Yesterday we published an essay called "On Falling In and Out of Love With My Dad," which Natasha Rose Chenier sent to us shortly after the publication of NYMag's interview with a young woman who planned on marrying her father. I spoke with Natasha more about her story.
So, people are really curious, to say the least, about GSA.
There's a stand-up bit on Inside Amy Schumer, one of my favorite shows, where she goes, "I love watching porn, really good porn, you know, where the guy sort of looks like my dad…" and the whole audience laughs. There's something there, a real fascination.
Let's back up to the beginning of your story. You didn't grow up with your dad.
No, he left the scene when my mom got pregnant. My mom is actually a lesbian.
Did you ever feel the want of a male authority figure?
No. I definitely wasn't like Woe is me, there isn't a man in my life. My mom's long-term partner was a patriarchal butch lesbian, so I already had a "father figure" in my immediate family. But they split up when I was 19, and it was in the aftermath of that that I decided to seek out my dad. My mom's partner had been emotionally abusive, and I was desperate for anything else. So when I found my dad, it didn't matter that he was a man, it just mattered that he was a parent.
Had you ever wanted to get in contact before?
No, I didn't really care too much until my mom and her partner split. It was only then when I realized how angry and hurt I was by the relationship, and decided I wanted to seek out my biological father.
How did you look him up?
I knew he was in Jamaica, so I Googled his name. The person I contacted ended up being his cousin by the same name, who contacted my biological father, who contacted me.
What was your dad's reaction?
He was thrilled. Apparently he raised his hands up to the sky. He was expecting me to contact him when I was 18 for some reason.
Was that when your mom told you his name?
No, my mom never hid his identity from me. She always said she'd support my finding him if I ever wanted to.
Did you ask him why he never contacted you?
I really didn't question him or think of him critically when I found him. I wanted to believe the best of him. We did talk about it, though, and he said he felt that keeping his distance was the right thing to do. He didn't want to invade my life.
The story had been pretty complicated. He and my mother had unprotected sex, she got pregnant, he freaked out and left, she married his friend and got my biological father to sign adoption papers. But she never filed them, and her marriage fell apart. She contacted my dad again when I was five, and welcomed him back into my life. I vaguely remember meeting him then once or twice, but he stopped visiting shortly thereafter, and the next time we met I was 19.
Your dad told you later on that he wanted you, sexually, the moment he saw you. That doesn't mean that first meeting?
And you don't believe he would have been attracted to you as a child.
How did you feel when you met him?
I was taken with him, but in a nonsexual way. I really admired him. I became all about my dad, the way a kid would be with someone they really looked up to. All it felt like was that I was his favorite person.
His girlfriend was getting jealous of our relationship; I was closer to him than she was. And I was starting to really enjoy that, because I always felt less important than my mom's partner, so to feel like I was in first-place was so thrilling. I was elated.
When did you first feel attracted to him?
I noticed I was feeling sexually attracted to him about a year into our two-year relationship. I had no intention of acting on it, or even speaking about it. I was living in denial.
Were you trying to live with him?
I wanted to get out of my mom's house, but I didn't want to live in Jamaica. Not long after I contacted him, I moved back to Montreal, where I had lived previously—and coincidentally his sister, his only sibling, lived in Montreal too. I needed somewhere to go, and moved in with her and her husband. And actually, I was really living with her husband, because she lived in the countryside, in the home of her late husband.
When I stopped talking to my dad I was still living at her husband's place, which was awful. I basically threw myself into a new relationship and moved in with my new boyfriend to get out of that house.
That sounds very complicated.
It was. At that time my dad was actually paying for me to go to cognitive behavioral therapy for the severe panic attacks I was having. I think he was trying to keep things under wraps from his sister. And when she finally pressured me into telling her what happened, she wound up blaming me. I felt I was to blame for a long time.
