On bad dads
TW for infanticide and extreme child abuse
Yesterday was Father’s Day, and as is tradition, the internet struck an awkward balance between paeans to My Beloved Daddy, bitter denunciations of My Wretched Sperm Donor, and those middle-child-type posts holding space for everyone else’s Very Valid Feelings.
Even for those who love—or at least talk to—their dads, the paternal relationship is often a complicated one. My friend S sent me a tweet encapsulating the holiday’s general mood with the very topical language of [prison] abolition:
To kill the family, you must remove its head. “We need ways of counteracting the exclusivity and supremacy of ‘biological’ parents in children’s lives,” writes Sophie Lewis in Full Surrogacy Now, in which she argues for the abolition of the [nuclear] family—or rather describes the revolutionary possibilities that such an abolition could make room for. Want to dismantle capitalism? Lewis points to a still very radical idea of the Sisterhood of Black Single Mothers, an organization that began back in the early 1970s, regarding offspring: Children should belong to no one but themselves.
When I was a kid, my role as my dad’s property was not subtextual. It was something my dad and his wife talked about with each other and around me and my sisters, and in a way, I appreciated their honesty. Rather than pretend our power differential was strictly religious, biological, or even situational, my dad was straightforward about his legal ownership of my minority and used it to get his way, whether as a custody tactic with my mom or to resolve issues of my consent conflicting with his desire for money (he was always broke) or control over my behavior. “Until you’re 18, I own you,” was the line, and he wasn’t wrong. (What is property when it is disowned? Garbage, I guess.)
But for all of my dad’s failures, I know I could have easily been dealt a worse hand. My dad was merely shitty and neglectful and, now, absent; his own dad was a violent drunk and indiscriminate rapist, so miserably vicious that when he died alone a few years ago, my dad, who almost never talked about him as a rule, threw a party to celebrate. That was around the time when he and I—my dad and I, I mean—stopped talking to each other. Or rather, he stopped talking to me.
There are worse daddy issues than mine, and worse fates to be had than being sired by a guy who wants to avoid you. For example, some people’s fathers are taken away by the state, whether by murder or incarceration, a fate I was protected from mostly because my dad is white. I’ll take a risk here and even suggest that it’s better to be property discarded than property abused, whether directly or via repercussion of the prison industrial complex, though far be it from me to tease apart neglect and abuse.
As a casual and conflicted true crime fan—but who isn’t, these days?—I’ve always had an especial interest in people who murder their children. When Andrea Yates drowned her four young sons and infant daughter in her bathtub a few months before 9/11, I followed the resulting tabloid frenzy in my mom’s People magazines with dogged fascination. The Yates story captured the country’s attention, and mine, too, because the murderer in question believed that she was protecting her children: The only way to save them from eternal damnation, she later said, was to kill them.
Whether the case of Dave Dave, born David Charles Rothenberg, is more or less horrifying than that of the Yates family is a matter of opinion. It’s not about a person who, like Yates, lost touch with reality due to mental illness, but a person who, by all accounts, understood the violence he was inflicting. On a 1983 trip to Disneyland, Dave’s father, Charles Rothenberg, tried to burn his son to death in their hotel. After getting in an argument with Dave’s mother over the phone, Rothenberg gave his six-year-old a sleeping pill and set fire to the bed he slept in.
Dave survived with third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body. When his father only received 13 years in prison upon his conviction, the outcry led to sentencing law being changed. Upon his father’s parole—only seven years later—Dave, then thirteen, said he would be able to put the experience behind him only “when Charles dies.”
Dave died in 2018 from complications with pneumonia at the age of 42. As far as I can tell, Charles Rothenberg is still living and imprisoned again, this time for life after violating California’s three-strikes law for gun possession.
After his father’s arrest, Dave made television appearances and was the subject of a 1988 made-for-TV movie called David, which was adapted from the book his mother published about his trauma. He also came to the attention of Michael Jackson, a person commonly agreed to have been a danger to children during his life, and the son of a notoriously bad dad, himself. As an adult, Dave became a conceptual artist, maintaining his minor celebrity as the survivor of a highly publicized crime. Below is a 2009 interview with Dave Dave on Larry King Live after Jackson died; he speaks very favorably of Jackson.
The appearance sparked a conspiracy theory, which you can see for yourself in the comments: that Jackson faked his death and that Dave was himself Michael in disguise. I had also queasily noticed the similarities between his voice and Jackson’s, but had attributed it to Michael’s influence over him.
Just so we’re clear, I think it’s disturbing—if a not entirely unsurprising—that people on the internet have decided that the appearance of Dave Dave’s skin, which we can trace back to the trauma that put him in the public eye, is evidence of his false identity (nor can we ignore the racialized history of Jackson’s rumored dysmorphia about his own skin and features, as well as his many plastic surgeries, while discussing this theory). Because sometimes the simplest explanation is the correct one: Michael Jackson is dead, Dave Dave is dead, Charles Rothenberg is alive. All were victims of one kind or another of the racist patriarchal superstructure of violent fatherhood and white supremacist carcerality, and in the cases of Jackson and Rothenberg, perpetuators of its violence, as well.
I hope that justice will one day mean an end to incarceration and the violence it perpetuates and multiplies, as well as the interlocking systems that oppress children and so many other people. I hope if Father’s Day was rough for you that you found tenderness and care in your family, however that configuration exists for you. I hope that Dave Dave has found peace.
David tweets at @k8bushofficial.
Poor Dave Dave those horrible bruises
Noone should listen to you at all. All your thoughts and notes here are perverted by your crybaby bullshit. What about father's who love and cherish their kids. You live in a dark mindset and I'm sorry you were never loved by your father. You said most people have a complicated relationship with their dad, you made that up and their is no study or statistic that says this is true. I could say the same about my mother because she treated me this way. You are extremely sexist and silly.