Author Leslie Leyland Fields offers hope and encouragement to those struggling with the pain of a broken relationship with their parents in a discussion based on her book Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom From Hurt and Hate. (Part 1 of 2)
Leslie Leyland Fields: I was living in a place that felt like death to me. I could not imagine a future. I could not imagine hope. And so, I had to go far away. But that's running and I'm running from what God is really asking me to do, which was to forgive my father.
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John Fuller: That's Leslie Leyland Fields and you're going to hear more about how she walked through a really hard, but ultimately, a rewarding trip on a road to forgiving her father. This is "Focus on the Family" with your host, Focus president and author, Jim Daly and I'm John Fuller.
Jim Daly: John, one of the biggest responses we get here at Focus on the Family is this desire on the part of adult children, particularly to mend the fences with broken relationships with their moms and dads. It typically is that father and there's lots of reasons for it. We're gonna talk about some of those things today.
But we're here for you and this program, I think, will touch you deeply if you had that difficult experience growing up with a dad or a mom that just really was not connected with you. And maybe there's still some hard feelings and maybe you've never even talked about it with anyone. We're gonna talk about it with you today.
John: And we would invite you to call and ask for one of our counselors if this program generates that kind of a heartfelt need and you really have never shared that particular aspect of your story with someone. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY.
And as I said, Leslie Leyland Fields is our guest. She's a writer, a speaker, has six children and works with her husband in the commercial fishing industry in Alaska and is the author of a number of books including Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers: Finding Freedom From Hurt and Hate.
Jim: And Leslie, let me welcome you back to Focus on the Family.
Leslie: Thank you. I am just happy to be here again.
Jim: Well, we gotta start with that whole bio, because when you talk about Alaskan fishing, but you know, the cable program, what is it called?
Leslie: It's "Deadliest Catch"--
Jim: "Deadliest Catch."
Leslie: --which I've only seen once, I think.
Jim: You've seen it once, but you said it's pretty accurate.
Leslie: Yeah, it is. (Laughter) And that's not the kind of fishing that we do. Our fishing is pretty tough, but at least we're not out in the winter time, you know—
Leslie: --out in the Bering Sea.
Jim: And talk about that. It's just fascinating that you sound like a super mom. Here you are with six kids, livin' up in Alaska, husband's running the fishing business. I mean, it just--
Leslie: It's pretty normal for (Laughter) for Alaska women, you know. It is. It's pretty normal.
Jim: --it just sounds like fun to a great degree.
John: Oh, fun. (Laughter)
Jim: Yeah. (Laughter) I'd love to do that.
Leslie: Okay, I have a slide show to show you that—
Jim: I want to see it.
Leslie: --there are great and wonderful things about it. We live out in the bush and to live out in God's creation like that, oh, my goodness, to see whales every day and to be pulling salmon from the cold ocean and holding them in your hand. It really is, it's just very glorious.
Jim: And how old are your kids?
Leslie: They are, the oldest is 27 and the youngest is 12.
Jim: I mean, they are livin' a life that every kid would want to live.
Leslie: Yeah, they don't know that though. (Laughter)
Jim: They're just fishin' a lot.
Leslie: They are out on the water a lot and they're livin' outside and I know there are parts that they love, but they'll love it even more when they're older and can look back and appreciate, you know, all that they've been given.
Jim: Oh, yeah and Leslie, when you look at your background and what you've written here, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, think of the difference your children are living, you know, that different life than what you led.
Leslie: You know, sometimes it just brings me to tears when I think about that, Jim and John, because my childhood was really difficult. There were six kids in my family. I have five siblings.
Jim: Where are you—
Jim: --in that birth order?
Leslie: --I am fourth down.
Jim: Fourth down, talk about that. What was making your childhood so different from your children today living in Alaska, having a wonderful time, fishing for salmon with their dad?
Jim: What was your childhood like?
Leslie: Yeah, my father wasn't really present very much. He was gone a lot and he was a traveling salesman. He was not successful and he would lose his job and so, he would lose a job and then he'd be unemployed and he'd get hired and move to the next job and it was a whole series of these kinds of things, until finally he wasn't hirable anymore. So, we grew up without an income.
Leslie: There was no money and there were six of us children.
Jim: How did you and I know this feeling, as well, 'cause my childhood was not too dissimilar from yours in some facets, but how did that make you feel to be poor?
