McHenry County Opinion

Oliver: The sins of one father have reverberated through generations

My earliest memories of my maternal grandfather came with a warning from my mother: Do not sit on your grandfather’s lap. My grandfather, she said, had done bad things. I would find out years later what those bad things were.

My grandfather was a pedophile, and his victim was my mother, his eldest daughter.

I was too young to ask the obvious question: Why on earth would my mother still have a relationship with her father all those years later, much less bring a child with her?

It makes much more sense when viewed through the lens of the lifetime consequences child sexual abuse has not only on the victims, but also on future generations.

I asked my mother in her later years if I had permission to tell her story. I’m glad that she said I could because in reality it is my story, too.

What my grandfather took from my mother in the tiny bathroom in their home in Wheeling was more than her innocence. He stole her self-worth, and he left her to navigate the world without a rudder.

In those days, few resources were available for sexual abuse victims to get the help they needed, no way to rebuild the self-esteem that was crushed into nothingness.

Yet in a strange way that I’m struggling to understand, she still wanted her father’s approval, still wanted to make that twisted and broken relationship whole.

At first at least, my mother sought to escape from her father’s house, where she and her siblings were subjected to beatings in addition to what my mother endured.

She jumped at the chance to get married young to a man that she later said beat her, too. She also gave birth to my sister and my two older brothers. Soon, Mom was left to be a single mother of three children in a time when that wasn’t the norm.

Unaddressed trauma can wreak havoc on a person’s life because it wreaks havoc on a person’s psyche. To be so profoundly damaged at an early age left my mother without any way to know how to be a mother, no way to truly understand the emotional needs of her children.

By the time I was born, my mother was on her third marriage.

Even though my father was a stable influence, my mother’s trauma continued to affect us all.

One way my mother coped with her past was to not deal with it, to forge ahead and pretend that nothing terrible had happened. It’s a coping mechanism I learned well, one I’m still working to undo.

Another way was to put up layer upon layer of emotional armor. If she didn’t let people too close, they couldn’t hurt her.

Except that it hurt me. I’ve spent my entire life trying to earn my mother’s love. But I’ve come to realize that it was something she didn’t know how to give.

I never felt good enough, a manifestation of my mother’s own lack of self-esteem. Although in a strange twist, my mother often lived vicariously through me, bragging to all who would listen about her daughter who excelled.

I would have preferred to have felt loved and seen. When I would call my mother, I’d get off the phone 30 minutes later in tears. Not once in all that time would she ask how I was. This went on for years.

My mother’s trauma also led her to have a lightning-quick temper, a defensive temperament and a my-way-or-the-highway attitude.

Of course, she also was hardworking and genuinely seemed to care about people who were not in her immediate family. She was quirky, but her heart often was in the right place.

I’ve realized that she was doing the best that she could. It has made me love her more now that I understand how broken she was and how little she had to work with.

During my childhood, she also did her best to forgive her father. I remain in awe of her strength.

Yet I know she carried her pain and self-loathing right to the end.

I used to hold her tight when her vascular dementia would take her to dark places. The “little people” that only she could see would accuse her of terrible things.

She would cry and cry, telling me that she wasn’t a horrible person. I would do my best to reassure her that no, she wasn’t.

Deep down, I don’t think she ever believed me. Those negative voices had traveled with her in her head for decades. Her fractured relationships with her own children just reinforced those feelings.

As I cared for her in her last years, I still hoped that I could break through, to finally earn that love I had craved all those years. Sadly, it remained out of my grasp.

No, the echoes of what my grandfather did remained until the end for my mother.

Those shockwaves are still felt in my family, reaching even to the generation after mine.

Unlike my mother, I haven’t forgiven my grandfather. With all the damage that’s been done, I’m not sure I can.

Joan Oliver is the former Northwest Herald assistant news editor. She has been associated with the Northwest Herald since 1990. She can be reached at

Joan Oliver

Joan Oliver

A 30-year newspaper veteran who has been a copy editor, front-page editor, presentation editor, assistant news editor and publication editor, as well as a columnist and host of an online newspaper newscast.