You bet. Natasha Sayle’s story of her three dads is a rich and rewarding narrative about the complexities of fatherhood. More importantly, it’s the story of a young woman’s resilience to succeed when she faces the challenges of a cerebral palsy diagnosis and is raised in a household where domestic violence and child abuse is a problem. In Father, Daddy, Dad, Natasha Sayles has crafted a memoir that honors what sometimes seems like one brutal obstacle and developmental ordeal after another, while also writing about the three men who served as father figures in her life: her biological father and her two step-fathers.
Her writing style is straightforward and direct, but this doesn’t mean that her unadorned prose isn’t compelling. Sayles has an uncanny way of exposing the weaknesses and inconsistencies of the father figures in her life (and her mother) in a manner that makes them accountable for their shortcomings but also captures the real love they have for their daughter.
When Sayles was only one year old, her biological father walked out on her and her family. She writes: “I was born in 1983, weighing 3 lbs. to an 18-year-old mother and a 30-year-old father.” And to give you an idea of her writing style, this is what she inserts shortly after revealing these facts:
Now I know what you’re thinking, what was a thirty-year-old man doing with an eighteen-year-old?…Well, I don’t have the answers, but as I continue with my story, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.
And she does. In her writing, there is no maudlin sentimentality; the plot of this patremoir is simple, yet highly complex and nuanced. The memoir is at once frank and confessional but also reads like the work of a journalist reporting facts, crisply and succinctly. The portraits that Sayles sketches of her fathers are of deeply damaged men, but men that loved her in the best ways that they could. Sayles descriptions of her childhood are searingly perceptive stories about father-daughter interactions.
When she was two years old, she was not walking and was officially diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a disorder caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain during birth and a common condition in preemies. Mitchell, the second father figure whom she addresses as Daddy was right there by her mother’s side when she was diagnosed. Together with her mother, Mitchell was dedicated to making sure that his baby girl’s life was a normal as possible. At the age of three, she started preschool and attended a special school for children with disabilities. Sayle’s memories of Mitchell are laced with love and nurturing:
I can remember Mitchell picking me up from the bus stop, and I would be so excited to see him standing there, waiting on his chocolate bunny. He would place me on my big wheel and push me to the corner store where he worked. “Pick out something for you and your sister” he would say with a smile the size of the Nile River, I would do just that.
Maribel Garcia: Natasha, thank you so much for joining Book Club Babble today and congratulations on the release of your new memoir. Did writing the memoir change you or any of your relationships with the people in your family, your fathers especially?
Natasha Sayles: Writing my book did not change my relationship with any of the people in my book. In fact, my fathers were more than supportive when it came to me writing the book. However, I’m not sure if my fathers have had the opportunity to read it yet, but I pray when they do that they understand the story was not told to make them look like villains but to explain why I made some of the decisions I’ve made in my own life
MG: When you write about the physical and emotional abuse at the hands of the father figures in your life and what it was like to be terrorized by domestic violence, you articulate details about your suffering in a way that is both courageous, yet lovingly honest. You cannot help but feel the love that you have for your fathers and the love that they each feel for you, despite how dysfunctional the relationships can sometimes get. The men who have been there for you, for better or worse, through the good and the bad, ultimately loved you in very complicated ways. Now, tell me if I am way off on this one, but as women of color, sometimes I feel we have to be extra careful about talking about “less than perfect” fathers and mothers because too often our stories are read as the story of all Black or Brown people. In other words, given that fact that racially-motivated stereotypes are particularly hard to break out of, do you worry that any depiction of absent or physically abusive fathers will only contribute to stereotypes of black fatherhood (i.e. the Absent Father stereotype)?
NS: Honestly when writing my book, I never gave much thought to how society would perceive my fathers or my story. I told my story to bring awareness to how child abuse or domestic violence affects a child not only in their childhood but also well into their adulthood, and that has relevance no matter what the race. Domestic violence and child abuse isn’t something that happens solely in the black community, but not all have the courage to tell their story. My hope is that by telling my story, I will encourage others to say theirs no matter who they are or where they come from and that was my primary concern. The thought of the story being stereotypical never crossed my mind. Sure, I told the story of domestic violence and child abuse in an African American household, but I also told the story of strength, perseverance, courage and faith. So if someone reads my story and all that is taken from it is that I was abused and had an absent father or grew up in a home filled with domestic violence, then there’s nothing I can do about that person or their thought process.
MG: I love that response. I have to say though, you write with such care, thought and nuance for how complicated the relationships are that anyone who does walk away with that sense probably read a different book.
