Alas . . .young girls are often allowed, and even encouraged, to be brash, rude, crude, profane, immodest, immoral, loud, and aggressive. Some of this behavior has been consciously taught in recent years under the rubric of ‘assertiveness training’. —Dr. James Dobson
Dad is great, give us the chocolate cake. Dad is great, give us the chocolate cake. When I was a kid, my dad was the cool parent. He had a mixtape he made full of the Beatles and the Beach Boys and we played it when my mom wasn’t in the car. He was obsessed with Steve Martin, and planned his entire honeymoon around seeing the comic during one of his first performances. He also loved Bill Cosby, and owned his records and a beat-up paperback memoir, and he would always tell us the bit about the chocolate cake. How great it was to be a dad, to eat chocolate cake all you want, to have your kids be helpless in their desire for you and the perks of authority, for them to start a chant that upheld you and carried you, for your children to rise up and call you blessed. We never understood, exactly, what was so funny about that bit. And anyways, my dad never ate chocolate cake for breakfast. But if he did, he would have shared it with us, no bowing or scraping or chanting needed. He was just that kind of a dad.
I was raised in the conservative Christian movement—homeschooled, pastor’s kid, all that jazz. I was raised on a steady diet of preparing for a cultural war, one where the liberals were out to destroy our morality with Barbies and Barney and the gay agenda. I was as comfortable discussing the end-of-the-world theology found in the book of Revelation as I was explaining whatever I overheard Rush Limbaugh say about President Clinton.
But is anyone ever fully in a movement? Although our life revolved around church, we developed a healthy sense of cynicism due to our insider look at both the petty fights and the moral failings contained within. But still, we did try to fit the mold as best we could. It wasn’t our fault that none of us ever made it work.I was told for so many years to focus on my family, to make it good and strong and holy. But now all I ever want to tell my daughter is that it is sometimes those who speak the loudest about morality and spirituality who are all bluster and bluff.I remember Bill Cosby as being one of my dad’s heroes. He was respectable, safe, clean, funny. He was a regular guy. He was a dad, exasperated and busy and lovably frustrated by the self-absorbed monsters he himself had created. As a family, we would watch the Cosby show. I always thought it was a bit boring, especially those long extended musician solos. When I was young, it seemed to me that I had no taste. I didn’t like jazz. I didn’t like the comedy records that my dad played. And I never really liked Bill Cosby. When I was twelve, the youth pastor at our church was a man in his forties. He was married, and his wife terrified me with her frizzy red perm and long, claw-like nails. This youth pastor looked a lot like Sully from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (one of the other few television shows we were allowed to watch). He had long, curly brown hair and very broad shoulders. He did not seem to mind at all when people mentioned that he looked a little bit like Jesus.
One day, after some sort of youth event, I found myself in need of a ride home. My older sister was with some friends, and I sort of accidentally found myself riding in a truck with the youth pastor, just the two of us. I thought nothing of it until he started telling me how beautiful I was, how unlike the other girls I was, how special I was. This was my first warning sign. I had two eyes in my head and I knew I certainly wasn’t the most beautiful anything, nor was I all that special or unique. I was, however, young and female, and this might have been the moment where I was first made aware of that. As the handsome man talked and talked at me, trying to convince me of the special nature of our relationship (we have a spiritual connection, see), I made sure I knew exactly where the door handle was. And in cab of that dark truck, the dusk gathering in the fields outside, I made a grim pact with myself. It was now officially my job to ensure that I would never, ever find myself alone with this man ever again.
I have a daughter now. She is almost five years old. I don’t know if I am raising her right or wrong, and I see the temptation to read a book written by an expert, especially one that promises it will all be alright in the end if I only keep her away from certain evils. I do not work in the church, but my life revolves around living and working with refugees, being a welcoming presence in their lives. My daughter comes with me as we visit families and sit and drink tea, and she usually adores the attention that is showered on her small, blonde head.
The other day we were visiting with some friends from Syria. One of the sons in the family was there, a man in his late 20s. Like everyone, he was excessively kind to my daughter. But there was something just a little bit off about him—possibly his bowl cut, possibly his obsession with talking about other ethnic groups in the apartment complex in disparaging terms—and my daughter was a bit shy around him. On this particular day the family had bought my daughter a bunch of gaudy pink and white bows to put in her hair. I am trying to teach her to be kind and respectful. We were living in the Midwest, where it was normal for the adults to be addressed as “Miss” and “Mister”, where you said thank you and please and were better seen and not heard. She obediently said thank you for the presents, and I smiled at her. But then this man, this boy, told my daughter to come over by him so he could put the bows in her hair. She smiled nervously, her eyes looking around at all the adults in the rooms, all of them smiling at her. She scooted closer to him and allowed him to put two large pink bows in her hair, but I could tell she felt uncomfortable. Her eyes registered the confusion she felt, being torn between my expectations that she be gracious and accepting, and her own discomfort.
In the car, on the way home, I asked my daughter if she wanted that man to put the bows in her hair. No, she answered, she didn’t. How did it make you feel, I asked her. She said nothing, and I didn’t press it. I just told her, a bit more fiercely than perhaps I needed to, that she can always, always say no. If you feel nervous or uncomfortable about anything, you can always say no. And I could feel it, the confusion shimmering underneath the surface of her body. Life was so bewildering. She was receiving so many mixed messages. And it was then, that very moment, when I realized something. I realized how desperately I did not want to raise a polite daughter.There are dozens and dozens of women who have come forth to tell their stories about Bill Cosby, how he drugged them and raped them, took advantage of so many in so many ways. And yet he still walks free, still tries to tell people how to live their own lives better, how to make something of themselves. He is old and haggard and white-haired, he is not the goofy man selling Jell-O or making my dad laugh uncontrollably.
He is the kind of man I want my daughter to smell from a mile away. I do not want her to be polite to him, to acquiesce to his charms or flattery. I do not want her to have to smile awkwardly at his jokes or flirtations, I do not want her to make herself small to make even more room for him. I do not ever want her to feel alone, as though she is the only one responsible for keeping herself safe.
I was told for so many years to focus on my family, to make it good and strong and holy. But now all I ever want to tell my daughter is that it is sometimes those who speak the loudest about morality and spirituality who are all bluster and bluff. I want to tell her what I have learned, that there are those who seek out power in order to prey on others. I want to tell her that being pious and quiet and good will not save her. I want her to scream bloody murder at the first hint of predatory behavior. I want her to be badly behaved when authority figures behave badly.
Dad is great, give us the chocolate cake. I want a blinding light cast on all of us. I want God to have mercy on Bill Cosby’s soul. I want my daughter to know, for ever and ever, that she is never alone. I want her to know God never required politeness, and he never will. Because God is the kind of dad who gives grace freely, and we don’t even have to ask.