What's really bothering me

What began as a plan to punish a troll actually became a sign that I'm finally ready to write about the stepfather who caused my family so much pain.

Author’s note: This was originally published on Dec. 9, 2021, and the reaction to it is what made me consider steering the content of this newsletter more toward personal essay. I have continued to write about my family over the past year, and in November 2022 I spoke to my stepfather for the first time since 2005. Last December, I traveled to California and interviewed him.

December 9, 2021 — I have a troll.

Well, I have several, but one in particular has succeeded quite specifically in getting under my skin going back about two years now. He has used gendered insults, racial insults and made threats. He has referenced by dead father, my wife’s name and at one point he targeted a co-worker and posted her address on social media. In one of his texts he compared himself to Glenn Close’s character in the film “Fatal Attraction.”

I have his phone number because he used it to text insults to where I was working. I know he’s a business owner in Olympia., and for the past week I’ve been imagining different ways that I might be able to cause him professional and public discomfort over his previous behavior. Turns out that it wasn’t anything he did that had me fixated on that idea of imposing some consequences.

This is a good time to explain that today’s newsletter isn’t anything like my previous ones. I’m not going to talk about the impact on Seattle’s season from losing Jamal Adams to a shoulder injury nor will I project how that injury might impact the Seahawks’ future. I’m not going to complain about the behavior of other sports journalists, either. This is more personal, and while I’ve mentioned the hostility I harbor toward my stepfather on the radio, I have not written about it in a public forum like this. I have been writing about it, though, and this is a test of sorts to see if the audience for my newsletter is interested in this more personal story as well. And if you’re not interested, please email me. Seriously. Let me know at danny-at-dannyoneil.com because in the not-too-distant future I’m going to have to decide the subject matter for this newsletter and how it fits into my writing business. (By the way, I have a writing business!!!)

My stepfather is the closest thing I have left to a living parent. My father died in Oregon when I was 13 ; my mother died 2 years ago in California. She divorced my stepfather back in 2003, and I have not seen him nor have I talked to him since June 2005 when my brother graduated from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Now you might wonder what in the world this has to do with the online troll who has specifically bothered me, and that’s a very good question. One I’ll get to. Eventually. It’s going to take some time, though, because first I have to explain how I came to realize that I had not achieved as much closure as I thought over this guy my Mom was once married to.

He was on the strict side of things. My curfew was 90 minutes earlier than all of my friends when I was in high school. I had to spend one night each weekend with the family, but he went beyond just setting rules. He operated in that gray area between discipline and abuse. I had to ask him to leave the house at night, then wait until he responded to me. When I failed to wash his car one weekend, he said it showed how much better I thought I was than everyone in the family. When I was 16, he called me a bully and said he wouldn’t let me continue to get away with imposing my will on my mother and my siblings. When I argued back, he said he always thought I’d make a good lawyer and didn’t have any respect for people who used their intelligence that way.

As a junior in high school, I decided I would move out on my own when I turned 18, living on the monthly Social Security check paid in my name following my father’s death. But my stepfather eased off my last year of high school. He wasn’t as domineering. In retrospect, I think he knew that I was tuning him out. Fine, ground me. I’m out of here pretty soon anyway. I graduated from high school in 1993, enrolled at the University of Washington the next fall and over the next 8 years or so I settled into this idea that he was this overly rigid and awkwardly uptight man, but someone who really loved my Mom and helped her raise the three kids after her first husband died so young. I did not think he was a bad guy, just someone who was so upright, so overly moral as to be insufferable.

Only he turned out to be a liar. That became clear over a two-year span starting in 2001. A superintendent at a San Jose school district, he had to leave the position after a public hubbub over spending. Turns out people in the district had some issues with the fact he drove a black BMW 700-series, which was paid for by the district. His travel budget that exceeded that of the San Jose mayor, and purchasing a $468 fountain pen – as his district did – does seem pretty ludicrous in retrospect. He eventually went on medical leave, for what I’m not sure, and never worked for the district again. These details were all fairly public. The San Jose Mercury News wrote about it. There were television reports, too. It was pretty scandalous for a public educator, but the things he had done in his personal life were even more reckless, and in August 2001 – on my mother’s birthday – he moved out of the house. Their divorce became official in 2003.

I thought about writing about all of this shortly after it happened. I had plenty of opinions on the matter and insights on the man, and my background as a journalist gave me some of the skills to tell what I knew was a hell of a story. But the reality is that I never really thought about doing it for two reasons.

— First, and most importantly, I knew how uncomfortable it would have made my Mom. She felt guilt not over her decision to marry him, but the impact it had on her kids.

— Secondly, I knew that part of my motivation was to settle a score. To stand up to him now in a way that I never did when I lived in his house. That he may have been able to reduce me to tears of guilt over a minor indiscretion at 16, but as a reporter in my 20s, I was equipped with a specific set of skills to publicly showcase his mistakes.

Getting even is the wrong motivation for a writer, though. I understood that even back then so I settled into this new, trimmed down version of my family with my Mom, an unbelievably nice and slightly tragic figure at the center. She’s the one who suffered the most. She lost her first husband, the man she said was the love of her life, to a mysterious illness at the age of 38. Her second husband turned out to be incapable of honesty. And yet in spite of all that – or maybe because of that – she was able to keep her three kids close to her, and we were there, together, caring for her in the final days of her life in March 2019 at her house, the one she stayed in after my stepfather moved out.

