Bad Dad by Dave Lieber
175 pages, cloth, Yankee Cowboy Publishing, 2011
What an unusual little book. Fort Worth Star-Telegram metro columnist Dave Lieber includes newspaper columns here, but it’s not a collection. (Dave’s is a watchdog, or consumer activist, column emphasizing solving suburban hassles.)
By the title, it might sound like long-form journalism exploring child abuse. Sort-of, but it’s shy of universal discussions of law, social tolerances, and psychology.
Dave reveals details of his family, his own childhood and even his nascent criminal record, yet it’s not quite a memoir.
Why “Dave” and not the author, or “Lieber”? Because Dave is a friend of perhaps a dozen years. I’ve met Karen and their son Austin (the hero of the book) any number of times. The three separately and as a family (Karen has other children, as well) are remarkable.
So I was prepared to read the book and like it, as I’ve read about all of Dave’s other books. But Bad Dad has a surprising bite to it, like a salsa whose heat you think you taste but then it hits you later.
The book is effective for the directions the author doesn’t go. I still don’t know if it was a mistake for Dave not to summarize the law and the current state of psychological and sociological research. Actually, he does hit this cultural background but very brief. Summarizing for a book project gives a journalist license to bleed words into page after page.
This book asks, when does modern American middle-class child-rearing turn into abuse?
Here’s Dave and Austin’s base story: A few years ago, when Austin was 11, he grew stubborn while the two were at a McDonald’s just a few blocks from their home. Dave managed his temper, then managed it a bit more by telling the preteen to walk home. He drove off. So both could cool down.
Some police officers
in the next booth (and later the parking lot), witnessed this. When Dave a few minutes later returned to McDonald’s and fetch Austin (having a change of heart), he was arrested.
But there are some wrinkles.
Wrinkle One: Dave covers this little town occasionally in his column. It’s the kind of suburb with an administration and police force used to doing things the way it always has. Ripe copy for an investigative columnist, year after year.
And also ripe for payback, should Dave let his guard down. He did.
Wrinkle Two: Dave is eventually cleared, he’s innocent. Though it took a top lawyer guiding the process. Almost as important, he had the support of his editors during this months-long process.
What we all have to accept is that while he is fully innocent in the eyes of the Texas court system and adequately proven innocent by his book (it’s not quite an apologia, either), Dave in our Internet age is smeared for life.
Google my friend’s name, and you’ll likely see at the top this brush with the law and only after that his columns and books, as well as speaking engagements and the like. That’s not fair, but it’s our life these days.
Wrinkle Three: What makes this review just a bit harder to write, is my recollections of listening to certain dads and moms over the years, talking most persuasively about how things are different now, how the occasional spanking did a world of good. And how the modern critique of children in this generation are over-supervised.
Nearly every parent who has whined like this in my presence seemed to have been protesting too much. They could be seen as borderline abusive or just had temper issues. Dave doesn’t seem to be in this number. Unlike them he’s not defending what he did, order an 11-year-old to walk home in a good neighborhood. My conflict here is the fact Dave doesn’t forthrightly say he did nothing wrong, in this or any generation. Instead, he says he made a bad judgment call. I don’t think he did that afternoon.
Wrinkle Four: I walked to school, second through sixth grade. It was about three-fourths of a mile. Half was narrow, rarely traveled residential lanes and the other half was South S Street, heavily traveled in the three blocks I footed (between Greenwood Avenue and Old Greenwood Road in Fort Smith, for those keeping score). It was steep and two lanes on that stretch. Taught to face traffic, stay on the left, heading to Ballman Elementary, the south side had a steep drainage ditch with no shoulder at all. (The north side had houses and I could walk in their yards on my return home.)
I obviously survived. First grade? I was deemed too young. After sixth grade, I was in the more distant junior high and in band assigned to baritone, a small tuba. So I carpooled, pretty much through 12th grade. When I didn’t have the horn I bicycled all over Fort Smith (I mean everywhere), from seventh grade on. Unsupervised.
Austin’s journey, if the cops had not been there, would have been a little shorter than my ages 7-12 daily walk.
Bad Dad is the kind of book that forces the reader to examine how he interacts with his family and recall his childhood.
I don’t think Dave is a “bad dad,” yet the book gives few other instances of Austin trying Dave’s patience. The boy now is a teen, so those surely have increased.
What I do know, and it’s from observation yet also fully described in the book. Dave may be a little bad now and then, but he’s always a Great Dad.
Dave and Karen are crazy about Austin, rarely overindulge him, treat him like a child when that’s called for and a young adult when he deserves it. Dave is preening proud of each of Austin’s accomplishments.
Bad Dad the book raises issues parents and America as a whole face daily. It doesn’t pretend to have even most of the answers, because raising kids is a moment-to-moment endeavor.
Dave got caught being normal. The cops? If this was a parable and not a true story, law enforcement would represent American society of the last 30 years. Society, as reflected in its children, works terribly hard to make its children perfect, studies a lot to be able to cite proof of its right actions, while all the same smirking. That’s what these cops and ranking officers did, follow procedure but with cynical glee.
If Dave Lieber wasn’t truly a Good Dad, this family would be messed up from the experience. Instead they seem just fine.