As a young girl, I knew that my father’s sexual behaviour wasn’t normal – but I didn’t realize just how much it would shape my life
My earliest childhood memory is scaling the bookshelves of my father’s home office and accidentally discovering his shocking stash of hardcore porn magazines. It marked my first encounter with my father’s sexuality, but it would prove far from the last. Now, 30 years later, he (a once successful businessman approaching 70) and I (a 36-year-old writer and mother) are striving to rebuild our relationship, one badly damaged by decades of strange behaviour that we now recognise as sex addiction.
For most of us the idea of sex addiction conjures up an image of Michael Fassbender in the film Shame. My greying Parisian father is no film star, yet with my glamorous Haitian mother, he formed half of a handsome, jet-setting couple. When my two brothers and I were growing up, both my parents had high-flying jobs for international banks and government institutions. It meant they were often away travelling the world, while we were looked after by an ever-changing roster of nannies at one of our homes in the affluent suburbs of Paris, New York and Washington.
From an early age we could sense the tensions pervading our parents’ marriage and my father’s preoccupation with other women, whom he would stare at wherever we went. To cope with our embarrassment, my siblings and I passed him off as a randy Frenchman and developed our own brand of gallows humour. As teenagers we’d laugh at how our dear dad would leer at our girlfriends, the hideously inappropriate sculptures of copulating couples strewn around his office, or the likelihood that he had five or six illegitimate families dotted around the world – the result of various ‘business trips’. But of course all this joking masked genuine hurt, particularly for me as the only daughter. As an awkward teenager saddled with DD breasts, I needed a safe, comforting father who’d make me feel valued and beautiful, instead of oafishly commenting that I ‘looked sexy’ when I was on my way out for the night…
Although he was never at all sexually inappropriate with me, his behaviour did impact on me. Feeling crushed by his overwhelming sexuality, I opted to erase my burgeoning one by developing anorexia. I felt that if I starved myself, my sexuality might disappear. When, during my teenage years, a doctor announced I was on the brink of death and needed to be hospitalised, I saw my father weep for the first time. I recovered, but was so introverted that by the time I started university in London, aged 18, I hadn’t even had my first kiss. Watching my fellow students effortlessly flit into relationships, I yearned for a father like my friends had, who could teach me how to feel lovable. At 21 I finally lost my virginity during a one-night stand, and subsequently set off to make up for lost time by having numerous flings.
But then, half way through my degree, I accidentally fell pregnant with my son following a short romance. My parents proved amazingly supportive. When my son was born and I found myself a single parent, they encouraged me to pursue a masters in journalism while they looked after the baby. The irony was that my father, who had never so much as changed a nappy before, became a super-manny for his beloved grandson. At the time he was having a short ‘career break’. What I didn’t realise was that he’d been forced to take early retirement, in part due to a series of sexual indiscretions at his work place. We would also later learn that he was covering the rent on two separate apartments in Paris for his mistresses.
In the years that followed, my relationship with my father became almost purely financial, with him paying for my flat and other necessities I struggled with. Meanwhile, I put all my energy into building a career as a journalist and embarked on a relationship with a man I adored and who seemed sweet, generous and most importantly, big on fidelity, having been traumatized by his mother cheating on his father. But just as my life seemed to be coming together, he announced he no longer wanted to be with me. Having actively sought out a man who seemed different to Dad, it seemed that he had a strikingly similar fear of commitment.
It was the catalyst that sent me off on a period of unbridled promiscuity in a misguided attempt to understand my father. My brothers (who dealt with their own issues by becoming model father-husbands) tusked with disapproval as I had cold, robotic affairs with attached men. Not being a sex addict myself, I inevitably fell hard for one who, like my father, was intellectually brilliant, well-travelled but totally emotionally unavailable. I eventually learned that he, too, was a sex addict, shagging reams of prostitutes in addition to eight regular partners – including me.
Something had to change. I didn’t want to turn into my long-suffering mother. I also had my son to consider, who, against all odds, had grown into a well-adjusted teenager. So instead I embarked on some serious therapy – the Hoffman Process – an eight-day retreat famed for its introspection followed by a ‘bashing session’, during which you symbolically beat your parents’ most negative traits with a baseball bat.
After talking about my anger with therapists, trying to understand my father’s own past and then bashing my imaginary father to smithereens, I finally felt a sense of relief and an intense amount of love and forgiveness for him. I realised he was the product of a selfish, loveless mother, and he had tried to show me love the best way he knew how, by doting on my son. I clung to this feeling when, months later, I received a call from my mother in which she ranted about yet another of his my father’s affairs, and confessed he had ‘been an unfaithful sex addict throughout their 40-year marriage’.
The new-found serenity I discovered allowed me to finally speak to my father about his behaviour. It also spurred him to complete the Hoffman Process in order to start recovering from his addiction. In a letter he wrote to me subsequently he thanked me ‘for saving him’, before signing off, ‘your father who loves you with all his heart’. It was a momentous step for him to accept that he had a problem and begin the process of working through it.
Now that I feel assured of his love I no longer need to look for it in the wrong places. For example, when, after a recent interview, a very beautiful and very attached French actor make it clear he’d like to take me out, I simply walked away and headed home to my favourite little guy, who, for now at least, prefers his precious video games to sex.