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How This Author Forgave His Abusive Father to Become a Better Man

David Crow talks his harrowing childhood on the Navajo Indian Reservation — and why he stopped running from it

David Crow doesn’t like to brag — at least not about himself. He is, though, more than happy to list out the excellent qualities his loved ones possess. As such, he takes any and every opportunity to heap praise on his wife, his children, his children’s “great” spouses, the employees of the lobbying firm he co-founded, his friends and even me. In fact, throughout our conversation, he pauses to compliment my interview skills and assures me that I’ve pursued the right career path.

Yet whenever the subject turns back to him, he offers something along the lines of, “I’m not one of those guys that people will say, ‘Oh, my God, you’re incredible.’ I’m pretty average. Most people would have gotten through what I got through a lot quicker.”

That’s debatable.

What Crow “got through” was a childhood marked by visible neglect and abuse from his parents that few of the adults in his life cared enough about to deal with head-on. In his memoir, The Pale-Faced Lie, Crow takes readers along for the ride through the violence and chaos that comprised his formative years — essentially, beating after beating from schoolyard bullies, his icy stepmother and his primary torturer: his father. Thurston Crow, for whom the book is named, is painted in vivid color as a career criminal who is constantly boasting about his Cherokee heritage, World War II heroism and stint in San Quentin for attempted murder.

The only moments of security and happiness in Crow’s life seem to come from the times he feels “invisible and powerful” immediately after pulling a successful prank on some teacher, classmate or snobby neighbor unlucky enough to enter his orbit. The rest of his childhood, as depicted, is almost cartoonishly bleak.

I recently spoke with Crow about the awful hurdles that marked his formative years, the ways in which they impacted his own kids, and ultimately, how he learned to forgive both himself and his parents. Admittedly, though, I didn’t ask the one question that was most frequently on my mind: “How did you turn out to be so normal?”

It almost hard to start, because I feel like I know so much about you. But when did you decide you wanted to write about book about your early life and how did you end up making it happen?
Well, I always wanted to be a writer and didn’t know how. But more importantly, when I sat down to write down my story, I found it very painful to go back. I spent 1,000 hours writing about 10 different drafts, and sometimes I’d hit a point where I’d look down at the page, say, “I just can’t write this! No one can know how violently brutal my dad was, or how mentally ill my mom was.”

The whole process took almost 10 years. I finally found my publisher, Sandra Jonas, and over the last two and a half years, she ripped the manuscript apart with me, word for word, and comma for comma.

At first, she said, “I really have a hard time believing all this happened to you.” And I said, “Well, it did.” She fact-checked me on everything, to a point where it drove me out of my mind. I went back to every spot in my life, and reviewed every detail. I have notebooks back to when I was 10 years old — I kept a lot of notes to my life. Now, there’s certain stuff you do have take my word on it, but it’s all true.

You did a TV interview where you said that you worked really hard to give your kids the opposite of the life you had growing up, and I read reviews of your book from friends who said they had no idea any of this happened to you. How did you skate around all of this for such a long time?
The answer is not very well. My kids always knew that any discussion about the Crow family was like a black hole — some impenetrable, horrible thing. I was a difficult father, not in that I was mean, but I’d over-emote to them, and tell them I loved them 100 times a day, while also being emotionally closed off. My kids would tell you that their childhood with me was perplexing. I had a hard time showing who I was.

Part of it is, with kids — and with friends — you don’t know what to say. You’re afraid that you’ll drive them away. Because if I said, “Katie, what’s your dad do?” And you said, “Well, my dad’s a doctor. What’s your dad do?” To which, if I were being truthful, I’d have to say, “Well… he murdered people. He tried to kill my mother twice. To kill my stepmother. He wishes he killed more guys. While your dad was at university, he was in San Quentin.”

So there were a lot of years I wasn’t easy to be around because I wasn’t free. I wasn’t happy with myself. It’s a success story that my children are incredible. I’m in a second marriage now, and we have a son — my wife had a son before, and he’s like a son to me. All three of my kids have three great spouses. They’re incredibly great people. I’m super proud of that.

But until I wrote this book, there was a huge chunk that no one knew about, and no one knew how to get at.

