Friday, June 27, 2008

American Scholar - What Kind of Father Am I?

The American Scholar has a great new article called, What Kind of Father Am I? This is a very long and exceptionally well-written first person narrative. And I think this is the kind of question a lot of men lay awake thinking about, or maybe worrying about.

But it's a bigger theme than one man's life as a son and as a father of sons (three of them). To me, and I have no kids, it still touches on some universal themes familiar to most of us.

Here is one good passage from the article, written by James McConkey.
That first son [Larry] was followed three years later by Cris—an abbreviation of Crispin, his middle name; Jim was born seven years after Cris. When Larry was a teenager, a social worker and longtime friend—her husband was a colleague of mine—told Jean [author's wife] that we put an unusual burden on our sons by expecting them to live up to an unstated code of behavior, perhaps one similar to the relationship she had observed between Jean and me. We seemed, that is, to assume some kind of equality among the members of our family, permitting our children to call us by our first names and never imposing specific rules upon their conduct. Her observations were not accusatory in nature; they may have been partially intended to show us how little we had in common with the dysfunctional family relationships of her clients. And yet they seemed to imply—especially in that phrase “an unusual burden”—a difference between her own family and ours.

When Jean told me what the social worker had said, I found her comments accurate enough to be troubling. During the years that our children remained dependent upon us, I’d always felt a special responsibility, as the adult male, for providing security and guidance to my family. Though Jean and I each had professional careers, we assumed, in a way typical of our generation, that mine should have precedence. But I had never wanted to be a patriarch, that conventional figure of male authority. Jean and I always came to major family decisions through mutual consent; neither of us would do anything that might make the other unhappy—or our children, for that matter, after they were old enough to be consulted. The reason for such behavior, being self-serving, is nothing to be proud of: we knew we’d inflict misery on ourselves by pursuing personal desires that brought unhappiness to those we love.

Nobody can will that kind of love; one reason, I guess, is that it depends on at least two people to share it. In the attempt to save their failing marriage, one of our sons and his former wife had a series of talks with a marriage counselor. Ultimately, the counselor told our son that his marital problems were obviously caused by his parents. Successful marriages require the open expression of personal emotion; if his parents never argued and fought, the reason was that they had repressed their hostility, thus victimizing him to a repetition of their fault.

Ever since Freud, repression has served some analysts as a convenient and irrefutable explanation for the problems of their patients. For example, the indignation with which I responded when our son asked me if what the counselor had said was true might have been used by the counselor as proof of the extent to which I would go to repress my other emotions. As our choices of professions indicate, Jean and I have differing aptitudes. But it seems to me that our relationship over the decades reflects a mutual respect and trust that never has been corroded by resentment. If free will has anything to do with that, it undoubtedly comes from the desire not to repeat the mistakes of our parents.
Here is another beautiful passage in which the author talks about his own father.
It wasn’t until I read The Great Gatsby as an adult that I realized how much my father resembled Fitzgerald’s title character, possessing the same “extraordinary gift for hope,” the same “romantic readiness,” with the exception that my father’s “green light” was never a woman too idealized to be mortal, but rather an equally impossible “bracket,” a word he often used to describe the otherwise indefinable status he felt destined to attain. Like Gatsby, he sought spiritual goals through material ends, but nothing—neither the well-paying positions he still managed to secure nor his wife and children—came up to his dreams. During my adolescence, he asked my mother’s permission for a divorce, since he’d fallen in love with another woman. My mother granted the request, however desolate it made her, and she relied primarily on me, as her younger son, for affection during the next three years.

That bond should have made me an ideal candidate for the complex that Freud derived from the myth of Oedipus, but it didn’t. Though my love for my mother during those difficult years may have been far deeper, I never lost my love for my father—in part, I suppose, because my mother never did, either. That three-year period ended when financial problems caused my mother, brother, and me to separate. My father was then running a Packard dealership on Chicago’s South Side, living with his second wife in a high-rise apartment building a block or so from Lake Michigan. For about half a year, I stayed with them. That marriage, like the Packard agency, was failing; though they had welcomed me, I realized that my presence—for my unhappiness must have been obvious—only added to the tension.

My father began to invite me to accompany him on various errands, which permitted his wife (I never thought of her as my stepmother) to have the apartment to herself. Once he took me to a South Side restaurant that had a walled-in balcony with slits overlooking the floor. When I asked him the purpose of those slits, he told me in a quiet voice that they had been built for machine guns, but that the restaurant’s patrons were now safe from harm. I didn’t know that he (again, like Gatsby) consorted with gangsters until one day we were driving through the Loop area. While we were waiting in traffic behind a streetcar, somebody, in what seemed a single action, entered the Packard through a back door, closing it as he threw himself on the floor behind us. I never saw the man’s face, only heard his urgent whisper for my father to drive around the streetcar on the wrong side, and then to turn on the first side street. The commands kept coming until I—and presumably those pursuing the fugitive—was hopelessly lost. We were on a deserted street in a warehouse district when the man told my father to stop, and he slipped out of the car as quickly as he entered it. I knew, without my father telling me, that I should never mention to anybody that encounter. Until this moment of writing about it, I haven’t; and now, having done so, it seems more like an episode from an old George Raft gangster film than a commentary on a period in my father’s life when his Depression-era desperation to capture what lay only in his imagination led him into contact with underworld figures.
And here is one last passage.
I lack the desire—perhaps because I also lack the talent—to write a contemporary version of Oedipus Rex. But if I could write such a tragedy, the son wouldn’t kill his father because of sexual rivalry over the wife and mother—an absurdity, at least from my personal experience—but rather because of self-hatred, his motive hard to distinguish from suicide. As for me, I’ll never forget the long-ago moment I saw my father’s face in the mirror while I was shaving: despite my growing admiration for him in the years after the remarriage, it was the first time that I had fully accepted the likeness, and I realized that I had also accepted myself, whatever my shortcomings. That double acceptance involved more than the genetic connection: I was entering middle age, and the hair at my temples was turning gray, my skin losing its youthful tautness and beginning to sag below the cheeks. That is to say, my father and I were mortal and would share the fate common to all living creatures. I was living then with my wife and children in Paris; our apartment was a niche in a modern and impersonal housing complex. Maybe one has to be far from home to gain awareness like that. After all, visiting foreign countries is said to be a broadening experience.
Now go read the whole article.

I'm not promising this essay will reveal the secrets to being a good father. Only that this one man shares some experiences that all of us -- father and/or sons -- might have shared, and in the sharing, discovered ourselves part of a larger net of being men.

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