And when did you last see your father?

The village cricket team
The village cricket team c.1951

My father would have been 88 this week except he died 27 years ago. He’s been dead for more of my lifetime than he was alive. I still write about him.

There are many published memoirs about the death and life of a parent but Blake Morrison’s 1993 book And when did you last see your father?  was one of the first. It alternates chapters about his father in life and chapters about his decline and death from cancer. All written in the present tense.  On BBC Radio 4’s Bookclub recently Morrison was asked who his imagined reader was when he was writing it. “Myself”, he said,  and added that writing the book was a kind of therapy, that what he was unable to speak about, he was able to write about. Some people can write about things before they can speak about them, especially traumatic or complex things.  Another guest on the programme said, “Reading it was great therapy”.

In Moments of BeingVirginia Woolf writes that her mother, who died when she was 13, obsessed her until she was 44:

“Then one day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush……….I wrote the book very quickly; and when it was written, I ceased to be obsessed by my mother. I no longer hear her voice; I do not see her.

…”I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” p81.

Both Woolf and Morrison understand how writing can be powerfully therapeutic, a way of transforming difficult, painful and inexplicable feelings and experiences into part of the coherent narrative of a life.

One of the challenges of writing about a deceased parent is, as Morrison puts it, how you ‘lift the lid’, how you portray with honesty and with love the complexity of the person and your relationship, how not to ‘beatify the dead’. How do you give yourself permission to show ambivalence and know that it’s ok to show ambivalence? How do you show the mutual frustrations that are present at times in any relationship, especially when there is no longer hope of resolution or understanding?

And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames
And when did you last see your father? Frederick Yeames

Journal Prompt:  And when did you last see your father? opens with a vivid childhood memory of going on a family holiday, written in the present tense. We sense that this is a typical view of his father. What typical childhood memories do you have? Write about one in the present tense, situate your parent in context.

Sometimes, as in actor Alan Cumming’s memoir, Not my father’s son, about his violent father, there is no ambivalence but it can be just as difficult to find the words.

What are your favourite memoirs about parents? Please share them in a comment.

What is your experience of writing about your parents? Have you found it therapeutic?






6 thoughts on “And when did you last see your father?”

  1. In a CPD Linkedin group (
    This post received the following comments:

    Joan Murphy said:
    I have written about my parents over the years and there will be more I’m sure…but for my eyes only!

    bonnie meekums
    Symposium co-editor, British Journal of Guidance and Counselling

    Hi Kate,
    Yes, I published an autoethnography in BJGC which included a fair bit about my father. Still moves me to think of it. I also regularly use a photograph of him to teach students about the importance of the parent’s body as an available play object, to be poked and crawled over 🙂 He was a wonderful man, an intuitive father in the days when Dads were just the head of the household and disciplinarian. Not perfect, but I am ever grateful to him for the little things I embodied. Thanks for the link to your blog. Just for interest – I did check with my sisters how they might feel about me writing about our Dad. Given that he could not himself give permission, I think that when we write about the dead we either need to fictionalise it, or ask those who are living and might be affected by our writing. Autoethnography, as one wise soul said, is an inked tattoo.

    Charlotte Koven said:
    I was working on a family genogram last year and had the opportunity and privilege to be able to consult with my 87 year old mother. She filled in a LOT of gaps and I found out things that she had kept secret all her life. I totally agree that we must be very respectful of family history.


  2. Thanks for this Kate. It conjured thoughts of the last time I saw my dad before he got sick (31 years ago @ this time of year). He very likely was sick the last time we all gathered with my mother’s side of the family at Aunt Jean’s in NC. Like you, he’s been gone more of my life than he was in it.


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