When I was growing up in the ‘60s, I remember that my parents were really nice to everybody. They had a good time with lots of other grown-up friends and relatives; they were always laughing and joking. They didn’t even gossip, whereas I remember other friends’ parents doing so quite a bit. And later, with the dawn of the hippies and the new mores, I remember feeling proud of them—they already were open-minded and accepting.
We were all supremely happy when JFK became president. My parents watched Walter Cronkite every night to see what Kennedy was up to and what was going on in the world, and then they helped us with our homework. After homework was done, my younger brother and I got to watch a little TV before we had to get in bed and read a book. My father was huge on education. He had his master’s degree in engineering, so it was his idea for us to read an hour before bed each night.
When JFK, then Bobby, then Martin Luther King, Jr. got shot, we were all very shocked and upset.
My father had a beautiful voice and sang in the church choir. There were times he showed extraordinary acts of kindness. I recount this one story in the film: Since we lived close to New York in New Jersey, my parents would often take us into the city to go to a museum or Radio City Music Hall. Once, when we got out of Port Authority, an African-American homeless man asked my dad for some money. My dad called him “Sir!” and gave him some money. That memory is indelible for me. He treated everyone around him with respect at a time when that was not always the norm.
Later, when I was in college at Pratt University, I had many gay friends. I mean, it was art school. I lived with about four of them in a big brownstone, which was very cheap back then in Bed Stuy. My dad came up to visit us once and wired our entire brownstone so that each one of us had a phone in our bedrooms. He loved all of my “cultured” friends, as he called them.
When the family moved, my Dad’s commute changed. Instead of riding with his carpool, he had a long solo commute to work, and started listening to talk radio. My guess is, since he was so big on education, he probably thought he could make use of his time by learning something. Bob Grant happened to be the talk radio king then. Grant, the late, famous bombastic radio host, was openly racist and very right-wing.
Slowly, my Dad’s openness to all people began to change. He started mocking feminists and defending SUVs. Now, I didn’t tell you something essential about my dad: he was a ‘saver.’ Coming from the Great Depression, he’d learned to be thrifty about everything. When we got old enough to drive, he had us mark down our mileage and how much gas we bought in a little book. This was his way to keep track of how many miles to the gallon the car got. So it shocked me when, after picking me up from the bus station one time, he became livid when I cracked a sarcastic joke about all the SUVs I saw on the road.
When he retired, he continued with his talk radio habit and started listening to Rush Limbaugh. He would rarely miss a Limbaugh lunch. And that’s when my Dad became angry all the time, argumentative, and hateful of particular groups of people. Of all things, he began lashing out against gay people. I couldn’t believe it. He would get red-in-the-face angry whenever I tried to ask him why he suddenly hated all things gay. And didn’t he still like my friends? I never got a coherent answer other than, “I just don’t want it in my face!”
When Clinton came into office he hated him so much it was disturbing—something I figured had to do with his hero, Rush Limbaugh. He called Al Gore an “asshole,” and even after he saw Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth years later, said it was “stupid.” He railed against “liberal universities.” He railed against illegal immigrants and Mexicans, and literally started telling my mother she should wait on him because he was the man of the house. He started calling my mother and aunts “girls,” and did not like it when I would correct him and say “women.” “Girls,” he’d repeat, his face filling with blood.
I saw the writing on the wall early on and mentioned it to my mother. She didn’t know what to do about it, so she downplayed it. No one took it too seriously at first. Then email came into play. My Dad joined and/or contributed to every right-wing organization, from the NRA to Christian right groups. Both of these choices struck everyone as especially strange considering he wasn’t a hunter and was a medic in WWII. And only a few years earlier, he’d announced he didn’t believe in God anymore.
He started sending us all a constant stream of far-right emails. Some of the stories were so clearly apocryphal it baffled me that he believed them. He would even pester me with them at work, like the one he sent me railing against the minimum wage. I couldn’t understand it. This was not an issue he’d ever talked about before and I could not imagine him even taking a side—but I was especially shocked at the side he took. It wasn’t until later when I was researching the subject that I discovered many of these “homespun”-sounding emails were simply written by a bunch of guys sitting in a room at some right-wing think tank, made to sound as if an “average Joe” wrote them.
In time, it became obvious to me that the same mantras were being trotted out on various right-wing platforms. And I could see this in the few friends I had that “turned.” They would form identical arguments, repeating the exact same talking points and phrases around the same time as my Dad. One read The Drudge Report, while my Dad listened to Limbaugh.
My Dad started going to the YMCA in the mornings where he met a friend named Don. Don also listened to Limbaugh and told him about Fox News. After that, my Dad tuned in to Fox News every day during his lunch.
Gradually, my Dad had become a completely different person. He was angry all the time, and you couldn’t discuss anything remotely political with him. At the same time, he tried to engage everyone he met to talk about politics, and always tried to find out what “team” they were on. If we didn’t agree with him, he got angry with us. And he wouldn’t stop sending these strange emails. My older brother blocked him first, then I did, and then my younger brother did. My mother was so unhappy with the change in him that she resolved to email him back, hoping beyond hope that he would question some of these newly held beliefs and return to being himself.
It was a nightmare for our family. It was our Invasion of the Body Snatchers. His body was the same, but what happened to the Dad we knew and loved?
Once I started chronicling this character change in my film The Brainwashing of My Dad, I discovered I was not alone. This was a phenomenon. People from all over wrote me asking for advice about what to do to restore their relationship with their sister, or their brother, or their mother. Their concerns were many, from “We can’t even talk about the weather because then global warming comes up” to “My Dad keeps buying guns and ammunition waiting for the new Civil War.”
I often find myself pondering this new “civil” war. It’s truly become a war against civility that has poisoned families and divided our country in a way that it has not been divided since the Civil War, and it’s because of the concerted effort by right-wing media over the last 30 years to mislead and divide people.
I’m hopeful that The Brainwashing of My Dad will raise awareness about this, and that the American public will demand more objectivity rather than “balance” from their news. Any organization working for change must realize that change has to begin in the media. Until then, all we can do is try our best to maintain civil discourse with those we love, and never give up.
Jen Senko’s The Brainwashing of My Dad will open theatrically in New York (Cinema Village) and Los Angeles (Laemmle Music Hall) on Friday, March 18, with day and date VOD release (iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and more). For more info please go to: www.thebrainwashingofmydad.com.