My Father Did Bad Things. I Still Believe He Was a Good Man.

Pop’s letters from Vietnam remind me how fiercely he fought his demons

Siobhan Adcock
Human Parts
Published in
9 min readJun 13, 2019

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Photos courtesy of Siobhan Adcock

MyMy father was a good man. I really think he was. But when I was growing up, he was also violent. Frightening. Depressed. Alcoholic, and not in a fun-at-parties way. Often mean. Sometimes racist, as liberal, left-voting white people can casually be. He could be — as even the people who loved him most acknowledged — an asshole.

But he could also be heroic, as he was for me and my little sister, who adored and feared him. Pop was certainly a larger-than-life figure for the kids in our neighborhood, who he would load into the back of his pickup and take to 7-Eleven for candy runs on payday. He was tender, funny, and good-hearted. He was also sad — pretty much all the time. He survived Vietnam, the death of his firstborn daughter, the early deaths of both of his parents, and the loss of his younger sister, all before he turned 30. He deserved better. For as long as I knew him, he battled depression, PTSD, and alcoholism. He died of cirrhosis at 47, when I was 21.

I really think he was a good person — or at least, he died trying to be.

He was young to have shot at so many people he was ordered to kill, young to have lost so many people he was trying to protect.

About 20 years after Pop’s death, I got my hands on something I’d never seen before — an envelope containing photos and letters he’d sent home as a Marine in Vietnam. Seeing my teenage father fall out of an envelope into my hands was fairly extraordinary.

Dear Penny,

I hope your sweet child is a girl then I can have a little niece to spoil rotten. If it is a boy and I get killed name him after me. If I don’t get killed you can call him what you want.

He is all 19 in these letters, trying on valor, toughness, cruelty, gallantry. He’s also clearly terrified and lonely. In the monotony and stress of living on base in a war zone, he’s obviously processing what’s happening to him, while filtering it through what he’d heard from other Marines in his platoon. It produces some startling effects: He…

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Siobhan Adcock
Human Parts

Siobhan Adcock is the author of two novels, The Completionist and The Barter, as well as essays in Ms., Salon, Slate, and McSweeneys. siobhanadcock.com