Moving Forward On My Own 

I accepted my mixed feelings toward my abusive father.

by Arna Asad

Artwork by Arna Asad

When I was 6, my father took my two brothers and me to New York’s famous Far Rockaway beach. Humongous waves slammed on us, and we were fascinated by our first experience on American sand. I didn’t know how to swim, so I clung to the safety that the shallow water provided. Apparently not safe enough – a sharp pain went shooting up my leg. I had stepped on a now unhappy crab. My two brothers, Manan and Anan, had triumph written all over their faces, as if that was their plan all along. My dad came rushing toward me. He scolded my siblings for daring to make fun of his sweet baby girl. He took me into his arms and made sure my feet were off the ground, away from any pesky crabs. I felt protected, safe in my hero’s arms. 

That was 10 years ago when my dad, my two brothers, and I migrated from Bangladesh to the United States. My mom passed away when I was a baby. I grew up with a father who never remarried, never dated, never turned his back on his family. My father is the hardest worker I know and he has always encouraged us to work just as hard. When we were kids, he would tutor us in the evenings, sometimes teaching us things months before our teacher did. I was “Daddy’s little girl!” My friends had only spoken of absent parents. I felt sad for them, that they didn’t have what I did.

But throughout it all, from age 5 to age 14, he had been touching me. At first it was minor touches, light brushes against my chest over my clothes. Extra long hugs which confused me but which I appreciated. When I was 9, one time as he was putting me to sleep, a tradition we adapted into without me fully realizing it, he slipped his hand underneath my shirt to pat my back. Except this time, he glided his enormous, rough hands against my rib cage and cupped my small, bare breasts. I found the sensation strange but figured that my dad had a lot of love for me and that this was our special relationship. I wanted him to be happy, and he was always happy when he was with me. Night after night, I was left alone with him. Every night, he made no mistake to take things to the next level, even if the jump up was slight.  From brushes, he moved to forcing my hands on his penis, to pushing my head there. Eventually, he began raping me multiple times each week. 

My dad told me to keep quiet and at first, I didn’t question it. But when my friends made sex jokes or said things like “I hate old men who send me nudes, that shit’s disgusting,” it confused me. I thought to myself, “Why are my friends making fun of my dad and my traditions?” By age 13, I realized that our father-daughter dynamic wasn’t at all that he made it seem. I slowly started realizing and accepting that this wasn’t just our special relationship—it was abuse.

I thought about telling the people in my life many times over the years, but mostly it was when I was angry with my father. It drove me insane when he tried to parent me, knowing damn well that what he was doing to me was wrong. I never had the courage to speak up as heavy drapes of shame wrapped me up. Incest is an uncomfortable topic and in South Asian culture, any talk of sex is frowned upon.

I also felt a sense of protection toward my dad. I was used to his presence and I was afraid that I would betray him if I ever told a soul.    

My Breaking Point

When CNN first announced that we could meet people after months of isolation during the pandemic, I immediately called my best friend, Mel. My dad said I could meet her as long as he drove me. 

I woke up early and got dressed but couldn’t find my plum-colored, limited edition Kate Spade handbag. I looked all over our tiny apartment for the damn thing, finally finding it in a drawer. Eagerly, I pulled the purse out and threw it on. I was nearly at the end of the hallway that led directly to freedom when I felt a sharp tug on my bag. I turned to see my father, his eyes red and filled with anger. “What the hell are you doing?!” he thundered.

Eyes wide, I asked him, “Abbu, why are you not dressed to drive us?” His already bulging eyes popped even more as he roared in Bangla, “How dumb can you be, little girl. I am not letting you step a foot out of this apartment, with anyone!”

I was enraged. I reached for my bag and pulled it with all my strength and marched out.  Almost immediately, I felt regretful about disobeying my dad. 

I felt a sharp jerk wrench my shoulder as my dad grabbed my purse strap. Then, he reached for my neck and started strangling me. 

I tried to escape, frantically. He kept adding pressure. Eyes rolling back, my body surrendering, I thought, “Is this how I will die?” Two more seconds passed and his thumbs dug a deep hole in me, and my thoughts transitioned to, “I am dying.”

My aunt heard us from the kitchen and rushed to remove me from his grip. I ran to my room, picked up my phone and called Mel as if it was just another day, “Yo bro, I can’t come today.” She disappointedly and even agitatedly replied, “why bro?” but I just hung up.

It was the first time in my life that my dad had been physically violent. Though he had been raping me all these years, this was the first time I felt scared for my life. My heart, body, and soul all agreed in unison that he was a bad person. 

I thought for hours what I would do to finally be free of him. I also thought about the consequences that would follow. Everyone idolized my dad; no way they would believe me. My family saw him as the man who came to America, and did it all by himself: “the dream catcher.” I also didn’t want to burden my friends. But, I realized if I was going to survive this, I needed to tell somebody. I decided to tell Mel.

We crafted a plan that involved a fake school email so we could meet. I felt like a  dormant volcano aching to erupt. I gathered every cell of courage in my body to finally utter the words I had never even said out loud to myself, “My dad raped me.”  

