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Book Reviews: Fathers Lost, Found, or Looking   |    
Father Figures: Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life • No Regrets: Last Chance for a Father and Son • Slim to None: A Journey Through the Wasteland of Anorexia Treatment • Baby B • The Years of Silence Are Past: My Father's Life With Bipolar Disorder
Jeffrey L. Geller, M.D., M.P.H.
Psychiatric Services 2005; doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.56.7.878
View Author and Article Information

by Kevin Sweeney; New York, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, 208 pages, $22.95 • by Barry Neil Kaufman; Novato, California, 2003, 336 pages, $24.95 • by Jennifer Hendricks; New York, McGraw Hill Companies, 2003, 256 pages, $19.95 softcover • by Michael Ryan; Saint Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 2004, 144 pages, $17 • by Stephen P. Hinshaw; Cambridge, England, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 227 pages, $17.50

In these reviews, men talk, from the perspective of a father or of a son, with a powerful range of emotions and a plethora of insights. The emoting male author is an emerging phenomenon, well exemplified by these first-person accounts.

Father Figures: Three Wise Men Who Changed a Life, by Kevin Sweeney, is the story of one of six children of two Irish immigrants whose father dies when he is eight years old. Sweeney, no stranger to communicating with the public given that he was once press secretary to Senator Gary Hart and held senior positions in the Clinton Administration, does an absolutely inspiring job of telling the reader how a young guy without a father goes about meeting his immediate emotional needs and teaching himself how to grow up to be a man and a father.

Sweeney's father died on February 1, 1962, at the age of 38 from congestive heart failure. That left his wife, Marian, a 34-year-old widow with six children, of whom Sweeney was the fifth. He was three-and-a-half years old when his father died. Nobody was emotionally prepared for the loss, and the family was financially broke. Marian required the children to be stoics, and Sweeney talks about the effects on him of the absence of grief and the lack of money. Both are poignantly told. For example, the first time Sweeney ordered from a restaurant menu was when he was in the second grade: "It never occurred to me that some families dined out often; it never occurred to me that this might be a reason to be jealous." Somewhat later he indicates that "jealousy was linked in obvious ways to sadness, which we knew was a room we were not to enter."

By the time Sweeney was eight years old, he realized, "I no longer had anything that was my father. Though I was aware that at times I missed having a father—mostly for the money I thought a dad would bring in—I was also aware I did not miss him." However, Sweeney felt that he was missing something; he felt "incomplete." Fearing he might always be incomplete, he set about "adopting" three surrogate father figures. He does not inform any of these gentlemen that they have become substitute fathers for him; he simply lives it. It is how Sweeney goes about doing this and the results he achieves that are the heart and soul of Father Figures.

There are certainly distractions along the way. By the eighth grade, Sweeney is an alcoholic. It takes him most of his life, to the point of writing this book, to understand his mother. Anger and sadness remain confused for a very long time, but ultimately Sweeney feels that he succeeded: "The strategy I devised when I was eight had worked. Three men, fathers I had chosen, had given me confidence. I would enter fatherhood no less prepared than other men. I would become a father knowing that there were experiences, particularly moments I could rely on when I needed help …. I watched these men, studied them, and leaned on them, and they showed me how. I am grateful."

Father Figures is a warm and engaging story of the sagacity of a young boy and his successful secret adoption of three fathers. It is also a powerful portrayal of the impact of the loss of a parent at an early age—a loss that Maxine Harris has referred to as "the loss that is forever" (1). Father Figures has an audience that knows no bounds. If you can read and you successfully made it at least through the sixth grade, no matter where else you are in your life, Father Figures, a quick read, is well worth the time spent.

With some books, as you read them, you understand why the author might have written the story without understanding why he or she would have sought to have it published for others to read. No Regrets, by Barry Neil Kaufman, is such a book. Kaufman, according to the book's dust jacket, is the author of 12 books on the Option Process and the Son-rise Program (both registered trademarks) and is the cofounder and codirector of the Option Institute International Learning and Training Center in Sheffield, Massachusetts. The dust jacket refers to this organization as "a nonprofit educational organization and worldwide teaching center." The 2003-2004 Berkshire's Official Visitor's Guide, published by the Berkshire Visitor's Bureau, does not list the center under "Educational Opportunities" but, rather, under "Health Spas." I point this out because, to some degree, No Regrets reads like an infomercial for the center.

