Some of my fondest childhood memories are of sitting in the back of my father’s car, listening to the music he loves. He would pick me up from daycare in the late afternoon, and I would close my eyes and fall into whatever song was playing – “Dear Prudence” by the Beatles, maybe, or “Through the Long Night” by Billy Joel, or “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” by Neil Young. Through my half-asleep reverie and half-lidded eyes, I would glance up and see my father smirking at me in the rearview mirror.
“Are you asleep back there?” he’d ask me, amused.
“No, Daddy,” I’d slur, “I’m just resting my eyes.”
In the supreme sweetness of those moments, I didn’t have to plan, or worry, or steer the situation to serve my own ends. I was secure in the conviction that I was in loving, capable, and protective hands that would pilot me wherever I ought to go.
I have spent the majority of my life trying to recapture that feeling.
* * *
My parents divorced when I was still too little to understand what the word meant. It didn’t take long for me to figure out it signaled the end of the world as I had known it.
Prior to the divorce, my father had been my primary caregiver. My mother spent her evenings nightclubbing and snorting cocaine and her days sleeping off the previous night’s revelries – often in a stranger’s bed. Where my mother was indifferent, my father was doubly attentive. Where my mother was absent, my father filled in the gaps. He cooked my dinners – grilled cheese sandwiches were his specialty. He ran my baths. He read me bedtime stories in my favorite rocking chair, and, ultimately, he taught me how to read those same stories back to him.
All of that changed when my parents split. My mother was given custody, and she moved me half a continent away from my dad. With her, meals could not be relied upon – there were times when I had to steal food from grocery and convenience stores to avoid starvation. With her, I was expected to take care of not only all of my own needs, but many of hers as well – I was essentially running the household by the age of 10. And with her, there were no more bedtime stories.
But there were plenty of tall tales. My mother lied so often, so flagrantly, and with such gusto that she often managed to fool herself. She’d lie to enliven dull facts, to bury unflattering realities – heck, she lied just to pass the time. Most of all, she lied to manipulate, and most people fell into the traps she laid at least once.
I was no exception. As a child, I must have been to her what a small rural town was to a snake oil salesman: innocent, credulous, and ignorant of ignominy. In other words, I was an easy mark.
The majority of the lies my mother told me were about my father. When I had to do without some necessity on account of lack of funds, she’d blame him. She’d tell me he hadn’t sent the child support check for that month – she couldn’t admit that she had squandered it on drugs – and call him a tightwad who loved only what was in his wallet. She’d put me on the phone to ask him for money, and the awkward silences and irritation-tinged resistance from him that followed seemed to support her contention. The fact that he was rapidly becoming wealthy climbing the corporate ladder at the oil company for which he worked, and the fact that he spent so much time at that job, even during my visits with him, seemed to verify my mother’s claim that he was purely materialistic and parentally maladroit.
But I desperately wanted to disbelieve, and I went on a mission to win some sort of display of pride and affection from him. I got it into my head that the way to impress him, the way to make him love me, was by overachieving. So I got straight As up through high school, was first chair in band and orchestra, and seized every opportunity to prove to him that I was special.
In 7th grade, for example, I fought hard for – and won – the school board’s permission to skip 8th grade. But when I told him the news, he barely looked up from the newspaper he was reading. It was my greatest coup, but it didn’t seem to impress him in the least.
So I began to believe my mother’s claims that he was cold, and uncaring, and interested only in his money. I began to believe that I was not a priority for him. I began to believe that he just plain didn’t love me.
* * *
It was at around that same time that I began to lose my faith in God.
Growing up in the Bible belt, I had always taken the existence of God for granted, even though neither of my parents was religious. I prayed in inverse proportion to the quality of life with my mother – the worse things got, the more I prayed. I remember countless nights spent lying sleepless upon the pallet of blankets that functioned as my bed – we could not afford an actual mattress – my hands tightly clasped together, my gaze fixed upon the moon shining through my window like a beacon on the pitch-black prairie nights. I remember calling out with my whole heart, “Please, please, save me from this hell. Dear God, please help me find a way out.”
The years wore on and on, and things with my mom got worse and worse; by the end of my time with her, she and the ex-con she’d shacked up with were completely strung out on crack cocaine. When they weren’t distracted by fighting each other, they were making – and carrying out – threats against me. Every night brought a grotesque circus – either my mom and her boyfriend would try to beat each other to death, or the crew of junkies, felons, drug-dealers, and other assorted miscreants in their circle of friends would drop in for an impromptu party. Every morning brought broken beer bottles, overflowing ashtrays, vomit on the carpets, passed-out strangers, bloodstains on the furniture – all of which I was expected to put right.
