By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT

Part III


The father who is absent or otherwise unavailable to his son is an age old archetypal theme.  Tale after tale tells of the fatherless boy who must find his way to manhood as best he can.  True to form, the king, able to again go safely into the woods with the wild man caged, was away hunting when his son made his pact with the wild man.  As always, myth reflects reality.  Fathers and sons are often separated.  Social and economic stress tend to reduce family structure to mothers and children.  Men leave families behind as they go off to war, to look for work or a better place to live.  Some fathers leave to escape constant reminders of their inability, perhaps due to no fault of their own, to adequately protect and provide for their families.  Some absent fathers were never present in the first place.

Besides psychological and sociological factors, there may be a biological basis for the frequently tenuous relationship of men to family life.  The connection between a child and the man who fathers it is far from clear.  Some tribal cultures came into the twentieth century unaware of any connection between sexual intercourse and pregnancy.   The Trobriand Islanders, studied by the pioneering cultural anthropologist, Bronislav Malinowski, firmly believed that women produced children all by themselves.(1)  If the facts of sexual reproduction are a relatively recent discovery in the history of human evolution, it may be that we have not yet completely sorted out the implications of male involvement in bringing children into the world.

Even after a child is born, the mother's role is better defined than that of the father.  A special bond exists between a mother and the child who was for nine months a part of her body.  She is biologically equipped to feed the infant, which initially seems to need little else.  With no clear, naturally defined part to play in relation to the little stranger who has entered his home, a new father may see no reason why he should not resume life as it was .  Leaving mother and child at home, he returns to his hunting in the forest, saddles his charger to ride off to some adventure, or goes back to his desk at a company that may provide maternal but not paternal leave.

There are, of course, many fathers who are deeply involved with their children.  Many cultures expect fathers to play an active part in child care.  Despite their ignorance of the male role in conception, the Trobriand Islanders believed that every child should have an involved man in its life.(2)  In the Trobriand "savages," as he unfortunately labeled them, Malinowski found a culture that regarded the sexes as more or less equal.  Men and women spent a good deal of their time together, with no initiatory rites to radically separate young men from women.  Trobriand culture fits a widespread pattern in which equality of the sexes, absence of elaborate initiatory practices, lack of a warrior tradition, and male involvement in child raising are associated.(3)  In the cultures from which the men's movement of the 1990's derived many of its rituals for "making men," adult men, strongly identified with the role of warrior, spend little time with women and children. In some such cultures, boys have almost no contact with their fathers until they are forcibly taken away from their mothers to be initiated into the mysteries of manhood.(4)

If, as is often claimed, boys must be made into men through some imposed process, we should carefully examine just what it is that we are making.  Why is the end product of traditional male initiation so often  is a man who views women and children as alien, inferior beings?   Can we really afford to continue turning out such men?  Perhaps, rather than trying to revive male initiatory tradition, we should be striving to eliminate its remaining traces from our culture!  The challenging phrase, "be a man," implies that manhood is a state radically distinct from that of women.  Too often boys are conditioned to believe that, apart from brief encounters in the course of sexual conquest, "real men" avoid everything associated with the feminine, being particularly careful not to take on the domestic roles traditionally assigned to women.

Until recently child developmental literature tended to regard fathers, if they were considered at all, as maternal substitutes with little or no contribution of their own to make.  Not until the mid-1970's, as gender roles became less rigidly defined and more women entered the ranks of academic researchers, did developmental theorists begin to look beyond traditional assumptions to discover, as the Trobriand Islanders might have told them, that fathers do have a unique and essential role.(5)  This is especially true when the child is male.

Developmental theorists generally agree that the achievement of a secure sense of gender identity is more difficult for males than it is for females.  Initially both sexes establish a primary identity and bond with their mother as the person who is most often present in their experience of the world.  A girl can easily continue to imagine herself as "like mommy" with little challenge from either the environment or her growing sense of self.  But, as his awareness of self and others grows, a boy cannot avoid the fact that he is fundamentally different from his mother.  With a loving mature man available to him, most boys naturally progress from the stage of "like mommy" through discovery of "not like mommy" to eventual identification with his father (or a father substitute).   Sharing in his father's sense of self, a boy gradually makes his father's maleness his own.

