On any given Friday, around 5:00 p.m., I could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd or AC/DC blaring at a volume entirely inappropriate — even for Lakeside — from the rusted-out RV that would rumble to a stop in front of my mom’s house. I would stand in the entryway with anticipation, my blond pigtails bouncing above a pink Care Bears backpack. Sometimes I thought I was going to pee my pants from the excitement. By my sixth birthday, I had the lyrics to “Gimme Three Steps” memorized. The satanic music, as Mom called it, was Dad’s battle cry:
“Here I come, Kiddo. I’m comin’ to rescue you from repressed Protestant hell!”
I always wondered why I related so much better to my dad. Maybe it was because he was more like Willy Wonka on meth than a real father. He never grew up. He indulged his imagination at every psychotic turn. He was crazy, but in a fun way. When I visited on weekends, we ate Pop Rocks and drank Pepsi for breakfast. We stayed up too late, watched Spaceballs, and listened to Metallica at full volume on huge Marantz speakers. When I was a rebellious preteen, so was he. When I wanted to wear a French-cut bikini, instead of a conservative one-piece, my dad bought it for me in two colors, with sunglasses to match. After a weekend of mutiny, he sent me back to Mom’s house with an insubordinate attitude and wardrobe.
Brianna at 14 years old. Her dad took
her to Parkway Plaza for this Glamour
Shot shortly before he disappeared.
It was my dad, not my mom, who taught me how to apply makeup to accentuate what he called “my naturally killer looks.” He stopped just short of making me into a female version of David Lee Roth. Dangly earrings, frosty pink lip gloss, Vans, and Wet Seal shopping sprees. Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Mammoth ski trips, and Glamour Shots photo sessions. When I look back, it reads like one big meth binge.
“The Disneyland Dad,” as my stepfather liked to call him, started to skip visitations. Then the child-support checks, already sporadic, stopped altogether. These were the periods of radio silence. I knew he was out there in the darkness, but all I heard was white noise. He was a terribly charismatic and unpredictable drug addict. The excuses started off simple enough and seemed justified:
“Your mom told me you had a lotta homework, Kiddo, so I just took the weekend off.”
Months blew by without seeing him. It was as if my parents’ marriage was repeating itself. I stood in the entryway every Friday afternoon, waiting to be rescued by the screaming guitars, the booming bass, and the salty gasoline smell of his beach-bum Winnebago. But I heard nothing. Watching the sun set on rows of single-family homes, I felt angry. I hated how they all stood there, stagnating.
Brianna’s parents before the 1975
Mission Bay High School prom.
I am a dying breed: a native San Diegan. My parents were both Navy brats. You know that old military housing in Pacific Beach? Yeah, that’s where they met and fell in love. They attended Mission Bay High, back in the days when teachers would have to make an alternate-block schedule if the surf was higher than four feet. If they didn’t, classrooms would be empty, and staff would have to go to the jetty to round up students like dripping cattle. Go Buccaneers!
Most of us get the edited version of how our parents met, a romanticized PG version of love at first sight, or that high-school-sweetheart nonsense. Not for me. I got the all-too-factual rendition from Mom: “We did it in the back seat of a 1970 Thunderbird, and I fainted at our shotgun wedding.” I was conceived on Mount Soledad. That night, Dad convinced Mom that he knew the best place in the city “to watch the submarine races,” and she fell for it.
My parents got jobs at a faded San Diego institution — there was Picnic ’N Chicken long before KFC. All those barn-shaped Mexican drive-thrus you see today used to be iconic beacons of the now-defunct chicken joints. As high school seniors, my parents became managers of the most successful stores in San Diego. Mom was robbed at gunpoint in Mira Mesa when she was eight months pregnant with me. That’s when she finally quit. She doesn’t give up easily, and neither do I.
Brianna with her father in 1980.
