Ron Fournier’s new book, Love That Boy, is a tough read. It’s a beautifully and lovingly written story, but it’s also a painful one.
Fournier’s book does two things. First, it offers a global indictment of the hot-house parenting common among contemporary upper-middle-class parents and the unfair expectations those parents impose on their children. Second, it offers a searing and personal portrait of a man who has experienced the challenges of being a father and son (to aging parents). Along the way, Fournier’s book refreshes the old observation that parenthood requires on-the-job training; we all learn as we go, because every parent and every child is different.
The special twist here is that Fournier’s only son Tyler was diagnosed with Asperger’s about six years ago, at age 12. That one detail forces Fournier to rewrite the the father-son relationship script he had anticipated since Tyler was in utero. Fournier had planned to bond with his son over sports, as he had done with his own father growing up. But Tyler has no interest in, nor aptitude for, sports, and Fournier flounders for a way to relate.
It is painful to read about Fournier’s repeated embarrassment over Tyler. For example, when Tyler was five, the Fournier family visited President George W. Bush in the Oval Office. Like many children, Tyler is more interested in the Bushes’ dog than the commander-in-chief. Tyler embarrasses his father by shouting “Where’s Barney?” Fournier recalled, “Tyler shouted again, in a voice so inappropriately loud and demanding that I jumped slightly.” President Bush was unruffled and quickly formed a jovial rapport with young Tyler, while also noticing Fournier’s discomfort. Fournier recalls:
A few minutes later we were walking out of the Oval Office when Bush grabbed me by the elbow. ‘Love that boy,’ he said, holding my eyes. I thought I understood what he meant.
It took me years to understand.
This book is the story of that years-long journey. It is also a brutally honest portrayal of the gap between one parent’s expectations and his reality, as well as his working to eventually close that gap.
That road is a rocky one, to say the least. Every time Fournier cringed at his son, I cringed too. As a mother, I felt awful for Tyler, who may not be naturally attuned to social cues but is acutely aware of his father’s expectations.
Early in the book, Tyler accompanies his father to the Obamas’ Christmas party for the White House press corps. Fournier recalls, “I’m not just embarrassed about [Tyler’s] manners; I’m embarrassed about being embarrassed.” Tyler breaks your heart as he and his father await their picture with the Obamas, earnestly telling his father, “I hope I don’t let you down, Dad.” Fournier then wonders,
What kind of father raises a son to worry about embarrassing his dad? . . . [we’re] in a room filled with fellow strivers, and all I can think about is the real possibility that Tyler might embarrass himself. Or, G-d forbid, me. . . . My stomach clenches as I realize the problem here isn’t my son. It’s not even autism. It’s me.
Throughout the remainder of the book, we accompany Fournier and Tyler on road trips to presidential homes and libraries, as well as meetings with Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (after both men have left office). Trips Fournier dubs “guilt trips.” Fournier’s wife, who conceptualized these trips, wants Fournier and Tyler to bond over a mutual interest, while Fournier teaches his son social skills in a real-world context.
Along the way, Fournier learns his own important lessons, about how to accept and cherish his son — not for whom he wishes Tyler was, but for whom Tyler is. Fournier learns to love Tyler’s quirks and the things that make him different, rather than resenting, or feeling embarrassed by, them.
That acceptance is hard won, and Fournier gets there in part by listening to, and observing, the kindness of other parents, like Michelle Obama, who greeted Tyler with a hug at that White House Christmas party. Fournier also benefits from the wisdom of other fathers, including his own, who wisely admonishes Fournier during a visit to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, “You’re not me,” he says, nodding at Tyler, “and he’s not you.”
A second father who clearly impacts Fournier is George W. Bush, with whom Tyler is immediately comfortable, when the two meet again nine years after the initial Oval Office photo opportunity. While Fournier worries that Tyler is curt and rude during his conversation with Bush, Bush accepts Tyler as he is. The former president simply keeps probing for something that interests Tyler. He successfully draws Tyler out of his shell by meeting Tyler where he is, something Fournier realizes he needs to practice. Watching others, like President Bush, accept Tyler as he is, rather than judging him for falling short of some imagined standard or ideal. Fournier also realizes that he needs to recalibrate his own thinking — that maybe he’s the one missing the point. These are difficult truths for any parent to admit to himself privately, let alone in writing.
For someone who has made his name writing about impersonal, political topics, this book is a real genre shift for Fournier. As someone who comes out of the world of parenting writing — where we regularly write personal, and often revealing things about our internal and external lives — I commend Fournier on his impressive cross-over. Fournier evokes strong feelings in his reader. You cheer for Tyler to succeed and for Fournier, who admits to prioritizing work over his family for too long, to get things right.
As Fournier writes in the Acknowledgements, his editor “forced me to write about my feelings, the hardest assignment of my career.” I believe it, and yet I suspect that the tale of Fournier’s evolving relationship with his son will be bigger than any “career making” story Fournier ever chased. It’s certainly the most powerful.