Who’s Your Daddy?
by Rick Whitaker
for Dennis Snell
The biology of the sex act dictates that each of us has one and only one father; but biology does not necessarily identify the man whose sperm gave each of us life. Blood and DNA tests can confirm or rule out a candidate, but it has always been possible, given more than one man in the vicinity, for a new person to be, for all practical purposes, fatherless. My biological father, according to my mother, is either one man or another, but not anyone else—Rodney Whitaker, my mother’s second husband, or Richard Spencer, whom I’ve never met (and who was married to someone else when I was conceived). I was born with the name of my mother’s first husband, Hardin. My mother has had seven last names: Cooper, Hardin, Whitaker, Durham, Temple, Seaver, and Keller. My brother is Whitaker’s child, my older sister is Hardin’s, my younger sister is Durham’s. A half-brother I’ve never met is the son of Richard Spencer, one of my mom’s between-husband boyfriends circa 1967 and, it turns out, my biological father. This was confirmed by 23 & Me introducing me to Rich, my half-brother. We are not, so far, very close: I sent a message to which he has not replied. Rich and Rick, sons of Richard. I asked him, via 23 & Me, if his father was alive and whether they’d enjoyed a warm and happy relationship. I just wanted to know if he was a more decent man than all the other bullshit dads I’ve had to put up with. But since Rich hasn’t answered, my instinct says no, he probably wasn’t. In any case, I’m 61% Irish. That’s something to celebrate. James Joyce was Irish. So was Oscar Wilde. Oscar Wilde, who wrote my motto: The only thing worth living for is pleasure; nothing ages like happiness. (Though pleasure gets old, too, alas.)
The word “father” has accumulated a variety of referents for me. When I hear “father” I don’t know what to think, or whom to think of—my mind drifts over a landscape of men. Butch Whitaker, the man I grew up with—my father, I was certain, until I was 35—is a mountain. Richard Spencer is the sea—totally unknown, potentially hazardous, and cold. All the other men in my life are dominated, inevitably, in my mind, by the high peak, actively my dad until I was 18, thereafter just the worst of all my fathers, now pretty much nothing at all. The man who deranged my childhood. Butch, who earned his nickname.
Rodney “Butch” Whitaker lives now in the same little poverty-struck town where he was born, Blanchester, an hour north of Cincinnati, Ohio. A decade ago I went back to Blanchester for the first time in many years. I had my boyfriend with me for moral support. I gave Butch no warning—I phoned from the 7-11 just down the road from the lit-up house we’d driven past. Uh, yeah, he said, you can come over and we can talk if you want, so Iannis drove back to the house where Butch was waiting for me on the porch. It was the same house where I’d spent many of my worst-ever days and nights, the house he moved into when he married Jane, my (then-)stepmother. When I visited them, against my will, all I wanted to do was watch the soap operas with Jane while she folded laundry, but she couldn’t stand a sissy, and watching soap operas was to her way of thinking something indulged in only by females or sissy boys. She always made me go outside, where I felt even lonelier and more lost and unhappy.
I shook Butch’s scary hand and he invited me to sit on a plastic chair, Jane apparently having decided not to step out and greet me. There was a piece of lawn decoration with ducks and the words “World’s Best Grandparents, 1999” stuck into the dirt around a half-dead bush in the yard, the scene decades before of so many crushing defeats and stretches of painfully sad time when I felt abandoned by my mother, unloved by my father, and despised by Jane and her son, a star athlete and the sexiest thing on two legs for miles around. I wanted him—Bobby, who was my age—to the point of tasting my desire, my unconscious brooding on Bobby’s body producing some chemical in my mouth that tasted faintly of his sweat. Anyway, Dad and I sat, two adults, on the cement stoop outside his house in the late afternoon of a very stormy summer day.
“My mom tells me you don’t believe you’re my father,” I said. “Is that true?”
“Uh, yeah,” he said, “that is true. I knew that right from the beginning, but I tried to ignore it for as long as I could. I tried to be your dad, but it just didn’t work out that way.”
“I’ll tell you what, though,” he said. “If it was to turn out that you are my son I would have to make you a big apology. But if you’re not, and I don’t believe you are, I can’t say I feel guilty about not raising another man’s son. I had kids of my own to take care of, too. I did the best I could do.”
