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Paternal Instincts

When Bruce Feiler was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, he made sure his little girls wouldn't lack for a father figure.

Author Aaron Gell Photography Kelly Hike

BRUCE FEILERwhose books have recounted his adventures teaching in Japan, joining the circus and, in the best-selling Walking the Bible, retracing the steps of Abraham, Moses and other figures from scripture—likes to call himself an “experientialist.” But the experience recounted in his slim but moving new book, The Council of Dads: My Daughters, My Illness, and the Men Who Could Be Me, is one you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy.

In July 2008, Feiler, an inveterate walker and world traveler in his mid-40s (“I’ve sprained my ankle on six continents,” he says), was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his leg. Suddenly fearing he might not have long to live, the father of then-two-year-old twin daughters Tybee and Eden hit upon a unique plan: Like Danny Ocean assembling his perfect heist squad, Feiler would enlist six men, reflecting various aspects of his own personality, as his stand-ins. The hope, he writes, was that “together, collectively, they might help father my potentially fatherless daughters.”

The resulting book is a stirring hybrid: a memoir of Feiler’s cancer treatment coupled with a heartfelt meditation on parenthood, masculinity and living life to its fullest. Combining a chronicle of what he calls his “lost year” (including months of chemo and a 15-hour surgery) with portraits of Feiler’s own father figures and his Council of Dads, it’s honest, heartfelt and exceedingly raw. The book’s power comes in part from Feiler’s willingness to delve into emotions—including feelings of tenderness not only for our children and spouses but between male friends—that aren’t often spoken of with such candor. “There I am with no hair, a scar from here to here, talking to my friends,” the author explains, sitting with a cane in the Brooklyn, New York, apartment he shares with his wife, Linda Rottenberg, and the girls, surrounded by art collected during his years of globe-trotting. “The experience forced me to drop the normal trappings of contemporary life—vanity, pretense, ambition. It was very clarifying. I was still in the twilight of that feeling when I sat down to write the book. I just didn’t care. And it poured off my fingers.”

Interestingly, the result turns out to have less to do with disease than with life itself. While women will undoubtedly find the book fascinating for the light it casts on the vagaries of the male mind, men will almost certainly be moved to reexamine their own roles as fathers and as friends. “I didn’t set out to write a book about being male in America,” Feiler says, “but people keep telling me that’s what I did.”


What else to read on the go in April


Australian novelist Peter Carey (Oscar and Lucinda) delivers a coming-of-age tale based loosely on the life of French historian Alexis de Tocqueville— and with it, an extended examination of the evolution of American political life.


Time editor Richard Stengel, who worked with Nelson Mandela on his autobiography, offers a thoughtful collection of inspirational wisdom based on Mandela’s extraordinary journey.

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