard the maxim, “the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree.”
But genealogy isn’t destiny if you change the story line.
You can find and craft an empowering, alternative story.
It takes work. It takes courage. It may take a new mindset. But it’s worth it.