Staring into an old hope chest she passed down to me, terrible memories come rushing back. I see her wedding veil. She gave it to me so I could start to build unbroken dreams of my own. She was married to Dad a little more than two years before the trouble started. The guise of stability began to disintegrate, and his true nature emerged: late-night affairs, disappearing for days at a time, never filing a tax return. She tried tirelessly to make it work and almost lost her life in the process — twice. I’ve seldom heard her tell the story, but explaining why my first childhood memory is garishly bright and red is not easily forgotten.
Alone in my room I heard shouting and muffled sobs. I squeezed through a gap in the crib’s gate, my pajamas pulled tightly against my toes. Teetering toward the kitchen, I whispered, “Peekaboo,” and tilted forward around the corner. My dad’s hand was clenched around my mom’s throat. He straddled her, his knees pinned her arms, her hair splayed out on the green-and-yellow ’70s linoleum. At the end of his huge arm, his fist was covered in crimson. He plunged it again and again into her face, like a spring-loaded jackhammer. I whimpered. Time seemed to crawl as he turned his head away from her limp body to stare at me. His eyes glazed over with meth-induced madness. Jet-black hair stuck to his forehead with sweat. I was the distraction she needed to slither out from underneath him. As she carried me out of the house, warm tears mixed with the blood gushing from her jaw. I remember the chill of the early-morning air as her breath danced in the first light of day. Her matted hair was streaked with maroon. She spewed tiny red droplets as she cried, soaking the pink fleece of my pajamas. I poked at it. Sticky. Wet. Thick, like finger paint. She hoisted me up past the rusted mirror on the old blue Ford and onto the scratchy front seat, quickly sliding in beside me. But she wasn’t fast enough.
My dad rushed the truck like a rabid animal, grabbing the door before she could slam it shut. Screams filled the cab. As the ignition turned over, he hit her again. Blood splattered everywhere. Her head flung back like a rag doll. I blinked, bewildered. She threw the truck into reverse, and the sound of screeching tires seemed to mimic her screams. They echoed in my ears all the way to the ER.
But she pulled herself together. My grandma is always saying, “You girls come from good stock,” as if Mom and I were prized animals at the Del Mar Fair. My mother’s shapely figure — 5'8" and 125 pounds — caught the eye of more than a few good men. She could have been Miss San Diego: blond hair, blue eyes, and a surfer-girl tan. She was intelligent, too. After she left Picnic ’N Chicken, she worked in nutrition at Sharp Memorial Hospital, the one with the stork. After work, Mom jogged around Lake Jennings. One day, a police officer took notice. His badge gleamed gallantly as a knight’s shield. The squad car was his steadfast steed. This is where my life gets weird. Not long after she divorced my dad, Mom got engaged. Almost overnight, I went from a drug addict to a career cop for a father figure.
Brianna’s mother and ex-detective stepfather,
who are both retired and living in Orange County.
Mom and the detective got married, much to the dismay of my disillusioned daddy. He lost all hope of reconciliation, of even being in the same room with Mom again. The detective wouldn’t have any of that. He was so controlling that phone calls between my parents were forbidden. Frustrated and powerless, Pop launched a meth-fueled war to win whatever custody he could. The result was visitation on every other weekend and alternating holidays. I wasn’t old enough to testify in the ongoing court battles and felt helpless to determine my own fate. The court-appointed shrink interviewed me to determine whom I loved more. Each legal appearance became irritatingly memorable; when I went to court, I wore the same blue dresses that Mom chose for school pictures. Looking through my childhood photo album is like a snapshot chronology of custody hearings.
It’s amazing what traumatic memories I blocked out, just to survive. My yearning for normalcy overrode common sense. I wanted to spend time with my dad. I trusted him blindly, though I was never quite sure of his motives. He took advantage of my naiveté one day at the Methodist preschool on Genesee.
High on crystal meth (according to the police reports), and loaded with his customary overdose of bravado, Dad sidled in and sweet-talked the staff so he could pick me up early. An hour later, Mom showed up. For the next 48 hours, half of SDPD canvassed surrounding neighborhoods, as my dad convinced me that we were playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the cops.
