Sunday, February 25, 2024

Column: For years, the Reagans’ daughter regretted some things she wrote. Now she’s at peace

On the bookshelf

Dear Mom and Dad

By Patti Davis
Liveright: 192 pages, $22

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Being the child of our parents is, on an existential level, each person’s life’s work. We are all shaped by the people who gave us life, their presence or absence, their loving support or pathological abuse, and all the myriad influences in between.

For Patti Davis, however, her life’s work has been quite literal.

She began chronicling her unique life as the only and eldest daughter of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1986 with the novel “Home Front.” She followed it in 1992 with the eye-opening “The Way I See It: An Autobiography,” a book that was, depending on the reader’s political views, both savagely praised and viciously criticized and for which she spent both recent decades express their regrets.

His later books were kinder: “Angels Don’t Die: My Father’s Gift of Faith” (1995) offer some of the life lessons the former president taught his daughter. “The Long Goodbye: Memories of My Father” (2005) deals with his long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It also began Davis’ work as an Alzheimer’s educator and advocate, which she continued in “Floating in the Deep End: How Caregivers Can See Beyond Alzheimer’s” (2021). “The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us: Prominent women discuss the complex, humorous, and ultimately loving relationships they have with their mothers” (2009) is rooted in Davis’s complicated feelings about her own mother.

Along the way, she condemned contemporary Republicans’ persistent use of Reagan as a party touchstone. Davis believes he wouldn’t recognize him and expressed bewilderment at discovered recordings in which the then-president used racist terms to describe black African delegates to the United Nations. .

Certainly, Davis also wrote on many other subjects, including several novels and numerous non-Reagan-related columns for various publications; his recent essay on the death of Matthew Perry for the New York Times was poignant and insightful. But like many writers, she frankly mines her own experience, as she did earlier this year when she suggested that Prince Harry might come to regret some of the revelations in “Spare.” She even occasionally served as a stand-in for her father, such as when she and her brother Ron insisted that Reagan would have approved the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Davis’ new book, “Dear Mom and Dad: A Letter About Family, Memory, and the America We Once Knew,” appears to provide a final note to this lifelong exploration of his often distant, cold, and turbulent with her parents. Although she remains baffled and hurt by many of their choices – from the former president’s refusal to address the AIDS crisis for so long to her mother’s cold treatment of her children – the book provides precisely what the title promises, a reflection on the future of life. , and a reconsideration of his parents’ lives as people shaped by their own early lives, and a recontextualization of Davis’s own memories, including a childhood that was not without joy.

It is also a strongly Californian book; Many of Davis’ memories are refreshed by the various houses his family lived in (most of which are now gone) and the landscapes they shared.

“I’ve been trying for years, since my mother was still alive,” she said in a recent interview, “to make this documentary film called ‘The Reagans Before the World Settled.’ based on my personal films and in a way. the same themes as this book: looking at your family with different eyes, with a broader lens. Watching stuff from childhood, where it was loving and tender.

But, she said, whenever she met with producers who assured her she would have control of the project, “a mile away they would take it away from me and do their version of what they think the project would be.” Reagan family is. . And I had given up.

So when her editor suggested she speak directly to her parents, Davis decided she could tell the same story in book form.

“Taking your own experience from it and looking at who our parents are, the same way you step back from a painting to see the whole picture,” she said. “You move away from your family to get out of your own way. It’s not just your story, it’s their story too.

Sometimes interrupted by the very affectionate Lily, a 2-year-old pug adopted by Davis in August, and Minnie, his 7-year-old calico cat, Davis sat for an hour in the shade of her garden and described a process that she describes as very “organic.”

Imagining his mother, for example, as a 3-year-old “abandoned with relatives” or his father having to help his own drunken father off the lawn and into the house, allowed him to see his parents more clearly and provided him with insight. a broader context for their own actions as parents.

And, in a few cases, as president and first lady.

“I didn’t want to get into politics, but I wanted to be interested in the AIDS problem,” she said, “that the [Reagan] the library doesn’t even want to deal with it. I had to be honest in this book, and a lot of things went wrong. As I say here, for someone with really good timing, his timing was so bad every step of the way.

Her father, she insists, was not homophobic. “There were homophobic people in his administration who thought AIDS was a punishment from God. He wasn’t one of them, but one of his character flaws was that he delegated things and thought something was being done, and he didn’t really follow up and ask. And most of them are the children of an alcoholic. If you want to understand my father, you have to understand that almost everything goes back to being the child of an alcoholic.

Many would disagree with such a sympathetic view of what is now widely seen as a profound failure of leadership, just as many people, including my own father, believed that the policies adopted during Reagan’s presidency made it impossible to view him as a nice man “. .

But “Dear Mom and Dad” is not an analysis of the Reagan era or even its impact on the political landscape, although Davis makes it clear that he would have deplored Donald Trump’s incitement of the January 6 attack against the U.S. Capitol and, as a shooting victim, this country’s failure to pass meaningful gun legislation.

Rather, it is a girl’s attempt to reconcile her own conflicting emotions towards the people who were her parents, to be at peace with her own past.

Predictably, early reporting on “Dear Mom and Dad” focused almost exclusively on the “revelation” that the Reagans’ marriage was sparked by Nancy’s discovery that she was pregnant with Davis, an “unforeseen” event that Davis finds difficult to reconcile with that of his mother. level of self-control and attention to detail.

But the epistolary style of the book is not used to spread dirt or list grievances. It’s about recognizing that Davis’ personal pain and joy were part of a larger narrative that includes many things she can never truly know. And in this, “Dear Mom and Dad” offers a more universal experience – even through the more mature prism of experience (Davis is 71), many aspects of our parents remain unknowable.

“Obviously my mother has been the most difficult relationship of my life,” she said, “and I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I feel closer to her , where I come to more forgiveness and greater acceptance that it will always be a difficult relationship. I think you have to accept the fact that there are things you will never have answers for .

She and her mother went through so many phases without speaking to each other, she said, that “you should keep a journal with the reasons why.”

In “Dear Mom and Dad,” she remembers fractures as well as rapprochements, notably the years when her father was ill. In the book, she describes moments of complicity between her and her mother, but says that “the navigation was not always smooth, it was not always sure that it was open when I arrived there. I didn’t always know who she would be when I visited. If you have a parent who bullies you, it never goes away.

When she wrote “As I See It,” a book that Davis, during this interview, literally will not name, she was at the beginning of a long journey toward reconciliation that began, she now says, with “Let me tell you everything.” I forgive them, in detail. That’s what I said in the article about Prince Harry: you don’t have to say everything, you don’t have to open the floodgates.

“I spent years regretting many things I wrote, particularly my autobiography, but as I wrote [ ‘Dear Mom and Dad’]I thought, “It’s probably good that this whole mess has been made public because people can see the journey.” »

This trip, she says, is why she wrote this book.

“I really wrote this for other people who are going through what they are going through with their families. Because I worked hard on this stuff. And if you’ve worked hard on things that other people are going through as well, you almost have an obligation to say, “Hey, this is what I learned.” And it was hard, and I stumbled, but here’s what I learned.’

Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from



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