I first tried writing about my stepfather within a month of my mother’s death. I had signed up for a creative nonfiction class at Seattle’s Hugo House. I had planned to work on the football book I have been allegedly writing for the past 8 years. I realized quite suddenly at the end of the first class that I really wanted to write about my family, to try and sort through all of the emotions that I was feeling in the wake of my mother’s death. Finding material wasn’t a problem. I typed 7 pages in a matter of hours and spent the next few days refining it. The feedback from the class was kind and encouraging. One observation, though: The narrator’s anger toward the stepfather felt extreme. The teacher said it made her feel the narrator was untrustworthy. One of the other students in the class commented that having written about peeing on the door handle of his car, I probably didn’t need the additional kicker, “I just didn’t like the guy.”

I reworked the piece several times over the next few months, then I moved on. I wasn’t sure what point I really wanted to make beyond, “A bunch of crazy stuff happened.” I thought distance might provide some clarity about what conclusions I’d come to, and where the climax in the story was.

I came back to the story of my stepfather more specifically about 6 months ago, something which was prompted in part by the uncertainty of my employment status going forward. I was slightly panicked and wondering what I had to offer the writing world going forward so I resorted to the opening paragraph in "The Aspiring Writer’s Playbook” and started pressing down on all of my psychological wound to see what reaction it produced. Was my trauma marketable?

It came at a price, though. I became more irritable and legitimately volatile. I got increasingly angry at the circumstances I faced at work. I nearly cried one night because our dog ate three chicken breasts that I’d cooked, devastated my dinner plans were foiled. At one point I was so upset I hit myself in the head, which scared the hell out of me. I’ve dealt with depression for most of my adult life, but this was extreme. I called an emergency counselor the next day and began seeing a therapist later in the week.

It took me a good month before I saw any sort of connection between my attempts to write about my family history and my emotional volatility. Once I stumbled on the idea, it couldn’t have been more obvious. I had stirred up the emotional sediment from what my stepfather did to my mother and how he treated me. I’m still mad not just at him, but at myself. I believe I failed to stand up to him. I didn’t object when I was 15 and he married my Mom. I didn’t threaten to run away when we moved to California, and when he was so strict that I felt like I couldn’t bear it I never screamed at him, “You’re not my real father!” like kids do in melodramatic television programs. I feel – even now – that I was a coward. Weak. A pleaser. I wish I had been more like my sister, who stuck to addressing him with the second-person pronoun of “you” when our Mom made it clear she didn’t like it when we called him our stepfather. I often called him Dad what I was a teenager. Man, I admire my sister.

Writing is a great way to express emotions, but doing that in public is a terrible place to process them. I was whipping my anger up into a froth and seeing if it amounted to anything. The result was an angry buzz that obscured anything resembling a coherent story. I was left with this lather of animosity and nowhere to place it. I wanted someone I could stand up, a surrogate to absorb the anger that I wished I had vented on my stepfather. It was a terrible place to be.

That brings me back to my troll. The one who’s managed to bother me. See, I’ve been writing about my stepfather again. This time it’s for another writing workshop, this one through Sackett Street. I turned in my most recent draft the day before Thanksgiving, and over the past two weeks I found myself looking up this troll’s anonymous Twitter account, re-reading what he’s posted. I thought about emailing the company he bought his franchise from, sending him a connection request on LinkedIn or maybe an email. Something to let him know that I know who he is in real life.

But why did I want that? It was the first of two questions I wrote down on Tuesday morning in my journal as I explored why this was suddenly occupying space in my head and taking time out of my day. How was this going to help me? He doesn’t have my phone number or my email and I long ago blocked that Twitter account. He hasn’t Tweeted about me in about 6 months. I know because I looked at his account, confirming ‘Yes’ I really did want to see an account whose feed I had blocked.

I was seeking out his harassment and then imagining what it would feel like to make him face consequences for his insults, his antagonism. I wanted him to be unnerved, to feel something whether it was shame or discomfort or true remorse. I wanted him to be affected emotionally because he had done something that affected me emotionally. This desire isn’t irrational. It’s downright understandable. He had gone out of his way to be mean and insulting. He had said things to me, which – if said to a stranger on the street – could warrant a fist fight. That he did so while cloaked in anonymity makes the prospect of revealing his identity particularly appealing.

The second question, though: Why is this coming up now? I don’t have to actively deal with anything he’s doing. I don’t currently see any of these insults and yet I’m going out of my way to find them, digging 6 months into the past and concocting a plan to exact some sort of payback. This isn’t about standing up to this specific troll, it’s about standing up to someone I feel wronged by. Someone who has escaped punishment for those actions. It’s about my my stepfather.

I didn’t stand up to him like I wished I had and he hasn’t shown the kind of remorse that I want to see. I know that this isn’t the best way to achieve closure so I’m looking for similar scenarios. A surrogate. The fact that I can recognize that without punching myself in the head must mean I’m making some progress. So does the feedback that I got on my latest version of the piece.

My stepfather was the most vivid character, according to the reviews I got. The biggest complaint was that the narrator didn’t reveal enough of himself, essentially that I wasn’t really a character in the essay. I didn’t even mention peeing on his car door handle. I’ve never had criticism feel more encouraging, and while it took more than 2 years to find this distance, I think I’ve finally got the room to really start writing about my family. And maybe now I’ll forget about that troll.

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