Fathering Daughters: Reflections by
edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson
Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1997) is a significant book. Its date marks a historic moment in the fatherhood movement. It was published the same year that the Promise Keepers would reach their zenith (holding a rally that drew over one million men) and rapidly crumble. While the Keepers disintegrated, their energy sent out reverberations throughout the political spectrum. Fathering Daughters is a product of that energy.
Dads and Daughters, widely believed to be the most pro-feminist of the fatherhood groups, is also part of that energy. In light of that fact, it’s important to note that they’re now the only pro-feminist group that currently receives any funding or national attention. Dads and Daughters created their first website in 1999. At the time, Fathering Daughters was one of the few books they recommended and attempted to sell to their site’s viewers.
The book is currently recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and their Head Start program. Or what’s left of the Head Start program after the Fatherhood Initiative, a corporate effort by Bush Administration cronies, decided to take it over. It was a bit of revenge for putting children — and by extension, their “bonbon eating” mothers — first.
If that weren’t enough, Fathering Daughters is also likely the preferred treatment on fatherhood by pedophiles throughout the world.
While that’s a bombastic beginning for a book review, it’s necessary to slow down a great deal to fully describe the complexities of the work. It’s not an easy volume to fully contextualize. So please bear with me as I backtrack a bit.
No one needs to consider me a pro-feminist of any sort. I’m not complaining: that’s exactly as it should be.
It’s an entirely different story for males who choose the privileges of matrimony and fatherhood though; so very much depends on their status as one of the good guys. Wives and daughters have an intense need to see their husbands and fathers as being the sort of men who do the right thing. For most of us in this world, myself included, being the sort — or merely being seen as the sort — tends to take precedence over actually doing the right thing. Still, no one has ever called me a feminist for picking up my socks every morning.
Seeing the different standards in place for men and their anti-sexist work has made me skeptical of the pro-feminist fatherhood movement: who can tell, precisely, where the Promise Keeper ends and the “Dads and Daughters” father begins?
Feminism has not yet overthrown the patriarchy but it has changed the role of daughters, female children, within it. This presents a paradox in that daughters are now much more useful to individual patriarchs, if not the system they uphold. Daughters have been transformed from chattel to perfectly acceptable vehicles for the transmission of the masculine ego beyond one’s own life expectancy.
Wanting the best for your daughter isn’t necessarily the mark of a feminist consciousness: even Dick Cheney loves his lesbian daughter. Because of that love, he’ll do whatever he can to make sure she can bloodily triumph over the daughters of his rivals.
While the pro-feminist side of the fatherhood movement can protest the advertising industry and celebrate Title IX, all worthy endeavors, it’s otherwise apolitical. Male privilege, like class and race based privileges, isn’t something you fight against for the benefit of your own daughter — it’s something you have to do for the benefit of other men’s daughters, your rivals. Doing so might even hurt your own daughter as she’s in many ways dependent upon your privilege. That’s a profoundly difficult thing to choose.
The absence of truly feminist politics in groups like Dads and Daughters hasn’t seemed to stop most of more prestigious pro-feminist writers from flocking to it. Men like Michael Kimmel and Jackson Katz have signed on. Many of these eager beavers don’t even have children of their own. In the process, they’ve largely abandoned their former positions with groups like the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS), a fatuous crowd that has somehow managed to grow even more epically pointless.
While NOMAS molders, Dads and Daughters becomes ever more glossy by the minute, picking up one famous endorsement after the next. It’s a solid career move for those who make the switch: Parents buy a lot of shit.
I live in a small town with a small town library. The books are artifacts, not because they’re particularly old or worn, but because they’re mostly there to keep children occupied while their parents take advantage of the free internet, a precious resource in our area. It’s a place strongly aware of the demographic it serves: an entire wall is dedicated to “Inspirational Literature,” a genre that mostly consists of Christian doomsday tracts, Left Behind and its imitators. Still, the town librarian has some strong feminist tendencies. Many of the short shelves have Margaret Atwood’s books standing on top in stark defiance.
