I want to kick the shit out of Facebook and Fox News. It’s an instinct I get from my dad. Whenever I got hurt as a kid, he’d launch into a physical comedy routine, beating the hell out of whatever hurt me. If I fell out of a tree and sprained my ankle, he’d haul off and kick the tree trunk until he was hopping around, howling and grabbing his leg. If I stubbed my toe and began to cry, he’d run in to do battle with the offending object, trip over it, and tumble to the ground in a glorious pratfall. Before I knew it, I was laughing through my tears. It’s a great technique to get a kid to stop crying, but it taught me a larger lesson. When someone you love is in pain, find a way to show them they aren’t alone.
A heartless app and an insidious algorithm are hurting my family now. Like a lot of Boomers, my parents are not digitally literate. When they scroll through social media, they don’t differentiate between a family——”Bob and me saw the Booth Brothers in Branson!”——and a headline from The Epoch Times alleging Democrats are launching a chain of pizza parlors for pedophiles. To them, somehow, both are equally true.
When I was a teenager, coming home drunk and generally being a selfish prick, my dad used to shake his head and say, “This isn’t you, Hol. I know your heart.” Now I know how he felt. My parents are lovely people. They love Jesus. They are dedicated to their church. They are generous and loving and kind. But they hitched their evangelical wagon to a cult of personality and rode it straight into a wall that Mexico didn’t pay for. It would help if we could inhabit the same information universe for once in a goddam decade. Alas, I consume middle-left porridge that’s a little too cold, and my mom and dad chow down on extremist oatmeal that’s just [far] right.
After we so deeply disappointed each other with our votes in 2016, my parents informed me that they would never talk about any of it. And honestly, maybe we’re lucky. Many people who lost their folks to Fox News have stopped speaking to each other entirely. My family inhabits the tricky territory of not speaking to each other about anything that would cause us to stop speaking to each other.
I broke the rule halfway through Trump’s term. In a moment of exasperated weakness, I pointed to my mom’s Make America Great Again hat and said it was the equivalent of wearing a swastika. Suffice it to say, no one ordered Double Fudge Coca-Cola cake at Cracker Barrel that night. My folks had recently celebrated their 40th anniversary on a Sound of Music tour in Austria, so, yeah, the Nazi comment may have been a low blow.
I waited a few weeks before crafting The Letter. I’d carried the missive around with me, writing and revising it in my head for three years. I imagined that if I could just craft the perfect argument my folks would see the error of their ways and be whisked to my righteous side. I wrote it to my dad since he’s the only one who can convince my mom of anything.
I have a memory that keeps popping up. I’m sitting in the back of the station wagon in the driveway of Grandma and Grandpa’s cul-de-sac in Crown Point. Mom is in the front seat, us kids are buckled in the back. We are waiting for you, still inside your parents’ place. To me, you were the biggest, tallest, strongest person on the planet. But when you came down the stairs of that apartment building your shoulders slumped. You were smaller, weaker somehow. You got in the car wearing sadness like a wet sweater. You deserved to be loved by your parents. And whether they would not, or could not, you kept going back to let them try. Grandma and Grandpa’s cul-de-sac always seemed a dead end.
As we drove home, moving farther and farther from them, you bounced back. We passed a water park we couldn’t afford, and you cheekily announced, “They’re wet! We’re happier!” We were. The family you grew up in was just the opposite. Your parents’ coldness bordered on contempt. Their judgment was quick and paired with a sneer. They took the wrong stuff from the Bible, you told me once. They made it about law, but the Jesus you knew was about love. And even though we weren’t your parents’ kind of right, we had love. Better yet, we had the fruits of the spirit. “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.” But one thing about fruit is, it bruises. Whenever we left Crown Point, we all felt like peaches in the bottom of the bucket.
I think the reason I keep returning to that moment in the driveway is because I’m sensing a devastating full circle. I now leave your house with those same slumped shoulders, feeling smaller, and not your kind of right. I know you believe your kids are brainwashed by liberal media. But I don’t need the Washington Post or NPR to know that Trump does not represent the values you instilled in me.
I sometimes think of my old neighbor Andy. He practiced Baha’i until the day his son told him he was gay. Andy’s response was, “If my faith tells me that who my child is is wrong, it is no longer my faith.” I’m sure it was much more complicated and difficult than that. But I’ve fixated on it, longing for you and mom to say the same thing about Fox when they tell you who I am, your child, is wrong. You have every right to pick your news source but it puts us back in the cul-de-sac.
I’ve always been grateful that you introduced me to your favorite books, The Lord of the Rings. In The Two Towers, four characters come to reason with King Théoden after his judgment becomes clouded by his advisor Grima, the Wormtongue. These beloved characters, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli stand before the king, begging him to return to the truth. But he rebukes them. His mind is corrupted. He believes in power above all else.
I guess this is me begging you too, hoping that you will listen when I say your advisors are acting in bad faith, that your judgment is clouded. Your four kids have watched as the part of you that was rooted in love has been weaponized. And I say this because it is not bearing fruit. We’ve replaced love, joy, peace, and patience with anger, resentment, silence, and disappointment.
