Spare the rod.

My second stepfather was quick with his fists. He would escalate disagreements with waiters into brawls in parking lots.  He threw chairs in parent-teacher conferences. He wouldn’t hesitate to pull the car over and reach into the back seat to swing at me and my little sister. He was six feet tall with meaty forearms covered with red hairs. When I was ten years old, his right hand left an imprint on my left cheek which I wore to school for a week.

We moved a lot when I was little and, as the new kid, I was an easy target for bullies. I was tripped, teased, and occasionally had to get stitches. I was told to just walk away or to stand up for myself or to name names, but nothing made much difference. I was a wimp and a weed.

I’m no longer the new kid. And my second stepfather has been dead of pancreatic cancer for over a decade. These days, the only likely sources of physical violence I encounter are drunks and madmen. I live in Greenwich Village so there are a fair number of each around but I haven’t been struck since a large, intoxicated man appeared out of nowhere and knocked me to the ground in Washington DC. That was during the first Clinton Administration. Except for 9/11, the Bush and Obama years have been without incident.

It’s pretty unusual to see an adult strike a child in public these days. When it happens, it seems so barbaric, like witnessing a street fight. No doubt family services will soon be called, courts, foster care, but when I was a kid, it was an everyday thing, never discussed with outsiders, a family affair. I can’t imagine striking Jack. He’s taller than me these days and goes to the gym all the time, but even when he was knee-high, I would never have turned my frustration into any sort of physical response. It just wasn’t in me.

But what is in me is the battle against the impending threat. While I haven’t been physically assaulted in this millennium, a part of me is ever vigilant, waiting for an attack. It’s the part of me that bruises too easily. My ego. The slings and arrows of garden-variety disagreements and critiques can still sting disproportionately. A blog comment, a client request, a passing suggestion from my girlfriend, all can raise the specter of my second stepfather, his shadow on my doorstep.  My only weapons are flimsy and malfunctioning: defensiveness, sarcasm, withdrawal — the sorts of things that do me more harm than good.

I have long been working on toughening up. I’ve had to. I spent decades in the trenches of advertising where curt dismissal was part of the job, where hard-earned ideas would ride out of conference rooms on their shields, where creative competitions are called “gang bangs.” I have spent decades on the Internet too, where anonymous trolls are free to lumber in, 24/7, and empty their bowels on my creations with the click of  a mouse.

Here’s what I tell myself, not always successfully:

A) Everyone has the right to an opinion.

B) Each critique is an opportunity to better my work.

C) My second stepfather is dead. Even if he does live on in my head.

I force myself to first take a deep breath and try to clear the fog of emotion. This is now. It is not the past. (I know, I know. Easier said than done).

Then I consider the content of the input. (God, even the way I wrote that last sentence shows how tightly I clutch the reins). I look at my idea as objectively as I can, as if it was not mine, unvested — and then I apply the critique. Is it helpful? Can I use it? If so, all good. Thanks very much for saving me from myself. Now I can do better.

But if I am unsure of the critique, if it seems not to fit at all with the way I see the situation, then it’s time to consider the intention behind it. Is the critic there to help? Or to throw a fist? Do they want me and my idea to succeed? Or will they profit in some way from my failure? Will it make them bigger? Will it prop up their vanity and insecurity?  Because if their motives are suspect, maybe their criticism is too.

This is easier said than done, but I think it’s right.

Whatever sort of childhood you’ve had, being creative thins your skin. You take your work so personally. You have to, that why you care enough to make it good.  Not because of the money or the acclaim but because it’s a part of you that you are putting out there.

But remember that the world is essentially kind and welcoming. The people who matter want you to succeed. They will collaborate with you to help you make your work as good as it can be, because good work makes the world a better place for all of us.  And the assholes? They see your success as further proof of their own failures. That’s not your concern.

Unfortunately, I have long given my second stepfather a sort of immortality by letting him enter my dreams. But I won’t let him crush them too.

46 thoughts on “Spare the rod.”

  1. I think this is a “from you to me” special post. Although I don’t have your head’s live-in monsters; there are my own.

    Indeed, they are assholes, but who remind of my better self.


  2. The goodness you have put out there far outweighs the damage inflicted upon you in the past. Shame on those who inflict harm upon children Thankfully you have chosen to rise above these events. Keep up your good works.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Danny you have post traumatic stress syndrome. I have been a therapist (& artist!) for many years and worked with innumerable who were beaten and abused in childhood, still struggling with the symptoms that you describe…….


