“Derek”, a Feminist Hero: The Type of Man I Hope My Sons Will Become

Last week, I awarded Ricky Gervais’ “Derek” the Epic Cunt Award for the brilliant response he gave when questioned whether or not he is autistic. I love the way to show handles the question of neurodiversity. There are many things that touched me in profound ways throughout the all-too-brief 7 episodes of the show, so I cannot just leave it at the one post I made last week.

While the issue of neurodiversity is personal to me, it was not the thing that gripped me the most about Derek. His empathy, kindness, generosity, curiosity, and true love of life – those are the things that struck me over and over. I try to be the sort of person that Derek is, but I also kept thinking that Derek is the kind of person I want my two young sons to grow up to be. And right now, in our current circumstances, the possibility of them becoming like Derek seems beyond unlikely.

Their father, my husband, is emotionally abusive. I started to recognize it when our first child was around a year old, when he would yell for her to stop crying because it disturbed his sleep. Things became exponentially worse when my first child was about two and a half, and I gave birth to my second child, a son. I could see, immediately, that the way my husband treated a little boy was far different than his treatment of little girls. He was straight out intolerant of displays of emotion from our newborn son. If our son would cry, he would angrily lay the baby down and let him scream with tears rolling down his face. I would watch him glare down at this months old baby, and not only was sympathy lacking, but there was anger and resentment plainly visible on my husband’s face.

Despite all of my efforts since the pregnancy with my first child, their father refused to look at any of the many parenting books I had started collecting. You see, he believes that since parenting is something that humans have always done, that we are already born with the skills to parent. He believes that there is nothing wrong with his methods, and that I, and others who have suggested that he is too aggressive, are the ones who are wrong.

I have tried confronting him many times in a variety of ways. Often he will say something like “I’m nothing like my dad, I’m not abusive”, and other times he will make a token gesture. I used to think the token gesture was to convince me he was making an effort, then I started thinking is was to convince himself that he was trying to change, now I see that it is actually a part of the cycle of abuse. In this family consisting of me, my husband, and our three children, I could not tell you how many times this cycle of abuse has happened – hundreds, perhaps even thousands. Sometimes it can happen as quickly as several times in one day.

My third child is now 4, almost 5. About two months ago, he started fighting against having his dad put him to sleep. The routine at that point was for dad to put the youngest to bed while I handled the older two. The youngest was not having it anymore, he was showing extreme anxiety about it and crying when he dad would haul him off. One day I asked my 4 year old during the daytime, why he gets so upset at bedtime. He said that his dad is scary and mean. He said “he hurts my bones”. Then he asked me for a haircut. This seemed random to the situation, so I asked why he wanted a haircut. He told me if his hair was not long anymore then dad could not pull his hair anymore. He said that he tries to run away from dad at night when dad yells, and that dad grabs him by the hair so he can’t run away.

I thought the abuse was all emotional. Looking back on it, all the little things like the way this grown man grabs his children by the arms, or grabs their bodies forcefully so they must stop and listen to him – these things only seemed small because it was not blatant strikes on their bodies, but it was physically abusive nonetheless. And now I hear from the mouth of my 4 year old that there are things that I have not seen at all, hair pulling and things that hurt their little bones.

My 6 year old son, he has started acting out violently and swearing a lot. His father swears, far more than I hear most adult men his age swear, and it is almost always in anger. My oldest son, he has started telling me that he hates his father and he wishes his father was dead. This little boy is extremely empathetic to the emotions of others, but this has started to change, he is becoming hardened and he acts out a lot. I noticed this right around the same time my younger son told me about his bedtime fears. Maybe my older son was acting out sooner than that, but I was only now noticing, I am not sure anymore.

I knew things needed to change, but after 9 years of this abuse I felt paralyzed and trapped. I started jotting down some of my husband’s outbursts, and I got a few audio recordings as well. Then I started looking into making a safety plan in case the kids and I ever needed to leave in a rush. I knew that my kids deserved better, I know that I deserve better. I knew now that I was done trying to help my husband, I have given him endless support and endless resources on how to help himself but he has rejected it all. For a few months now, I have been resolved that the children and I would one day be free from him.

Last week, I watched the entire seven episodes of Derek over the course of two days. The goodness I see in him is the goodness that I see in my own children, and the goodness that I see slowly leaving them and being replaced by anger and violence. Derek reminded me of what kind of people I had always dreamed of raising – empathetic, caring, kindhearted, funny, and lovers of life. And it is so easy to let those characteristics in children grow, it is so easy to nurture that, but one abusive person in a child’s life can steal it all away from them. Derek was raised by his mother, and a series of other women whom he said were also like mothers. As much as Derek claims that he would have wanted his dad to stay, I have to wonder if the best thing that could have happened was for his father to leave so that those positive characteristics would not get squashed by the alcoholic father. It allowed him to grow a reverence for the many mothers that he had throughout his life. Where most boys learn that these “female” characteristics of nurturing, empathy, and kindness are inferior to more masculine characteristics and pursuits, Derek was allowed to embrace these “feminine” characteristics which all children (regardless of gender) tend to have naturally.

During the show I had one of those moments where denial was stripped from me. I had been trying to make up for my children’s father and his failings, I had been trying to give more of myself in hopes of counteracting his poor influence. But I realized, this is never going to fix anything. Their father, his abuse, it is a cloud over our lives. Even when he is not at home, we are still having to walk on the eggshells that he has left behind. I saw Derek and knew that my children, my sons especially, would never get to be like him and that the longer they are subjected to their father the more likely it is that they will lose that Derek-like love and wonder for life. I already see signs of them losing their seemingly natural instinct for caring and empathy, its only a matter of time before their zest for life is tampered out of them as well.

Along with the help of my friends, watching Derek has helped me become more certain in my desires for my children and for myself. Not only do I want to maintain those characteristics that seem innate in my children which are shared in the character of Derek, but I also want to regain those characteristics in myself as well. Derek is my feminist hero of the moment, he has inspired me which has given me another boost of empowerment. My children and I are now a few steps closer to regaining a healthy life, and part of that is due to this inspiration from Derek.

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One thought on ““Derek”, a Feminist Hero: The Type of Man I Hope My Sons Will Become

  1. I have yet to watch the program, but I can still appreciate your insights about Derek’s having benefited from feminine nurturance.
    And I especially appreciate your emphasis on empathy. It is, I feel, the one truly indispensable social element. I think that’s demonstrated by the malevolent trolls and online bullies we so often encounter. When watching cyber-bullies and harassers of any stripe, the most clearly observable deficit is empathy. That said, you are justified to worry that your sons may lose their connection to this elemental emotion.
    Elsewhere I’ve mentioned the imperishable influence of my mother and older sisters. My father was a fine man, and was never abusive. However, he and I only warily regarded one another from across an emotional chasm. So, whereas I did, I think, learn some valuable moral lessons through observing his actions, I never really “knew” the man. He worked long hours; and was in and out of hospitals from the time I was ten until he died when I was nineteen.
    All that was to say that women who raised me imparted more of what makes me tick, I believe. And if I was gifted with anything, it was at least an unshakable respect for empathy’s priority. And, after all, those three women are the reason I’ve counted myself a feminist since more or less the age of 12.
    You seem a decent, engaged, and caring mother, Neeley. Your fears for your sons are reasonable and understandable. But never forget; they’re under your influence as well. I urge you not to underestimate the effects of that influence.

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