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Priscilla Gilman, daughter of Richard Gilman, paints a loving but clear-eyed portrait of a complicated man in ‘The Critic’s Daughter’

Author Priscilla Gilman at her apartment in Hamilton Heights, N.Y., Jan. 23, 2023.LILA BARTH/NYT

To the outside world, Richard Gilman was a highly regarded drama critic and teacher, and half of a high-profile literary-world marriage. To his daughter Priscilla, now herself a critic and writer whose work regularly appears in The Boston Globe, he was an energetic, idealistic, committed, and loving father, one who also had an exacting moral compass and a bit of a temper to boot. This revealing and clearly heartfelt memoir — a love letter to her father that doesn’t obscure the difficult and frustrating aspects of their relationship — works precisely because Gilman delivers a detailed portrait of her father, proverbial warts and all. One of the most incisive ways she succeeds is by comparing his characteristics with a wide swath of well-known, well-loved (or, at least, well-appreciated) characters. These include — but are far from limited to — The King from “The King and I”; Big Bird, Kermit, and Grover from “Sesame Street”; Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle; “The Nutcracker”’s Drosselmeyer; Willy Wonka; Gene Kelly in “An American in Paris”; and Tony from “West Side Story.” Richard Gilman, to his daughter, was a giant of a wonderful and complex human.


A kind-hearted romantic who was also riven with insecurities and personal doubt, Richard Gilman imparted a palpable level of fun, engagement, and practical parenting during Priscilla’s and her sister Claire’s childhoods — think leader of joyful trips to the ice cream store, school field trip-chaperone, and reveler in the delights of a thunder-and-lightning storm, as well as treater of splinters and assuager of worries: “On airplanes, my mother closed her eyes tight and gripped the armrests as we’d take off or land, but my father pointed out the sights below and encouraged us to imagine jumping on the clouds.” But, as she makes abundantly clear, he was also emotionally demanding, had an erratic temper, and required an infinite amount of reverse-parenting care which Gilman, as a child, learned to provide.

Raised in the midst of a hectic and highly intellectual household on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — Gilman’s mother is the literary agent Lynn Nesbit, whose clients have included Michael Crichton, Robert Caro, Toni Morrison, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thompson — Gilman and her sister Claire enjoyed bedtime stories from Bernard Malamud and Ann Beattie, played hide-and-seek with Nat Hentoff, and produced crayon art with Crichton. (Priscilla and Claire were less enamored of Harold Brodkey, who “asked penetrating questions and often gave us what Paddington would call ‘a hard stare’ as we pranced about in our play.”)


Then, when Gilman was 10, her parents announced that they were divorcing, something that her father fought against tooth and nail until it became clear that he couldn’t change the situation. The divorce, as it unfolded, was quite acrimonious, with both parents’ issues coming blatantly to the forefront, and Gilman was forced to contend with the emotional fallout. As is frequently the case in these situations, people’s individual stories and perspectives held distressing revelations for other family members; for Gilman, her dad in particular went from being a fatherly resource to a focus of his daughter’s worries.

It’s not a new story, but Gilman infuses her narrative with specifics that make it invitingly personal. She’s especially good at describing the broken-family scenarios — the rushed, cheap meals with her struggling father, the heartache of having separate celebrations for birthdays, and the discomfort during the infrequent times that they re-met as a family. She’s equally good at expressing the emotional trap of feeling the need to support both of her parents, and the way in which one sibling may inevitably attempt to parent another one. Gilman coped, in part, by immersing herself in happy-family portraits, from “The Brady Bunch” to literary representations such as those in the All-of-a-Kind Family, “Little Women,” and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy series.


“My father was a champion of freedom. Freedom to imagine and create oneself unshackled by convention, history, origins; freedom to be, express, signify in a multiplicity of ways; freedom to resist being pinned down, labelled, mastered, interpreted definitively.” Through the familial split and the years beyond, Gilman returns time and again to celebrate that aspect of her father. Indeed, she’s clearly absorbed elements of that characteristic herself: She’s incredibly honest about what she went through to recognize and release her responses to her father’s emotional needs — in one astonishing incident, she sees a therapist and rapidly finds herself responding to the therapist’s needs — while still honoring her father’s ability to exist outside the so-called box. To my mind, one of the best things Richard Gilman did as a father was assuring his daughter, then a 7-year-old tomboy, that there was something more important than looks: “Women others considered plain, even unattractive, he found beautiful because of an intelligent gleam in their eyes, a warm smile, a noble mind. … ’Your brain,’” he told Gilman, “‘is more valuable than any pretty face.’”


On an introductory page, Gilman writes: “I lost my father for the first time when I was ten years old. In the months and years that followed, I lost him over and over, many times and in many different ways. This book is my attempt to find him.” This book feels as though she achieved that — and more. She certainly provides the rest of us with a daughter’s thoughtful and empathetic profile of her dad.


By Priscilla Gilman

Norton, 304 pp., $28.95

Daneet Steffens is a journalist and critic. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @daneetsteffens.