An Abstract Father


Raeford Liles – ArtistRaeford Liles -Artist

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In 1961 I was a new student at Henry Clay Elementary School, whose motto, understandably, was, “Give me Liberty or Give me Death,” – not really a slogan for young kids. The assignment was textbook autobiography and I complied. Perhaps a bit too much. I was born in France. My father is an artist. He went crazy and tried to kill us. He was in a hospital for a year. My parents divorced. I know I wrote, “on doctor’s orders”. I was very matter of fact. By second grade, I had my story down.

It’s hard to remember, but the early 60’s were a different time; there was hardly any divorce, at least it was not talked about and people really did not talk about mental illness. The illusions of normalcy had not yet been upstaged by Jerry Springer or reality television. Leave it to Beaver and Lassie still ruled with my peers. Even Dennis the Menace had two parents.

I remember very little about that 2nd grade class except my teacher’s discomfort, a discomfort not clearly communicated or understood. But there was something in the tone of her voice and reaction that let me know – this was not what she had expected. She must have been young. Older more experienced teachers would not have been surprised. She did not have me share my story with the class, but I was ready and willing.

After many years of teaching, I’ve developed a theory. When it comes to divulging the details of our lives, sharing our stories, revealing secrets, there are hiders and there are flaunters. The hiders hunker down. They pretend and blend, not quiet telling lies, but they almost believe that by not acknowledging their secrets, they can leave them behind, even forget. Sometimes it works and sometimes not.

Flaunters take the high ground. Instead of worrying about secrets being discovered, they raise them like flags, use them as currency and, in an Aikido move, take control of their narrative before others do. My father was a crazy artist. I worked the details: the knife in the door, the hallucinations, the mental institution, the DIVORCE. I would exaggerated the drama to entertain or casually mention it as if I were an elite survivor of terror and pain. I was exotic and not to be pitied. I told the stories, got slightly awkward laughs, and wore my strange family history like a robe of distinction. It still works sometimes … and sometimes not.

My father went crazy. The reality is not romantic. I was told, years ago, by a “Psycho-astrologer” that I would not embrace my full self until I had come to terms with my father. Sometimes I hate psychology and the ease with which it strips our lives down to melodrama and flaunts our tender nerves like prize ribbons. I am over 60 now and time is ticking. I best deal with the man.