Eventually I started seeing a therapist who knew about GSA. She explained that the child in the relationship is vulnerable in a way that the parent simply isn't, even when grown up. A person approaches their parent in hopes that they'll be taken care of, looked after, that their parent will have their best interests at heart. That's certainly true of how I approached my father.
She also explained that, when we grow up with family around us, sexual boundaries naturally get established along the way. But when that process hasn't occurred, and family members meet as adults, there is a good chance that strong sexual feelings will arise, and be acted upon depending on the situation.
So an entry point into this story for people could be the basic feeling of being attracted to someone who you know you shouldn't be attracted to. People can understand that who might not be able to understand anything else. Did you have that sort of subversive excitement when you were hanging out with your dad?
I only really felt deviant after we broke the physical barrier. And then, we had mutually-given oral sex four or five times over the course of a few days.
How did you feel during that time?
It was literally night and day. At night, the first night, I felt thrilled. I thought, "There's nothing wrong with this, just cultural norms that are meaningless." The sexual intensity was nothing like I'd ever felt before. It was like being loved by a parent you never had, and the partner you always wanted, at once.
And then in the morning, we had oral sex again, and that's when I wanted to puke and felt like a criminal. At night I was really into it, but by morning I wanted to die. That's not hyperbole; I really wanted to die.
Do you think he felt the same way?
No. He was much more in control than I was. I had tried to have unprotected intercourse with him, which I had never done before in my life, and he stopped me and said, "We can't, I'm your father."
Oh my god. What did that feel like?
Immediately I thought, "He's protecting me. He really cares about me."
And then a few years later, I was like, actually, that's terrifying. He was in control, totally in control. He knew exactly what he wanted. He knew exactly where to draw the line. I, on the other hand, was completely out of control. He wasn't doing things he felt powerless not to do, he wasn't feeling sick to his stomach afterwards. He could stop and start whenever he wanted.
I did everything I could to stop it, despite the intense feelings I was having: I told him how powerless I felt—I told him I needed him to stop it because I couldn't. It's like when you're too drunk to tell up from down, and you're begging someone to take you home. You know you need help but you can't help yourself. He agreed, but kept initiating, and so it happened a few more times until I was finally able to end it when I holed myself up in the other room on my last night there.
How does he conceptualize this period, do you think?
He told me things like, "I would take you away and marry you if I could," and, "We just love each other too much." I asked him what he thought would happen if I told anybody. He said, "I would be the bad guy."
And what did you think when he said that?
I felt protective of him, which I did for a really long time. But then finally I was like, "Fuck you, you are the bad guy." When I look back, he was romancing me. He was taking me on extravagant trips to exotic remote places, where we'd stay in these beautiful cabins, and he'd completely spoil me—we would go out and eat the nicest foods, it was like some over the top Disney fantasy.
That is the kind of treatment that people dream of getting both from their dads when they're little and their partners later in life.
Yes. We were treading that line in a really weird, complicated way.
Do you look back on the period where he was treating you really well and read it as grooming? When I read your essay for the first time, his seemed very much like the behavior of an abuser.
Obviously it's pretty self-incriminating to say, "I wanted you from the first moment I saw you." His saying that is what helped me understand, down the line, that he was entirely to blame for what happened. It was what he wanted. It was what he got.
And, horribly, "I wanted you from the first moment I saw you" is also something that people want to hear—in two different ways—from both their partner and their dad.
There were all these things that he'd done that had upset me without my knowing why at the time. Way too much information about his sexual encounters with my mom. The time he put on porn when I was in the room. He upset me a few times to the point where I was crying, leaving the room. When I look back on it, I think, of course I was bothered. He was crossing lines he shouldn't have been crossing, and I was not responding well to it.
When did you guys start sharing a bed? And did that feel unwanted?
No—it just felt like a nice parent thing. It happened about a year in, I think on the second visit out of three. It didn't feel sexual to me at first. But then right before I left Jamaica the second time, I noticed I had felt sexually aroused by the contact. I left thinking, "I don't know what the hell that was about."
