Jonetta Rose Barras is the author of the bestseller Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women (New York. One World/Ballantine, May 2000). Her biography of longtime D.C. mayor Marion Barry, The Last of the Black Emperors: The Hollow Comeback of Marion Barry in the New Age of Black Leaders (Baltimore. Bancroft Press, June 1998), received critical acclaim. Other works by Ms. Barras include poetry and fiction that have been anthologized.
She is the political analyst for NPR affiliate WAMU-FM (88.5); her commentaries can be heard each Thursday during “Morning Edition.” Rated one of the top 50 journalists in Washington by Washingtonian magazine, Ms. Barras has more than 20 years experience commenting on social, political, and cultural trends. She has been contributing political editor for Washington City Paper. She was a columnist for the Washington Times, and her essays and opinion articles frequently appear in The Washington Post. Her writings have also been published in The New Republic, The Crisis Magazine, The American Enterprise Magazine, USA Today, Blueprint magazine, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Ms. Barras has appeared as a political analyst on CNN, C-SPAN, CBS’ “60 Minutes,” WUSA-TV, NBC 4 in Washington, D.C., and PBS’ “Think Tank with Ben Wattenberg,” and “This is America with Dennis Wholey.”
Since the release of her book Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl?, Ms. Barras has been a highly sought-after speaker. She has spoken before tens of thousands of people throughout the United States and in France on the effects of father absence on women, including several conferences funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Ms. Barras is a resident of Washington, D.C. but still calls her native New Orleans home.
Q&A with Jonetta Rose Barras
Why did you write this book?
“I know where my father is, but how can I reconcile with my father? What should I say to him? Is it possible for us to bond and have a relationship after all these years?” During the last few years, I’ve been asked those questions repeatedly—during national radio and television interviews, and in dozens of cities where I’ve spoken about the importance of a father in a girl’s life. The same questions are also asked of me in e-mails, letters, and telephone calls—some from as far away as Germany and Lithuania. The questions are asked by varied voices —young and old; black, white, Hispanic. They come from the mouths of women, but also from men. I felt the need to continue my exploration of the important relationship between daughters and daddies.”
How is this book different from your first book on the subject?
In Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl?, I broke the code of silence surrounding the impact father absence has on girls and women—it’s devastating. Using my own story, and that of other women from across the country, I identified the “fatherless woman syndrome.” I also wrote about its ramifications, and offered remedies for healing. But in this new self-help book: Bridges: Reuniting Daughters & Daddies, I wanted to takes the next step, guiding daughter-and-father duos toward much needed reconciliation, bonding, and healing. I used illustrations pulled from the lives of real women and their fathers, plus affirmations and practical exercises I designed in association with experts. I’ve developed a very detailed, workable plan for reconciliation.
Are you hoping to show others how to accomplish what you couldn’t?
In a way, yes. More than a decade ago, when I was 37, I met my biological father for the first time. I felt joy at the prospect of having a father. But I was equally confused about how I should respond to this new opportunity. One part of me argued that I didn’t need him after all these years. Another part of me longed to reach out to him, have him envelop me in his arms and say he loved me—that he had always loved me—and missed me terribly all those years of separation. But our reunion was too brief for any real healing or bonding to take place. I became peeved at a perceived slight, and I moved away from him. He died two short years after our initial meeting. I failed because I knew nothing about reconciling with my father after so many years of distance, and after so brief an encounter.
What hadn’t you done that you suggest others do?
I had not undertaken the self-reflection crucial to any successful reconciliation. I had not properly gauged my own emotions, nor had I ever considered those of my father. I had no concept of the work, time, determination, and unwavering commitment required in any reconciliation effort. I was completely ignorant of myself, my father, and the process for reconnecting the two of us. I’m not sure I even fully understood, then, the concept of reconciliation.
How big a problem is this in the U.S.—the separation between daughters and daddies?
Bigger than most imagine. 24 million children (34 percent) in the U.S. live absent their biological fathers. About 40 percent of children in father-absent homes haven’t seen their fathers at all during the past year; 26 percent of absent fathers live in a different state than their children; and 50 percent of children living absent their fathers have never set foot in their fathers’ homes.
So what are the repercussions?
As the National Fatherhood Initiative has shown, children who live absent their biological fathers are, on average, at least two to three times more likely to be poor, to use drugs, to experience educational, health, emotional, and behavioral problems, to be victims of child abuse, and to engage in criminal behavior than their peers who live with their married, biological, or adoptive parents. Children with involved, loving fathers are significantly more likely to do well in school, have healthy self-esteem, exhibit empathy and pro-social behavior, and avoid high-risk behaviors such as drug use, truancy, and criminal activity compared to children who have uninvolved fathers.
What’s been the impact on you?
My reconciliation with a father I‘d never met was made possible by a series of crises I faced when my mother told me of his existence. These difficult episodes caused me to step back and take a look at myself and my life. Although I was in the middle of deep personal reflection, I had few resources available to incorporate the broader evaluation that would be needed to reunite with a daddy recently returned to me. At that time, I couldn’t explain my constant rage and anger. I couldn’t provide a plausible explanation for two failed marriages and countless aborted platonic friendships with men and women. And I hadn’t come to realize yet that, from bad choices and misdirected dreams, I had fashioned a confusing and flawed definition of love.
Is reconciliation between daddies and daughters really possible?
