The Ubiquitous Daddy Issues Club

At my Christening, 1963. My dad’s in the middle. I’m the short one.

Recently I mentioned to author Patrick Somerville (This Bright River) that Dean Bakopoulos’s first book, Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon, resonated with me because I have unresolved issues with my own late father. Patrick said, “Yeah, like every other writer.” It wasn’t mockery: he was saying, in essence, “Welcome to a club of which you were already a member.” 

That got me thinking: is it true? Does every writer, especially male writers, have deep-seated father issues? Do they provide some, or even all, of the drive that makes us create?

As if to corroborate this, a few days later I came across this passage in a New Yorker article on Bruce Springsteen:

“T-Bone Burnett said that rock and roll is all about ‘Daaaaddy!’ It’s one embarrassing scream of ‘Daaaaddy!’”

My father was, simply, an alcoholic. And he was surrounded by family and friends who so enabled and covered up for him that, until I was almost grown, I didn’t know. He never drank where I could see him. When he passed out on the couch, I was told he was just tired from working so hard. When he wanted to sit in the car instead of come inside with me for my weekly allergy shots, I thought he just found my company boring. Certainly we never talked books, music or art; he liked to fish (where he could drink), hunt (where he could drink) and go frog gigging (where he could drink).

Whenever he took me along for those activities, my presence frustrated him because it meant he couldn’t drink; to me, he just seemed put out by a son who didn’t grasp these skills instantly (we won’t even talk about him teaching me to drive). The upshot of which is that, pretty much up until right before he died, I assumed he just didn’t like me.

When I started drinking to fit in (at 15), no one took me aside and said, “This is what cost your father that good job, and made you have to move from that beautiful house into the one with a shotgun hole in the wall.” They simply clicked their tongues and shook their heads. Worse, he said nothing. His pride, or cowardice, kept him from even the most basic sort of intervention, telling his underage son that he shouldn’t get drunk.

Now that I’m a father, too, and fifteen years from my last drink (there was no drama around my quitting, just a realization that if I didn’t, I’d end up like him), I realize just how fucked up our relationship was, and how everyone around us let it stay fucked up. People are amazed that I missed what must have been obvious signs, but I was the only child at home, and I had nothing to compare it to. I believed what I was told, until the day I discovered him myself, passed out in the mud beside a pond where we’d gone fishing (and where he’d deliberately sent me to fish in a spot where I couldn’t see him).

Recently, over twenty years after his death, some workers at my mom’s house discovered a cache of empty peppermint schnapps bottles in the foundation crawlspace. It was his legacy: a pile of stinking glass.

So what does this have to do with me being a writer?

I became a writer because I had to; the stories were chewing their way out my head. But I became the writer I am, and tell the stories I do, because they are my legacy to my sons. I’ve occasionally thought of pandering to current trends, to try creating something that might piggyback on another writer’s success and grant me that elusive “bestseller” status (maybe The DaVinci Girl Who Wore Shades of Grey, or something). But then I remember, these books are what my kids, and grandkids, will have to remember me by. By reading them, they will hopefully be able to know a little bit about me. If I do anything but try my best to write stories unique to me, embodying my idea of what’s important, them I’m just leaving them the same pile of stinking glass my dad left me.

So I guess that Patrick Somerville, and T-Bone Burnett, were right.  Welcome to the club, indeed.

Clockwise from top: Me, the Squirrel Boy, and the C-in-C, circa 2008.

6 Comments on “The Ubiquitous Daddy Issues Club”

  1. I mean, I wonder if the club isn’t much, much bigger than just writers & rock musicians. I mean– I hate it when people go “evolutionary psychology” as if it meant something, so please know that I offer this only as an observation & not an explanation!– aren’t fathers being absent or unreliable a persistant function of the human condition? I think “good fathers” aren’t exactly rare, but aren’t in the majority. Maybe I’m wrong about that; hell, maybe it is more complicated than that? Persistant patriarchy sent men to work, supporting the family, but a kid can’t help but see that as abandonment, you know? The jump to abstracts like “work as an expression of emotional intimacy” is just outside of grasp.

    Okay I am ranging far afield– maybe because my experiences are similar but also dissimilar? I don’t know. I think the best take-away is– be better men, right?

  2. Burnett’s analysis of rock and roll seems too limiting to me, but I sense the collective impulse in all things we create as a call out to something. I see it as massive hollering of “Know Me! Want Me! Love Me!” Whatever the Other (father, mother, lover, Spirit in the Sky), we crave recognition, understanding, acceptance, and love. It’s all one movement toward being cradled in the bosom of something. We write as not to go insane from that ever-present need, at least some of us do. I do.

    Great post, Alex. Really got me thinking.

  3. Pingback: Daddy | Tiny Cat Pants

  4. Weirdly, I started a new book this morning– that one about Superman — & the absence of father figures features in the forward.

    Alliteration accidental, but welcome.

  5. Growing up with alcoholic mother and a non-existent father, I can completely relate. Unlike you, I was aware of my mother’s dysfunction, though she rarely was completely off her feet. Experiences like these certainly leave a permanent mark that won’t come out no matter how much your try. Better to turn it into art. 🙂

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