There are dads who wrestle with their kids and learn to braid their hair, and then there's Ellen and Link's dad. This dude is authoritarian, academically inclined, and pretty emotionally distant. He rules his house with an iron fist, and all we really know about him is that he has an incredible ability to intimidate and evaluate his own children, a knack for cooking, and a proclivity toward enjoying dry literary classics.
Link and Ellen live in perpetual fear of disappointing their father, which seems like an unfortunate way to grow up. His favorite quote—"Geeky people often have that which is most valuable in this life: A mind with it's own heartbeat" (2.16)—is often mocked by Link and Ellen, but it lingers in the back of their minds like some kind of unattainable accomplishment:
The thing about Dad is that he makes you want and dread his attention at the same time. I like the fact that he's interested in my thoughts, but I'm always terrified of what he thinks about what I think. After all, I know he's judging whether or not my mind has any kind of a heartbeat yet. What can I safely say about what I thought? (3.21)
This is unfortunate because it effectively shuts down any attempt at communication that isn't on a need-to-know basis. His kids essentially only engage in conversation with him when he initiates it, and it often ends up sounding more like a job interview than a chat between father and child. Occasionally, though, they reach a sweet spot where both parties are content:
Dad listens to me. Absorbs me, really. His eyes never leave my face, and I picture my words piercing through his corneas down into his heart. I am reminded of why Link and I want his attention even when we dread it. We want it because when we don't disappoint Dad, we present him with our best selves. (16.25)
To bring out the best in your children is an admirable feat, so we're not trying to trash Dad's parenting skills. However, there is a major downside to teaching your kids that love is conditional…
While it's clear that he loves his children dearly and wants only the very best for them, Dad has a very difficult time expressing his love without tying it, somehow, to their accomplishments.
This is why he pushes Link so hard with his pursuit of math and why he's always encouraging Ellen to read the great literary classics. It makes us wonder what he'd do if Ellen decided to dye her hair blue or if Link suddenly devoted his life to becoming a paparazzo.
Thing is, we don't have to wonder too hard. The minute Dad gets a whiff of the fact that his genius son might be gay he goes on the offensive. Instead of sitting Link down and talking about what obviously must be difficult for him, he secretly bribes him to date a girl, any girl, as long as it's not James. Dad is in major denial about the possibility that Link could be gay, and it's one of the biggest reasons why Link won't consider it, himself.
Dad's motivations are simple: He wants what is best for Link, and in his mind, being gay would limit those possibilities:
"What makes you care so much about Link?" I ask. "Don't you want him to have a unique perspective?"
"Your brother is not gay," Dad says.
"We don't know that," I say, thinking how the more I hear Dad and Link say he is not gay, the less I believe it. "He doesn't even know. You're afraid he is. Why?"
"Link is endlessly talented," Dad says. "He's crawling with potential. While the margins may afford certain observations, it is also a limited way to live. I want your brother's life to be limitless." (16.36-39)
What Dad doesn't realize is that he's going about this all wrong. If he could find it in himself to fully support Link—and whatever sexual identity he identifies with—then he'd realize that being gay doesn't necessarily limit your possibilities. Not as much as he thinks, anyway. Unfortunately, though, Dad is stuck in an old-fashioned mindset. He has yet to "navigate society's unwritten laws" the way that Ellen does, and it's from this lack of understanding that his prejudice stems.