Dear Daddy, Why Didn't You Protect Me?

By Dawn Clancy 04/03/19

Instead of worrying about being attacked by some random person on the street, I lived with my attacker 365 days a year.

Little girl sitting with head resting on arms, sad about abusive mother and stepfather, wishing for her dad's protection
Despite the many things my mom got wrong when she was drunk, she wasn’t lying about my dad. He wasn't coming. ID 50956501 © Dmitrii Kiselev |

My stepmom couldn't remember if he whipped out a knife or a pipe of a similar size, but she recalled the moment the perp appeared over her left shoulder. She was leaning against my dad's car, parked in front of the apartment building he owned on George Street in Norristown, Pennsylvania. They were there that night cleaning up after the first-floor tenant who'd recently moved out after dodging his rent for months. My dad was still inside when my stepmom stepped out for a cigarette. That's when she says she was attacked. But just as the man who appeared over her left shoulder was winding up to bash or stab her, my dad popped out from the darkness and swatted him away. The details at that point get fuzzy because as my stepmom recalled, she was in shock, her body trembling as she collapsed into my dad's chest like a wet noodle.

"Your father saved me," she'd lament whenever she told the story. "He's such a good man...such a good man."

My dad began dating my stepmom before my parents divorced when I was four years old. As part of my parents' agreement, my two older brothers, practically residents at the local juvenile hall, stayed with my dad while I moved with my mom to East Falls, Philadelphia. With the three of us kids figuratively gone, my dad was free to court my stepmom, and he did so with fervor. Newly divorced herself, and emotionally impaired by her allegedly abusive ex-husband, my stepmom basked in my dad's undivided attention and unsolicited protection. It was through her stories about my dad's acts of chivalry — rescuing her when her car broke down in a blinding blizzard or refusing to let her enter her apartment before he inspected every room and closet — that greatly influenced my perception of my dad. As a little girl, my father was more than a good man; he was my superhero. Until I realized he wasn't.

The disparity between my dad's willingness to protect my stepmom and his inability to express even the slightest concern over my wellbeing became painfully clear while I was living with my mom and the man who eventually became my stepdad. They were both alcoholics with ravenous appetites for violence and our home was a war zone. Instead of worrying about being attacked by some random person on the street, I lived with my attacker 365 days a year. I spent many school nights and weekends watching my stepdad choke my mom on the living room floor. I scrubbed her blood off the sofa when my stepdad split my mom's lips open, and when she turned her rage in my direction, I dodged the knives she thrust at my back and hid the patches of hair she ripped off my head.

Literally and figuratively, I wore the scars of an abused kid. But unlike the thick coat of protection my dad offered my stepmom, he couldn't be bothered to do anything about the hell I was experiencing. And it wasn't because he didn’t know. My mom and stepdad didn’t keep their lifestyle a secret; on many occasions, amid a drunken fit, my mom called my dad.

"I'm gonna kill your fuckin’ daughter," she threatened. There would be a short pause while my dad responded.

"Come and get your little bitch," my mom screamed into the receiver while looking right at me.

"You hear that?” she said. "Your dad's not comin’, he doesn't fuckin’ want you."

Despite the many things my mom got wrong when she was drunk, she wasn’t lying about my dad. He only lived a quick 30-minute drive away, but she was right. He wasn't coming.

When I was eight years old, my mom effectively kicked me out of her house. Oddly, it was the idea of me being homeless and not my mom's drunken threats to kill me that motivated my dad to act. And although I was relieved to be moving away from the chaos, living with my dad and stepmom became a nightmare of a different kind.

Slowly I realized it wasn't only boogeymen lurking in the dark or tales of abusive ex-husbands that my dad protected my stepmom from. He was also willing to shield her from me if she felt she needed it, no questions asked. Once at a family gathering, my stepmom grew increasingly annoyed when I wouldn't get off the couch and play with the other children. At ten years old, I was painfully shy and didn't know how to approach a group of kids I'd never met before. When I wouldn't budge, my stepmom stormed out of the house and my dad and I followed. On the front lawn, she turned to me and said, "Great, now everyone is going to think you're retarded." As I started to cry, my dad wrapped his arms around my stepmom and looked away.

To this day, my dad has yet to acknowledge the life I lived with my mom and stepdad. He never asked me what it was like to watch my stepdad bash my mom's face into a mirror or how sick it made me feel to have to tell my stepdad I loved him when there wasn't a cell in my body that did. No, he never once inquired, but on several occasions he brought up my stepmom's childhood. He shared how her father died when she was young and how her mother was never around. And while my stepmom's upbringing may have been less than ideal and could have affected her behavior in certain ways, I've never understood how my dad could compare my experience to hers. I don't know how he could look me in the eyes and say, "You know, your stepmom had it bad too."

A few months before my 18th birthday, my dad was hit by a car. One of his hips was nearly shattered, and after being released from the hospital, he spent weeks laid up in bed. One night we got in an argument over something trivial. As our exchange escalated, my stepmom burst into the room, grabbed me from behind and shoved me towards the bedroom door. Although she had occasionally spanked me for misbehaving when I was younger, this was the first time she put her hands on me as an adult. As I regained my balance, I turned towards my stepmom and paused. Although my body was still, in my mind I'd already lurched forward and pinned her against the wall.

What happened next snapped me out of my fantasy. Off to my left, I watched my dad, who'd been bedridden for weeks, thrust himself out of bed. Although he barely had the strength or the balance to stand, I knew if I caused any harm my dad would call the police and I'd be the one leaving in handcuffs. Given my lack of options, I did the only thing I had the power to do. I walked away. I knew who my dad would choose to protect and defend.

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Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is