By Cyndy EtlerJul 09, 2019
When you’re 16 months old and your father drops dead, you’d think that things couldn’t get much worse. But my father’s sudden death was just my first major trauma. By the time I was 15, I had been battered, molested and locked up and was on the verge of taking my own life. Today, I see how the fall of that first domino led to each subsequent trauma and, in turn, shaped me into a powerful, joyous adult.
Even if he had lived, I’m not sure how much attention I’d have gotten from my father. In the few years she had with him, my mother, a wide-eyed 22, on their wedding day, to my father’s 54, snagged all the fathering he had to offer. She had been a dewy coed as his student at Smith College, an elite American women’s school, trading on her charms while folding her unquenchable needs away in her bobby socks.
My father, in turn, had traded on his fame. A composer and two-time Guggenheim fellow, Alvin Etler was a high muckety-muck in the rarefied world of avant-garde jazz. He was a professor at Cornell and Yale before arriving at Smith. His work was featured at one of the first Lincoln Center concerts: Leonard Bernstein directed the New York Philharmonic playing Brahms, Haydn and Etler. As Etler’s wife, my mother had adjunct celebrity status.
I can’t imagine how my life might have looked if my father had lived long enough to have a conversation with me. I might have worn the entitlement with nonchalance, like some opulent hand-me-down perfume. I imagine the doors that would have swung open before me, the daughter of Alvin Etler.
Instead, because my mother replaced my father with a Chester Molester, my life morphed me into a homeless 13-year-old, an incarcerated 14-year-old, a desperate and suicidal 15-year-old and a 17-year-old rape victim. Yet, all of these falling dominoes led me to success.
By dint of fate and my brutally narcissistic mother, I had to socialize myself. I grew tough enough to fight off the grown man stalking my bedroom and pragmatic enough to expect fights, not gifts, on holidays. I tapped into a creative vein, conjuring a surrogate family out of library books and Sesame Street. I came to expect two things out of life: hard work and rejection. Then I learned that I could survive, and surpass, those blows.
As an adult, it’s clear to me: I’m unbearably lucky. I got my life’s share of hardships out of the way early and took the tools to build an ideal life from them.
By the time I hit my mid-20s, my tough skin was a repellent for vultures and scam artists. They saw it in the set of my jaw, clear as a bullhorn: “Don’t mess with this one.” The targeted cruelties that are doled out to ’90s girls at frat parties and nightclubs, the kind that foster short-term eating disorders and long-term self-contempt, swerved around me like I had arrived in Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. Having never been nurtured, I didn’t approach dating with that expectation. When guys tried to manipulate me into dependence with alternating sweetness and meanness, I jerked my thumb at the door.
Because I didn’t have a doting mommy or daddy, my childhood cravings for Cabbage Patch Kids, Jordache jeans and VW convertibles were never met. But this lack of early gratification was a great gift. Now, as an adult, I don’t expect anything. Instead, I’m thrilled by the little things: having a break in the rain so I can walk the dogs, enjoying date night at a cheap Thai place, getting an annual pedicure, doing work that matters to me.
Over time, the creativity that served as my escape hatch and drug through my long, lonely young adulthood enabled me to write multiple memoirs, while my tolerance for hard work and rejection carried me through the slog of getting published.
When I finally met my husband, a Midwesterner who is short on sticky compliments and long on loyalty, we bonded not over candlelight but over our love of animals and shared observation of the grasping nature of business wear. Neither of us is hidebound by gender expectations, so he does the laundry while I take out the trash. We’ve found a middle ground between the social repression politeness of his Lutheran upbringing and the brawling confrontation of mine. When there are issues, we communicate our points of view in emails and then talk them out. We just celebrated our 15th anniversary, with reason to believe we’ll celebrate many more.
On the outside, I’m no longer that scrubby street kid. Thanks to my orphan work ethic and my partner's prudent purse strings, I now live in the “wealthurbs.” But when I look at the culture around me, complete with opulent status markers, I realize how different I am from my peers. While they’re flush with new cars and designer handbags, I’m flush with gratitude. I wasn’t raised by a caring father—really, I wasn’t raised by anyone. I built myself from scratch, and I love the lessons I taught myself. If I want something, I don’t drop hints; I work, save up and buy it. If I’m taken for granted, I don’t swallow it with my Chardonnay; I call it out. If I’m unhappy, I don’t wait for a white knight; I make a plan for change and execute it. And for entertainment, instead of going to the mall or spa, I watch YouTube videos of dominoes in reverse fall, standing themselves back up.
Cyndy Etler is the author of two award-winning memoirs, 'Dead Inside' and 'We Can’t Be Friends'. She is also a teen life coach.