The last thing I wanted was to turn into my parents

If we examine our lives, how often do we find we have gone down paths that would appal our younger selves?

Thurgood Marshall said that history sometimes takes things into its own hands.

I think he might have been right.

In When She Was Gone, the second book of my crime series featuring the damaged and somewhat unpredictable criminologist David Dunnigan, we see the hero/antihero (not quite consciously) become almost everything he despises – or at least, everything he claimed to loathe until life taught him differently.

For Dunnigan this means placing his friends and those he cares about at huge risk – offering them as bait, almost, as he tries to draw out the people who abducted his beloved niece 18 years ago. In the books, Dunnigan is the child of two academics who seemed to care little for him and did their level best to push him away and shirk their responsibilities, finally abandoning him completely when his life came apart after his niece’s disappearance.


And while he claims he hates that they treated him and his twin sister, Gina, so callously, he seems to find it frighteningly easy to replicate their emotional disconnection when it serves him to do so.

Of course, for the vast majority of us, the stakes are a little less life-or-death, but if we examine our lives, how often do we find that we have gone down paths or adopted roles that would appal our younger selves?

My relationship with my own parents was very far removed from that of my protagonist – I was close to my mother and had the kind of bond most young men had with their fathers in the 1970s and ’80s – I respected my Dad and admired him, although we probably didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our feelings.

However, as much as I loved both my parents, the last thing in the world I wanted was to turn out like them!

I saw them both as being very much part of the institutions of our society – my mother was a teacher and very active in the church. My father was a wedding photographer and had a traditional music show on the local radio station.

As a teenager who was in a rock band and had aspirations towards being something of a rebel, the lives my parents had chosen seemed impossibly twee and ordinary.

Of course, rebelling wasn’t always simple.

My Dad was an easy target – much more conservative than my mother, it bugged the hell out of him that I chose to wear my hair long (something I persisted with until my forties, when my wife pointed out that my locks had thinned out too much for me to get away with it anymore) and that I habitually left my shirts untucked. I came home with my ear pieced one afternoon, and I thought he was going to have a stroke.

It was exactly the reaction I was looking for.

My mother was a much tougher audience. She thought my long hair looked ‘interesting’, and ‘quite liked’ the earring. When I played rock music loudly, she would often pop her head into my room and express how much she enjoyed the melody of whichever angst-ridden anthem I was grimly listening to. She encouraged me in almost all of my endeavours, and the only way I found I could really rebel against her was to dodge going to Mass, which really rankled her.

So I did that when I felt brave enough.

By the time I was hitting my mid-teens, I had firmly decided that, whatever I was going to be, I was definitely not going to be like my parents. Funny how life – or history, perhaps – can step in.

Mark Twain once wrote: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could barely stand to have the old man around. But when I got to 21, I was amazed at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”

I reckon it took me a little bit longer. But I got there.

I am, at the time of writing, 45 years old. I teach college for a living, and while I have not been an active member of the church for many years, I consider myself a deeply spiritual person (one of the main characters in the Dunnigan series is a Roman Catholic priest, albeit an unorthodox one). I have contributed to various radio stations, national and local, for years, and while I still play music, I am currently a member of a folk and trad band.

David Dunnigan is perhaps not as self-aware as I like to think I am. If asked, he would tell you that he is nothing like his parents. He is a man who acts on instinct, driven by impulses he has no desire to understand. His behaviour is rooted solely in a kind of primal survival mechanism – things happen, and he responds.

Yet everyone looking on can see that he is heading to a dark place.

Time will tell is he emerges from it into the light once again.
Shane Dunphy is the author of When She Was Gone, published by Hachette Books Ireland