The Ayn Rand school of parenting: My dad’s only rule was “there are no rules”
Anyone who walked in that night would have thought my father had stabbed me near enough to death to call it slaughter.
The garbage we let mount in our little two-bedroom Mississauga apartment had reached knee height, and had begun to give off a sour odor that, in and of itself, was enough to make one think a thing had died. But there was more than that. There was the giant stuffed white elephant, won at the Exhibition while we worked on my father’s newest system for winning money. It slouched on the arm of the couch, splayed, covered with bright red curdled vomit. The vomit reached past the white elephant into the crevices of trash, through to what I think was beige carpet.
Then there was me, all of 9 years old, prostrate in my own red drizzle. It had come out of me 11 times. We counted. This was the result of eating two extra-large bags of ketchup chips because dad said, as we walked through the oversized gates of the Exhibition, that the only rule was that there were no rules, that I could, in fact should, consume as much and as unhealthily as I liked.
My father was a man of numerous conflicting yet dogmatically held philosophies. Most evenings he sat on his side of the couch, a moat of lids and wrappers between us, and read Ayn Rand on “The Virtues of Selfishness.” He would look up over his reading glasses, get my attention, and then read aloud with an almost endearing devotion.
“No man can have a right to impose an unchosen obligation, an unrewarded duty or an involuntary servitude on another man,” he intoned. “There can be no such thing as ‘the right to enslave.’”
This was a philosophy he applied wholeheartedly to his parenting. Being his offspring did not give me the right to receive from him anything that didn’t benefit or please him to give me.
One of the results of this philosophy was that my father did not cook for me, nor buy me meals, though he did allow me the bread off his plate when we went out. In short, I was hungry. I was always hungry, and the only thing he ever seemed willing to buy me was junk food. That’s where the ketchup chips came in: He bought me two family-sized bags as we walked through the bright clanging games and gambled. I had asked and he had provided. He provided and I ate until my hands were stained with bright red crystals, until my belly flared. I ate until I couldn’t see straight. I was proving something to my father — proving I could do the Exhibition just the way he wanted and more.
When I was 6 and my parents were still together I walked between them in the living room to distract them during one of their fights. Most of the time when they fought my mother would take me to the basement, turn on Bugs Bunny, and lock the door at the top of the stairs. This time she’d forgotten the lock. I felt like it was an invitation to intervene, like I could make a difference. I closed my eyes and walked like a silly soldier, but I went too far, hitting the brick of our fireplace with my knee and tearing myself open. I cried in the uninhibited way children do, fell to the floor, and looked up just in time to see my father walking out the door.
“He doesn’t like blood,” mom said.
Now he stood at the corner of the apartment like a thing attacked, frozen, as I expelled myself into a murderous vignette.
When I came to he was gone. I had an insatiable hankering for another bag of chips.
On another Friday about a month later, my father set out to teach me a lesson. He did this often, designating some particular evening for the dispensation of philosophies.
“You are my immortality,” he told me. “You have my DNA; you must have my philosophy as well. You are the only reason I’m not afraid to die.”
He said this outside the theater, one of those massive suburban multiplexes with gratuitously cartoonish embellishments and flashing fluorescent lights. We were standing in line for the highly advertised horror-fest throwbacks, next to teenagers in black coats and eyeliner. I was dressed in my Value Village floral dress and brown cotton tights. My father wore his usual uniform: black cowboy hat and bolo tie, matching cowboy boots, white collared shirt and dark blue jeans from Guess, which, for some reason I can’t recall, he felt a great loyalty to as a corporation. We stood out. We always did: me with my uncombed hair and dirty dress, him with his long ponytail and costumey get-up – always a cigarette hanging from his mouth, the scent of beer on his breath.
He explained that we were here for a few reasons. The first was simple: He loved horror movies, and had been meaning to see this one for years. He’d considered it carefully and had concluded that the idea that a child should be shielded from horror was absurd. Life, he told me, is not the pleasant family-friendly thing they show on daytime television. Life is scary. It’s dark, and it is comprised of people who conspire to do one another harm. It was about time I learned that.
