Heidi Stevens: As coronavirus places caretaking in the spotlight, new book explores what happens when an abusive parent needs helpApril 1, 2020 9:46am

March 31-- Deborah Cohan couldn't have known how prescient her new book would feel.

She couldn't have known it would publish shortly before a pandemic held the world in its grip and the rituals we take for granted started disappearing and our connections to the outside started to feel simultaneously more imperiled and more urgent than ever.

She couldn't have known that caretaking-for elderly parents, for partners, for children-would suddenly sit at the center of so many lives, just as it sat at the center of hers for all those years.

She couldn't have known any of that when she sat down to write a memoir about caring for her elderly father, a man with an outsize personality. (She compares him to "an inflatable character you put on your lawn during the holidays, very much larger than life.") A man who verbally and mentally abused Cohan for most of her life.

She couldn't have known any of that when she titled that memoir, "Welcome to Wherever We Are," an apt mantra for these times of chronic uncertainty and head-spinning change.

"I had no idea," Cohan told me over the phone, both of us quarantined in our houses-mine in Chicago, hers in South Carolina. "Most of the writing for this book was done during the Obama presidency."

But books, the best ones anyway, have a way of both illuminating and transcending the time and circumstances in which they're set, even as they help us make sense of the time and circumstances in which we're living.

"Welcome to Wherever We Are" does all of that.

Cohan writes about her father unflinchingly but lovingly.

"Abusers aren't some monolithic enemy," she writes. "There's much to love before we learn exactly what to hate."

She chronicles the final years leading up to her father's death and revisits the childhood and adult memories that shaped her. The constant threats of violence. The vulgar names. The biting criticism. "You'd make my life easier if you'd commit suicide," followed by "You're the most beautiful girl in the world."

And she chronicles it all with kindness and grace that, I imagine, may feel liberating for readers who can relate to loving someone who hurts them deeply, for readers tasked with caring for someone who seems unlikely to return the favor.

"When you first heard me say that my father was abusive, you might have assumed you could or would hate him," Cohan writes in her epilogue. "If you found yourself loving him, or liking him, or finding him complicated and troubled yet strangely endearing, you get it. In fact, you might better understand how it's so common to want and to desperately need bad, mean, abusive behavior to stop while still wanting and needing the relationship with the person to continue."

I think the book may have arrived just when it was most needed.

"I want people to understand that even if you've grown up in this sort of difficult, traumatic experience or in this way that's made an indelible imprint on you, that you can chart a different course and your life can look different and hopeful," Cohan told me. "I really want the book to be a source of healing for people. People don't have to have a black-and-white view of the person who's hurt them and they have to then care for. That seems like a pretty important message right now, when we're at a real reckoning point in the world."

Cohan works as an associate professor of sociology at the University of South Carolina-Beaufort. Her father and mother (who plays a central role in the book) have both passed away. She finds herself navigating her professional and personal roles right now, as so many of us do, as what's needed from her changes by the day.

And even that feels tied to themes in her book.

"To me, the age old question will always be, what is home?" Cohan said. "What is home to us? How do we make our homes? How do we inhabit them? Do we feel stifled in them, constrained in them? Do we have fun in them? And then how do we come home to ourselves?

"So I guess the book is about that," she continued, "and I want people to be able to read that and then reassess for themselves how at home are they in their minds, their bodies, their hearts. It's a meditation on home and that whole idea of what we hold onto and what we let go of."

It couldn't have arrived at a more poignant, more perfect time.

___

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