Part 2: Advice from my uncle, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell

This post is more difficult to write than the last, because the last post was about how a cruel man harmed his daughter. This post isn’t about a man who I believe meant to be cruel to me. He’s not a monster. He was well-intentioned. He is someone who, in the past, my affection for him was matched with esteem. If, as the Edmund Burke quote goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” then this is about the good man who did nothing. I am speaking, of course, of my uncle, President of Christendom College, Dr. Timothy O’Donnell.

My father’s side of the family holds Dr. O’Donnell (and the fact that he married a Ford girl) in great pride and joy. I confess to being a bit in awe of him when I first arrived, though in fairness, I’ll add that most professors, elders, clergy and authority figures were awe inspiring to my nineteen year old, docile self.

I was having trouble sleeping and focusing — trouble appearing normal to my friends who had loving parents and healthy, close knit families. I was having difficulty getting enough physical activity. Difficulty managing stress eating. Difficulty with thoughts of self loathing and longing for death. I didn’t know that they were called panic attacks but they were happening at very inopportune moments. Like when I needed to not dissolve into a puddle of tears in class, when I needed to write a paper, when I needed to sleep.

I went to the President’s office. He was my uncle, after all, he had known my father before I had, even though he hadn’t known him as I did. But surely he would have insight. He was wiser than a nineteen year old girl, certainly. Wasn’t he?  Maybe just talking to him would help. What was the worst he could say? Maybe he should know that I was considering going to counseling.

I can see him now in my mind’s eye. I can see his office as I sat in front of him with his desk between us. He has a warm, easy smile and twinkling eyes.

“What’s on your mind, Maria?”

“I guess…I came to ask your advice.”

But how could I even begin? He must have known. He knew how my father was. He’d seen his public outbursts at family reunions. But he couldn’t know how bad it had been, or else he would have done something…wouldn’t he?

It was so many years ago that I don’t even remember which latest email from my father or manipulative phone call had sent me there wondering how I could ever hope to succeed at becoming a better person and maybe someday parent than that was trying to mold me into his own image and likeness.

“I’m sorry you feel that you’ve been set a bad example by your father.”  Uncle Tim said.

“Yes, I answered, “he has been verbally, emotionally and physically abusive ever since I could remember.”

I went on to describe the beatings of my brother that were giving me violent flashbacks. The screams, cries and pleas of my mother that haunted my nightmares and my father’s callous indifference and ire at the indignity of being dethroned from his position of tyranny.

“That’s very sad, very sad. I mean, it takes two to tango…”

Those were his words. His exact words. And he must have sensed a bit of the shock on my face because he added, “And I’m sure…there must have been a lot of ‘tango’…terrible to see..very hard, very hard!”

It takes two to tango? I thought to myself. What a dull cliche! And what is he even talking about? What is that even supposed to mean? There is no excuse for a man to beat his wife, ever. There is no excuse to beat a child with an object that big, that repeatedly until his back and chest are covered with welts.  I don’t care how much Uncle Tim dislikes my mom, nobody on earth deserves to be treated like she was.

I did not have the vocabulary at the time to call that what it was; domestic violence apologism. I could sense what it was though and I was deeply scandalized, even back then. I almost thought maybe I shouldn’t have come in to ask this question because I felt so uncomfortable knowing this about him. I certainly didn’t want to repeat that information to anyone else.

“Yes, my mother returned his verbal and emotional abuse. She couldn’t hit him back effectively, though, if that is what you mean. No. He physically dominated and terrorized all of us.”

“Well, you don’t have to choose sides…”

“I stood beside my mother in the divorce court, sent in my testimony for their annulment case.”

He was visibly uncomfortable. Looking back that what I remember most about trying to make Uncle Tim understand how grave the situation was, him avoiding my eyes.

“Well,” he said a little cautiously, “I mean–I’ve always thought that they were married! But I mean it isn’t your job to worry about all that…”

I didn’t seem to be getting through to him to I tried to steer the conversation back to my trying to balance my filial duty and forgiveness with my growing suspicion that my father was not going to change or learn how to have a healthy relationship. And how to balance accepting money from him as a good will gesture for my tuition while sending him whatever I could make to appease him would affect our hope of having a relationship of trust. Uncle Tim looked more and more uneasy and asked questions, then looked as though he wished he had not asked.

“We were all very sad when your mother made the decision to divorce your Dad.”

He interjected, saying “Yes. Divorce is very sad and of course it would negatively affect the children. Very hard. Very sad. We were all very sad when your mother made the decision to divorce your Dad.”

