05 Jul Healing the “Wounded Father” Within

Posted at 2:33 pm in Group Therapy, Individual Therapy by jlbworks

Recently, my men’s group has been reading a book entitled Finding Our Fathers.  The book’s author, Samuel Osherson, asserts that “the psychological or physical absence of fathers is one of the great underestimated tragedies of our times.”  He cites Sheri Hite’s survey of over 7,000 men, which found that “almost no men said they had been or were close to their fathers.”

The result, Osherson believes, is that “boys grow into men with a ‘wounded father’ within, a conflicted inner sense of masculinity rooted in men’s experience of their father as rejecting, incompetent, or absent.”  He goes on to say that what stands out in men’s talk of their fathers “is a mysterious, remote quality.  Whether describing heroes, villains, or someone in between, most men know little of their fathers’ inner lives, what they thought and felt as men.  The first man in our life was a puzzling, forbidding creature.”

This theme of dealing with a wounded image of father is central to Robert Bly’s book, Iron John.  One if its chapters is entitled “The Hunger of the King in a Time of No Father.”  Calling the longing “hunger” is accurate, Bly writes, because “women cannot, no matter how much they sympathize with their starving sons, replace that particular missing substance.”

Bly is clearly struck by the fact that “Mythology is full of stories of the bad father, the son-swallower, the remote adventurer, the possessive and jealous giant.  Good fathering of the kind each of us wants is rare in fairy tales or in mythology.  There are no good fathers in the major stories of Greek mythology…and very few in the Old Testament.”  Bly concludes the chapter by saying, “The sons and daughters in the United States still feel ‘too little father.’”

Thus it is our task as men to learn how to heal the “wounded father” within.  As we have shared our reactions to the Osherson book, and told each other stories of our fathers in the men’s group therapy, I have remembered an exchange of letters with my father, some forty years ago.  At that time, I was working as a residence hall director in a dormitory complex at the University of Massachusetts.  We had been told by the administration that we must provide compulsory racism and sexism awareness courses for our residence hall assistants.

I took issue with this policy.  I said that I could not support such compulsory education, even though I believed in the importance of the issues.  My stand cost me a promotion.  I learned that I would not be promoted because I was an individual who “does things in his own way,” and that I did not cooperate with the administration’s “rules, regulations, and priorities.”

I wrote to my father about this experience.  His letter back to me included clippings I had never seen before, from the newspapers in the town of Evansville, Indiana, where my father was teaching at Evansville College in 1948, the year that I was born.  These newspaper clippings told the story of the firing of a professor at the college who had made the mistake of supporting Henry Wallace for President in the 1948 national election, and of introducing him at an Evansville rally.  Within hours, the college’s Board of Trustees had met and decided to fire Professor Parker.

The Evansville College President met with the faculty and read them a statement, to be given to the press, which indicated that Professor Parker “had lost the confidence of his colleagues.”  Along with several others, my father stood up at the faculty meeting and made clear his disagreement with this action.  As a result of their stand, my father and these other faculty lost their jobs.

In his letter to me along with the newspaper clippings, my father wrote, “Your letter concerning mandatory racism and sexism awareness training indicates that you have attained a level of maturity that I hoped you would develop.  You surprise and please me, but please remember the barricades that ‘society’ raises against people who think as we do.”  For perhaps the first time in my adult life, I felt a strong sense of positive identification with my father.  It was an important step toward healing my own “wounded father” within.

Samuel Osherson, is describing a scene from the Odyssey, writes, “When the great warrior King Odysseus returns from more than a decade of wandering, he and the princely Telemachus hardly know each other.  In a stunning moment, the unconquerable warrior reveals himself to his teenage son:  “I am the father whom your boyhood lacked and suffered for lack of…No other Odysseus will ever come, for he and I are one, the same.”

Osherson adds, “The Odysseus myth points to a deep yearning for each other in both father and son.”  The message is that for a man to grow up he must find the good and the strong in his own father—he must find the heroic in the figure he hardly knew.