It was in the parenting section that I found Fathering Daughters: Reflections by Men (1997). It was given special treatment, standing on display with its face puffed with pride. It was another bit of the town librarian’s feminism; a small attempt to better her community. I thought I’d honor that effort by taking her up on it.
Fathering Daughters, edited by DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson, is radically different from most fatherhood screeds. It doesn’t cater to the lowest common denominator. It doesn’t try to sell itself, not even to its own captive audience. It never had a chance of becoming a hip, mass-market offering. The men included in the anthology are all highly literate individuals who can get away with using words like “rotogravure” or “legato” without an editor striking them out and laughing at the attempt to sneak them through. Most of them work as professors at prestigious schools.
The daughters they raised attended even more prestigious schools; Berkeley, Yale, and others, two went to Harvard. One left for college at 14. Many grew up with yearly visits to places like Korea and Germany, or spent their summers in England, watching dad use his entire season of freedom to run theater productions. The ever-young part of me can’t help but be jealous of the adventures — and horses! — the girls had, even as my adult side envies the careers of their fathers, talents that blossomed despite rampant alcoholism, depression, and one failed marriage after the next.
Many of contributors became fathers at an older-than-average age: two were a hairbreadth from 50 when they impregnated a much younger partner. I say that not just to disparage them for it — though I obviously do — but to add that to a mountain of evidence that says that the average father in my small town library might not relate much to Fathering Daughters. Most of my friends who stuck around in the Rust Belt to raise children became parents during high school or soon after: if they could write as well as these men do, and several of them once dreamt of making an honest effort, it seems doubtful they’d write nearly the same book.
Nevertheless, the unassailably elite nature of Fathering Daughters is also its most redeeming feature.
Whereas Dad and Daughters tried making money off of Fathering Daughters in 1999, by referring potential buyers to Amazon.com, a decade later they’ve switched to direct marketing instabooks written by their own staff. Or, at least the high-muckamucks on their staff. Titles like 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship, 200 Ways to Raise a Girl’s Self-Esteem, and Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul would do Thomas Kinkade proud.For all the literary grandstanding that Fathering Daughters does — where nearly every contributor earnestly writes first for his own satisfaction and not his readers’ — at least it doesn’t treat raising a female human being like an exercise in motorcycle repair (there is a text called Fatherhood: an Owner’s Manual) with step by step instructions.
It does, however, treat it like training birddogs.
Don’t be worried though, Rick Bass, in his chapter “My Daughters,” telegraphs your alarm (p. 59):
I may have it all wrong. I may be the most sexist father left in this century. I can see hyperfeminists wondering to themselves, Daughters as bird dogs? [emphasis original]
Bass admits he’s a sexual essentialist (that gender is a fundamental part of natural fact), but reconciles it with his belief that we can all learn from each other. He’s one of the good guys because he makes room for both highly linear and femininely squishy modes of thought, something that he thinks real feminists give a shit about. Granted, in the mid-90s, such stuff was a popular academic motif so it’s hard to fault him for the mistake. He seems to genuinely believe that the average feminist worries about her daughter falling into a linear mindset, even though such things are actually a preoccupation of antifeminists. It is, after all, a demographic that doesn’t have to do any actual activism to advance their platform — thus they have all the time in the world to dote on the more ethereal notes of feminism.
My complaint with Rick Bass and his birddogs doesn’t have anything to do with his comparison, right or wrong, but with his framing and tone. His “hyperfeminists” divides women into two groups: reasonable women (some feminist, others not) who think he’s swell, and unreasonable women (always feminist) who don’t find him especially worthwhile or interesting.
When the word patriarch is used in Fathering Daughters, and it is many times, it’s always with irony, laughing at any reader who could ever meet the word and find it sincere: I might be sexist for saying this, and look how very smart I am for knowing that, but I’m going to say it anyway and no one can tell me I’m wrong.
