I was seven or eight the first time I watched Empire Strikes Back.
And for twenty plus years, one scene has impacted my psyche more than any other — a scene that sent chills up my 8-year old spine and for 13-years haunted my mind.
From a very young age, I was obsessed with heroes. Whether they lived on the pages of comic books, the airwaves of Saturday mornings, saved Princesses in digital lands, or Luke Skywalker himself, I wanted nothing more than to live their lives.
My friends at church, teammates on my baseball team, or other kids around school claimed their dad was their hero. They wanted to grow up and be like their dad.
For me, it was the opposite. I didn’t want to be like my dad when I grew up. And never once did I think of him as my hero.
Because my dad was Darth Vader.
Growing Up With Evil
On the surface, my childhood wasn’t that bad. Family vacations, playing catch with my dad, learning how to ride a bike without training wheels, these moments, I remember. But those moments of bliss rarely paraded around my young mind.
Instead, my mind recalled the tears, whippings, and the nuclear explosions of anger and verbal abuse that my mother and I suffered for years.
I was a talkative kid. But I had a knack for turning on my “radar ears” and catching conversations no one thought I could hear. Besides my super hearing abilities, I — as are many young kids — was also a super sleuth when it came to determining body language.
From my grandparents to my aunts and uncles, and even down to a few Sunday school teachers, at the mention of my father, they became visibly uneased. At around the age of four, I began to sense that something wasn’t right with my dad.
I overheard fears and whispers from family members that they worried about my sister and I.
They worried that around him we might be in “danger.”
Some of my family went as far to instruct me to never—under any circumstance—listen to anything my father said.
“Don’t listen to your dad Robbie, he’s not a good man.”
“Your dad is wrong and I won’t tell you why, but trust me. You shouldn’t believe anything he says.”
I remember telling my aunt once: “I don’t think my dad loves me.” For a decade and a half, I believed every word of her response to my claim.
“Robbie, I don’t understand why your mom is with that man. He’s evil. And the truth is, your dad only had you because you’re a tax break. He doesn’t really love you.”
Knowing what I now know, I understand that you can’t tell a four-year-old that their dad was at one point, or still at that time, selling illicit substances. Probably wise to keep that from a kid.
The War Zone
My dad wasn’t an easy man, that much I understood. He didn’t pour an extra ounce of confidence into my morning cereal so I could get through the day. He pushed me from a young age and chided my mom for coddling me and making me “soft.”
It was in his anger that I began to see the picture my family had painted of this “evil” man come to life.
My father’s anger was swift and jarring; his words, vicious and degrading. Verbal abuse from my father became an almost daily occurrence. Fights with my mom erupted into shouting matches. He attacked her intelligence, cooking, love, and self-worth.
While some people were worried about the violence on television, I was terrified that the violence of these fights would turn physical.
Home felt more like the scenes of war I saw on television.
My only refuge for years was my great-grandmother and my grandparents. Each time I stayed, I begged them to let me stay forever; anywhere was better than going back to the war zone I called home.
Away from home, I wasn’t subjected to hearing things like:
“Kid, you’re book smart, but you’ve got no common sense.”
“Think, Robbie. Don’t be an idiot like your mom.”
“How can you be such a goddamned moron?”
“You don’t get it and I doubt you ever will. I don’t even know why I try and teach you things. It’s useless.”
“You’re worse than your mom sometimes and that’s saying a lot.”
“I’m not raising a goddamn lazy sack of shit who’ll leech off hardworking people like me!”
As all young boys do, I wanted to be perfect.
Gaining my dad’s pride and approval was all I wanted. But it felt like at every turn I was a failure — a disgrace to his name.
Blood is Thicker than Water
Taking my family’s words to heart, I decided they were right: it was best to ignore what my father said. Instead of seeking his approval, I sought it from other family members. And, for the most part, I gained that approval. I followed the rules, made good grades, said my prayers, and did the exact opposite of Vader.
Until I didn’t.
In the first few pages of The Truth, Neil Strauss asks a therapist the difference between guilt and shame.
Guilt is just about your behavior. Shame is about who you are.
When young Robbie Farlow decided to act out or say something out of character, I immediately heard the words: “Do you know who you’re acting like? You’re acting like your father.”
Once I’d made the decision to demonize my father — turning him into the embodiment of evil that I needed to prevail against — nothing hurt worse than being compared to him. Even if I wasn’t acting like my father, hearing that I looked like him sent shivers of shame through my body.
By the age of eight, besides my aspirations of becoming a basketball player, my only other goal in life was to never become my father.
Hatred for my father was so intense that I instructed my mom that she wasn’t allowed to invite my dad to my graduation, which was ten years down the line. I didn’t want him to celebrate my achievements. If he couldn’t be there for me and be the man I wanted him to be, then I would ostracize him from my life.
