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Learning to Forgive the Father I Never Met—and the Mother He Seduced

· 17 min read
Learning to Forgive the Father I Never Met—and the Mother He Seduced
Childhood photo of the author

My mother could always sense the difference, the alienation, between me and my father. It’s not that we didn’t get along. It’s just that there was almost nothing there—nothing in common. He was American football, girls, tailgating, hunting, the Air Force, that one story about being stationed overseas that he’d tell at every family get-together. By contrast, I had no interest in traditional sports. I was at the skatepark. I was into punk rock, books, and secretly (at first) other boys. He was reserved, practical, and quiet. I was extroverted and imaginative. The only thing we had in common was that we both had black hair and brown eyes.

Even as a little kid, I had the distinct feeling that he didn’t understand me, that I was something foreign, which led me to be closer to my mom. By the time I was 16, she traced all of this difference between him and I to me being gay—rather than the truth she had inexplicably buried.

My earliest memories of my dad revolve around his pickup truck. It was in this truck that I remember internalizing the topography of our natural surroundings for the first time while driving around with my sister. Driving through the hills on north-western Pennsylvania roads always made me feel claustrophobic, because in any direction you could look, there’d be nothing but pine trees. It didn’t matter what direction you turned: more hills, more pine trees, more grey road.

I distinctly remember feeling displaced or lost. Unlike the rest of the family, I was born in Rome, NY, while we were briefly living on a military base. The Pennsylvania terrain was alien to me.

As a six-year-old, I asked: what’s beyond the hills? My dad turned this into one of his favorite jokes: There’s Harrisburg (a hand ruffled through the hair), Eerie (he’d pull on my earlobe), Tidioute (a pinch on the nipple), and Pittsburgh (a tickle underneath the armpit). I felt doomed, like I’d never escape this Appalachian prison.

My mom would encourage me to find something in common with my dad. She told me to at least just try. So for a week I tried to be a fan of the New York Jets. They were “my team.” But I couldn’t figure out what there was to be excited about. Why was I supposed to be excited about this one football team, and not the other?

Other experiments at forced fun led to similarly tortured internal dialogues. Why was I so deficient when it came to bonding with this man, I asked myself, coming up with various explanations. Being a child, I found the true answer elusive.

My father made his own outreach efforts, taking me to skateparks situated in nearby rustbelt cities. I’d launch over a ramp, grind across a rail—tricks that take considerable skill and precision, I will say. He’d lean over from the viewing area above, unenthused. I didn’t mind because I knew it wasn’t a reflection on my ability. We just didn’t get each other.

One time, after he gave me a lift home from the ice skating rink where I worked during high school, I wondered why five minutes in a truck with him could feel like an hour: the profound awkwardness, the complete inability to find anything to talk about. When he dropped me off at my mom’s place, I remember asking her, “Are you sure you didn’t have an affair with a French painter?” When the words came out, I realized it wasn’t a joke. She laughed it off.

I say “my mom’s place” because my mom and dad got divorced when I was 12. I remember how she told me and my sister beforehand, almost asking our permission, asking us if we understood. I remember telling her that I did understand: He was a cold presence in the house, obviously unhappy, unaffectionate. (As an adult, I should say, he remembers things differently—him coming up and saying goodnight, and tucking us in.)

I knew that my mom wasn’t happy, I could feel it. She had married shortly before turning 20 and, a few months later, gave birth to my older sister. It was less of a Will you marry me? scenario and more of a “Well, I suppose the thing to do now is get married.” I was born a few years later. After a little over 15 years of marriage, she met someone new at work, and they fell in love. But it wasn’t until recently, another 20 years later, that I’d find out that her “meeting someone new at work” was also how I’d been conceived. My dad wasn’t entirely to blame for our lack of connection. Far from it. He was duped.

I don’t think it’s a big deal for a child to learn that he or she hadn’t been a planned pregnancy. But it’s much stranger to realize that you were born from an act of transgression, a temptation. You can’t pick your family, as the saying goes. But my mom could have decided to leave her marriage earlier. Because of her decisions, I never got the chance to know my biological father, who was almost dead by the time I learned his name. What still survives are pictures of him holding other little boys, my two half-brothers from his marriage, who looked a lot like me.

