Thursday, February 26, 2009

My preacher father frightens me

From The Times
November 4, 2008
Family secrets: My preacher father frightens me
We may look the picture of a happy family and he may be a popular, charismatic priest but he has monstrous moods
I've seen a photo of my father in a newspaper. He christened my younger brother's children and my daughter, and was beaming into the camera with an armful of babies, emanating warmth, kindliness and Christian love. The rest of our family was behind him, all apparently smiling in delight.
We were actually smiling in pathetic relief that he was finally speaking to us all again after three months of sulking. It had sprung from something minor: my brother had asked him to christen the children, but suggested that he came to their church rather than everyone return to my father's parish - which made sense to everyone except him. My brother made the mistake of arguing his case rather than instantly capitulating, which was the beginning of three months of misery for all of us, especially my mother. My father immediately stopped talking to us, eating his meals alone, leaving us to console our mother, a trembling, weeping wreck.
Two weeks before the planned christening date he phoned my brother and acted as if nothing had ever been amiss. So there we were at church, as elderly ladies cooed over his grandparenting skills, pillars of the church shook his hand and a reporter asked for a quote. “Of all God's great gifts, there is nothing so important as family,” he pronounced.
When I was small I thought he was God - standing at the altar in his robes, telling people how they should lead their lives. He's a charismatic preacher and radiates bonhomie.
I must have been 10 when I remember things changing. He rarely raised his voice in public, but my older brother wanted to go to a football match with his friends and my father didn't want him to go. My brother pleaded a little and then got really obstinate, at which point my father went mad, screaming and shouting. The rest of us watched in fascinated horror, with my mother wringing her hands and begging him to stop, until he dragged my brother upstairs and threw him into his bedroom. He didn't speak to any of us for a week, only once saying to my mother that she had let him down by not supporting him.
That set the tone for my childhood and teenage years, though the worst thing was what fantastic fun he could be. But I remember standing shaking in the garden one beautiful summer morning, feeling sick to my stomach at the torrent of abuse we'd all just endured.
We were very restricted as teenagers. I tried to tell my best friend about it, but she didn't believe me, maintaining that my dad was just sweetly eccentric. “I know you think I'm old-fashioned,” he'd say to her with a big sheepish grin, “but I love my little girl and can't bear anything to happen to her, so she's staying home till she's ready to face the world.”
When I left for university I believed that I was free to live my life as I pleased but, like my siblings, I love my mother dearly and couldn't break free. My youngest sister simply tells him what he wants to hear, but the rest of us have all made the stupid mistake of trying to reason with him as adults. Once I told him that I would tell everyone what he was really like and I swear he looked at me in genuine amazement.
“No one would ever expect me not to chastise my children,” was his response. “Any loving father would do the same.” I stand in church and hear him say the blessing “The Lord bless thee and give thee peace” and I think of my ten-year-old self shaking in the garden.
Do you have a secret? E-mail familysecrets@thetimes.co.uk

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