Fear Your Enemy
My perception of my father only became worse a couple years later. Right before my 11th birthday, my dad lost his job. A week or so after that, he injured his back and was unable to work for months, leaving my mom to provide for all of us.
The warzone became more intense. This time, I began to take a bit more of the brunt than my mom. Yet, when I asked my family what had happened, everyone remained silent. No one would tell me why my dad lost his job. But I could tell that something felt off.
My mom’s side of the family took this opportunity to further embed in my mind that my father wasn’t a good man.
No one jumped on this case more eagerly than my grandmother. My skills of determining body language were on overload the morning I asked her why my dad had really lost his job.
Every bubble of air around us felt as if it were being inflated with the disdain coming from her voice.
“Robbie the devil is inside your dad. I pray every day that God will protect you from him.
Your dad lost his job because he failed another drug test. He has an addiction, an evil addiction, that is ruining his life and the life of my daughter and grandchildren.
But you have a good heart and I know you’ll never be like him. Promise me, Robbie, that you’ll live for God and never be like your father. I want you to be in heaven with me.”
Fear wasn’t a foreign emotion for me.
I lived in fear of my father, of breaking the rules, of disappointing my parents, and the fear of spending eternity in Hell with the man I despised only stoked these flames more. On that day, my dad ceased to be a person in my mind. He became the living personification of evil and the devil himself.
To Be or Not to Be
For years, I hoped that possibly my parents were holding a secret. A secret I’ve never told anyone, not even my wife.
Countless times as a child I dreamed of finding out that I was adopted. That this father who had raised me wasn’t actually my dad. If that were true, then I could justify the hatred I felt in my heart.
More importantly, I could justify the feelings inside that I was better than him, because I wasn’t “from” him.
Receiving the Call
It was around the same age, 11 or 12, that some in my family began to plant the idea in my mind that I should become a minister.
Never once had I thought of becoming a minister. At that point, it was basketball or bust. But when you’re told by those around you that you’re such a good boy, your heart is pure, and that it would make you better than the monster you call a father, what other choice do you have?
When your one goal in life has been to never become like your father, why not become something he couldn’t?
I thought I could learn how to rid myself of this darkness once and for all. That if I ran far enough away from the shadow of being my father’s son that I could escape its grasp.
Darkness, however, doesn’t go away.
Like a virus it can live inside of you, activating only when it decides to wake from its slumber.
Even though I had decided to give my life in service to God and become a minister, I still felt the pull of the darkness. Deep inside it felt as if it was eating away at my soul inch by inch.
In moments where the darkness came out of me, I would spend days flagellating myself with shame. Acting like Vader was the most grievous of sins because I felt it was an act of pure evil.
Burying massive amounts of rage, fury, and resentment towards my father only made the darkness stronger, no matter how much I ran or thought I was running. Twice in my life, I’ve watched the same rage and anger that filled my father invade my emotions and consume my mind.
I don’t remember the night. I don’t remember what the fight was about. But I blacked out in anger. The memories are fuzzy at best. what my father told me I did in the moment.
A moment that shook my mother to her core.
The Night the Lights Went Out in North Carolina
Standing on the stairs that led to my room, I watched my parents begin to argue. I’d witnessed hundreds of fights before, and the only thing I remember before I blacked out was that this one seemed a bit more on the heated side than usual.
Humanity prides itself on reason and logic, where animals follow their instincts.
What we often forget as humans is, that deep inside, we’re nothing more than animals. Our brains are still capable of sending lightning-like reflexes to our muscles forcing us to react before we’re conscious of what we’re doing.
All I remember to this day is the crunching of the rocks as I leapt from the porch to the ground, skipping all eight steps in one bound; how I ended up outside, I’m still not sure.
Why were my legs in an all-out run? Why was my mouth full of the taste of salt?
Before I knew it, I was halfway up my driveway with the stars squinting as they watched a teenage boy run from home.
Did they know what had happened?
Is that why I’d stopped dead in the middle of my driveway? Had the stars seen it all happen?
The Light Meets the Dark
My dad found me standing in the field next to our driveway staring up at the night sky; tears puddling at my feet. He brought me inside, sat me down on the kitchen countertop, and did his best to dry my tears.
I still remember the look in his eyes when I asked him what happened. It was a mix of pain, fear, and astonishment.
Taking a deep breath, he grabbed my hand, and told me the story.
The Power Held Within
A few seconds into the fight, my mom had tried to avoid my dad and sidestep him to escape the confrontation. In an attempt to keep the conversation going, my dad grabbed my mom’s arm and spun her back towards him.
As my mom swung back towards him, the next thing my dad said he heard was my voice, “Get the fuck off of her!” then he felt my boyish hands grab him, pull him backward, and spin him around face to face with me.
Before his detailed account of the story, I had no recollection of what had happened. As he told me the story, the fog cleared and my mind hit the replay button. The first thing I remembered replaying in my mind was the look that had been on my father’s face as he spun around to meet my eyes.