Leslie: It's really terrible, terrible—
Leslie: --it meant embarrassment, shame, just shameful, because we were wearing ugly clothes. We got one pair of shoes a year and they were not pretty shoes. They were, you know, my mother was really smart. I just give her a lot of credit. She could only afford one pair of shoes a year and so, she got us shoes that were gonna last a year, so not pretty dainty little girl shoes that were in style, doggone it, you know. (Laughing)
Jim: Good thick soles that—
Leslie: But thick soles—
Jim: --would last.
Leslie: --they looked like boys' shoes. So, we were always taunted, you know, for our clothes, for our shoes, for our hair. We didn't have money to buy shampoo.
Leslie: And so, we washed our hair with soap and if you want to know what soap does (Laughing) to your hair, try it. It's pretty bad.
Jim: Yeah and can only again, imagine that's the environment, but there was far more difficult things going on—
Leslie: There were.
Jim: --in your family at that time, as well.
Leslie: You know—
Jim: Talk about that.
Leslie: --yeah, and you think about, okay the poverty and the food, you know. I mean, food was always an issue. You didn't have very much food and clothes and those things were hard and dealing with classmates mockery and that's hard.
But that's not really what was the hardest thing. The hardest thing was, you know, my father was absent physically a lot, but when he was present, he was completely absent. He was emotionally absent in every way. It was as though we were invisible.
Jim: Well, and even sometimes abusive, correct?
Leslie: Yes and there was also sexual abuse going on in our family, as well. That was kept hidden for a long time and it was going on and only a few people knew about it.
Jim: Right and in fact, I mean, it wasn't the entire family. It was just one or two siblings, correct?
Leslie: Yes, yes.
Jim: So, that's—
Leslie: That's correct.
Jim: --it was even more isolated, that you didn't even know what was happening.
Leslie: No, although I have to say that I was the object of some of those attempts, but I had no idea. You don't know when you're a child—
Leslie: --you know, these other things that are going on behind closed doors. You just don't know.
Jim: You know, in fact, as I read the book and thought about your story, there's something I refer to for myself as just like the fog of childhood. You don't know what's really right or wrong. There's a bit of that in your heart, but when your reality is not measuring up to what you think is right, when you get that kind of abuse occurring, you don't know how to react. You don't know, is this normal?
Leslie: You don't; right. You don't even ask that question, Jim. You don't even ask, "Is this normal?" You don't even think normal. All you know is this is what is.
Jim: It just goes.
Leslie: This is what is and it wasn't until years later when I was around families with fathers, that I started and until I got married and my husband became a father, that's when I finally came to realize, oh, this is what fathers are for.
Jim: Right, that they actually are positives.
Leslie: That they're positive and they're there. They're a presence in your life and they know you. I mean, my father did not know, I'll bet you he didn't know our middle names. At any point in time, he wouldn't have known what age we were or what grade we were in. So, there's just a complete disconnection and you feel invisible. And at school, you're not invisible. You're visible in all the wrong ways, right—
Leslie: --because kids are laughin' at you and making fun of you and that at home, you feel like a ghost.
Jim: Yeah. How did you manage that, you know, as that 8-, 9-year-old, versus the 15-, 16-year-old? Talk about how you become more aware of this dysfunction as an older teen. Did you have that ability to see the difference and to become more troubled by it?
Leslie: Yeah, yes, indeed. And you know, and I say, you know, we're talking about all these hard things, you know, when I was growing up, but in some ways, I bless it all, because that's how I found Christ.
Jim: Let me put some emphasis on that.
Jim: You bless it all.
Jim: I mean, some people are going, "Are you crazy?"
Leslie: Yeah, I know and yes, I am crazy. I'm crazy by the Holy Spirit.
Jim: I mean, how can you say that? How can you say you could bless all that pain--
Jim: --and that was right for your situation--
Jim: --that God used it?
Leslie: --you know, that's right, God used it and that's what God used to give me life, real life, true life, life in Christ. And I knew from my family, my whole family situation, there was a longing in my heart for more and I knew there was more. I knew there had to be more. And I knew there was a God out there and I tried to reach Him. I had this like this desperate, you know, I called out to Him a lot.
Jim: What age did you first do that?
Leslie: I would say probably 10, probably 9, 10, 11, 12. You know, I'm calling out to God. I'm praying to Him, but I have this sense that He's not hearing me. I'm having this sense that there's something between us. There's something. I'm not getting through. He's like this distant being. I don't even really know who He is, but He feels so far away.
Jim: Did you go to church as a family?
Jim: Okay, so—
Jim: --there's not connection formally there.
Jim: --what was that emotion like when you're crying out to God? Is it because you're fearful or you're in pain emotionally?
Leslie: It was all those things.
Jim: All those things.