One of them, it turns out, also majored in English and wanted to become a writer. What are the odds? There’s also a half-sister who looks uncannily like me, more than the sister I grew up with. As for my bio-father himself, pictures show him with a look in his eyes that I recognize from the mirror. In this way, I get glimpses into an alternative childhood—a kid looking at a Christmas display in a decorated storefront before being hurriedly pulled away.

It’s pointless to wonder what life would have been like had I grown up under these other circumstances. But of course, I do it. My parents, noticing my interest in rock music, once bought me an electric guitar, but a right-handed one despite the fact that I’m left-handed, and no lessons, so I never learned how to play it. Reading my biological father’s obituary, I learned that he played guitar and went to (the original) Woodstock.

My mother contends that things wouldn’t have been any better. In fact, material conditions may have been worse: had she left her husband (the man I thought of as my father) when she’d become pregnant with me, she’d maybe get child support but more than likely not enough to raise two kids by herself. We’d have moved in with her parents, and I’d never have known any of these people anyway.

But had the truth of the matter been acknowledged, I’d at least have known that my biological father, even if he remained a stranger to me, was a man who’d earned a PhD from Yale (and that he was left-handed). Maybe I would have felt better about myself, less lonely, more capable.

By the time I was 16, driver’s license in hand, I’d drive with my friends for hours to see punk and indie bands in Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We didn’t know anyone, we had nowhere to stay, but these road trips gave me the courage to think, hey, maybe I can make it in this world. I wonder if things like that would have been more encouraged if I’d grown up different. I wonder if the oldest of my half-brothers would have gone to punk shows with us. (As it turns out, he’s a drummer and played in several bands.)

Our bio-father was into sci-fi literature and the golden-age of cinematography. What kind of books would he have pressed on me? I’d have known about grandparents who went to college, who were educators near New York City, where I now live and teach. As a child, I didn’t realize there was any advanced education on either side of my bloodline. Maybe if I knew different, things wouldn’t have felt so weird for me growing up an Appalachian kid with no interest in football, hunting, or trees.

I never got a chance to talk about any of this with my bio-father. He passed away about six months after I’d found out about him—a period I’d spent trying to decide what to do.

As I got older, my relationship with the dad who raised me became less fraught and more cordial, even decent. We started to understand each other more. (Although it was true that we didn’t have a lot in common or a lot to talk about, it was also true that he just wasn’t much of a talker in general.) But once I graduated high school and went away to college, I rarely went home. Children of divorced parents will tell you that holidays are an awkward affair. But they’re made even more awkward when, as in my case, both of your parents also have divorced parents.

My entire concept of family is a patchwork notion: my mom was raised by a step-father, as her real father was out of the picture. Her own mother raised her and her siblings in one household after leaving an abusive relationship and finding a hard-working, wholesome husband who was more than willing to help raise children who were technically not all “his own.” When my sister and I were kids, she’d make no distinction: her half-brothers were just her brothers, full stop. She thought of her “papa” as her dad as much as her “real” dad. And in many ways, he was.

It all sounds heartwarming, but the truth is, by the time I was an adult, I realized that I was only sort of related to them. And since the discovery, I was beginning to resent the fact that I knew my mom’s half-brothers, but not my own.

On the side of my dad who raised me, there are similar patterns: His father had remarried, so I knew two grandmothers. When his father died, the “grandmother-in-law” just disappeared. This kind of domino effect repeated itself, resulting in further fragmentation—grandfathers to grandmothers to aunts and uncles to cousins, and then eventually, brothers and sisters and even a father. It all seemed somewhat constructed, like contracts with an opt-out option.

A close friend of mine is adopted. Her situation is different from mine, of course. But there are some similar emotional phenomena at work. When I went to her for advice about my discovery, she was harsh. She told me that she didn’t know how I’d ever forgive my mother. “She fundamentally failed you,” she said. “She robbed you of the opportunity to know that part of yourself.”

