Column: For years, the Reagans' daughter regretted some things she wrote. Now she's at peace

Being the child of our parents is, on an existential level, everyone’s life‘s work. We are all shaped by the people who gave us life, their presence or their absence, their loving support or pathological abuse and all the myriad types of influence in between.

For Patti Davis, however, that life’s work has been quite literal.

She began chronicling her singular life as the only daughter and oldest child of Ronald and Nancy Reagan in 1986 with the roman a clef “Home Front.” She followed it in 1992 with the tell-all “The Way I See It: An Autobiography,” a book that was, depending on the politics of the reader, both wildly praised and viciously criticized and for which she has spent the last two decades expressing regret.

Her subsequent books have been kinder: “Angels Don’t Die: My Father’s Gift of Faith” (1995) offer some of the life lessons the former president taught his daughter. “The Long Goodbye: Memories of My Father” (2005) deals with his long battle with Alzheimer’s. It also began Davis’ work as an Alzheimer’s educator and activist, which she continued in “Floating in the Deep End: How Caregivers Can See Beyond Alzheimer’s” (2021). “The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us: Prominent Women Discuss the Complex, Humorous, and Ultimately Loving Relationships They Have With Their Mothers” (2009) is rooted in Davis’ complicated feelings about her own mother.

Along the way, she has condemned contemporary Republicans’ persistent use of Reagan as a touchstone of the party Davis believes he would not recognize and expressed bewilderment over unearthed tapes in which the then-president used racist terms to describe Black African delegates to the United Nations.

To be sure, Davis has written about many other things as well, including several novels and many non-Reagan-related columns for a variety of publications; her recent essay on Matthew Perry’s death for the New York Times was poignant and insightful. But like many writers, she frankly mines her own experience, as she did earlier this year when she suggested that Prince Harry might come to regret some of the revelations of “Spare.” She has even occasionally served as her father’s stand-in, as when she and her brother Ron insisted that Reagan would have approved of legalizing gay marriage.

Davis’ new book, “Dear Mom and Dad: A Letter About Family, Memory, and the America We Once Knew,” appears to provide an endnote to this lifelong exploration of her often distant, chilly and turbulent relationship with her parents. Although she remains baffled and hurt by many of their choices — be it the former president’s refusal to address the AIDS crisis for so long or her mother’s pattern of coldness toward her children — the book provides precisely what the title promises, a later-life consideration, and re-consideration, of her parents’ lives as people who were shaped by their own early lives, and a re-contextualizaion of Davis’ own memories, including a childhood that was not without joy.

It is also a strongly Californian book; many of Davis’ memories are jogged by the various homes in which her family lived (most of which are now gone) and the landscapes they shared.

“I’ve been trying for years, starting when my mother was still alive,” she said in a recent interview, “to do this documentary film called ‘The Reagans Before the World Moved In,’ based on my home movies and sort of the same themes as this book: Looking at your family through different eyes, through a wider lens. Looking at childhood stuff, where it was loving and tender.”

But, she says, every time she met with producers who assured her that she would be in control of the project, “a mile down the road they would be taking it away from me and doing their version of what they think the Reagan family is. And I had given up.”

So when her editor suggested she address her parents directly, Davis decided she could tell the same story in book form.

“Taking your own experience out of it and looking at who our parents are, the same way you step back from a painting to see the whole picture,” she said. “You step back from your family to get out of your own way. It’s not just your story, it’s their story too.”

Occasionally interrupted by the very affectionate Lily, a 2-year old pug Davis adopted in August, and Minnie, her 7-year-old calico cat, Davis sat for an hour in the shade of her backyard and described a process that she calls a very “organic.”

Picturing her mother, for instance, as a 3-year-old “dumped at relatives,’” or her father having to help his own drunken father off the lawn and into the house, allowed her to see her parents more clearly and provided a larger context for their own actions as parents.

And, in a few cases, as president and first lady.

“I didn’t want to get into politics but I did want to get into the AIDS thing,” she said, “which the [Reagan] library doesn’t even want to deal with. I had to be honest in this book, and a lot went wrong. As I say there, for someone with really good timing, his timing was so off every step of the way.”

Her father, she insists, was not homophobic. “He had people in his administration who were homophobic, who believed AIDS was God’s punishment. He wasn’t one of them, but one of his character flaws was that he delegated things and believed something was being done, and he didn’t really follow up and ask. And most of that is the child of an alcoholic. If you want to understand my father, you have to understand that pretty much everything goes back to being a child of an alcoholic.”

Many would disagree with such a sympathetic take on what is now widely understood as a profound failure of leadership, just as many people, including my own father, believed that the policies enacted during Reagan’s presidency made it impossible to consider him a “nice” man.

But “Dear Mom and Dad” is not an analysis of the Reagan era or even his impact on the political landscape, although Davis makes it clear that he would have deplored Donald Trump’s incitement of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and, as the victim of a shooting, this nation’s inability to pass meaningful gun legislation.

It is, instead, a daughter’s attempt to reconcile her own conflicting emotions about the people who were her parents, to be at peace with her own past.

Predictably, early coverage of “Dear Mom and Dad” focused almost exclusively on the “revelation” that the Reagans’ marriage had been prompted by Nancy’s discovery that she was pregnant with Davis, an “unplanned” event Davis finds difficult to reconcile with her mother’s level of self-control and attention to detail.

But the epistolary style of the book is used not to dish dirt or list grievances. It’s to acknowledge that Davis’ personal pain and joy were part of a larger narrative that includes many things she can never truly know. And in that, “Dear Mom and Dad” offers a more universal experience — even through the more mature lens of experience (Davis is 71), many aspects of our parents remain unknowable.

“Obviously, my mother has been the most challenging relationship in my life,” she said, “and I feel like I have come to a place of more insight into her, more forgiveness and more acceptance that it was always going to be a difficult relationship. I think you have to accept the fact that there are things you will never have an answer for.”

She and her mother went through so many phases of not speaking to each other that, she said, that “you’d have to keep a diary of the reasons why.”

In “Dear Mom and Dad,” she remembers the fractures as well as the rapprochements, including the years when her father was ailing. In the book, she describes moments of bonding between herself and her mother, but says “it was not always smooth sailing, it wasn’t always dependable that she would be open to me coming there. I wasn’t always sure who she would be when I visited. If you have a parent who is intimidating to you, it never goes away.”

When she wrote “As I See It,” a book that Davis, during this interview, literally will not name, she was at the beginning of a long journey toward reconciliation that began, she says now, with “‘Let me tell you everything I’m forgiving them for, in detail.’ That’s the point I was making in the Prince Harry piece — that you don’t have to tell everything, you don’t have to open the floodgates.

“I’ve spent years regretting many of the things I have written, particularly my autobiography, but as I was writing [ ‘Dear Mom and Dad’], I thought, ‘It’s probably good that all of that messiness was put out there because people can see the journey.’”

That journey, she says, is why she wrote this book.

“I really wrote this for other people who are going through whatever they are going through with their families. Because I have worked hard on this stuff. And if you’ve worked hard on things that others are going through too, you almost have an obligation to say, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve learned. And it was hard, and I stumbled, but here’s what I’ve learned.’”

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