My lame response to this shocking speech–he did raise me, badly, that was the whole point of all this–but my response was merely to question him urbanely about his moral attitudes concerning the idea that human beings should look after one another despite an absence of biological, genetic ties, merely from kindness and decency. My Upper West Side argument, though, seemed to fall on deaf ears. He had already made up his mind about it, and I was clearly going to make no headway toward persuading him, as I wished to, that he was undeserving from here on out of anything good or pleasant or fun. He knew what he was worth to the people in his life, and he seemed invulnerable to my aggressive interrogation. He was not apologetic; he did not love me; he wanted me to leave. I was like a jilted lover who could just splutter and unclasp my last ounce of self-respect, then walk away forever with the comforting half-truth that it was his loss, that I may be without a father, but he was missing out on having me for a son. Being a bastard is inherently unfair: Butch had sons of his own, but my only dad is not my father. Poor me, as they say in A.A. meetings, poor me, pour me a drink.
When I was born on Tax Day 1968, Butch was in Korea with the Air Force making his contribution to national security. He returned to Ohio just in time for my first birthday. My mother, who had separated permanently from Fred Hardin and apparently was not handling single-parenthood terribly well at the time of my birth, broke out in severe, painful shingles all over her body just after I was born, and she was unable to hold me for several months. When as an adult I asked my mother if I, her second child, had been breastfed, she gave a nervous laugh and said, “No, I was too young for that.” They do things differently in Ohio.
I have only the vaguest memories of my first six years; I can obscurely recall the schoolyard and classroom where I was compelled to attend kindergarten, but not the teacher’s face nor any of the students’. I do remember that during the first week of my first year of school, as a kindergartner, I was reprimanded by the teacher, a woman smelling of coffee, for incessantly rubbing my crotch against the corner of my chair, using my joined wrists as a pole against which I could achieve some satisfaction while the rest of the students went about their usual kindergarten business. I was humiliated when the lady teacher told me to sit up straight: it was the first time I was made to notice rules of decorum and restraint and to see that pleasure had sometimes to be deferred, the first terrible lesson of childhood. Nonetheless I was an avid masturbator, climbing swingset poles, humping pillows. I have often wondered why it felt so much better then, when I was a child, than it ever has since. To compensate, perhaps, for the anxiety, emotional confusion, and psychic distress which was much more severe for me as Butch’s bastard child than ever since?
My life as a child was dominated by Butch, whose mood seemed to shift daily between hungover unhappiness and drunken rage, with brief sallies into halfhearted, rough cheerfulness, always when he was outdoors. There were things he enjoyed—playing softball, watching baseball games and “Hawaii Five-O” and Walter Cronkite on TV. But I believe he mostly considered his life of working on the railroad as a signalman and providing for his young family in Blanchester–another man’s daughter, a queer boy he’d heard was the fruit of another man’s adultery, my wayward mom, and then my brother, his own first son—as a disappointing anticlimax after his Air Force highs and his early promise as an athlete. He was famous around southwestern Ohio as the best slugger of homeruns in all of semi-professional softball, and he had the trophies to prove it. But he was not a happy father, a happy husband, or a happy young man. For me he was the big, dangerous creature who stormed into the house around 5:30 every weekday, ate something my mother hurried to prepare, watched some TV with a leg thrown up onto the back of the sofa, farting with abandon, and then went out drinking until he came home to terrorize my mother when we kids were in bed, listening. On weekends, except during the coldest winter months, Butch took us along to softball games, endless, uneventful days and evenings for me. They began with all of us piling into the scratchy American car and driving to the ballpark, in the trunk a styrofoam cooler filled with cold beer and soda pop; I remember the sound the car’s tires made as we slowly pulled into the gravel parking lot, a crunching sound that when I’ve heard it since has taken me all the way back to childhood when I heard that noise not only at the ballpark but also at our church, another frequent locus of misery for me since I felt there that I was a hopeless, unredeemable sinner who would surely go to hell unless the rapture came on a Sunday afternoon, just after I had repented and asked God for His forgiveness, before I’d had had a chance to sin again. The days at the ballpark were less dramatic. I spent much of my time under the aluminum bleachers with a couple of other candy-smeared kids. What we did under there I cannot recall. I remember long plastic straws filled with flavored sugar. Hot dogs wrapped in foil, our generic soda pop in paper cups. There was an old black cannon near the swingset, and I remember climbing up, as all the kids did, and straddling it, vaguely aware that having a six-foot-long iron shaft between my legs inspired the illusion of power. I sat atop the cannon more often and for longer stretches of time than most of the kids did; it was my favorite spot in the park; a fascinating, dark object that seemed strangely inspiring to my presexual fantasies.