Leslie: It was those things and there was always scary things [sic] going on in our household, because we had no money and because the bank was gonna repossess the house, because the electricity was going to be turned off, because, you know, there's always a crisis.
Jim: And that was like every day.
Leslie: It feels like it. You know, it wasn't, but that's what it feels like as a kid. You know, there's always a crisis and who do you turn to? I mean, I can't turn to my father and my mother was completely absorbed by these terrible things that she's dealing with—
Jim: Trying to survive.
Leslie: --and trying to survive. I couldn't turn to my mother. Us kids, we didn't know to talk to one another, so we felt so alone. I knew there had to be a God out there.
Jim: What kept you goin' in that direction if you're not hearing from God, that you're still feeling vulnerable, that emotionally you're crying yourself to sleep at night? Why did you wake up the next day and still try to seek God, rather than become bitter—
Leslie: You know—
Jim: --towards Him?
Leslie: --Ii can't explain that, Jim. I think it's the Holy Spirit. You know, who can explain that? It's a mystery and the wonder of God, right?
Jim: How old were you when you confessed Christ?
Leslie: I was 13.
Jim: Where you said … 13.
Leslie: I was 13 and I had just turned 13 and I was just old enough now to go to be invited to a youth group sledding party. I was so proud, because I'm a teenager now and now I get to hang out with the teenagers. And so, I went to this party and afterwards, it was all a trick of course. They told us (Laughing) it was to get us there to hear the Gospel, but—
Leslie: --thank the Lord, I heard the Gospel for the first time and my sister and I were sitting there side by side and we heard the Gospel and at the end they asked, "Would anyone like to give their heart to Jesus?" And my hand shot up so fast (Laughing). It was like, yes, this is it. This is what has been missing, because I didn't know about God's holiness and perfection and my own sin and I didn't know that, that sin was in the way. And I just, I gave my life to Christ that day and never looked back.
Jim: And Leslie, again, you're the fourth child in six children. How were your siblings reacting? Did you find any comfort? Were you talking about these things as a sibling group?
Jim: Or were you all—
Jim: --separate in your emotions?
Leslie: Yeah, we were separate in our emotions. We had no words for it. We had no language to speak to one another about this. You know, the amazing thing is though, we were close in the sense that, we played together. We were each other's playmates, because we couldn't have anybody over—
Leslie: --after school. We couldn't have—
Jim: I want—
Leslie: --any friends over.
Jim: --I know exactly what you're talking about.
Leslie: Oh, do you?
Jim: The same thing happened in our family.
Jim: We were close—
Jim: --but we didn't talk about the ugly things.
Leslie: Yeah, right.
Jim: We just like pretended almost that they weren't happening.
Jim: And I don't know why. It may be a coping mechanism that God gives a child's heart, to just not have to deal with that all the time. But it was very similar, so I can—
Jim: --understand. I'm sure some people are going, how could you be that 13-year-old and not talk to your siblings? It happens. It's rather common.
Leslie: It is. It is. I think part of it, too is, you're like you don't have to talk a lot, 'cause you're living it. You're all living the same thing. And so, there's not quite that same need, even though we all see what's happening, we're all experiencing it. We're all under the same depth of, you know, hurt.
John: Well, regardless of the pain that you're experiencing, it might have been a childhood as Jim and Leslie are describing. It might be something else going on right now. If you're not seeing hope and you're not sure what you can do, you can call us. We have caring Christian counselors here and we'd invite your call at 800-A-FAMILY or you can go online and find resources that will probably answer where you're at. We've got so many different books and articles and videos and audio pieces at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio.
Jim: Leslie, in your book, you did something that I really was interested in and that is, you compared us to a biblical story of Jonah. You know, so often we feel disconnected from those characters and you really brought to light the fact that we can see our own journey in Jonah. Talk about it.
Leslie: Oh, absolutely, yes, Jonah. Oh, he's my brother for sure.
Leslie: Because he, you know, Jonah is asked to forgive, right? And Jonah says, you know, he's this holy man. He's a prophet of God and God shows up and says, "Jonah, I want you to go and forgive the Ninevites." And we have to get who the Ninevites are. That's kind of like God showing up to us and saying, "I want you to go and forgive Al Qaeda." That's what it's like, because they were barbarians. They were cruel, wicked, heathen people.
Jim: It's hard for people to hear that, Leslie. I mean, you're right, but it's hard to hear that, but that's—
Leslie: I know.
Jim: --exactly the point that's being made in the Scripture, isn't it?
Leslie: It is; it is and we just dress up the Ninevites and we put them on a flannel graph and they look nice and pretty, but they weren't. You know, they really were the enemies of God's people and that's who Jonah is called to forgive.
