I’d inherited his family’s money, his height, his arthritis. Could I inherit the very worst parts of him, too?
My father collapsed in his own backyard in the early spring of 2019, all 6 feet 5 inches of him, struck down in a thunderbolt of cardiac arrest.
“I think it was ‘lights out,’” one of his relatives explained after the burial.
He lasted a few days on life support, but the understanding was that the initial infarction did him in. The machines did all the work after that. Because he’d always maintained that anyone with a disability, or in a coma, should have been “put through the shredder,” the decision to pull the plug, in the end, was actually his. He didn’t believe in medical intervention.
The nightmares about him springing back upright, straight out of bed, started shortly thereafter. Other signs of my post-traumatic stress disorder had begun a few weeks before, when I received two pieces of mail from him out of the blue. The first was, strangely, a printed-out email exchange he’d had with his sister. She’d let him know I lost my job and needed money to help pay for health insurance. He was outraged by the request. The second was a postcard, saying “hello what’s up never hear from you.” Just hello.
“What if he comes to get me?” I asked my aunt on the phone. “Now he knows where I live.”
It was only once he was dead, and really gone, that the weight of my early childhood — carried for three decades — seeped out through a hole in my psyche, a burial in reverse.
My mother’s oldest sister met my father at an Ásatrú Free Assembly gathering in Berkeley, California, in the early 1980s. Though it was whites-only, its founder, Stephen McNallen, claimed the group was “folkish,” and it took my aunt a while to understand the significance of the term. As she described it to me, its members were “mostly into Viking stuff, but half of them were white supremacists.” (Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center describes the assembly’s more recent iteration, the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, as a hate group.) One weekend, on a trip to the mountains, some men from the group used images of Black people for target practice, and took turns swearing oaths of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. Later, one of those men, my father, started dating my mother when she came out to California for a visit.
Before they got married, my father repeatedly asked my mother to confirm that she wasn’t Jewish. “Are you sure you’re not?” he would ask. She told him she wasn’t. “But what about any of your relatives? Could they be?” No, she assured him.
There were rules to follow when they lived together, in Pleasant Hill, California: They could only listen to country music in the house, and only if the artists were white. The television set was to be watched with his permission only. My father was to drive her to and from work. He got upset at restaurants when the servers weren’t white.
My parents married in California in what they called a Norse pagan ceremony, officiated by the aunt who had introduced them; my mother wore a toga and a flower wreath in her hair, and my father wore a robe. A second ceremony was held in a more traditional Episcopal church setting in Dayton, Ohio, where my mother had grown up. My mother was pregnant with me at the wedding, though not visibly, and she denies it to this day, claiming that I was simply born premature. Each of her three sisters and my father’s sister, however, confirmed to me that she was. (Because memory — including my own — is slippery, I spoke to my mother’s family members about my father. I read through the public court papers filed after his divorce, the ones that noted his “neo-Nazi sympathies.” I studied the paperwork from my case file from a Kentucky family counseling center, and read the records after his arrest for trafficking marijuana.)
Around the time my mother was six months pregnant, my father, high on cocaine, drove to her workplace with their television in the back of the car. He was furious that she’d been watching it and decided that it shouldn’t be in the house anymore. She pleaded with him not to destroy it, but he threw it into the dumpster. “It’s not coming home,” he told her. “And neither are you.”
My mother spent the night on the sidewalk, next to the dumpster. When her boss showed up to work the next morning, he gave her 80 cents to take the BART to her sister’s apartment. Afterward, on the advice of a domestic violence shelter, she returned to Ohio to live with her parents.
My father stayed in California until a few weeks after I was born, but eventually he moved to Ohio, too, at the urging of his family to be closer to his child, to do the right thing. He moved into my mother’s parents’ house. His sexual abuse of me, as I understand it, wouldn’t start for another 18 months, after he was kicked out of his in-laws’ home for good and living on his own. Per a court order, I saw him once a week until I was 5 years old, when my mother disappeared with me to Florida, changed my name, and married my stepfather. I didn’t see my father again until a few months before my 24th birthday.
When I reconnected with my father’s family as an adult, I learned there were coded ways they spoke about him. “He always had weird ideas,” I heard often over the years, usually over a glass of wine, nearly always in the same tone people use to discuss inclement weather. Whenever his name came up, someone would raise their eyebrows or make a face, or maybe wave a hand in disapproval.
