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mad at dad

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internet cruelty on the homefront

Growing up has a mythic quality when your dad is a memoirist. Make a particularly witty remark and watch his eyes light up. Show uncommon tenderness towards your brother and watch him sprint to his office, a shantytown set up in the sunroom of your home, and begin typing furiously on his albatross of a PC. He’s read you excerpts from a Word document entitled “boys notes,” ranging from his thoughts on the day of your birth to his reactions on watching your sixth grade play the night before. You don’t know what observations might wind up in there, nor do you know if you’ll ever know.

You do know that this kind of documentation can bring drama with it. You’re in the second of two batches of sons, the older of two but the second-youngest of four. This means you’ve saddled yourself with the self-appointed responsibilities of an older brother—but somehow you’ve always felt like déjà vu in your father’s eyes. From your perch in the middle, you’ve seen the rift grow between him and his first son, your half-brother, 20 years older than you. Among other disputes, and though details are hazy, you’ve gleaned that your brother was less than thrilled with how he was portrayed in your dad’s latest book, which heavily featured him as a supporting character.

This is to be expected, you’ve learned. Dad calls it “embellishing the past,” and argues that it’s his job as a freelance writer to make a story as compelling as possible. The emphasis on freelance is not lost on you. It’s a competitive industry, and to make a living using only your brain to arrange words in ways they’ve never been arranged before, and to convince someone else to pay you money for those words, is no small task.

But as for you, well, you’re 12, and you just think it’s super cool that you’re on the page. And when you hear that he has the front-page article on Salon.com this Father’s Day, you happily note that nothing you could give him could top that gift. Things always get a bit easier when Dad sells an article. There was that time when dinner was interrupted by a phone call from National Endowment for the Arts, informing Dad that he (along with Jhumpa Lahiri) had been awarded $20,000 for his literary contributions—but that was years ago. In the meantime, he’s been in his sunroom, chomping religiously on cinnamon gum, juggling three different books and three different articles and three different short stories and three different memoirs in the hopes of getting someone to pay him for his newly arranged words. To this day you associate the smell of cinnamon with creativity, with hard work, with the satisfaction of a man who never compromised what he wanted to do with his life.

The Father’s Day article is funny! You giggle while reading it, even though much of the humor is at the expense of you and your brother. It’s a curmudgeonly piece, with a comically grouchy tone almost entirely distinct from the engaged, vibrant man you’re used to. It details the drudgery, the annoyances, and the boredom that come with raising children. Yeah, you know you might beg your dad’s attention for some banal everyday occurrence, like a cool-looking beetle. And sure, you might scream and shout at the dinner table, forcing Dad to shove in earplugs and passive-aggressively go on with his meal. But, hey—you know you’re a kid, and it’s practically your job to pull stunts like that. You’re fine with Dad stretching the truth a bit to make his trials and tribulations more entertaining in exaggeration (and besides, you note smugly, most of the complaints are really aimed at your brother’s mischievous behavior).

It makes the front page of the website, and Dad spends much of the day in the sunroom on the phone with his editor, his agent, and other mysterious business-related people. He even calls your mom in on occasion to hover, with oddly strained expressions, over his computer screen. Then comes the call from your half-brother, and the raised voices barely made out through the French doors, and the atmosphere of exasperation and exhaustion that grows more and more apparent, and you begin to pick up on the fact that something isn’t right.

But what? The article is up, so that’s not the issue; you’ve seen the headline, “Bad News Dad,” as soon as you type in the web address. The accompanying photo of a man’s foot about to stomp on three baby blocks that spell out D-A-D is a tad dramatic, but it gets the point across. You scroll down, past the photo, past the self-pitying listicle entry titles like “Being forced to play games that bored me light-years ago” and “Tripping over squeaky plastic things,” until you get to the comments. All 238 of them.

Oh.

It’s a massacre. A posse of righteous defenders has shown up to your virtual doorstep with pitchforks. They’re calling Dad stupid, narcissistic, harmful, an asshole who should have gotten a vasectomy. They’re calling Mom a trophy wife who is being taken advantage of by an older man. They’re calling you stunted, a delinquent whose prospects for emotional maturity are next to none thanks to your father’s negligence. One comment sarcastically envisions future Father’s Day cards from you to Dad, placing all of your impending problems squarely on his uncaring shoulders: “I thought about getting you a tie, but you’d probably just bitch about that, too!” “Father, you made me the adult I am today. Please arrive at County Courthouse on Tuesday at 9:15 a.m.”

