Justine Kilkerr: 'I am ashamed of you,' Dad said

Justine Kilkerr grew up in fear of her father's unpredictable moods. She wanted desperately to help make him better but she never could

Justine Kilkerr ... 'He could light me up with happiness or make me feel I wanted to die.' Photograph: Andrew Hasson for the Guardian

The snow lay a foot deep and I wore real fur borrowed from a stepmother four years younger than me on the day I buried my father in a dark Belarussian forest graveyard. My father and I had been estranged for a couple of years when he died of a stroke on the other side of the world. A call came from my uncle at 7am to break the news and by 2pm we were on a plane bound for Belarus. The three days there were the most surreal and traumatic of my life.

My father was a very difficult man, set in his ways, entirely certain of the rightness of all his views and actions, no matter what they were. He was extremely unpredictable, could be intensely affectionate and loving one moment and descend into terrorising his family the next. A major feature of my father's mental set up was his paranoia, so any tiny, inconsequential action, even by a small child, could mean something devastating to him.

As a child, I knew Dad as alternately terrifying and fiercely loving. Mostly terrifying. Growing up I adored him, yet also lived in constant fear of him. He was otherworldly, living as he did almost completely within his own head, but somehow managing to function in the real world. As a child I never knew about his mental health problems, and wouldn't have understood if I had. All I could do was love and try to please this man who had the ability to either light me up with happiness or make me feel like I wanted to die.

My fear was of the unexpected storm, that a few words out of place would send him into a fury. But the bizarre things he said and did throughout my childhood were simply part of everyday life. Frightening and distressing certainly, but I knew nothing else.

Once, after our parents had divorced, Dad took my younger sister, brother and me on holiday to Greece. It was a lovely place and Dad tended to leave us to our own devices. One lunchtime, when we three had had enough of the beach, we headed back to the hotel. My brother, who was six at the time, had forgotten his shorts at the beach, so I put a pair of my sister's on him. They were plain shorts, unisex. But Dad exploded. "How DARE you." I had no idea what I'd done and shrank back into the corner. My brother and sister flinched. "You do this purposely to disrespect ME, don't you? You are disgusting! You HATE me! Why do you hate me so much?" He shouted about how he wasn't sure I was his daughter. Each shout pushed me further into the corner.

When he was done, he turned and left the room. I calmed my siblings and after a while we ventured downstairs to the dining room, where Dad sat on his own at our table. We joined him. He didn't acknowledge us. After the meal, Dad got up and left us at the table. He did not talk to us for the three days that remained of the holiday. I was 12.

This kind of occurrence was pretty standard, though I never got used to it. But despite feeling like I was living on the edge of a precipice, I loved the times when Dad was happy and playful. He would take us places and buy us things like any other parent. He would make up stories for me. But the good times always seemed balanced on the edge of an impossible drop and I could never relax with him, which is why I was glad when my parents got divorced and we moved. I saw him every couple of weeks and each visit resulted in a weekend-long headache that would not go until he had gone.

When I was 15 he disowned me. I'd failed my maths mock O-level and this was taken as proof that I did not love him. He countered by deciding not to love me right back. On that day I knew there would be trouble but had no idea how bad it would be. Dad turned up at the house, grabbed me by the arm and said he was taking me away. He didn't say where. For the first time in my life I said no to him and it sent him into a day-long fury. He told me I was not his daughter, I was vile, I was dead to him. He wished never to hear of me again.

Two summer months passed in a daze of misery when, out of the blue, Dad phoned to ask how I was. As if nothing had happened. Then he laughed and told me to work hard at school.

It was this unpredictability that was most difficult to deal with. Also I felt that, as the oldest, I should bear the weight of Dad's behaviour. In fact, I felt responsible for him. I felt terribly sorry and sad for him and tried to to discover ways to help him, as I could see he was deeply troubled, lonely and confused. I knew that if I could find some advice in a book, or on the TV, that I could make him better and everyone - him, me, Mum, my brother and sister - would all be fine. I just had to find out how.

I stumbled across an old book on psychology. Suddenly it all made sense: Dad was the way he was because of his terrible childhood. He just needed to talk about it and he would be fine. We would all be fine. I read the whole book in one sitting and went about plotting how to cure my father. The next couple of months were spent reading as much as I could until I found the book I felt could help him. I don't remember what it was, and I'm now pretty sure it was the last thing he needed. When he next visited, I gave it to him. He listened to my trembling explanation, took it, thanked me and a little while later left. Over the next few days he called as he usually did, most days. He talked to me and I listened. He thanked me for the book, said it was useful. I was amazed. Delighted. At last. I had done something right. Everything would be OK.

Next day there was another phone call. Thunder down the line. How dare I try to make out he was mad. I was the one who was mad. I was schizophrenic. I should be locked up. He shouted down the phone at me for a while and then hung up. I never tried anything like that again.

Our relationship remained stormy and I distanced myself from him further and further. My late teens and 20s were spent as far from him as possible, contacting him less and less. Then in the mid-90s he had a major breakdown and attempted suicide. I saw him once during the time he was hospitalised, unable to face him, unable to deal with the reality of his situation or my guilt.

After a few months in the psychiatric hospital, and a couple of years living in supported housing, Dad disappeared in 1996. Years went by with no idea what had happened, when out of the blue my sister received an email. No words, just a photo of a beautiful young woman in a wedding dress. A little detective work tracked the email to Belarus, and to him. He had married a young Belarussian woman called Ludmilla and settled in Minsk. I've never discovered the story behind this move, despite asking her repeatedly.

The last communication I ever had from him, four years ago, was a two-line email in response to an affectionate one from me. His email ended with the words, "I am deeply ashamed of you." I decided I needed him out of my life, blocked his email address, removed all contact details from my PC, my phone, everywhere I could find them. The next time I saw him he was lying in an open wooden casket on the snow beneath a leaden Russian sky.


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