No one explicitly used words like “anti-Semitic” or “racist,” but after he died, a relative opened the browser history on his computer, and a list of web searches for deaths of Black people from AIDS filled the drop-down menu. He liked researching the kinds and causes of disease that afflicted African men. In his last days, he’d also been researching me.
He’d kept a blog for more than 20 years, unbeknownst to me; once I found it, I combed through it for details on what his life had been. I took screenshots of some of the pages and kept them in a folder on my desktop. Mostly I was curious to know if he’d ever written about my childhood, about our time together. I harbored a perverse longing to see his words about me, and I liked to hunt for them the way someone might scrounge around in the back of a closet for a missing sweater.
In his last entry before his death, I found the start of what I was looking for: hate speech, pure and simple, published in unevenly sized italic font — a vile screed against Jewish people, Black people, “filthy liberals and their homo agenda.” Very little of it made sense, but he’d also expressed his dismay that his own daughter was in New York, “lickin’ up all those perverted, progressive New York beliefs, sodomy-style.” All of the text was in black, except for the sentence with my name, which he changed to a yellow font and highlighted the background in gray. “Yes, you know who you are. That would be you, Caira Conner, my daughter even.”
“Oh, he’s insane,” I said to myself, laughing nervously, when I read it for the first time. But that night, as I was getting ready to go to sleep, I had the sudden thought that someone who read his blog, who believed what he believed, could come to my apartment and shoot me dead. I took a picture of the entry and pulled my phone out to show the photo to my partner, Sam, to my therapist, to the occasional horrified friend.
In the early months of 2019, I’d ordered a 23andMe DNA test to see what my genetic makeup might look like.
My mother had been mistaken. The results showed that 10.5 percent of my ancestry on the maternal side was Ashkenazi Jewish. I’d started dating Sam, who was more or less 100 percent Ashkenazi Jewish, a few months earlier. My father died right after I confirmed my genetic inheritance. Later, I mentioned to Sam that it was good that my father was dead, because if he knew that I was part Jewish, I’d have to worry about him coming to kill us both. My father had unwittingly created the very thing he hated. “After all,” I said, “he might want to destroy it.”
It had been less than two years since a group of far-right white nationalists descended on Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” hate rally, where they had chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and where Heather Heyer had been killed by a white terrorist who plowed his car into two different groups of pedestrians. It had been less than two weeks since 49 people were slaughtered by a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand. Two months after my father’s death, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Dayton, Ohio, a 20-minute drive from his house. Nine white supremacists showed up. More notable were the hundreds of other people who showed up to drown them out. I thought about how if he were still alive, my father probably would have been there, too, the 10th supremacist in attendance.
I tried to picture what he might have looked like there, how it would have felt to claim him, a lumbering giant with an angry face, shouting slurs on the sidewalk in the town where I was born — Oh, look, there’s my dad.
I compared the racist language used at the Charlottesville rally to different passages in my father’s blog. Some of it was identical.
When I searched for photos of my father online, I found one of him wearing a red MAGA hat and matching tie, smiling for the cameras at a Trump rally in Columbus, Ohio. He looked proud.
I wondered if my newfound obsession with needing the truth of who he was made me more like him, instead of less. He was obsessive, too. Now when I watched the news and saw white supremacists, I thought about all the times I’d just nodded along when my father came up in family conversation. How I didn’t rage, didn’t scream, didn’t ask my mother, “Why the fuck did you marry him?”
I wondered if I lacked the biological impulse to hate the person galvanized in seeing this kind of violence and unrest come to life, if somehow the very worst parts of him lay in me, too, and everyone was just afraid to say so.
Attorney General Merrick Garland and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas have called white supremacists the greatest domestic terror threat to the United States. My aunt said in passing once that it took her a while to realize her brother was dangerous.
He had always terrified me.
My conscious memory begins in the last stretch of 1989, a few months shy of my sixth birthday. Any pieces of information from before that time are fragmented and strange — images without context, certain smells, a feeling of paralysis. I see a flash of the rubber skeleton toy I was given at a party, and the sewing pins I pressed into the areas where its genitals would have been. I can feel the shame of being told by a friend’s parent not to touch his son at our sleepover. But there is nothing linear before and after those moments, nothing to set their pieces within a larger chronological puzzle. I don’t have any explicit memories of my father from that time, not really. When my mind finally came online, a curtain pulled down behind me.