Rick Bass certainly smiled as he dared us to object to his words.
So does Nicholas Delbanco in his “A Prayer for the Daughters.”
(Many of the contributors modeled their chapters on William Butler Yeats’ poem, perhaps at the instigation of editors Henry and McPherson. This, among other things, gives Fathering Daughters a peculiarly religious veneer. I find such literary embellishments excruciatingly boring; many mainstream readers will likely find non-religious people wielding vestments of faith in that way to be offensive.)
Delbanco writes, in defense of the institution of marriage (p. 114):
So, yes, I am conditioned by tradition. “And may her bridegroom bring her to a house” the poet writes, and however limited or patriarchal it seems I find myself in sympathy with that future-facing desire.
Marriage worked for him, it must be good, and thus his good-deserving daughter should have it too is the full extent of his reasoning on that matter.
Again, it’s not so much what he says, right or wrong, but how he positions his words. He’s imagining an audience of people that he wants to speak over, past, anyone who might have experience (or empirical research) that would contradict his own; most notably, his feminist oppressors; those women who want to ruin his daughters’ lives by ruining his life.
The entire book is designed as a warning salvo to that audience. Men know that other men don’t really read their books: each man cares only for the story of his own life and works to tell it as often and as loudly as he can. Even Warren Farrell, antifeminist hero and the author of The Myth of Male Power, has admitted that he writes his books for women, the people who read books. Men benefit from the existence of books, not the consumption of them.
This becomes quite clear in the introduction of Fathering Daughters. The message is, like it or not — and we’ll really get off on putting you in your place if you dare to say “not” — fathers need to have greater than equal share in framing the “conversation.” An equal share would give both sides the ability to suspend the conversation and go on their separate ways. Big daddy’s not going to give you a choice.
To prepare for our task as editors of this collection, we visited bookstores in Harvard Square to become acquainted with books on the shelves. We found a vast women’s studies section in each bookstore and a conspicuous absence of men’s studies, other than a small section of gay studies.
We felt self-conscious about drawing stares. Here we were, two grumpy old men, clearly middle aged, one African-American, one WASP, browsing the feminist shelves in evident astonishment. Studies by women touching on fathers ranged from psychology to sociology, to cultural criticism, to fiction and poetry. Women’s studies questioned assumptions about everything from the female body to the psyche, from home to the workplace, all seeking to remedy a widespread discontent and pathology. Women exhorted women to childless careers, to recovered memories of abuse, to celibacy, to “wildzones” of creativity. A virtual industry of ideology was in place, and where were we, as fathers, in this call for change?
In volume after volume, fathers were identified as embodiments of “patriarchy,” and were portrayed as abusive, tyrannical, overpowering, predatory, absent, distant, shadowy, irresponsible, and victims themselves of traditions that denied women full human potential. According to many daughters, fathers were at the heart of their unhappiness as women. Historically, of course, fathers favored sons. Adrienne Rich was frequently invoked as a woman who looked past the personal to the cultural figure of her father: “There was an ideology at last which let me dispose of you, identify the suffering you caused, hate you righteously as part of a system, the kingdom of fathers” (“Sources” in Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems).
We were glad to find other books addressed at least in part to fathers, texts by women to help daughters and fathers talk and work together to “reframe the relationship.” These writers, instead of taking a divisive stand, have adopted an earlier, Betty Friedan style of feminism that called for equality rather than blame between the sexes.
Just as Rick Bass invented Hyperfeminists, Henry and McPherson create the classic spectrum of blame and praise. Women are dared to run afoul of their taxonomy. While Betty Friedan came out victorious, her name and history is irrelevant: in her place, they might as well have said Betty Boop. When whites set up a dichotomy between Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we’re not doing it because we really love Dr. King. Dichotomies do not spring from love. Instead, such rhetoric serves to set rules of acceptable behavior for our audience.
