Dear old Dad. To hear retailers tell the story, he’s a transparent creature, someone who is pleased by the simple things: a shirt, a book, a steak, a new gadget. But the dads most of us grew up with — and without — are a more inscrutable lot. They’re people, after all, whose past lives, present concerns, and future legacies can vex, perplex, and frustrate their children. Can we ever really know these men? Some of the best writing about dads embraces that mystery, confronting the hard questions of what it truly means to know one’s father.
1. “My Father Spent 30 Years in Prison. Now He’s Out.” (Ashley C. Ford, Refinery29, May 2017)
During his years in prison, Ashley Ford’s father missed out on her childhood, teenage years, and young adult life. Now that he’s been released, Ford confronts their new relationship — and the question of whether her father can ever become part of the life she built in his absence.
Over the past five months, my father and I have taken on the monumental task of getting to know each other. I’ve visited him once more, pulled into the driveway listening to “Almost There” by Michael Jackson, just to walk into the house and hear him listening to the very same song. In many moments, in person and over the phone, we’ve marveled at how alike we are. We share similar tastes in music, art, and humor. We’re stubborn, but not hot-headed, and given to daydreaming as long as we can. We had our first argument, a miscommunication really, and once it was resolved I giggled and thought, Wow. I just had my first fight with my dad. A real fight with my real dad. He keeps calling, and I keep answering. He has a job and a smartphone now, but he doesn’t really know how to text. I just send him pictures of me, my home, my city, and I know he can see them, even if figuring out how to respond still eludes him on most occasions.
2. “An Interview with Thom Steinbeck” (Alexandra Jaffe, The Hairpin, May 2012)
What happens when the rest of the world thinks they know your dad better than you do? Thom Steinbeck explains what it was like to get private correspondence from one of the world’s greatest novelists—his father, John Steinbeck, who made his son part of his literary legacy:
So it sounds like a lot of these letters were kind of him imparting his wisdom to you, I guess.
Well not, really imparting his wisdom. He didn’t see it as wisdom, he saw it as experience. Whether it’s wisdom or not is to be delineated, is to be judged by others. The point is that this is my experience, this is what I know to be in my life. He’d always end it with: Good luck. Find out on your own.
People can give you the directions to the market. It doesn’t mean you’ve actually heard the directions clearly, or know what the hell the people are talking about. You do the best you can to impart whatever knowledge you’ve got, and then, you move on.
3. “Being the Son of a Nazi” (Nicholas Kulish and Souad Mekhennet, The Atlantic, March 2014)
It’s possible to get to know your father, but it’s not guaranteed you’ll like what you find out. When Rüdiger Heim began to talk with his father about his years working in a concentration camp, he had to confront him about his Nazi past, and confront his own questions about whether he wanted to know more.
For hours each day, Rüdiger had to relive his father’s months at the Mauthausen concentration camp and try to maintain belief in his innocence. Heim defined the terms of the discussion. They did not talk about the condition of the inmates brought to the infirmary from the stone quarry. They did not discuss how the patients were treated. Heim tried to reinforce the point that he would sooner not have been working at Mauthausen. “That was something he expressed to me unequivocally: That he did everything he could to get out of this concentration camp as quickly as possible,” Rüdiger said. Each day, the son dutifully walked from the Scarabee Hotel downtown to listen to hours of lectures on the crimes his father was accused of committing.
4. “My Dad, the Pornographer” (Chris Offutt, The New York Times, February 2015)
Dads can become even more unknowable when they die, but for Chris Offutt his father’s life became both much clearer and more mysterious when Offutt began to take into account the things he left behind. As it turns out, Andrew Jefferson Offutt V was a prolific pornographer, and his son’s examination of his kinky art is a fantastic and frustrating journey into the mind of a troubled father.
My father often told me that if not for pornography, he’d have become a serial killer. On two occasions he described the same story: One night in college he resolved to kill a woman, any woman. He carried a butcher knife beneath his coat and stalked the campus, seeking a target. It rained all night, and the only person walking around was him. He went home, soaked, miserable and alone, regretting the action. He began drawing a comic about stalking a woman….
If my father was correct in thinking that porn prevented him from killing women, then I should be grateful for its continuing presence in his life. Far better to be the son of a pornographer than of a serial killer. But I don’t believe my father’s theory. The sight of blood, even his own, made him lightheaded enough to faint. He was not athletic or even strong and therefore incapable of overpowering most people. He was also a physical coward, having never been in a fistfight. His weapons were cruel words, the infliction of guilt and intimidation through rage. The idea that porn prevented him from killing women was a self-serving delusion that justified his impulse to write and draw portrayals of torture. He needed to believe in a greater purpose to continue his lifelong project. Admitting that he liked it was too much for him to bear.
5. “Mr. Hannah Montana’s Achy Breaky Heart” (Chris Heath, GQ, February 2011)
A child might never fully know her dad, but can a father ever really know his child? After Billy Ray Cyrus devoted himself to his daughter Miley’s career, he was confused and heartbroken when she moved into adulthood as the music industry’s favorite wild child. When GQ caught up with him in 2011, he was coming to terms with life after Miley, and looking for love in all the wrong places.
Before I leave, he takes me upstairs to show me some more photographs he’s mentioned. The stairs rise into a large room where nearly every inch of wall space is covered in framed magazine articles, invitations, photographs, and commemorative discs. One wall has numerous Some Gave All platinum awards—the seven discs on the seven-times platinum award are arranged in the shape of the number 7. I am standing here, surrounded by all these framed memories, when I notice the room through the open doorway right next to where I am. It is perhaps the girliest room I have ever seen, all lime greens and oranges and pastel blues. I’m pretty sure Billy Ray doesn’t mean to show me Miley’s room, and I’m in no way looking for it—I hadn’t even thought about the likelihood she’d still have one in his house—but his feet follow my eyes. (His publicist, who has walked upstairs with us, looks aghast at this turn of events: Cyrus still has handlers himself, though I suspect that he’s allergic to too much handling these days.)
I remain in the doorway as he holds up a rock Miley found by the creek and made into a face at school using pieces of felt, and points out all her cheerleader trophies high up on the shelf by the door.
“Again, it’s a bit sad,” he sighs, “because it’s just a little girl’s room, ain’t it?”