There’s a lot of really heavy stuff in the book — the abuse, the poverty, the alienation from your peers. What element of your childhood was most challenging for you to convey?
I always felt I failed my mother. She always made me feel that I let her down. My dad always made me feel like I was stupid, and that I wasn’t enough of a man. I mean, I’d like to think I’m a normal person. I don’t think violence answers any question that you want to answer. He was an extreme bully, and extremely violent. And he always said,You’re a coward. That’s why you don’t know how to be man enough.” I always felt inferior to him intellectually, and I never felt like I measured up to him in terms of toughness, or being macho enough for him.

In one year, my sister tried to commit suicide, my dad threw my mom in a mental institution, and when they wouldn’t keep her, he abandoned her and cut her brakes. I defined my life, until probably my early 50s, by my failure to help my mom stand up to my dad during the 10th year of my life.

Writing about that — getting it so that your reader understands your journey, and that they’re actually rooting for you despite the fact that you did a lot of dumb, bad things — was really difficult.

Your father looms so large in this book — it’s clear that he was the center of your life growing up. How do you think he got away with everything he did — to you and your family, and on an even larger scale, with all the various crimes you witnessed him commit?
Dad could read emotions and moods; he was a world-class bullshitter, and he was built like an NFL linebacker. Plus, he was super smart and read everything.

Whenever he got any kind of a macho sense, he instantly went to an extreme. I have no idea how he lived to be 85 years old. When I did his eulogy, I thought, You should have been killed 100 times over. But you’re the guy that did the killing. You always think you’re going to run into the guy that can take you out, if you’re that kind of person. He never did. He got away with it his whole life.

At the end of his life, I said, “What are your regrets?” He responded, “There’s a couple bastards I missed.” I just laughed and said, “At least you’re going out the way you came in — exactly the same man.” He took that as a compliment. I’m like, You didn’t grow? You didn’t change? You didn’t see the evil of your ways? But he never did.

What exactly do you think claiming Cherokee heritage to everyone he met throughout his adult life meant to your father?
A person like dad invented being a full-blooded Cherokee because it made his victimhood more presentable and dramatic. He had a really bad childhood — he [grew up] in Oklahoma, and there are a lot of Cherokees there. He always saw the Cherokee as a superior race. No one was as good as a Cherokee in his head, and it made him special. But it also made him a huge martyr, and dad loved to be a martyr. The whole world was screwing him all the time.

The thing that surprised me most about this book is the note of forgiveness it ended on — toward your parents and toward yourself. Do you have any advice for people struggling to forgive?
I read every self-help book in the library; I did therapy. None of it helped until I went back and completely, physically confronted what happened. And as I went through confronting what had happened to me, I talked to my dad and mom about it. They said, “Hey, it was your fault — you were a bad kid.”

At that point, you have one of two directions you can go. Direction one is: I’m bitter and angry at you, and I’m going to stay that way till I die. How dare you! Damn you for doing this to me! Or: This is who you are, and I’m free of you.

I’m sure that journey is different for everybody. But for me at least, when I finally said to myself, “They’re not going to occupy any more space in my head,” all the bad feelings stopped. When my dad was on his deathbed, he’d look up at me and say, “How can you forgive me?” I just kept saying, “Dad, I forgive you, and I forgive me.” My mentally ill mom who, God bless her, is still alive, will tell you, “David left me at 10. He was the man of the house, and he abandoned me.” She’d say that this very minute. But I don’t believe that anymore. I’m not taking that on myself anymore.

Has your has your mom read the book? Have your siblings read it?
My mom doesn’t know about the book, and I pray to God she won’t — she’s 88 and she’s very, very fragile.

My siblings, who I love to death, they distance themselves. I had to change their names — not that it would be impossible to figure out who they are. I don’t know if they’re further along or not as far along in the forgiveness and all that. I suspect my brother is not. He hates everything about this story. He never, ever goes back to the Southwest. And my sister’s not far behind. She can’t even talk about it.

Honestly, the fact that you can is a testament to the monumental amount of mental footwork you put in.
I’m having a great life. And I’m not regretting how much time I wasted. I’m just hoping there’s enough life left, and I can enjoy it.

A childhood like that is crazy. But the truth is, I think why people have problems breaking patterns of anything negative is that you grow up believing you deserve it. You grow up believing you can’t be better. It’s a very complicated, unhealthy scenario. I realized how unhealthy my life was when I was writing this book. But I also realized that I’m going to have a very different ending than my beginning.