By Eleanor Foa Dienstag
Pamela Thomas, a professional writer whose father died when she was ten years old, took nine years to write Fatherless Daughters: Turning the Pain of Loss into the Power of Forgiveness, just published in hardback by Simon & Schuster. She thought it would take her, at most, eighteen months. That fact alone, which Thomas freely reveals, encapsulates the emotional depth charges she unexpectedly encountered in her journey to explore how the loss of her father affected her life.
From the beginning, Thomas knew she wanted to share with others what she learned about herself and the 100-plus fatherless daughters—through death, divorce or abandonment—she interviewed. But what she didn’t know was that the very process of thinking about, researching, reflecting and coming to terms with the hidden, complex effects of that loss on her life would, in itself, become a therapeutic journey. That is why, like so many forms of emotional healing, there were unforeseen highs, lows, stumbling blocks, discoveries and breakthroughs.
Thomas candidly but sparingly reveals her own story – as well as the stories of women ranging in age from nineteen to ninety four. She also offers a well-researched four-section journey into “Fathering,” “Shock,” “Aftershock,” and “Coming to Terms,” which exhaustively deal with patterns of thinking and behavior that emerge from father loss. It’s a journey worth taking.
I am not a “fatherless daughter,” yet I found myself quite fascinated by many of the emotional characteristics she assigns to women raised in a home without their father. They include: fear of abandonment, anger, low self-esteem, fear of intimacy, a tendency to romanticize men, difficulties with assertiveness, conflicting feelings of dependence and independence, and fear of separation, among others.
Patterns of behavior around these issues can range from affairs with married men to being “married” to one’s career to serial relationships that lack maturity. Some women become stuck, emotionally, at the age they were when their fathers disappeared. Some seek in male partners the fathers they never had. And some find in their career their identity.
As Thomas points out, an astonishing number of feminists were “fatherless daughters,” among them, Gloria Steinem, Susan Sontag, Bella Abzug, Germaine Greer, and Geraldine Ferraro. In addition, a lot of successful actresses, Barbra Streisand, Angela Lansbury, and, most famously, Marilyn Monroe, are “fatherless daughters.” Thomas devotes a long section to Monroe and, for my money, it’s the most coherent explanation of her demons that I’ve ever read.
Thomas builds on the insights of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, who famously wrote about working through the five emotional stages of death and dying: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. These stages—plus forgiveness—are relevant to many forms of “loss,” and Thomas explores them all. And in the “Coming To Terms” section, she offers a wealth of techniques and tips—from revisiting childhood neighborhoods to locating a father who abandoned his family—to help readers get to know their real fathers and mourn their loss. The chapters dealing with forgiveness and healing, are the most inspiring and moving.
Clearly, this book is a must read for all “fatherless daughters” and those who love them. But I suspect that many women whose fathers were alive—but emotionally or physically absent for long stretches of time—will also find Thomas’s insights and advice relevant to their lives.