I grew up with the worst dad on earth. He abandoned my teenage mom before I was born and once spent a week in jail for refusing to pay child support. He was a womanizer. A petty criminal. A drug-dealer. An egomaniac. And a self-proclaimed “artist” who once bet his friends on which of them could sleep with me first. (Nobody won, by the way.)
My hatred for my father was the steering wheel with which I white-knuckled through life. Ending up with the wrong men. Becoming a hard core feminist. Getting a doctorate. Trying to be perfect. Both to impress him and to spite him. I did everything I could to fill the void of “my dad doesn’t love me.” But I ended up doing all the wrong things.
On election night 2008, after learning Obama won, my father committed suicide. In an act of performance art that had started 10 days prior.
He wrote out for me a 38 page, single-spaced “suicide note” in which he chronicles his physical condition as he experiments with how much morphine he can take and still wake up. He also reports on his hopes, fears, pains, regrets, crimes and fantasies. And he had other messages for me there too. Like instructions on what to do with his truck and where I would find his collection of S & M bondage toys. And a bunch of lectures on how I had always been way too hard on him.
Finding that note was the beginning of an odyssey that would lead me all the way to a small town in Montana where I had to deal with the aftermath of his estate—he owned ramshackle houses, a condo he planned to share with a Colombian woman who instead broke his heart, and a collection of detritus—the physical and psychic aftermath of a life.
After he died, I was struck with a boundless, unexpected grief. And in the messy aftershock, I got to know the man I had barely known. I came to understand him, love him and most of all, forgive him. Mad River is a book for anyone who has ever lived their life in response to a parent. Basically, everyone.