Content notes: This piece discusses parental physical, emotional, and psychological abuse. There are also major spoilers for Hades.
My father was released from the hospital this weekend. He underwent surgery to have a pacemaker installed, because his heart has a pesky habit these days of not beating for anywhere from four to six seconds. He survived the procedure, unfortunately.
When I was 11, he and my mother separated. He moved into a condo about a mile away. It was a nice, two-bedroom place, and he demanded we keep it as immaculate as he did when we visited. There was never a dish in the sink, never a single thing out of place. The entire place smelled like cigarettes, because he smoked cheap menthols and he loved to do it indoors, a thing he had not been allowed to do while at home with our family, owing to the fact that I started developing asthmatic symptoms as a toddler. My sister and I shared one of the two bedrooms when we visited. He did not buy us beds—not even cheap ones. We slept on the floor, in sleeping bags, which we were required to roll up and put away in the closet. The only permanent fixture in that room was a small TV atop a milk crate. It had only basic channels, but we kept an old NES hooked up to it so that we had a way to while away the weekend as he ignored us.
A few years ago, he had a stroke. It was severe enough that he cannot live completely unassisted, but he is independent enough that a nursing home or assisted living facility will happily release him if he asks. This stroke came on the heels of recovery after a three-week intensive detox stay wherein it was determined that he had given himself both diabetes and alcohol-induced dementia. When we found him, there were something like thirty empty gallon jugs of cheap whiskey strewn about. The dishes had piled up in the sink and on the counters. There was rotting food, and even worse things that I’d rather not share.
When I was 12, he first began being hypercritical of everything about my appearance and mannerisms. When my bangs began to tickle at the skin of my forehead, I would toss my head lightly in a gesture that pre-teen me thought was effortlessly cool. It was not, of course, but such is the magic when you are 12. My father was quick to mock me when he noticed this, making twisted faces as he shook his head like he had a nervous tic. I also had a tendency of walking around with my hands in my pockets, a thing that infuriated him for unspecified reasons (it was “disrespectful,” his go-to for things he didn’t like but couldn’t explain why). Once, when mad at me about something else, he noticed that my hands were in my pockets, grabbed me by my wrists, lifted me up with my arms pinned against my sides, and slammed me against the wall to scream at me. I’m lucky that my mother was there to pull him off of me. It was the beginning, I think, of my realization that this man would always be an enemy to me.
None of this has anything to do with Hades, the isometric rogue-like from Supergiant Games. Hades is a bonafide hit, and it deserves to be, but my purpose here isn’t to review it. I will say that as a person who is generally disappointed by Supergiant offerings, Hades has done what none of their other titles have, and completely and utterly hooked me. A large majority of that is the primary character, Zagreus.
At the start of Hades, the player is not clued in to Zagreus’s reasons for wishing to leave the underworld kingdom of his father. After a few attempts it’s revealed that it’s because he’s looking for his mother, Persephone. She had left at some point, for some reason, and no one would tell Zagreus why. He had only a palace of minor gods and shades sworn to do Hades’s bidding, and a cruel, distant father who spoke to him only in terms of disappointment and disgust. Hades, who has perpetuated the lie that Zagreus’s mother is Nyx, and not Persephone, for most of Zagreus’s life, now forbids his son to search for his mother, or to speak to her. When Zagreus persists, when he questions this, he is belittled. When he attempts to escape, the final combatant he must face is in fact his own father, willing to duel him to the death on a matter of mere pride.
When I was 15, my mother had not yet been dead a year. My father moved my sister and me from California to Washington. He was born in Washington, and his family was here. That my mother’s family, with whom we had grown up with, visited, and grieved with, was in California did not matter. That none of my father’s several siblings had ever once visited during my childhood did not matter. That none of them even bothered to show up to my mother’s wake did not matter. We were made to give up our friends, loved ones, and lives, so that he could isolate us in a new state. I remember that when the moving truck was packed, there was no room for my bedroom furniture, so I was made to leave it behind. Aided by a new job and survivor’s benefits, my father purchased a four-bedroom tri-level home, a significant upgrade from the three bedroom, single story place we had lived in before. I had no furniture save an antique dresser that had belonged to my mother, and spent two years sleeping on an air mattress. When I complained, I was told I didn’t have to use it. It took his girlfriend interceding on my behalf to get him to purchase me a simple twin frame, box spring, and mattress. Eventually, I also got a bookcase, made possible by the fact that one of our neighbors was getting rid of it.
In Hades, there is a house contractor: a shade specifically tasked with making improvements and renovations to the palace. Hades himself cannot be bothered to authorize or pay for these improvements to his own kingdom, and so it falls to Zagreus to do so, using funds secured from his own escape attempts. When he performs this task—a task that Hades has specifically given to him—Hades makes disparaging comments about his choices for improvements. These improvements are more than simple set decoration; over the course of the game they unlock a lounge area for all of the denizens of the palace to share, improved seating, bedding, and comfort items. They are material improvements to the lives of all who live there, and not one of them is good enough for Zagreus’s father.
