Scarlett's dad is in prison for two decades
She's had to let go of the father she thought she knew
Before we begin: It’s Mental Illness Awareness Week. Nearly 1 in 5 American adults will have a diagnosable mental health condition in any given year. Remember to take care of and be kind to yourself, ask for help when you need it, and never forget that you’re not alone.
I first met Scarlett* during our freshman year of high school. She was a regular in my girl gang at our single-gender, Catholic school in the suburbs of Los Angeles. We tumbled through four awkward, dramatic years together, going to dances and football games, driving to get Del Taco after school, and hanging out at each other’s houses watching Will Ferrell sketches. Thirteen years after graduation, my high school group still gathers together about once a year. We’ve all been through a lot of changes, but Scarlett experienced a major life upheaval: In 2014, her father, a longtime teacher, was sentenced to 23-and-a-half years in prison for child pornography and the molestation of a teen boy. He will serve a minimum of 18 years.
I called Scarlett on a late August day to talk to her about what happened for the first time. She has never spoken publicly about how her father’s crimes affected she and her mother’s lives before now. We spoke about the pain of carrying someone else’s shame, loving someone who is deeply flawed, and why she’s finally ready to visit her dad in prison to speak to him face-to-face for the first time in four years.
*Scarlett requested the use of her first name only for privacy and safety reasons.
Keep walking up those literal and figurative mountains, everybody.
We need to talk
Jillian Anthony: How are you? Catch me up on your life.
Scarlett: I feel like I’m emotionally in a good place after so long. I feel like I’ve been stumbling for the last six years and I’m finally walking upright again with grace and confidence, but it’s like, okay, there’s still unresolved issues here and they obviously leak into a lot of parts of your life. And it’s been time to address things for awhile.
How have you been doing that?
Baby steps. I was supposed to visit my dad in August, and there’s a whole list of questions I’ve been making for the last few years of things I need to sit down and ask because they’ve affected me and my ability to trust in people. At the beginning of the summer a friend of mine from college [and I] bonded over the fact that both of our dads have been in prison. We both live in LA and I didn’t see her or hear from her for a year. In June we went to get drinks, and she [told me that] her dad was murdered, and she was not on good terms with him at the time. She was like, “The biggest regret I have is not taking his calls and not talking to him. If you have any doubt about talking to your dad you should go do it.”
Have you been not speaking to him for these years?
I actually speak to my dad once a week, but it’s a 15-minute phone call and I don’t get any choice in when they happen other than telling him when I’m available to speak. I haven’t physically seen him, touched him, hugged him in four years.
Is there a reason you haven’t gone to see him already?
First off, it sucks so much to go do that—the way people even just look at you for being there. You have to give up all your freedoms just to go in there. When my dad was sentenced he was moved to Arizona, so that’s where he’s been since 2015. And for a long time because I was so angry, it was like, why should I spend the money I work so hard for [to go see you] when I’m struggling so much because of a choice you made? But I view it, at this point, as something I need to do for me.
Can you tell me about when this happened, and what you went through during that time?
It was June 3, 2013 when my dad was arrested. I had just moved out into my first apartment after college. Monday when I was at work my mom texted me that she needed me to stop by the house on my way home. And when I got there my dad was pacing back and forth, and it made me really uncomfortable. We all sat down… it sucks, like, I can feel it.
I know it’s really painful.
I was like, you guys just need to tell me. My dad said, “I lost my job.” I remember being really surprised because my dad was a really popular teacher. He was the football and basketball coach. When he taught junior high, the eighth graders would vote for a faculty member to speak at graduation and my dad had been voted that faculty member three years in a row. He was super respected and I just couldn’t understand why. He said it was child pornography and I remember just saying, “What the fuck.” That’s all I said for ten minutes. It didn’t compute at all. I immediately became the only breadwinner in the family because my mom had retired, like, three days before this. You think you know what you’re going to say and do if this were to ever happen, and then it happens and you don’t really know. My instinct was to still just be there even though I feel like most people would be like, how? How could you even continue to have a relationship with this person?
It’s easy to judge someone, but this is someone you love. This is your father—you don’t shut that off in an instant.
Exactly. We told him straight up, you can’t put our family through a trial, you need to plea out. So my dad pled out and he got 282 months, which is 23-and-a-half years. And he’ll have to serve 18 or 19 years, bare minimum.
How did you come to terms with, my dad is a deeply flawed person, but I still love him?
