Katie and I were young when we separated for good. Or so we thought.
We were twelve. She was the first girl I kissed. Actually, my younger brother humiliated me into kissing her. One summer day before seventh grade Katie and I were hanging out at an old shack in the woods between our homes. We called it the Sugar Shack.
My brother Kurt, eleven, was there along with a few other kids. We were playing the kissing game “spin the bottle,” and I was hoping the bottle would point to Katie and me so we could make out. But when it did, I panicked and froze in fear. My younger brother looked at me in disgust and then took control. “This is how you do it,” he declared. And he walked up to my sweetheart and put a lip lock on her.
Hoping to sweep away my humiliation, I went over to Katie and we kissed. I felt like I was in heaven that day, but it may have been the beginning of the end for Katie and me. Junior high school started a month later. I was the dweeb—four feet ten, 87 pounds—with the cutest girlfriend in seventh grade. This was junior high school; there were real men to be had. Katie and I went our separate ways.
A few years later, I was living in California and getting my driver’s license. Katie was in Oregon getting an abortion. Shortly after that, I was studying at Berkeley and she was stripping in men’s clubs. The arcs of our lives had touched—and kissed—for an innocent moment in time.
I didn’t really know Katie until 40 years later. That’s when I tracked her down in Nevada, and asked if she would tell me her story for this book.
It took nearly a year before we could meet. When we did, I came to know the real Katie, what happened to her as she grew up, and how she nearly killed herself in later years. As well, I came face-to-face with the broken father inside of her.
Parenting is hard. Katie’s father struggled with it, and most would probably say he failed for the first 50 years of her life. I love being a dad, yet I certainly have struggled with it. Like fathers everywhere, I have no experience as a daughter, no idea what it means to be a girl in a relationship with her dad. Two years ago I realized how little I knew about how to raise daughters, and that at the same time there wasn’t anything more important in my life. That dissonance puzzled me.
I woke up one day—and I mean really woke up—with some startling questions running through my mind: “What do you have left to teach your daughters? What’s it like to be a daughter, anyway? What will your daughters long for as women that they didn’t get from you?” It was as if someone had clamped a psychological defibrillator on my head.
My girls were nine and thirteen. How did that happen so fast? I realized I had been living in my private cocoon of work and stress, semi-conscious most of the time. At 52, I was thirteen years into fatherhood, and felt like I was stumbling in the dark while my daughters had blown through childhood.
These questions and self-doubts hit me shortly after Christmas. I live in Portland, Oregon, and the entire area was buried under two feet of snow, an all-time record. The city was paralyzed. I couldn’t go to work. For the first time in years, my agitated mind—and I do mean agitated—went still. (I dreamed once that I checked into a doctor’s office, and when the receptionist asked me to sign in I wrote “To Do” for my name.) But during this snowstorm, as my mind idled for the first time in years, the questions began coming to me about how fathers shape daughters, for better or worse.
I wanted to better understand what daughters absorb from their fathers and how that happens. I also felt that time was short. So with a sense of urgency, and some nervousness as well, I decided to explore fatherhood from a place I couldn’t directly experience: The hearts and souls of grown-up daughters.
I wanted to hear women reflect on what they had absorbed from their fathers, and what they didn’t get that they still yearned for. I wanted to find out about this special relationship, and how it set their lives on the trajectories that they’d traveled, so that I could do a better job with my own daughters.
I’m not a psychotherapist. I don’t consider myself a writer. When I pitched a big-name book agent with my idea for this work she asked me, “Who are you?” I wanted to blurt back, “I’m nobody; I’m just Dad. I’m Everyman. That’s why this is important.”
For my daughters, myself, and dads and daughters everywhere, this was simply something I felt compelled to do. So I began my journey in search of fatherhood.
Equipped with a recorder, I talked with women about their inner pain and joy, looking for lessons large and small. The women were rich and poor; well known and anonymous; lesbian, straight, and transgender. They included a retired state Supreme Court judge, executives, and unemployed women. I spoke with professional athletes and former drug addicts. I met women with lives of abundance and others who had been homeless and suicidal. They were from Liberia, Lithuania, Germany, China, Canada, the US, Holland, India, Mexico, and places in between.
We talked for hours. The conversations felt like taking the top off a volcano; the stories came up and out so naturally, and down their own paths like lava.
I was struck by how intensely many women feel the lasting presence of their fathers. Most cried during our conversations—some recalling abuse, others recalling their fathers’ neglect or ambivalence, and some expressing the love and gratitude they felt for the lucky hand they’d been dealt. One woman cried for nearly four hours. A psychotherapist I met at a conference cried openly as we stood talking about her father’s neglect. I quickly discovered that the father within each daughter is a high-voltage line.
These stories had an enormous impact on me. And my journey to understand how fathers form their daughters took an ironic twist: It turned upside down, into a voyage in which these 50 daughters shaped me into a different father.
“Paraphrasing Esther Perel (Mating in Captivity) who has said: ‘Tell me how you were loved, and I'll tell you how you make love,’ reading Kevin Renner's memoir of fatherhood prompts me to say to women, regardless of age, culture, or background: ‘Tell me if and how your father loved you as a child, and I'll tell you whether or not you have found love as a woman’.”
Charlene Kate Kavanagh, Ph.D., psychologist and author