I have largely avoided writing about my father, Franz Adler, either on this blog or in the writing I keep for myself. I’ve shared the occasional story about him, and from these even a casual reader can derive an idea of his character and personality. The stories speak for themselves,but beyond anecdotes I have never tried to address him as a subject in his own right.
I avoid writing about him because contemplation is painful, even at this late date, and because it is a type of pain that feels unwise to share with strangers, but even these reasons are secondary: the real reason I don’t write about him is because I simply don’t know how. It feels like trying to describe a cataclysmic natural disaster, decades after it happened, to people who were on the other side of the world. How do you describe the tornado that destroyed your home? “A big black wind storm blew it down while we cowered in the cellar?” Even this metaphoric device is poor: he was not an awesome and unprecedented act of the Almighty, but a garden-variety addict and a sociopath, whose modest claim to evil in this life is that he alienated and exploited everyone unfortunate enough to be in his orbit. Thankfully, he was too dysfunctional and undisciplined to achieve a significant sphere of influence in life, which limited his destructive potential. The wheels started to come off when he was about the age I am now, and he became increasingly incapable of pursuing average adult life interests (job, family, gratifying hobbies, the basics). He also seemed to grow increasingly unwilling to make the effort necessary to pass himself off as anything other than what he really is. If he’d managed to hold his shit together until his middle age, he could have had made another family to terrorize and another job and colleagues to steal from. Franz Adler only lasted one, maybe one-and-a-half rounds of adulthood before he started to succumb to his genetic destiny. He started to take the path of least resistance when he was fairly young in his life, mid 30s. He stopped fighting himself, if, indeed, that is what he’d been doing up until that point, and had allowed him to achieve his previous successes.
I was about twelve years old when he started to devolve significantly–he was getting worse before that, and making some very reckless decisions with his life, but he still had most of his shit together: job with benefits, academic ambitions, part-time custody of his child (me), Peace Corps and Army buddies, toys that he liked to buy–you know, basic normal adult shit. He was an addict by then, but he functioned.
Twelve when he “got sick,” as he called it later in life. There are probably several reasons why Franz Adler decided to drop out of life. Perhaps I’ll speculate on them in a later post. But, for whatever reason, he decided that he was not going to do anything that he did not feel like doing. Ever again. Pay the IRS? Register the car? Resist the urge to torch your neighbor’s car for playing his obnoxious Mexican music too loudly? Go grocery shopping for the kid? What?
It took him about four years to lose everything. Some of that time was actually pretty peaceful for me, because he was off in other parts of the country, bleeding the last of his relatives and family friends dry. I think he might have also had legal or court problems–it would explain some absences, the very nomadic lifestyle, and the reason why people he’d been close enough to call on for help, or stay in their houses, turned their backs on him utterly and completely. I think he was stealing or embezzling from them and then running for it.
What did he do with the monies from his 401k, the house, his property, whatever he borrowed or stole? He gambled it. It was gone. He certainly didn’t give it back to any of people he got it from.
By the time I was sixteen, he was almost out of resources, both human and monetary. He was almost trapped, and he got very, very ugly. You do not want to see a person like him when he is cornered. Unfortunately, I had front row tickets, because I was his last and final hostage.
If I had been just a few years younger, I think that I could have escaped some of it, because I would have been too young to be of practical use to him, other than to use me as a bargaining chip to exploit my mother or get some sort of government benefits. What use is a 10-year-old? On the other hand, if I was younger, I think that he might have murdered me when he had me in his possession. I think he would have stabbed me to death or killed me with carbon monoxide while I slept (I think that he almost did that, anyway, actually). He would have done that to hurt my mother.
But, I was 16.
Old enough to drive. Old enough to work.
And, incredibly, he still had legal custody of me.
Children are basically little slaves. They have almost no legal rights. They are disenfranchised. They have more rights than animals, but not many. Most people don’t know this.
What is the use of a slave? Why did anyone want to have one, in the bad old days of most of human history?
You take away their autonomy, and you steal the value of their labor.
Now ask yourself: if you were in Franz Adler’s situation, what would you do with Margo?
You probably can’t think of anything, because you’re a halfway decent human being with morals. If you were unemployed, and your life was in a bad spot right now, kinda chaotic, you’d probably leave your teenager with her mother until you got your shit figured out. Or maybe, since you’re a junkie, you’d ask your teenager for money, or use her to sign up for welfare benefits, or something. Tell her to steal money out of her Mom’s purse, maybe? What else is there?
Still can’t think of anything…?
Now imagine that you have no morals and very little fear of consequences. You are under a tremendous amount of financial stress, which is as close as you get to experiencing fear. There are no limitations on your behavior, self-imposed or otherwise. You just spent four years burning your life down. You are full of hatred. You have no house, no job, no relatives to take you in, and no plans for the future. Shit’s looking pretty fucking bleak.
What you do have is legal custodianship of a 16-year-old girl. She is terrified of you, and for you, but she is your property and she will do whatever you say in the end. Her health and well-being play no part in your decision-making process, nor do her personal preferences or opinions. If anything, your attitude is: she owes you.
She still loves you, so you won’t have to twist her arm too hard.
These are the circumstances of my life at that time. In many ways it was worse than being held by him when I was a young child. When I was a child, all he could demand of me were the things that a child has to give: obedience, love, loyalty, admiration, my imagination, fear.
When I was older, he required more from me.