A Poem About Father-Son Tragedies

I have been immersed in reading The Last Pirate by Tony Dokoupil, which skillfully and painfully describe the generational transmission of destruction that can happen between fathers and sons. As Tony dissects his family tree, we see multiple men promising themselves that they will never become a bad father like their dad, and then watch them do exactly that. And even the good ones live in fear that they will become the flawed man who raised them.

Reading Tony’s excellent book brought to mind this poignant poem by Richard Shelton.

Letter to a Dead Father

Five years since you died and I am
better than I was when you were living
The years have not been wasted.
I have heard the harsh voices
of desert birds who cannot sing.
Sometimes I touch the membrane
between violence and desire
and watch it vibrate.
I learned that a man
who travels in circles
never arrives at exactly the same place.

If you could see me now
side-stepping triumph and disaster,
still waiting for you to say my son
my beloved son
. If you could only see
me now, you would know I am stronger.

Death was the poorest subterfuge
you ever managed, but it was permanent.
Do you see now that fathers
who cannot love their sons
have sons who cannot love?
It was not your fault
and it was not mine. I needed
your love, but I recovered without it.
Now I no longer need anything.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

3 thoughts on “A Poem About Father-Son Tragedies”

  1. Philip Larkin is more concise:

    They f*k you up,your Mum and Dad
    They do not mean to, but they do.
    They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

    But they were f*ked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,
    Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

    Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
    Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

    It's a good reduction of the Freudian reinvention of original sin as the screw-ups from inevitably flawed parenting, which can only be put right by an extensive course of psychoanalysis. This is very expensive because it does not actually work, controlled against an untrained kindly listener.

    Larkin inadvertently (?) puts his finger on the logical problem with this scenario. If each generation indeed adds parenting screw-ups, after a few all children are fated to be monsters, and the human race should have quickly died out in a Cain-Abel orgy of mistrust and violence. In fact, human nature does not show any such clear long-term trend. There are huge variations on the nice-nasty scale between individuals, social groups and whole cultures, but it's a see-saw not a slide. For any species, averagely competent parenting has to be enough. Children have to be adapted to thrive on it, and tolerate the minor faults of their parents.

    1. Psychoanalysis was invented in late 1800s Vienna, and was subsequently found to generalize to the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It should be preserved, like opera, as a charmingly quaint and curious reminder of simpler days.

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