Photo by Louisa Hext
As a child growing up in a small town in Grenada, West Indies, Christopher Emmanuel was mercilessly shamed in front of his peers by his father. As a result he buried the anger until it erupted in mental illness several years later. After 10 years in and out of institutions, he was able to heal and explore forgiveness with his father.
The memory still burns. I am seven, crying without sound or tears, as I am made to kneel on a steel grate cover before an open door, stripped naked. Somehow I endure the laughter as the neighborhood kids parade past me, jeering at my shame.
Only moments earlier I had been playing with two girls in a cardboard box, when one suggested taking off our clothes. Then my father caught us. His humiliating punishment that day turned me away from him and in a way ruined me. I shut down and stopped speaking. My world felt unsafe. It affected all my relationships and how I expressed my anger.
When I turned 11, my family moved to Toronto. We were new immigrants in the 1970’s and being one of the two black boys in my school came with abuse and the “nigger” word daily. My father never stood up for me and as the middle child in a family of five I never felt I got enough love and attention. When I got beaten up by four boys in the school playground, my father’s only comment was: “You have to learn how to protect yourself.”
So at the age of 12 I started exercising in my basement. I never liked my body and decided to change it. Soon I was taking punches on my chest in school for money. When I took on the school bully and gave him a thorough beating, I liked the fact that the other kids started to fear me.
All through my childhood, whenever my father beat me I’d scream out for him to stop. But the day I remained silent, my father never hit me again. I was bigger than him by now and at the age of 15 I moved out on my own. Anger would fuel my workouts; I became a walking time bomb. By the time I turned 22 I had built a solid body, won several bodybuilding competitions, and started getting lots of respect.
Soon I was modelling and auditioning for movies and plays. I hid my sensitivity behind a macho exterior. By 24 I was living in New York and pursuing my acting career. I thought I had left the past behind, but when stress mounted between my girlfriend, work and home, I fell apart and landed in hospital. The doctor advised my family that I may be bipolar. He suggested I return to Toronto to rest. That was when the memory of my father’s abuse came flooding back.
After 10 years in the mental institution cycle in Toronto I was able to sift through my past and see how my emotional patterns had caused my mind to schism. But still I couldn’t forgive my father because every time I approached him about the abuse he denied everything and said I was delusional.
One angry day, I drove to my father’s house to confront him. I wanted him to admit what he’d done to me as a child. When I arrived I banged on the back door. My mother looking through the window saw me and shouted to my father, “Your son is mad and wants to talk to you.”
“Let me in,” I shouted, picking up a large rock with both hands and tossing it so hard that it shattered the glass pane in the door. I let myself in, pacing back and forth, and shouting: “Come out here now dad!”
The back room door opened and my father appeared naked, approaching me slowly. “What do you want me to do son?” he said, his voice wavering. “Kneel down in front of me now and see what it feels like,” I commanded. My father knelt before me, bent in submission. I pushed his head to the ground. “How could you do this to me?” I shouted.
Then as I stared down at my father a great sadness poured through me for what I’d just done and I realized I had become just like him. Horrified, I turned and ran from the house. As I stepped out onto the snow filled street the armor of anger that I’d built up over the years suddenly melted. That was the day I forgave my father.
Over time I started to visit my father and felt the love from him that I missed as a boy. I learned about his difficult childhood and was able to let the pain of the past go and love him back. As compassion for him grew, my heart healed. Later when he was diagnosed with dementia I joined my mother and helped nurse him for the last few years of his life. Forgiveness took away the illusion that my past had made me powerless. It rekindled my faith in a higher power, strengthened my sense of morality, and created a totally new reality.