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Through a Father's Eyes
One autumn afternoon shortly after 9/11, as the nation struggled with cataclysm on an unthinkable scale, my darling daughter was assaulted outside her home in Minneapolis. She was in eighth grade. Like most assaults, the perpetrators were not strangers. They were two boys she considered friends. I was in New York at the time, working with the Red Cross doing Disaster Mental Health relief. I got the call and was on the next plane out of NYC.
The following day I accompanied my daughter to the police station. And over the coming days and weeks, I watched her struggle to manage information about the assault, to limit who knew what and when they knew it.
Inside my heart breaks.
Although my childhood had its bumps -- the melancholy of an unhappy parental marriage, their eventual divorce, dad’s move out of state, mom’s heart surgery, my leaving home at seventeen and dropping out of high school -- in some ways, I was lucky. Violence was not part of my family. From my earliest schoolyard days, nonetheless, I reacted viscerally to seeing others bullied. In college, I became an activist for non-violence—nuclear disarmament, dismantling apartheid, reversing brutal policies in Central America. As a student, I learned that violence was often gendered: the use of rape, for example, by “anti-insurgency forces” to terrorize local populations in El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique. Backpacking through Asia in my 20s, I met activist-writer Madhu Kishwar and learned about female infanticide and dowry killings in India. Gender-based violence, in its various forms, was clearly global.
In graduate school, my life was forever changed when my daughter, a magical little being, came into my life. While I can’t say I always put her needs selflessly before mine, I did my best. And for most of her twenty-two years, we’ve been wonderfully close. As a therapist and a school social worker, domestic and sexual violence were recurrent themes coming from teens, adults, children, from all walks of life. Client after client, the statistics on domestic violence and sexual assault took on real names. Real faces. How many times must I suggest a safety plan for a woman in a violent relationship? How many times must I help an abuse survivor believe that it wasn’t her fault? This isn’t Africa or Asia. This is here, in my own backyard.
This familiar battle was now personal, my daughter’s struggle to regain control over a situation where control had been violently taken from her. Eventually she’d write a victim impact statement, and she echoed so many common reactions: loss of trust, guilt towards her boyfriend, shame. But because she felt supported by her family and her friends, she moved on (as evidenced by her permission for me to write this). That experience does not define her. She’s strong, she’s smart, she’s funny and beautiful. She is an amazing daughter, sister, friend. That is what defines her.
Barely a year later, the small Michigan city where I live debuted The Vagina Monologues amidst some controversy. It was the first year that men were invited to participate on stage. I wrote a brief prologue to the play, and wrapped in a red scarf, I proudly read it to the sold-out audience. I was accompanied by two men who contributed their voices as well. It was long overdue to have men stand up and say that ending violence against women isn’t just a women’s issue.
Within a month, we created a public awareness initiative called the Real M.E.N.’s Project (Men Embracing Non-Violence). It’s been a presence in the community since” this Father's Day 2010, we celebrate our 7th anniversary with a photo exhibit depicting fathers who have pledged to not condone or be silent about domestic and sexual violence.
In 2003, I had a son, a beautiful baby boy. I’m older now and perhaps a bit wiser. I am even more aware of my responsibility as a father, to model non-violence, to model respect for my son’s mother and for all women. This is where my boy’s growth into a real man, a good man, begins. Not with professional accomplishments or projects, not with the writing I publish or the social justice causes that I tackle. Yes, those matter. But his growth begins at ages one and three, at five and seven, in what he experiences day-to-day with the father he loves. I used to slow dance my baby boy to sleep every night, swaddled in a sarong that he’d adopted as his own. I’d sway back and forth in our living room to “Bleecker Street” by Simon and Garfunkel, and he’d melt into my arms as he drifted into a peaceful slumber. It’s one of his earliest memories of what a grown man can offer: a hug and a gentle touch, humor and affection, love and strength. That’s the man I keep striving to be. That’s the man I want my son to be. That’s the kind of man my daughter and all daughters deserve as partners, friends, fathers, brothers, and as fellow inhabitants of this planet Earth.
Dani Meier, PhD, MSW, MA, is a father, husband, therapist, school social worker, community activist, and writer. He is chair of the Jackson Suicide Prevention Coalition, a founder of the Real MEN’s Project, and he has spearheaded its work since 2004, including the 2010 Real MEN’s Project Fathers Day Photo Exhibition at www.realmensproject.org.