The days went on and on, and my frantic petitions to a God I believed in but knew nothing about grew in intensity and frequency. I never felt that they were answered. Eventually, I grew to suspect that nobody was listening on the other end.
* * *
By the time I was a teenager, I was fully convinced that neither my heavenly nor my earthly father cared for me in the least. I’d completely stopped praying, and my relationship with my dad was set for shipwreck. The grilled cheese sandwich and rocking chair days seemed a lifetime away. When I was eventually able to leave my mother’s house at age 14, I went to live with my grandmother rather than my dad.
The explosion didn’t come until I was 21. After years of below-the-surface seething resentment (on my part), we finally had a major blow-up. He’d said he would pay for me to go back to college, and I had moved halfway across the country to get to the school I wanted to attend – but when the tuition bill arrived, he told me he would help with that semester, but after that, I’d be on my own.
For me, that was the last straw. I let him have it. He reacted in kind. We both said things that never should have been said.
And then, for the next fifteen years, we said nothing whatsoever.
* * *
In my late teens and early twenties, I spent most of my time being angry. I was forever telling myself and others that I didn’t need my parents, because I was clearly capable of taking care of myself, and I often tried to convince myself that there was no logical reason I should love them. At the same time, I was furious at my parents for neglecting to care for me, because I was sure that I would not be so messed up as an adult if I had been better loved as a child.
I was mad at the various institutions that should have intervened to remove me from my abusive mother’s home long before I finally managed to make my escape, because I felt that my life wouldn’t have turned out so lousy had I not had to endure that hell.
I was mad at the universe and life itself for forcing me to exist, because I regarded my existence as a despicable thing.
My anger at my father grew to apply to his entire sex. I truly believed that all of the world’s problems could be blamed on flaws and proclivities generally attributable to men. Wars, genocides, and violence of every conceivable variety were the product of too much testosterone. If men were taken out of the picture, the world would be a better and more peaceful place. So I thought.
As much as I was angry at my personal patriarch, and at patriarchy in general, I was also angry at the Heavenly Patriarch. I grew to disdain the very idea of God; I felt that such a being likely did not exist, and that if He did, I wanted nothing to do with Him. Any deity who would allow children to suffer the way I had was not worthy of my praise.
Step by step, I wrote first my father, then other men, then God out of the script of my life.
* * *
In my mid-twenties, I became a high-priced call girl. That’s when my wising-up process began. My clients were politicians; CEOs; athletes; journalists; men who had made a fortune in tech; and, occasionally, Average Joes. I even had one young college student who came to see me every time he received a financial aid disbursement – a single visit would just about exhaust his entire surplus over and above his tuition.
All of these men had one thing in common: they were all wounded birds – lonely, alienated, bearing heavy baggage. Most of them were seeking something more than mere physical pleasure – some kind of meaningful connection. The majority could have been better served by a trained therapist, as that is the role in which so many of them cast me. For whatever reason, they chose to recline on my couch rather than a shrink’s.
Perhaps the illusion of anonymity was a factor: in that world, we had our own type of confessional seal – it is understood that what is said between a call girl and her client is privileged. These men knew they would never encounter me in their “real” lives, which made me safe in a way that other outlets might not be. Consequently, my clients, particularly my regulars, poured their hearts out to me. In my boudoir, they stripped away more than just their clothing – they also discarded their pretenses, putting me in a uniquely privileged position to see men as they truly are.
By and large, my clients were in miserable marriages. Some had wives who withheld sex and affection or used them strategically and manipulatively; others had wives who disrespected, belittled, or dominated them. These men were driven to buy a rough facsimile of traditionally feminine attention by the hour at an exorbitant rate because they could not get anything like it at home.
Should their spouses decide to divorce them, they generally lost everything – their homes; their savings; and, most painfully for the majority of my clients, their children. One man who came to see me had only recently ceased sleeping in his car, because his ex-wife had taken the house, and he was not immediately able to find somewhere else to live. Another hadn’t seen his son in over a year because his ex-wife had simply stopped sending him for visitation, and neither the courts nor law enforcement had intervened. Yet a third could not wrest custody of his daughter away from his mentally ill ex-wife, even after years of documented erratic and irresponsible behavior on her part, because of the court’s deep bias in favor of mothers.
These men were not unique. I encountered countless others in similar circumstances.
I had always considered myself a liberal and a feminist. But there, literally laid bare in front of me, was case after case providing evidence that defied my worldview. These were not cruel tyrants, callously taking advantage of a system made to favor them due to generations of male domination. Nor were they contented contenders competing side by side with their co-ed co-equals on a level playing field. These were vanquished prisoners of war being made to pay for their own crimes, whatever they might be, plus the alleged crimes of their forefathers, by spiteful women who were already benefiting from boundless institutional compensation. These people were told dozens of times in dozens of ways every day that they were bad and wrong, simply, at least in part, for being male.