At that moment, I saw fear; fear of not knowing what his son would do next.
Then, it all hit me. All at once I understood why I’d run and how I had ended up sprinting up the driveway. In one solitary moment, I understood how powerful this darkness inside of me could be.
Vader could see that in my eyes as well, and at that moment he told me that being angry was okay. That no matter what my mom’s family had told me, that everyone gets angry and I need to deal with that anger and not push it down inside.
I’d been taught that to feel this way was wrong. That anger and the rage my father had were a sign of the devil. I had to hide these things. Push them away and asked God to forgive me for having these thoughts.
Having seen the darkness and what it could do to me, I ran harder and faster instead of facing it.
Every Closet Has Skeletons
At every angsty turn of my teenage years, I pushed the anger and resentment towards my father even further down inside. I continued to hope that once I’d left home and my sister graduated high school that mom would finally leave my dad and free herself as well from the demon.
My first weekend back at school for my sophomore year of college was underway when I received the phone call.
At first, her voice was reassuring, but her timbre echoed with trepidation. I listened intently as my aunt provided the details of what had happened in the last two hours. My mom had left my dad…
….and had moved all of her stuff over to my aunt’s house. And, as expected, my father showed up demanding to see my mom.
When they wouldn’t let him, he went into a rage. As tempers flared, my grandmother threatened to call the police, a few threats were made, but ultimately, my dad left.
The tension building in the small of my back during my aunt’s vivid story dissipated a bit once I knew everything was okay.
I breathed a monstrous sigh of relief knowing that my mom was safe; she had finally rid herself of the demon.
My aunt wasn’t done, though. All the secrets that had been hidden from me for years, the ones that had sparked all the hatred for my father finally came to light.
“Robbie, he cheated on your mom twice. Once before your sister was born and again after you started high school.”
For a second time in my life, I had a mental blackout.
I had one desire at that exact moment: I wanted to drive the 45 minutes home and punch my dad’s fucking face in.
A morbid sense of joy filled my mind as I imagined digging my knuckles into his face. What could be more exhilarating than to deliver the pain I felt through my fists?
The thought of watching him bleed by my hands was empowering; a force I’d never felt before.
The Last Straw
He tried for days to call me. I ignored him; deleting the voicemails before they could even play. Two weeks later, my sister called to tell me that my mom had decided to get back together with my dad.
Something broke inside of me at that point.
I called my mom and told her if she went back to my dad I would cut off all ties to both of them and did not want them to come see me at school.
Holding steadfast to my threat, I decided to spend Thanksgiving with a friend and his family instead of going home that year. I would have done the same for Christmas, but after a long conversation with my sister decided to come home for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. My father and I barely spoke. This communication blackout with my father continued for another four or five months.
Midway through the spring of 2006, I made a truce with my dad.
I laid out the ground rules for our relationship from that day forward. We would be back on speaking terms, but I would never forgive him for his grievous transgressions. Somehow I thought by holding this over his head I would have a card in my back pocket to pull out in an argument.
More than that, this knowledge that I had of his past further cemented my own belief that I was better than him. That I would never be like him.
The Sins of the Father Pass On
There isn’t a day that goes by where I don’t think about some memory from my time in college. It was the greatest time of my life and where I discovered my identity. However, if my 15-year-old-self time traveled five years into the future, I’m certain he would have been appalled at his 20-year old version.
All the things that I demonized my father for doing, that I swore I would never do, I did in college.
Drinking, hitting bongs, snorting pills, smoking cigarettes, all of it was happening on a daily basis. It was college and I was tired of being the goodie goodie I’d been in high school; I was cutting loose.
Neil Strauss wrote this in his book The Truth.
The sins of the parents are the destinies of their children. Unless the children wake up and do something different about it.
As college progressed, I noticed that my actions began to mirror many of the stories and tales I’d heard about my father during his youth.
One by one, like shadowy LEGO blocks, it felt as if my greatest fear was building its own reality. The shadow had caught up with me, and like Luke, was ready to reveal that now it was my turn to be behind the mask.
I thought for years that if I buried the rage and the resentment deep down that it would disappear into the ether of the universe.
What I found instead was that it would bubble up through numerous moments in life, causing the reactions I swore I’d never have.
Once I grasped what I was doing — how I was acting — the only thing that filled my heart and mind was shame.
Then that was followed by fear. Fear that I was destined to become Vader. Unless I woke up and did something about it.
Heaven Let Your Light Shine Down
Small events had transpired that led to this morning nearly eight years ago. I don’t remember the circumstances or what led to that point, all I remember is the small dog-legged turn where it all happened.
The human mind is an interesting organ. Without our awareness, our brains can be working on a problem that you haven’t thought about consciously. In secret compartments in your mind, you may be problem-solving an issue from a few weeks or months ago when all of sudden a light goes off.
