I was only a child when my fixation with creating the perfect picture began. I would watch as my father, a freelance photographer, created works of art out of imperfect people through still photos. At thirteen, I’d wanted to have my own portraits taken. One Saturday, while my mother was at work, my father set up the photo shoot in our dining room, took a few pictures of me and called it a success. Then he said extra shots were needed in his bedroom. Then he raped me.
A week later, I told my mother what my father had done to me and she confronted him. He denied it at first but later confessed. The three of us went to see a therapist together and she concludeded that my father was sorry, he would not hurt me again and that keeping our household “stable” was the best way for us to heal. Afraid to be alone, my mother agreed. So we continued to live together as one of the few nuclear African American families in our neighborhood–a pretty picture.
I soon became obsessed with capturing beautiful images on film—never scenery, just people. Good times with friends weren’t real unless I had a photo to prove it. I took rolls and rolls of pictures, developed them, assembled them and put them on permanent display in a photo album by month, year and occasion, with their corresponding negatives in plastic sleeves. Things were normal. I had the proof.
I was sixteen when my father tried again. All of my friends were getting their driver’s licenses and I wanted one too, so when he caught me in my towel on the way to the bathroom, he bargained with me. “Just leave the door cracked when you shower. I want to watch you while you lather up. Then I’ll let you practice driving in my pickup truck.”
I charged at him with the intent to kill, but my towel fell down. Afraid of him seeing me, I ran to my room hysterically crying, locked the door and called a friend to come get me. When my mother returned from work and asked me what happened, my friend said, “He tried it again and she’s leaving with me.” I left home for three months, only returning for clothes every couple of weeks.
Six years after my father raped me, I asked him to walk me down the aisle. My twenty-four year old fiancé had proposed to me on my nineteenth birthday. Finally, I had a way to escape living in my father’s house and being the raped daughter and the daughter of my rapist. Instead, I'd be a wife. Still, all I could think about was how incomplete my wedding pictures would look without my father in them. I had no brother, no uncle who could stand in. It had to be him.
When my father agreed to give me away at the ceremony, my mother and soon-to-be husband both looked at me, then each other. For a moment, I’d hoped my fiancé would knock my father to the ground, but he just shook my father’s hand and said, “Thank you.” I was hurt but not surprised. No man had ever saved me; why should my fiancé be any different?
But this only intensified my rush to escape and I moved the wedding up to Las Vegas. I picked a chapel with the best picture deal: Five-hundred dollars for thirty-six portraits, a special frame, a small cake, a bridal bouquet and a limo ride.
The day before we said “I do,” my mother, my father and I jammed into my groom’s compact car. My parents were crushed in the back seat, forced to listen to me play Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” on repeat. .
Heartbeat, real strong but not for long / Better watch your step, or you're gonna die
I loved it.
After a while, I began to fear the song might be unfortunately prophetic. Though my father had been ill prior to the trip, he looked sicker than usual. Was he going to have a sickle cell crisis? Die on the way up or in his sleep the night before my wedding? Then who would walk me down the aisle? What about my pictures? I’d never asked him for anything. All I wanted was a few steps and a smile. I thought, he would have some nerve to die now.
On my wedding day, my father and I took turns snapping shots of each other in the limo on the way to the chapel. He took pictures of me alone in my gown while I took ones of my mother and him. My mother tried to take a few of me but when the pictures were developed, my face had been smudged out by her fingers covering the lens.
In the chapel, the minister cued up “Here and Now” by Luther Vandross, our wedding song, and I started sobbing.
“Why are you crying?” My mother asked. “Is it because of your father or because you know you’re making a mistake?”
The minister held my hand and said, “Just nerves.”
My mother had to remind me to take my father’s arm. Did I have to touch him? He smelled of smoke, that disgustingly familiar, soothing smell. My crying became ugly and uncontrollable. A camera was flashing. I was remembering.
“You’re such a naturally pretty girl, but a lot of girls are pretty,” my father had told me while he was setting up the photo shoot in his bedroom. “You will need more than that to make it as a model.” I told him I was uncomfortable wearing just the bra and panty set he put me in. “Real models wear much less. You need at least a few shots in something revealing,” he said between short drags from his cigarette.
I shrugged off the memory, gathered my strength and walked down the aisle. The day will be only twenty-four hours, I told myself, but the picture will last forever.
After the quick “I dos,” our song came to an abrupt stop. A chapel staff member escorted us to the photo room.
“Father and daughter look so much alike,” the photographer said. "Daddy’s little girl, right?”
After our honeymoon in Hawaii, I spent hours arranging all of our photos perfectly in a wedding album. Finding no satisfaction in it, I never looked at it again. Six months later, just before my father died, I gave him the pretty picture he wanted, my forgiveness, but I didn't mean it and I still don't. I cheated on my husband within months of our marriage and divorced him by our second anniversary. But years afterward, my mother still refused to take the wedding photos down off of her mantle. “They’re such beautiful pictures,” she would say. Beautiful, perfect and utterly meaningless.
If you or someone you know needs help after surviving sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-Hope and visit RAINN.org.