I saw so very many men – good men, for the most part, if weak in flesh – persecuted and made unjustly miserable. I couldn’t disregard the evidence; I had to revise my position.
* * *
Since I’d been wrong about men, I had to accept the possibility that I was wrong about other things, too. When I went back to college in my late 20s, I discovered that that was indeed the case. I was at an extremely liberal school, but that didn’t stop my general chemistry professor from spending an entire class challenging her students’ atheism. Her ultimate point? You don’t get something from nothing, no matter what reaction occurs. You have to put something in to get something out. If that’s so, how did the something from which the universe originated come into existence?
It sounds so simple and reasonable now, but at the time, this blew my mind. It defied everything I had believed my entire mature life. But again, I could not ignore the evidence lying in front of me, so that day, I revised my identity from “atheist” to “agnostic.” Shortly thereafter, I began my search for whatever it was that had generated the original something.
I test-drove virtually every major religion. I even went to a voodoo ritual, just to check it out. The only one I seriously considered adopting was Judaism. I studied and attended synagogue. But when it came time for the mikvah, I backed out. Something, I wasn’t sure what, just wasn’t quite right. Something was missing.
It took me about eight years to find out what that something was.
* * *
I was living with my boyfriend and had been for about four years. I had gotten out of sex work – indeed, I had quit for my boyfriend. My life was better than it had ever been, yet something was still missing.
One day I pulled up to park in front of our North Oakland apartment, and the car parked on the street in front of me had a Catholic radio bumper sticker on it. “Ha!” I thought. “What could they possibly find to talk about for 24 hours per day?”
But then I started seeing those stickers everywhere. It seemed as if every third car I’d see had one. Eventually, my curiosity got the better of me, and I decided to tune in to that station. What I heard surprised me. It made sense. And the people were not weird the way the Protestant media people were; I had grown up in the era of televangelists and TBN and had always found those personalities to be at least slightly creepy. But the people on Catholic radio seemed really…normal. And reasonable. I found myself listening to the Catholic station at work – I was cleaning houses at the time – and the programs I heard dampened the drudgery of my menial labor.
After a couple of weeks of this, I woke up one Sunday morning with a burning conviction: I had to go to Mass. As soon as possible. I felt as though I would not be able to go on living if I didn’t make it. I spent all day hemming and hawing, but finally, that evening, I went to my first Mass.
It would not be my last.
* * *
After a bit of searching, I found a Latin Mass parish that felt like home. I found a priest to catechize me who ended up having perhaps the most important influence over me of anyone in my life.
He was so patient with me. He would listen to me vent all of my skepticism, the objects of which were numerous. Then, in a clear and detailed manner, he’d use science, philosophy, history – whatever was germane – to prove the truth of whichever concept or teaching I’d gotten hung up on. He took my doubts and objections and dismantled them with surgical precision. In short, he did what my chemistry professor had done so many years prior, only he took it one step farther: he proved to me that God existed, then identified and familiarized me with Him. He not only satisfactorily answered my questions of what, Who, when, and where, but was able to tell me why. That was all it took to convince me to become Catholic.
But this priest did more than just convert me – he provided a model of what a father could be.
As my baptism approached, I began to feel like the ongoing cold war between my biological father and me was not only stupid, but an impediment to my true and total conversion. My priest agreed. So one day, in the fall of 2013, I picked up the phone and called my dad for the first time in 15 years.
He was overjoyed to hear from me. We cried, laughed, and cry-laughed. We had a long talk that included apologies, explanations, expressions of regret, and a commitment to building a better relationship in the future.
* * *
The loss and eventual rediscovery of my fathers have made the defining saga of my life. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I found them both at almost the same time, lovingly prompted and prodded by a man whose title happens to be “Father.”
This is not a finished story – the getting-to-know-you process with both my fathers is ongoing. I’m still learning, and slowly at that, who my fathers are, how to love and respect them, and what it means to be a daughter. It’s the most exciting journey I have ever undertaken.
My dad summed things up perfectly: “I do believe the ending, when it comes, can still be a great one, and I hope we can write it together.”
Bettina di Fiore is a writer and liturgical seamstress based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated with honors from Mills College with a BA in English in 2008. Her blog, Watching the Whirlwind, offers cultural commentary from a Catholic perspective and personal pieces concerning her own radical conversion experience. She also contributed her conversion story to Patrick Madrid’s 2017 book Surprised by Life under the pen name AnneMarie Schreiber.