By Michelle Renee Hoppe
“No, we don’t want to go on Oprah,” I said. “We are very private people.”
At the time, I didn’t tell my father that we were offered a spot on Oprah’s TV show to discuss his heroism as a 9/11 pilot. I finally told my family about the offer six years later.
My father said, “You did the right thing. The last thing I wanted to do back then was answer questions.”
That wasn’t why I said no to being on television, though. Really, I didn’t want my father held up as a war hero. Although he was held in high regard in our Mormon congregation, he was a domestic abuser. I kept his secrets because I didn’t want him to feel even more powerful than he already was.
The secret was that at 8:00 a.m. on September 11th, 2001, my father flew a plane from Boston down the East Coast. When I was in high school, my mother told me he’d said, “If only I had known, I would have clipped its wings.” He was a commercial airline pilot who could have stopped half of 9/11, if only he had crashed into the second plane.
I told my high school teacher that I thought I had seen him crash into a building. He had told us when his plane was taking off, and for a long time, the news would not release the names of the airlines that had been hijacked. My teacher told his daughter, who coincidentally knew someone, who knew someone, who knew Oprah’s people.
However, four months after 9/11, this “hero” slapped me so hard that he broke my nose. Sometimes, I considered the violence something we shared as a family, because violence existed in connection and was always the breaking point of shame.
“It was just as much your fault as his,” my mother said. Ever since, my nose has been slightly crooked. For twenty years, I would nudge my nose to the right a little to see how a quiet me would look.
Days later he said, “I’m sorry I hit you that hard.”
I asked, “You don’t think it’s wrong to hit me?”
He was quiet. That was his way of saying yes.
He said he struck me because I’d screamed, “Don’t talk to me like I am an idiot!” He claimed I got up in his face, as if this was an absolution. I crumbled to the ground. Blood dripped from my nose.
I narrated, “I am bleeding.”
Saying it somehow made it real. I left for college shortly afterwards.
The wound reopened every September. I could not forget. I did not forgive. I left my religion and home and flew to college without him. I flew to Seoul years later and then to Seattle, Thailand, Japan, and Hong Kong. I hacked his airline password and flew first class. He argued that I should forgive him, that so many other people thought he was a great father.
I told him, “But I know you. ” He was speechless.
A roommate at Brigham Young University was the first person to tell me that not all fathers hit their children. I grieved the loss of a real parent while putting myself back together. My father didn’t hit me again, but I later found out that he attacked my younger brother. My little brother was practically my child. I was the oldest of four kids, ten years his senior; I’d been the one who changed his diapers and fed him.
I told another Mormon bishop that my father was hitting us. I also told a psychiatrist in our faith. After the police showed up and my father was threatened with excommunication, he never hit any of us again. The only Mormons who told me he was justified were my blood relatives.
Eight years after 9/11, I ran away to South Korea to escape being my family’s secret glue. “No,” I said by leaving, “I will not raise your children anymore, protect them from you, keep your secrets or let you use my achievements to justify your bad choices.”
“We don’t talk about our family” was my father’s motto. It was actually a command. We obeyed, fearing his fists, letting him tell everyone how close our clan was. Privately, he always told me I was “difficult”. To everyone else, he said I was driven.
Twenty years after the attacks on the towers, he confessed to me that he took off from Boston just one minute after the second aircraft. While flying, he saw the first plane hit the tower from the air as he flew over Newark. Five minutes later, Air Traffic Control told him to climb and turn to avoid hitting the second hijacked plane. That aircraft had gone off course.
Then, the second airplane made a 180 degree turn back to hit the second tower. My father rolled his plane to see the second terrorist pass below him, and he correctly identified it to Air Traffic Control as United 767-200. “I gave quite a bit of thought to whether I would have hit the plane had I known at the time that it was going to hit the second tower,” Dad told me. All he knew how to do in times of conflict was to fight.
My mother told me a pilot could not seek mental health services for fear of being labeled disabled. I didn’t believe her. She had a way of rewriting history and then telling me I had a “selective memory”.
My father never spoke of the World Trade Center attacks to a professional until I shamed him. In fact, he would say, “I was hit as a kid, and I turned out fine.”
He was coerced into therapy by the police and the Mormon patriarchy after he struck my brother. My parents told me that Brigham Young University was the only school they would fund, so I pretended I was still religious to get an education. On the inside, I’d already left his family and faith. I was hiding secular contraband literature – Marquez, Beckett, Heller – under my bed.
My three younger siblings told me my father had changed after therapy. After two decades of refusing to accept his tepid apology, and not accepting blame, my mother referred to the domestic violence against me and my younger brother as “a learning experience.” My father told me I might have needed some “sobering up.” My mother still implied I was to blame.
One week later, he denied saying any of this. It was a gaslighting tactic. But I could never let him forget it. He asked me how my bringing it up all the time made him feel. As always, his feelings were much more important than my life. He could fantasize about stopping a war, but he couldn’t stop himself.
My father must have spoken to a therapist or a clergy member or even god because he finally addressed hitting me. He briefly recognized his terrorism, his shame, his hate. Although I couldn’t believe in him as a father, I tried to see him as human when he said, “I’m sorry it happened. It shouldn’t have happened. It will never happen again.” He finally shared regret.
Perhaps he had landed as well as he could have in that moment. I felt myself not forgiving him as much as giving up on reconciling with him. I stopped caring and seeking answers. I felt proud of how much I had raised my younger siblings. Once, my sister said to me, “You know how we say ‘I love you’ to mom and dad and we don’t mean it?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I really love you,” she told me.
Other bad memories of my father came back: how he’d once grabbed me by my wrists, pinned me on my bed, and screamed in my face, “Don’t talk to me like that.” I was afraid he would rape me, but he collected his faculties and left me alone to cry. He’d threatened me with a belt as a preschooler and threw me into walls as a teenager.
I was a child always trying to protect his other children. In elementary school, I used to hide under the dirty clothes pile in the closet when he came home from trips. I hated him.
My younger brother told me I’d saved his life at least twice when we were kids. I never regretted talking back. Regret was for abusers, not for children who suffered abuse. I kept him out of the press, because I knew that if Oprah’s people got ahold of this small part of our story it would make my father famous and then I wouldn’t have any power left to fight him. I said no to being on Oprah, and I never regretted that either.
When the story of my family would become public, it would be told by me, in my own voice.
Michelle Renee Hoppe holds a B.A. in English from Brigham Young University, where she edited two literary journals and ran a nonprofit. She works with the nonprofits The Kite Zine and Teach North Korean Refugees as a strategist. She holds a partial degree in special education from City College. She is the Founder of Capable Magazine, which is a new publication dedicated to stories of disability and illness.