Ethan Hughes Sr. is the quiet and often misunderstood father of Ethan Hughes Bryant from the Forbidden Room series. An introverted and soft-spoken man, Ethan’s dream of his namesake joining the family practice was shattered as he was forced to watch his broken son attempt to cope with his trauma. An educated professional, he found himself completely unequipped to handle the teenager’s problems. Eventually, he was reduced to mourning his son rather than engaging the man Ethan Jr. would become.
[J. P. Barnaby] Ethan, I know that this is difficult for you but I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me. It’s nice to see you again.
[Ethan Sr.] It is difficult, I’m afraid I’m not sure exactly where to begin.
Why don’t you tell me about the first time you saw Charity?
[For the first time since I approached him about the interview, a smile brightens Ethan Sr.’s face]
The first time I saw her wasn’t actually the day we met. I don’t know if I ever told her that. We were at Northwestern together and we met when she was assigned as a TA for the Philosophy class I didn’t want to take. The first time I saw her though was at the library. I was sitting in one of the carols in the back, with my head stuck in a book as usual, when I heard a couple of girls giggling at a table nearby. Normally, this would have upset me because I was so serious back then. Having few friends and no girlfriend, my whole life was pretty much devoted to school. When I looked up to say something, I saw the most beautiful girl. Her light brown hair fell to her shoulders and had little golden strands in it that caught the sun that streamed down through the high windows behind her. Even in jeans and a faded T-shirt, she was just stunning.
You didn’t talk to her then?
Nope, it took me weeks of seeing her twice a week in class to work up the nerve to talk to her. When I did, I was amazed by her mind. Everything about her overwhelmed me.
After you were married and settled in as a young couple, how did you feel when Charity told you that you were going to be a father?
Honestly? I was thrilled. Of course, I was scared because it meant that I would then be responsible for a whole family instead of just my incredibly self-sufficient wife.
Tell me about the first time you held Ethan.
[Ethan Sr.’s eyes brighten and a faraway look comes over his face.]
EJ was such a tiny little thing, only a little over six pounds. I remember standing there in the delivery room, holding my wife’s hand as she squeezed the bones to dust. The doctor had cried “It’s a boy!” just seconds before we heard the tiny wail of our son. Having grown up with four sisters, I’d wished so hard for a son. When the nurse handed him to me as they finished up with Charity, I remember thinking that I could hold him in one hand. I couldn’t believe that this tiny little person was really my son. There was this warmth in my chest, like a balloon had inflated with hot air inside my ribs. It was amazing.
That feeling stayed with me as I watched him learn to walk and talk, as I played catch with him in the yard and as I listened to him telling me excitedly about his first day at kindergarten.
What happened the day that Ethan went missing?
It was one of the worst days of my life. Charity had called me at work, but she wasn’t making any sense, I couldn’t understand. Then another voice, a man who identified himself as Chicago PD, came on the line and told me that my son was missing. I don’t even think I turned off the computer on my desk before I raced out the door. It would be weeks before I came back to work.
We called everyone we’d ever met, his teacher, his friends, anyone we could think of. No one knew where he was. Charity and I spent that first night with one of the house phones pulled into his room. Everything was just as he’d left it that morning and it was torture to think that he wasn’t just going to walk through the door.
I think it took at least six months for Charity to be able to pick up the dirty clothes from the floor. She was so determined to leave everything as it was.
A fan of the series asks "As a father having your son kidnapped is a parent’s worst nightmare. I just wonder given your financial and powerful resources did you do anything in addition to having the police and FBI search for Ethan? Did you hire private detectives? And now that I read that his abductor was killed in jail...did you have any involvement in that?”
[Ethan sits back in his chair and sighs]
I’ll answer the last question first. No, I didn’t have anything to do with that monster being put down though I’m not sorry it happened. I hope that before he died he received a thorough education in what my son went through all those years.
When EJ disappeared, I went through every resource I had access to in order to find him. We hired a private detective, put his face on the news, granted interviews to all kinds of agencies, anything we thought might help. In the end, I failed him utterly and he got out by rescuing himself.
Sometimes I wonder how long it took for him to give up hope, or if he hates me as much as I hate myself for my failure.
What was your relationship with Ethan prior to the kidnapping, after he was returned and what do you hope for now?
My relationship with EJ was amazing prior to the kidnapping. He looked at me like I was his hero. After he came home and that illusion was shattered, we didn’t really have any kind of relationship. I don’t blame him. It was my job to protect him, to keep him safe, and I failed him in the worst possible way. His life was a perpetual nightmare from the day he disappeared until the day he left home and I don’t blame him for hating me.
Now, I just hope that in some way he can find peace.
Does it bother you at all that your son is gay? What are your feelings about that?
At first, I wondered if it was caused by his abuse. Had what happened to him as a child made him like that? Then, I sat down one afternoon at brunch watching Ethan with that kid Gabriel. For the first time since he was eight, my son looked calm and he even smiled. It was then that I realized that no matter what the reason, as long as I could see EJ smile again, it didn’t matter to me who he dated or fell for.
My family was very conservative growing up, and I knew that my parents and possibly even my sisters wouldn’t share that sentiment, but I didn’t care. He was my son, and I loved him no matter what.
How did you handle your colleagues and friends during the kidnapping? And when your son was finally back home with you?
It’s during the worst times of your life that you figure out who your real friends are, I suppose. The worst part about having to deal with my friends and the people at work were the phrases “I’m so sorry” and “is there anything I can do?” I mean really – they’re sorry? They couldn’t possibly be as sorry as I was or as Charity was. Our son had disappeared. After the first year, I was convinced….God help me, I just knew he was dead. Was there anything they could do? Yes, they could find my son. They could bring him home to me. They could give my wife and I some peace and allow us to get even one good night’s sleep.
When EJ came back home to us, I pretty much shut out everyone. I couldn’t believe that sweet little boy who used to read me every single joke from his candy wrappers had transformed into a terrified, traumatized teenage boy.
What were your thoughts about Ethan Jr. state of mind when he returned home to you? When he punched you?
All I could think about was how when he used to come and climb in bed with us after he had a nightmare, I’d tell him that I would protect him from the monsters. He didn’t have to be scared. I lied to my own son and wasn’t able to protect him from the worst one of all.
When he punched me, I just…I didn’t…I couldn’t imagine what kind of violence and torture he had been subjected to that would turn the sweet kid who used to bandage up the whole neighborhood into a violently defensive adolescent.
Do you feel you can have peace of mind now?
I’m glad that EJ has found someone to care about, but I can still see that haunted look in his eyes. So, no, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to really find peace.