We were intrigued at the way Dr Allen uses his medical training and expertise to analyse his son’s predicament. What gave you the idea for this approach (which worked exceptionally well, we thought)?
I knew when I started that I wanted the father in the book to be successful, a man at a point in his life where he’s finally content. Respected in his field, he’s happily married with a family. A man who’s made his mistakes and learned from them, in other words. And as I thought about what his profession might be, the doctor idea came to me pretty quickly, and with it a flood of connections. Doctors are detectives, after all, with rheumatologists being the great detectives of the medical world. It wasn’t that I wanted Paul to be a great detective. It was that his medical detective experience would give him the hubris to think that he could solve the mystery of if (or why) his son committed the crime. The choice of profession also informed the structure of the book. As a doctor Paul had been trained to build a personal profile of his patients, to compile the facts of the case and compare them to other cases in order to find a diagnosis. This is why Paul compares his son’s life to that of other lone gunmen of American History. The trick for doctors, however, is in knowing what is a relevant and what is an irrelevant fact. For Paul, perhaps, the most relevant fact is that he, as Daniel’s father, is too emotionally invested in the case to be objective.
You go into considerable detail of Robert Kennedy’s assassination, and the conspiracy theories which ensued. What is your personal view of these theories, and the wider question of such phenomena?
It is hard for us, as pattern-seeking animals, to believe that history is often made by random and senseless acts. Belief in conspiracies is a kind of religion. The idea that there is a larger plan at work, that history is controlled by cabals of powerful men, is strangely reassuring. At least the universe is ordered. At least someone is in control. The strangely addictive truth of conspiracies is that the deeper you go the more compelling the urge becomes to believe. Random facts take on deeper meaning. A girl in a polka dot dress, discrepancies in the number of shots fired. Errol Morris made a great short documentary about ‘The Umbrella Man,’ a much disputed spectre of the JFK assassination (http://www.nytimes. com/2011/11/22/opinion/ the-umbrella-man.html?_r=0). In photos taken of Dealy Plaza as JFK’s motorcade approached, we see a man in a dark suit standing with an open umbrella, despite the fact that it was a sunny day. Conspiracy theorists have suggested that the umbrella man was an accomplice to the crime. Some even suggested the umbrella itself hid a secret weapon. But in the Seventies the Umbrella Man came forward and testified before Congress. His name was Louie Steven Witt and he said he had been in Dealy Plaza that day to present an odd visual protest to Kennedy’s father Joseph’s historic appeasement of Hitler in 1938 and 1939, as ambassador to Britain. The umbrella, he said, was a reference to Neville Chamberlain’s umbrella. The truth of history, it turns out, is that when you look closely at any important event, strange details will emerge. It is in our very nature to try to find a place for these details in the larger narrative. It’s like buying a 300 piece jigsaw puzzle but finding 310 pieces in the box. For me, what’s interesting is not the conspiracies themselves. It is why we are so eager to believe in them.
When did you first start to form your opinion on American gun culture, and do you think the personal weapons that currently flood your country will ever be controlled along, say, British lines?
I don’t have an opinion, per se, about America’s relationship with guns. In a perfect universe we would have a balance between the individual’s right to say and do as he pleases and society’s right to enforce moderation and common sense. To outsiders, the idea that a certain percentage of American citizens are so passionate about their right to own weapons (including automatic assault rifles) must be confounding. But America is a country founded by men seeking to escape what they regarded as persecution and tyranny. As a result, the founding fathers wrote very specific protections of individual freedom into our constitution. To this day there is a fear among a certain percentage of citizens that America is only ever one step away from becoming a totalitarian state. Guns, for these people, represent the ultimate individual freedom. The canary in the coal mine. Because guns, unlike other protected rights, can be used by citizens to fight back, should the state ever turn on its citizenry. I’m not saying this is a 100% rational idea. I’m saying this is the fear that lurks at the bottom of the American well. The debate over guns plays into the dogged conspiracymindedness of Americans, which I discussed above. The idea that the ‘powers that be’ with their black helicopters and intricate crystal cabals are circling our personal freedoms like vultures. It is the dark side of what it means to be American. As a result, it’s hard to see real and meaningful gun control ever gaining a strong foothold here.
If the Jesuits’ maxim – ‘Give me a child for his first seven years and I’ll give you the man’ – were applied to Daniel, how do you think he might have turned out? Where do you think the nature/nurture balance lies?
I would say that the Jesuit maxim holds a certain amount of truth, but that good work done early can always be undone later. For Daniel, the first seven years of his life were relatively stable. And then his parents divorced and his father moved across the country. Everything he believed changed; his landmarks. As a result, his identity was broken down and rebuilt around his new realities. The hardest thing to come to terms with as a parent is that your work is never done. Each stage of development brings new puzzles and new challenges. And then adolescence hits, and with it the very real threat that if you can’t help your child navigate his or her way through it their future options will become irrevocably limited. For me, more than anything, I believe my job as a father is to help my daughter develop tenacity, creativity and drive. I try to teach her to be a ‘yes’ person, who views problems as challenges, not obstacles, which is how I am. Like all children, she has a very definite personality, a specific hard-wiring that I try to work with (or around). Nature vs nurture is the battle we wage all our lives, I’m afraid. I’ll let you know in twenty years how my great parenting experiment turned out.