MEETING YOUR FATHER ON THE PAGE:
Gardiner Museum talk about Literary Fathers and Daughters, for the Literary Review of Canada, Jan 25, 2013:
My novel The Western Light started with a family letter sent over one hundred and fifty years ago. It was sent by a distant relative, an illegitimate boy, who left Scotland to look for his father in the new world. The boy touchingly signed his letter to his long lost parent as, “your constant well-wisher.” But when the boy arrived in Sarnia, Ontario none of the men in his family would see him. I don’t know how he felt about their snub because he didn’t write a letter about it. No doubt he carried the snub to his grave. But his search for his father didn’t stop him from using his father’s last name and settling in Sarnia and starting a family of his own.
The letter from the illegitimate boy started me thinking about my search for my own father. And a few years later, I wrote The Western Light, my novel about a young girl named Mouse Bradford—failing to get love and attention from her hard-working country doctor father and turning to a dubious father substitute. In The Western Light, the father substitute is an ex-NHL hockey player Gentleman John Pilkie who has been incarcerated in the local asylum—known in the community as “The Bughouse” for murdering his wife and child. I should point out that my novel is set in a tourist town on the Georgian Bay in 1959 and that Mouse Bradford was also the protagonist in one of my earlier novels, The Wives of Bath. That book tells the story of a clique of girls in a Toronto boarding school who don’t want to grow up to be women. You don’t have to read The Wives of Bath to understand my new novel but what both books have in common is the protagonist’s need to get her father’s approval and attention.
In The Wives of Bath, the father is a minor character but in The Western Light he plays a major role for the first time. It seems to have taken me most of my life to build up to writing more directly about my own hard-working country doctor father, who died when I was seventeen. It was as if I was too daunted by the paradox he presented: the community hero who neglects his child. To question his goodness seemed to question the very notion of goodness itself. To give you an example of the kind of hero worship my father inspired a mourner at his funeral proudly told my mother that he had belonged to the community, not to her. My daughter once said that I invented Morley Bradford so I could continue to have a relationship with my dead parent on the page. No doubt she’s right.
Like Mouse, when I was growing up I, too, had a father substitute but he wasn’t potentially dangerous, the way John Pilkie might be for Mouse. My crush went to the University of Western and he wrote me long, philosophical letters about life and what it meant to grow up. I used to skip over the philosophy in his letters and search instead for any signs of romantic interest, and I was over the moon if the boy signed “Affectionately” before his name. I longed for him to fall in love with me even though he was thirteen years older, and there was no way my parents would let me go out with somebody that age.
But like Gentleman John Pilkie, or the hockey killer as John Pilkie is sometimes called in my novel, the university boy I admired was emotionally present for me in a way that my father was not.
In any event, the shadowy nature of the fathers in my novels is in keeping with the historic role of fathers in Western culture. Traditionally, our fathers have been mysterious. They have lived at a remove from the family and they have been less inclined to share with their children what they are thinking and feeling while behind the father stands our culture’s powerful archetype of the father as ruler, protector and family provider.
In his celebrated non-fiction book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell claims reconciling with the father is the most important stage of the hero’s journey to self-realization. In stage four of the hero’s journey, Campbell says the hero must confront whoever holds the ultimate power in his or her life, and often this is the father (although this figure is not always male.). The hero must kill the powerful authority figure so the new self can emerge. Sometimes this killing is literal the way it was in the Star Wars film when Luke Skywalker fought Darth Vader. But other times the killing is metaphorical.
Alright. I’ve already admitted that authors like myself can use the novel as a way of killing or atoning with the father figure in our lives. But as Campbell points out, killing or reconciling with our fathers is everybody’s quest. Both men and women face the struggle of seeing their fathers as they are so they can make safe passage into adulthood. For women, the quest tends to be more complicated because our fathers are even less familiar background figures compared to our mothers whose bodies we share and whose feelings we are more likely to identify with.
And in literature, as is in life, a daughter’s search for her father comes with perils as well as the exhilarating possibility of self-actualization. Let’s start with the perils, and I’m going to talk for a few minutes about what other women have written about their fathers before I come back to what The Western Light says about my own quest.
In her memoir, Daddy, we hardly knew you, Germaine Greer writes: “It is a wise child that knows its own father. I knew as I held my father’s old hand in my own its exact replica, and watched my own skull emerging through his transparent skin, that I am my father’s daughter. Now that he can be hurt no more, it is time to find out what that means.”
Greer’s father had died by the time she started to research his life. And at the start of her quest, Greer is optimistic and determined, not knowing that her search to find the identity of her charming, aloof, well-dressed father risks her sense of wellbeing. She spends two years doing research and drives three thousand miles across Australia talking to relatives in the Greer family only to discover that her father was the result of an affair with a maid and upper class Australian boy. He was an imposter, in other words, who pretended to be from a good Tasmanian family when, in fact, he was an illegitimate child raised as a ward of the state by a foster mother. Greer’s father later severed all ties with his foster mother because he didn’t want his background known.