People have a reputation for “remembering” traumatic scenes from childhood that in fact have only the most tangential or seemingly synecdochic relation to what actually took place all those years before, when the person’s parents in any case were young and inexperienced and prone to reckless behavior their children would inevitably resent. We tell a story about ourselves which becomes, over time, our biographical identity, who we are as the result of what we’ve borne. In the story I’ve long told myself about my childhood, my dad found a reason to punish me every day. Could that be right? I have a vivid memory of his bedroom, his bed, which he shared with Jane, his closet door hanging with belts, his white leather belt particularly, his telling me that he was punishing me because he loved me, that it was for my good and would help me to learn and improve and grow strong (these were his post-drunk Christian years). He said it hurt him more than it hurt me. He did seem to be in some sort of pain almost all the time, the kind of pain he once drank to quell. The kind of pain I drink to quell now, the pain that comes with being who I am; I assume it’s more or less the same for everyone. We suffer—that is what is distinctly human—our suffering and our consciousness of our suffering. My dad was not at all an ambitious man, he was not a tortured philosopher or a frustrated artist or a tragic Romeo or a nutcase—not that I’m aware of. I do not believe his innermost desires and wishes were squashed by poverty or genetic predisposition. He was just an ordinary man suffering from existential angst, though he surely did not think of his unhappiness in those terms. He may have been, in reality, a very different man from the one I remember. I was a child, I made things up, I saw everything from below, from the perspective of my own misery. My brother–half-brother now–thinks he’s a nice guy.
My conversation with Butch on his front porch, in the aftermath of a brief but impressive thunderstorm or tornado, was all over within half an hour, within minutes. He agreed to a blood test if I wanted one; I didn’t. What would be the point for me? If he was my father, I would know I certainly had a bad father. If he wasn’t, I would know the same thing, it would just be a different bad father, and Butch would be off the hook. If he was my father, the apology Butch would owe me would be worthless, since I don’t believe men (or women) should behave according to genetic, but rather to moral, facts and situations. His obligation to me should have been, as all obligations should be, regardless of sperm. Sperm is meaningless. Or so I like to believe.
As Iannis and I had approached Blanchester, the municipal alarm was blaring a tuneless warning, presumably of a tornado in the vicinity. It poured with rain and the lightning and thunder were crashing everywhere around us as we drove into the town. Blanchester greeted us with truly forbidding Sturm und Drang. But when we left town a couple of hours later, there were big, bold rainbows making huge arcs over the part of the world that wasn’t Blanchester. I would not make up a conceit so perfectly well-timed and symmetrical and obvious, but there it was, big as life.
My mother’s first husband, Fred Hardin, my older sister’s father, was a biker who died in a motorcycle crash twelve years after he and my mom divorced (when I was ten and she had divorced Whitaker, too). My sister adored and always missed her father, and my mom seemed never to have lost her attraction to him. I don’t know why they divorced, but I was aware, as a child, that she still liked him and thought about him. I had his last name until I was a year old and Butch adopted me and gave me his name.
Husband No. 3 was George Durham, the father (presumably) of my younger sister, a drug-addicted Bible freak with a beard who lived in a small trailer when we moved in with him. Apart from fathering my sister, I can’t think of anything good George did for me or anyone I knew. When I was eighteen, I went with my mother to rescue my sister from George, who said he wouldn’t let her go home because I was trying to influence her against him. He and I fought while my mom and sister escaped the house and got into the car; but I had the car keys in my pocket, and had to watch, after running from George, as he used a large branch from a tree to batter the car while the two inside screamed and cried. When she finally left the car, after her dad went back to his horrid little house, my sister ran toward me. But instead of running into my outstretched arms she ran past me. I had failed to shield her from being traumatized, so why would she have embraced me? She’s been running ever since. George died of some unknown cause a year later, something to do with his heart. None of us ever saw him again after that night.
No. 4 was Dick Temple, the most violent and wild of them all. He was always either intoxicated or recovering from a hangover, and he was mean either way. He brought home a huge, filthy, mangy abandoned dog one day and expected my mom to make it the family pet, which was the cause of one of their most memorable fights (she is emphatically not a “pet person”), which climaxed when Mom locked Dick and his dog out of the house and Dick put his hand through the glass door to let himself in, while we—Mom and me and my brother and two sisters—ran out the opposite door and fled the house. We spent the night with a friend of my mom’s. Dick once put a shotgun to my head and told me that if I continued to come between him and my mom he would kill me. I was afraid of him as I was afraid of the devil himself.
No. 5 was Mark Seaver, a construction worker much younger than my mom with two little kids of his own and a half-built house just outside of town on an acre of dirt. We all moved in there with him for a while, but that was a disaster, and we moved out again not long after. He had his iron in many a fire; my mom had hers, for the time being, in just one, his.
