DADDY'S ROOMMATE by Michael Willhoite
Willhoite, M. (1991) Daddy's Roommate. Alyson Book, New York.
Daddy's Roommate, almost fifteen years after publication, is still a source of controversy. It is listed by the American Library Association as the second most challenged book between 1990 and 1991. Despite all the gains of gays in America (including the eventual legalization of same-sex marriage throughout the country), the issue of homosexual relations is still touchy to a segment of the population. The rightness or wrongness of a homosexual relationship is not the subject of Daddy's Roommate. It is instead about one child's-eye view of the circumstances he finds himself in.
Told in a first-person voice, the boy (never named) tells us about his father (also never named, but simply referred to as "Daddy"). Mommy and Daddy got a divorce 'last year' The Boy tells us, and now Daddy is living with his 'roommate', Frank (oddly, despite being the title character, he's the only person who gets a name in Daddy's Roommate). Daddy and Frank do all sorts of things together: work, eat. sleep, shave, and even fight together (but always make up). Frank, The Boy reports, likes him, and Frank and The Boy spend time together (Frank reads to The Boy and makes "great peanut butter and jelly sandwiches", emphasis the book's). On weekends, the three of them (Frank, The Boy, and Daddy) do all sorts of things together: go to baseball games, the zoo, the beach, work in the yard, and have sing-alongs by the piano. Mommy tells The Boy that Daddy and Frank are gay.
"At first I didn't know what that meant. So she explained it. Being gay is just one more kind of love. And love is the best kind of happiness. Daddy and his roommate are very happy together. And I'm happy too!"
While reading Daddy's Roommate, I played around with it. I substituted Frank for Francine, and thought what if Daddy's roommate were a woman. The mind boggles at the idea of Francine and Daddy 'shaving together', but apart from that, would it make much difference if Daddy's roommate were a woman? I think yes, but perhaps not in the way people might imagine.
The connotation between a male-female living arrangement and a male-male living arrangement like the one presented in Daddy's Roommate surprisingly leaves much ambiguity in the latter. I think children have a basic understanding that when a man and a woman sleep together, they know it involves something akin to romance. When it comes to a man and a man (or a woman and a woman) sleeping together, not so much. Personally, I think we give children far too much credit if we imagine that they automatically know that homosexual love is the same as heterosexual love.
If it were Francine and Daddy rather than Frank and Daddy in Daddy's Roommate, I think children would more quickly and easily grasp that the new relationship is a romantic one. The way Frank and Daddy's relationship comes across, there isn't what I would call 'romance', just good buddies living together. It's almost as if Willhoite, for all his intents, wanted to make a same-sex relationship palatable and understandable to elementary school children but instead almost hid the true nature and depth of the relationship.
The imagery of Daddy and Frank in Daddy's Roommate is to my mind almost comical in how innocuous it is. Looking at the illustrations and text, what I saw in the relationship between Daddy and Frank was not romance, but just a very good friendship. Apart from the next-to-last panel, where Frank and Daddy were watching television together, with Frank's arm over Daddy's shoulder in what is an intimate gesture, I have done pretty much everything Daddy and Frank did with my best friend.
Yes, I've even slept with my best friend (who is a man), if by 'sleeping' you mean 'shared the same bed'. If by 'sleeping' you mean 'have sex', then no, I haven't 'slept' with my best friend. Granted, I also haven't put lotion on his back at the beach, but minus that pretty much the relationship between Daddy and Frank is the same as mine with my best friend. A child of a gay father who has come out (especially to his son) would understand what was going on in Daddy's Roommate. A child of either a closeted gay father or a heterosexual father I think wouldn't get it, or get it so quickly.
It does make me wonder who Willhoite's target audience is. If he wrote Daddy's Roommate for children of gay fathers, more power to him. If he wrote it for a more general audience, I think he missed the mark.
One aspect of Daddy's Roommate that I could never shake was just how easily everyone accepted things. Despite being the primary guardian (The Boy mentions that he sees Daddy on weekend), Mommy has virtually nothing to do with The Boy apart from telling him Daddy and Frank are gay and that it's "just one more kind of love". That may be true, but for myself I found the idea of an ex-spouse who took all this in stride extremely bizarre. Here she was, marrying a man she loved, having a child with him, only to divorce due to her husband's homosexuality.
