I was a tall child, but sickly—I had asthma—and when I went to work with him, the sawdust made me cough. I preferred staying home, writing and drawing. I conjured up other worlds: worlds in which I didn't worry about being poor, in which I was someone else's child, a child who lived in a mansion and had a dog. My father—a man with a third-grade education who was orphaned at 2 and sent to work in the fields at 5—understood only the physical. He thought he could beat the softness out of me and make me hard like him.
When I was 21, I left my house in New Orleans and headed to Atlanta to be a playwright. I got a day job as a bill collector and scrimped and saved to put on my play I Know I've Been Changed— a musical about recovering from an abusive childhood. But even though I was writing about recovering, I wasn't doing it. Every day I felt angry and bitter and terribly lonely. I rarely dated, and if a woman told me she loved me, I headed for the door. My play bombed; 30 people came on opening weekend. I put it on the next year and the year after that, and each time, it bombed again. Finally, 28 years old, out of money and months behind on my rent, I started sleeping in my car. When the car broke down, I asked my father to cosign on a new one, as he had just done for my sister (the light-skinned sister he adored). When he refused, I forged his signature. And when the car got repossessed, he called me, yelling. Sitting in that little room I'd just scraped together enough money to rent, listening to him berate me, something snapped. Something dormant in me woke up, and I began to yell back.
I told him that he'd hated me since I was born, that I didn't deserve the things he'd done to me. Everything I'd ever felt or thought—even things I hadn't been aware of—came out. When I was done, the line was silent for a long time. And then, for the first time ever, my father said, "I love you."
After we hung up, I felt light, empty, and exhausted. I knew that I would never again look at my father in hurt or anger. But in a strange way, I also sensed that something had died. I sat crying for hours, as if I were in mourning. My energy source, my fight, the rage that had moved me every day—it was all gone.
Slowly but surely, I began to fuel my days with joy instead of fury. That year—call it coincidence, call it karma—my play sold out. Then it sold out again, and then again. I began to write new plays, and the theme of forgiveness runs through them all. It's simple: When you haven't forgiven those who've hurt you, you turn your back against your future. When you do forgive, you start walking forward.