No other quote on fatherhood has stuck with me quite like this one.
It’s ballsy and over-the-top and it takes for granted how mothers are far more likely to be in their children’s lives. But, there’s a burning truth in it that brought silence to an entire classroom of criminal justice majors.
The course years ago at Penn State Altoona was actually about the history of organized crime. We watched documentaries and read books and discussed how the crime is portrayed in the media. The violence of the crimes often took center stage but one student saw the quiet thread that seemed to weave through most criminals we studied: they came from broken homes. Correction: they came from fatherless homes.
The one student who always sat up front but rarely said anything had something to say after one particular film when the professor asked if there were any questions that could begin our discussion:
“It seems like, maybe I’m wrong here, but it seems like when families break down, when… it seems like the end of fatherhood means the end of civilized society.”
He wrestled with the words and they seemed to wrestle with each other as they came out. But when they came out the rustling of notebooks and the tapping of shoes and pens came to a halt. Most of the students were young men and, it turned out, many of us (including myself) had selected criminal justice as our major in part because we had some daddy issues to deal with. A discussion unraveled, generally, about how breakdown in the family have become the clichéd story of most people serving time in prison. But nothing more was mentioned about fathers specifically. I viewed this generally as well even though I myself was being raised and supported in a single-mother household. The following week’s discussion was about Al Capone and so the quote on fatherhood was left alone.
The quote didn’t resurface in my life until the release of my own memoir. Emails from readers poured in and I still receive a few each week that, wouldn’t you know it, nearly always are from men who could relate to my story because their father wasn’t around either, because they found themselves turning to drugs or martial arts, to crime or literature, or to a host of other seeming dichotomies all in an attempt to fill the void. Within the first few pages of President Barack Obama’s memoir The Audacity of Hope is this quote:
“Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else.”
The quote can likely apply to any child-to-parent relationship, but, in the context of America’s mass incarceration problem, which is primarily made up of men, and the statistics and information below that are from this PDF of the 1998 US Department of Justice report titled, “What Can the Federal Government Do To Decrease Crime and Revitalize Communities?” we have much work to do on fatherhood and fatherlessness:
Many of our problems in crime control and community revitalization are strongly related to father absence. For example:
- Sixty-three percent of youth suicides are from fatherless homes.
- Ninety percent of all homeless and runaway youths are from fatherless homes.
- Eighty-five percent of children who exhibit behavioral disorders are from fatherless homes.
- Seventy-one percent of high school dropouts are from fatherless homes.
- Seventy percent of youths in State institutions are from fatherless homes.
- Seventy-five percent of adolescent patients in substance abuse centers are from fatherless homes.
- Eighty-five percent of rapists motivated by displaced anger are from fatherless homes.
Without fathers as social and economic role models, many boys try to establish their manhood through sexually predatory behavior, aggressiveness, or violence. These behaviors interfere with schooling, the development of work experience, and self-discipline. Many poor children who live apart from their fathers are prone to becoming court involved. Once these children become court involved, their records of arrest and conviction often block access to employment and training opportunities. Criminal histories often lock these young persons into the underground or illegal economies.
How to break the cycle? The Good Men Project’s Robert Duffer highlights a few worthy initiatives already underway in his article What They Don’t Know: The Dad Movement Has Never Been Stronger. A movement. Yes. This is exactly what we need.