The focus of No Regrets is the story of a father and son whose lives diverged much earlier in their history and who come back together, making peace and in fact achieving an intimacy and a closeness neither would have predicted. Kaufman, as he seems to do consistently throughout the book, holds others in his family accountable for his less than close relationships. From his point of view, he is always open and available to everyone. Kaufman, whose style is to speak to the reader while simultaneously speaking to his father, says, "I pounded on your door for decades, but you kept so much of yourself unavailable."

Kaufman, best known for his work with autism, which started with his son Raun, cogently describes the systematic way he works to reunite with "pop" and his dogged persistence in providing for his father during his father's terminal illness. He talks about teaching his father, using some of the same methodology he had developed to teach his autistic son. However, the book slips and slides on platitudes and sometimes seems to run smack into Kaufman's apparent blindness as he describes his insightfulness.

Enmeshed in the 336 pages of No Regrets is an engaging, warm, man-let-your-defenses-down tale that would be particularly useful for fathers and sons who are simply running out of time together. It is our loss that Kaufman did not decide to keep the full contents of No Regrets as his personal diary and extract the core father-son tale for a piece in the New Yorker. Few will probably plow through the full text of No Regrets in order to separate out the wheat from the chaff—and most probably should not bother.

The inclusion of Slim to None: A Journey Through the Wasteland of Anorexia Treatment, by Jennifer Hendricks, in a review of books written by men may initially be confusing. However, Slim to None is as much by Hendricks's father, Gordon—he writes the prose, he chooses her journal entries, he organizes the flow of the material—as it is by Jennifer herself, a woman who died at the age of 25 at a weight of 40 pounds, having spent fewer than six weeks of her last five years outside hospitals. It is perhaps homage to his daughter that Gordon Hendricks chooses to have her designated as sole author. Slim to None is as much about a father's agonizing impotence in the face of his daughter's literally dissolving in front of his eyes as it is about the progressive decline of a woman who from age 14 to age 25 is treated by "twenty-three principle doctors and over a hundred other doctors, social workers, and nurses."

The virulence of Jennifer Hendricks's anorexia nervosa is well portrayed and gut-wrenching but will not surprise readers who are familiar with this disorder. The journal entries are well written, often moving, and will not surprise those familiar with first-person accounts. The expressions about hospitals and doctors, such as "mental hospitals and their doctors are afraid of me, I told my friends I'm a big risk because they don't know what to do. They can't help me and they make me feel worse, like a prisoner. They take away my rights, my privacy, make me feel like I'm unworthy and not a real person, like I don't have a life or a future outside my illness," will not surprise any clinician who has talked to a patient with frequent hospitalizations. Or sat down with a long-term inpatient. The fact that over the course of ten years of treatment, Jennifer Hendricks is exposed to less-than-mainstream psychiatry, such as confrontational therapy for the purposes of revealing alleged sexual molestation and abuse, exorcism, tough love, and others, will surprise neither clinicians nor family members who are familiar with the search for any cure in the face of mainstream medicine's apparent failures. And the fact that Jennifer Hendricks's care and treatment cost more than one million dollars will not be surprising.

What is at the heart of Slim to None is Gordon Hendricks' relationship with his daughter and with her treatment. He is here to tell us about his pain, and he does so beautifully. Hendricks and his wife sit in the principal psychiatrist's office (of the time), when the psychiatrist says, "I'm afraid your daughter's case is hopeless. She's determined to starve herself to death, and no one can stop her. I've done everything I can to keep her alive, and I'm resigning effective today." The parents were at a loss, because Gordon Hendricks had made a commitment to his daughter that he would never commit her to the state hospital, which was the psychiatrist's forceful recommendation.

Gordon Hendricks provides a structure that adds great weight to his daughter's journal entries. He provides interpretation, context, and the warp for her woof. For example: "Irrationally immovable minds, physician and patient alike, collide and become hopelessly dread locked. Jenny's treatment plan continued to focus blindly on food and sought to combat her depression with stronger drugs. She accepted the drowsy, surreal world of Thorazine, and despite its numbing of her senses, she continued to decline in motivation and spirit. She railed at herself in her journal." This is followed by a series of journal entries interrupted by Gordon Hendricks with one sentence commentaries to underscore the point of a particular entry.

As Jennifer Hendricks comes toward the end of her life she writes in her journal, "I only eat three things that pass straight through me. I throw up, I starve, I exercise until I can't feel it any more. I'm scared of all people who are not nurses, doctors, or mental health workers." Where does that leave her father?

The next book, Baby B, recounts the quest by Michael Ryan and his wife, ages 53 and 37, respectively, to achieve pregnancy. The story is written by the prospective father, a professor of English and creative writing at the University of California, Irvine.

