My mother and father had a one night stand in August 1962. When she called him with the news that she was pregnant, he offered to pay for an abortion. It was the last time they spoke.
I had always dreamed of my father as a child. My stepfather came into my life in 1966, when I was three years old, and I was told he was it: the father I had been asking for. As the mayor of the village, everyone knew that my stepfather had married a 20-year-younger woman who already had a child. We had moved from Brussels into his home after their wedding. Once, in kindergarten, I got teased by a girl, told my parents were married when I was three, so… Wasn’t it obvious? I was almost relieved. I wanted clarity, but my parents chose to keep on lying.
I imagined my father, thinking myself crazy for believing in my fantasy. My real father was an artist. I named him Pierre. He lived in Paris. He had dark curly hair and of course, brown eyes like mine. My mother, stepfather and brother all had blue eyes. More important was that I never felt that I belonged in my family. Both my mother and stepfather were entirely absorbed with societal status, from their relative position of wealth and his role as the town’s mayor. They were not subtle or sensitive and had no interest in art or culture. We had a large oak bookcase that was mostly empty. My stepfather had proudly directed the construction of our house, which was grey throughout. There was no warmth, no love, not even love of stories or history or music. There was nothing there for me.
When my mother started to traffic me, my father fantasy became more prominent. I told myself that he loved me and wanted to save me, but he didn’t know how to get to me. “If only he knew what was happening to me,” I kept telling myself, “he would be outraged and fly to my rescue.”
My parents waited to tell me the truth until years after I had left home. I was seventeen, crying bitter tears, when I was finally given the story. He was a composer and director of classical music. His name was Frederic Devreese.
I probably could have found his address and go knock on his door but didn’t want to risk rejection. Instead, I asked acquaintances in cafes frequented by musicians if they knew of this classical composer. One year later, backstage at a punk concert, I met someone who took classes with my father. I gave him a piece of paper with my first name and phone number on it, to pass along. He told me he wasn’t going to see him right away, it might be three weeks or so before he’d have class with him again, but he promised to give him the message. Though it was my most ardent wish to meet my father, by the time three weeks had passed I had successfully convinced myself I would never hear from him.
One day in February of 1981 the phone rang in my studio apartment in Antwerp. I picked up and a man’s voice asked if this was me. He sounded quiet, sophisticated. We arranged for a meeting. When the doorbell rang, I buzzed him in and heard him come up the stairs, turning to come into view, red-faced, puffing, out of breath. Standing before me in the doorway he stuttered and trembled. I took his hands in mine and guided him inside.
He sat down, accepted coffee and started to tell me about the family. He had brought photos. It was amazing. There they were, all brown-eyed artists - every one of them. My grandfather was also a composer: Godfried Devreese; whose father was a music teacher from a family of painters, writers, sculptors and composers. My grandmother was Frederika Gaillard, violinist and daughter of the solo cellist Frits Gaillard, who had moved to California in 1923 where he played in the Los Angeles Philharmonic. A tiny photo showed my great-grandfather wearing a white suit standing by a car parked by a palm tree. This family, Gaillard de Kerbertin, traced back to Brittany, and my father believed that his mother was Jewish from her mother’s side. It all sounded like music to my ears.
The day was spent as in a dream. The most incredible moment was when the subject of dimples in the shoulders came up. It was a unique and strange trait of mine and I showed him by pulling my sweater down over my shoulder. He unbuttoned his shirt and threw it off, showing his own dimples, laughing that if we had not been absolutely certain that I was his flesh and blood, we could be certain now.
He left promising to see me again soon. I thought perhaps we’d meet again in a few weeks. I dreamed of being inculcated into the musical clan, maybe receive piano or violin lessons. He would think up a lesson plan, find the right teacher, so I could begin to study. He would strategize how he could, at the right pace, give me a taste of what I had missed by not growing up with him.