No. 6, the current one, Chris Keller, voted for Bush in the 2004 election, so I barely spoke to him for years, though I’ve always liked him. His main concern, he told me, in deciding which candidate to vote for, was hunting rights, on which he thought Bush might be marginally better than Kerry.
To cap all of this off, in 2016 my mother voted for Trump. And voted for him again in 2020. Despite all the evidence in her life to the contrary, she believes, apparently, that it must be a man sitting at the head of every table.
Everyone, ideally, should have a good-enough father. Barring that, no father at all. For those with men having improperly filled the role, our notions of fatherhood can be a source of all kinds of persistent troubles. Happily, though, we’re at liberty to substitute better father-figures if we’re lucky or clever enough to find or invent them. We needn’t adhere strictly to the biological definition. In our still somewhat Freudian ethos, we ultimately want to overthrow or eliminate our fathers, of course, and just as we can have more than one father, in an imaginative sense, we needn’t overthrow just one, either. Eliminating fathers is the basic business of Western culture: building them up and tearing them down. Creation logically entails destruction, and what is destroyed in the conception of a conquering new object or idea is father of the creator, father to the thought, as it were, which presupposed the invention. To make something new, Harold Bloom taught us, we must find a father worth the effort of destroying, and the destruction will be manifest in the creation itself. A new painting leaves a trace of the painter’s triumph over what created her as a painter. A new book has embedded within it the remains, so to speak, of an older book, which gave it life. All writers, and all books, are born from books, paintings from paintings. Each father is the son of his father, for better or worse.
When I was thirteen, the dry-cleaning man taught me how to tie a tie. I knew then that something was missing from my adolescence. I had generally been glad to be rid of the men my mother dated or married, especially Whitaker, the first of them I knew. He and my mother finally divorced, after an increasingly ugly marriage, when I was eight. It did not often occur to me as a child that I should have a father around to do for me what fathers purportedly did for sons. My life was better without fathers; I was willing and then determined to do without them. I as a child felt blithely capable, most of the time, of doing without a father’s protection, care, money, and love; what I missed, especially as a young teenager, was being taught how to do things only a man knows how to do. I didn’t learn how to be a man. And yet I am a man—this, for me, is an abiding mystery.
There have been other men to take my father’s place to some extent over the years. One man saved my life when I was fourteen, by taking me into his family and looking after me in a most extraordinary way. He, Dennis Snell, was the minister in the relatively liberal United Church of Christ across the street from where I was living with my mother and siblings then, in a small Ohio town. I had absconded from my family’s very conservative fire-and-brimstone Church of God. What appealed to me above all about the big church across the street was that it had inside it a shiny grand piano which I was aching to play. In no time at all I had befriended the preacher, Dennis, dated his daughter, and got a key to the church and could play there any time I wanted. I kissed Dennis’s beautiful daughter on the dark steps going up to the empty choir. I loved her and her whole family, Dennis and Janice, his tightly-wound big wife, and Tonya, the younger, problem child. They said I didn’t have to ring the doorbell before entering their house—I could just walk in any time, even if they weren’t at home. Even in the middle of the night, which I did once wearing just a pair of briefs, shivering in the wintry cold after overhearing a long seduction of my mother by her soon-to-be fifth husband, Mark. He worked hard and got his way—noisily, on the sofa, in the living room, while I listened to the whole thing from my bed upstairs. It was too much for me—my mom had assured me that she didn’t really like this scoundrel—and once they started getting it on I got out of bed like a zombie and went downstairs and out the door, barefooted across the snow, to Dennis, who held me in a wonderful blanket on his lap for an hour and then carried me home.