Call it an epiphany or a eureka moment, but we’ve all had them. Mine could have been influenced by the philosophy class I’d been taking that year or from a conversation with my boss at Staples.
It could have had seeds planted from a remark I’d heard my theater professor make earlier that week. Or my brain found some connection between the events of my life and Star Wars.
As if there were another person in the car with me, as rounded this dog-legged turn I made every day for the last year, I heard a voice say: “Robbie, you are your father’s son. But you don’t have to be like him. You can make a different choice.”
I parked my car at school and sat in silence; meditating on the thoughts swimming in my mind.
Make a different choice.
Those words echoed in my mind, and though I can’t explain it, as I realized this truth, all the anger and resentment I held towards my dad drifted away like a balloon in the wind. As I sat in the car and let my thoughts flow through my mind something far more powerful occurred to me.
My father wasn’t evil. He wasn’t the fearsome figure hell-bent on destroying the good inside of me or others. He was nothing more than a man. A human being who makes mistakes, not too different than the ones I had been making for the last year or so.
I am my father’s son.
All my life I’d run from the shame of being my his son. But just because I share his DNA doesn’t mean that I’m destined to become him.
I have aspects of him, but I don’t have to follow those same actions or thoughts. I can make a different choice.
Society had led me to believe that my father should be this heroic figure I look up to and idolize. My family, on the other hand, led me to believe that my father was Darth Vader and I was nothing more than a tax write-off.
He was neither a hero or a villain. He was a man searching for his own meaning; struggling as much as I was at 21 to find purpose and direction — a boy battling to understand manhood.
All my life I’d hated this man, loathed his existence, but where had that gotten me?
Embrace to Escape
Towards the end of Neil Strauss’s book, he makes a reference to his “inner child:”
I used to think that the term inner child was a ridiculous metaphor invented to remind responsibility-burdened adults to lighten up occasionally and just have fun. But it turns out that the inner child is very real. It is our past. And the only way to escape the past is to embrace it.
The only way for me to move on with life, to move past my past, was to embrace my dark side. Acknowledge that it existed inside of me, but that I could make a different choice. Fearing it, only give it more power, allowing it to fester further.
Have Tea with Your Demon
Star Wars was greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophies. Like the cave scene in Empire, there’s one story in the Buddhist tradition that’s always stood out to me.
The night before Siddhartha’s enlightenment where he became Buddha, the demon Mara tempted Siddhartha with everything he could. Mara failed and left the next morning. Like all stories between good and evil, the demon returned countless times to tempt the Buddha.
Instead of ignoring or shunning the demon, The Buddha would acknowledge he was there by saying, “I see you, Mara,” and then invited him to sit for tea. The Buddha would offer the demon a cushion to sit on, pour each of them tea, and then take his seat.
Never once while sipping on tea or conversing did Buddha become fearful or distraught.
Giving into the power of fear and allowing the demon to see that it has power over you only allows it to continue to come back stronger each time.
The Power of Choice
Luke laid down his weapon and accepted his darkness, had tea with it, and decided to do something different to stop the cycle.
Running from the truth that I was my father’s son was useless. I may look like him, sound like him, stand like him, or walk like him, those things I can’t necessarily control. But my actions, the choices I make every single day, those I do control.
When I feel the demon approach, instead of running from it, I can accept those thoughts or feelings, acknowledge them, but opt for a different choice.
Tension can make you stronger, but without a release, all you’re doing is bottling up a volcano of emotion, angst, and rage that will swallow you, causing suffering far more severe than 1000 years in the Sarlacc Pit.
You Choose Your Destiny
Before I published this piece, I called my dad to tell him what I was working on. With no hesitation in his voice, he told me to speak from the heart.
Digging back into these moments from my past has been difficult. Not because of the trauma suffered at the hands of my father, but because I forgave him. The rage, the hatred, the shame, all of it feels so far from who I am now.
When I sit with my dad now, I don’t think of these things. I don’t hate the time I spend with him and wish I were somewhere else. I don’t even see the rage or anger that was once there.
He’s more man now than machine.
My father’s mistakes and shortcomings are what they are. But what I understand now is that they weren’t the evil desires of a demon hell-bent on destruction. They were the choices of a boy searching for his identity as a man.
The past is written, printed, and shipped. The future, however, is up to me. Always has been. I can always make a different choice.
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Hey Robbie, this is a good article and you’ve got a good blog. It takes courage to express what you have – the father/son dynamic is certainly complex and understated.
It’s definitely interesting how we idolize or demonize people as we grow up, only to then realize that they are simply people, just like ourselves, and everyone else.
Anyway, you’ve got a new reader here – Looking forward to more thoughtful content.
Thanks, Pete. I know we caught up on Twitter but wanted to answer this here as well.