When you came back the next time, did you have the sense that something was going to happen? I'm curious about how much of your attraction to him before things turned physical was buried and how much was conscious. Were you looking forward to your visits as things that would then be sexually charged?
Yes and no. I did notice that I was dressing more sexily, that I wanted his attention. But having been raised with cropped haircuts and boys' clothes, I just felt that I was "becoming a woman" in a really cliché way, that my dad thought I was beautiful, and it felt really nice.
So I think some of it was conscious, but I had no idea that he literally wanted to have sex with me, that that was even a remote possibility. It was just not in my knowledge that this was a real thing that people often act on. I didn't see it coming because I had no idea about genetic sexual attraction. I have never been this blindsided or wrong about anyone else or any other situation in my life.
Did sex with him feel different than with other people?
It was crazy. We understood each other's bodies as if we'd been life-long lovers. I've had to teach most of my partners how to do things—and obviously he's a middle-aged man, he's had lots of sex, but there was more than that to it, some deep psychic connection. Not even speaking sexually, but things would go on with me, things I couldn't identify, and he would understand and explain them to me. It felt like he knew me better than I knew myself.
Your reactions and instincts were the same.
Yes. The sex was intense in a way that no other sex has been.
Do you think about it?
Yes, sometimes my mind goes there. It was the most physically intense thing I've ever experienced and I can't ignore that. I really like David Lynch's work because it treads the line between the erotic and the horrifying. I think there's so much truth in that. My worst fears and my most intense sexual fantasies have come together, and I can't undo that.
How many people know about this?
During the #YesAllWomen thing I posted about it on Facebook, which was to a group of about 100 people, and that was the beginning of my coming out about it. Prior to that, only a few people.
When did you start telling people?
My cousin who I grew up with lived in Toronto, which is where I flew in and out of when I went to Jamaica. I was staying with her right away after coming back from my last visit with my biological father, and I was having these horrible panic attacks, so I told her what had happened. For a while she was the only person who knew.
What was that like?
I thought she'd run out of the house screaming and never talk to me again, but in the end I felt totally supported. She and my partner are alike in a lot of ways—they're not people who are easily upset or who outwardly show their emotions, so she heard me out and said, "Whenever you feel ready, I think it would be a good idea to see a therapist." And that's all I needed to hear.
What was it like telling your current partner?
Really uncomfortable, but he's an extraordinarily caring person. He said, "I just want to take care of you; I just want to help you." And I kind of didn't believe it. I was like, aren't you grossed out? Aren't you weirded out? But to this day, that seems to be it: he supports me.
When was your last trip to Jamaica?
And you never went back after things got physical.
What's particularly interesting to me about your story is that you're not saying that your relationship with him was okay, unlike a lot of people who are public about GSA. What other people call a taboo or transgression, you see (rightfully) as abuse, and although you're still attracted to that dynamic, you've come to understand that your dad was taking advantage of you.
But your essay still ends on this note where you're defending yourself against claims that you messed your dad's life up. That it was your fault. I'm interested in the part of you that keeps thinking that over.
One of my professors used to say, "You're making the mistake of using logic and reason," which is what I want to say to you right now. The stories that I mention at the end, these narratives of deviant women ruining men's lives, they run deep. No, it doesn't make sense, but cherchez la femme, it's always the woman's fault in the public eye. I like to think that's changing, but I'm not sure it is.
As for my dad's sister, I told her that I felt sexually attracted to him, and things turned sexual, all of which is true. So it makes sense to me that she was angry. She told me not to tell anyone, because I would be damaging her family's reputation. She wouldn't let me tell her husband, either, and at the time I was living with him and not with her because she was out in the country. I eventually wound up telling him after he continually demanded to know what was going on, and that's what broke up my relationship with them. And in retrospect, maybe she was also jealous about the fact that I was living with her husband and she wasn't. It was a really weird situation.