Greer meets up with her father’s adopted brothers and sisters, who were children of the same foster mother and discovers that the foster mother treated her father kindly, and that there was cruelty in her father’s refusal to acknowledge his background.
As a girl, Greer had idealized her father. But by the end of her quest, she is disillusioned with him, and decides that her father is like the landscape of Australia, which has undergone a rapacious colonization by European settlers. Australia has experienced a destructive make over that’s seen in acts like replacing indigenous trees with Monterey pines. And after her three thousand mile trip across Australia—she begins to understand that the land, like her father, has a need to pretend to be other than itself—a refusal, in other words, to be who you are to the world. She also discovers, to her humiliation, that her father did not love her and he disliked her intellectual pursuits and questioning intelligence because he feared it might expose him.
So for Greer, the quest to find her father does not bring a transformative change at the close of her book. Her memoir ends with sleepless nights and a sense of mourning. “In finding him,” I lost him,” Greer writes bitterly about Reg Greer alias Eric Greeney who dyed his hair and wore expensive bespoke clothes to disguise the fact that he was a bastard. “He is no longer beside me with his face turned away, but lying in my desk drawer in tatters, a heap of cheap props.”
As I said, the literary quest for the father can come with a price. American author Mary Gordon shares Greer’s experience of disillusionment with her father, an adored childhood figure who died when Gordon was seven. Gordon’s mythology about him kept her going until adulthood. Until she went on her quest to figure her father out, Gordon saw her father’s death as the single most defining event of her life and she believed that her early identification with him had been essential to her conception of self, both as a creative writer and worthwhile person.
Then during research for her memoir, The Shadow Man, Gordon learns that her father was not the person she thought. To her chagrin and despair, she discovers that her father’s persona as an intellectual and graduate of Harvard was utterly bogus. He was an immigrant from Vilna in Eastern Europe who never finished high school. He was also an anti-Semite and a Fascist who wrote pornography. And like Greer’s father, Gordon’s father disowned his siblings, including the one who died in a mental institution.
Flawed father figures also appear in the work of Canadian novelist Miriam Toews and U.K. author Zadie Smith. However, these fathers weren’t imposters although they were marginal figures that couldn’t offer their daughters a version of Western culture’s archetype of the father as successful ruler and protector. Instead of rejecting their parents, both authors have poignantly defended them, accepting their fathers’ struggles as authentic and forgiving them for whatever potential harm they might have brought their daughters, who remain eager to redeem them in the world’s eyes.
Smith has said that her character Archie Jones in her novel, White Teeth, is based on her father. In Dead Man Laughing, one of Smith’s essays in her collection in Changing My Mind, she talks more directly about him. Smith’s father Harvey was a victim of the low income British family he came from, an isolated figure who died in a government nursing home after two failed marriages but who, nevertheless, kept his sense of humour to the end. In her essay, Accidental Hero, Smith lovingly praises her father for not giving into the villainy of war after his battalion captured a Nazi officer. Smith’s father talked the other soldiers out of killing the Nazi. Instead he made the German walk for five miles in front of their tank, an act that her father wasn’t especially proud about later on.
“He (my father) didn’t lose himself in horror,” Smith writes in her essay. “Which is a special way of being brave … and a quality my father shares with millions of men and women who fought that miserable war.
Canadian author Miriam Toews also defends her father in her memoir about him, Swing Low. One morning, her father Mel Toews put on his coat and hat, walked out of town, and took his own life. Until that day, he had been a loving husband and father, a faithful member of the Mennonite church, and for forty years an immensely popular schoolteacher. Yet he committed suicide after his lifetime of struggling with bipolar disorder. In the opening of her memoir, Toews quotes her father as saying: “Nothing accomplished.” I didn’t know what my father meant when he said it, Toews writes. “I had asked him the day before he took his own life what he was thinking about and that was his reply. Two hopeless words, spoken in a whisper by a man who felt he had failed on every level. This book is an attempt to prove my father wrong.”
Of course, not all literary fathers need defending, or debunking. A classic example of Joseph Campbell’s reckoning or atoning happens in Margaret Atwood’s novel, Surfacing, written in the 1970’s when books set in Canada by Canadians were starting to be popular. At the beginning of Surfacing, the narrator has been called up to her family cottage in the wilderness of northern Quebec because her well-respected scientist father has mysteriously disappeared. She goes with another couple, and her boyfriend, Joe, and gradually becomes estranged from her friends and civilization as she searches for her father in the remote woods and lakes. Finally, she sees his floating corpse and then his ghostly spirit:
“He is standing near the fence with his back to me, looking in at the garden. The late afternoon sunlight falls obliquely between the tree trunks on the hill … clouding him in an orange haze, he wavers as if through water. He has realized he was an intruder: the cabin, the fences, the fires and the paths were violations ….