At least, I figure this was the reason for the divorce. Whether he or she initiated it there's no way of knowing. In any case, after what is suppose to be a mere year later, Mommy seems rather cool with the idea that her ex is now with Frank. Maybe it's just the circle I roll with, but I've never met any divorcee, man or woman, who a mere year later was thrilled to see his/her ex with anyone new, let alone someone of the same gender. It could also be the excessively detailed person in me, but I kept wondering about Mommy. Has she found someone new? How can she be so accepting of her ex-husband's new relationship regardless of gender? Yes, I figure there are many people who do accept the failure of their marriage due to their ex's acceptance of their sexuality, and even some that are happy for their exes. However, for there not to be any sense of resentment, of regret, of sorrow, just doesn't ring true.
I also thought the same of The Boy. Willhoite presents an idealized version of reality. A divorce can be traumatic to a child. A new stepparent can be difficult for a child. Throw in that his new stepmother is a man and The Boy's casual acceptance of this again doesn't ring completely true. Willhoite won't acknowledge that these changes may be difficult for a child. He won't acknowledge that a child may not think it's Same Love as Macklemore thinks. Rather than recognize that a child may find all or any of this hard to take (the divorce, the new relationship, the same-sex nature of the new relationship), or even entertain the idea that a child may not be happy about anything involving this not related to sexuality, Willhoite's Boy seems rather nonchalant. Daddy loved a woman, now he loves a man, OK. Yes, some children can take this easily, but some children cannot.
Daddy's Roommate could have been a great book about helping kids deal or accept their father's new same-sex partner. It could have helped children by guiding them through what could be traumatic experiences (divorce, a new partner for his/her father). Instead, Daddy's Roommate idealizes what, regardless of sexual orientation, can be a difficult situation. Divorce is hard on children, no matter what the circumstances. How all the adults in Daddy's Roommate appear so casual about everything to me suggests that in this world, a child's questions about the various changes can be answered with a rather pat answer: "it's just one more kind of love." That may be true, but even today, when seven-year-olds can be certain they are transgender (and as a side note, I admit that at age seven, I had no concept of transgender or any kind of sexual identity as straight or gay, only the difference in boys and girls), I think Daddy's Roommate is a little disingenuous.
Maybe Tolstoy is right. Maybe ALL happy families are alike.
Would I ban Daddy's Roommate? ABSOLUTELY NOT! I'm someone who loathes censorship and would not ban something unless it called for violence or was a deliberately racist/sexist/homophobic work (books that denied the Holocaust or supported ISIS for example). I however, think the nonfiction section is the most appropriate area for Daddy's Roommate. If it were placed in the Easy section, it would lead to a lot of questions that parents may not want to answer or have asked, because I think that the world outside Daddy's Roommate is more complicated than the one Willhoite created.
I personally don't find much to object to in Daddy's Roommate (apart from its rather simplistic text and view of the world). I would carry it in the system, because same-sex partnerships are a real part of life.
BRIEF REVIEW DISCUSSION
As if that weren't enough, I think the Entertainment Weekly review of Daddy's Roommate, which earned a C+, is pretty accurate and one I agree with.
The books’ clear goal is to show homosexual relationships as a real-world complement to the mom-and-dad model. Unfortunately, Daddy’s Roommate suffers from the same failing as the old Dick-and-Jane books: It’s so relentlessly blithe that it could almost be called Dick and Dick. As if divorce or re-coupling — especially when gay partners are involved — were ever so untroubled.
I don't think Michelle Landsberg realized the unintentional double entendre of Dick and Dick with regards to Daddy's Roommate. It's a little reminiscent of when ESPN's Anthony Federico used the term 'chink in the armor' to refer to Jeremy Lin's role in the New York Knick's loss at a game. I believe Federico's version, that he was not aware that 'chink' was a racial slur regarding Chinese (I for one had never heard that slur used regarding Asians) and the term 'chink in the armor' is a common one. Similarly, the Dick and Dick comment I think was not intended as anything other than a joke, not a bizarre comment on the subject matter.
I found the text rather simplistic, which is perfect for the target audience (very small children), though perhaps a bit too simplistic, even a bit condescending, to where it might be a bit boring for children (the Dick-and-Jane style being the best description for it).
This one is the hardest for me, because Daddy's Roommate-related programs will in my view inevitably bring confrontation between groups. Pro-gay groups are not immune from being as vitriolic and confrontational as their counterparts. I would suggest a Family Day celebration where all families are welcome and leave it as that.
Landsberg, M. (2015, January 17). Daddy's Roommate. Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved from http://www.ew.com/article/1993/01/29/daddys-roommate