  4. “Run my dear from anything that may not strengthen your precious budding wings”

    This is a post most beautiful. V.touching.

    Wherever it has come from, living with heightened sensitivity is an excruciating thing. It’s like going through life raw; the internal version of having one’s skin blown off.

    It don’t know about anyone else but this kind of sensitivity gives me both a love of life and a loathing of life, and I feel both with such fierce passion and this makes it so dashed hard to find equilibrium.

    Excellent bullet points here. Very helpful indeed.

    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. You touched a piece of my heart. You have a talent for sharing by writing AND through art–thank goodness a person like you is present in my life as a guiding influence. Thank goodness you have done so much good through your endeavor in SBS. You have touched thousands of people by your talent and sincerity. Thank you for being you Danny Gregory, however you got here!!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. This advice is golden: “Is the critic there to help? Or to hurl a clog? Do they want me and my idea to succeed? Or will they profit in some way from my failure? Will it make them bigger? Will it prop up their vanity and insecurity? Because if their motives are suspect, MAYBE THEIR CRITICISM IS TOO.” I needed to hear this. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi Danny. At first, I thought I was reading a story you had made up to make a point. Reading on, I realized it wasn’t, and I was drawn almost instantly back into feelings I buried many years ago. You’ve written some powerful stuff! Thank you for your honesty in writing, it’s so refreshing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Danny, Danny, Danny, your story, my story, so different in their respective contents and yet so connected in the resolve in our minds and the passion in our hearts. You’re gonna encourage and inspire your followers/fans with this post. Kudos to you and may God continue to bless you as you write and make art.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Danny, I wish I could give you a big hug! I think of you often . I think about how drawing helped you get through some very tough times . I did not know about this “second step father”. What a monster! I think your past has made you very compassionate. That gift comes through in your teaching. That is why I am still enrolled in Sketchbookskool. And yes I have very thin skin. I am 68 years old and still worried about what people think!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for this piece, Danny. It was brave, inspiring and beautifully written. Please know that you and Koosje, through the work of art that is Sketchbook Skool, have had a HUGE positive impact on me, and I believe many others as well. I still have struggled with criticism, both internal and external….reading your words here help me put things better in perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. What a long way from giving your grandfather’s driver wrong directions to ducking clogs and hairy arms. Thank God you were a wimp, otherwise you would have become another violent adult. Perhaps a mass murderer.

    Instead, you have forged a generous self who reaches out to nurture children and adults. An enabler of others’ ability to dream and to become; free to release inner beauty in a variety ways.

    The huge body of your non-ad work could probably titled: GIVING.


  12. Danny, I find myself quite protective of my art these days, I rarely show any work to any but family and friends. I’m very web-dead also, other than Sketchbook Skool, which is the most supportive online community ever. I’ve accepted the bullying of the past because the now is so good: anything we would change in the past would also change our life now. That being said- I’ve discovered some good resources in the city for Martial Arts: Anderson’s Academy (AMAA), Novell Bell, Frank Allen, Sifu Kwok’s Practical Wing Chun, Bond Street Aikido, and Sifu Merino’s Lak-Sao are highly recommended. All are in Manhattan and go well beyond just self-defense…


  13. Danny,
    I had an alcoholic father and my first husband is an alcoholic. My second one that you met in Washington Square, is the ultimate sweetheart and one in a million. I am very, very lucky to have him. I still bear the mental and emotional scars of my past. Some of what you wrote stung and hit close to home. I went to Al-Anon years ago and after I while, I noticed that they kept reliving the past and I didn’t want to relive the past, I wanted to live and move on for the present and future.

    The hardest thing about that is looking in the mirror and taking responsibility for my own actions. I can’t use my past to explain off my current actions, I have learned that I have to be accountable to myself. A common practice that children of substance abuse parents have is we tend to blame our actions on what we think is not our fault. The world is against us.

    I received a ticket years ago for turning right on red at an intersection where I never saw a sign before. I used every excuse in the book about how it wasn’t fair etc. A friend gave me a verbal slap in the face as a wakeup call….she said “Gina, you are blaming everyone but yourself. You made the choice to make that illegal right turn. You have no one to blame but yourself. You have to own up to what you did.”

