Graham Phoenix’s sons learned from what he did, not from what he said.
My son came back from touring in the UK with his band and came to me for advice. He was a punk drummer at the time, energetic and fast, with his own idiosyncratic life as an artist and musician. His life was sorted out, and he loved what he was doing.
He’d recently come back from a UK tour. He told me a story that scared him, but for me brought up many images of men in my family.
The band were playing in the South West of England. They were successful in the underground punk scene and were riding a wave. One night they went to a local club after playing their gig. They were drinking with some fans, laughing and having fun. A guy they weren’t with started making some remarks to them and they jeered back at him.
Suddenly my son erupted and started punching this other guy. The fight got worse and they were all thrown out of the club. After it was over, my son went back to the van and sat, shaking. He couldn’t understand what had happened, where the anger had come from so quickly.
This was unusual behavior for him. He wasn’t the type to fight for no reason and in the club that night, there was no reason. Yes, he had been drinking and that loosened his inhibitions, but the ferocity of his attack had shaken him and made him wonder what was going on inside.
After telling me the story, he asked if I could help him understand what had happened.
I told him a story of my own from when I was in my late teens. I had left home about a year before and was working in the theatre as a technician. I was loving the freedom of living how I wanted and being my own man. Free from my own father’s over-bearing control, I was able to make my own decisions and have the last word.
It was a new job in a new theatre, and I was looking forward to impressing people. One of the important duties I had was to take charge of the part-time stage crew. They were all men who lived locally and had been working at the theatre for some time.
The first time I met them I was nervous. I hadn’t been in charge of a group of men like this before. They were older and more experienced than I was. We stood in the centre of the stage in a circle while I talked and tried to establish some authority.
Then, one of them made some remark that I felt undermined me. I felt instant anger and lashed out at him, punching him in the stomach. He doubled up and shut up.
This instant reaction had shocked me, and still shocks me when I think about it today. Where had it come from? Why was it so ferocious?
My father had a deep need to have the last word on everything. I was the youngest of three boys and we all absorbed this quality. Our house was full of argument and anger.
I found I could never win, no matter how hard I tried. There were three adversaries I had to battle to win an argument, even though it was impossible for me to do so. Men win, I learned, men have the last word, and men are in absolute control.
Not surprisingly, this behavior carried over into my own family. I had two sons and created an environment where I could win, where I could have the last word. I argued with my sons, my wife, even my business colleagues, and finally I had perfected my persuasive skills. I was a master at my art.
Tom Matlack said recently:
It used to be that manhood was passed down generation to generation by ‘role models.’ Does that still exist? […] “Do what I do, not what I say” is how kids, especially male kids, learn, in my experience.
Manhood is passed down from generation to generation but often not as we would want. As a father, I was a role model and my sons learned from me, but they learned from what I did, not what I said.
I explained to my son that his anger was only what he had learned from me, what I had learned from my father, and what he had learned, probably, from his father. It flowed through the generations with an amazing will to survive.
I couldn’t give him advice on what to do to counteract the anger, I just helped him to see how it was learned and suggested that he could, as easily, unlearn it. Whether that is true is a question that will only be answered when he has sons of his own. What will they learn from their role model?
—Photo Smabs Sputzer/Flickr