Dennis taught me. He helped me try to learn Latin, and he helped me find books I enjoyed reading. He was proud of me when I accomplished anything. He wanted to see me thrive and grow fully into myself, whatever I was. He surely knew I was gay from the beginning. He caught me, once, inside the church in full flagrante delicto, not with his daughter but with Brian, a boy my age, a strange kid I was not friends with at all. Brian and I used one another sexually from time to time; we experimented with one another. We did it in the church kitchen one quiet weekday evening without being aware that Dennis was in his office, very close by; he heard us and came to see what the noise was. Brian and I were profoundly embarrassed, but not quite, with Dennis, ashamed of ourselves. Dennis had to be somewhat stern about intoning the rules against gay sex by minors in the church—in the building itself, that is. On the question of gays in general the UCC is and was surprisingly open-minded and fair. Dennis must have found the incident upsetting and erotic. My feeling of embarrassment with Dennis, to be honest, was almost a pleasure, it was so intense and physically felt, a kind of exciting emptying-out of the lungs and gut. A feeling not unlike that of being dominated and humiliated by a sex partner. The sexy kind of abjection. Dennis proved to be bisexual, and divorced Janice eventually. He came to New York once to visit me and as we settled in to sleep–him in my bed, me nearby on the sofa–he told me something he knew I needed to hear. He must have sensed an erotic charge in the air. He sat down beside me and said that even were I someday to attempt a seduction of him, he would never have sex with me, no matter what, because he considered our family-like relationship too valuable and wouldn’t risk its injury with a selfish nocturnal fandango. Dennis loved me in a way that was more helpful to me as I grew up than any of my mother’s husbands ever did. My stepfathers resented me for standing between them and my mother, which in reality I surely did as forcefully as I could—she was mine, and I wanted them to go away. To his credit, Chris, the longest-lasting and best of my mother’s husbands–they’re still married after some thirty years–was always kind and accommodating with me, and smart enough to know how my hotheadedness could be defused. What I liked most about him was that he stayed, he secured my mother’s perimeter so I could go away and be an adult.
I saw in the newspaper today an article about a 7-year-old girl who was murdered by her father, who “kneed her” in the abdomen, rupturing her bowels, and the next day he beat her with a belt until she was unconscious; a few hours later he called an ambulance, but the girl, Sierra Roberts, was already dead. Accompanying the article was a photo of Sierra, and I recognized her. I had seen her once, on the NYC subway, with her father. When I entered the train car, she was fully into an acute fit of sobbing and hyperventilating, trying repeatedly to escape from her huge, angry father, who over and over again as I looked on grabbed the little girl and threw her back into her seat, poking an iron-like finger into her chest and commanding her to shut up. All of the dozen or so other passengers nearby were alarmed and we all looked at one another as if to ask what could be done, but no one did anything. When the still-sobbing Sierra and her father exited at Penn Station, I followed them and hoped to find a cop, but of course they got away. Fathers always get away. They get away with murder, they get away with being half-hearted fathers; and they get away, of course, in the other sense as well—they disappear. But they’re always with us, nonetheless. They haunt our thoughts from afar. They get away from us, but we never get away from them. The death of a father does nothing to rid us of his spirit, it only further secures the introjection of him within us. A dead father is even more troubling, and more vividly, constantly present, than he had been while alive. The obvious example is Hamlet’s father, whose ghost says to him, after midnight:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
The ghost tells Hamlet that if he ever loved his father, he should seek revenge for his “foul and most unnatural murder,” thereby setting into motion a long series of deaths including, finally, Hamlet’s own.
A more congenial example of a father’s ghost appearing to his children was in the HBO series Six Feet Under, in which the father was killed in the opening episode. Occasionally he would reappear to comfort, advise, or admonish his three children, granting them momentarily the only presence—his—that could make a difference for them. His appearances on the show had a heightened poignancy and emotional intensity, fulfilling as they did the dream of every viewer with an absent or dead father. What the child wants, above all, is to be in his father’s presence, to have his attention, to witness his long lost aura. Even I long, deep down, for my unlikeable Butch to make an appearance and bless me with his attention before fading back into the past. Even poor Sierra Roberts, if she had survived her father’s abuse, might one day in the future have had a sad yearning to be visited by her father despite her terror and his unworthiness. Having killed her, Sierra’s father will be the haunted one, seeing the little girl’s ghost from time to time as a reminder of his collusion in her being taken from him forever.
Richard Spencer, my biological father, is a black Irish old man of the sea by the look of him:
Alive or dead? Doesn’t matter. I’ll never meet him. But he alone is my father. I have a good dad: Dennis, who unofficially adopted me. And I am a dad, too: I adopted my son when he was a teenager.
But now, at 53, I’m done with fathers. There are too many of them and most of us, as fathers, are hopelessly inept, inefficacious, beyond bumbling, positively destructive, redundant, and unwanted. But it’s nice nonetheless to know, after all these years, who my old man is and who he is not. And nice to know, too, which of them matters most: the one, of course, with no sperm in the game, the one that chose me and adopted me and knows how to love me. That is priceless, and renders all my other fathers and stepfathers null and void, emptiness being their natural and eternal quality. Emptiness and absence:
Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away.
25 May 2022 New York
Rick Whitaker is author of Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling, The First Time I Met Frank O’Hara: Reading Gay American Writers, and An Honest Ghost, a novel made entirely from discrete sentences recycled from other books. He is the single parent of an adopted son, David. For twenty years he has produced concerts and events at Columbia University’s Italian Academy.