My Dad, My Hero

This is the hardest post I ever had to write. The one where I came out about my sexual abuse was hard as well, but this one has a bigger potential for damage, in my eyes. I won’t add any more disclaimers. You read and judge.

I wrote that there were three big challenges I faced in my abuse: its sexual nature, my age when it happened, and my traumatization. I did not write about the fourth because I was ashamed. The fourth category, as I’m learning from experience, is the hardest one to face. My dad emotionally and spiritually abused me my whole life. I know he loves me and I love him, but he never changed himself to love me better, meanwhile, I changed a whole ton in my pursuit for his love. A relationship is an agreement, a two way street, where value and meaning are exchanged. My dad and I did not have a healthy relationship. An abusive relationship isn't always abusive, but it is unhealthy for one or more of the participants. Because so many people have some sort of connection to my dad, I will have to prove to you that he was an absent father, that I’m not being an immature and ungrateful child, and then lay out the way forward.


I know of the troubles my dad has had in his own life. His father was killed during the Vietnam War when someone planted a land mine in the back yard. Miraculously, his body was kept intact during a time when people found out their loved ones’ body parts strewn across town. They were literally blown apart. My dad had to study hard to avoid being enlisted, and he was the only one in his family to flee the country on April 30, 1975. He was sponsored from a Filipino refugee camp to New York state by a Bible college; learned English by reading a bilingual Bible, helped by a blessed soul who gave him her time; and he moved to Oregon to work in a church and to reunite with friends from Vietnam. He met my mom who lived in Pasadena through a church camp for Vietnamese immigrants (hey, that’s kinda how I met Carrie!), and he moved to Edmonton when he got a job offer after graduating from Bible college. Been there 30 years now. His mom died when he was in Canada, which was really sad. We’ve visited his side of the family in Vietnam a couple times now, which is truly an experience because the love you feel there is so tangible and powerful. Strangers in love. My dad lived on his own in a strange land, not knowing the language, and poor as hell. Refugee life.

For those that don’t know, he’s the senior pastor of the church my family grew up in, the Edmonton Vietnamese Alliance Church, and he’s a part time missionary. At one point, he was the director of the Association of Vietnamese Alliance Churches in Canada. He was away a lot, and we always joked that he worked half at the church, half for the district, and half in the mission field. He even got his Ph.D. while we were all in school. Yes, he’s a very important person. We got to travel a lot because of his work too. We went to France when he was speaking at some conference, and we got to go to Australia, Vietnam, a bunch of places. People open their doors for you when you’re the pastor. Matthew 10:42 says “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.” They do much more than that for the pastor and his family. That was a pretty cool part of being his kid. I know a lot of pastors because of my dad, so I always probed about what their family life was like. Pastor’s kids, or PKs as we are affectionately referred to in the church, turn out different. I imagine it’s similar to what the families of CEOs, military, and political figures have to endure. You have to act right. You have to look right. Your behaviour reflects on your parents, so there’s a lot of emphasis on appearance and putting your needs aside. There were ups and downs to being a PK, and it was challenging for me in relating to my dad because interfering with his job made Jesus cry. 

When I get to know new people, one of the early questions I’m asked is how many siblings I have. When I tell them I have three brothers, they always respond by shaking their heads, saying “Your poor mother.” That would be true in a normal sense, yet most don't even know. My dad was traveling constantly, and my mom worked tons of overtime as a nurse to bring in the bulk of our household income. Needless to say, she could not handle all four of us in our teenage years while we were hanging out with friends, getting into trouble, and rebelling. In addition, my dad’s personality lines up more with Chris and Josh, and I’m more like my mom. I think he was always harder on me because my mom babied me. True mama’s boy, and surprise, I got married first of my brothers. I think the group dynamic for any family of six is difficult enough, so I wonder if we really stood a chance with two overworked immigrant parents.

Home life was always punctuated by my dad’s work. He didn't usually go to his church office to work because it was far from home and our church couldn't afford full-time staff. Now that I’m working at Telus, we get to work from home too, and I understand intimately the importance of separating one’s home and work lives, which my dad wasn't so great at. My dad took people in when they were in trouble. Travelers from distant churches always lodged with us instead of going to an expensive hotel, and my dad always got urgent calls about emergencies so he could pray for other families. Growing up in the Vietnamese community, the emergencies were relatively more pronounced since some families had some sort of gang involvement, in addition to the normal emergencies refugees face in their new lands. The man who sexually abused me was staying at our house, so my dad was the one who let him stay.

