Late last year I received news that was the tragic final chapter of a long and heartbreaking story: my father had committed suicide.
I have never loved any man as deeply as my own father. He was the hero of my early childhood, my sensitive and patient confidant, my protector and awe-inspiring mentor.
It was through extraordinary experiences with him that I developed a wondrous curiosity about the world, a sacred bond with nature, a great respect for art and science, and even a humorous appreciation for the many ironies and absurdities of human nature which, I later learned, were closer than I imagined. But perhaps more valuable than any of these, my father taught me that with persistence and faith nothing was impossible.
Larger than life in so many ways, my father attained a kind of mythic status in the filmmaking community for his bold approach and innovations. The fact that he risked his life so many times pursuing the “impossible shot”—be it hanging from a helicopter or a crane over the ocean, galloping on horseback, or running up a towering Mayan Temple, all fully-loaded with eighty pounds of camera gear—made it all the harder to imagine that anything could bring down the Mountain Man of Steadicam.
But as bright as my father burned, he was also haunted by powerful shadows. One of them surrounded me, his eldest son, and the sad estrangement we had suffered since my childhood. For despite all the gifts he brought to my early life, my father also gave me a burden I am still recovering from today. That burden was incest.
Although childhood sexual abuse can damage on many levels, my own trauma came less from the physical acts than the secrecy that surrounded them. What might have been addressed openly in a relatively short period festered for years in secret, destroying the close relationship my father and I had known, and spreading to every corner of my life. While people often told me how much they admired my father and how proud of him I should be, I shrank in the shameful reality only he and I knew. As I shrank, not only did I lose my father, but I lost a large part of myself. And my descent into dishonesty, substance abuse and crime is typical of the self-destruction so many children adopt when issues this powerful go unaddressed.
Did I come to hate my father? If the bottom of hate is frustrated love, then the answer is yes. It was incomprehensible to me that a man who could do anything he set his mind to would fail to repair our broken relationship. But I was a child, and the mistake I often made was to perceive his unwillingness to face my pain as a rejection of me personally. I didn’t understand then that my father was afraid—of me, of himself, of facing a shame that started in his own family, as he reluctantly admitted to me once, and may have been repeated over many generations.
When my self-destructive course led to sexual transgressions of my own, it seemed all the more urgent for my father to open up and talk with me. I didn't blame him for the bad choices I made as an adult. And he did try to help me in his own way, sometimes with money or a visit to me in jail. But what I really needed was for us to work on healing together. Sadly, I used his avoidance of this as another excuse to continue harming myself.
The irony that my father had escaped the sex offender label for behaviors society considers far more serious than mine was something I wondered about many times. But I never wanted to hurt my father. And I never wished him to receive the label or the severe societal punishment that comes with it. I have come to understand that our self-punishment is often harsher than any other.
A significant part of my own recovery was learning to let go of the resentment I carried for my father for so many years, including facing the idea that he might never be capable of a close relationship with me again. As sad as this was to accept, I believe this freed me to mature in ways I had been stuck, address my own issues, regardless of where they originated, and create a life worth living. But I never gave up hope that one day we would be close again.
These last few years I felt healthy enough to try redefining our relationship, if only my father believed that possible. I dreamed of him coming to see the beautiful life and home my recovery made possible, where he could see me, maybe for the first time since my early childhood, driven by inspiration and dreams rather than shame. I wanted to show him that I was no longer defined by our broken past. But more than anything else, I hoped to inspire him to make some of the same choices—not for me any longer, but for himself.
I believe there were many causes to my father’s depression that had nothing to do with me. Evidence suggests he was alcoholic, and the breakdown of two marriages was particularly painful for him. Of course, I have no way of being certain what was in my father’s heart and mind over the years. But I believe he regarded any attempt to address what he saw as his “failures” as hopeless, and it seemed he treated other shadows the same way he treated our estrangement—by hoping they would just quietly go away.
We are all individuals, and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. But in the realm of deep human pain and suffering I have learned that we are far more alike than we are different. Change happens not by wishing things were different, but by developing the willingness to do whatever it takes to change. And that means at least trying the avenues that have worked for others.
One of the reasons it took me so long to embrace my own recovery was the idea that I was different from others, what one recovery program calls being “terminally unique.” My father and I were alike in this belief that what others did could never work for us. But when I finally got past this isolating, ego-based position, I found forgiveness for my father, myself, and many others that had felt impossible before.
My father may have believed that putting all his creative effort into a larger-than-life persona could somehow transform his shadows. But focusing on an external image at the expense of an internal reality not only gives the shadows more power, but can tragically make our most positive accomplishments feel false and empty. There is no longer any doubt that my father felt deep remorse and pain. And when that kind of pain is stuffed, held secret, or denied it becomes heavier than the whole world. I believe this terrible weight, and his inability to address it, is what ultimately killed my father.
Healing the wounds of our past and pain of the present is difficult work. But through my own recovery I have learned that it isn’t nearly as horrifying as we think it will be. And when you finally surrender to the truth with yourself and others, not only can you find a genuine interest in understanding your own issues and how to address them, which is so crucial to recovery, but magical things begin to happen. True healing happens.
For me, the lessons of my father’s life and death are powerful beyond the ability of words to tell. There is no redemption in the world “out there.” Not for him, not for any of us. Redemption happens when we are willing to go deep inside, facing the worst that we have been and the worst that has been done to us. It is through this courageous and humbling work that we see our darkest experiences transformed into strengths to be shared, even celebrated, rather than weaknesses to be hidden. In the process we learn that we are worth it.
I never stopped loving you, Dad. And I will miss you for the rest of my life.