Dear Dad, It’s Over. is exactly what its title suggests: a long letter from a daughter to her father detailing why she is through with their relationship. M. Dickson builds the case against her father with a litany of slights, some of them seemingly minor, some of them scornful and neglectful. Dickson was 6 when her parents divorced, and she paints a picture of her father as disinterested in her at best, resentful at worst. She emphasizes several times throughout the book that she is not angry or vengeful. It’s hard to understand the purpose, then, of composing 129 pages about your father consistently disappointing you for years and releasing that book to the public.
Dear Dad feels like an assignment from a therapist, as if Dickson were asked to write down every instance she felt aggrieved and bring it back to the next session as a sort of roadmap to recovery. She recalls how, after revealing to her father how much she loved Bruce Springsteen—partly thanks to his playing it in the car when she was a kid—her father instead took her stepsister and her stepsister’s friend to a Springsteen show. Later on he made a dumb, insensitive joke on his Facebook status about Dickson’s maternal grandmother, to whom she felt very close, after that grandmother’s funeral.
Those are the seemingly little things that add up after a while, especially when two people are estranged and don’t see each other often enough to work things out in person. They are the types of things people like to think they’re above, that they wouldn’t let such trifles bother them, but they do. Each new example, no matter how small, seems escalated by Dickson’s sense of isolation and unjust treatment.
Dickson also details some larger issues, such as her father’s refusal to help with her college fund, and how he treated her dream of acting as childish but later became very supportive of one of his younger daughter’s ambitions in the same field. Particularly compelling is a revelation late in the book that Dickson’s father has neglected one of his kids before. In those moments, it is easier to feel that Dickson’s pain, and the resulting rants, are justified. Her tone better fits the moments she’s describing.
The problem is that those moments don’t add up to a story. There is no real arc or epiphany here, just short chapter after short chapter of anecdotes about disappointment and frustration. The moral of each chapter is relatively unchanged: Dickson’s dad has done something uncaring and un-fatherly, and Dickson is heartbroken again. She writes a letter addressed to her father at the beginning:
It’s over. This tangled, tortuous thing that we have shared between us for all these twenty some odd years is done now. I am putting my foot down and walking away.
Once Dickson has done that, the rest of the book is merely exposition. There are few real setting in which to root any action, which would give readers a clear picture of what the average day at home was like. Likewise there is very little dialogue from any of the principals to make the conversations more vivid or get to the meat of each story. That tact might actually be more honest than a lot of memoirs; it can be suspicious when so many decades-old conversations are presented word for word. Whose memory is that good? But the result here is a kind of detachment in the narrative, events merely floating with no anchor. It reads like a long phone conversation with an emotionally devastated friend.
Dickson does say she still loves her dad, and lists a handful of positive things he has done, but almost all of those eventually wind up being missteps as well. His attempts to instill a love of music earlier in Dickson’s life leads to the Springsteen concert debacle. The fact that he is a good father to Dickson’s stepsisters is painful in contrast to his neglect of Dickson. There is no reasoning or motive to his actions. Readers only see Dickson’s father in relation to her hurt, and he winds up a stereotype rather than a full-fledged person readers can envision. That may very well be the space he occupies in Dickson’s psyche, but it’s less compelling on the page than a real human being.
Dickson is a comedian, but the humor in the book is limited to a few scattered lines of sarcasm. It doesn’t feel as if Dickson is in a place yet where she can really dissect her relationship with her father in a humorous way. The pain seems too fresh, and Dear Dad may have been written prematurely. Dickson’s next attempt, whether that’s on stage or in print, may have more to offer.