    You know what, she was right. The past is past and although I still mess up once in a while, that “lesson” still rings in my ears. We make our own choices and we have to own up to our own mistakes. Once you own up to your own actions, you silence the “monkey.” My husband is an excellent example of this, he says “give ‘them’ an answer they can’t answer.” When he deals with situations at work where his employees might have done something wrong, he’ll tell the other team, “you are right, it’s our fault, here’s what actions we’ll take to fix it.” The other party is disarmed immediately. People today want to argue, they want to blame other people for their plight and when you take away their argument, they have nothing left. So if you say to yourself, “I didn’t sketch today, I could have but I didn’t. It’s my own fault.” You take responsibility for that and whatever excuse you had not to sketch, like spending too much time with technology and not enough time with a pen in your hand.

    It’s not easy, every day I have to work at it. Sometimes that paranoid feeling comes back that the world is against me and I feel like I have to be on the defense. Is the world really against me or I am not trying hard enough?


  14. “good work makes the world a better place for all of us” As I read that this ran through my mind: Thank you for making the world a better place, Danny Gregory. You have; you do. Thanking God for you.


  15. This hits so close to home and hurts, bringing up so much of my own painful past. This hits so close to home and heals, reminding me I’m not alone and that my past can’t hurt me anymore unless I let it do so. Thank you, Danny for courageously reminding me to take control of what I can control – myself and how I choose to respond:to be vigilant; to be grateful; to be free; to breathe, let go, and draw something for the fun of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I am touched that you shared such a personal part of your experience with us. I suspect you will find many who carry their own burdens from childhood and who struggle to not let them define or confine them. I am a child sexual abuse survivor as well as a survivor of rape by a stranger at knife point as a young adult. For many years I battled a sense of worthlessness and the need to be “perfect” so no one would know how damaged I was. Time and a lot of hard work has changed much of that, but as I learn to draw, to create from my heart, the monkey that says it’s never good enough is never far from my shoulder. But the lessons you and all of the instruktors in sketchbook Skool share remind me that art is for me-doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. And, each piece of art that I create is, like life, another opportunity to learn something new and amazing-not only about creating, but about myself.


  17. This post was a shocker. You’re so lighthearted and fun and in pain we didn’t know about. You never know a person’s whole story until they tell you. My pain came late in like with my daughter’s instability. It seems we all get hit in the head in one way or another, no one is safe. We do get some good stuff along the way. I rack it up to yingyang, can’t have one without the other, damn it!

    Sent from my iPad



  18. You are a survivor! Lucky for us you survived. Yes, I hear the sarcasm some times, and sometimes it smarts; but most of the time I hear your wisdom, your kindness, your empathy, your compassion. We are all human. None of us perfect. But I will always thank the day I came across your art, and thank you and myself for following on the path it lead me to. I am having so much fun because of it. I am enjoying life in ways I could never have imagined before. My eyes are open all the wider, I see way more than before, I experience more richly … you have a hand in that Danny Gregory. Be proud. It’s all your fault!


  19. Oh, Danny, you did it again! You reached inside of you and inside of me and gave me courage to be, act, to live and draw right now and to release past monsters that hide behind the monkey and talk through the monkey like a puppeteer! In your authenticity you are stronger that all the brutes and bullies!

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Dear Danny,
    Thank you for your touching honesty. As I and others have said before: you make our world a much better, loving place.
    I want to tell you that I have received so much help and relief from a program called ACA, adult children of alcoholics AND dysfunctional families, with dealing with past abuse issues that we all can’t help but keep clutching.
    The work that I have put into this program (and my art!) have helped me in my healing process. I hope this helps you and anyone else reading today.
    monica solomon


  21. Just adding my voice to the wonderful comments here. You are a miracle on so many levels, Danny. Including the ability to follow through and actually affect people in the most profound ways.


  22. You are very likely a Highly Sensitive Person. It is a personality trait found in about 15% of the population. If you are not familiar with this you can read more at I make my life experiences make sense. This is not some kind of sales pitch or anything.


  23. Thank you, Danny for sharing so deeply. You have no idea how many hearts you touched today. From a perfectionist family & a severe , abusive father, I so recognize your feelings & struggles. I rarely share what I create, & only to those I trust. But, at the age of 75, that harsh inner voice has less and less power over me, and little by little, with the support of people/artists like you, I become more relaxed about just having fun.
    I’m new to your blog, but have some of your books, will undoubtedly have all that are available soon!
    Thank you again, for being you, and for sharing.


  24. I love the Dr. Seuss quote: ” Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” So sorry that you had a rough childhood. Glad that you have been able to rise above it. You have been such a blessing to me, encouraging me to try and do art after I have retired from my profession. All I can say is don’t let the basterds get to you!