“My mother did what she had to do to protect herself and us.”

He looked uncomfortable again.

“You don’t seem to understand,” I continued, “It was not and is not the split or legal divorce that was or is the problem. I’m trying to explain this as calmly and clearly as I know how. It was the abuse during the time that my father lived with us that is being remembered in the flashbacks and nightmares. I can still hear my brother’s howling in my ears and see his eyes begging Dada to stop beating him. I can hear my father’s screaming those insults at him-It intrudes when I try to listen in class, when I sleep, when I walk back to the dorm at night-”

“Yes, that’s very hard, very hard! Just love them!”

Hand to my heart, those were his words. And every time throughout my years at Christendom through my father’s manipulation, gaslighting, financial abuse, public and humiliating outbursts and screaming insults, I heard the words that my uncle said in my head.

“…What?”

“If you want my advice, just love them,” he repeated with a smile.

Had he still not heard me and understood? Had he not heard me talking for the past 20 minutes? If my fervent infant adoration, my child’s filial devotion, and my hopelessly codependent, adolescent awe, had not been enough to soothe my father’s tortured mind (so that he didn’t have to lie compulsively and beat children) for the first nineteen years of my life, how was it going to save anyone now?

“That’s…that’s never been difficult…I’ve always loved them.”

“You have to show them that you are grateful and show them that you love them.”

Wait. How did this become about me and my love? I thought to myself. I thought of my parents and how every tender expression, word, deed and gift got fed to poor hearts like stomachs that could never be sated of their hunger no matter what I did. Tears filled my eyes anew.

“I’ve prayed for years now and forgave them long ago and each time they do what they continue to do I forgive them. The nightmares and memories still haven’t stopped. So should I go to counseling?”

“If you want to. If you think it will help you…Yes, just remember to show both your parents that you love and appreciate them! You don’t need to choose sides in your parents’ divorce and just know that they both love you.”

Oh yes. They both “loved” me. I knew that.  I wish I could reach into the past, hug my nineteen year old self and warn her that it was far, far better with some people to have their hatred rather than their love. Anybody who has been emotionally abused knows what I mean.

“But I am trying to tell you that they both do not want me to love the other parent. And if I love the other parent they say that I do not love them. I’m not trying to bring contentious topics up. I listen to them both when they speak. They do want to bring it up constantly. And I am not given the option by them to be silent. They will be hurt simply for what I think and feel. Because they need to control what I think and how I feel.”

“They both love you. Just love them.”

I could tell that he did not want to speak of this anymore and did not want me to bring the subject up again. So I smiled meekly and expressed my intention to please, and the meeting ended with dutiful smiles.

“What shall poor Cordelia speak? Love and be silent.”

-King Lear, Act I, Scene III

I thought of that moment from King Lear and of my uncle’s words many times over the last decade. Not in anger or sadness for myself but in my worries for women in the Catholic Church in the United States.

Looking back, it is unsurprising, though still disappointing that a man who enabled domestic violence for nearly twenty years would be more concerned and horrified by a civil divorce followed by an annulment than he would be the effects of PTSD.

It may be difficult to those who aren’t students and alumni to fathom how a college Administrator in any capacity, let alone the President would tell any student, let alone his niece, to stay in an abusive relationship when it is clearly detrimental to her study and mental health. People with backgrounds in mental health will wince and recognize that telling a domestic violence victim to appease her abuser with “love” is the worst advice possible. It not only puts the onus of the abuser’s behavior unjustly on the victim, it is untrue. “Love” is not the cure for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. You can’t move by your generosity, empathy and sincerity someone who is categorically incapable of empathy, selflessness or sees vulnerability as weakness to exploit. Trying to move a narcissistic abuser away from cruelty toward compassion is like trying to tempt Augustus Gloop away from the chocolate pond with a celery stick.

But that is how he thought that he was helping. I am convinced that there are others who were “helped” in this way. If he remains President of Christendom College, I have no reason to suppose that it will ever stop.

That is why I have come forward to tell you this painful truth about someone that I love and have forgiven. It isn’t to demonize him. It is to show how much devastation is caused by harmful ideology in good men. He failed me as a kinsman and as an educator and as an administrator. This is what “just loving” your family looks like. If you love someone, you don’t make yourself an enabler. You do the honorable thing and want those you love to do the honorable thing as well. And if they won’t then you at least want them to stop hurting those that you love including themselves. But my Uncle Tim meant something different when he said “love”. Sadly, my being shown just how different our notion of love was, had only just begun. That’s a true tale for another day.