After your biological father walks out on the family, Mitchell walks in and by the time that you are six years old he is out of the picture. Enter Calvin. You describe Calvin as a dad that was a lot of fun, someone who got a kick out of telling people that you were his kid. He was loving and was not just funny, but a dad who genuinely liked to play with his children. You write, “He would come up with a game at the drop of the hat that would make anything fun, even cleaning up.” Are you familiar with Kenrya Rankin Naasel’s Bet on Black, a collection of essays in which African American women share their stories of being raised by great fathers? Naasel explained:
For years, we’ve all been bombarded with statistics that scream our men are not up to the important task of fathering…Ultimately, I hope that Bet On Black challenges the rhetoric about our families and changes the conversation to one that celebrates rather than denigrates.
(Kenrya Rankin Naasel, BET interview)
Your memoir, even though it does not shy away from your fathers’ parental shortcomings does show how their involvement ultimately are shaping their children’s future like any other parents. What do you hope that your memoir adds to the conversations about African American fathers in society?
NS: In my book, I show the affectionate sides of both Mitchell and Calvin, but there’s one passage in my book that stands out for me. “I wanted to know why he treated me so bad and I asked him just that. He looked at me and said he treated me like that because that’s how he was treated” for me that statement was powerful because it shows that men aren’t born knowing how to be fathers and that fatherhood is ultimately a learned behavior. If anything, I hope that my book adds to the conversation about African American fathers by showing that no one is born a bad father, but they sometimes make bad choices based on what they were shown or taught. As a community, we must teach our young boys from an early age the importance of family and unity.
MG: Like Mitchell, Calvin was also kind, but had a sinister side. In one of your descriptions you write about him going from playful and loving to downright abusive. When you declined to help him wash the car, his response was to “grab you by your ponytail, pull you up from your chair and drag you out of the house.” Still, you write, “it wasn’t all that bad. We were having some fun as a family.” In other words, when he was loving, it was good and the way that you write about these memories reflect the love and warmth. Was this because you are such an optimistic person, who just prefers to see the good in people? Or, do you attribute this to the fact that ultimately, your fathers always came around and apologized? There is research that shows that the family’s reaction following identification of abuse and the general home environment can influence the long-term impact of abuse (Futa et al., 2003). I am not saying that parents apologizing make their actions excusable, merely pointing out what you did, that your fathers seemed to be very conscious of their shortcomings as parents. Do you feel that this kind of communication and ultimately, accountability, contributed to you being a more resilient adult?
NS: In the beginning, I was young and very optimistic, and I think that had a lot to do with my resilience. However, as I got older and had a better understanding of my fathers, Calvin in particular, I think some part of me understood that they loved me and that their actions were in part because they were damaged and hurt individuals. In return, I was sympathetic to their pain so when they apologized it was easy for me to forgive. I understood their shortcomings and at one point was willing to overlook them. I think the fact that I have a better understanding of my fathers and why they acted or reacted the way they did has a lot to do with why I have become the adult I am.
MG: In many ways, your childhood was filled with both pain, hurt and wonder. One of the bigger obstacles was your disability. In the memoir, you speak about your struggle with cerebral palsy and how you hated feeling different. What do you want young people with disabilities to walk away with from the memoir, from your experiences?
NS: If anything, I want children with disabilities to realize that their disability doesn’t define who they are and that it doesn’t limit what they are capable of.
MG: Was writing this memoir therapeutic for you? If so, how?
NS: Telling my story was very therapeutic for me. It allowed me to deal with my emotions and forced me to realize that I needed to be healed from the events of my past. I was damaged, and thus I found myself in unhealthy and damaging situations. Realizing I was still hurting was difficult for me, but once I recognized it, I could turn to God for my deliverance. In return, I will be able to build and maintain healthy relationships with others.
MG: Many of our readers like to know about the author’s creative process. Do you have a writing routine you like to adhere to and are you working on something new?
NS: I don’t have a specific writing routine of any kind, but before I write I always pray that I’m telling the story God wants me to tell and the way he wants me to understand it. I have just finished writing my second book, and I’m excited to see how far my writing will go.
MG: Natasha, thank you so much for joining us today. We are looking forward to your next book.
About the Author
Natasha Sayles was born in Cleveland, Ohio. When she was a young child her family relocated to Southern California where she bounced around, year after year, until finally settling in Riverside, California. She discovered her love for writing at the age of 15 after completing a high school poetry assignment. In the beginning, she didn’t really bother with writing much. In fact, she was completely into art. She would sit and draw for hours. Eventually, it became a way for her to escape her surroundings, which became filled with domestic violence and emotional, mental, and verbal abuse. In her book Father, Daddy, Dad, Natalie writes about her struggle with cerebral palsy and how at times she hated being different or deemed disabled. She also addresses what it is like to grow up in an abusive household, which in turn left her dealing with low self-esteem and searching for love in all the wrong places.