In the early 1980s, while other five year-old girls were casually playing with dolls, I was on a slow and steadfast mission of human amphibian redemption. The target was Leech — a muscle-bound mutant sea monster who served as a peripheral villain in the 1980s He-Man and She-Ra cartoons.
On those shows, Leech, summoned from the depths of the ocean by the forces of evil to use his life-sucking superpowers against our titular heroes, is portrayed as a bumbling baddie who consistently flubs the best-laid wicked plans. In my house, the 1985 Leech action figure, which came complete with a tiny, plastic crossbow and a suction cup face that could vacuum seal to a wall, was the hero in all of my imaginary adventures.
Leech released prisoners trapped in homemade LEGO towers. Leech bravely crossed rivers made of blue construction paper to rescue those on the other side. And most importantly, in long, heartfelt monologues, Leech convinced villain after villain to give up their evil ways and convert to the side of good. I carried Leech everywhere, often swaddled in a baby blanket or tucked in a small purse, just in case we encountered an evildoer in the wild who could be persuaded to switch sides.
For years of childhood, I was obsessed with this redemption narrative, at least partially because I was sorting through one of my own. My father was, and still is, strong and loving and generous and hilarious. He is also angry and resentful and self-destructive and, on rare occasion years ago, terrifyingly violent.
Creating a portrait of my father that accurately reflects all of his marvelous and painful complexities is sometimes confusing now even in my late 30s. As a child, it wasn’t developmentally possible, so I fit together these mismatched pieces by believing in bad men who chose to become good men, and dedicated their lives to helping others do the same.
I’m grown now and have long accepted, and love, my father for exactly who and what he is. It’s easier to hold his multitudes in my mind, but every time I see Leech sitting on the back corner of my very adult desk, I am reminded of a time when it wasn’t so easy.