That sounds very weird.
Yeah. At the time there were actually three middle-aged men who had taken on a lot of importance in my life—her husband, my biological father, and a former high school teacher who actually turned out to be their mutual friend. I had no sexual feelings for the teacher at all, but one day he sat me down and said, "Just to be clear, nothing is going to happen between us."
I was like, what is going on with my life? It was such a weird culmination of things.
Not to make light of the situation, but you literally had daddy issues. I would assume you were working through them however you could.
The NYMag woman said that there was nothing wrong with her being in a relationship with her father. Do you think that a parent-child incestuous relationship can be okay if it's between two consenting adults?
Consent is a simple word that overlooks so much. When a parent asks their kid whether they want to have sex, does the answer matter? Isn't the question wherein the wrong lies? My father did ask for my permission before we first had oral sex, and I said yes. But it wasn't me. In fact throughout our whole first physical encounter I kept saying, "I can't believe this is happening, I can't believe this is happening," like a mantra. It truly was an out-of-body experience. Something else had taken ahold of me, and there was no way to fight it.
That's the language of really horrible trauma and also really intense lust.
Yes, it was both in equal parts.
Do you talk to your dad now?
Oh, no. We were in touch when I was in therapy, initially, and then I just stopped answering his calls. He wound up sending me an email eventually, apologizing. It wasn't a particularly long or insightful message. It was just, "I'm really sorry for what happened." Too little, too late.
I wrote him back a really angry response and all I remember was ending it with "Say hi to your girlfriend." He was always cheating on her; he's just the worst.
And I think she knew.
About the two of you?
She knew there was a vibe. And I honestly wish she had said something. I wish someone had said something to me! And one of the things that I mentioned in the piece that made me realize he was in total control is that, when I was at the lowest point of self-loathing and anxiety, he took me out with her and his friends, made everyone laugh, was in top form.
Do you have a really strong reaction when you're making conversation with a friend, and they're off-handedly like, "What does your dad do?"
It's like hitting an exposed nerve. A big part of me still feels bad and to blame, like people will hate me or doubt me if I tell them. And that's what a lot of people live with, not just with incestuous sexual encounters, but any kind of sex abuse. We're made to feel damaged, and bad. I carry that with me, and up until now I've been very protective of the story. But for Woody Allen's daughter to come out, and the women abused by Jian Ghomeshi, it really inspired me.
There's no easy way out of this. Whatever happened to us, we have to live with it for the rest of our lives. What I do know is that it doesn't get better if you keep it a secret. You sit there, it lingers, it comes up, and you feel horribly alone. In sharing my story, I feel less alone. When I came out about it initially, several members of my family and greater community came forward with their stories. Incestuous abuse isn't half as uncommon as we think it is, unfortunately. So there's nothing to hide or to be ashamed of. Furthermore, keeping it a secret protects the people who abused us.
How does this affect your current sex life?
I'm drawn to incest fantasies now, whereas I wasn't before. I'm drawn to stuff with a really intense power dynamic, really violent and abusive stuff. I'm so angry about that. I don't want to say that I'm messed up, because I think the forbidden is always wrapped up in sexual fantasies, hence Amy Schumer's joke, but I wish I could undo all that.
Do you talk to your partner about it?
No, I don't really want to be all, "Hey, sometimes I think about my dad during sex!" Some things are just better left unsaid. But I am interested in the global fascination with abusive fantasies. I think we need to examine this, and that's part of the reason I am talking about my experience. Evil is obviously a horrible thing, but it's also arousing in a way that nothing else is.
How do you cope with everything, in the aftermath?
By being creative. It's the only way I know how to come out of this as a victor and not a victim, which is why I am writing a novel about all of this right now. I really hope that it can help people who feel alone, that it can help them to understand that they're not.
For more about Natasha Rose Chenier or her writing, visit her website.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.