Sixty years ago I almost murdered my father. I was only twelve years old, not your average killer. And yet, there I stood one night outside his bedroom door—a vulnerable young girl with a big knife in my hand. It wasn’t rage or revenge that lead to this decision. Rather, I felt a moral responsibility to kill him to protect the people that I loved.
It was never my intention to write this story, but last week I had two successive dreams that were exactly the same; every detail intact. Images from that night vividly appeared in front of me as if on a computer screen. I could hear the script typing itself out in my head, and I couldn’t make the narrator shut up. Some words popped up in bold type: KILLERS – GUNS – KILLERS – GUNS. I woke up drenched in sweat with my heart pounding. With horror, I realized that that could have been me. If there had been a gun in our house that night, it would have been so easy in that moment to pick it up and pull the trigger. I would have joined the thousands of others who respond to a heated moment, a confrontation, a difference of opinion by momentarily losing their minds, reaching for a gun, and blowing theirs or someone else’s brains out. Even a sweet, young girl like me—had a gun been accessible—would have felt justified in picking it up and killing my father. That truth is why I decided to tell my story: to use my voice to support gun control in this country.
My father had returned from WWII a broken man, or so said others trying to rationalize his violence. I only knew him as someone who drank too much and took out his rage on my brothers and me. It never stopped. Mealtimes were the worst. We were prime targets: sitting on the edge of our seats, backs straight, elbows off the table, mouths shut unless we were spoken to first. He controlled everything. Our plates were always stacked in front of him, and he doled out the food. If it was something you hated, and he was in “one of his moods,” he gave you double portions, and you couldn’t leave the table until you ate every last bite . . . or suffer the consequences!
Lima beans were on the menu that night. Uh oh. I glanced quickly at my brother who was ten. I knew he was in for it. Sure enough—soft, pale-green lima beans covered half his plate. He picked at the food around them and then just sat there staring at the green heap remaining on his plate. Tears welled up in his eyes. He put a small bite in his mouth and chewed and chewed and chewed. But when he tried to swallow, he gagged and retched.
“Don’t you dare spit them out,” my father shouted. “You eat those beans, you son of a bitch.” My brother began to sob as the pulverized beans dribbled out the side of his mouth. “You skinny, worthless runt. You’ll sit here and eat those beans if it takes you three goddamn days. I’m the boss here, and you will obey me.” My father’s rage reverberated off the walls as he continued to scream and berate my brother.
Something broke open inside me. For the first time—ever, I spoke. “Stop. Stop hurting my brother!” I blurted, my body shaking. I looked up at him. Big mistake. His eyes became hard as steel. I bolted from the kitchen into my room and cowered in a corner, making myself as small as possible. I heard his huge frame lunge up and knock the chair over. I’m dead, I thought. He stormed in and started beating me with his fists. “I don’t talk to my colonel that way. You don’t talk to yours. I don’t talk to my colonel that way. You don’t talk to yours,” he repeated over and over with each blow. When he finally stopped and headed for the door, he turned around: “You shut up that crying right now. I don’t want to hear it. If I do, I’ll come back in and whip you some more.” I curled up in my bed, whimpering softly. It was then that I decided: I had to kill him. This violence will never stop. My mother is too scared to protect us. It’s up to me.
Later that night, when I stood outside his bedroom door with the knife in my hand, listening to his snoring, I lost my courage. The knife was not that big, and I knew I would have one shot at this. If I missed, he would kill me. I froze. . . I couldn’t do it. I tiptoed back to the kitchen, returned the knife to the drawer, and quietly left the house to go across the street to sit in my safe place: the hidden wooden crotch of a giant fig tree. In that moment everything seemed hopeless. I knew I had nowhere to turn. It was 1956. Child abuse was commonplace and even condoned, especially in military families. I cried through the night and just before dawn, crept back into my room. He never found out. No one ever knew because I could not speak of that night for decades.
Eventually, I was old enough to leave and create a peaceful life and a home of my own. I became a Buddhist practitioner and try to do my best to help and not harm other living beings. Meanwhile, my father stopped drinking. He mellowed; his rage fell away. He took up fishing in a little boat. He became a respected and beloved citizen in his community. He believed in giving back. “There are takers and then there are doers. I’m a doer,” he would say. He was Santa Claus at the local school. He started watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie in the early hours of the morning because he said the show was deep and made him think about the importance of family. Well, that gave me pause. . .
I have come to realize that life cannot be reduced to simple, immutable tenets. People have layers of complexity; they change. He was more than just an evil person. I discovered he had qualities and goodness that were hidden beneath the surface of his cruelty. This insight does not in any way absolve him of the abuse my brothers and I experienced; it has taken a lifetime to work through it. But I am eternally grateful that I did not succeed in killing him. Who could have known that my father’s hatred of guns and his refusal to have them in the house would one day save us both.