When I was five years old my father nearly choked me to death with baked beans.
Mom cooked rice and beans for dinner one night, and when I tasted them, I declined to eat them. So did David and Donny. My father rubbed a fistful of beans in David’s face and Donny screamed in his highchair as I fled the table. My father chased me with a plate of the dreadful beans. I could hear him yelling and making threats as I scrambled up the stairs to the second floor of our suburban home. At the time, David and I shared a bedroom, which was where I usually sought sanctuary—but, before I could hide, I was snatched off the floor and thrown onto David’s bed.
My father pinned me down and held my nose while he forced a spoonful of pungent beans into my mouth. I gagged. Hard. His giant hand clamped over my mouth. I couldn’t spit, chew, or breathe. My whole body clenched. I vomited. But with his hand pressed over my face, there was nowhere for it to go. I felt the slime packing into my ears. Then, realizing I was going to die if I didn’t clear my windpipe, I choked down the ghastly discharge like a python swallowing a pig. It was over fifteen years before I could eat baked beans again without violently gagging. They used to make fun of me for it in Scouts.
After I finished my dinner, I went limp, and my father left me alone. I laid on David’s bed looking up at the ceiling and went into one of the first, great, emotional crises of my life. There were several such times in my childhood. Hours passed with angry tears, wishing to unmake the universe because I could see no virtue in it.
On some level, I have never forgiven my family for the abuses of my childhood. My mother wasn’t responsible. She is a good woman, but she had been taught helplessness and lived for thirty years as though ignoring problems would make them go away. My brothers were not responsible either. They were bad kids, but bad kids are, at least in part, the responsibility of their parents. A father is the God of a child’s universe. He’s supposed to be benevolent and righteous. When he repeatedly fails to protect his child, or to do something that the child knows to be morally right, it destroys the child’s basic faith in the idea of justice and leaves the child with a sense that the world is evil.
I lay on my older brother’s bed with the revolting beans clogging my sinus passage and raged for about an hour. As upset and I was about what had just happened, I was more upset about what I knew would happen next.
Later that night, our father came into our bedroom in his bathrobe and tenderly told David and I how much he loved us and how sorry he was that he had lost his temper. I didn’t plead with him not to do it again, and I wasn’t moved by his tearful apology, as I had been in the past. By this time, my five-year-old brain had detected a pattern that would be a daily source of suffering for my family for the rest of our lives.
Rage addiction. An endless cycle of manic abuse with no beginning or end. My father must have put this system in place a long time ago in order to cope with his own existence—a self-defense mechanism he established in response to circumstances beyond his control. Even though my instinct told me to be angry with him, he wasn’t responsible either. He’d simply been forced to rely on a bad system, a system which meant that I was going to have to tolerate a lot of abuse in my life, especially because my brothers adopted this behavior as well.
I learned many lessons of darkness as a young man, but I learned other things too. Once, during a church service when I was about thirteen, a little girl stepped out of the pew and started walking up the aisle. She stopped and vomited all over the carpeted sanctuary floor. Her mother took her hand and led her out, leaving the mess behind. Without hesitation, my father went out and got some cleaning supplies from the janitor’s closet. He got down on his knees in his two-thousand-dollar suit and cleaned up the vomit. It wasn’t his job. Nobody asked him to— he just saw a problem and helped. I’ve never forgotten that simple act of service. Love—Christian charity—is sacrifice.
The lessons sons learn from their fathers are often the ones that decide what kind of man they will become. I learned that there are no good men, that love is sacrifice, and that the world is full of evil. I learned that the easy path is usually the wrong one and that everyone must survive on their own. I learned that anger and violence do not solve problems, and I learned that baked beans taste better with rice.