“Okay, honey, it’s really important that you stay low. Let’s both sink down in our seats. Hide your head. Here’s a blanket.”
It reeked of pot and bonfire smoke, but I did as he said, because I wanted to win the game. We rattled around in his wood-paneled Jeep Wagoneer, stopping at 7-Eleven for Slurpees and Big Hunks. He would hand me some money and send me into the store, while he used the pay phone outside to taunt my mother. The clever bastard told me he was giving her clues. Dad could make the transient lifestyle seem like a week at the Hotel Del. Somehow his delusions became reality. He was great at getting people to participate in whatever demented game he wanted to play. He was the master of make-believe.
Other stops on our adventure included his drug dealer in North Park and a sex shop in University Heights. He brought me into the store, where, at age four, I learned what pasties were. I looked up and saw huge breasts on a mannequin with sparkly blue sequins over her nipples.
“Ooh, Daaad, those are pretty. Can I wear them on my boobies?”
During the day, we hid in plain sight at Mission Bay, movie-hopped in Point Loma. While stopping at a liquor store for more harassing phone calls, flashing red-and-blues filled the parking lot. When I ran outside, he grabbed me, and we ducked behind a car.
“This is SDPD. Let the child go, and put your hands above your head,” boomed a voice over the old-school megaphone, the kind with a pistol grip.
We whispered and strategized. I tried to convince Pop that if they didn’t find me, then we wouldn’t lose, so I started to crawl under the Wagoneer. That’s when officers surrounded us and wrestled him to the ground. He was laughing hysterically.
“Oops, I guess they got me this time, Kiddo. We’ll play again real soon.”
His crystalline blue eyes were wildly psychotic. He never seemed to blink. The cops arrested Dad and charged him with kidnapping. He would attempt to whisk me away several more times, once from a Baptist church parking lot. He was smart and persuasive, but my mom was married to law enforcement now, so he was forced to fight for me through the legal system. Our world revolved around Dad and last-minute court appearances.
“He’s playing the system like a three-ring circus,” the detective said. “I can’t believe the judge doesn’t see it!” I think the courts became sick of us clogging up the calendar, because Dad was awarded an extra day of visitation a week.
The holidays were comedy noir. My favorite Christmas morning was when we played tug-o-war and I was in the middle: Mom and the detective grabbing hold of my right arm and dear ol’ Dad with a death grip on the left. Still groggy and half asleep, I didn’t cry out, until I felt the pain of my shoulder being dislocated. Pop was the first to let go. I love the irony: my meth-addicted father had the common sense to release me. Eventually, he disappeared again. I wonder sometimes if the detective paid him to leave San Diego, but I think it was the meth. Dad fled to Spokane, where the drug scene was exploding. I wouldn’t know where he was lurking until years later.
He always roamed the open road. The summer I was 12, Dad and I spent the entire time living at Campland on the Bay. No curfews, free beer and smuggled smokes, late nights in boys’ tents, raging bonfires, and the Violent Femmes. I was a preteen with the coolest dad ever.
“If you’re gonna try any gnarly drugs, make sure you bring home enough to share,” he shouted as I hopped out of the Winnebago, headed for Huff-n-Puff Park.
His hipster friends hung around the campsite. People would come by at all hours, stay five minutes and leave. Dad was constantly peering through a high-powered telescope in the back of the RV. My father was the campground’s resident apothecary, procuring everything from pot to cocaine. Mom must have been mortified. She was bound by law to send me into an environment she spent every Friday railing against.
“Honey, before you go with Daddy, let’s say a little prayer.”
