- Published on Amazon.com
I read this book from cover to cover, twice, and my copy of the book now resembles a college textbook, with paragraphs underlined and many notes scratched in the margins.
You should read this book if your parents have ever separated. You should read it if they stayed together. You should read it if your family has been torn apart by years of parental conflict. You should read it if your parents are happily married, about to celebrate their 50th anniversary. You should read this book if you've grown up close to your brothers and sisters. You should also read it if you grew up feeling alone, with no one by your side. You should read it if you've ever been hurt or abandoned by someone you love. Whatever your story and whichever shape your pain has appeared to you in, you should read this book.
It is refreshing to know that someone has finally found the courage to write a book about the frustrations of growing up with a father who is emotionally absent. Abusive fathers are easy to detect and demonize. Few people will expect you to forgive a father who used to beat you or repeatedly tell you you were stupid. Most will empathize and validate your decision to protect yourself from further assault. On the other hand, neglectful fathers, fathers who were mentally and emotionally unavailable, who were ghosts in their children's lives, are almost never censured. Their children are taught to appreciate their apparent peacefulness, which in reality is more of apathetic silence, and be thankful for being provided for financially. This has a lot to do with our narrow view of fatherhood, one that has been passed down generations without being questioned. Much to the emotional disadvantage of men and their children, the role of fathers has been so far restricted to financial provision and focused on fulfilling their families' basic needs like food, shelter, and, more recently, education. If a father checks these tasks off his parenting list, he can sit back with a rested conscience and expect to receive the unconditional love of his children despite never having given his love to them in the first place. Much has changed about our views of parenthood and children's needs over the last century. It is no longer enough if you feed and clothe a child you have willingly brought into the world. If you are not prepared to love your child more than you love yourself, guide her through the challenges of life, and help her reach her full potential, then you better head to the nearest family planning center for some counseling on efficient methods of contraception. These days, your community expects you to love your child, and this is mostly because studies have shown that adults who were unloved as children can grow up to harm others. There are practical reasons for this shift in attitude: people don't want to be harmed by your emotionally deprived child. Then there are more humanistic reasons for this shift: the conviction that all children deserve to be loved and cared for. As Scott put it, "I deserved a father involved enough that his departure, and his return, would mean something. All children deserve this, and I didn't get it." To state that you are entitled to your parents' love is the bravest declaration of self-worth. Most people spend their lives feeling unworthy of love in relationships and this stems from never having received the love they needed as children to grow up into healthy and loving adults.
I must warn that for many people, reading this memoir will open a pandora's box of emotions and memories. Scott wrote, "Maybe everyone, no matter how well adjusted, successful, and self-aware, has something about themselves they struggle their whole lives to fully understand." Many families across the world struggle to understand their parents. It is especially difficult when a parent is so damaged and in denial that his family never really understands what is wrong with him or how they can help. The stories of different families' differ, but the conclusion is usually the same. Families discover that the presence of an apathetic parent is not as harmless as most people believe and they decide to eliminate this toxicity from their lives. "I'd been reaching out all my life to a disinterested man, or a man too broken to respond." When someone refuses to love you the way you want to be loved, the only thing left to do is to search for that love elsewhere. "When you ask, "How could you do this?" enough times of someone and never like the answer, it means you need to ask the question of yourself."
Throughout the book, I was somewhat angered by Scott's repeated attempts at reconnecting with his walled-off father, which he himself realized the futility of but kept doing. I couldn't understand why he would allow himself to be hurt so many times. At first I thought it was guilt, arising from a deeply held belief that parents deserve their children's respect no matter how hurtful they are. A fear of regret is described as the main reason in the book. "I wanted to be able to say, on the day that he or I was about to die, that I had fought for something. That regardless of what had built the wall, I'd swung every sledgehammer I could find against it." After contemplating this and other reasons we come up with to explain why we allow others to hurt us, I realized we may be primarily motivated by denial. We all have trouble admitting that someone who says they love us actually doesn't.