I hated my friend for saying that because I hated the parts of me that agreed with her. And I hated myself all over again when I told my mother these things. All of my life, I’d been raised to think that the things I aspired to—escaping the small town, being a writer, intellectual and artistic endeavors, venturing out into the world—were unusual in light of who I was supposed to be. In reality, I wasn’t bucking any biological imperative. I was following one, like a homing pigeon following a migration instinct.

Even before I knew the truth about my real paternal lineage, my family members had never exhibited a great grasp of their ancestral heritage. It was presumed that we were a mix of primarily Italian and Irish elements, along with a hodgepodge of various other European ethnicities. My maternal grandmother, who’d never once left her own region of the rust belt, told me she thought her family was “Slavic”—or maybe Slovak, or Slovenian. One of those. She’d worked in a factory her whole life, and didn’t have much time for genealogy.

When I took the DNA test that led to my discovery, the ethnicity result shocked me: More than half northern and western European, only about 10 percent Greek or south Italian, as well as heritage that couldn’t be accounted for on either side of the family tree. A sixth Ashkenazi (i.e., Eastern European) Jewish, and nearly a sixth Balkan. When I first called my mom about it, she said she couldn’t explain it. The idea of her sleeping with another man didn’t occur to me. And I chalked it up to my maternal grandmother’s lack of genealogical interest.

But modern DNA tests don’t merely tell you where you come from, they also tell you about whether there are database matches with other tested individuals. And as it turned out, I had a match with a man who shared so much DNA with me that we must be somewhat closely related: he was estimated as being either a half-brother or uncle. I also had matches with a lot of apparent cousins I’d never heard of before.

This mysterious man and I were born in the same place—Rome, NY. And after I did a little digging, it seemed clear that there was some kind of (as academics call it) “parental discrepancy” going on. This kind of thing apparently isn’t uncommon, with estimates clustering at around 3.7 percent of all births. A common cause is, of course, infidelity. But the literature also notes that it can occur “where a woman quickly changes from one sexual relationship to another,” with “a pregnancy resulting from a previous partner … wrongly attributed to a new partner.” I’d assumed that something like this had happened, but farther up the family tree. I still didn’t suspect that my childhood dad wasn’t my real dad. I called my mom and told her what was going on.

At first, my mother was dismissive. The names I was reciting from the DNA-match data were people she’d never heard of. So I had to be direct, and told her that the 50-something guy who matched with me had a 78-year-old father—and I said his name, which I won’t repeat here—from Rome. And then, “Do you know anyone by that name?”

And that’s how the grand reveal happened: a brief moment of silence, and then a frantic, off-the-cuff, and somewhat profane confession. “Yes, yes, yes. Shit. Yes, I slept with him maybe twice.”

All notions about who I was evaporated. My leg started shaking uncontrollably. And a mixture of rage, betrayal, and elation swept over me. Rage because I was angry at my mother, betrayal because I’d felt lied to, but also ecstasy because I’d solved a lifelong puzzle I didn’t know I was still working on.

It’s impossible to tell this story without discussing the issue of social class and identity. All of my life, I’d been told that I came from generations of blue-collar people who’d worked in factories and the trades. My sister and I became the first people in our family to get traditional, four-year bachelor’s degrees directly after high school. I felt some sense of pride about this, along with some fascination with the potential that people have to transcend class.

Despite the blue-collar background and divorced parents, I never qualified for any form of financial aid. Social class was becoming less in vogue as I grew up. The issue of “privilege” increasingly focused on skin color, and became the primary lens through which people were assessed. As complex as anyone’s story may be, I was seen as a typical white male with exactly one equally typical female sibling.

I’m still white. But after my discovery, I perhaps feel less “typical.” I have two sisters and three brothers (and possibly more we don’t know about), and I don’t share the same two biological parents with any of them. It turned out that my biological father is the descendent of Eastern European and Russian Jews who came to the United States in the late 1800s. In the 1960s, he attended Princeton, finished a year early, and then went on to a math PhD at Yale. By the time my mother met him, he was a contractor in Rome, presumably working on computer code used for military applications. He was already in his 40s, married and with several children.

