At Tin House, Jaclyn Gilbert explores the emotional legacy her father heaped on her, and how she coped as so many of us do: by turning the pain inward, and writing it on her own body. For her father, Jaclyn is an extension of his failed marriage and a debt to be managed rather than a daughter to be loved — something which she long understood instinctively, and her father found ways to drive home explicitly.

An hour later, when I opened the attachment, I found a copy of my parents’ original divorce agreement from the nineties.  I was eighteen by then, of legal age to change the terms my mother had negotiated when I was six.  If I signed, he would no longer have to contribute toward my or my sister’s college tuitions.

The pain and shock I felt in that moment is still hard to explain.  It wasn’t as simple as the question of money, of refinancing my education.  If it were, I would have signed in a heartbeat.

It was the fact of what I represented to him.  Debt, the object of a war he’d lost to my mother and was still searching to recover through me, his eldest daughter.  It was his plotting over the years—as if every time he’d asked me to ignore his absences during visits, his neglect when he wasted afternoons calling his bookies, his insults—he’d been preparing me for this larger acquiescence.  And yet to voice my anger would be to become my mother incarnate, a barrier to his complete financial freedom.  Signing this document not only meant choosing his story over my mother’s, but it meant doing so at my own expense, denying my autonomy.  The conditionality of his love blurred the document on my computer screen. My body seemed to be spinning into tiny pieces, no longer centered, no longer believing in myself as someone individual, separate, or whole.

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