I say Father. He turns towards me and it’s not my father. It is what my father saw, the thing you meet when you’ve stayed here too long alone. … it gazes at me for a time with its yellow eyes, wolf’s eyes, depthless but lambent as the eyes of the animals seen at night in the car headlights …
Atwood’s father character has turned into the spirit of the wilderness—a spirit that understands the natural world has a right to exist alongside the civilized world, which keeps destroying nature in the name of profits. After Atwood’s narrator encounters her father’s spirit, she finds some footprints near the fence. At first, she thinks the footprints belong to her father but when she puts her own feet inside the prints, she realizes the prints are her own.
The recognition of her father and the natural world he inhabited is a cleansing insight for the narrator, and she steps tentatively into adulthood, proclaiming that she refuses to be a victim, perhaps Atwood’s most famous literary declarations\.
My own quest to find my father, described in my novel, The Western Light, is different again. Unlike most of the men in the other books I’ve talked about, my father was a hero in the sense of the Western archetype: he was a country doctor before the days of health care, and he spent his life delivering babies, pulling people out of car wrecks, sometimes performing surgery on the spot. He would help anyone in trouble, often to his own detriment. He was also tall and physically powerful, and he did what the archetype demanded: he provided a home and a sense of safety, but he gave his life to his community and spent little time with his family. So I found it hard as a young girl to find a place for my own feelings of longing for his love and attention.
For one thing, my needs felt embarrassing and uncalled for when other people needed him more, needed him so much it was sometimes a matter of life and death. I also found it hard to talk about how I felt with anyone because in the 1950’s my father was a beloved figure in our town on the Georgian Bay, the single most important person next to the minister. Nobody spoke ill of him although he was often gossiped about. So I fell into the trap of doing what children of absent heroes often do, which was to blame myself for my father’s neglect and continue to struggle to be good enough to win his love.
Mouse Bradford represents this aspect of me in The Western Light, and she shares my tendency to see the fault in oneself rather than in the people around you. In my novel, Mouse is the only child in a household with her neglectful, hard-working father. She spies on the adults, reading their letters and listening in on the phone conversations of the housekeeper Sal, and her aunt Little Louie who has been sent to look after Mouse because Mouse’s mother died when Mouse was small. Mouse had polio when she was six and she wears a brace on her left leg. Her handicap makes her particularly susceptible to the dark charms of John Pilkie, the fleet-footed father substitute, the ex-NHL star and possible murderer who skates like a champion. In my novel, Mouse has conversations with her weak left leg, which she calls Hindrance. What is moral courage, Mouse asks Hindrance. Is it something rare and profound? Or is it something more ordinary? And are you a hero if you neglect your family? Here’s an example of one of Mouse’s conversations with Hindrance. It happens right after the day John Pilkie (who is also called the hockey killer in the novel) rescues Mouse from a gang of bullying boys:
Hindrance On Our Moral Nature
––If I were you, I wouldn’t take getting rescued by the hockey killer seriously, Mouse. People are either good or bad, and John Pilkie is bad.
—-That’s not true, Hindrance! People are good so their fathers will love them.
––You may as well not have a father for all the time he gives you.
—You think so, Hindrance?
— A girl without a father is like a town without streetlights. She can find her way but a lot of the time, she’ll be groping in the dark.
A girl without a father is like a town without streetlights. I kept thinking about what Hindrance said and wondered if it was true of Morley and me. It wasn’t like my father had gone and died on me. He was home three times a day, and we ate lunch and dinner together. But he wouldn’t have time to rescue me from the Bug House boys. He had more serious problems than rescuing me from a bunch of creeps bent on humiliating whoever crossed their path.
Or was it that I didn’t count in Morley’s eyes? Don’t be a nincompoop, I scolded myself. You have to take Morley’s love on faith and one day, you’ll spring from Morley’s noggin like the Greek goddess Athena. She, too, had a strong, absent father and she rushed out of Zeus’ forehad, fully armoured and ready to take on the world.
In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell points out that it is the job of the traditional hero not only to go out and conquer worlds but to bring back what he has learned from his hero’s odyssey and share it with his community, his family and friends. And this is something that Mouse’s father does not do. He is serving his community but he doesn’t extend the emotional rewards of his heroic journey with his own family, who need him. He doesn’t have time.
So we’re left with the obvious question: how does Mouse solve the dilemma of reconciling with her father? Can Mouse have her moment of reckoning the way Atwood’s heroine did when she glimpsed the vision of her father in the forest? Does Or is her story more similar to the quests of Greer and Gordon who uncovered nasty imposters in their search for their fathers? Well, this is the part of my talk that is a bit of a cheat because I can’t tell you today how Mouse solves her particular quest and what the search for her father will mean to her life. That’s because my publisher wants you to buy the book to learn the answer.
But I can say this: the stories that women (or men) write about their fathers may finish with the atoning moment, the one that is crucial if the protagonist is going to move into full adulthood. But neither life nor literature ends there because adulthood demands that we stop holding our fathers accountable for failing to fulfill our yearnings. To persist in expecting our fathers to be the person we want them to be and not who they are or were, that expectation has the danger of keeping literary daughters as well as literary sons frozen in a state of adolescence. We don’t need our fathers to validate our existence; we need only see what our fathers gave us instead of what we wanted them to give and then we can move on.