And so, he does what anyone of us would've done and I love that he was a prophet. I love that he was a special man of God and still he ran the other way. And here's why. It's not just, "Oh, I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this job," but I think Jonah is outraged that God would forgive Israel's enemy.
Leslie: God is not that big (Laughing) in Jonah's mind. He can't see how a good God, how the God of Israel could be a God that wants to forgive Israel's enemies. So, he can't deal with that. So, he runs fast and he runs far and he jumps on that boat.
Jim: Well, so much of what you're saying, if we apply it to our own lives today, it's difficult to believe God could forgive that group of people or that person. We've got the same problem.
Jim: And that's what you're saying.
Leslie: That's what I'm saying.
Jim: Now the beautiful point of the Jonah story for you is how you had to find a way to forgive your dad.
Jim: I mean, the Ninevites is your—
Leslie: Was my father.
Leslie: That was my father and that message to forgive my father, I'm so ashamed that it took me so long. I'm sure that God was sending me that message for years and years and I blocked it out.
Jim: How did you run away the other direction—
Jim: --from your dad?
Leslie: How did I run? Okay, I ran to college. I ran into marriage. I got married really young. I ran to Alaska, okay. (Laughing) That's how I ran 5,000 miles away.
Jim: So, you see that as an effort to get away from that pain.
Jim: You don't see it as the opportunity of a lifetime, that meeting your husband, I mean, I'm sure it was beautiful and wonderful and romantic.
Jim: But you also, were you cognitive--
Leslie: I was not.
Jim: --I mean, at that age?
Leslie: I was cognitive of the fact that I had to get as far away as possible from where I grew up. I was cognitive of that and that here comes this Alaskan fisherman (Laughing), who also recites poetry. I mean, there it is, you know. (Laughter) I was gone.
Jim: He's got me beat. How about you, John? (Laughter)
John: I did the poetry.
Jim: You fish. (Laughter)
Leslie: It's Robert Service right there. You have the information of Sam McGee from memory, had them right there. But we, you know, it was all bound up together.
Leslie: But I had to get away, because I was living in a place that felt like death to me. I could not imagine a future. I could not imagine hope. And so, I had to go far away. But that's running and I'm running from what God is really asking me to do, which was to forgive my father.
John: There's a self-protective aspect. I mean, I did not grow up as you two did in broken home situations. I mean, isn't there just a natural tendency to say, "I've been hurt too much and so, I'm gonna take the wheel. I'm gonna take control."
John: "And I'm gonna make this happen?"
Jim: Well, I think like Leslie, it's not cognitive, but it is the underlying motivation, but I don't know that you at that age, would realize it, which leads to the next question. When did that become more apparent to you, that maybe this was the motivation? And did that create some destructive behavior even in your own marriage? Did you struggle at a point, going, wow; am I in the right place? Did I run from something too far?
John: From one bad situation to another?
Jim: That would be where a lot of people would live--
Jim: --'cause they've run into something, kind of cling onto a life preserver.
Jim: And then they wake up 27, 30, going, "Uh-oh, what did I do?"
Leslie: Right and that is the pattern. That is the pattern is, I interviewed so many people for this book—
Leslie: --that the running away, you run from one really wounding home and family and then, you end up having a child or you end up getting married way too soon or you end up choosing a wrong person, making bad decisions. That's really typical and you're running and hiding. And I don't regret for a moment who I married and who I ran to.
Jim: That worked out for you in your—
Leslie: It worked out—
Leslie: --for me, but I have to say there were still a lot of baggage that, you know, that I dealt with for decades, for decades after.
Jim: Yeah. So, there you are, living in Alaska, as far away as you could possibly be from your childhood. Emotionally you've run away from it, etc. When did it dawn on you that I may have to deal with the legacy of my father in my life—
Leslie: You know—
Jim: --and forgive him?
Leslie: --yeah, yeah. I would say, I was a very successful Jonah, because I managed to (Laughing) put it off for a really long time and I'm sorry about that now. I'm very sorry about that now. But the moment came for me in a phone call, literally in a phone call. And this would be probably 10 years ago now, maybe eight years ago.
And it was my sister and my sister told me that she was in communication with my father, which was amazing to me. I was not in communication with him and as far as I knew, nobody else was either. And he had fallen. He had been taken to the hospital. He had a weak heart. They didn't know how long he was gonna live. And you know, I'm suddenly getting a report about my father. I haven't thought about him for 10 years.
Jim: That's past history.
