I was only 70-plus pages into Signe Hammer's study of father-daughter relationships, "Passionate Attachments," when I turned to my own daughter for counsel. Memories of early attachments to my own father being lost in the mists of time, I needed contemporary comment. Did she, I inquired, experience sexual arousal while flirting with her father at an early age? Ever wish she could have his baby?
The short monosyllable with which she replied convinced me she felt I was off the track. Freud, she said crisply, was out of style. It was then I decided not to tell her about Blaise, featured in Hammer's chapter titled, "Vice Is Nice But Incest Is Best," who became rather skilled in sexual play with her father at the age of 8.
Of course, Hammer didn't make it up out of whole cheesecloth. It's well known that little boys want to grow up to marry their mothers, though I had always assumed this was more of a sociological ambition than sexual desire. And nobody who has ever watched a father sweep his just-married daughter onto the dance floor for that symbolic last waltz before yielding her to another man can doubt that there is something special between father and daughter. It's undoubtedly true that Daddy is the first man with whom we fall in love, but in this book the promise is so stretched that the focus is out of kilter. Unless I miss my guess, young daughters also sometimes long to pop Dad into the trash can and put the lid on tight, but where is the book in that?
Hammer spent two years doing research for this book, and it's peppered with documentation from psychiatrists, psychologists and authors of sociological volumes. This tends to ward off charges of sensationalism and pop psychology, but the experts do bring with them a whiff of textbook. No matter how frankly they speak, it simply doesn't make for a page turner.
Much of Hammer's material is really more about feminism than about fathers and daughters, a loose peg on which to hang the difficulties of emerging from a stereotypical sex role in the world. But we do meet plenty of fathers and daughters, the latter mostly staggering under a plethora of problems not always easy to believe are Daddy-induced. Maybe turning yourself into Little Me to please your father's instinct for dominance can hobble you in later relationships with men, but how about feeling that earning good money symbolically castrates Daddy the giver? Or blaming the early loss of a father for subsequent problems with orgasm?
The truth is you don't care about the people interviewed for this book. They're like the characters in a play synopsis, cardboard people who seem to exist to make a point but never engage your interest. Put the book down and pick it up later and you won't remember Calvin Bartlett is the sophisticated father who does everything right and Judy Stampler is the daughter who used to cry because she wasn't pretty enough to please Daddy. You're not, of course, likely to forget Blaise and her incestuous bedtime rituals with Daddy, but you might like to.
When Hammer talks about her own father, the book comes alive. She makes you feel her pride when her father calls her his dizzy blond and you warm to her when she tells you that when he noticed her she was paralyzed with happiness. It would have been nice to hear more of her father's father, a gentle retiring man who loved Chinese checkers and hid an extensive collection of erotica, some in Sanskrit, behind his other books in the library to be discovered after his death. The cardboard characters interviewed have no qualities to which you can relate, but the idiosyncrasies of the Hammer family pull you into their world.
But instead we are offered the Identity Triangle, Good Girls Smiling for Daddy, Bad Girls like Blaise and Daddy on the Outside or business world. Nearly everything good or bad is laid at Daddy's door--warped images of our sexual attraction, narrowed views of our potential, Little Princess complexes, gold digger precepts and mixed messages that signal Go Ahead But Not Too Far. (Capital letters are big in this book.) The father who lingers in my mind is the WASP Dr. Archway, who remarked morosely when his daughter Sally called him to say she had an interview for a position in the ministry, "Children are like weeds. You let 'em grow and you take what you get."
The book clearly was a journey of catharsis for Hammer, whose love for her curiously flawed father is touching. The book is vibrant with drama when she speaks of him, the man who kept her striving to earn his approval, who did not hesitate to undermine her in public, who viewed her carsickness as willful and who, when she had her first menstrual period, announced at dinner that night that her brothers must treat her differently from now on. "Signe is a young lady now," he boomed.
Her clear love, long after, for this imperfect father is her book's most appealing charm. It's probably true, as Hammer says, that the love affair between father and daughter is never quite in sync.