A portrait of fathers (and their fathers) #Dadslovewhisky- PART I


I’m on a one-week travel assignment along the Kenyan coastline – from Lamu to Malindi. I’m also taking this opportunity to ask men about fatherhood, and about their fathers, sometimes over whisky (Johnnie Walker Black for me, naturally).


Manda Bay Resort. For lunch I sit with Bimbi, the owner, where she is dining with Adam Dyer, her husband’s cousin. I only ask Adam one question- “Are you a father?” – for this Pandora’s box to swing open. Adam, an American, is in Africa because he is looking for a place to hang his hat. For the past decade of so, he has been looking for a home and he thinks he found it in Lamu. “I will die here,” he tells me, “I want to be buried in this sea.”



My mother slept with two men in a period of three weeks. It was the summer of love of 1964, my mother was in Europe and her father had just died in America and they buried him without her knowledge, so she is so distraught she goes on a British tour and sleeps with a British and a German. Months later she realises she is pregnant with twins; she is only 20yrs old, young and naïve. Who could the father be? She thinks it’s the British guy who is an artist; painter in London and so she tells him he is the father and he says, OK I will come to America, we will live in the coast and raise these children.

The man was called Anthony Johnson. Born 1941.

He left everything in London and came to California, and we started living as a family with him doing his paintings etc. My mother was a very troubled person and I imagined that she and this man struggled to raise us. Mom was a drug addict and at some point she booted out my dad but he wanted to protest but then she said, “you are not the father”, and she got her family behind her to tell this man that he was going to have him deported if he continued to harass their daughter.

When he left us, just before my twin sister and I’s second birthday, he wrote to me in a sketchbook, “Adam, daddy will always love you.”  This man must have been destroyed because; this man who used to paint landscapes started painting pictures of children. My mom has a brother and he kept some of his work, there are landscapes and numerous pictures of children playing together.

Let’s cut to 45yrs later. I get through life because I’ve seen pictures of this man and I think I have seen my profile in his work. He has dark hair and olive skin, very handsome. He looks like Daniel D Lewis, who I fell in love with because he looks like my father.

Because he was missing in my life, I always paid tribute to him in my own way. The only recollection I have of this man is when I was on the floor and I saw this giant shadow in the hallway urging me to go back to bed. That’s the only thing I remember, the silhouette of a man.

Instead of talking to God, I always talked to this man because I didn’t know what our relationship was like. I don’t know how to have a relationship with a father. That’s how the line is blurred between God and my father; when I say “father” I don’t imagine a man in a white robe sitting on a throne looking down at us, instead I imagine him. I imagine my father dead so he could be near me all the time. As long as he was spiritual he was always close to me.

Twenty years ago I went to London to the Hall of Records to look for this man. With the help of the Salvation Army, who kept records of everyone from the World War 2, I identified two men with the same name born in the same year. I located the first man, got on the phone with him and he said, Look, my wife is very cross with me, the Salvation Army called my home and said I have two children in America from a former wife, now my children are crying now and my wife wants to leave me. So I said, “I’m so sorry, so you are not a painter?” He said, “I painted my house once, but that’s pretty much it.”

So now I have the other guy, and I know it’s my father. Tony Johnson, a painter in New Zealand, born same time, I’ve seen his work and it is dead on. I write him an email. So I write to the gallery that I’m interested in thanking him but I made the mistake of signing it as Adam Dyer. The gallery writes a cryptic message in the third person: “This is not that Tony Johnson.”

I think I was indifferent to that response because I was ready to be rejected.

I don’t know how it’s like to have a father. I was 14yrs old when I left my mother and sister in France because I was displeased with how they were treating me. They would do drugs together and I would be the one to wade off the criminals, perverts and predators because I was the only sober one. At that time I really wished I had a father around to regulate things. So I went to live with my Uncle in California but it was too conventional.

When I was 18 I had this incredible craving to connect with God or a father figure. These are both figures that I consider paternal. God and my father blended into one imagine but I wanted the one person on earth that would throw his arms around me, so I appealed to God and said I’m ready to meet that person, whoever he is. So I moved in with a spiritual leader, in an Ashram in Belgium…like a spiritual retreat. I had a home, for the first time, and I had a father who loved me. In there, without distraction I asked myself questions: Am I really good? Am I really kind? Am I good person? I was making a mental inventory. I felt like I had to be virtuous for both my mother and my twin sister. I lived with this spiritual leader for 6 months and one day he said You have to go. And I asked incredulously, why? And he said:

Because, Adam, you are a naked boy on a horse riding in the snow, you love that energy, but then you get too cold and you want to sit by the fire with the elders and get warm, but before long you want to get on the horse and ride again. That’s who you are. He was right. I get restless. My wife is in America, her and her children, but it’s complicated, she wants to stay in America, I want to be here in Africa, doing things that change humanity and just because of that we have an unresolved conflict.