The sense of who and what one is develops through relationships with other people.  The founder of self psychology, Heinz Kohut, described three types of relationship needs as vital to developing and maintaining a stable sense of self.  We need the experience of being recognized, affirmed, and appreciated by others for simply being who we are.  We also need a stable, powerful, and admired other person or persons able and willing to support us in our endeavors.  Finally, we need to know that our experience of the world and ourselves is like that of others.(6)  Direct experience of an admired man who lovingly affirms a shared maleness is vital to a boy's developing sense of what it means to be male.

Every boy child comes into the world with an as-yet unlimited masculine potential, a protean archetypal template containing an infinite number of possibilities for experiencing the world through a male body.  In a complex interaction of biological predisposition and experience, some aspects of the masculine archetype are shaped into a conscious image of what it is to be a man.  But, since every archetype is by definition a whole, containing all the possible manifestations of a particular theme, other aspects of the masculine remain undeveloped and therefore unconscious, indicating their existence indirectly through dreams, fantasies, and problem behaviors.

A boy without a consistent, admired man to emulate may have difficulty in appropriately moving beyond early identification with his mother.  This is not to say that a boy without a father, or with a father unable to adequately respond to him, has no hope of establishing a stable male identity. There will probably be other men around whom he can emulate.  Many single mothers very effectively recognize and affirm their sons’ developing masculinity.  Sometimes, however, a mother may be so wounded by her bitter experience with men that she is able to convey only a negative or even blank image of the father.  She may, in fact, want her boy to grow up to be anything but a man.

Such was the case in the medieval Grail legend with Parzival and his mother .  Not long after Parzival's father had more or less deserted his mother to go to war in a far off land, he was killed in battle.  Soon after, Parzival was born.  In sorrow and anger, the widowed mother took her child away from the kingdom where she had ruled in happier days.  Determined that he would know nothing of his father or knighthood, she told Parzival nothing about his tragic and royal family history.  So he came to manhood totally ignorant of his connection to anyone but his mother.

As with any wound to the psyche, the absence of a father has the potential for being a tragic loss from which one never recovers or the basis for transformation that otherwise would not have occurred.  The deeds of many mythological heroes are a direct function of their fatherless states.  Had Parzival's early life been different, had he known his father, he likely would not have set off on the haphazard quest that led him to the Grail.  If the king in "Iron Hans"  had not been out hunting while his son bargained with the wild man, the boy might not have released the wild man to begin the process that eventually transformed them both.

A father's absence may be more psychological than physical.  It is relatively easy for a man to withdraw from the domestic scene.  Work or other outside interests and responsibilities pull him away.   If he is physically present at home but emotionally unavailable, his abandonment may not be readily apparent.  The age old pattern is repeated as a man turns away from family life, leaving his mate to deal with domestic responsibilities as best she can.

Rites of passage, in Arnold van Genep's classic formulation,(7) consist of three phases:  separation from life as previously known, movement into and through a transformative experience of some sort, and incorporation of the transformative experience into everyday life.  In traditional culture, the initiate returns to the community from which the the early stages of initiation separated him to share the results of his transformative experience.

Many, but not all men make it through the first two stages.  Most manage to leave home and their infantile identity with mother.  Some, however,  get stuck just beyond the front door.  Constantly vacillating between comforts of the familiar and the excitement of the unknown, they go nowhere.  Others find their way to some sense of what it is to be a man in the world.  But many fail to complete the cycle.  They, in effect, never return home to incorporate their experience as men into an equal and fertile connection with the feminine.

Behind the resistance of men to domestic life lies a powerful fear of the feminine.  Deep within the psyche of even the most enlightened man lurks a primitive (i. e. strong, unconscious, and not susceptible to logic) sense that masculine identity is so tenuous as to be in continual danger of disintegration, especially when brought into contact with its apparent opposite.  Male fear of women is similar to the civilized man's fear of his wild counterpart, except that women can represent an even greater threat.  A man defeated by another man, no matter who the victor might be, has at least proven himself not a coward.   But the man defeated by a woman is likely to be an object of shameful derision in the eyes of his fellows as well as within himself.

