For Regina R. Robertson, the journey to publishing her new book, He Never Came Home: Interviews, Stories, and Essays from Daughters on Life Without Their Fathers (out this week from Agate Publishing), began 15 years ago, early in her journalism career, when the features editor of Honey magazine advised her to “write what you know.” Regina, who is now the West Coast editor of Essence magazine, had grown up without her father, so she decided to write about that. Instead of focusing on her own story, though, she interviewed three fatherless women, which resulted in her first national story, “Where’s Daddy?” being published. But after the article ran, she began hearing from several female friends and colleagues who wanted to know why she had not interviewed them about their experiences with father loss.
“That was the first time I realized that there were many more women out there who had stories to tell,” Regina says. That realization eventually led to He Never Came Home, a collection of 22 essays and interviews from women of different ages, races, religions, and social classes who share one thing in common: they lost their fathers to abandonment, divorce, or death.1
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Regina about the book, her hopes for it, and what she learned about fathers and daughters from the women who were brave enough to share their stories of father loss, longing, and healing.
Alysse ElHage: What’s striking about your book is how women from a variety of backgrounds experienced the absence or loss of their fathers in similar ways. What were some of the similar themes you heard from the women who contributed to the book?
Regina Robertson: One of my primary goals with creating this anthology was to include women from all walks of life. Writing and editing the stories showed me how similar so many of us are, no matter where we grew up, the name of our God, or our financial standing.
For a few women, the question of their worth came into play when trying to understand why their father wasn’t present or didn’t show up when he promised. For the daughters of divorced parents, there seemed to be such a longing for life to return to what it once was, especially after being told by one, or both, parents that things wouldn’t change so much. And for the daughters whose fathers have died, there was a sense of sadness, of course, as well as questions about what might have been.
Our experiences shape who we are, and although each contributor’s circumstance is different, every woman featured in the book is dealing with issues of loss. That was the main thread.
Alysse ElHage: When the book arrived in my mailbox a few weeks ago, the story I was most looking forward to reading was yours. You previously shared with me the details about never knowing your father and then learning about his death, and how that made you feel. Share with us a little bit of your story—how difficult was it for you to write about your own loss in the book?
Regina Robertson: At times, it seems so odd to say that I never met my father, but that’s the truth. That is a fact of my life. As an adult, I know that’s not normal, though. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
I wrote the first draft about seven years ago and spent quite a bit of time editing, tweaking, and over-thinking it. Along with including that first draft in my book proposal (which was rejected several times, of course!), I tried submitting it to a few women’s magazines in the hopes of gaining some interest. Some magazine editors didn’t respond at all. Others wanted me to rework the piece, yet again. But there was one editor who replied, “This is an interesting, moving essay—and, I know, a difficult one to write.” While my essay never ran in a magazine, getting that feedback let me know that I was on to something.
Once I signed the book deal, I figured I’d just “punch up” my story when I was done with the rest. During the process, I learned that my father died, and while I know it might be hard to believe, I didn’t have much of a reaction. Because I didn’t know him, it was like hearing that a stranger had died. It still feels that way.
So, my essay went from needing to be “punched up,” to needing to be reworked to include his death. Also, because I asked my contributors to be honest—whether they wrote their own stories or if I did the interviewing, writing, and editing—I knew that I had to be honest, too. So, I just spoke my truth.
At times, it seems so odd to say that I never met my father, but...that is a fact of my life. As an adult, I know that’s not normal, though. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Alysse ElHage: You’ve described He Never Came Home as a book that's about more than just the sadness of father loss but also about healing. Give us some examples of how the women featured in the book overcame father loss and started on the path to healing?
Regina Robertson: There is some sadness on the pages of the book, but there’s also a lot of hope and triumph. For many of the contributors, there seems to have been a moment of awakening—a moment when each woman made a conscious choice to accept the past and move forward with life. For some of the women, prayer has been the balm. For others, therapy has been helpful. Overall, I’d say that time has served (or is still serving) everyone well. Time is essential to the healing process.
Alysse ElHage: As you worked on this book, what did you learn about the importance of fathers in the lives of girls that perhaps you were not aware of before?
Regina Robertson: Speaking with the women whose fathers are deceased was quite eye-opening. From them, I learned what it meant for the first man in a girl’s life to not only love and cherish her but also have dreams for her. Because that was not my experience, I was especially moved by many of those stories.
Many of those women had such vivid memories of their fathers—from the smell of his cologne, the jewelry he wore, or even the fact that he was the world’s best tickler. And although they’re still grappling with grief, they also carry so much of the hope and love bestowed upon them by their fathers. It was amazing to hear about how much they loved their dads and all of the beautiful reasons why.
Alysse ElHage: Who do you hope will read He Never Came Home—who is your target audience?
Initially, I wanted to write the book that I wished I’d had as a teenager. My plan was to focus on women who were abandoned by their fathers, but over time, that idea expanded to include women who’d lost their fathers via divorce and death. Overall, I wanted the book to follow the journey of the fatherless woman, no matter the reason for his absence.
Having the conversation about a parent who is not present isn’t the easiest conversation to have. Perhaps these stories can also offer single mothers a peek into the thoughts and feelings that their daughters might be experiencing. I’d be honored if the book served at the first step toward getting that conversation started.
Alysse ElHage: I think it’s also a great book for fathers—especially divorced or unmarried dads who often have to navigate a number of obstacles to stay involved in their kids' lives, and who may wonder, at times, whether all the extra effort is worth it.
Regina Robertson: Honestly, I’ve been very surprised by the reactions I’ve heard from men—some of whom are fathers, others are not. I spoke with one man who said that reading the stories made him want to be a better man. I’ve also been told that the book will make men aware of the ways in which their absences and actions affect their daughters in the long run.
I think the book is important for dads because the stories shed light on how necessary their presence is. As actress Regina King stated so eloquently in her essay, “Redefining Family”: "A lot of people think that girls need their mothers and boys need their fathers, but kids need both of their parents. Girls need their dads in their lives for so many reasons. There are certain things about life and relationships that only a father can teach his daughter."
1. I had the honor of contributing an essay to He Never Came Home.