One Man’s Poison

The only way to protect herself from her father was to erase him from her life, but she survived being his daughter by acting just like he did.

Kyoko Mori | Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents | University of Nebraska Press | September 2019 | 19 minutes (3,670 words)

 

Before my mother’s suicide the year I turned twelve, my father and I seldom saw each other. An engineer who became a board director at a steel-manufacturing conglomerate, Hiroshi traveled all over the country on business. Even when he worked in his office in Kobe, he left early and came back — if he came back — past midnight. My mother waited up, but he often called from some noisy bar to claim he was leaving on a business trip. Other phone calls, from women looking for him, made clear that my father had several girlfriends who vied for his attention. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that he was a liar and a cheat and that women were attracted to him all the same.

Since his free time was devoted to playing rugby with former college teammates, Hiroshi seldom joined my mother, brother, and me on family vacations or outings. He did once attend a family reunion — for his side of the family — at a Chinese restaurant in downtown Kobe. My brother, Jumpei, four years younger than me, was still a toddler. When we got to the restaurant, our relatives hadn’t arrived yet, the banquet room wasn’t ready, and my mother had to take Jumpei to the bathroom. I was left to sit at the bar with Hiroshi while we waited. He must have had to help me up to the barstool, but I don’t remember him lifting me or holding me on that occasion or any other. What I do recall is the woman behind the bar placing a glass of soda pop in front of me, smiling in an exaggerated way, and saying, “You look just like your father. How lucky for you. He is so very handsome.”

Even though the woman’s face was just a few inches from mine, her eyes were turned to my father. She was young enough that, a few minutes later while recounting this incident to my mother in the bathroom — where she had to take me to wash the tears from my face, bringing my brother back with us, too — I would refer to the woman as oneisan (big sister, or young woman) rather than obasan (auntie, or middle-aged woman). “That oneisan was wrong. I don’t look anything like him,” I insisted. When my mother suggested maybe I did just a little, I started crying again.

During my father’s life, it never occurred to me that I was anything like him.

I always knew that my father failed to treat my mother with love or respect, but he wasn’t home often or long enough to care what I said or did until a few weeks after her death, when one of his girlfriends moved into our house. He had met Michiko at the business hotel her parents managed, where he was a frequent guest. Once they were married, a couple of months later, he started cheating on her, too. Michiko couldn’t help what Hiroshi did away from home, but unlike my mother, she knew how to get his attention. Whenever he started staying out too much, she told him that I had made her so miserable by disrespecting her in his absence that she wanted to leave us. She sat with her suitcase packed while he beat me in front of her and made me apologize. For a few weeks after, he came home earlier than usual and spent his weekends watching TV with her instead of playing rugby. But soon enough, he would be back to his old ways, till one night, he’d find her waiting in the kitchen with her packed suitcase.

I left home at twenty to attend college in Illinois, settled in Wisconsin to go to graduate school and teach creative writing at a small college, and only saw my father three times after — once in New York when he and Michiko were on a tour with his rugby group, twice in Japan when I was visiting relatives on my mother’s side. Each visit lasted just long enough to get through a meal at a restaurant. He complained that New York was dirty and full of homeless people. He said he was saddened by my getting a PhD in English because I should have studied the literature of our country first. When he died from cancer, I was thirty-seven and married, living and teaching in Green Bay. In Japan, cancer patients are kept in the dark about their prognosis, though he must have sensed how sick he was. My stepmother, who had been fully informed by the doctors, didn’t contact me — seeing me would only upset him, she reasoned. Michiko needn’t have worried. I wouldn’t have gone to say goodbye even if Hiroshi himself had asked me to.

* * *

During my father’s life, it never occurred to me that I was anything like him. I’m not a habitual liar or a sexual adventurer (or whatever the female or gender-neutral equivalent of “womanizer” is). The lies I tell are relatively harmless, like claiming to be working on a project I promised and forgot about (then starting it right away). I found it too exhausting to maintain a romantic relationship with one person at a time. I can’t imagine carrying on with half a dozen lovers the way Hiroshi did. I’m now divorced and happily single. I chose not to have children so I never had to worry about becoming a terrible parent like my father, who teetered between neglect and domination, indifference and rage.

