It started last spring, after an exhausting stretch of work-related travel. I felt wretched and broke out in cold sores. When I went for a check-up, a physician’s assistant prescribed the antidepressant Lexapro, and I took it even though I wasn’t depressed.
Instead of making me feel better, the pills made me groggy, irritable, and profoundly morose. After a week, I stopped sleeping almost completely and couldn’t concentrate. I laid in bed staring at the ceiling. A bobcat wandered through the backyard; I didn’t try to get up. I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so down. I kept saying, My life is a million times better than it should have been. And then I thought about my dad, and my head began to hurt.
In recent years, his apologies had become more frequent, though he still talked euphemistically about “hurting me” or “making my life hard.” He suffered openly when I refused to let him give me away at my wedding, and has cried man-size tears while we’ve sat at breakfast joints and bar stools across the West. But he never truly came clean—to me or anyone else in the family—about the extent of my abuse. No one knew the capacity for incest he still had. I couldn’t be sure he didn’t harbor fantasies about me. And I began to worry about what he could do to my kids.
In the haze of my antidepressant detox, I decided I had to go back to the Sawtooths. I believed I could find answers there, at the scene of the crime.
It didn’t work. I laid in my sleeping bag at Sawtooth Lake. I waited for the ice cloud to burn off the moon. By the time the sun spread over the peaks, I knew I couldn’t reconstruct the past by myself. I needed my dad to complete the story. And I knew we could only do it in the one place that had formed us both.
My dad was born on March 12, 1943. His mom was 17. One day, her husband went deer hunting in the mountains above their Colorado home. She wanted to go with him; she’d bring the baby. He said, “No, a woman’s place is in the home,” and she divorced him because of that.
A year later, my grandmother married Baby Donnie a new father. He worked as a wire-stringer for the phone company. The entire family—Les, Lorraine, and little Donnie Lee—traipsed up and down the Rockies eavesdropping on people’s conversations zzztzing through the line. By the time my dad was 6, his family had lived in seven states, moving across the country like well-dressed gypsies.
Life was good on the road. My dad slept in hotels and ate out every night. He was resourceful and obedient. He made boats that he floated down gutters along empty backroads in New Mexico, Arizona, and Idaho. And when he was 5, he was sodomized.
It was an older cousin at a family gathering. My dad says the kids were just being kids. And besides, it only went on for a couple of years. He doesn’t think he was mentally scarred, but admits it formed his attitude toward sex. “It showed me sex wasn’t something you should be afraid of,” he told me once. “It was how you showed your love.”