Dads and Sons Bump Heads

When I was growing up, I experienced conflict with my Dad. When Sigmund Freud proposed the Oedipus Complex in his Psychoanalytic Theory of personality development in later 19th century Europe, he may have exposed along searing intractable social problem that existed since Biblical times. Although his theory was later elaborated to the Electra Complex to include girls and women, I will stick to boys and men and the Oedipus Complex as the poorly resolved conflict in boys and men may often has much bigger and more serious societal-wide repercussions just in terms of potential for child, wife abuse, hostility, and other forms of social pathology and dysfucntional behavior.

Reading Joe Queenan’s “Closing Time” with my Sociology senior undergraduate Social Inequality class this spring inspired some unusually spirited class discussions about boys, men, race,  ethnicity, religion, child abuse, poverty, marriage and the family, and violence in the American working class. After many exchanges that built to a crescendo of differing views, I told my class my personal view about Queenan. I never share my personal views with my students on any issues due to my long held teaching principle that I do not want to stifle classroom debate. I would hope that none of them ever know my personal views on many controversial hot baton issues we discuss in class. In this special instance, my point of view may have gotten out of the bag without my intending or planning to.

I told the class that Queenan did not have to hit his chronically physically abusive father. What our American society should do is to formally acknowledge the intrinsically tense, conflict laden, tumultuous, and often explosive relationship between fathers and sons. Then when this relationship is at its most tumultuous height, it should be openly expected for the father and son not to talk and see each other. There should be a society wide custom which provides an expected and well rehearsed security valve; the son moving away.

After the class, I reflected on my own adolescence. When I was 16 years living in the rural area village north of Chipata in Eastern Zambia in Southern Africa, I hated my father. I did not want to be around my parents. There is just one exception which differs dramatically from Queenan’s experience: my father was never abusive. But during that time I hated his very voice for the millionth time telling me to do this or the other thing about school, my clothing, my lack of frequent bathing habits, my loud music, and my ill informed desire for hard to buy American Blue Jeans. He would constantly remind me that these habits would diminish my desire to excel academically and I would drop out of school and forever be relegated to the life of a filthy hard laborer as a ditch digger, poor illiterate village farmer and permanently banished to a life of poverty. We could easily have exchanged unforgivable bad words; and perhaps even physical confrontation.

The safety valve that was the custom was my being away at Chizongwe Boarding High School. During the school holidays, I would spend a day or two with my parents but most of the time I would ride the bike eight miles to live with my older sister and her husband who were both young school teachers. Indeed, in the traditional villages of Zambia in Africa, it is expected that when a child or especially an adolescent boy is having serious and escalating disruptive conflict with his father, the son is dispatched to stay with other relatives for a while. Incidentally the love between the son and the father is never diminished. This only preempts any of the visceral emotional and physical confrontations that often create unforgivable scars between sons and fathers. Although this may temporarily solve the problem of an abusive father, the custom is never intended to cover child abuse but rather to forestall unnecessary and disruptive life-long rifts and possible deep hate between sons and their fathers like the deep hate Queenan apparently held up to his father’s grave.

Why couldn’t  Queenan and Western society adopt some of these solutions? Part of the answer may lie in Western historical characterization of some of these customs found in non-Western tribal societies as being primitive. Since the earliest anthropologists such as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and many others, there has always been this assumption that most of the tribal cultures of the non-Western world were primitive and below Western superior culture. Many of the anthropologists may acknowledge that some of these so-called primitive cultures may have better solutions to some of the serious problems such as the Father-Son conflict. But the undertone of Western superiority and non-Western tribal cultural  inferiority is always there.

My Dad is 87 and I am 57. When I visit him in the village today we have some of the most intimate conversations with mutual respect as equals. We still on occasion have heated disagreements. But his and my points of view no longer have the potential sting and confrontational effect on a teenage son they once would have had. I thank the cultural safety valve of the Tumbuka people of Eastern Zambia and Northern Malawi for saving the loving relationship I have with my father today.