Creativity and new life come through the union of opposites.  A masculinity cut off from its opposite and complement becomes rigid, power bound, and brittle, with no means for sustaining itself other that of oppressing others.  Anything that does not fit into its limited schemas must be made to fit or be destroyed.  Women must be dominated, kept in their place, for fear that they will overpower, and in effect, castrate men.  If he cannot control the women in his life (which no man can really do), the best way to escape this reminder of the limits of male power is for a man to distance himself from women and all that pertains to them.  In refusing to acknowledge and come to terms with his self-constricted identity, he misses the opportunity to grow beyond it.  And once again, his son is left to deal as best he can with what his father refused to face.

The king in "Iron Hans" gave his queen responsibility for safeguarding the key to the wild man's cage.  While he turned his attention elsewhere, undoubtedly to matters that he thought more important, his wife was supposed to make sure that no one let the captive out.  Like the queen, mothers (and the maternal substitutes men find in other women) are often assigned responsibility for keeping the dark, instinctual masculine shut away where it will not contaminate their "nice boys."  Finding that some things valued by male peers are condemned by his mother, a boy learns to hide parts of his self from her.  As an adult  he continues to habitually conceal certain aspects of who he is from women, even though they may share none of his mother's judgments.

The sense that there are separate and distinct rules of behavior for males and females is reinforced as a boy grows older.  He learns to be sexually aggressive, measuring his masculinity by the quantity and quality (for some girls are "easier " than others) of his conquests.   He is led to believe that girls, not boys, hold primary responsibility for setting limits on how far sexual experimentation will go.  Despite a multitude of changes in sexual attitudes and behaviors, the double standard remains very much in effect.  In the twisted logic that traditionally governs relations between the sexes, women are alternately depicted as angelic sexless beings or demonic temptresses seething with carnal passions that they use to enslave men, who apparently lose all capacity for rational choice when under a woman's influence.  When wildness breaks out in a man's life, the finger of blame is likely be pointed at some woman.  Maybe she led him on, was too provocative, was not supportive enough, or just happened to be in the vicinity at the time.   The underlying assumption seems to be that men are inherently incapable of controlling their instinctual drives.

If a man is to truly be a man, he must accept full responsibility for who he is and what he does.  He must defy the old, outmoded rules and customs that say someone else is ultimately answerable for his behavior.  He must go where he is not supposed to, recover the key his forefathers gave away, and take his chances in opening the forbidden door.

The key has been put where "good boys" do not go.  As his last defense against the wild man's temptation, the boy said that he did not have the key to unlock the cage.  But the wild man knew what the prince's innocence kept from him:  the key was under the queen's pillow.  Caught up in his desire for the golden ball, the boy "threw caution to the winds."  Going to his mother's bed, the secret place of his own origin, he found the key where the wild man said it would be.  In daring to enter that forbidden region, the prince lost another bit of his childish innocence.  Like all children who catch a glimpse of the mysteries of their parents’ bed, the prince now knew that his mother was no virgin, his father was not a god, and he himself was not some divine child magically come down from on high.  Like every other flesh and blood being, he had come to be through a very physical, instinctual act.  From one perspective this is sublime; from another it is appalling.

In the young prince's defiance of his father's decree and violation of his mother's bed it is not difficult to see the classic oedipal situation.  But while the potential for oedipal conflict is present in every father-mother-child triangle, it only becomes a manifest problem when there is some serious disturbance in the family.  A father who reacts to his son as if to a deadly rival or a mother who sees in her son a substitute for an inadequate or missing mate are not normal, healthy parents!  As Kohut put it, "Healthy man experiences, and with the deepest joy, the next generation as an extension of himself.  It is the primacy of support for the succeeding generations which is normal and human, not intergenerational strife."(8)