Looking back, I guess there were things that should have tipped me off. His home had wheels, for God’s sake. The only way he’d managed to wrangle partial custody from the courts was to claim he lived at my grandmother’s address. Dad was clever. Actually, he was a genius. His IQ was off the charts, as was his deeply disturbed psyche and addictive personality. Back in court, Dad used his intellect to win over another judge. Not even testimony from a frigging cop would prevail. My stepfather submitted a 4:00 a.m. phone call he had recorded. On the tape, Dad pleaded for a squad car to be sent over.
“I’m being followed by aliens,” he confided. He was more afraid of E.T. than the detective, who obsessively rolled a cassette for every conversation. But even that wasn’t enough to convince the court of Dad’s paranoia. I endured two more years of erratic visitations before he fled San Diego for good.
“What did I do to make him leave?” I whined. “Why doesn’t he want me? Why doesn’t he love me anymore?”
“Honey,” Mom said, “your father uses his powers to stir up evil, rather than devote himself to what is good.”
Mom had a way of converting my breakdowns into a come-to-Jesus meeting. I felt devastated, empty, and doomed to repeat her past. My father never broke my jaw — only my heart.
I was in the GATE program, but Daddy never got to see my straight-A report cards. Just once, I wanted him to hug me and say, “Good job, Kiddo.” But as his criminal record would show, he was incapable of that. One day, after school, the detective handed me a fat police file. I think my stepfather was smirking, waiting to see me unravel.
The information was chronological, starting with a psychological evaluation from Mission Bay High School.
“This student frequently exhibits strong schizophrenic potential,” his counselor wrote. “He is often cruel and calculating in his pranks.”
There were police reports, depositions, and diagrams. First was Dad’s rap sheet: robbery, possession, assault, illegal weapons charges (including possession of a sawed-off 12-gauge). A detailed diagram of his North Park apartment featured the words: “Shotgun shells deposited and 9mm rounds retrieved from wall.” Some cop had scribbled notations on the portion of the drawing that depicted my bedroom. There were similar scrawls on the front and back doors of the apartment, as well as in the living room and kitchen. Apparently, to make ends meet while he was waiting for a disability payout from PepsiCo Inc., Dad was moonlighting as a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, cooking and selling meth. He must have pissed off the wrong person, because those diagrams of the apartment documented a Thanksgiving shoot-out in 1990. Fortunately, Mom had swapped weekends with him. Otherwise, I might have been caught in the middle of an ugly druggie gunfight.
One afternoon, while I was napping at his place, he locked the door to my bedroom. He was upstairs with his flavor of the month (a skinny brunette), cooking meth and screwing. The duplex didn’t have proper ventilation, and the fumes were seeping in from a heating duct. I could hear ZZ Top’s “Got Me Under Pressure” as I crawled to the door and banged for help. When the song ended, Dad found me.
“There was a gas leak, Princess. I am sooo sorry.”
As I thumbed through the stack of police reports, I saw the brunette’s name again. She was listed as a former person of interest in connection with a house fire that killed two children. Maybe Dad knew what he was doing, bailing out of San Diego, leaving me behind with no connections to him. But that manila envelope sticks in my mind. I remember fingering the red thread and circular closure, begging Grandma to tell me if Dad was dead or alive. If he were okay, he would keep in contact with her. She was a loyal enabler, and he would milk her for his next score.
“Oh, honey,” she whispered. “God help me. I wish I could tell you, but I just can’t talk about it.”
I longed for another endless summer at Campland or another afternoon goofing off in the fountain at Balboa Park, but it never came. Instead, I was immersed in another type of hell. The honeymoon was over for Mom and her detective.
They had been struggling for years. The pattern of abuse was so predictable that I would listen for their voices to reach an audible level. That was the signal to carry my half-brother to the white Camry, crank up the stereo, and do homework until Mom emerged. Sometimes we would go back into the house; other times we stayed in a motel for a few days. I always made sure my brother’s diaper bag was stocked with snacks, toys, and clothes.