My sister has power of attorney these days, during situations where he is not lucid enough to decide things for his own. This is basically every time he goes to the hospital, because he insists that he is fine when he needs things like three-week detox courses and pacemakers. After the stroke, he was briefly placed in a veteran’s home, but convinced them while there that he was absolutely ready to live on his own, despite his inability to remember to take his diabetes medication, or even to remember the day of the week most times. He really just wanted to be able to drink again, and to smoke, neither of which were allowed. The home was happy for the excuse to be rid of him; they always have a long backlist of people trying to find a bed.
As Zagreus learns more of the secrets of his family history, as he continually defies his father, he eventually makes contact with his mother. It turns out that she had thought him dead, and thus had left. With the grief of having lost a child, the dispassion of Hades, and the fact that she felt like she did not fit in, she could no longer bear the Underworld. While Nyx was able to revive Zagreus, Hades forbade telling Persephone. None of the rest of Hades’s court had any idea what the real story was, and so for years Zagreus was prevented from knowing his mother, and she from knowing him in return. When he confronts his father with this, his father evades the questions, turning the conversation into more derision, more insults. It is a tactic I know well.
When my parents separated, I was endlessly furious at my father for walking out while my mother was fighting cancer. At night, I began sneaking out. I was fourteen or so. I didn’t really get up to much during these excursions; it was the middle of summer and I just liked the cool night air. A friend of mine and I would walk around the neighborhood, smoking and talking. We would hang out in the park next door to my house, in cleverly picked spots to avoid the infrequent nighttime police patrols.
After a few weeks of doing this, I got caught. My dad demanded to know how I’d done it, and I pointed out to him that the alarm system he’d installed once upon a time was never used after he moved out. He and my mother began making a point of arming it every night. He was there often in those days, because she was getting worse. He would go home in the evenings, he never stayed, but he was there. Because I have hypermobility, I began contorting my shoulders to slip out through the dog door, the only door in the house which did not have a security sensor tied to it. He was in turns both furious and incredulous when he caught me again, and I demonstrated for him exactly how I did it. I exulted in that, and it was the awakening of how I would survive my life with him after… well.
My teenage years are mostly a blur of petty defiances and rebellions. Like Zagreus, I took particular joy in defying my father for the sake of doing it; to prove that for all of his overbearing temper and abusive ways, he could not stop me, not truly. He trashed my room multiple times. Once, he punched me in the jaw for stealing a pack of smokes (a habit I picked up at 13 while confronting the impending death of my mother). Another time, despite being notoriously hard of hearing, he claimed to have heard me say “Fuck you” under my breath to him as I was walking away. I had, in fact, said “Okay,” in response to something he’d said, but that did not matter, and he called me a liar endlessly anyway. That incident almost ended in a physical altercation as I, for a change, did not back down or shrink from him, but pushed him back, and dared him to hit his own child in front of witnesses.
Finally, I remember the day one of his oft-repeated challenges was one too many: he told me that if I did not like something, I could leave. He said this knowing that I had no job, no car, and nowhere to go. He said it with the smugness of a man who is certain he holds all the cards. I stared at him a moment, said “Fine,” and walked past him to my room to pack a duffel bag. The entire time I packed, he panicked. He yelled at me, threatened me, he asked me where I was planning to go. I told him I didn’t care, and that living on the streets was preferable to living with him. He tried to walk back his stance, but it was too late. I walked out of his house with a few changes of clothes, some loose change, and a smile on my face.
I’m struck as much by the divergences as the parallels; my mother is divided from her family by the barrier of death, but she did not choose it. Instead of dwelling eternally in the Underworld, with infinite time to make amends, I am here in the land of the living with a man whose habits have caught up with him. I cannot be his primary point of contact, because our relationship is too sour, too weighed down by trauma. My sister shoulders that burden, because for all that he tormented us, we cannot simply abandon him to his fate. We cannot turn our backs on him in his time of need. It is a miserable, frustrating thing, and it is prolonged by the fact that every time the fates can intervene to cut his life short, he survives. I long for the peace of never having to speak his name again, for a trauma to sleep with the satisfaction that its perpetrator will never return.
Eventually, the narrative of Hades brings Persephone back to the Underworld. Hades offers an apology of sorts, and all is apparently well, as it is accepted. I know this calm, though. I know this peace, and it’s a false one. After all, Greek myths are either comedy or tragedy, and the story of a godling willing to fight his father to the death over and over again on principle, for the sake of seeing his mother for only a few minutes before death reclaims him, could never be considered a comedy. Eventually, Hades will once again burn the happy home that exists as much in spite of him as because of him to ash.
As an adult, I too returned to my family home, with my spouse and kids in tow. I shared in dinners, I laughed with this man who tormented and abused my sister and me. Once, at 23, standing in the dark in front of the house and having a conversation about something, he turned to me and said, “You know, you’re an adult now, I don’t care if you smoke here.” I told him I had quit. He didn’t believe me.
He never could, after all.
Nola is a bad influence.