The Washington Post

Carolyn Hax: Coming to terms with an emotionally abusive parent


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My father was an awful dad. He was the first person to ever call me a “b----” (I was 9) and was absent when he wasn’t antagonistic. Bad, bad Dad.

The thing is, I’ve always toed the party line, always said the very best things about him publicly. I lied with a smile for decades and continue to now that it’s pretty clear his days/hours are numbered. I’ve contacted extended family and old colleagues to let them know this great man is ready for the last bits of adulation they may offer. I represent him within our small community and receive and share the sadness of his demise.

He’s still so hurtful to me in every way imaginable and yet here I am, being a sucker until the very end. How do I deal with all of the self-loathing for having essentially been complicit in his bad behavior? I can hear (the imagined?) tsk-tsking from your readers (and from you, Carolyn, because you lost a mom who was clearly amazing and devoted).

I’ve decided not to speak about any of this as my last gift to him, but it’s costing me. I’m just so angry at myself. How do I deal with it? I genuinely wish him no ill will; I’m just torn up by the lack of justice here. Not only will he never be held accountable for being so unrelentingly selfish and cruel, but now I’m burdened with these feelings that I fear would only make me sound petulant and somehow ungrateful. Moreover, he honestly wouldn’t know what I’m talking about because he is so utterly convinced of his own blamelessness. Help.


Oh my goodness — you’ll get no tsk-tsking from me, not even close. You have not been “complicit.” A father who calls his 9-year-old a “b----” is knocking her off the grow-and-thrive path and squarely onto the survival path. You didn’t have any say; from an age before awareness, you have simply done what you felt was necessary to get by, because that was the one choice he gave you.

Now that you are an adult, please see this and forgive yourself. Give yourself the one thing he couldn’t or wouldn’t give you: acceptance that you matter. You matter no more and no less than any other human being, and that means you’re just as entitled to dignity, civility and the freedom to be flawed without getting those flaws shoved back in your face every single time you express them.

You had no say then, but you do now. How you respond to what he’s done to you — and what you make of yourself now — are the priorities you’ve earned. In other words, guide yourself onto the grow-and-thrive path. Since a dying father means you’re likely to need it anyway, look up your local hospice provider and find out what counseling services they offer. It’s not as if you can pluck compassion off the shelf and take it to the register, but hospice comes close. Take your burdensome truth there, and your mixed feelings and your self-loathing and no doubt your anger at your fate in the parent lottery, and leave it all there. You’re not petulant, you’re not ungrateful; you’re a survivor of enduring, systematic abuse.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at



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