Dominant populations never fear being hated but being disposed of, forsaken, and rendered irrelevant. The White idea of Dr. King is that we marched too; we gave the other freedom; our whiteness was and is still necessary for Black survival, we cannot be abandoned.
In that same way, the men of Fathering Daughters fear abandonment. They cannot abide a world where they’re a choice, rather than the choosers. They believe that their manhood and fatherhood (rather than their personhood and parenthood) is necessary for the survival of their daughters. The idea of political separatism brings with it great anxiety: tragically, they fear losing their gender identity more than they do losing their children.
Feminism, even of the meanest sort they attribute to snake-haired, dog-faced furies like Adrienne Rich, certainly “addresses” men. Fathers too. What then did Henry and McPherson mean? While they stopped short (whether by intent or by ignorance) of using the antifeminist division of “gender feminism” and “equity feminism,” it’s abundantly clear they somehow believe in sexism but not in patriarchy. This leads to a strange hypocrisy when it comes to the idea of identity politics.
While they can be endlessly self-indulgent in their own work, that selfishness never becomes an “industry of ideology”: they can’t see themselves. They are, as Marilyn Frye would say, the foreground. As the contributors are all subjects, perhaps radically so, the offense they take at identity politics is laughable. They believe themselves to be all just simple individuals (though of varying racial backgrounds), living their own lives — lives that can be wrecked if those other people don’t stop it with their goddamn politics.
Only other people are political. And yet they want feminists to honor them not as those blank individuals, who relate to the world uniquely, but as men, living man-lives, decent man-lives made more precious by fatherhood. I believe that is what Henry and McPherson mean by “addresses” and it’s what they require from feminists. If manhood and fatherhood are inevitable facts, with their social and biological senses ever swirling into imperceptibility, violent clashes with womanhood are equally inevitable and equally without fault.
Editor James Alan McPherson doesn’t believe in patriarchy but in a “gender war,” a dance of yin and yang where both sides are mutually complicit. He writes of his daughter’s holiday travels in “Disneyland” (p. 139):
She had no money, and was being obliged to sleep in a chair or else on the floor of the airport with the other children of divorce, tagged like Christmas gifts, who were serving out their obligations to distant parents. I heard in my daughter’s voice, that cold December evening, the quiet desperation of the many millions of young people who, through no fault of their own, had become casualties of two decades of gender warfare between selfish adults.
This belief, shared between him and Henry, so manifest in their introduction, led to their most outlandish inclusion in Fathering Daughters. In the interest of charity, I’ll allow them to describe the chapter first, as they describe it on the dust jacket:
Mark Pendergrast writes harrowingly of daughters lost to the Recovered Memory movement, daughters accusing him of sexual abuse.
The chapter was not written for Fathering Daughters but for a book Pendergrast had written years earlier, his 1995 Victims of Memory: Incest Accusations and Shattered Lives. He later reprinted this same section in a literary journal, the Sun. Pendergrast uses a lengthy editorial note in Fathering Daughters — where he invokes “gender wars,” no less — to describe hostile reader reaction to its inclusion in the Sun. These reactions would lead him to cut any personal material from a second edition of his book:
Many of the resulting letters to the Sun editor were surprising and disturbing to me. One typical response called my piece “a self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters” though it is instead of loving plea for reconciliation. Most of the letters — and some reviews of the book — concentrated on “Did he or didn’t he molest his daughters?” rather than the scholarly investigative work that constituted the bulk of the book.
Mark Pendergrast makes it clear that DeWitt Henry actively solicited him for the chapter but doesn’t specify where Henry first encountered the material. While readers of the second edition of Victims of Memory might be spared the reasons he wrote it, we are not so lucky. The chapter is a pastiche of happy memories he has about his two daughters from their youth, daring readers to intuit something creepy about the “feet games” he used to play with them (a deliberate red herring he offers), mixed with tales of a startling transformation.