Leslie: It's past history. He's not in my life. He knows nothing about me. He's not a part of my life at all. He doesn't want to be a part of my life. I don't want him to be a part of my life. And so, there he is. He's in a hospital and he has congestive heart failure.
And then my sister said the most astonishing thing of all. She said, "Leslie, I've forgiven him." And you have to know that this is the sister who was abused by my father.
Jim: And you knew it at that time.
Leslie: I knew it then.
Leslie: Yes. And the fact that she had forgiven my father and she was a baby Christian and I was Jonah, righteous, you know, person. I'd been a Christian for like 35 or 40 years by then, you know. And I had tried to outrun this call to forgive.
And in that moment, God used that moment. My sister's forgiveness of my father, just pierced my heart and it just came flooding in, I think like a door was opened. All the verses about forgiveness, you know. Forgive … the Lord's Prayer, you know, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who've sinned against us." How many times have I said that prayer and not listened.
Jim: Leslie, this is a tough question and we're right new the end of this first day. I do want to come back and drill into some of the other circumstances that you've learned from this experience, but when it came to your sister and this revelation, her willingness to forgive, the person who has struggled for years, they're listening right now. They're right where you were at, being a Christian for 30-plus years.
Jim: And here this newborn sister, Christian, is able to express that. What is it that keeps us trapped in that bitterness without the ability? We got the head knowledge. We can read the Scriptures.
Leslie: Yeah, yeah.
Jim: What keeps our heart trapped to not forgive?
Leslie: It's fear. It's fear that we're going to be hurt again. And we think that the cost of forgiving is going to be high and we think we're gonna get hurt all over again. But I have to say, the cost of not forgiving is even higher.
Jim: That's well-said. Leslie Leyland Fields, author of the book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, let's come back next time and talk about more of that healing process and where people need to go.
Jim: 'Cause I'm just mindful that we're leaving people with the raw nerve—
Jim: --of that unforgiveness.
Jim: Can we do it?
Leslie: Yes, let's do it.
John: And if you've resonated with what Leslie has shared today, then you'll want a copy of Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, which as we've mentioned, chronicles her journey of forgiveness and tells stories of others who have walked that hard, but ultimately rewarding road to forgiving. It's gonna give you the hope that you can heal from whatever past hurts you've experienced and you'll find a copy of that book at www.focusonthefamily.com/radio .
And maybe our conversation today has triggered some areas of unresolved pain and you need to talk it through with someone. It's not uncommon for us to hear from a listener who said, "I've never told anyone, but today on the radio you talked about this matter and I just feel I have to call." It's an honor for us to have caring Christian counselors available to you. They can provide an initial consultation over the phone and then refer you to someone in your area to have ongoing discussion. Call us today to talk to a counselor. Our number is 800-A-FAMILY.
And when you call us, we'd encourage you to consider a financial donation to the work of Focus on the Family. We come alongside hurting individuals every day, but we can only do so because of your partnership. We heard from Brittany, who told us how Focus helped her. "I found 'Focus on the Family' and I started listening every day that I could and it stirred something up in me. I began to understand what it meant to be a godly mother and a godly wife and that I could have those things just because I came from an abusive background and just because I had such a horrible past from livin' in the world, I could have what God wanted for me as a wife and a mother. So, I thank Focus on the Family and God bless you."
Well, we appreciate the call from Brittany and when you become a partner with Focus on the Family in reaching out through the radio and resources, the website, so much more, your donation of 25, 50 or even $500 helps us reach Brittany and thousands of other like her around the world. And today, we'll say thank you for your gift of any amount to Focus by sending a copy of Leslie's book, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers. That's a great resource for you or to pass along to a friend, who might need to begin that healing journey.
Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and on behalf of Jim Daly, I'm John Fuller, thanking you for listening and inviting you back tomorrow, as we hear more from Leslie Leyland Fields.
Leslie: I feel like the process of forgiving my father and loving my father showed me the heart of God. I got a glimpse at the heart of God and maybe the closest glimpse of the heart of God that I've ever gotten.
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John: Well, that's next time, as we once again, help your family thrive.
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Leslie Leyland FieldsView Bio
Leslie Leyland Fields is a public speaker and the author of 10 books including her most recent, Crossing the Waters: Following Jesus through the Storms, the Fish, the Doubt and the Seas, which won Christianity Today's Book of the Year for Christian Living award. With her husband and the two youngest of her six children, Leslie lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she commercial salmon fishes with her family every summer. She is the founder of the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop, a writer's seminar that takes place on her family's wilderness island. Learn more about Leslie by visiting her website: www.leslieleylandfields.com.