I don’t think I’m equipped to be a father. I’m equipped to be a father figure, though. A father figure can leave it behind when he has to; a father has to dig in to the end. I don’t have the mentalware to withstand any kind of calamity that would befall my child. If my child became ill, or died…I’d fall apart….

I’ve found a sneaky way to confirm if the man in New Zealand is indeed my father. As we speak, I have a friend who will go to him as a buyer of art and he will carry with him some of his (Tony Johnson’s) works for authentication. He will see it in his eyes if he recognises those paintings and I will know without a doubt that that man is my father.

Why am I desperately doing this? [Very long pause here]. Look, I don’t want to be this man’s son. I don’t want to do a DNA test. I’m not making any claims to his wealth. I don’t want anything from him. But I want to thank him for being that image in my life. He doesn’t even realise the impact he has on me, even in his absence. He didn’t shape my life because he was absent, but I shaped my life based on his absence…and… [He chokes on words, stops talking and looks away.]

[What’s the first thing you would tell him if you met him?]

I just want to thank him. [Very long pause] Tell him…just how important he is to me, tell him how he got me through some of the toughest times of my life… some of the very toughest times of my life…those times I thought of him…

[He breaks down and cries.]

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  1. “He didn’t shape my life because he was absent, but I shaped my life based on his absence…”

    “I don’t know how to have a relationship with a father.”

    I relate with lots of what he says, and I understand his position. But then if he really wants what is best for his kid, if he doesn’t want his son to one day have to tell a story like this, then he needs to go back to his family and raise his kids. Otherwise, history will simply repeat itself.

  2. That is a story about an American but sadly a story from many of our Kenyan children. Our boys badly need role models. The current father doesn’t know how. Will the men please rise up? I am an advocate of the boy child. But as a lady i cannot do much. We need the men to rise up and be responsible. I recognize those who do and thank God for them!

  3. Am moved to tears!Am a single parent and I think i’ll have to hunt down my son’s father. I don’t want him to ever wake up feeling what this man is feeling,it must be devastating

  4. oh gosh absolutely tugs at my heart strings. I fortunately have been raised by a wonderful single mother, bent backwards to ensure that we didn’t feel the void. I however find myself wondering about my father. So many questions that I need answered.

  5. My mother grew up without a father and she recently admitted the ways in which his absence affected her. I grew up without a father and I am only now realizing the depth of his absence. This man’s children are growing up without their father and he can change that. Children only need a solid presence not perfection. These father-shaped holes we’re all carrying around are hard to deal with; therefore I cannot judge how he deals with his but parenthood is a gift; any person that dismisses it is guilty of a far greater sin. And all the man the story has is a silhouette & pictures. His painter father left because he was chased out, he can find contentment in the lack of choice there but what about his own children? Will finding & meeting the painter make him content? I hope so, that would give me hope.

    1. OK – I do not have ANY kids of my own. My wife’s kids are adults and never accepted me in to their family.

  6. “I dont think am equipped to be a father…am equipped to be a father figure…..i’ fall apart” that feeling resounds

  7. Blood.. bloodline. A man will always search for his blood father, even if he had a surrogate one. There’s a yearning inside each of us, to know our origins, to know our parents. We who grew up with both our parents have no idea what a gift we got.

  8. WOW that he can shape his life around a silhouette…WOW. My memory of
    my father is a tall figure, have no clue what he looked like and never will( he died a couple of years ago). I bravely walk around saying I couldn’t care less that I never knew him, doesn’t stop me from wondering… I shaped my life around 2 great men who positively influenced me my Uncle and my Godfather(yeah they are real), I still don’t know how to be around men or fathers so I basically wear a mask and they can then make their own interpretation of who or what I am. I hope you meet your father, I hope he meets your need.

  9. To see this now, so raw, so touching. Tears me apart to know my own has/will go through this. Adam, was he the one?