Perhaps as a result of being brought up in a culture that represses emotional openness in men, or one that portrays vulnerability as a weakness, many fathers find themselves unable to connect with their children emotionally. Childhood experiences have transformed many a sensitive boy into a "misunderstood monster," with pain buried to a depth that "keeps the wound safe from further injury but also prevents it from ever healing." Regardless of the origins of his father's personality, I believe he ended up becoming not only a narcissist, but also a sociopath. "Somewhere between his ears and his heart, the wiring didn't work right." He could not feel empathy or understand other people's feelings. He felt no guilt when hurting others and manipulated his family towards fulfilling his needs. He had no concern for anyone else's wellbeing except his own. Scott mentioned Asperger's Syndrome, and there might be an element of that in his father, but to me the main problem was an absence of emotions rather than a difficulty in expressing them. Sociopaths are dangerous because they rarely have insight into the damage they cause in other people's lives. They are stuck in a rudimentary survival mode, in a cycle of defense mechanisms they can't outgrow. "I didn't believe he was sorry in the way normal people are sorry, but of course, it was clear to me he was not normal." Not even a serious illness was able to snap his father out of his emotional apathy. People can be so damaged and hardened that not even their own mortality can break that horrible shell of emotional defensiveness.
We do not choose our parents. It is not our fault that they are who they are, but our parents chose each other at one point in time. One of them made a choice, offered, and the other voluntarily accepted. In a dysfunctional marriage, there is never one parent who is bad and another who is good. "Co-dependence is a cycle. Each person needs the other badly, in the way an alcoholic needs another drink. When one takes a drink of the other, just like a glass of wine, it feels good. It covers certain holes, allowing them, in moments to be forgotten, but does not fill them... My father needs to be mothered, and my mother needs someone to care for, and neither one can escape." Although it appears she has done a good job of being an emotionally available parent, Scott's mother may have harmed her children by not protecting them from their father. Sometimes we harbor a subconscious anger towards the parent who loved us, one that is subtle and unlike the dramatic emotions we feel towards the parent who was selfish, because we feel the choices she made injured us. It is an anger ridden with guilt, suppressed out of fear of losing what little love one has received. The complexity of this anger makes it hard to delineate, but it is there and will consume its owner if it isn't acknowledged. It may be helpful to express that anger and forgive the loving parent for choosing the wrong partner because they're human, didn't know any better, and at least tried to make amends. One day, we will probably make similar, if not stupider mistakes, and want to be forgiven too.
We all wonder how our lives would have been different had our parents made different choices. "I've wondered what life would have been like if my mother had never taken my father back, if she had stayed a single parent and made her way on her own... My father's return at least anchored us to a place and a pattern for the rest of my childhood, as broken as it was. But I can't help wondering what I'd be like if I had been born to a parent who felt free in the world." It's very tempting to idolize the alternative path when we can't see the struggles it might include. Ultimately, all the decisions we make will lead to problems. Since we can only choose one path, we never really know if we lost more than we should as a result of our choice. We never know if the choice we made was right or wrong.
Had Scott's mother not taken his father back, his life would have been very different. But that is no assurance that it would have been better. "I'd have been protected from the lie of our family. I wouldn't have absorbed the pretense that we were a functional unit or the empty faith that he was fully present and committed to us." Yes, there would have been raw honesty at the hurt his father had caused and a collective denunciation of his irresponsible behavior. His father's wounded ego would possibly catapult him into a series of failed relationships, seeking an escape from loneliness rather than true intimacy. A frenzied rage might drive his father to withhold financial support, knowing that this was his only true value in the family. Scott's family would suffer for a while, but his mother would plow on, resolute in her choice. Everyone would tell her to take his father back, that she is being silly. They would refuse to help her out. Money would have to be borrowed and prized possessions sold to pay the bills. The family would probably survive on their own and having gone through so much together, might emerge from this battle as heroes, bound by an unshakeable bond, or as broken goods, damaged by the recklessness of two hearts at war. There is no telling how stories will end when humans are so unpredictable and their choices are infinite. Scott's mother may have foreseen these sad endings and made her choice based on such predictions. She may have taken his father back to cut their losses, but gained other losses instead. The painful truth of living is that there is no answer key at the end and we just have to live with the results of our choices.
A book like this should be read by everyone who values their family and isn't afraid to take an honest look at where theirs went wrong. As my favorite line from the book explains, "Part of being an adult is deciding for ourselves what good and evil are, including the good and evil in our families and in ourselves." Writing a memoir is an extremely brave act. The vulnerability of analyzing your emotions about your own family and undergoing years of therapy to improve yourself involves work few people are willing to do. For those of us still digging through the layers of our past in search for the parts of ourselves that need to be fixed, it's a good idea to pick up this book to make the healing process a little bit easier.