Lara Lillibridge – Winner, 2016 CNF Contest
From contest judge Charles D’Ambrosio: ​The essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world —so says Virginia Woolf, and if that’s true, then here we have it, the real deal: “Essay Notes on Attachment Disorder” makes its deft way in the world as draft and fragment, beautiful in its brokenness, and yet seems to suggest the entire life, the only life, for now. Of course it’s a life revised, framed within a hard-won wisdom that might, in another fragile hour, be revised further —an essay perfectly at home in its faltering. In my hour of reading —and rereading— every wandering sentence held me in its sway, and I hardly noticed my surrender. This essay draws the curtain, wonderfully.

Essay Notes on Attachment Disorder

My grandmother inherited one million dollars during the Depression. She built a forty-seven-room house on ten acres of wooded beachfront property on Puget Sound. The groundskeeper lived in a cabin at the edge of her land. There were maids’ quarters with a separate kitchen and bath. The nanny only spoke to the children in French. My grandfather was a doctor, just like my father would become, and their house had an exam room with a separate entrance for when he needed to see someone in his off-hours. My father spent his whole life knowing that he would inherit a fortune. When my grandmother died, my father inherited only a silver tea service and a few antique wooden boats.


  • All of my friends thought that I was a liar when I said my father owned a plane and a boat, because both of my pairs of jeans had holes in the knees and my shoelaces were tied in knots.
  • My father was a double specialist: pediatrics and gastroenterology.
  • He did not save one penny of his earnings, and he cashed in my brother’s and my trust fund to pay off his personal debts when we were in college.
  • At age seventy-nine, my father now lives in a small apartment and can only afford the gas money to go into town once a week.

When I was sixteen, I visited my father for a week in February and his cat ran away. My father’s cat ran away, and he put his arms around me and sobbed, shoulders heaving, snot unwiped from his face. He sobbed until my shoulder was wet. It is the only time I remember watching my father cry. I wished at the time that I hadn’t felt disgusted. When I was sixteen, I visited my father and his cat ran away and he cried and I asked him why he hadn’t become a veterinarian instead of a pediatrician. “I could never hurt an animal,” he said. “I love animals too much to hurt them.”

The red pebbly skin on my father’s neck looks vulnerable and makes me feel somehow protective of him. I think I should knit him a scarf, but I do not know how to knit, and I could not sustain my affection long enough to complete the project. I do not know how to love or stop loving my father.


  • attachment: a bond that transcends distance and time, a deep connection.
  • disorder: untidy, messy, a state of confusion.
  • missing: not present, gone, empty.

When I was ten, I was waiting for my father to finish his rounds at the hospital. When I was ten, I was wearing a boys’ shirt, light blue velour with a white placket and collar. It had been my brother’s, and even though it was soft and even though my mother said that you couldn’t tell it was a boy’s shirt, I knew. I had big glasses, the plastic frames were golden brown on the outside edge, fading to clear by the nose. They were practical and identical to my mom’s glasses. I wished they were red, and I wished that I was wearing a girl’s shirt.
“Come see this baby,” my father called to me. “It’s the most beautiful baby I have ever seen.”
I went into the hospital room and looked at the baby. It seemed nice.
I asked, thinking I was teasing, “Aren’t you supposed to say I was the most beautiful baby you’ve ever seen?”
“You looked just like every other baby—kinda doughy. This baby, though, is really beautiful. Look how fine his (her?) features are.”
On the ride home, I asked my father, “What color were my eyes when I was born?”
I knew the answer: my eyes were big and brown, and my mother told me that she saw my eyes in the delivery room mirror before I had fully emerged from her womb. She had told me over and over how my big brown eyes met hers when I was only halfway into this world. I had been told my whole life that my eyes were my best feature. I had my father’s eyes, but my mother’s coloring.
My dad answered, “The same grayish-blue as most newborns.”
I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that as his last child, my birth went hazy. As a pediatrician, he’s seen hundreds of babies. He fathered four biological children and step-parented another sixteen children through his seven marriages. Children are fungible; I should understand that. All kids need love; it would be petty to be jealous. I need to insert here that I am very petty when it comes to sharing my father with other people’s children.

Revise to include:
How my heart exploded when my children were born. Explode as in rupture, convulse, or burst. How I still love to watch them when they sleep, though they are big and awkward and have bad breath sometimes and never comb their hair.

The small sorrows experienced by my children wound me more deeply than the large sorrows of my own childhood memories.
Further clarify:
The love that I feel for my children makes my father’s actions inexplicable to me.

My father called today, and I sent it to voicemail. Recorded words like I love you, like you’re so wonderful, with added emphasis and devoid of feeling. I hit delete and didn’t call him back. His strained voice infused guilt directly into my veins, but it was not enough to make me answer the next time he called.

