Juli Cragg Hilliard

Fatherless Child

Until this year, Father's Day meant only pain for Donald Miller.

He was just a toddler when his dad left home, and Miller rarely saw him after that.

The issue of fatherless men has been coming to the fore recently, with scores of health and social-impact statistics being released seemingly daily, and such movements as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Nurturing Fathers Initiative -- not to mention a new Nike commercial featuring Tiger Woods -- advertising regularly.

Miller, the author of the best-selling "Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality" (Nelson, 2003), says writing his new memoir about being fatherless was cathartic.

The 34-year-old Portland, Ore., resident says now, "This is the first Father's Day that I will try to celebrate -- by being alone with God the Father."

Like his earlier books, "To Own a Dragon: Reflections on Growing Up Without a Father" (NavPress, 2006) is humorous and personal. He co-wrote it with nature photographer John MacMurray, with whose family Miller lived outside Portland for four years.

The title relates to Miller's realization that a father, to him, was like a mythical creature. He writes about feeling "as though I am writing a book about a dragon or a troll under a bridge. For me, a father is nothing more than a character in a fairy tale."

Miller says he set out to write the kind of healing book he would like to have read 10 years ago.

Comedian Jeff Foxworthy, who was 9 years old when his father left home, writes in an endorsement: "This book sings to those who have felt responsible for their father's demons. The truth is, our real Father is perfect in every way, especially in his love for us."

After his father abandoned him, Miller grew up in Houston in a household of women. "In the absence of a real father, I had a cast of characters that were at times hilarious, pitiful, perfect, kind and wise," he writes.

Substitute fathers included Bill Cosby's character, Cliff Huxtable, on "The Cosby Show"; a landlord's marijuana-smoking son who was enlisted to take Miller camping; and a youth minister who told Miller he had a way with words and should try writing.

He says he always supposed that society didn't want him, that loving him was burdensome for God; he viewed authority as a negative force and wondered whether he was -- poetically speaking -- a man.

"I felt as though men secretly met in some warehouse late at night to talk 'man' things, to have secret handshakes, to discuss how great it was to have a penis and what an easy thing it was to operate, how to throw a football, how to catch a fish," he wrote.

By the time Miller met the MacMurrays, he had left Texas for Oregon in a 1971 Volkswagen van. While he lived with the family, he wrote about that pilgrimage for his first book, "Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance" (Harvest House, 2000), which he revised and updated as "Through Painted Deserts: Light, God and Beauty on the Open Road" (Nelson, 2005).

Although he didn't include the MacMurrays in "Blue Like Jazz" because, he says, they weren't part of the points he was trying to make, they do appear in his third book, "Searching for God Knows What" (Nelson, 2004).

Miller had begun attending the Bible studies that John MacMurray has been teaching for more than 25 years in his Eagle Creek home. The MacMurrays, who have taken in other young adults before and since Miller, invited him to live in the apartment over their garage. During his stay, two of Terri and John MacMurray's three children -- now 12, 10 and 8 -- were born.

"We had no idea he'd be there for four years," says John MacMurray, 52. The couple also was unaware at the time that Miller was observing them as models of what a family should be like, and what a husband and father should do. "I tried to be his friend. I tried to be his mentor," says MacMurray. "I can't remember Don and I sitting down and talking about how I parented."

And what Miller didn't know was that MacMurray himself felt imperfectly fathered by an old-school, detached dad whose job was to mete out discipline, and so was creating his own version of involved parenting.

Miller, who speaks at churches and campuses around the country, says "To Own a Dragon" addresses the issue of fatherless men because he wanted it to be memoir-style, not academic.

But he adds that he believes that women who grew up fatherless also are deeply affected: They long, he says, to hear from a male authority figure that they're loved, wanted and beautiful -- and when they don't get that, they look for it elsewhere.

In his own journey of spiritual growth, he says, this book and "Searching for God Knows What" have been the writing projects that have changed him most.

"They just released me from a lot of stress and turmoil," he says. "I realized why I didn't like authority; that authority didn't hate me." And, as he writes in "To Own a Dragon," he realized that God has been fathering him all along.

MacMurray says men need to be helping each other more, especially through the church.

Miller, who calls for "fatherless" men to become "wounded healers" -- borrowing Bishop Desmond Tutu's term for apartheid survivors putting their experiences to positive use -- has moved toward becoming a mentor himself.

In Portland, he has started the Belmont Foundation to mentor young men and to help single mothers. He plans to replicate the concept around the country through churches.

He also hopes, one day, for marriage and family.

"I want to be everything that my father was not. I want to be there. I want to care more about my family than I do about my work."

Selected Works

Articles
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Religion BookLine April 9, 2008
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Sarasota Herald-Tribune, June 15, 2006
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Sarasota Herald-Tribune, April 22, 2006
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