Freud's gloomy formulation, based on the murderous fight at the crossroads between Oedipus and the father who rejected him from before his birth, has little room for love between father and son.  Kohut, in his reformulation of psychoanalytic theory, looked to another ancient myth for a healthier model of the father-son relationship.  Although bound by treaty to join the Greek expedition against Troy, Odysseus wanted to stay home with his wife and newborn son.  When a delegation came to remind him of his obligation to go to war, Odysseus tried to convince them that he was insane and thus unfit for military duty.  Wearing the headgear of a madman, hitching a mismatched team of an ox and an ass to his plow, and throwing salt into the furrows as he went along, he began to plow up his land in a completely crazy manner.  Knowing his reputation for craftiness, his visitors suspected Odysseus of trickery.  Seizing his son, Telemachus, they threw the baby in front of his father's plow.  Instantly Odysseus turned aside to plow a protective semicircle around his son.

Found out, Odysseus was forced to sail away with the Greek fleet to Troy.  But he had furnished double proof of his paternal love.  Unlike Laius, haunted by the fear that Oedipus would displace him, Odysseus was fully aware of the value of his son's life in relation to his own.  He was willing to sacrifice his reputation as a brave and brilliant man if he could thereby remain at home with his family.  Ironically, his attempted self sacrifice was defeated by the very love that prompted it.  Apparently there was no shame in either his feigning madness or being found out.  He had given ample demonstration of where his highest values lay, and was respected for having done so.  The triumphant reunion of Odysseus with his son, wife, and father which closes The Odyssey further confirms the primacy of love in the healthy family.

Love is the cement that binds healthy relationships, within families or without, sexual or non-sexual, holding them together through the vicissitudes of life.  Archetypally, sexual union is symbolic of all relationships in which distinctly separate beings come together to form a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  The merging of two bodies into one creates an image of mystery and wholeness, a source of wonder and awe approaching the outermost reaches of human understanding.

As in the fateful encounter with the serpent (another image to which we respond with an uneasy mixture of disgust, fascination, and awe) at the forbidden tree, the discovery of sex brings a loss of innocence.  Learning the facts of sex, looking at what one is not supposed to see, requires a certain amount of daring, perhaps even grandiosity, in defiance of taboo.  Kohut coined the wonderfully descriptive term, "grandiose exhibitionary self," for that aspect of the psyche which has no inhibitions, recognizes no boundaries, and wants its exploits to be seen and admired by all the world as it "blissfully experiences itself as the omnipotent center of all existence."(9)

A child's natural expression of grandiosity calls for recognition, tolerance, and appropriate channeling.  The self-assertion of a child in daring to go where it is not supposed to go, looking at what it is not supposed to see, and asking what it is not supposed to ask, deserves a response from parents who are neither threatened nor seduced by such behavior.

Competition for the mother, the driving force behind oedipal strife according to Freudian theory, is not the only source of father-son friction.  Conflict can arise around a father's attempts to shape his son into a worthy heir, a crown prince who will faithfully continue the family lineage by upholding his father's ideals and values, and perhaps achieving what his father failed to.  A father may find it difficult to understand a son whose character, interests, and talents differ greatly from his, or perhaps even more difficult, a son whose limitations too closely reflect his own.

Sons disappoint fathers and fathers disappoint sons.   The ideal father, able to meet without fail all the archetypal expectations of the role, would perfectly embody king, warrior, wild man, wizard, and every other image of the masculine that his children might imagine.  But no actual man can hope to adequately play all those roles.  Some aspects of the Great Father will fit him better than others; some will not fit at all.  No matter how much a boy may idealize his father, no matter how good a father a man might be, there inevitably comes a time when he fails his son.

The realization that an idealized figure is not what he seemed can seriously disrupt one's sense of reality, and one's sense of self.  A man who had great difficulty in finding his place in the world, recalled how he, as a small boy witnessing the breakup of his parents’ marriage, watched his father collapse into a helpless, hysterical, and suicidal heap.  In that moment, the image of the strong, capable, even heroic man he had believed his father to be, along with his developing sense of his own ability to be such a man, was shattered almost beyond hope of repair.

