Book Review: Dear Dad, It's Over by M. Dickson

[Today is the kickoff of my super-informal Summer Reading Challenge for adults (all ages, really). It's the grown-up version of the summer reading programs you used to do at the public library as a kid, in which you'd pledge how many books you were going to read over the summer, and then if you made your pledge number you'd get a prize. If you're on Facebook you can Like the Summer Reading Challenge page there, and post your pledge and talk about books. If not, just do it at home on your own. The rules are simple:

1. It runs May 15 through September 15.

2. Pledge how many books you'll read, and when you hit your goal, buy yourself a present.

3. All books count--cheap romance novels, graphic novels, YA, whatever. Unless you've read it so many times you can recite huge chunks of dialogue.

4. You really only have to get through 25 of the shades of grey to consider that book finished.]

Now, in honor of the first day, I'm reviewing M. Dickson's Dear Dad, It's Over, a memoir of her life as a child of divorce. (A specific interest of mine for obvious reasons.) M and I know each other and she sent me the book to review, but there was no money or anything else of value exchanged (except thoughts) in exchange for this review.

I started reading the book thinking it would be funny, because M is funny, and it's kind of a funny title. The idea that your dad would piss you off so much that you'd tell him "It's over" was kind of an old-style, All In The Family trope, and I was ready for something overblown and cartoonish.

But the book is really the narrative of how M.'s dad failed to be a decent father once her parents divorced. There is dark, biting humor, but this isn't a comical sketch about a loveable-but-annoying dad. M's father is a bad person. Not an evil person, just an ordinary bad person who can't get past his own selfishness to be able to think about what a little girl (or a big girl) needs and be able to give it to her. He can't get past his own selfishness to allow her to be herself, to allow her to love both her mother and him, and to do anything that interferes with his ego or comfort.

The title of the book refers to the fact that after years of thinking she could repair the relationship with her father, M. finally realized that it really wasn't in her control, and for her own emotional health she needed to cut off contact with her father.

I cringed while reading most of this book, because no child--no person--should be treated the way M's father has treated her. But I struggled with the idea that this was a book about divorce. The setting is divorce. But the actual plot and characters are just people, who are acting within the divorce setting. Getting a divorce didn't turn M's father into an emotionally abusive asshole--he was already one. (This may have been a contributing factor to the divorce.) And if her parents had stayed together, her dad still would have mistreated her--she just wouldn't have had any other place to go. The book describes the experience of a child whose parents are divorced, but it isn't a proscription. Any parent can be a better parent than M's dad was. Any parent needs to be a better parent than M's dad was.

What I, as a divorced parent, really took out of this book was the need to look not just at what my children need, but at how things feel to them. I have already tried extremely hard to allow them to have all of their feelings, and not to force them to pretend loyalty to me or my family if they aren't feeling it, and to affirm their relationship with their dad's side of the family. But I need to continue to pay attention to the transactional things, such as which clothes are where (they don't care now but they might soon), and making sure that the kids know the whole week's schedule at the beginning of the week.

I also realized that just because my own kids have a father who cares about them doesn't mean that there aren't other single parents struggling with trying to protect their children from an abusive other parent. And they might need some support from me. And their kids might need support, too.