My father had a sailboat, and we sailed all summer. The deck was teak, weathered gray. We scampered—little sea squirrels—in the cockpit and over the top of the cabin while the boat heeled steeply under sail. I held the tiller between my legs as I straddled the cockpit. I was too small to see over the windscreen otherwise. My father built us dinghies, and we rowed races in deserted coves with seals and otters and puffins. We did not see people for days, and our radio never worked. Once, there was a storm, and we had to sail all night, but I was not afraid because my father was invincible. I was a prepubescent ten-year-old with big teeth and unbrushed hair. We harvested mussels off of the jagged rocks and ate them with butter. My father taught me to sew and bought me a wooden flute so that I could play songs to whales from the foredeck. My father played the autoharp and sang Auralee as the boat bobbed up and down, and he taught my brother and me to play, too, our voices and notes floating over the waves slapping the sides of the boat. He made us sit and listen while he read Jack London stories to us in the pale, dusky evening of an Alaskan summer, even though we were too old to be read to any more. There were porpoises and sea lions and bald eagles, killer whales—now called orcas—and big blue whales. The summer sun picked diamonds out of the jade green water and the raw blue topaz glaciers calved icebergs. My brother and I perched on the bowsprit as our father navigated the ice floe, responsible for spotting submerged icebergs lurking below the surface.

How do you sing a love song to a father you’ve hardened your heart against in order to survive him? Over and over, years and years of wanting, hoping, ending in silence, ending in no, ending in not enough.


  • My father moved 4,171 miles away when I was three years old.
  • From when I was four until I was sixteen, my brother and I spent a month or more of each summer, and two weeks every winter, in Alaska with our father. I spent both the visits and the time in-between visits in a constant state of yearning, as in unrequited, as in dejected.

When I was fourteen, I lived with my father for five months. The night before Thanksgiving, I went to my first sleepover since moving to Alaska. When I got home, I discovered that my father had left for the church potluck without me. He had left me a note. You are grounded off the phone for two weeks. You need to write a two-page paper on acceptable behavior for not coming home on time. He had forgotten to tell me what time to be home, and at my mother’s house, we never ate Thanksgiving dinner before noon. It hadn’t occurred to me that he would leave the house at 10:00 a.m., or that he would leave me behind. He took the phone with him, so I couldn’t call my mother or siblings or grandparents to say Happy Thanksgiving. I don’t remember what I did besides writing him a few paragraphs on acceptable behavior and a few pages on what I thought of him as a father. I must have eaten something, but it wasn’t turkey.

When I was fourteen and lived with my father, he spent every night at his girlfriend’s house. He came home every morning and made me peanut butter on toast for breakfast, sat on my bed, and watched me get dressed. When I was fourteen, I did not want to be naked in front of my father, but he was a doctor, and I shouldn’t be so sensitive; bodies were just bodies to him. He invited my nineteen-year-old boyfriend to spend a few nights with me while he was out of town. I did not know how to say in front of these two men that I hadn’t decided if I liked this boyfriend enough to have sex with him. I was fourteen when my father gave me a twelve pack of condoms for Christmas and said, “Knowing you, these will be gone in a week.” I have so many stories from these five months I lived with my father, but they all sound the same.

My father’s eyes are large and cold blue, like the sky seen through an icicle. He seems to blink less than other human beings. He gives his full attention to whomever he is speaking with, but there is something cold and alien in his gaze.

Note for further speculation:

  • He is a scientist, and we are fascinating specimens. He is investigating, not relating.
  • Investigate as in probe, inspect, and scrutinize. Feel the pressure swell into entrapment as the coverslip is set on the microscope slide, watch the unblinking eye examine you minutely and ask you interesting questions.
  • Can an unblinking gaze be simultaneously friendly and sinister?

My father could do anything. He could build boats, sew open wounds shut, fly planes, wire a lamp, sail a boat on the open ocean. He could not love people, though he could say the words easily enough.

My father says:

  • He was diagnosed with attachment disorder.
  • He was the product of a rape of his mother by her husband.
  • His mother wanted to drown him when he was born a boy.
  • His father died of alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver. (My grandfather died of Parkinson’s.)
  • My mother left him for a woman. (My mother did not become a lesbian until several years after she divorced him for his infidelity.)
  • My father says that it is not a lie if it makes the story better.
  • My father is my only source for his diagnosis.

When I was nineteen, I got four new step-siblings. The youngest were eight and ten, and the eldest were the same ages as my brother and me and out of the house already. They are the only stepchildren of whom I am not jealous. Their father died, so it was tolerable that they encroached on mine.
Of course that sentence is a lie—the one about jealousy—but it looks good on the page. My father taught them to ride bikes and went to their school concerts and took them to Hawaii, Mexico, and Europe. He bought them clothes and drove them to sleepovers and taught them to drive and bought them cars. He paid for their weddings and college degrees. Of course, we all knew that Dad didn’t want to do any of those things—he is only ever as good as the wife he married. The current wife, we’ll call her Seven, made him send me postcards when he went out of town with her children. He had never sent me postcards before.


  • diagnosis, as in opinion, as in interpretation.
  • culpability, as in blameworthiness, as in condemnation. Ponder whether it is nullified by the doctor’s opinion, and if it matters whether the diagnostician is a medical doctor or merely a counselor. If one cannot feel empathy, can one feel remorse?

Answer the following:
Is it wrong to withhold love from a father who is incapable from birth of feeling empathy and forming attachments? What if he is