By Pat Gallagher
We are sitting in the living room, the late afternoon sun making its way toward the horizon, casting a warm glow on the walls. My son and I have been chatting, catching up on family news. He is about to leave when we are startled by what sounds like an escalating argument on the street below.
“Come back here!” a man is yelling. “You don’t just walk away from me! You can’t do that! Don’t you understand? You are just a child!” He puts emphasis on “child”. “You don’t have the right to do that. You show your father some respect!”
Leaping from our chairs we open the front door and step onto the porch. In tandem we look up the street in the direction of the angry man’s voice. From the top of our steps we see him, in his mid-thirties, medium build, blonde hair, feet firmly planted, stabbing the air with a pointed finger at two girls standing just beyond his reach. The girls, who look to be of mixed race, stand rigidly side-by-side. Their dog, an Alaskan Malamute, paces back and forth on the sidewalk.
“You apologize to me!” he yells.
It’s not clear what the transgression was. But it’s very clear that this man is enraged and, in what appears a desperate attempt to keep power, shouts the same words over and over again. He leans, face flushed and teeth bared, across the space between himself and the girls. Although I cannot make out what she’s saying the elder girl, about 12 years old, seems to be defending whatever action has caused her father’s anger to flare. This enrages him further.
My son and I stand transfixed. Seeing a faraway look in his eyes I ask him, “Are you having flashbacks?” He nods. This incident has taken us both back forty years, to the time when he and his two older brothers were out and about and their father encountered them on the street. I don’t remember what the issue was, but their father launched into a tirade, viciously excoriating them. It drew the attention of a passing police officer (Had someone noticed and called the police?), who intervened. This intrusion further enraged the boys’ father, who brought his anger at having been cautioned home with him. The police according to him are fascists and he, their father, believed he had a right to discipline his children as he saw fit.
This painful memory shoots through our brains at the same time as we watch intently to see if intervention is called for.
As the younger girl slowly reaches toward her pocket for her phone, the father leaps across the space between them and grabs the phone away from her. She begins to sob.
“You are a young child and you must respect your father!” Again this is shouted loudly enough for us to hear. We can clearly hear him but the girls’ voices don’t carry this far until the elder daughter, continuing her defense, yells “You should apologize to us!” The rest of her statement is out of earshot.
We both continue to keep an eye on the father. “I don’t think those girls are safe.” I say to my son. We are each, for our separate reasons, ready to intervene.
My son, already late for an appointment says, “I gotta go, Ma. You can call the cops – your choice.” I walk down the steps with him to his car, wanting the girls and their father to see that someone is there, paying attention. They have migrated down the sidewalk and are now directly in front of our house where their car is parked. As we pass, the father, now holding the dog’s leash, yanks open the car’s rear door and lets the dog into the back seat. The girls stand together on the sidewalk but do not open the car doors.
“Get in the car,” he commands. The younger girl reluctantly opens the rear door and gets in beside the dog. The elder girl refuses. He opens the window on the passenger side and from the driver’s seat he continues to harangue her. She does not budge and continues, through tears, to talk back.
I return to the front porch but am reluctant to go inside. I am watchful. At some point the younger girl slips out of the car to join her sister. More raging from the father, more tears from the girls.
Demands for an apology snap back and forth between the man and his eldest daughter. At some point I hear the man bellow, “All right, I apologize! Now, let me hear an apology from you.” I can’t hear the girl. After several more minutes of stand-off the sobbing girls are both in the car. The engine starts. I hold my breath. Is he going to hurt them now that they are in the car, away from prying eyes? Given the level of his rage I am fearful he will tear away from the curb, slam the accelerator and roar up the street, carrying the girls away, upbraiding them further. At that moment my chance for intervening is gone. I watch with trepidation as he starts the car. But, contrary to my expectation, he puts the car in gear and carefully backs out of the parking spot. He eases the car into the street and slowly drives away, over the rise of the hill and out of my sight.
But they are not out of my mind. I go inside. Closing the front door I sense I have abandoned some responsibility. Over the next several days I replay this scene, feeling again the rising tensions and my increasing fear of what might happen to them. I worry about what might happen once they get home. If this father had no compunctions about loudly berating his children in public, what might he do out of public view? I reflect on my aching desire to help the girls and on my fury at the father, whose apparent insecurity led him to anger and the use of extreme tongue-lashing as a way of exerting control. In calmer moments I wonder how his own upbringing influenced his understanding of how to raise children. I wonder how it is for the girls in that household. What role does the mother play? I speculate that the parents are not living together. Maybe the girls live with their mom, and the dad had picked them up from school. I worry how the girls, likely to be exhausted emotionally, will face the next day at school.
What might I have done? What could I have done? I like to think that, if he had physically assaulted them I’d have called the police. But verbal assault is also damaging, especially to children. Were they afraid of their father? Was this a one-time extreme occurrence or was this habitual? I have witnessed many times the haranguing of children by parents in public settings. Many have been conducted at a higher-than-normal decibel level. But those events never reached the level of ferocity I witnessed, nor did they involve older girls.
I try to rationalize my decision not to interfere. There was a possibility that the situation would escalate. Embarrassment at having been censured by a stranger, in front of his children – no matter how wrong he might have been – could have triggered a face-saving reaction hurled in my direction. I could have handled that but, thinking of that incident years ago, it could also have backfired. Was this father mentally stable? What might I have said? Could I have de-escalated the situation so that face could be preserved? I have no formal training in de-escalation and only some experience in de-fusing volatile situations. I am no longer young, nor robustly strong, and have a barely suppressed fear of injury.
Perhaps I could have approached the little family from a distance and asked, “Everything all right?” or something like that. This only occurred to me in retrospect because in the moments of greatest tension during the incident I wanted to document what I was seeing, to use my phone to video his hostile behavior toward the girls, photograph his license plate number, and to call the police. I wanted to punish him. But I did not want to open myself up to what would ensue as a result of that. Did not want to go on public record or to face retaliation. And what did I have evidence of? I did not hear the entire conversation, did not hear any verbal threats. I only know for sure there was a man shouting at his sobbing children, and afterwards driving them away in his car. Did it matter that he was the father? Would I have acted differently if I’d thought he was a stranger? In the end I’d made my presence known but did not intervene. Cowardice or caution? Neither thought brings comfort.