When one of his daughters came out as a lesbian during college, he was cool with it; the sex part anyway. He found something else much more troubling, if only in hindsight, “By that time, being a lesbian — particularly on college campuses — was also a political statement about the patriarchal society and generalized male oppression.” He claims his daughter began seeing a college counselor and, out of the blue, “initiated a search” for repressed memories of abuse.
Later, she would tell him of her first recovered memory, of how one of his housemates had molested her when she was nine. Helpfully, Pendergrast offered to kill the man for her. Discouraged from that course of action, he bought a book for his daughter, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child and Sexual Abuse. While he thought the text made a great deal of sense at the time, in retrospect, he believes that the authors, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis, “had an agenda against parents —all parents.” [emphasis original]
Pendergrast then launches into a tale about his daughters both cutting off contact with him. The reasons offered form a neat progression that he takes great care in crafting. They are at first mysterious hints (and thus suspect), then they are simple misunderstandings (thus easily explained), and finally they are the utterly ridiculous (thus absolving him of the former more mundane charges).
He writes that it all became clear to him when he joined the False Memory Syndrome Foundation: after talking to its leaders, he found that his daughters were following a predictable script offered to them by feminists. He was the one being victimized. He was a statistic, and he found solace in attending a conference with six hundred other perfectly innocent parents, each accused of sexual abuse.
The chapter concludes with a personal letter written to his daughters, his “loving plea for reconciliation.” In brief, he calls them both dupes of a great conspiracy and wonders why, now that they’re older and wiser, that they’re still unable to see his truth. He uses scare quotes no less than five times in the letter to reinforce that truth. (“I’m not saying that you are necessarily miserable in your new identities as ‘incest survivors.’”)
Mark Pendergrast’s chapter, “Daughters Lost,” offers several possibilities of meaning, none of which are mutually exclusive.
At the very worst, his chapter could be, as a Sun reader so elegantly offered, a self-serving terrorist attack on his daughters. His words could be the ravings of a man so egotistical that it’s only natural he’d be unaware of the harm he inflicted upon his girls, ignorant of the boundaries he’s crossed time and time again, this time in ink. Good parents, one might think, when accused of crimes by their children, don’t join associations filled with pedophiles; it’s not as if any of the parents at the conference Pendergrast attended could be vetted.
At best, one must certainly allow for the possibility of his innocence, that his daughters really were misled by a rogue psychologist. One could believe that his entire family was victimized by a brief phenomenon in the 1990s. However, this phenomenon received media attention in a panic that far outstripped any evidence that could prove there was an entire industry devoted to wrecking lives with hypnotism and false memories.
Mark Stanton covers the media’s infatuation with the False Memory Syndrome at the Columbia Review, and his 1997 “U-Turn on Memory Lane” is recommended as a definitive source on the subject:
A Harvard Law Review article in January 1996 argued that while scientific evidence proves the existence of delayed memories, biased reporting has helped create a social climate in which people, including some judges, have come to believe just the opposite. “Stories highlighting dubious-sounding or clearly mistaken memories have replaced reports of more plausible recollections,” two Northwestern University law professors, Cynthia Grant Brown and Elizabeth Mertz, wrote in the Review. “The abusive parents of earlier media accounts have been replaced as the villains of the story by self-serving therapists,” they said, and wondered “why it is apparently so difficult to contemplate the obvious but more complicated possibility that there are both accurate and inaccurate claims of remembered sexual abuse…. To the degree that the media has an effect on public opinion, including legal professionals’ opinions, there is cause to doubt that the public is hearing this more balanced message.”
How does Pendergrast’s story serve the average reader of Fathering Daughters? What message can they be expected to take from it?
Is it a simple narrative speaking to the archetypal theme of “loss,” as Pendergrast suggests DeWitt Henry saw it, telling of the “fragile, magical, vital link between fathers and daughters” and the pain that comes when it is severed?
Or does it suggest that readers should avoid therapists and, more importantly, keep their daughters out of the clawing and catching hands of feminists?
