reviewed by J. Steven Svoboda
Serge Prengel, Still A Dad: The Divorced Father’s Journey. New York: Mission Creative Energy, 1999. 215 pages. ISBN: 1892482002
In this world of both increasingly dire straits for fathers and rapidly burgeoning numbers of promale and profather books, Serge Prengel has done what might have seemed impossible: written a truly indispensable and utterly unique book on the subject of fatherhood and the divorce process. He has masterfully bridged the political and personal, even spiritual sides of the thorn-laden and mine-strewn trails of tears which he and countless other divorced men have been forced to tread.
Prengel has a talent which regrettably is vanishingly rare these days, of being able to empathize with multiple points of view, despite their sometimes being in direct conflict. His own path as a divorced dad led him to open his heart and his brain wide enough in both compassion and spiritual understanding to enable him to pass by the elephant-sized troubles he confronted without their crushing him. And he has generously chosen to share the bounty of his learning with us so that we may benefit from his learning.
The author enjoys an almost breathtaking facility at deftly sketching the key points of a player’s psyche in just a few words. “Even many, many months into the divorce proceedings, John has kept hoping: It won’t happen to me.” “A child needs certainties, simple answers, a sense that there is fairness and logic in the world, in order to feel reasonably safe.” “Just imagine for a moment you’re the judge. You have in front of you two bickering people… You have to make a decision, choose one or the other.”
The drama which the author lays out for us and plays out for us is one which each month is repeated countless thousands of times around the country and around the world. Prengel ices the problem in a few simple, deadly words, asking, “how can [his alter ego John] find a way to be an equal parent within a system that only allows a one-up/one-down outcome to a custody dispute?” A few sentences later, the author chillingly concludes, “The system has no room for what he wants.”
Why, Prengel asks, is a married man presumed an equal partner in budgeting child-raising expenses, but a divorced man has to make substantial pre-set payments to his ex-wife without any say in how the money is used? Why is it, as the author aptly summarizes the divorced father’s predicament, that you are a troublemaker and controlling if you try to retain some influence over your child’s day-to-day life, and you’re a deadbeat if you want to find a way to equitably share responsibilities and expenses with your ex-wife? How can divorce law be geared to fairness when winner takes all, humiliates the loser, and does it all in the name of the child’s best interests? Prengel makes pithy suggestions about the change that needs to happen–a presumption of shared parenting, not just shared custody.
With the typical visitation schedule, Prengel wryly notes in another brilliant crystallization, a man becomes (if he is lucky) a sort of uncle to his son. Later, he aptly compares modern divorce with the medieval trial by ordeal, in which only a miracle could save the accused’s life and prove him innocent.
But the story does not end here. Prengel continues to trace the all-too-frequent descent into misery that follows divorce for men with children. And then, he offers the conclusions to which he eventually came after years of torture and misery. No completely satisfactory resolution is possible, of course, but acceptance is necessary, and it is very helpful to cultivate a Zen-like ability to continue on and retain hope after all hope seems lost.
Not that this is easy. Or fair. Prengel is no New Age polyanna, telling divorced fathers that if they go to enough workshops or retrain their thinking adequately, all will be well. He is simply offering prescriptions for survival and for salvaging shreds of happiness from a dire situation.
Many of his statements have an ability to resonate on multiple levels, on the individual level in response to the specific post-divorce situation, politically as directions for change, and as general prescriptions as to how we all may improve our lives whatever our marital state may be. “There is a lot to be gained for men in leaving the adversarial game.” Constantly thinking of all the players at once, Prengel astutely explains in separate sections why this change would be good for men, for children, and for women. (He does miss several other ways it would help women–by changing perceptions of women, by encouraging women to marry, and because long-term, men’s welfare and women’s welfare are inextricably interconnected.)
Prengel’s writing and thinking is wonderful to behold. He makes numerous deft points that seem obvious and yet integrate different disciplines, connecting the large scale and the small scale in a way that is all too rare: Even in war, there are limits that cannot be crossed known as “war crimes,” so why do we instead rely on the law of the jungle for conflict resolution in divorce? Two pages later, he brilliantly shows the perfect applicability to adversarial divorce of a chart developed to describe the differences between a healthy relationship (the column entitled “equality”) and “one in which the woman is abused” (the column entitled “power and control”).
Despite his own story and obvious personal pain, Prengel’s tone throughout this book is admirably judicious and balanced. The second half focuses on the transformations men must undergo if they are to survive what often becomes the hellish loss of their partner, children, finances, house, and self-respect–often all in close succession. Prengel succinctly lays out the conflicting emotions, and reminds us that “in addition to fighting with your ex and with the legal system, you’re also fighting a battle within yourself.” Ultimately, the author helps us realize, this is the most important fight of all. And it’s the only one we can count on winning, but only if we are open to giving up everything we thought we would have forever. A key moment in John’s path comes when he lets it all go. “John’s heart opens up when he sees how much he’s willing to give his child, without anything in return.”
Prengel also addresses shame and the shadow, issues not usually considered in books also bearing significant political content. He deftly finds a way around a central paradox: he is giving advice in this book, from the outside, suggesting that men can only find the inner truth they need to fight these battles by going inside. “I don’t really know what YOU should be doing.” And we get practical suggestions: Relax the pressure you put on yourself to do the right thing. When you are with your child, ask open-ended questions and reveal your thought process to the child. Don’t project your anger onto your child, and always speak positively of your ex. Let go of what is holding you back from a fulfilling life by acknowledging the hurt this process has caused your child. Unusually for a men’s movement book, Prengel sagely guides us away from a focus on our own pain.
Anyone who can take this book for what it offers, even if aspects of it don’t fully speak to them, is bound to reap a rich harvest. While it may occasionally veer toward sound-bite and appear to lack deep analysis, this is actually probably one of the most deceptively complex and valuable books ever written for men. Even the book’s physical characteristics are lovely, down to the intimate yet universal cover picture of father and son holding hands. “The journey starts when we begin to notice the sacred where it is.”
J. Steven Svoboda is a performance artist, poet, and a human rights lawyer who is Executive Director of Attorneys for the Rights of the Child, which he founded in 1997.