When you see the comment about how Dad wouldn’t deserve to have you attend his funeral, the tears start coming.

They think they’re right! They take any scrap of biographical detail they can find in the article and use it against your family. When Dad (with deliberate dismissiveness) approximates his wife’s age as “10 or 20 years younger,” they pounce and extrapolate. Suddenly she’s his “hot young wife” whom he “convinced to pop out a couple kids just so he could prove his virility.” You think about Mom, just nine years his junior, whose career supports your family, and are paralyzed with outrage. Is he really going to abandon her as she ages, the same way the commenters assume he abandoned his first wife? Are you really going to turn out “in fetal position on the therapist’s floor,” as one of them envisions your future? Are those Father’s Day cards going to come true? Are they right? Are they? Does he really not love you?

No. You know he does. You experience his love daily; it’s never even been a question. You tear your eyes away from the screen and come back to reality—it’s relieving, the return from this hateful plane. Even at 12, you understand that while the piece is inspired by real life, it’s by no means an accurate representation. But the enemy doesn’t know that. They imagine weapons and brandish them, vicious and snarling, to beat your father down.

With Dad the victim, the normal familial protection apparatus is compromised. Mom’s cooking dinner, and, well, your brother’s nine years old. Someone needs to step in and defend your family’s honor. It’s time, you decide grimly. You imagine yourself as modern-day Mulan, taking your old man’s place, fighting his battles for him when he is unable. Gritting your teeth, you create an account on Salon.com and type the first line of your rebuttal.

Fifteen minutes later, ihaveagreatdad101 posts his first comment. It’s a point-by-point list of the fieriest truth entitled “An indignant reply from his son,” directed at one particularly offensive attacker. To you, this rogue is more loathsome than any Hun of medieval China, and you are ready to do battle.

Aside from a “screw you” and the cringingly dramatic coup de grace, “you will always be hated within this family,” though, the response is admirably on-angle. Between strings of exclamation points and liberal caps lock, you manage to disprove most of Attila’s accusations. As a matter of fact, you don’t just feel like you’re a pain in Dad’s ass. The first two sons are well-functioning adults, not emotionally damaged crack-ups, and their mother is still on remarkably good terms with Dad. You drop examples of Dad’s devotion to you and your brother, describing whatever you can to illustrate the reality of the situation and rectify the damage wrought by the article’s misrepresentations. You even get sardonic, mentioning how Mom thinks it’s flattering to be called a trophy wife as she approaches 50 years old.

Soon, the reactions to your response start rolling in. Someone tells you that you’re not helping your dad’s cause. Someone wonders how a writer could have begat a son with such slipshod grammar skills. Someone else even suggests that your response was ghostwritten by a certain father with hurt feelings.

You log off. The Internet is a pitiless space, its anonymity uncovering humanity’s cruelest impulses. Why do these people hate your family? you think, as you run, glassy-eyed, up to your room and throw yourself on your bed.

Suddenly the mattress springs depress with a squawk. Someone else has sat down next to you, and is rubbing your back, and is saying, “My sweet, sweet boy” to you over and over. He’s seen it. Darn darn darn. You wanted to be the warrior, Mulan returning victorious from battle. But now you lie, defeated but safe, in the arms of the very man you swore to protect.

“They wouldn’t listen, Dad.”

“It doesn’t matter. They don’t know us.”

Years later, when you write this, you wonder if the cycle is repeating itself. After all, you are memorializing an event that happened to you, using your family as supporting characters and glorifying your own achievements by way of historical military metaphors. Maybe you’re turning into your father—you’re considering a career involving words and new ways to arrange them. You’ve been doing it yourself since one fateful Father’s Day almost a decade ago. You remembering experiencing their power, both to create and to destroy, feeling them knock at your door but then break it down with a battering ram. And you know the responsibility that comes with bearing them.

But you haven’t come to a conclusion yet.