Fatherhood and its Discontents
by Stephen Baskerville
Ross D. Parke and Armin A. Brott, Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1999). ISBN 0-395-86041-5. $24.00.
Reviewed by Stephen Baskerville, Department of Political Science, Howard University
In Totem and Taboo Freud argued that civilization was built upon the collective murder of a primal father. He argued that this killing was perpetrated by the sons, who both feared an envied his power. Civilization began with the self-imposed rituals and prohibitions the sons then instituted to prevent themselves from destroying one another over the spoil. Among these was the ritual feeding on the body and blood of the sacrificed victim. This at once commemorated the deed and bequeathed to the sons the life and strength of the father. The father was thus made to bear the burden of the community's sins, which were absolved for each participant in the ritual feeding.
Today we seem to have come up with a variation on the Freudian theme. As a society we seem intent on dismantling civilization by ganging up on all fathers, on whom we heap our sins and whom we make to atone for all the ills of society. Their very absence, we are told plausibly enough, is the cause of all our social problems. Yet the virtue of their presence seems to be to serve as victims for a new form of human sacrifice. The temples in which this modern sacrament is performed are generally courtrooms, where priests in black robes mutter some formulaic incantation before they break the body and pour forth the blood, thus beginning the communal feeding frenzy. Our modern revolt seems to be perpetrated not so much by the sons themselves as by those who claim to be acting in their interests: mothers, in the first instance, with the active assistance of lawyers, judges, psychologists and psychiatrists, social workers, mediators, counselors, and a swarm of other human parasites who derive lucrative financial nourishment from the cannibalized father.
Yet it is possible we are at last seeing the resurrection of, if not the mighty paterfamilias, at least a more modest and humbled "dad."
What was until recently a trickle of books on fatherhood has now become a stream; soon it may be a torrent. Following closely on Sanford L. Braver's explosive Divorced Dads: Shattering the Myths (itself soon to form the basis of an ABC News documentary), comes a new book by two leading fatherhood advocates. This work similarly aims to demolish current misconceptions about what swine fathers are. Despite the somewhat touchy-feely cover, this is not a sentimental panegyric to some abstract ideal of fatherhood. It is a tough polemic that directly confronts the current vilification of fathers in the media and by politicians, family law practitioners, and extreme feminists.
Parke and Brott are more comprehensive than Braver in that they take on myths such as the "Dangerous Father" as well as the "Deadbeat Dad." (For the latter they are succinct, but one should still consult Braver. I looked in vain, for example, for the crucial statistic that, when children are involved, two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women.) They are especially effective in detailing the rampant abuse of power by family courts and child protective services when fathers are falsely accused of child abuse.
They address other barriers to father involvement too, such as obstruction of visitation and father-hostile policies in the workplace. They also confront subtler impediments such as sexist stereotypes in the media and children's literature. For all these topics this book is an admirable collection, with valuable, up-to-date examples and reliable documentation.
It is understandable that Parke and Brott, like Braver, should devote their energies to demolishing "myths" and "bias." Few fathers realize how dangerous the current smear campaign against fathers is until they arrive home one evening to find the children gone and themselves summoned to court.
Likewise, Parke and Brott are restrained in their tone as well as in their recommendations. The marketing on the dust jacket further attempts to render the book palatable to a wide audience, including fathers in intact families, by playing down the polemics and advertising the palliatives.
Necessary as this may be, the careful reader (and the experienced father) will find that what is happening to fathers in this country has now gone far beyond "myths," "bias," and "negative stereotypes."
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Throwaway Dads: The Myths and Barriers That Keep Men from Being the Fathers They Want to Be
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Copyright © 1999 Stephen Baskerville. All rights reserved.
Stephen Baskerville teaches political science at Howard University.