The journey from wondering and finding to reconciling and bonding can be long. It can also be filled with painful bumps and dangerous curves that leave us questioning why we decided to begin such an arduous undertaking, as surely was the case with all the daughters and daddies interviewed for this latest book of mine—as was the case in my own life. Along the way to reconciliation, there are enormous opportunities for unimagined personal growth and spiritual maturity. Think of that credit card commercial where the father and son are at a ballgame. The announcer recounts the price for the tickets, the hotdogs, and other items. But the time together between father and son is declared “priceless.” The time daughter and father spend together is also invaluable, and a dedication to restoring that relationship is well worth the cost.
What are some of the obstacles along the way?
Even using my latest book as guide, many daughters and fathers will wonder whether they are capable of digging down to the depths of their soul and their lives’ experiences to find the sweet, fruity meat of forgiveness. Most surely, they will be fooled by the distractions of normal living that trick us into thinking interior growth and familial development are of little consequence—only material or professional success matters. At times, they may find themselves discouraged or even disillusioned. But if you’re serious about reuniting with your father or daughter, it’s important to commit yourself to the trip, being patient with yourself and others, resting and reflecting where appropriate, and being alert and attentive to dangers and distractions that can send you on a winding, dead-end path. And, when there is too much fog, or you have just gotten too far off the main road, don’t be afraid to seek additional assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most important, as you move toward reconciliation, don’t be a slave to time. Some daughters and daddies have achieved their goal of bonding far quicker than others. But, by and large, these things don’t happen overnight.
In writing this book, what’s the biggest lesson you learned about the reconciliation between daddies and daughters?
When I was conducting research for an earlier book, I remember psychologist Maxine Harris telling me that if I had sought out my father one last time before his death, meeting him would not have been for him, but for me. It would have offered me the closure and healing I needed. I missed that opportunity. And it was only after eight hard years of wandering, wondering, struggling, reflecting, and writing that I finally found some solace. Reconciliation isn’t only about healing the family unit, although surely that’s a more than admirable motivation and goal. Far more important is the aim of reuniting with ourselves. Reconciliation is as much about hurdling the internal obstacles that have kept us away from self-love as it is about crossing the seemingly unbridgeable gap between estranged daughters and fathers. It’s as much about soul development as it is about reconciliation between a parent and a child, once believed to be lost to time or circumstance. To enter the kingdom of your inner heart, to know your true beauty, to experience a deep and enduring love, you must first lower the drawbridge. Roland Warren, director of the National Fatherhood Initiative, says that this merging of self and making whole an important familial relationship can’t occur unless each person is willing to be vulnerable. “Vulnerability is the gateway to intimacy,” he says. That intimacy, born during reconciliation, enhances the quality of our lives, and brings peace and real happiness to our souls.
What’s the biggest surprise in the response so far to this book?
I wrote it for daughters and daddies, but almost everyone, including my editor and publisher, said it provides a wonderful plan for any two people wanting to reconcile.
Is there one episode that tells this reconciliation story in a nutshell?
In 2002, before a speech I gave at a regional fatherhood conference, I turned on my television. The particular segment focused on family feuds and estrangements. It seemed ironic, yet appropriate and timely, that one aspect centered on a father and daughter—Clayton and Corliss Stevens. For years, Clayton Stevens, because of a paternity lawsuit, had been forced to pay child support for Corliss, yet had continued to question whether she was, in fact, his daughter. He even thought he had not been emotionally affected by Corliss’ absence from his life. “You don’t miss something you never had. You don’t miss someone who has never been in your life. The only time I thought about her was when I saw the deductions out of my paycheck every week,” he said. For her part, Corliss called him the “sperm donor,” although she had longed to have a relationship with her father. “I had a lot of love in my family, but there was always something missing,” she said. While unable to have direct access to Clayton Stevens, she tried the indirect path, by associating with cousins, an uncle, her paternal grandmother, and Clayton’s other children, whose paternity he had acknowledged. Still, Corliss did not realize her dream of reconciliation. Consequently, she came to a nationally syndicated talk show, which her father attended, as a means of getting what she called “closure.”
So what happened?
The discussion, led by the talk show host, was a rehashing of old recriminations, which was hardly conducive to either reconciliation or closure. Corliss concluded, “I do not need him.” As I sat riveted by the discussion, I was reminded of how reconciliations are sidetracked by others—relatives or friends, all well meaning but often misguided. Clayton and Corliss had become a national side-show for viewers like me, who didn’t know them. We may have sympathized or empathized with one or both of them, but we lacked the requisite skills to provide any healing to either of them. We certainly could not assist in their reconciliation, any more than that talk show host could. It’s my sincere hope that the Clayton and Corliss Stevenses of the world might be spared the ordeal of such a public spectacle—one that offers no relief and can hardly be confused with a balm for their decades-old wounds. Even as I wrote this book, I maintained a vision of Clayton and Corliss Stevens. In many ways, they represented me and my father. Not unlike Corliss, I wanted to reconnect with myself and reunite with a critical character in my familial narrative. But I was filled with confusion and anger. And ultimately, like Corliss, I erroneously concluded that I didn’t need my father—I had done fine without him, thank you very much. Ten years later, I realized I did need him, if only to fully understand and appreciate my own history, my present reality, and my future potential. I hope this book spares other women and fathers the difficult ten-year odyssey I experienced.