At 16, I was already working and taking night classes at the regional occupational center behind West Hills High. I carried a 4.3 GPA with Advanced Placement and honors classes. I didn’t want to stay in the detective’s house for a minute longer than I had to. UCSB was going to be my escape.
“You’ll be barefoot and pregnant before you ever see the inside of a college,” my stepfather taunted.
For all of my real dad’s meth craziness, at least he encouraged me to develop my brain. For my seventh birthday, he gave me the complete works of Shakespeare. We would read King Lear snuggled up by a Coleman lantern at Campland or on a blanket at Kate Sessions Park. Dad took me to the San Diego Symphony Summer Pops when I was nine. We ate caviar, and he snuck me sips of champagne at intermission. He also frequented used bookstores, picking up old editions. I was doing eighth-grade biology in the fourth grade. That high-powered telescope in the back of the RV was great for learning astronomy. I knew most of the constellations before I turned ten. Who the hell was the detective to tell me I wasn’t going to college?
Brianna before her 1997 high school
prom, with her grandmother.
At 17, I was working part-time at the Walmart pharmacy in Santee. I moved out, rented a room from a family at church, and squirreled away the rest of my paycheck. Mom helped me file for emancipation, and I applied to college.
I had never allowed the detective to adopt me, so the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office quickly took my case. The deadbeat-dad law could have originated with my loony old Pop, so emancipation was a snap. Scholarships and grants, made possible by the statute, helped me pay my own way through Biola University. I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature. It was exhausting, and a suicide attempt my sophomore year almost forced me to drop out. I would drive two hours on the I–5, just to listen to the waves crashing in La Jolla Cove. Breathing the air in San Diego made me feel different. Sane. Seeing the skyline made me remember why I was fighting for my future. After graduation, I caught the first train back to San Diego, where I took a deep breath and stopped searching for my father.
As soon as you stop looking, that’s when you find it. Through the wonders of Facebook, Dad contacted me. He’d been peering into my life via cyberspace, and I discovered that he had been posting old pictures of me. While he was missing, Grandma was passing him photos. I accepted his friend request, and we’ve started talking again. Just before Thanksgiving, he wrote:
“My body is broken, Bri. I am so sad that it’s hard to describe. I really wanted to contribute to your article. I have so many great memories, and I wanted to relive those again, even just for a moment…. So many other things got in the way that I just did not have any of ‘me’ left at the end of the day. I am very sorry to have let you down. Seems that I’m really good at that. I should go for now, but I do want you to know that I love you, always have, always will!” — Daddy
Despite moving to Spokane, the second-largest meth haven in the United States, it seems that Dad has quit street drugs. He traded them for a cocktail of anti-psychotics and methadone. On disability, with more than ten surgeries on his back, he struggles to support a growing family of five. I learned that I have two half-sisters in Washington state and that his home is in foreclosure. He has been diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder. Paranoid that there are still people who would kill him, Dad will never return to San Diego. He still sings silly songs and gives strange nicknames to all of his children. I remain Princess Tootaknabie from the Island of Knabe Knabe.
The detective became a long-haired rock ’n’ roller who rides a Harley. He and Mom managed to work things out. They are happily retired and living in Orange County, where they make love not war. Mom drove down to attend a therapy session with me recently. We talked a lot about self-esteem and her dream of getting her bachelor’s degree. I think she’ll do great.
My half-brother is a sergeant in the Air Force. He has been deployed to Iraq twice. Despite his quirks, he’s a proud father and has grown up to be a good man.
Brianna Van Ness, today
I have a wandering soul. I move to a different neighborhood every three years, but San Diego is my home. I can walk through Balboa Park and remember looking at the clouds, reading Lear with Dad. I pass Mr. Frostie in Pacific Beach and relive summer days of teenage bliss. For a while, I lived on Olney Street, not too far from Campland on the Bay, hoping I might catch Pop pulling in with the rig. I will always remember those summers in San Diego, listening to the devil’s music and roaming around like a pirate in that old Winnebago.