The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Daddy Issues


When I moved to Minneapolis for a short three months, I got a tattoo on a deck by a guy who wasn’t a tattoo artist—just some guy who owned a tattoo machine. The babies crawling around us made it look like a regular block party. The powdered drugs did not. I drank whiskey out of a backpack by myself until someone said, “Want to get a tattoo?”

Right before he tattooed three little Ms on my hip (“GULLS!” I drunkenly demanded) he leaned in, said, “Can I pull your jeans down a little bit? My wife just had a baby and this is the most action I’ll get all year.”

Before that, a man named Booger pierced my eyebrow. I’m fairly certain that wasn’t his Christian name. I’d wanted a tattoo of a phoenix for no real reason, but that idea got whittled down from an entire back piece to an eyebrow piercing in a ten-minute conversation.

Before that, my friend Sarah and I drove her mom’s Subaru fifty-five miles per hour on a donut most of the way to Texas to buy a pound of weed, but we were so sick of getting passed we bumped it up to eighty, crossed our hearts, and hoped to die.

I’m not glorifying reckless behavior here, I’m just explaining. I didn’t get hepatitis: All I got was a really garbage first tattoo, an eyebrow piercing that made me look like a juggalette, a shitload of weed from Texas, and some shame to carry around. And I did it because I had undiagnosed mental illness, a predisposition to substance abuse, and trauma.

What I’m saying is I was a fucking wreck and it’s not my dad’s fault.

An ex-boyfriend of mine blamed my bad behavior on “daddy issues.” That guy has never met my daddy: tall and thin and handsome like a green-eyed Atticus Finch, like a soft spoken and smart Herman Munster. When I was a baby, he didn’t know any lullabies so he sang me the theme songs from the Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan’s Island.

I inherited a lot from my dad: Celiac’s disease, high cholesterol, anxiety, work ethic, love and confusion regarding small children, a heart big enough to do anything for anyone who asks.

At my college graduation, eyes full of pride, he pulled me aside to say, “I didn’t know if this was going to happen, but I’m so pleased.” My dad never tells me he loves me, but even if he did this was still the sweetest goddamn thing I’d ever heard.

My dad retired this year and when I asked him what he planned to do in retirement, he nearly interrupted the question to say, “Puzzles.” He has a puzzle station set up in the basement. He put his engineering degree to good use by setting up a handful of lights so as to never have a shadow on his puzzle pieces. He watches old and new one-star monster movies on Netflix and does puzzles.

He gets up during dinner at the restaurant to make sure the car doors are locked. He checks all the doors and windows before bed. Did he close the garage door after we left on vacation? Are the stove burners on? After my dog died when I was in eighth grade, he said we could never get another dog. A few months later we had one, Ophelia, and my dad acted like he hated her, but snuck her so many treats that now she gets three treats a night.

Dad’s nervous neutrality is a joyful constant, even if it’s not a rock.


I had to quit drinking ten months ago because I kept snorting cocaine, coming home to my husband and shouting things like, “Impregnate me!” Being sober in your early twenties looks like buying trendy hooks for hanging up your jammies and nailing them up unevenly as best you can, hating lifestyle photographers but following their blogs anyway, and writing emails to people on podcasts as though they’re your friends.

I had a new friend over to do sober crafts two days ago. We watched a baking show and talked about fat knitting needles. After an hour, she left abruptly. I wondered in the hours to come if she thought the squeaky noise of my embroidery needle was actually the sound of me farting for an hour. I’m still wondering that. I have no idea how to have friends who don’t want to do shots, so I maybe freaked her out by making popcorn and wearing pajamas and slippers, like we were at a junior high slumber party.

I don’t know. I was trying. I am trying. I’m fixing myself one good choice at a time, and that’s not because of my daddy either. It’s because of me.

I realize the comparison to Atticus Finch is a stretch. I’m idolizing him because he’s my dad and I think he’s handsome and fair like a made up character—too handsome and fair to be human.

The Herman Munster thing probably isn’t true either: He just really likes The Munsters. He likes The Munsters so much that I tattooed Herman Munster on my leg for him, with “Pops” in big all-caps underneath.


Maybe the district manager who raped me saw a girl with daddy issues. When he raped me to the tune of my favorite record, maybe he thought I walked a little bit too much like I was sorry.


In my parents’ church, elders are the decision-makers, the preachers. The biblical qualifications for being an elder are laid out clearly in 1 Timothy: “Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?).”

Are we following along? My daddy is all checks except me: “that his children obey him.” I don’t know if he ever wanted to be an elder, but with my bad behavior, he sure as hell didn’t get the chance. Between getting kicked out of bible college for giving a blowjob, my OWI, my tattoos, my general and fairly public life of brashness and sin and premarital sex, I know I’ve made him look bad in his community.

But with all that post-religious girl wildness came men who manipulated me, an easy target. And I have a hard time reckoning my guilt with my anger. I’m angry at my bad genes and mental illness. I’m angry at the woman I asked to help me escape my drug use who told me, “Take it up with God.” I’m angry at men who looked at me and thought, “Daddy issues.”

I’ve never been angry with my dad, who once, after a particularly bad breakup of mine, took me out to ice cream for dinner and told me, “You know, boys are not smart. They’re not as smart as you and they don’t know what they’re doing.”

I ate my ice cream and knew what he meant.


Photos provided courtesy of the author.

Gwen Werner is a sorority dropout from Iowa. You can find her here: More from this author →