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The father-daughter dynamics

columns Updated: Mar 13, 2011 00:44 IST
Soumya Bhattacharya

Of course, all men behave with their daughters in a way they do with no one else. You might disagree (saying that they behave with their sons in exactly the same way as they do with their daughters), but I'm afraid that we'll then have to agree to disagree on this one.

Most daughters, in turn, behave with their fathers in a way they do with no one else. When they are small, it's a gender thing as much as anything else; the manner in which this behaviour changes as the girls grow older has also much to do with gender.

I suppose it is the unique nature of the father-daughter relationship that makes many writers want to have daughters. It's rich material. And which writer won't mine his experience for his work?

All his adult life, amid squalor and poverty and disappointment, Richard Yates - the great, neglected American writer who enjoyed a sort of second coming when Sam Mendes made a film based on his great novel, Revolutionary Road -remained resolutely devoted to three things (in not necessarily the following order): his writing, his drinking and his daughters.

Yates was married twice, and was twice divorced. He had two daughters by his first marriage, and one by his second. "[He was] the one… you loved helplessly as a child and grew impatient with when you were grown up," Monica, Yates's second daughter and now his literary executor, has said. (It strikes me as a fairly accurate description of how the father-daughter dynamic evolves over time.)

Yates's friend, the writer Andre Dubus, remembered how, when Yates lived in penury in two rooms in a flat in Boston, he had hardly ever seen him enter one of the rooms. "I suppose his youngest daughter, Gina, slept there when she came to visit. Gina's paintings and drawings hung in the first room, above the bed against one wall, and his desk facing another." Monica often came to stay with him in Alabama, where Yates lived his final days, often seen driving his car while smoking a cigarette between sucking on his oxygen mask.

His relationship with his daughters is one of the most prominent motifs in his work. That vulnerability of the father and the love of a particular kind that a man feels for a daughter return again and again to redeem, haunt, shame and make feel culpable the floundering, broken men who people his fiction.

The writer Martin Amis - who had two sons by his first marriage before his first daughter was born of his second marriage - once said that he wanted to have girls to find out how the other half lived and thought.

But it doesn't work out like that, does it? One never finds out. One grows old. The other grows up. And what happens, more often and not, is this. Here is Yates again, in the story A Natural Girl, articulating the feeling of a bewildered father who discovers that he is no longer central to his most favourite daughter's devastated life. "Girls. Would they always drive you crazy? Would their smiles of rejection always drop you into despair and their smiles of welcome lead you into new, worse, more terrible ways of breaking your heart? How in the whole of a lifetime can anybody understand girls?"