You know that in The Lord of the Rings the Wormtongue years were not the end of the story. The king casts off his traitorous advisor. He calls for his sword and leads the riders of Rohan into the Battle of Helm’s Deep. And in the darkest hour of battle, when all his men flee, it is his niece Éowyn who fights at his side. You always said I was like her. I really want to be. One thing is for sure, I am with you to the end.
I love you.
Whew boy! If you knew my dad, you’d know that the combo of Jesus, family lore, and Lord of the Rings would catch him right between the ribs. But I’ll never know, because I never sent it. Instead, I followed the family rule — we’re just not going to talk about it.
So here I am, pacing my cage and rereading the letter I never had the courage to send, as civil unrest and coronavirus tango in the streets. Looking at it now, two things strike me: 1. My deep knowledge of the Lord of the Rings might explain my haircut in junior high [Elvin rattail]. And 2. My parents could write the same letter to me. Please abandon the news sources that tell you we’re wrong and come back to our righteous side. They could add sweet memories, remind me of how they raised me, and beg me not to light a match to the belief system they cherish.
I have tried many times to see it from their point of view. I’ve considered that we are operating with different information. We are different generations. We are scared. I’ve considered the possibility that I could be the one who is wrong, brainwashed even. Who is the villain? What is my dad itching to lay a foot into?
On January 6 the president fomented a deadly insurrection, breaking our country’s perfect peaceful-transfer-of-power streak. I sat stupefied in front of the TV, a familiar chorus of “this isn’t who we are” coming out of the mouths of every pundit and politician. It is exactly who we are. Each side thinks the other is deceived. Both believe the other is traitorous and deluded. But only one side has Nazis. And Confederate battle flags. And “blue lives.” And did I mention, fucking Nazis?
I lay awake that night stewing in a post-coup flop sweat. And I realized something. For four years, every time this piss-poor president tweeted a schoolyard taunt, blathered a racist epithet, or created a humanitarian disaster, I attached it directly to my parents. And I have suffered for it. What an absolute waste.
I recently came across that old adage, “Do you want to be happy? Or do you want to be right?” and it felt like spine-tingling clarity. There’s one thing I didn’t tell you about the MAGA hat fight: how it ended. My dad said, “Hol, if it hurts you this badly I won’t vote for him in 2020. Nothing is more important than you knowing I love you. I choose you.” He even called on Election Day to tell me he kept his promise. (My mom voted for four more years.)
After the insurrection my family was mostly quiet. My brother sent a Lord of the Rings quote in a family text, surprising no one.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I have decided I want my parents back. Very big of me, I know, now that my side has the House, the Senate and the presidency. But I’ve lost precious time with people I dearly love. So, earlier this week I texted my parents individually to ask if they’d be open to weekly video chats. A couple days passed, and when I didn’t hear back I got insecure and irked. Finally, my dad sent a message from them both. He said they would be open to Facetiming me together. Not separately.
It stung. I called my brother. “They’re worried you’re trying to divide and conquer,” he said. Wow. Pretty insulting. And the implication is . . . I’m the enemy? Jeez Louise. I’m the good guy. My political party is made up of the adults in the room. We don’t fly flags for Dear Leader or wear Camp Auschwitz t-shirts. And I’m the one reaching out and making an effort here. I’m choosing love, dammit!
When I finally shut up my brother said, “Don’t give up. Just do the call with both of them. Prove ‘em wrong.” We’ve scheduled our first Facetime for tomorrow and I’m definitely overthinking it. I thought maybe I’d pull out the homemade Chex mix my mom sent for my birthday and have it in a bowl by my laptop. Maybe jot down a few safe conversation starters. But as I sat planning my high ground it occurred to me that my dad was the one who forfeited his vote as an act of love. I did not. I went into the kitchen to retrieve the Chex mix. My mom makes it with all my favorite ingredients and I’ve been rationing it. I noticed the birthday card she included was still taped to the freezer bag. “This batch has cashews and Amish pretzels!” she wrote on the card. “That’s way fancier than peanuts and bagel chips.” I stood at the kitchen window, noticed it was starting to rain and thought about how, as soon as we’re vaccinated, I want to get back home to sit on the front porch with my dad during a rainstorm. He’s like a broken record. He invariably asks, “What’s the grass saying right now?” Then waits for me to say, “Ahhhh . . . ” And when it stops raining he always adds, “That’s the thing about storms, Hol. They pass.”
I wonder who my parents expect I’ll be on the call tomorrow. A gloating opponent looking for an apology? A lonely daughter hoping to reconnect? Or maybe, just the type of person who spent three years crafting a deeply personal but manipulative letter——to one of them. You know, to divide and conquer.
HOLLY LAURENT is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in The Onion, the nationally syndicated public radio show Live From Here (APM) and Defenestration Magazine. Her award winning short film Brought to You by Satan premiered at festivals worldwide in 2020.