Even though I was the only person in our family whom Hiroshi had yelled at and hit, I don’t think he did these things only to appease Michiko. He was truly angry and out of control on the nights he beat me. He considered me, rather than his own behavior, as a threat to his second marriage, and the thought of losing the stability and the convenience he had reestablished after my mother’s suicide enraged him. I have never yelled at anyone in anger, much less physically assaulted them. The worst things my husband and I said to each other in the fifteen years we were married were: (him) “You might be the most selfish person I’ve ever met” and (me) “That includes your mother?” Twenty years after our divorce, we’re still friends and we periodically apologize to each other for these remarks.

Still, it’s not difficult to be patient and reasonable with adults — they can be patient and reasonable to you in return or else you can politely walk away. Whenever I come across small children screaming and running around the grocery store or having temper tantrums in a park, something inside me winces and clenches. I wonder what keeps their parents from covering their ears and banging their own heads against the wall or getting in the car and driving away alone. Perhaps my father felt the same way around children, but remaining childless wasn’t an acceptable option for married couples of my parents’ generation. That doesn’t excuse how he neglected me through my childhood, only to beat me for the eight years I had to live with him and his second wife. He could at least have tried to moderate his extreme reactions. He had no conscience whatsoever. I didn’t fear becoming Hiroshi, because he was beyond the pale, in a category by himself.

I chose not to have children so I never had to worry about becoming a terrible parent like my father, who teetered between neglect and domination, indifference and rage.

So I believed it was my mother, not my father, whose legacy required careful navigation. I wanted to be like her in all the right ways while avoiding the one wrong way that had led to her death. Takako was a creator of beauty. She sketched and drew, told stories and wrote amusing letters that her parents kept to pass on to me. She coaxed roses to twine around our garden gate, irises to bloom in our rock garden, and hydrangeas to turn pink, blue, or any shade in between. My friends envied the dresses she sewed for me, the blouses she embroidered, the cakes she baked and decorated for my birthday parties. All the women in the neighborhood gathered at our house to drink tea, work on their sewing and embroidery projects, and try out new recipes. “Your mother brought people together,” one of them told me after her death. “She lit up the room just by walking in.”

But after our family moved to a new neighborhood, Takako lost the energy to do anything. Every day for the next two years while my brother and I were at school, she sat alone in the kitchen, which faced north and was cold and dark, going over what she believed were her failures. Writing in her diary was about the only thing she still managed to do. She must have been angry at Hiroshi’s betrayal, but in all the pages she filled in the red notebook she would leave behind, she didn’t ask, “What is wrong with my husband?” or even “Why was I stupid enough to marry a man like this?” The question she asked repeatedly was “What’s wrong with me?” She couldn’t get away from the thoughts that went around and around in her head: she was a failure as a wife and a mother, her whole life was worthless and meaningless, and we would all be better off without her. She didn’t call her friends, sisters, brothers, or parents for help. She couldn’t even make herself get up from the kitchen table and move to a more comfortable or cheerful part of the house. All the things she couldn’t do to help herself made her feel even worse.


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Although my mother was never officially diagnosed — the idea of seeking a medical intervention added to her feelings of failure and shame — it’s clear that she suffered from some form of depression. Other women of her generation, including the poets Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, had also killed themselves, leaving behind their children. As a young woman studying to be a writer in the decades after their deaths, I feared that someday I might find myself sitting in a dark kitchen going over all the ways in which I had wasted my life and become a failure. I didn’t think any of these women had been killed by their writing, but the introspection required to compose poems — or diary entries in my mother’s case — was difficult and dangerous work. You couldn’t write anything true, complex, or beautiful unless you were willing to examine the unsettling thoughts in your own head; you had to force yourself to contemplate the random nature of the world and the limitations of human goodness. Getting depressed might be an occupational hazard. I wondered how I could be like these smart, creative women — my actual mother and my literary mothers — without inheriting their fate.

The last day I was forty-one, the age my mother had killed herself, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, signing the papers to purchase a studio apartment on the top floor of a condominium. I had left my marriage because I was at my happiest alone; I was moving to the East Coast for a new teaching job. The first home that was entirely mine, that studio was more like a nest than a piece of real estate. Sitting at my desk by the window overlooking the tops of maples, I felt solid contentment, the opposite of the bewildering displacement my mother had experienced after our family’s move. There wasn’t an aha moment when I realized that I was as immune to depression as a person could be, but I know the death of my father, six years prior, and the move east had combined to produce this understanding. I was no longer living in the first place — the American Midwest — where I’d settled to get away from him.