So there it was. A a child, I needed to learn that life was horror, and my father, being a strict believer in selfishness as a primary motivator in life, felt strongly that he should only ever do with his time what he wanted to do. This meant horror films on movie night, not Disney cartoons nor anything inspirational or funny. Inspirational was false. Funny was false. Horror was real, and more importantly, it was what he wanted. It was also important, he told me, that I learn early on that the one with the money is the one who calls the shots. He bought the tickets, so he got to choose the movie.
That wasn’t all there was to it, though. He went on, like a man justifying his way out of a hole he knows deep down he shouldn’t be in, to explain that I had a lot to learn from the film we were about to see. He told me to watch closely, to count the ways I might relate to the protagonist. I told him I would. I worshipped my father, and aspired to being his worthy disciple.
The film we were there to see was “Carrie.” The crowd was loud. My father was excited, almost childlike. He told me this reminded him of when he was young, before he’d met my mother. When he was happy.
Barely able to see over the man in front of me, I took in the scent of my father’s sweat and of the butter-like substance on his popcorn. He’d purchased me a bag of Reese’s Pieces, another brand he declared loyalty to because of their clever product placement in “E.T.” He believed almost religiously in the value of advertising and declared it was our prerogative as good Capitalists to honor a well-placed product.
I had no idea what was going on as Carrie bled in the shower, as the other girls laughed and threw small, white, bullet-shaped mounds of cotton at her. The film scared me and made me wish more than anything that I could leave the theater, go outside alone into the parking lot and just stand there in the calm empty evening. I looked up once and meekly whispered in my father’s ear.
“Do you think we could leave? I don’t feel so well.” I gripped my stomach as though in pain.
I knew there was no way in hell this would work.
He looked down with a cordial shock, tinged with the possibility of disappointment. It was an expression that stood on the ledge and said “you can turn back now and keep this smile on my face, or you can push the issue, and find out what it’s like to incur my disapproval.”
I loved him too much to ever flirt with his disapproval. I smiled, sat straight, and practiced my best poker face as Carrie crucified her mother with kitchen knives.
After the film, from the passenger seat of my father’s hand-me-down brown Cadillac I mustered all my courage to mitigate the overwhelming feeling of existential dread that gripped me as the car began to move through the darkened suburbs. It’s no hyperbole. I felt the imminence of death, as if a train was approaching — only there was no train, and there was seemingly no end to the sensation. My father gushed about how proud he was, how wonderful that I was now an initiate into the world of horror. “We can do this every weekend!”
Then he revealed the other reason he wanted to bring me to this film, and why he’d asked me to identify with the protagonist. He reminded me, as we pulled into the underground parking lot of his budget high-rise, how many times I’d chosen winning lottery tickets for him, or guessed the right numbers at the Exhibition. He reminded me of the time I knew the fire alarm was about to go off, or when I called my grandpa just as he was having a heart attack. He told me I was special, like Carrie, and though so far that power had primarily been predictive, he believed I could harness it into intention, into affecting outcomes. He told me this could make us rich. Told me it could make me beautiful, coveted, the way he believed a woman should be. He knew all of this to be true based both on the powers I’d already exhibited and on the long line of European women who had been powerful in the same way, whose genes I shared through him.
“Tomorrow,” he told me, “we’re going to turn the walk-in closet into an altar room. I’m going to buy you a dagger, or as they call them in occult practices, an athame, and we will begin our practice together. I have so much to teach you!”
I’d never seen him so excited.
I imagined growing into a thin pale thing with heavy black eyes and an awareness of the worst elements of humanity. I imagined myself as Carrie.
“Okay,” I told my father, grinning falsely through the jolt of my undiagnosed panic attack, “I can’t wait.”
When I was very little, before the divorce, my father would occasionally tuck me in at night, then sit beside my bed in a too-small-for-him wooden chair, and guide me through the practice of astral projection until I swear I felt my soul lift out of my body and up through the roof. Magic like this had been common in many small ways in our household, so it was no big shift when we set up the altar room and began a formal practice.
It was a truth I’d only come to understand in adulthood: Everything my father taught me served one purpose only — building his affluence. When he took me to the racetracks to “feel out” the winning horses during holidays I knew it wasn’t because he thought I would enjoy the outing. Under the influence of his role model Ayn Rand, everything my father did, he did for his own benefit. It was that simple, although I worked hard, as a dutiful daughter, to believe it wasn’t. He was a man who believed people were tools, and I, his daughter, was the closest, most pliable tool on hand.