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In Priestdaddy, the writer behind “Rape Joke” tells the darkly funny story of her family

Priestdaddy, by Patricia Lockwood Riverhead
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The difficulty with Priestdaddy, a new memoir by the poet Patricia Lockwood, is that it’s easy to make it sound like a David Sedaris book with Catholic inflections, all zany dysfunctional family hijinks punctuated with a well-chosen dirty word.

That’s because Priestdaddy is, as its title suggests, a funny, slightly obscene book. It’s the story of Lockwood and her husband, awash in medical bills, moving back in with Lockwood’s mother and father, the latter of whom is a Catholic priest. (He started out as a Lutheran priest and then converted to Catholicism, and was able to keep his family via a special dispensation.)

Lockwood’s father as she describes him is given to lounging around the rectory in near-transparent boxers, playing the electric guitar, and muttering darkly about how cats are as bad as Democrats. He washes in Palmolive and scrubs his legs with a rag that “smells like a crime.” Her mother, meanwhile, curses like “a prudish extraterrestrial attempting to approximate human behavior” and has a phobia of finding pubes in a motel room.

Lockwood has an eye for the precise details that capture a family’s neuroses, and the exact turn of phrase that will leave readers snickering and then scrambling to explain to horrified friends why the idea of a priest in transparent boxers is so funny. She mines incredible humor out of the tension between her lapsed-Catholic, feminist adult self and her right-wing, God-fearing parents.

But Priestdaddy is not just a collection of funny essays: It’s also something weirder and twistier and sadder than that.

It’s a fitting accomplishment for Lockwood, who first caught people’s attention when she published the poem “Rape Joke” (“The rape joke is that the next day he gave you Pet Sounds. No really. Pet Sounds. He said he was sorry and then he gave you Pet Sounds. Come on, that’s a little bit funny”) and built her reputation on the intersection of Weird Twitter and Poetry Twitter. She gets her hooks into you by being witty and dirty, and then drags you off somewhere dark and thoughtful and hard to laugh at.

So over time, Priestdaddy veers away from the questionable bathing habits of the Lockwood pater and into the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals, and the way the knowledge of what certain priests were doing seeped into Lockwood’s mind without her quite realizing it. It goes into the Lockwood family’s participation in the pro-life movement, and the pregnant young woman they take into their home and then abandon shortly after she gives birth.

And again and again, the book returns to the idea that Lockwood’s father is a literal patriarchy, that to his daughter he represents her father and the Catholic Church and God himself all at once, and that this fact has molded Lockwood’s psyche in ways she is still discovering and dealing with.

“I can only write down what you say, what you do,” she writes to him toward the end of the book, addressing him directly from the page. “Please give me something, anything: a crumb of the bread that you stand in front of the people and change, a word of the absolution that flows out of you toward anyone who needs it.”

What emerges from Priestdaddy in the end is an immensely tender, loving, and melancholy portrait of a family, just as funny and dirty as the title suggests but with an unexpected heart. It’s the best version of what you might hope for when you’re reading a memoir by the poet laureate of Twitter.