Two things happened that provided the impetus and the answer.
First, I invited my dad to a screening of my documentary, "Daughters
of the Troubles." He told me that he was too busy to come to New
York. I accepted that as normal. He rarely made an effort to be in
my life. After the screening, I burst into tears and my stepmother
Bea said, "It's because he's not here." I called my dad and
we started this conversation. Second, when I won a major
award for "Daughters of the Troubles," my father escorted me to
the awards ceremony. We were together all weekend and I decided
to take my camera out and really have that talk.
Despite warnings to "leave him alone," "he's old," I was convinced
that it wasn't too late to get to know him. Although my father
was 80, I didn't feel he was too fragile to reflect on his life.
From the moment the camera started rolling, my father was never
more alive, alert or caring. He was honest, attentive, direct
and charming. I was surprised. He was opposite to the man
I grew up with, the distant and critical father. This was
the man I was looking for all my life. My camera found him.
Like many dads in the Fifties, my father left the nurturing of
the children to his wife. Yes, he was a typical 50s dad who
felt his main role was provider for the family, but his disinterest
in us seemed to go beyond the cultural norms of the times.
My neighbor's father played ball with his kids; my uncle picked
up my cousin in his arms. I felt there was something more
behind my father's distance and in that first interview discovered
a family secret hidden because no one bothered to ask. My
father's mother beat and kicked his sister while he and his family
stood by helplessly and watched.
My search to understand my father became a complex emotional genealogy.
In order to understand my grandmother's violent legacy, I talked
to elderly cousins, relieved to finally talk about our family secret.
I thumbed through archives in Budapest and Vienna looking for images
of rural Jewish life in 1900, I traveled to the village where my
grandmother grew up in rural Slovakia. Standing there, I felt my
grandmother's isolation. She was one of a handful of Jews in an
almost entirely Catholic village. Immigrating to Cleveland
in 1909 changed everything. My grandmother flourished with the freedom
to make friends and to work in a man's world. Then she married.
Caught between ambition and tradition, she must have felt trapped
in the house. I saw this as the seed of my grandmother's uncontrollable
rage, and frustration directed at her first child, her daughter.
Then I followed my father through the streets of Cleveland where
he grew up in order to understand him. We laughed and we talked
and we thought about our lives. And we danced together, the
one passion he always shared with me. I started to see my
father more clearly. I started to understand that witnessing
abuse can be as damaging as the blows themselves. I began
to see him as a child, building a wall to keep out the guilt and
fear, and in the end wondering if that wall kept me out too?
Family histories can affect generations. I talked to my sister
and brother for the first time about our father's emotional distance
and the low self-esteem and lack of confidence we all shared.
I questioned what I had learned or not learned that affected my
own adult relationships and interviewed my ex-husband.
He asked the first question, "Is this an ambush interview?"
I responded, "Most men wouldn't do this. Why did you?"
He answered, "because you asked." Then I realized that was
the underlying theme of the documentary. If you ask, you might
get some answers. With candor and honesty, we shared our resentments
and regrets for the first time. I revealed the crippling effect
of his constant criticisms and denigration and he described the
pain caused by my emotional distance. I reduced eighteen years
to seven minutes revealing the love, silence, and anger we shared.
With charm and humor, my ex-husband realizes he is playing a part
in a family drama, "Is this a Cleveland/Jewish Long Day's Journey
into Night?" he asks. Like many couples, we discovered too
late that we missed each other's basic needs. Long before
the divorce we started to hurt each other but neither of us had
the tools to stop.
"Dancing with My Father," is about those tools, about how behavior
is passed from generation to generation, about breaking that cycle,
about not saying "it's OK." At the end of my first interview
with my father I protested, "You never asked about anything in my
life." He replied, "I didn't know to ask." By asking,
I learned how adult love is often shaped by what a child learns
at home. I understood that giving love is so simple and yet how
My sister was against this project when I started. She thought
it would hurt my father and come between us. Recently, she
called to tell me she finally heard the three words she waited 54
years to hear from my father, "I love you." My father is beginning
to open up. I'm beginning to understand this thing called
love. Neither of us is there yet, but love like light is a