When I arrived home from work the next afternoon, he was waiting by the door of my building. It was alarming to see him, not knowing how long he had waited out there on the street. The sex slave in me went on high alert. I felt his obsession, his lack of boundaries, his need. When he took me out to a pizza restaurant by the train station, it felt like a date. He looked more manly and self-assured than he had the day prior, more patriarchal, finding confidence in his treatment of me as a woman rather than as his child. He repeated several times how much he had liked the fact that I had taken his hands when he had arrived the previous day, that I had taken the initiative. I intuited that there would be no relationship without sex. I was not ready to give up my dream. That night, I gave myself to him the first time. He said it was only possible because he had not raised me. He was glad that I was eighteen, and it was legal.
His obsession increased. Three months later I left the country, vowing never to see him again. Moving to the South of France, I called when I arrived, angering him when I refused to give up my location, because he wanted to drive out to see me.
I don’t remember exactly when I let him back into my life. It must have been after I moved from Paris to New York, sometime in 1985. The sex lasted, on and off, for three more years, as I tried painfully to extract myself from the lifelong dream to which I had clung as my only raft in a sea of pain. I accepted the shards of culture I hungered for through his presence. I told people we met that I was his daughter before he could say otherwise. To those who were in the know, I might complain but found no sympathy. Without sex there was hardly any communication, no relationship.
The closest we ever were was during one of his visits to New York and he played a piece for me that he had just composed. As we sat listening, I chuckled, and instantly, powerfully felt his gratitude that I should hear the humor in his music, as if I had reached into the deepest chamber of his soul through my finely attuned ear.
The last time I saw my father was in 1997. I asked to meet him during a visit to Belgium. When I entered the cafe where he was waiting, he opened his arms, smiling, and said:
“See? You ask. Here I am.”
I told him he didn’t need to act like he was doing me a favor. He appeared to dissociate and did not respond. When he told me about his life, he began to relate a health scare he’d experienced about his heart. I stopped him:
“I don’t want to know about it. I don’t want to have to think about your health if you’re not in touch with me and I’m not going to hear from you again.”
He was completely accepting of my interjection, smiling rather childlike. I’m not sure exactly what followed but at one point I was telling him about having been sexually abused as a child. With intense interest, he asked me to say more. I shared what I felt I could at that time; various abuses surrounding the network, touching on it, but not about the network itself. He was riveted. When I finished, he said:
“What I did to you was the same as what these men did.”
When we parted, he tried to joke that perhaps we’d meet again ten years hence. I told him I didn’t think so, that this was probably the last time. He raised his brows with a boyish laugh, said okay and lightly hugged good-bye.
Shortly after that last meeting, my book entitled “The Deaf Musician” was published in Belgium, a novel describing word for word what had happened with my father. Though I had changed his name, Belgium is a small country and it was easy to guess who this composer/director was. The press had requested to read the book en masse, but very few wanted to write about it. Those who did either judged the material as cheap sensationalism, or, as one put it: “a spicy incest story.” Less than a handful of journalists got it. Most of the press ignored me, invested in protecting my father’s reputation.
At the time I wrote the book, I had not reached the deeper understanding and acceptance of my father’s abuse that I have today. My anger made its way into the writing. I made fun of him and some of his friends, all adult men, none of them who had stood up for me. Clinging to his acknowledgment of our last meeting, I blamed myself and felt as though I had betrayed him, that I was unrefined, unlike his side of the family, more like the other, vulgar side.
Without the book, we surely could have met again, once or twice or maybe more. But there would have been no room for my anger in our meetings. To be real with each other, my father would have had to absorb the contents of the book, my anger and hurt, seek deeper understanding through it, and desire to repair the relationship.
Frederic Devreese was never a father to me and my need for one was never fulfilled. It has been my greatest complex, the biggest hole in my life, my deepest pain and life-long struggle.
It is my great challenge to recognize that there is no father out there for me. The men who have presented as father figures or protectors have invariably turned out to be scared little boys who need status and privilege to help them feel manly.
My lesson is to trust that I have everything I need within me - all the strength and resilience and wisdom and ability to protect.
From this place of strength, I can cut the cords of attachment. My father is eighty-nine years old now. I can let him go and sincerely wish him well.