I became too stressed to be around my father’s family members after his death, even the ones I’d started relationships with the decade prior. Most of the context I had about the man responsible for half of my DNA came from his relatives, and it bled together with their perspective, their bias, their opinion that it was all just overblown drama and weird ideas, even if some of them later admitted to suspecting his abuse, to knowing there was something wrong with him.
I had no stories of my own to draw from, no anecdotes to remember. So I just read and reread my father’s blog. I read it on the Wayback Machine once the health department produced his death certificate and the blog was taken down. I read it to trigger flashbacks, to find incriminating evidence he might have left behind. I read it anytime something vile happened in the news, something related to the upsurge of white domestic terrorists. I read it sometimes for no reason at all.
My father was finally buried seven weeks after his death, in a family plot in Kansas City, Missouri. I had been googling things like, “Do I go to an abuser’s funeral?” and “Is it okay to not go to a parent’s funeral?” One of his relatives called to tell me my father’s girlfriend would be there, with one of his closest friends. Apparently, neither of them was impressed that I was showing up to the burial, given that I had not been around the last 30 years.
“Well, if she says anything to me about it,” I told the relative, “I’ll punch her in the face.” I said things like this more often now — casual, violent statements that I had no intention of carrying out. Sometimes when I got upset, overtaken by a strange shakiness, a rotten fury that I didn’t understand, I’d blurt out, “Well, maybe I should just kill myself and get it over with.” In these moments, I heard echoes of the child I’d read about in my social worker’s case file from 1990, the one who would frequently ask her mother to just kill her and get it over with.
“Oh, my God,” I’d say to Sam after the anger subsided. “I’m as crazy as he was.”
I knew I wasn’t a white supremacist. But I also knew there was something to my father’s lunacy, his hatred, that echoed deep within me. I’d inherited his family’s money, his height, and his arthritis. Sometimes, I even felt pity, a deep sadness whenever I pictured this old man, alone in his house with his mental illness, ordering bottled drinking water from Germany and cheap, pain-relieving gloves for his hands. I also feared that whoever my father was might exist somewhere inside me. I hadn’t become him, but he was there nonetheless.
At his burial, I looked into the casket before they closed the lid. He was huge. His face looked like it was made of wax. This was the closest I’d stood next to him since I was 5 years old. This was my father, I realized. This was my actual dad. Somehow this person had given me life. I burst into tears.
“I didn’t know him,” I said to the seated faces staring at me. “I didn’t know him, but I’m grateful for the family I got because of him.” The words felt true as they poured out of my mouth.
When I sat down, the woman I’d wanted to punch in the face handed me a tissue.
“Oh, my father was a neo-Nazi,” I told my old boss when we met for coffee, in late 2019. In the daylight, around others, I appeared as normal as could be. It felt like it was time to tell everybody the truth, even when they didn’t ask. I rolled out the news like they’d been expecting it, like I had a duty to admit what was really going on. “My father died last month, but it’s not sad. He was a white supremacist.” I’d sort of roll my head back to the invisible heavens when I did this, to help show how unacceptable I thought the whole thing was. At some point, I realized I was performing a sad one-woman show. I had been trying to offset the perception of what these statements meant about me, in case they exposed a strange sickness about who I was and what I’d come from.
Around the two-year mark after my father’s death, I gave up hunting through his blog. I’d grown tired of it. I’d grown bored of trying, and failing, time and again, to find meaning in his madness, to discover the secret key to why he hated who he hated. I never found my big reveal, or a poetic understanding of my childhood.
Nothing had come of me combing through his archives, of poring over his hatred for others. I’d found nothing about myself, my rage, my flaws, that would be explained by studying his beliefs, by trying to understand how his parents treated him or how he was radicalized. Any consequences of his perversions that I needed to contend with, I’d need to contend with on my own.
I deleted the folder where I kept the screenshots of his most disgusting sentences. Occasionally, I thought about that afternoon in Kansas City, the last wisp of time his body lived above earth, before we filed past his gravesite, checking over our shoulders as the coffin disappeared from view.
In the end, I would go on. My father would not.
Caira Conner is a writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, GQ, and New York magazine, among others.