The lady bartender at the Chinese restaurant had been right. I did look like my father, though he was very handsome — people often said he resembled the actor Toshiro Mifune, a rugged, manly type who starred in several Kurosawa films — and I was only average looking. Sometimes when I glanced in the bathroom mirror in my new apartment, I recognized Hiroshi’s eyes and mouth, the oval face with the pointed chin. My mother had been petite but womanly, with a round face and a slightly plump figure. I belonged unmistakably to my father’s family, skinny and muscular, beginning to look a little gaunt in middle age while other women worried about putting on weight. Like my father, I was an aging athlete. A lot of my free time went to long distance running and cycling, as his did to rugby. We were both too physically restless to sit around feeling bad about ourselves.

Now that he was safely gone and I was twice removed from my childhood in Japan, I could admit I was more like him than I ever was like my mother. When things didn’t go my way, whether it was a disagreement with a neighbor or a rejection by a publisher, the first question on my mind was not “What is wrong with me?” My immediate response, like Hiroshi’s, was to blame someone or something else. I didn’t raise my voice in anger, but my conviction that I was right was iron-clad, no less so than my father’s. I learned to back off from this initial position of self-righteousness to consider the other person’s view, to compromise or even be persuaded all the way to the other side, but that’s more about the power of education than about my essential nature.

I wondered how I could be like these smart, creative women — my actual mother and my literary mothers — without inheriting their fate.

Unlike my mother, I didn’t think someone lying to me or treating me with disrespect was my fault. Nor was I given to doubting and second-guessing myself once I had made an important decision I couldn’t take back. As soon as our family had settled into our new house, my mother had started feeling that we should never have moved. She missed her friends, our old neighborhood, our old home. She even thought, for a while, that we could sell the new house and move back to the old one — and when it was too late for that, she talked about finding another house in the old neighborhood. I’m sure she knew that none of this was practical, or really possible. But once she started thinking about the outcome she could no longer reverse — the decisions she had made and couldn’t unmake — she couldn’t stop trying to figure out what had gone wrong. She sat for hours in that house she hated, in the neighborhood where she knew no one, reexamining the now-useless details over and over. Ultimately, she was killed by the persistence of her thoughts.

My father, on the hand, made his decisions, good or bad, large or small, and moved on. In the first week after my mother’s death, her youngest brother, Kenichi — who was single and childless  — stayed at our house to look after my brother and me while Hiroshi went back to work. On the nights Kenichi was still up when Hiroshi returned, the two men had a few drinks together. “Your father cried when he drank whiskey,” Kenichi told me years later. “He said your mother was a remarkable woman. He didn’t deserve her. He even said, ‘You know I killed her.’ He cried big, big tears.” Two weeks later, Hiroshi would tell Kenichi he was no longer needed at our house. “The woman I’m going to marry is moving here this weekend,” he said to my uncle. “She doesn’t have children of her own. She’s agreed to raise mine.”

Once he was with Michiko, Hiroshi never mentioned Takako except to make me cry on those nights he hit me in front of his new wife. “Your mother didn’t love you enough to stick around,” he said. “She left you to be a burden to me.” Other than those remarks, it was as though Takako had never even existed. He no longer spoke or wrote to his former in-laws and kept my brother and me from seeing them till we were adults.

Hiroshi succeeded in erasing Takako from my brother’s memory. The few times I saw him after I left home, Jumpei referred to Michiko as “my mother” rather than “my stepmother.” He claimed he had no recollection of Takako. “I was too young,” he said. “I only have one mother, the one who raised me.” At our mother’s death, he had been eight, which strikes me as too old for total amnesia — I remember plenty of things from when I was four or five, maybe even three — but my brother is devoted to Michiko. He was the one to call me with the news of Hiroshi’s death. He asked me to come to Japan, though I would not arrive in time for the funeral. The real purpose of the visit, as it turned out, was for me to sign the numerous legal documents required to designate Michiko as the sole heir to Hiroshi’s estate.