The couple's journey takes them through a forest of acronyms, some familiar, like DNA, FSH, and STD, and some unfamiliar, like ART (assisted reproductive technologies), IUI (intrauterine insemination), and OHSS (ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome). Ryan's wife does become pregnant, with four embryos that slowly diminish themselves to only embryo B; this embryo becomes Baby B.

Ryan does a compelling job of drawing the reader into the nuances of the journey he and his wife undertook. As he comments, "Every tiny uncertainty is amplified." Ryan injects humor into what is basically an exhausting and painful journey. He notes, "There is doubt about the effectiveness of thawed sperm, however. Fresh is better, like fish and vegetables. So of course I want fresh."

Through the journey Ryan accrues self revelations, such as, "I've never in my life done anything difficult I've not been forced by circumstances to do." He notes that the prospective relationship with his new child, whom obviously he has yet to meet, is like "a blind date that lasts a lifetime." This blind date is with someone "who looks and talks and acts strangely like you."

Throughout his journey Ryan develops increased respect for his wife and for the birthing process. He notes, "I've watched most of the greatest athletes of the last 50 years, but Doreen's labor was the greatest athletic feat I've ever witnessed. It made a double dash spin reverse slam dunk seem like a gum wrapper dropped into a wastepaper basket."

While Ryan's Baby B is, literally, a small book—it measures only five inches by seven inches—it packs a big wallop. The book should be useful to therapists who counsel couples about infertility. But perhaps its greater appeal will be for fathers-to-be in general, and even for the greater audience of men seeking new ways to express affect.

The Years of Silence Are Past: My Father's Life With Bipolar Disorder is Stephen Hinshaw's story. Hinshaw is the fourth of four children whose mother died when Hinshaw was three years old. His father remarried, and Hinshaw acquired two younger half-siblings. His father was a professor of philosophy who in his lifetime had contact with such notables as Jackie Robinson, Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, and R. D. Lang. Hinshaw grew up in a household where punishment included strapping, soap in the mouth, and enemas, all of which was tantamount to child abuse. Unknown to Hinshaw while he was growing up and a fact that he did not learn until he was a freshman in college, his father had a significant psychiatric history. His father also had a family "loaded with mental illness."

Hinshaw's story is actually two stories. The first recounts his own upbringing until he entered college, and the second is the reestablishment of his relationship with his father. The author goes back and forth between history and contemporary perspectives. Hinshaw informs the reader that most of the material in the book comes from discussions he and his father had from the time of his first year in college through the ensuing 25 years. The material is supplemented with writings his father had produced throughout his lifetime.

Hinshaw's book is really the story of a family in which significant mental illness is a secret in the family's life. The family members must live a life of deceit around episodes of father's psychotic deteriorations and must ignore an extended family history in which mental illness sprouts from the family's seeds like uncontrollable weeds for at least three generations. However, ignoring the bipolarity of bipolar disease is difficult for the family.

Hinshaw's father had multiple hospitalizations and multiple treatments. Early treatments included sedation with barbiturates, insulin coma therapy, and prolonged inpatient stays. One can almost trace the history of psychiatry: in the early 1950s, Hinshaw's father's treatment progressed to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and chlorpromazine. Throughout the 1950s his episodes became more frequent in number and greater in severity. Multiple episodes of ECT caused cognitive slowing, memory loss, and progressively diminishing ability to function as a university professor. The episodes also took their toll on Hinshaw's mother, who progressively became less of a spouse and more of a caretaker.

In the midst of this narrative Hinshaw places some didactic chapters on bipolar affective disorder. Chapter 7 is titled "Diagnosis and Misdiagnosis." Chapter 11 is titled "Causes and Treatments." These chapters are well written for the lay audience, and many who pick up The Years of Silence Are Past will find this information quite helpful. Others may find it intrusive into the biographical and autobiographical narrative.

In the concluding chapter, Hinshaw gets to the point of informing us about his own episodes of major depression in his adult life. He presents it as though a genetic predisposition hung like a guillotine over his neck, simply waiting for breakups of key relationships in order to release the blade and have his head fall into a pit of abandonment, anxiety, immobilization, and hopelessness. Hinshaw points out that contemporary treatments leave him far better off than his father was.

The Years of Silence Are Past is best read as a portrayal of the cost of silence to family functioning. In the name of sparing the children and protecting the nuclear family, silence led to a lonely and aggrieved mother and, all too often, children without either parent as open to their children's needs as they might have been.

Dr. Geller is professor of psychiatry and director of public-sector psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

Harris M: The Loss That is Forever. New York, Dutton, 1995
 
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References

Harris M: The Loss That is Forever. New York, Dutton, 1995
 
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