Making the choice to tell Melida led to an avalanche of crazy events tumbling down on me. With Melida’s encouragement, I finally told my brother, Manan. He confronted my dad and forced him to inform our older brother, who was at his military station in North Carolina. At the time, it was all too much, all too fast. All I wanted was for my dad to admit what he had done. Only he never did, especially in front of my brothers. Instead he accused me of lying and making it all up. Other times, he would change the wording of the situation, yelling, “I didn’t rape you, I harrassed you.” I felt like anger was looming through the walls of our house, and my aunt also caught a sense of the situation. Word spread like fire, whether I liked it or not. 

In January of 2021, about five months after I confided in Melida, a family member called the police and informed them about my father. The police then called my aunt, wanting to ask her some questions about my dad. My father, who was also in the room when she got the call, calmly said, “Well shezeappa, you only have two options: you can either tell them the truth and I’d go to jail, or you can lie so I can support my family.” 

 I looked my aunt dead in the eye and said, “Tell them everything, or I will.”

The Investigation

My aunt told the police the truth and a few weeks later, they arrived at my house. The detectives on my case handed me some blue play dough for “comfort” before questioning me for nearly five hours. After it all, they arrested him and put him in handcuffs. I didn’t want him arrested. All I wanted was an apology and an admission to me, which he never gave. But it was too late. What I had said could no longer be a secret and I no longer had the power to protect him. Staring at my play dough, now molded into a botched mermaid shape, I felt the numb settling in. Social workers were swift to tell me that I would need to be put into foster care unless I had an adult who would take me in right then. Thankfully, my other best friend Abby’s parents took me in. After five months, I was returned to my aunt. 

If thoughts and feelings were colors, rainbow-colored bubble gum was constricting my mind. Everyone around me condemned my dad, but for me, it was more complicated.

 After my dad was arrested, Child Protective Services assigned a lawyer to me. He said, “What this guy did was heinous and he deserves to be thrown in jail for a hundred years.” 

But he’s my dad, I thought. I felt uncomfortable. Acknowledging what my dad did affected the way I thought about myself, too. My mind went to dark places as I continued thinking, How am I supposed to react knowing the woman I had grown to be, the fearless woman I have grown to love, was so incredibly influenced by her one and only rapist?  

I also felt guilty. 

I understand he raped me, but he was a perfectly good man otherwise and now I have ruined his life forever.

I was also constantly reminded that I had ruined his life and everyone else’s as well. My family’s main caretaker was now taken away from them and soon we began losing track of paying rent. I was living with my aunt who was the only one out of my uncle, my brother, and me who worked. I started missing my dad, not only his presence, but also the security he provided. 

Two months after the investigation began, my dad was tried and convicted of rape and negligence charges. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. 

It was the most freeing yet heartbreaking night of my life. I felt myself fill with breaths I didn’t know I had, floating like a balloon. Except the balloon was on the verge of popping because at the same time, someone was throwing rocks of shame and depression at it. Before the arrest, I felt like I could either protect him or I could turn him in. Now there was no choice. My father was gone.  

Seeing Him Again

After months of contemplating, I made the decision to see him in prison. Yes, that’s the least I owe him after having done this to him, a little voice in my head echoed. 

I think my first visit was in February of 2022. The guards patted my body to check for weapons. They snapped a headshot of me. They asked me to take off my nose piercings, as if I was going to stab somebody with a centimeter-sized piece of metal. When I was finally allowed to see him, the guards made sure we knew that we couldn’t touch in any way: no hugs, no holding hands. It crushed me to watch him cry and recognize I was crying too. I remember thinking, “I don’t deserve to be treated like a criminal’s daughter, and my father shouldn’t be treated like a criminal.” 

I saw my dad once a month after that, on the last Thursday of every month. 

 On one visit, in the summer of 2022 he said, “Arna, I’m only happy the days you come.” 

I felt a little sad by that thought and let out a mumble of, “Abbu, I only see you once a month.” 

He must have noticed the sadness because he then said, “Yes, and the one day of the month you do come, you become my Christmas, Thanksgiving, New Years, and birthday all in one.” 

I probably think about that sentence at least once a day. 

The month after that visit, I had exams and realized I couldn’t see him. Exams were overwhelming all on their own and I felt anxious at the thought of seeing him. My then-therapist Alicia picked up on the anxiety that accompanied visiting my dad. Unlike previous therapists, who seemed to judge me for not feeling just angry at my dad, Alicia accepted my mixed emotions. But after every session, she reminded me that it was OK to take a break and maybe I could call him or send him a letter instead. I was so busy with school that I wound up doing neither of those things. That month was the most peaceful month of my life. I decided to extend that break from going upstate to see him, and the truth is that it’s a relief, and at the same time I still miss him. I miss a lot about him. I miss him opening my report cards knowing I did well (but even then he would say “you could have done better”). I miss him talking to my teachers at parent-teacher meetings. I loved watching the pride from my teacher’s face transfer to my father’s when teachers praised me. I still get A’s, even though there’s no one to congratulate me.

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