It's a familiar story. A girl reaches for her elusive father again and again, coming up empty each time. She grows into a woman still longing for the father who remained hidden. She punishes him with angry words, wanting all the while to understand his distance and to forgive him.
It's no secret that I am one of those women, as my own writing makes clear. Yet what makes my situation so unusual is that a biographer has spent 14 years researching my father, Ronald Reagan, unearthing things I never knew, giving me clues to his mysterious nature.
When I was first getting to know Edmund Morris--who has since become a friend--I sensed that I was looking to him as a miracle worker. I hoped he would peel away some of the shadows, give me a glimpse of the boy who grew into such a remote man and show me the father I never knew. With his book, "Dutch," Edmund has done all of this, helping me to understand my father and to fill a hollow place inside me, the place carved out by missing him.
It's a search I've been making all my life. I was about 14 when I read my father's autobiography, "Where's the Rest of Me?" The title was taken from the film "Kings Row," in which he awakes from ether-sleep to discover that a malevolent doctor has amputated his legs. As an actor, it was one of his best moments--screaming out in horror, "Where's the rest of me?!" But when I read his autobiography, I remember thinking, the rest of him? Where's the beginning of him?
There was so much I couldn't understand. I can remember, when I was a child, my father caught in a shaft of sunlight that fell across his desk in the late afternoons. I would run in from school and find him there, writing out speeches on small white note cards, binding them with rubber bands. He'd look up at me and blink his eyes as if he wasn't sure who this small, eager child was. He listened patiently, kindly to my important child-business, but I knew he wasn't really listening. He was far away, always far away. When I was a bit older, when no one was around I would sit at his desk and look at his note cards, trying to find him in the tight, cramped penmanship. All I found were his ideas about communism and big government. I wish now I had found what Edmund unearthed--a handful of short stories that my father wrote in college.
Edmund writes that what made the stories revelatory was my father's "willingness to give us the inner perception too: to confess to his ache for--what, exactly? In time he will talk with magnificent vagueness of shining cities, of stardom, of songs that fill the unknowing air . . . ."
I was no stranger to that magnificent vagueness but I always wanted more. It's not that he was never there; I cherished the moments he was--held tight to them, embellished them. But each moment of connection was like a thread about to unravel, and in the next moment we would go off in different directions. Still, I kept looking for him, in what Edmund called "the blueness and blindness" of his eyes.
On the long horseback rides we took together in the hay-scented, wide-earth days of my childhood, I rode a horse my father had given me. He rode ahead, his back wide and muscular. I waited for him to turn, for his arm to swing around, for his hand to rest on the back of the saddle or his horse's rump as his eyes met mine. Then I would search for topics of conversation I hoped would engage him, bring him closer to me. There were only three: spiritual matters, usually in the form of questions about God or heaven or Jesus; nature; and anything outside the confines of reality--dreams, colorful imaginings, stories. That's why it makes perfect sense to me that Edmund chose to insert himself fictionally in this biography. In order to reach for Ronald Reagan, one had to stretch beyond dry facts, ordinary reality. One had to imagine. Even then there was no guarantee that he would be less mystifying.
"He sees the world as a swimmer sees it," Edmund writes. When I was a child, I rode on my father's back in the swimming pool, pretending we were in a remote river. I used to call the deep end the Amazon; my father would point to imaginary reptiles and other dangers, carefully steering us around them. As a teenager, I followed him into the ocean and bodysurfed waves so big they terrified me. But I pretended to have no fear, just so I could be with him. I see now, from reading "Dutch," that I was closer to my father at these times because I had slipped into his solitary world. For a brief time, we were side by side in an isolated, watery escape.
"The swimmer enjoys a loneliness greater, yet oddly more comforting, than that of the long-distance runner," Edmund writes. "Others may swim alongside for a while, but their individuality tends to refract away, through the bubbles and the blur." Reading all these years later that my father didn't need anyone, I felt relief. I had always thought it was me he didn't need.
I now understand more clearly some of my father's early experiences. I had heard the story of my father pulling his father into the house after finding him drunk and passed out in the snow. But in his autobiography and in our family the story was always sketchy, devoid of feeling, color. Now, more than 30 years later, because of "Dutch," I can see him: the slender, myopic, 11-year-old boy who resented his father--for his binge drinking, his endless sequence of jobs, his failures, his infidelities, the way he favored his older son, Neil. The boy gritted his teeth, summoned his strength and dragged his father, Jack, inside. In a revealing conversation with Edmund, my father recalled another incident. Once, his father returned home and tried to kiss his young son--who "recoiled from the hot, prickly breath of affection," Edmund writes. "In one way or another, Jack's young-er son has been rejecting intimacy ever since. I wish I had a dollar for each of the friends and family members who complained to me that Dutch never let them 'get anywhere near.' "
I had always wanted to know more about my father's childhood, knowing intuitively that there would be clues there to the man he would become with his own children. As I read this passage of the book, I thought sadly of the time I turned away from my father during one of our estrangements, when he wrote letters to me, phoned me, asked to see me. I said no, punishing him for his genial remove, his aloofness, for all my years of searching for him and not finding him. Now I regret this.
"Dutch" is dedicated to Christine Reagan, a half-sister I never knew I had. Long before I was born, she lived only nine hours--long enough to have a name and an effect on her parents' lives. Christine was folded into history and hidden away. Until now. It says so much about my father. He lost a child, and I think that loss was more than his heart could bear and so it did what hearts often do--shut down. Somewhere in the ache and the silence and the ashes of a cremated child, he made sure he would never hurt like that again. No wonder he retreated from his children. No wonder he offered bewilderment instead of the demonstrative love my brothers and sister and I wished for.
I still don't fully understand my father. After all those years of exhaustive research, even Edmund says the man is a mystery. But because of Edmund's book, I have more clues, more threads to tie together. More than that, I have a sense of relief, a lifting of guilt. Not understanding an elusive father is only part of the story; what has haunted me is the feeling that maybe, if I had tried harder, been better, been different, reached further, I could have known him. But there are people who can never really be known, who will always be partly in shadow, and I was born to such a man.
Accepting that makes the rare moments of closeness sweeter. I can see him now as he was, the blue curl of a wave looming behind us, and the memory is lighter; there is no longer the undertow of questions that have tugged at me for decades. While I would gladly change many things in my past, I know now there is nothing more I could have done to know my father better. Edmund has lifted some of the shadows for me. But others remain and always will. After reading "Dutch," I am content to leave them there.
Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan's younger daughter, is an author and screenwriter. Her most recent book is "Angels Don't Die" (HarperCollins).