The latter seems more likely. “Daughters Lost,” at 21 dense pages, is nearly 10 percent of Fathering Daughters. Rather than a side note in the message of what fatherhood means to men, editors Henry and McPherson allowed — and encouraged — it to become the dominant theme of their text. This is what they believe fathers should be thinking about, a grave concern for all dads. They reinforce this with the monitions they give about the “gender wars” in their own chapters and introduction.
While Henry and McPherson supplied that antifeminist context for “Daughters Lost,” their framing of Pendergrast’s work is far from unique. There is an AOL website dedicated to Victims of Memory that has all the earmarks of being official (it takes great liberties with displaying large swaths of text and includes an AOL email address for contacting Pendergrast). Along with information on ordering the book, and long excerpts from each chapter, there is a long list of recommended hyperlinks.
Among them are antifeminist Men’s Rights websites (often a marketing tool used by child custody lawyers), Christian fundamentalist groups, and so-called Equity Feminists. Such feminists are seldom seen as anything of the sort by other feminists, but they are highly successful at being published. Men can’t resist helping them get their message out.
The first Equity Feminist group offered up by Victims of Memory is the Northwest Feminist Anti-Censorship Task Force. Contrary to their name, the organization never had anything to do with fighting censorship. Their mission, as they state it, is to “create social services which serve to reform child abuse legislation” and to “make the system accountable and to assist those falsely accused.” They post reviews of books with grand names like Satan’s Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of Modern American Witch Hunt, by Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker.
Debbie Nathan made a career out of writing about False Memories in the 1990s. She even wrote an article for Playboy called “Cry Incest.” The provocative title — to cry rape, from to cry wolf, to lie — was a perfect fit for Playboy, that favorite magazine of good fathers everywhere: women are whores and when they’re not whores, they’re liars. This is the crowd that supports Mark Pendergrast and his work. They are his people.
DeWitt Henry and James Alan McPherson joined those same people when they constructed the narrative flow of Fathering Daughters. While many of the contributors are simply guilty by association, of running in social circles that all but guaranteed that they’d be published in the anthology, it was Henry and McPherson who worked to guide the reader down a foxglove path. That path is well-worn by less literate and less privileged antifeminists.
It has occurred to me how wrong I was in the beginning of this review. I believed that Fathering Daughters existed on an elite paradigm that could ignore the command of petty capitalism; that it didn’t cater to the lowest common denominator or try to sell itself. Its deliberate voyage into antifeminism, always a useful sales hook, proves otherwise.
While the blurbs on the back cover might talk up the genius of the editors and contributors (“They have seen that the writers shuck the subject of sentimentality and have given us the real core of the relationship between fathers and daughters.” Ernest Gaines, author of A Lesson Before Dying), the book as a whole is not high literature but a cheap genre work. Henry and McPherson made it so. Its message and focus is no different than any number of books produced for the fathers’ rights market, even if the editors of those tomes don’t discuss their meetings at Harvard Square.
Professorships and Pulitzer Prizes do insulate Fathering Daughters from being seen as an antifeminist work. They are successful men who know, and fuck, successful women — women who are automatically assumed to be feminist by virtue of that success, a popularized misconception where feminists are held as the “tops” in some sort of sadomasochistic relationship vis-à-vis other women. These men have that seal of approval and more: enough published work to prove they only dabble in complaining, that they’re not the sort of losers who beat their chests as they howl about the invisible matriarchy.
Still, Fathering Daughters is what it is: one of the most interesting and well crafted books in the how to be a better patriarch genre. What Fathering Daughters isn’t, however, is read.
Consider how controversial Mark Pendergrast proved when he was published by the Sun. It was a firestorm.
And yet no one from Dads and Daughters or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services seemed to take notice of his chapter before recommending the anthology to the world. Did any of these fathers even bother to read it? I suppose not. Men benefit from the existence of books, not the consumption of them.