My mother was 24 by the time she met my bio father—and although she had her own goals and ambitions, I imagine he primarily saw her as a pretty, somewhat naïve young woman from a humble, small town in western Pennsylvania.

When my mom and I could finally talk about all this, she told me how charming he was, how impressive. He was the type of man who came into the office, and all the young secretaries would swoon. He was so debonair. He drove a Mercedes-Benz—this, she remembers. These markers of class, of worlds we recognize as being open to us or closed, were well known to my mother. He was out of her league. So for her to get his attention was flattering.

From my research, I knew things about him that she never did. He was born in New Jersey, not far from Manhattan. His ancestors had lived in Brooklyn and Jersey City, and one of his two legitimate adult sons lived in Brooklyn for a time. I moved to Brooklyn in 2012: We could have passed each other on the street and never known it.

It was a fling, at most. He was 20 years older than her. They both had spouses and children at home (and more to come). She’d taken the risk because he stood out as different than the local crowd she was used to. She might not have known where Yale was, but she knew it was something exciting, foreign to her. Plus the aching that comes from marrying young and wondering what you’d missed out on in life.

As for my biological father, his actions were easy to explain: he was an opportunistic libertine, it seems, who found himself on a military base full of lonely women, many of whose husbands were off flying planes overseas.

When I asked my mom if she knew that a “parental discrepancy” was a possibility with me, she said of course she must have considered it. So why not get a paternity test? She told me that just bringing it up with her husband would have ended the marriage, no matter which way the test came out, leaving her a single mother.

The first time we spoke on the phone, my half-sister said to me: “He wasn’t around much.” She told me that my bio father (which was also her own father, full stop) had an early affair around the time she was born, which the wife knew about. There was another illegitimate child who came out of that one (none of us know who), but papers were signed, and it was hushed up. So, bad at monogamy. Like me, unfortunately.

As soon as we started talking, we both acknowledged the strangeness of the situation, but something further: the odd feeling that we somehow already knew each other—but we didn’t. That’s when I found out my bio father was left-handed. I also asked if he had poor impulse control. Yes. Was he a bit of a lush? Yes. Three for three.

When my mother went through her denial phase—but you look so much like your dad!—I had to show her a picture of myself and a picture of my biological father side by side. The resemblance is uncanny.

My sister—the one I grew up with, who I guess is technically a half-sister, too—went through the same kind of denial when I eventually told her what I’d discovered. And as with my mother, I sent her a photo, and that ended the discussion.

While I got the man’s genes, what I didn’t get was the assurance that went along with knowing about his elevated roots. Once, I was on a date at an art museum with a guy my age from generational wealth. Inevitably, he got to those questions: tell me about your background; are your parents still together?

When people ask you where you’re from, they’re also asking what you’re from. Despite my degrees and publications, I knew how the guy saw me. He ended up dating a blond guy from Connecticut.

One pattern that’s reportedly common in these cases of paternal discrepancy is that while the mother becomes an object of scrutiny, the bio-father becomes a source of intrigue, almost admiration, even though he was just as complicit as the mother in the act of infidelity. In my case, I went back and forth over who I was angry at. Sometimes it was both of them. But mostly, it was her. I knew from reading Russian literature that the best thing I could do with this anger was to try to learn something from it—transform it. If my biological father couldn’t ever teach me anything in life, maybe the strangeness of this situation could do so in death.

One night, after a heated argument, the sound of my mother crying on the other end of the line unearthed a sense of vulnerability in me. I love you, I did the best that I knew how, of course I’d never want to hurt you and I hate that you have to deal with this. It invited my forgiveness in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Soon, I was angry at myself for allowing my externalized anger to make my own mother break down in tears.