Yet parental failure to meet a child's expectations, when not so drastic as to be traumatic, can actually help a child build a realistic sense of human limits.  No one, including one's parents and oneself, is perfect; everyone, to some extent, falls short of the ideal.  As the illusion of parental perfection fades, the child learns to depend on himself.  The image of the idealized parent, no longer projected onto an actual parent, is internalized as an inner source of comfort and strength.

Such a shift from outer to inner is best facilitated by a parent who can willingly acknowledge his or her imperfection.  A father intent on presenting a flawless image of his masculinity will resent his son's expectations, knowing on some level that he cannot fulfill them.  He will be further disturbed by his son's efforts to prove himself a man by pointing out paternal failings.  A father's denial of imperfection may only increase his son's angry demand that he acknowledge them.  In defense of his threatened status as dominant male, the father lashes out by belittling the boy's far from secure young masculinity.  And once again Laius and Oedipus, tragically and ignorantly, battle to the death at the crossroads.

But when a son forgives his father, and a father his son, each recognizing the failure of both himself and the other to be as they might have been, healing can begin.  Villorio de Sica's classic neorealist film, "The Bicycle Thief," tells the story of a father's failure and his son's forgiveness.  The film is set in Italy just after World War II.  Betrayed by Mussolini and the political manifestation of the Terrible Father represented in his fascist regime, postwar Italy seemed to be a nation where men were no longer men.  Lucky if they could find work of any kind, the men who survived the war found it nearly impossible to support their families.

The film follows a few days in the life of a family consisting of a young couple, an early elementary school age boy, and an infant.  As the film opens, the father has finally found a job.  But his bicycle, which he needs for the new job, has been pawned.  His wife, apparently more adequate to the situation than her husband, solves the problem by pawning the family's bed linens in exchange for the bicycle.  Full of hope, watched by his proud son, the man rides off to work.  But then disaster strikes as the bicycle is stolen.  Devastated, ashamed of his helpless impotence in the face of his family's need, the father comes home on foot.

The next day father and son set out to track down the stolen bicycle.  After a long series of frustrating experiences in which the boy is exposed to a side of both life and his father that he has never before seen, the thief is finally found.  But the father cannot prove his accusation.  He is ridiculed by the thief, the thief's family, and the whole neighborhood.  In silence, but with a face far more expressive than words, the boy witnesses his father's humiliation.

As they return home on foot, the father notices an unattended bicycle.  Not wanting his son to know what he is about to do, he tells the boy to go on without him.  Puzzled but obedient, the boy goes to catch a streetcar.  But it is overcrowded and he cannot get on.  As he anxiously awaits the next car, his father comes around the corner riding the bicycle that was leaning up against the wall.  Behind him is an angry crowd shouting, "Stop thief!"

No more accomplished at stealing bicycles than he was in recovering them, the father is quickly caught by the crowd.  A policeman arrives to arrest him.  Unnoticed, the boy has made his way through the crowd.  Sobbing, he stands beside his now also weeping father.  Seeing the child, the bicycle's owner softens.  He tells the policeman that he will not press charges, and the father is released.  Without speaking, father and son walk away.  As the film ends, the boy reaches up to take his father's hand.



(1) Bronislav Malinowski, The Sexual Life of Savages (New York:  Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1929), pp. 179-195.

(2) ibid. p. 195.

(3) David Gilmore, Manhood In the Making (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1990), pp. 201-219.

(4) J. S. La Fontaine, Initiation (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England:  Penguin, 1985), pp. 115-140. 

(5) Michael Lamb, "Fathers:  Forgotten Contributors to Child Development," Human Development, 18 (1975), pp. 245-266).  John Munder Ross, "Fathering:  A Review of Some Psychological Contributions on Paternity," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 60(1979), pp. 317-327. 

(6) Heinz Kohut,  How Does Analysis Cure? (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 194.  Ernest S. Wolf, Treating the Self (New York:  Guilford Press, 1988), p. 55. 

(7) Arnold van Genep, The Rites of Passage (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1960 [1908]).

(8) Heinz Kohut, "Introspection, Empathy, and the Semi-Circle of Mental Health," International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 63,(1982), p. 404.

(9) Ernest Wolf, Treating the Self, p. 183.

©1999 James C. Moyers




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