  25. Danny, everything that happened in out past is what has shaped the person we are today. You are a strong and sensitive man. Those two adjectives don’t seem to go together. But, your second step-father probably contributed to that beautiful combination. You have chosen to rise above the hurt he imposed on you..even though he reminds you in your dreams. We all are blessed by the generous man you are. Blessings and sweet dreams!


  26. By being the loving father you are, you’ve bested him. He did not have the power to wring that capacity from you.


  27. I read this when I first woke up this morning. Then I read it two more times. Then I carried it with me all day. I just read it one more time.

    Now I can comment. Danny, you have an amazing gift that you share with all of us, always. No one should have to carry those kinds of “memories”, but unfortunately so many, like yourself, do. You continue to rise above it because you know that “he who angers you conquers you”.

    Your kindness, generosity, honesty and extreme talent will carry you forward, and your ART will heal your soul. Thank you for this. Karen


  28. I have a background in sales—wholesale and retail—and have developed a means of not being affected by criticism of what I create. If people don’t like what I do, I say, “Not my market.” I want to work with people who like what I do. They are my market. Everyone else is simply not.


  29. Good on you for showing you all these new colors, Danny. The vulnerability you’ve been sharing makes you more and more relatable–and appealing.


  30. I don’t remember much about my childhood, but I readily recall names, faces, and actions of the bullies that tormented me throughout my school years, and I am almost 74 years old now. I have been following your blogs and publications for a number of years


  31. There were times in my childhood that all I had was my art. I know from where you come from and those days were tough but my art kept me human.


  32. I am sorry that you grew up that way and carry such memories, but you are a perfect example of someone who can stand up and rise above all that has happened. Thank you for sharing this post, and remain strong and steadfast, never give up.


  33. Thanks Danny. You make no walls between your life and your art and you open both to all who may benefit. The swath of darkness allows your brilliance to shine all the more. I’m deeply sorry you were hurt and glad you allowed it to nurture your compassion.


  34. “Whatever sort of childhood you’ve had, being creative thins your skin. You take your work so personally. You have to, that why you care enough to make it good. Not because of the money or the acclaim but because it’s a part of you that you are putting out there.”

    This is illuminating. I never realized why my skin was so thin, and why I don’t seem able to thicken it.

    This is another important post. I still believe in Churchill’s dictum that what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger (and your life’s story is the stuff of movies and novels).

    I also believe in the strength of vulnerability. And there being a point in everything that happens.

    Thank you for this post, which I will read again and again.



  35. Wow, I’ve only shared my childhood experience with the closest of friends and it is still very difficult. As the saying goes, ‘Our fathers must have known each other’. My step-father was taken away by cancer as well, when I was 9. I think it was the Universe knowing it was the only way for us to get away from him, and the only reason my mother survived.

    I relate to what you have posted here in so many ways although…luckily being a girl in the 70’s I was not bullied or I would have probably been even harder on myself than I already am. The one good thing that came out of it was that I vowed to never be like my step-father because of how much it hurt me and those I love. I know, because of how I was treated, how to love my children tenderly and whole-heartedly, I know that little words can hurt tremendously and never really heal, and I know that the reason I am so hard on myself is because I am forever doubting my own personal abilities. I always think I am wrong, it’s my fault, it’s not good enough. That is how he lives on.

    But I don’t use these words when I am interacting with my children. I don’t criticize them, I use tender words of love and encouragement and when I hear myself do this I make a point of listening to those words and telling my inner child the same things.

    Thank you so much for sharing such a personal and painful experience with us all. I will remember your words every time I am hard on myself or when my work is criticized by that person who has nothing better to do but spread their disdain for themselves and their world out into mine.


  36. I am in my seventh decade. With that said, the first decade was entirely different than the last. Back in those dark times a leather belt did leave a welt and often for a very good reason and you did learn from that painful experience. Today you have time-out with no real pain, only humiliation. Physical abuse is no longer tolerated and in most cases illegal and subject to prison time. Physical abuse is a form of bulling. We, as a society, are trying to deal with it. Will various forms of physical abuse disappear? Probably not. Why should it? TV Programs, Movies and video games promote it.


  37. Hi Danny
    Thanks for explaining one of the main symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder eloquently and generously. Hyper alertness is a major problem for many of the refugee adolescents I work with in therapy. I especially like that you explained your remedy. It will help people.


  38. We all have our own set of bullies and people who haunt our nightmares. I think however there comes a time when we decide to stand up and move on. Say we have had enough. And acquire an acuity to those around us being punished.
    Thank You for this great honest post.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.