Out in the Open

Learning to forgive your father by becoming him

After a mental breakdown sidetracked his life and career, Chris Emmanuel was able to work through a traumatic memory of his father’s punishment.
Chris Emmanuel, right, poses with his dad. (Courtesy of Chris Emmanuel)

At seven-years-old, Chris Emmanuel was punished by his father for playing naked in a box with two girls. 

This was back in Grenada, where Chris grew up. His dad made him kneel naked on a grate at the front door, as his friends walked by and laughed. 

"And his comment was, 'That will teach you for letting girls make a fool out of you,'" Chris says.

That memory would come to torment Chris decades later. 

The family moved to Canada when he was 11. When his dad didn't defend him against bullies at school, Chris figured he was on his own. 

He started working out. He built up his body. When he reached adulthood, he became an actor and a model. 

He moved to New York and was enjoying success. He was working hard and rubbing shoulders at parties in the entertainment world. 

"I think I was doing way too much," he says. "And at the top of that career, that's when everything exploded."

He suffered a mental breakdown. He was wandering the street and taking off his clothes by the time police picked him up.

He moved back home to Toronto and spent the next decade getting mental health treatment. He'd go through fits of rage. That's when he recovered the memory of that punishment by his dad as a child. The shame was turning into anger. 

One day, he finally decided to confront his dad. He broke into his parents' house and called his dad out from the back. His dad kneeled in front of him. 

His dad asked, "What do you want me to do?" 

Chris grabbed his dad's head and pushed it down to the ground, yelling at him.

"That's when the tears broke in me, and I realized, my god, this is my father. What am I doing?"

For Chris, that moment was the beginning of forgiveness. He had become his father. 

"Abuse is abuse. It doesn't matter who's doing it," he says.

He learned more about his dad's rough childhood. He learned compassion for his father. And he was there to care for his dad in his final years of life.

Chris now has a message for others who are holding onto anger: "You can let go of hate. You can forgive.

"And if you can have that place where you can sit peacefully with it, who cares about all that other stuff?"

This story originally aired on January 7, 2018. It appears in the Out in the Open episode "Cut Through Hate".