We used to be pretty consistent about praying every night as a family, sharing our prayer requests and catching up on our days, but should there have ever been a call from someone in the church (local, national, or international), my dad would stop family time to attend to it. We had to yell at him a bunch of times to say to callers “I’m busy right now, so I’ll call you back.” I felt life went smoother when he was away because we were used to it. When he came back, he threw us off the natural rhythm the five of us settled into, and then he would be off again. My dad talked a lot about missing us, but when he was home, it didn’t seem like he really wanted to talk or hang out. I’m certain my dad felt better about his soul-redeeming work than the relentless shortcomings I presented to him at home, so I think he coped by working more. He sometimes just sat at home on his computer, hunting for someone on his Skype contact list to connect with. His unpredictable absenteeism was worse than having a solid yes or no to deal with. People turn out fine, better even, when they have a single parent. The emotional weight of constantly switching and adjusting to this itinerant man consumed a lot of my energy. By now, I think I’ve proved I can make it in a long distance relationship before getting married, so I wasn’t the problem.

When you’re a leader in the church and you have a family, the Bible tells you to take care of your family first before the things of God. Describing the qualifications for deacons and overseers, Paul instructs Timothy that "he must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?)" (1 Timothy 3:4-5) Asians are all about family, but my dad was more excited about helping other families.

Gaslighting is a term I learned recently, used for when victims are blamed for their own suffering, eg. That woman was raped because she wore a short skirt. My dad gaslighted me for years. He didn’t want to take responsibility for the effect he was having on me, but instead made it my fault. I was too emotional, I demanded too much from him, he couldn’t give any more to me, etc. He has a speech that he trumpets (my brothers also know it well) where he effectively gets off the hook for his responsibilities. He traveled so much so he could make money for us, but Mom brought in pretty much all the bacon. He felt we owed him for taking care of us, which I’ll be sure to make my own kids feel one day. Yes, I know I’ll understand when I have kids (he said this a lot too), but that doesn’t mean I’ll act in the same way. Alas, it’s taken me this long to finally realize what he was doing to me and to break free. I’m allowed to feel my feelings. When I’m fighting with my lovely wife, I’ve learned that even if I didn’t intend to make her feel bad, I take responsibility and apologize anyways because I love her. Jesus paid the price for offenses he didn’t commit because he loved us. My dad blamed us. Don’t you get a small sense that he gaslit me by the very fact that I’m writing this enormous post?

Plus, I'm pretty sure he never liked Carrie. I think he had plans for me to marry someone else. Carrie and I met at 16, and the disapproval started almost right away for her, continuing from the disapproval I always dealt with. It's been a long 11 years. 

Not Immature

As a teen, I somehow had enough foresight to realize that if my dad kept traveling like he did, we wouldn’t have a relationship after all of us kids moved out. He stole family time from us and gave it to God, and I’m not sure God wanted him to. As such, he’s quite successful as a pastor and missionary. People love him, and why shouldn’t they? He provides them with spiritual guidance. He’s funny and witty. He unlocks the mysteries of the Bible. If I stole time from my new family and gave it to my job, wouldn’t you expect me to rise in my career and succeed quicker than my peers? My dad wants me to worry about him when he travels to the Ukraine and to praise him when he leads so many numbers of people to belief in Christ, but I just see it as time theft. After I moved out, my dad became sad that we weren’t talking as much. I was just surprised he even noticed.

I’ve always had weird relationships with older men. Very uncomfortable. I could never hit a rhythm. Imagine walking down the same hallway and never being able to avoid the awkward shuffle. I can’t stand being in the same room as alpha males. I’m only friends with extremely nice people. I’ve complained about people that are pretty nice because I can only feel safe around extremely nice people. I’m sensitive.

Dad likes to say that my brothers and I should appreciate him more because he’ll die any day now. That’s his way of guilting us into treating him better, but he doesn’t see that any of us could die any day too. Indeed, I warned him many times that if he didn’t stay home more, we’d all move away and he’d have a shrinking chance at having a relationship with us. If he didn’t heed warnings during our formative years, why should we care during the twilight of his life?