I think the hardest lesson anyone ever has to learn is to know their parents are completely capable of doing wrong, and sometimes of really, really, really wrong things. They’re human and they have all the same feelings and urges and emotions that you do. I had such a fear of everyone viewing my dad as a monster because I was like, that’s not who I see, that’s not who raised me, that’s not the father I have. I think being so naive and having no experience [with knowing anyone in prison], it’s so easy to be like, anyone who ends up in jail is a terrible, evil individual and they’re exactly where they need to be. Whether people are in there because they’re guilty or not, they’re still people’s sons and daughters and moms and dads and brothers and sisters.
What has it been like for your mom? As a family, how have you guys dealt with this?
The only good thing that came out of it was how close my mom and I got after the fact. It’s made me redefine what family is because I’ve ended up cutting out a lot of my blood relatives. I realized the people in my life who were there when it happened and just wanted to be there for my family were definitely more blood to me than my own family.
How did your relationship with your dad change? What conversations did you guys have about this?
He wrote me a letter not long after everything happened. He explained a lot of things and said if I wanted to talk about them that he would be open. But the thing that’s really hard and where I feel like I have the majority of my trust issues is, when they told me what happened I asked my dad, “Did this ever go further than what you’ve told me? Is this everything?” And he looked me in the eyes and he told me, “This is it.” And it really wasn’t. [Editor’s note: Scarlett found out about the child molestation charge later.] If my dad can look me in the eye and just straight up lie to me, anyone can do that, especially a man. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been so hesitant to go out and see him because, will I even really 100% believe anything he says at this point?
What are some of the things that you’re hoping he’ll answer for you?
I’d like to have some kind of explanation from him about, what was that moment in your life that you think flipped this switch and led you down this path? Was it alcoholism or was it something else? I’ve had to really redefine what a father-daughter relationship is, and it’s hard. My friends are getting married and I still have to leave the room when there’s father-daughter dances. I can’t handle that shit. I need him to understand how much he changed everything, how there was this person that I was on a path to be, and then he did what he did, and it’s completely changed me and kind of hardened me. I think mostly a lot of understanding is what I’m looking for. I think it’s easy to be removed from the struggles my mom and I have had to go through every single day because of his choices. If he saw the years we couldn’t afford groceries, because we gave all our money to his lawyers—
Has he said thank you for those things?
Yeah, and he said thank you for standing by him. And people have told us not a lot of people do stand by their family members when they’re in situations like this. And I wondered for a long time if that was wrong or if that was right, and I still don’t know some days.
Was it always your instinct to support him?
It was never my instinct to turn my back on him. I’m honestly shocked by that. I never thought that’s how I would feel, but I do firmly believe that when people are at their most unlovable is when you need to love them the most. And there’s nothing more unlovable than what’s going on right now. I found my dad’s suicide note. I don’t ever want to be responsible for that.
I’m sure you had to work through a lot of shame in this process, even though it had nothing to do with you.
I’ve only recently begun to accept that it’s not my shame to carry. I felt like it was something that I was obligated to disclose to people, almost like an STD.
You’ve been dealing with this for five years. What have your stages of grief been like, and how have you changed?
I was making really bad decisions for myself for a really long time, whether they’d be using drugs or alcohol to cope or dating guys that did not care about me and did not treat me well. I started to realize, I’m never going to be able to change what’s happened to me—the way I view the world now, I can’t go back to the old way. So I’ve told myself, for you, having a dad in prison, that is your normal. Something like 45% of Americans have an immediate family member that’s done prison time, but we don’t talk about it. I really wanted to let go of the anger I had toward my dad, so I started boxing. I stopped going out and partying. And the last few years I started to truly put myself first and that’s meant a lot of self-care, and telling people no.
This is a whole new reality that’s going to be with you for the rest of your life. I can only imagine the things you’ve been working through and how hard it’s been.
I wouldn’t wish this shit on fucking anyone. But I’m 100% a stronger person for having gone through it and I’m also a much more compassionate person. It sucks, but I do feel like it was a different, naive person that lived before me. I’m not quite where I want to be personally and professionally, and sometimes I look at how much more of the mountain I have to scale, and you have to take a look back and say, “Wow, I’ve climbed all that shit so far, though.”
I so appreciate you talking to me, and I hope that this was a release for you.
This has actually been a really good step. It makes me feel more confident about going to see him in person.
I’m grateful for our long friendship.
I am too.
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