Why was I being so rough on her? At least she’d borne the responsibility of her actions, unlike my bio father. Though I’d never met him, I know that he’d refused to speak to his first illegitimate child. Not good. And yet, even knowing this incriminating information, I would gaze at the few photos of him that I had, suspending judgment, amazed, marveling at the similarity of our cheekbones, eyes, and especially the looks on our faces. It seemed like he was looking at me, like he held some kind of secret.

Gradually I collapsed into forgiveness. For her. For myself, too. Alongside forgiveness came understanding. I began to forgive and console others in multiplicities, past and present. I had an exercise where I imagined my two biological parents in vivid detail, based on what I could piece together from my mother’s stories. I shared this vision with my half-sister, who was still understandably angry at her father for cheating on her mother so often. Discovering the multiplicity in myself reminds me to discover the multiplicity in others.

At first, imagining them meeting one another was uncomfortable. But forcing myself to think about how they’d interacted, the all-too-human loneliness and neediness that drove them to this point, allowed me to conceptualize them not as mother or father, not as spouses or cheaters, but objectively, as complete individuals. I watched this movie in my head and imagined their feelings, and I felt my anger dissipate.

I never got to know my mom when she was 24, but I think I would have been fascinated by her. I would have thought she was chic: thin, wavy dark brown hair, alluring, charismatic. No wonder he was drawn to her. If I had the chance to meet her in that time-traveling way, I would tell her exactly what she told me when I was 18, stuck in a small town and absolutely hating it: you can go anywhere, you can do anything. I believe in you. No one ever said anything like that to her.

As much as I never knew my biological father, I never really knew her, either—I only knew her as a child knows a mother. Not as the young woman she was before motherhood. I couldn’t know what she wanted in life. Likely not the responsibility of two kids and a husband so early on.

I remember a story she told me of her friends going to a concert, and how she wanted to go, but she had to stay home and take care of my older sister. In another timeline, I want her and her friends to be able to go to that concert.

Children of divorce are exposed at a young age to the harsh realities of marriage. When you find out that you’re also the product of misattributed parental lineage, as well, it does something further: it shows you that even those marriages that last sometimes come with secrets and compromises. What does one do with this knowledge?

When I look in my mother’s direction, I see a young, faithless marriage that didn’t work and ended in divorce. When I look in my bio-father’s, I see a marriage that survived, but at the cost of numerous affairs and unclaimed children. Neither one really worked.

During one phone call with my mother, she lamented the decisions she’d made as a young woman. From her point of view, she’d been seduced. She said she’d always been attracted to bad boys, and she thought this is one reason she’d been attracted to my biological father at the time. Ironically, the things she found attractive in him were the qualities his wife likely had grown to find repulsive.

A further irony: While she saw this man as something of a bad boy, he probably rued his own conformist life, and saw the tryst with my mother as a brief reprieve from the monotony of exclusivity, of marriage, and family. Despite this, they’d both go on to try and fill their respective roles as spouses. In my mom’s case, she could only play the role for so long.

For a long time, I believed that any relationship that didn’t work—that ended in cheating or some similar betrayal—meant it had been fundamentally flawed to begin with, unsalvageable, a disaster: how the scorned lover often wonders “was the whole thing a lie?” But now I know this reasoning makes no sense. From unplanned pregnancies, to affairs, to divorces—moments riddled with desire, sometimes too much, sometimes not enough—these are part of too many lives to call them failures.

In my biological father’s obituary, two sons are mentioned—his two “legitimate” sons. Two are excluded. Just like I’ve redacted my father’s name, so have I and my illegitimate half-brother also been redacted from my father’s life.

But it no longer makes me angry. I heard he had health problems in his final years. Would it have been the right thing to do to announce myself to this sickly 78-year-old, to overwhelm him in the hopes he recognizes my existence as part of his official narrative?

What I know is that I don’t want to live like he did. I want to be there for others at the end of the line. And I want them to be there for me. Many of the things deemed culturally significant—ethnicity, class, family history—seem illusive to me now. What matters are the things we tell others, and our ability to live the kind of life that allows us to say them out loud and with conviction. Things like I love you and this is your son.

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