With the launch of summer’s must-see blockbuster, Wonder Woman, one writer finds her inner superhero to face the turmoil of growing up without a dad.
BY TARA ELLISON JUN 2, 2017
When I was turning nine, in a nod to my childhood obsession, I chose to be Wonder Woman for my fancy-dress-themed birthday party. My mother made the costume for me, which, considering her sewing skills, was either a true act of devotion or utter denial. The satin bodysuit wouldn’t stay up, so in pictures I’m attempting to project confidence with one hand on my hip, and the other clutching at my chest, trying not to flash my guests.
Looking at the photos recently, I noticed for the first time that the other girls at the party wore princess outfits, along with the lone stand-out who came dressed as a cowgirl. Dressing as a princess had never occurred to me. One essential ingredient that makes a girl a princess was the very thing I didn’t have: a father. Princesses had the luxury of looking pretty and waiting around to be saved. I had no protector. There were no men slaying dragons for me.
“When even your own father doesn’t want you, it becomes hard to imagine that anyone else will.”
Shortly after that party, while at a sleepover, one of the princesses’ dads drunkenly addressed me. “Where is your father?” he asked.
“I don’t have one,” I replied.
“Oh, so you’re a bastard,” he said, and snickered into his drink.
I wasn’t in on the joke, so I said “Yes, I am,” with no hint of shame, which made him laugh harder.
Up until that point, I hadn’t judged my situation as being deficient; fathers were simply something other kids had. But somewhere along the way, I began to lose my independent compass and drifted into wanting what other girls had: male attention. Men wanted princesses. They weren’t looking for empowered women who would tie a lasso around them and insist they tell the truth. I left whatever strength and power I had behind and smoothed away those rough edges in a quest to be liked. I wanted to be somebody’s princess.
With no prototype for a healthy relationship, I was too much of a handful for young boys. I sought romances with men, as if a paternal figure might retroactively solve all my problems. There was the much older Italian man whose questionable activities landed him in jail on “mail fraud” charges and prompted a visit from the FBI, (after me, he dated my mother). Before that winner, there was the charismatic Australian business man, who picked me up from high school in his Rolls and would give me what he called, “beginner’s sex lessons” on the bare floor of an empty apartment he owned in town. He was very busy juggling his girlfriends; Suzy had his weeknights, Gail claimed his weekends, and I fell into whatever gaps he had in his schedule. Later there was the charming film producer who courted me and waited until we’d spent our first night together to mention he was married. When even your own father doesn’t want you, it becomes hard to imagine that anyone else will.
I had no foundation of love or any clue what that looked like, so I consumed self-help books and women’s magazines in an attempt to conform to what I imagined a normal, well-fathered woman would do. I tried on different roles, morphing into what I thought a man expected from me: usually someone pretty and pleasant—with minimal needs. Outside of sex, I had no idea what made a relationship ‘stick’.
After the romantic train wreck of my twenties, I was finally getting married, at age 32. Daddy fantasies die a slow death, so I called my father and asked him to walk me down the aisle. I had only met him a handful of times, starting at 15, and it hadn’t gone well, so I wasn’t sure how the invitation would land. Even my dad knew this was a terrible idea and wanted no part in my princess fantasy. He politely declined, saying that his therapist didn’t think it was a good idea. His rejection stung. Since he’d been absent for every milestone of my life, in my mind he’d forfeited the right to be picky.
“It turns out that in the original version of Wonder Woman, she didn’t have a father either.”
I tried to shrug it off. Why did I keep insisting he play a role that he had no interest in? No matter how much I pushed, he was never going to assume the part of the devoted, loving dad. I didn’t need him for anything, anymore; I was a grown woman. Besides, it was silly to cling to tradition when I would be walking down the aisle, four months pregnant, to marry a man I was still trying to talk myself into.
That marriage lasted two years, produced one child and ended badly. Pretending to be something I wasn’t didn’t work. Nothing was turning out the way I hoped.
The divorce dismantled everything. Looking to face the mess head-on, I’d become a seeker. There was my Puja period, where I followed an Indian fellow I met at yoga around town, performing Hindu rituals in Malibu or the Canyons, burning my issues while tossing rose petals into the fire. Of course, issues I’d spent a lifetime acquiring couldn’t be cast off with a few singed flowers. Then I went to Landmark Forum intensive weekend to learn how to spin my story. But after the creepy guy sitting next to me groped my thigh, I left feeling used and depressed. Traditional therapy chipped away at some angst, but I needed an emotional reboot.
Starting over was my aim when I attended a week-long retreat to deal with unfinished business. Recommended by a friend whose life was on track, I learned of The Hoffman Institute to combat old negative patterns. It was billed as “A week-long healing retreat of transformation for people who feel stuck.” I was going to be a challenge for them since I had a black-belt in self-defeating patterns. Maybe if I went back to the beginning, I could figure out where I went wrong.
Teetering on the edge of California with 37 others, we ranged in age from twenties to seventies. Some wanted to save ailing marriages. Others combatted a more generalized despair. There were writing sessions, guided meditations and punching exercises designed to release anger. A handsome man in my row said, “I have to wonder how sane I am for spending a Saturday night bashing pillows.” He must be new to this, I thought.
I wasn’t sure how beating a pillow was going to rid me of my “daddy issues,” but I was willing to find out.
“Claiming your truth is a bit like having Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets: once you own it, nobody can hurt you with it.”
Happy to be positioned in the back of the room where I felt invisible, I sat in front of my bashing station and prepared to take aim at a big cushion representing all my destructive patterns and beliefs. Ready. Set. Go. Whack. Screw you, for not being a dad to me. Thwack. Take that, for never loving me. I swung the bat heavily and pounded the hell out of the pillow and those old princess fantasies. Sweat ran down my spine. Just when I thought I had nothing left to give, my instructor leaned in and said, “Use your voice. Really let it out. That’ll move the energy.” Spurred on by his encouragement, I growled and roared and made all manner of un-lady-like noises, oblivious to that voice in my head concerned with how people were judging me. After it was over, I collapsed, light-headed and elated, as if I had drained seriously toxic crap.
Later, when the silence vow was over, a young man approached me with a blend of amusement and apprehension. “I just have to tell you that I could hear you from all the way in the front of the room. You inspired me to keep going. I’ve never heard a woman scream like that before.”
I laughed, embarrassed.
As we floated in a Sulphur pool lit by moonlight, a woman mentioned to me that she’d also grown up without a father. We shared how that loss laid the minefield for our prickly relationships with men. Being fatherless had become the excuse for all my failings. She nodded, as if this missing link held the key to everything. We instantly bonded, with this shorthand between us. Not having a dad meant not having a safe place to land. Ironically, later in the retreat when we revealed our pictures from childhood, we’d both brought photos of ourselves dressed in Wonder Woman costumes. Did not having a dad make you want to be your own superhero?
I traveled a long way to learn how to come back to myself and the innocence and wisdom of those childhood dreams. The young girl who started out feeling fearless eventually found the courage as an adult to live an imperfect life and embrace her flaws. That golden lasso that compels people to be honest was best used on myself, when I was ready to stand in my truth and claim it. Claiming your truth is a bit like having Wonder Woman’s magic bracelets: once you own it, nobody can hurt you with it.
It turns out that in the original version of Wonder Woman, she was made from clay and didn’t have a father, either. Sometimes what you fear is your biggest defect might actually be your greatest strength in disguise.