In Japan, few people leave wills. By law, 50 percent of a dead man’s estate goes to his spouse, with the other 50 percent to be divided equally among the children, but most families with significant wealth choose just one person — either the wife or the oldest son — to inherit it all. My brother had never lived in his own apartment, married, or held a regular job. For decades, he had been operating an import-export business of South American folk art — a venture kept afloat by our family’s money. He spent most of the year traveling abroad and, for the few months he was in Japan, he stayed with Hiroshi and Michiko. My father left enough money for all of us to live with some comfort. If I signed what was somewhat ominously referred to as the “renunciation documents,” Michiko would claim all the assets but continue to support her “son” and, eventually, my brother would inherit whatever was left. I took the envelope Michiko gave me back to the hotel room where I was staying. I sat down on the bed, opened the envelope, and signed the whole stack of papers. I didn’t comply to help my family. The executed documents were my ticket to freedom. I would never have to hear from Michiko or Jumpei once I handed them over. Twenty years later, it’s as though I no longer exist for them, or they for me.

My father’s poison allows me to move through a world full of betrayals and failures without taking everything to heart.

I am my father’s daughter in this way. Once I commit to a course of action, I don’t look back with longing at what’s been lost as a result or contemplate how things might have been different. This faith in the future we chose is a form of arrogance. It assumes that any important decision we made has to be the right one because, after all, we made it. The difference between us is that when I do change my mind, I’m willing to admit that I had been really, truly wrong. My father went from one self-serving reality to another, each time convinced that his interpretation or his view was right in a new way. He was able to carry on affairs with several women while being married to my mother by believing that in every moment, he was being true to his precious self. He could cry big tears about my mother one week and plan Michiko’s move into our house the next because to him, everything he felt and thought was equally true and important. Just like that, he could go from confiding in my uncle to asking him to leave. With perfect consistency, Hiroshi did what was right for himself; he had no regrets.

My father was a complete narcissist. The pragmatic selfish streak he passed on to me is undoubtedly a poison. But in small doses, it can be a form of medicine, like a weakened virus that immunizes us against life-threatening illness. My mother’s legacy, too, is a potent substance that can sustain me or kill me. Her tendency to brood, to ask too many questions, to stay with the same thoughts all day long, fuels my writing. On the page, I can examine the endless layers of possibilities and interpretations, how things could, might, should have been, why they weren’t, and what that means. I dive into the murky depths of my own thoughts to examine the unsettling ideas lurking there, but I’m not easily overwhelmed by what I find. I reserve this kind of rigorous contemplation for my writing: I don’t torment myself by questioning and examining every detail of my life in real time. I refuse to be crippled by self-doubt and regret. My father’s poison allows me to move through a world full of betrayals and failures without taking everything to heart. In fact, I inherited the right amount to immunize myself from the greatest danger of all: my father himself.

If I had been more like my mother, I would have been destroyed by all the nights he dragged me into the kitchen to apologize to Michiko, the numerous belittling comments he tossed my way even after I put an ocean between us. When Hiroshi blamed me for Michiko’s unhappiness, I knew that the real reasons for the packed suitcase were the lies he told her and the nights he failed to come home. It wasn’t my fault that Michiko had knowingly married a man who cheated on his wife and continued to do the same. It never occurred to me that Hiroshi attacked me instead of protecting me because something was wrong with me. I didn’t agonize over why he didn’t love me or what I could do to change this fact. A few years before he died, I stopped responding to the letters he wrote criticizing my modest teaching job “out in the middle of nowhere” and berating my failure to “learn first about your own culture.” The only way not to be hurt by him was to erase him from my life, the way he had erased my mother from his. I survived being his daughter by acting just like he did.

***

Kyoko Mori is the author of four novels and three book of nonfiction, including The Dream of Water and Polite Lies, and her stories and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Ploughshares, The American Scholar, Kenyon Review, and Best American Essays. She teaches at George Mason University’s MFA Program in Creative Writing and Lesley University’s Low-Residency MFA Program.

Excerpted from Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents, by Kyoko Mori. Copyright © 2019 by Kyoko Mori. Reprinted by permission of University of Nebraska Press and Kyoko Mori. This essay also appears in the spring 2019 issue of Colorado Review.

Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath