• Christopher McHale

What my father did to me

The cops swarmed toward us. Have you ever been in a riot? There were screams, but there was also silence. Enough silence to hear bones crack. Out of that memory grows a profound connection.

First off, I love my father. Let's be clear on that. He was a man I respected my entire life. His own life was full of achievement. He was a good dad. He was funny. He was a great public speaker, and he raised us on this grand adventure. My love and loyalty to my father were unquestioned until one day, about 15 years ago.

My father was an American diplomat stationed in London, Johannesburg, and Melbourne. Good postings. The family traveled with him—our little family circus of six.

He was a great public speaker, and he raised us on this grand adventure. My love and loyalty to my father were unquestioned. Until one day, about 15 years ago.

I wandered into some wild places. I took long drives in the night across bridges and thought to stop and just end it. You can get there. But I found help, a doctor who spent a lot of time with me and talked me through the rough bits. It was a relationship I treasured, but it also reached a place where I needed to move. It was at our last session that the doctor said something that put me back on my heels. He said, "I sometimes wonder what your father did to you?"

My father wasn't exactly a stay at home dad. He traveled. At one point, he disappeared for over a year. I've searched back in my memory, and I can't remember ever playing with my dad. But we loved him.

That had a lot to do with my mom. She insisted on it. We weren't allowed to question my father or his love for us. She didn't present him as a saint to us, and they had their battles, but there was a line none of us could cross. We were required to respect our father.

Not that hard. He was a good guy. All my friends loved him. We had one of those homes where everyone wanted to come over. Dinner at our house was a raucous affair. But that question from the doctor stayed with me. What had my father done to me?

Life hasn't exactly been a straight-forward affair for me. I'm a creative guy, full of contradictions. A solitary extrovert. A shy performer. A skinny fat guy. That's nothing. We're all contradictions. I've had spectacular success and bone-rattling failures. So what? Life, you know? I like risk. Sometimes you get burned.

That's what the doctor was after. He saw this dislocation in me. I lived beside my life, not in my life, more a witness to my life than a participant. He wanted to get into it. To sort it out. He didn't trust my truth. I got that. I didn't either. I had no expectations for my life. I trusted nothing.

Life was a series of random events for me. I wasn't a big fan of tomorrow. The question I wanted answering was why. I tried to sort it out, all these weird quirks in my life — my lack of confidence, my questioning of my creativity, my doubt, my vulnerability and defensiveness, my lack of transparency, and my desire to impress people to please people who did me harm. That last thing was the worst. I thought to live life in service to the dysfunctional, passive-aggressive types is my purpose. Wtf.

I wanted the truth about my choices. Why had I built a life and then let it burn to the ground? I'd put these land mines of dysfunction in my life. One of them was bound to go off eventually. In my case, several went off in a brief period.

I dug through memories to uncover a willfully destructive streak. Inviting disaster. Association with dysfunctional people. Overlooking warning signs. Denying myself love. If someone loved me, I ran. If someone didn't, I sent up a house and stayed awhile.

I had a real issue with whom I was. I never told the same story of my life twice. Or I curated highlights and left out enormous chunks. So this search for, I don't know, for something, anything that could help me understand myself was a real digging through the rubble.

There're different things you come to, and you think is this it? Is this the root? But none of it is precisely. It's more like a summation of many things, some big, some small, that create a killing field for yourself. And then there are those moments where you hit a snag. The snag is what happened here? The memory is unclear. You're not aware of the truth; you just know there's something there, some dark thing: something you ran from; some story mesh weaved to bind wounds and hide the truth.

A guy who rides his emotions like me gets to some forks in the road in life, and emotions often make the wrong choices. I made some wrong choices. This became about choice. Why did I choose that? And it became about the inability to choose. That was the real issue. Letting others choose your life and making choices to please people, refusing to choose.

But the question that started all this had to do with my dad, so I was looking for that. What had my father done to me? And I found it. And it had to do with choice.

When I was seventeen, we moved from London to Johannesburg. A huge cultural dislocation at any age. Seventeen was probably the worst age possible for a move like that, but I couldn't wait. I wanted the adventure of Africa.

We'd been living in the middle of an explosive, free-wheeling, music-driven swinging London, and we moved to an uptight, Calvinistic, racist, and violent caldron. I came of age in one place, and I finished the job in someplace else. And that place wasn't so cool.

It was exciting. Yes. I wanted to experience Africa, and we had incredible adventures. I made lifelong friends, but I paid a heavy, heart-breaking price for my life in South Africa. It had to do with a girl named Rosa.

Rosa is a shadow. She barely exists in my memory. But she stands at a memory point, one of those moments where something so fierce happened I hid it from myself. She stands for some kind of deep betrayal of myself. At least that's how I perceived it for years.

I met Rosa when I attended the University of Witswatersrand, not studying because I was always a lousy student. She was smart, different, serious, not interested in me, but we hung out as you sometimes do. I liked Rosa. She was real, and the fact she didn't fall for me made her all that more attractive.

Rosa had plans, she had goals, and she had a passion for justice. Raised in a family with a passion for justice, I liked Rosa right off the bat. Rosa was born and raised in Jo'burg. To survive the intense indoctrination kids receive in a society like that and somehow see through the bullshit to the truth always felt like a miracle to me. I loved those South Africans who stood up to racial hate. They were a rare breed. Rosa was a rare breed, but she was also at the end of her young life.

Fascism is a term thrown around a lot. I've seen dozens of politicians accused of fascism. Hitler reincarnated every ten years. The Afrikaner culture in South Africa bared its teeth. It was savage. Was it fascist? Yes. I think so. I think I saw real fascism. I was just naïve.

I didn't understand the whip hand of what I was dealing with. And I didn't understand the shield of entitlement around me either. I was living dangerously in a dangerous place, but the danger wasn't to myself; it was to the people around me. The university was a hotbed of resistance. I'd come out of London. I'd already marched in the streets in the Ban The Bomb movement, and then the anti-war movement.

Music was leading the rebellion. I raved in the clubs, the Marquee, Tiles, the Underground. We lived across the street from Speakers Corner at Marble Arch, every Sunday a prototype of what would one day become Internet forums, iconic 4-Chan in living color. Primed, I was used to speaking my mind. In my family, they encouraged us to speak our minds.

Within weeks of starting at the university in Johannesburg, I wrote an article for the school paper that was featured. It was a real call to protest. I became an instant celebrity on campus, an American kid with a big mouth. Honestly, I feel foolish looking back on it. I was a diplomat's son. I had a shield of immunity around me. My friends didn't. I forgive myself because I was a kid. But still.

I ended up making a speech at a big rally. That was an insanely naïve thing to do. They tapped our phones. They followed every move we made. There must have been cops amongst our friends, but passion caught fire on campus, and we marched.

Unplanned, hundreds of us marched right out the gates of the university and headed for downtown Jo'burg. It was eerie. The streets were empty, traffic gone. You've crossed a line. That's the way it felt. Exposed. In the middle of the street. Nowhere to hide. Scary as hell.

I remember the march as spontaneous, but maybe that's wrong because it felt as if the city was waiting for us. It was spontaneous for me. I'm sure of that. I was just following my emotional torrent. I'll never forget the quiet.

Johannesburg is a busy city, but we walked in silence. You could hear our footsteps. Our chants echoed off closed windows. I felt the alienation: empty streets and this march of students. I don't think any of us felt comfortable or brave. Most of us were teenagers.

Our goal was to march to the police station at John Vorster Square. People had been falling out of the windows of the police station. People had been falling off the roof of the police station. It was always the same story. They were trying to escape. There was never a consequence, never an investigation, just a dry statement.

What was that like? To be taken up to a roof, ten stories up and tossed off. I couldn't get it out of my mind. None of us could. It drove us into the streets. We marched into the city toward the police station, and that's where I saw my father standing on a sidewalk.

The unofficial US State Department policy in South Africa was don't rock the boat. It was a volatile situation. South Africa sat atop a significant portion of the world's mineral wealth. The Chinese were making serious incursions into East Africa. In the geo-political square-dance, America wanted to dosay-do with South Africans, but an oppressive, racist dance partner made for a thorny barn dance. Against an American backdrop of rising racial tensions, a White Supremacist ally who made a habit of throwing black people off a roof was not exactly a desirable best friend. The United States was walking the usual thin line between human rights and profit.

My father wasn't exactly a don't rock the boat guy. He was a warrior for workers' rights, for racial justice and human rights. He fought the Nazis, and he fought the Russian. He was a hardcore liberal Democrat. And he had a lively Irish-American fighting spirit. If there was one thing I could count on was my father had my back. That day in downtown Johannesburg was no different.

We finally made it to the police station. I'm not sure we had a plan. We didn't need one. The idea I guess was to yell at the police. Somebody had to do something. At that moment it was us. Us was white kids from the uni. Africans would pay a dear price for a march like that, so we took the bit.

As we approached the corner, I saw my father. How he knew we were marching, I didn't exactly know, but seeing him there was not surprising. I expected him to be there. He was that kind of dad. He signaled me over. He told me that just up ahead around the corner was a cordon of cops. He said they looked like they were ready for a fight. Even as he said it, all hell broke loose.

The cops rioted. I'm not sure I thought of it that way then, but looking back, it's clear. There wasn't a confrontation, a warning, there was suddenly a tide of battling cops laying into a bunch of kids. They swarmed into the march. They started swinging clubs. It was a hardcore beat-down of unruly kids. One minute we're marching, the next there's blood all over the street. It was methodical. It was weirdly quiet. Maybe I expected movie music or big cinema effects. The kids were individually screaming, but the cops were just doing a job. The job was to put every kid down.

Within minutes it was over. I was one of the first kids back to campus. The fact I was untouched became a thing. My college mates cast a harsh light of suspicion on me. I was, after all, an outsider. I didn't get it at first. As I said, I was naïve. I was learning huge lessons that would affect the rest of my life.

From that point, I never felt safe with an outsider status. My American culture defined me, even if I had little to do with it. Peoples' filters set in stone. Once they see you a certain way, it rarely changes.

That night the press came to our house. My father slammed the door in their face. The next morning we were front-page news in the Afrikaner press. The spin was I'd agitated the student body to protest. The newspaper said my father was CIA sent to foment unrest. I'm not saying that was true or not. I'd never heard he was CIA. I knew nothing about it, but the charge stuck to me too. I became shunned on the campus.

People thought it was dangerous to be around me. I think they were right, though it hurt like hell, nobody threw me off a roof either, so I didn't see how I could complain about it. I accepted it.

It was a shit storm and some serious boat rocking as far as the American government was concerned, but it wasn't the real problem for me. The real problem was Rosa was in the hospital in a coma.

I saw a picture of a cop with a handful of Rosa's hair, bringing his club down on her skull. As I said, the cops beat down the kids. They were teaching them a lesson. I didn't know Rosa all that well, and I'd never met her family. When I showed up at the hospital, they had zero interest in me. I was the agitator, the outsider. They kicked me out.

Sitting by the curb in front of that hospital, I broke down and cried. I sat there for an hour. It had felt like a brilliant game for me. Young and immortal. That's the way it is when you're a teenager. Fuck the cops. A great street fighting game. But it was no game. Rosa has taken a full blow to the skull in the police riot. She died three days later.

I didn't handle any of this well. I started doing a lot of weed. I started drinking. I dropped out of university. I hit the road and started playing coffee houses. I got this review in a newspaper in Cape Town, where the critic said my set was maudlin and thoroughly depressing. No shit.

My entire life changed after that march. I changed. I became dark, moody. I'd always had a temper. Now any trivial thing set it off.

My father's next post was Australia, the polar opposite of South Africa. For starters, it was a homogenized, mainly, all-white affair. It was a party. I joined a rock-and-roll show and stay stoned for three and a half years. Australia was a pure unadulterated escape.

I eventually got back to the States and went to music school. But my African ghosts haunted me. I read this report about the kids of diplomats. There's a high incidence of suicide. There's depression. Relationships are hard. There's a rootlessness. I hit all those marks for sure.

I had substantial success, but I never felt I deserved it. I blew it up. I punished myself is how I see it now. Why was I like that? I never even questioned it until that psychologist asked his question — what did my father do to me?

Like I said, digging for truth is painful. When I started doing it, it had consequences. I wanted to dig through the muck with my family. Looking back on it now, I see my troubles as my own, not my family's, and I don't blame them, but there were dark days when I needed them. I ran straight into a passive-aggressive brick wall.

These days, I see most of the world that way—people surrounded by walls. Honestly, people are probably right. Life is a lot safer when you keep yourself in an unexamined box.

I went from great heights to a deep plunge in my pursuit of personal truth. But I hadn't led a safe life, anyway. I didn't even believe in it. I couldn't reconcile a house in the suburbs and a steady job with what I'd seen of the world. I can't believe I even tried.

You can't run from the truth. If you try, all you do is dress things up in a pretty dysfunction — alcohol, drugs, risky lifestyle, workaholic, many distractions, but the truth of your life is always there, and the more you hide, the worse it haunts you. Success, wealth makes it worse. You end up living in a fragile reality that can shatter, and the shattering can be profound.

Your truth is the great vulnerability, and what that can mean is people take advantage, people can hurt you, you're just a victim in waiting unless you dig down, uncover your truth and deal with it. Nothing can touch you if you do that, and that became the great lesson of my life.

When I finally remembered Rosa, things shifted. I found a photograph of myself in the march, taken by my father, I imagine, Rosa walking beside me. It was a shock seeing her. Until that moment, I'd rarely thought of her. She was a great empty block in my memory, yet there was a before and after Rosa in my life. I've had a lot of rough times. I wouldn't put Rosa at the top of the list, but when I think of myself before that day long ago in Johannesburg and the paths I chose after, something shattered for me on that Johannesburg street.

Life had teeth. Life was savage. The world wasn't safe.

Against that moment, the material things to come, houses, cars, success in a career meant shit. There was hate in the world, brutal, unapologetic hate. I didn't do too well with it. Touching it changed me. South Africa gutted me.

I saw acts of violence no one should witness. I saw miles of heartless poverty. I saw humanity at its absolute worse. I was so young—an overly sensitive kid in an uncompromising world. But as I dug back, it came down this.

Besides the red-faced cops, besides the student beat down and harassing press, there's another moment for me in the memory. My father stood by me on that Johannesburg sidewalk. He said I should do what I believed I should do. He didn't tell me to leave. He didn't scold me for breaking the law. He didn't ask me not to rock the boat. He gave me my choice. He stood by my choice.

I can't imagine a greater gift for a father to give a son.

But there's a postscript to my story that has less to do with me and more to do with my father. And it's a greater gift than anything. Something that made me stand up and be proud to be the son of Ed McHale.

Thinking maybe I might find a picture of my dad from those days, I hunted and pecked around the Internet. And I came across a gem—a report from the Transvaaler, a media mouthpiece for the fascists in Pretoria.

The snide reporter took great exception to my dad. At a conference in Cape Town, my father dared to stand up and yell 'Freedom everywhere!' Quite a moment for an American diplomat, to spit in the face of the doomed racist regime. Serious boat rocking.

The reporter noted South Africa was a free country. I guess he missed all the Africans tossed off the roof, the beatings, the brutal oppression of millions of people.

As a postscript to all this, decades later, people still in the streets looking for racial justice, I say yes, Dad, freedom everywhere. Stand up and shout it and never back down. That's my choice. Thank you, Dad. All these years later, my heart still filled with love for you.


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