The Critic's Daughter: A Memoir

Image of The Critic's Daughter: A Memoir
Release Date: 
February 7, 2023
W. W. Norton & Company
Reviewed by: 

“the questions raised about the nature and value of criticism are worthwhile, [but] the heart of this memoir is the unusually powerful, fraught, and enduring father-daughter relationship.”

If everyone’s a critic, and all the world is a stage, we all must play the roles of audience and performer, opinionator and creator. Few people have lived as deeply embedded in this dichotomy as Priscilla Gilman, the daughter of drama critic Richard Gilman and a performer and critic herself.

Priscilla Gilman grew up in New York City, the older daughter of Richard Gilman and Lynn Nesbit, a literary power couple. Richard worked as a drama critic and Yale School of Drama professor, Lynn as an agent to high-profile authors like Tom Wolfe, Toni Morrison, and Robert Caro.

Richard Gilman possessed a flair for the dramatic and romantic, as well as a sharp critical voice that cut like a razor blade through texts and performances he found lacking. He loved in his children the qualities he prized in himself—imagination, intellect, and passion. Gilman, who found her mother cold and removed, soaked up her father’s love, and it sustained her completely.

The book begins, almost ominously, with Gilman making the case for the absolute magic of her father as a parent. She writes with lavish praise of his playfulness, soothing skills, and total brilliance. “Children and animals alike adored my father.” He was the cat’s pajamas and the bee’s knees.

The young family’s apartment served as a gathering spot for a who’s who of writers, artists, and intellectuals of the 1970s. “Surrounded by creative writers, did my father not feel inadequate? No, because he was the judge and they the judged, he the one they all turned to for advice, wisdom, validation. My father’s approval meant everything to those who wanted to please him.”

As a young child, Gilman was blissfully immune from her father’s critical eye. To him, she was a perfectly formed creation, her every idea worthy of respect and exploration. How intoxicating it must have been for her to possess the adoration of one so critical of others.

And yet as Gilman grew up, she did begin to work for her father’s love. In the classic codependent way, she sensed and managed her father’s moods and temper to a degree far more sophisticated than her years. When her parents divorced, her role as comforter and cheerleader consumed her identity as a daughter.

To blame for the divorce was her father’s unusual sexual appetites. He cheated on her mother and apparently preferred whips and chains in the bedroom. When Gilman discovered an explicit letter her father wrote, her mother told her about his indiscretions, despite her daughter’s tender preteen age.

Gilman’s mother disclosed more damaging revelations about Richard, thinking (wrongly) that her daughter was old enough to handle them. Though Gilman claims she empathized “keenly” with her mother in the divorce, evidence of a serious grudge remains. Her treatment of her mother on these pages is cold. Of her younger sister, Gilman writes: “Other than my father, there was no one I loved more.”

In contrast, Gilman forgave her father for every misstep. She made his happiness her mission, even writing a list of things not to do in front of her dad lest she trigger a dark mood. Richard, who, like his ex-wife, seemed to be following a list of the worst things to do during a divorce, told his daughters he would kill himself if not for them.

That was all Gilman needed to hear. She vowed to provide “steadfast affection and innocent faith in him” no matter what. It meant decades of Gilman putting on a performance her father would probably have deemed flawless, if he had been in on the act. She was loving, upbeat, strong, and cheerful for him. The great romance between father and daughter, like husband and wife before them, became deeply dysfunctional.

Throughout the book, Gilman delightfully weaves the television shows, plays, and movies of her childhood into the story. As a girl, she was Charlie to her father’s Willy Wonka. She saw her father in the Tony character from West Side Story. She understood divorce through Kramer vs. Kramer.

Gilman also addresses the contradictions and shortcomings of dramatic criticism, suggesting that people should be free to love what they love, in all senses, not just the theatrical. She illustrates her point through her father, who suffered from public disapproval over his sexual preferences (which he disclosed in his memoir, Faith, Sex, Mystery).

She tells of several instances when her father, at an emotional low point, seemed to let himself be captivated by performances that he ordinarily would have panned. Soon after the divorce, Gilman noticed her father crying during the gazebo scene in Sound of Music, a movie he disdained. (His friend and fellow Yale professor Stanley Kauffman referred to it as “The Sound of Mucus.”)

While the questions raised about the nature and value of criticism are worthwhile, the heart of this memoir is the unusually powerful, fraught, and enduring father-daughter relationship. Gilman creates an emotional map of the catastrophic disruption of divorce and the devotion of a child for her parent despite his failings.