My mother left my birth father, who was an addict and alcoholic, when I was still an infant. She remarried a sea captain when I was two and he adopted me. So though it was explained to me at a very young age that I had a biological father, I never questioned who my father was. The Captain had been there as long as I could remember.
I grew up in an old remote house on a deep pond in Falmouth, Cape Cod, my mother, my brother, and me. And sometimes, my father too. When I was really young, he wasn’t yet a captain; he was a first mate on a cargo ship. But he was really ambitious and was trying to accumulate enough voyages to make captain so he was gone a lot. Sometimes, after he’d been away for three months, he would call to say, “I just accepted another assignment. I’m going to be gone for another three months.” As a kid, six months is a huge portion of your life so I would be a very different little person by the time he got back. There’s this semi-cute, semi-sad family story about my dad coming home from sea, during which time he had grown a beard. We were naturally excited about his return and had hung up “Welcome Home” signs all over the house. But when he walked in, bearded, I just burst into tears and wouldn’t go near him. I didn’t hug him until he shaved.
I knew having a father who was a sea captain had some magic to it. When I told my friends, the romance of it was entirely legible in their response. I was also a voracious reader as a kid and the salty sea captain appears throughout western literature in various forms. I drew on the romance, or at least I romanticized the sadness.
But it was sad. I remember waking up crying because I had had a dream that he had come home. His absence really sort of permeated our existence and our psyches. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I thought about my mother’s experience of being alone with two small kids and receiving a call saying, “I’m going to be gone another three months.” It couldn’t have been easy.
When I was a teenager I was angry at my father for a long time. It didn’t help that my parents split up when I was ten and my father dated other women. He wasn’t terrible about it but, given our history, it was just extra painful; to feel that he was absent in any additional way because he already was so absent. Of course, that absence had an effect on my mother. Once, when I was older, I was fighting with my father and said, “You weren’t even there!” He said, “That’s not you talking. That’s your mother talking.” I understood what he was saying for I heard my mother in my words but it also wasn’t. When he left, he left all of us. But by his logic, he just couldn’t work it out that way. It would have been too painful.
It wasn’t until I started writing books that we ever talked about it. He had a really hard time with both my books. The first one, Whip Smart, was about my experience as a heroin addict and a professional dominatrix. For him, it was evidence that he had failed me as a father. But it also sort of broke him in a little bit for the second book, Abandon Me, which is largely about my relationship with him.
The book forced some very painful conversations between us. The conversation that I had with him after he read a manuscript for Abandon Me was one of the most intense conversations of my life. It wasn’t horrible; it was just very very intimate. We had never talked about some aspects of my childhood or of his childhood. I wasn’t looking for an apology. I was just naming my experience and I wanted to make the gesture of respect to show it to him before it was published.
As an adult, I’ve grown into a lot of compassion for my father, and identification with him. And partly as a result of writing Abandon Me, I’ve realized we are not that dissimilar. Both of us have created worlds for ourselves over which we have unquestioned command-and-control. He was a captain; I am an author. And both of us rely, in many ways, on those worlds for our psychic survival; they are an integral part of who we are.
— As Told To Joshua David Stein