Even if I were imagining all these problems, shouldn’t he have treated me as a mental patient instead of pushing me aside? I’ve gained invaluable support and understanding from friends and family that I am indeed not crazy; annoying maybe, but not crazy. To this day, I don’t know how to handle all the pain my dad launches upon me except to suppress all my feelings. Ever wonder why I speak in a monotone? Instead of emotional suffering, suppose my dad physically hit me all these years. Hurt feelings are harder to spot than bruises. What would you think if you were my coworker and I regularly walked in with broken bones and bruises? In fact, I internalized my trauma and abuse in shoulders and traps, and the muscles are twisting my body out of shape. My massage therapist is shocked at how much tension I have in my neck and shoulders. I bear the weight of my pain like I’m carrying a rock on my back, and I close my chest down to protect my heart. Do you believe my pain is real now?

Despite all of this, I forgave my dad several times over the years. I was bitter towards him for a long time, and it took up a large amount of my energy to the point where it was part of my identity. I didn’t want to continue blaming my dad for everything wrong in my life, so I let go of it numerous times, privately and publicly. Those who know me from church will remember this about me. To this date, I don’t recall my dad ever taking responsibility for what he did to me. He accepted the forgiveness without ever admitting his wrong. What did he think I was pardoning then?

I don’t want to have a bad relationship with him. I want to be able to call him my Daddy, the one I go to when I’m upset or hurt, the one who gives me advice and money when I need it. Instead, I call him Pastor. If you’ve ever mentioned to me any struggles you had with your father, I have absolutely pursued it and tried to find some way from your example to get my dad to love me more. Do you think I want to write this post? Do you think it’s easy? Do you think I’ve been harbouring resentment all this time without trying to make the changes? I want to move on. I always wished I didn’t need my dad because I’d much sooner tackle more interesting challenges.


By this point, I’m assuming you’re on my side. If you’re not, you probably quit reading already because of how upsetting it is to hear bad things about a person you like or think you know.

After I told my parents about the abuse, my dad cried. As is her nature, my mom did not. I don’t think his tears were about my pain, but I think he was sad because of how it would make him look. He cried for his ego.

I visit a lot, as a good son should. Every time I do, he asks me when I'm coming again. He says it with such desperation, a veritable guilt trip. I've already been to Edmonton over a dozen times this year, so when will he really appreciate it? That's a fuck ton of driving, and Highway 2 ages your soul. It's yet another sign that he missed out. He wants me to fucking move back in and never do anything with my life. Meanwhile he'll continue traveling and doing whatever he wants. Fuck that. 

I’m a big advocate for doing whatever you want. Take control of your destiny, and even if you want to piss people off, own it. I recently saw a friend having the same struggles with their parents as I had with my dad. I coached them to cut off their parents, but they were scared. That’s when I realized that I hadn’t done the same, and it didn’t feel right to ask someone to step where I didn’t have the courage to. Every time I’ve talked to my dad recently, all of his insecurities and quirks triggered me in some way. If we’re FaceTiming, I have to process a lot of things at once just to calm myself down, and I don’t even get it all because so much happens at once. I feel like talking to him slows down my recovery. I do feel like he emotionally and spiritually abused me, and he’ll never own up to it. In any abuse scenario, it’s imperative to stop contact with your abuser. Our marriage mentors shared that as children get older, fathers typically turn to money in order to express their love. My dad has certainly taken this route, but his money makes me feel dirty. It has the potential to perpetuate the cycle of abuse, so all can do now is to cut ties.

Normally, this type of public exposure is inappropriate. I think people should work their issues out privately, and they shouldn't  embarrass anyone publicly to get the upper hand. However, I think this relationship has been so one-sided as to be toxic. I initially wanted to password-protect this post, but then I thought about the people who might be silently suffering through the same thing (plus SquareSpace doesn’t really have an option to do that). Many people have encouraged me lately to keep writing, and all I know is to share my experience honestly with a dash of advice. I couldn’t be authentic if I swept this particular matter under the rug. 

So now, I’m breaking up with my dad. He got by without his dad, and now I realize I can too. Indeed, I already have. That's why he's my hero.

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Jonathan Phan Lê @jon_le