Zach Bissinger is a remarkable man with a remarkable story. At 24, Zach works in a grocery bagging groceries and at a law firm, stocking supplies. He has been classified as borderline “mentally retarded” and autistic, yet he is also a savant who remembers every person he meets in concrete detail and holds the maps of whole cities in his head in minute detail.
Zach’s father, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger, has struggled all of Zach’s life to fully understand and find peace with his son’s limitations and abilities. In a quest for that understanding and connection, father and son set out on a road trip across the country to the places they lived when Zach was growing up.
For journalist Bissinger, such a story would be hard to pass up and so that trip became a book, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son.
"Some people had mentioned they were taken aback at first by the candor and honesty of the book. My response is: 'Look if you’re going to write something like this if you’re not going to be honest about it what’s the point?' ”
Early in the book, Bissinger describes a blue file drawer where he keeps “the exhaustive summaries of Zach’s condition dating from his birth onward.” This “blue box” full of the documentation of decades of tests and contradictory diagnoses is something that Bissinger rejects as the final word on who is son is and can become.
When I spoke to Bissinger by phone before the Texas leg of his book tour, I had to ask if is attempting to replace the blue box with Father's Day, and he affirmed it is.
“This my blue box. It’s a emotional blue box. It’s my attempt without giving him dozens of mental and psychological test to really focus on my son in a very concentrated period of time when we were together and to determine for myself what he’s about and what he can do,” he explained.
Zach and his twin brother Gerry were born premature, weighing less than two pounds each, but Gerry, as the first-born son, inherited a three extra minutes of air from the world. Bissinger goes into detail early in the book what a difference those three minutes and three extra ounces of weight can make for the brain of a premie, chronicling how, though he struggled, Gerry eventually thrived while Zach was left developmentally disabled.
When I asked Bissinger how readers are reacting to the brutal honesty of the work, he said, the response had overall been “great,” but went on to note, “Although I do think some people had mentioned they were taken aback at first by the candor and honesty of the book. My response is: 'Look if you’re going to write something like this if you’re not going to be honest about it what’s the point?' ”
Empathy for Zach will probably come easily for most readers; however, Bissinger’s descriptions of his own inadequacies as a father, and also as a son to his own father, might leave readers less than sympathetic with the father in Father’s Day. Bissinger acknowledges this.
“If you go on Amazon you’ll find some people who frankly say ‘Zach is perfect and great, but his father is a jerk and brutal to him.’ When I read that I winced because that was not the point. I wanted to show the dynamics of the relationship and what Zach has to contend with as a son,” he explained.
Elaborating, he said “Part of the book is my journey with Zach and part of the journey is my own personal journey as a man and as a parent and as a father — the things that have shaped me, my relationship with my own father, the price of ambition, my unquenchable thirst for success, my insecurities. All that goes into making me who I am and goes into making me the type of parent I am.
"I will not deny if I had a more positive outlook on life I think that my feelings about Zach would have been different. I would have been more accepting.”
"When I wrote Friday Night Lights, in many ways it was a book about mothers and father and sons. Every parent was living through their kids on that football field. It’s not a bad thing."
Bissinger spends many pages in the book attempting to analyze how Zach’s brain records and processes the world differently from other people. He is able to make that analysis because of the constant documentation he has been doing of Zach’s life, recording their conversations and photographing Zach’s growth and changes.
When I pointed out to Bissinger that there is a kind of similarity in his obsession to document and Zach’s natural ability to remember concretely the details of the places and people around him, he saw some truth in that saying, “[Zach’s] a reporter. He collects information. That’s what I do for a living, basically. I document. I collect information, concrete information. And that’s exactly what Zach does. . .If it wasn’t for three minutes and he was like Gerry, I have no doubt in my mind that he would be a reporter.”
While Zach’s circumstances and abilities as well as Bissinger’s relationship with his son are certainly unique, parents who think their children’s lives would be better if only they could be just a little different might see their reflection in Buzz’s story.
Bissinger observes “All parents live through their children. I’ve seen it so many times in the world of sports. When I wrote Friday Night Lights, in many ways it was a book about mothers and father and sons. Every parent was living through their kids on that football field. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a natural thing. We all have dreams for our kids and we all have aspirations and sometimes they work out and sometimes they don’t.”
At the same time, any child who has found a some contentment or happiness in life but feels pressure to change or make different choices to please a disappointed parent, might find Zach’s situation all too familiar. Discussing this aspect of the book Bissinger said, “It often happens. The child is content and the child is happy and the child is going about his life, and it’s the parent who is the one saying, ‘Why aren’t you this and why aren’t you that.’ I’m not proud of it.”
Father’s Day is a loving father’s portrait of his funny, kind, and sometimes amazing son, but it is also the chronicling of an award winning, sometimes controversial journalist, a man who makes his living telling the real stories of people’s lives, finally coming to terms with the true story of his own son.
“The story with Zach didn’t go as planned. . .The narrative of his life was a hell of lot different than I thought the narrative would be, since my life was all about building narratives. To adjust the narrative of Zach’s life was very hard for all sorts of reasons, none of them having to do with love but having to do with the aspirations I had for him as a parent. Parents do that all the time they want to have the perfect moment in the perfect setting and often the kids are much wiser than the parent and say this is the way it’s going to be. Get used to it.”
Buzz Bissinger reads at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday at 7 p.m.