A man turns into a father all at once—no warning, no preparation, no classes. Many a woman starts turning into a mother in her early childhood. After all, she spends many hours pretending that she’s holding a baby, feeding it, changing its diapers, and nurturing it. Her doll is her someday child.
At the dinner table sits a young father who feeds himself and a mother who feeds her living doll; a child, by nature, sucks in all the food and energy the parents can provide. The father feels like there’s enough food to go around, but some part of him he can’t quite locate feels that he’s not getting enough of the woman’s energy, time, or attention, as he did before the permanent guest arrived.
He looks at the baby then at the mother, then down at his full plate and feels at the same moment empty and full of shame. Embarrassed by his resentment toward the son he wanted so much, he gets up and walks away and sometimes keeps on walking. Sometimes he just goes to his recliner and sits down and turns on the TV, picks up the paper, and proceeds sullenly to coproduce a boy who wonders why his father wanted him in the first place. Wonders why his dad gets so uptight every time he comes home for a visit. The son wonders one day at work where this driving feeling of competition he and other men constantly carry comes from. He wonders when his father will finally welcome him into the world of men and thank him for appearing on the planet. Both men wonder if men were just meant to use stares, insults, and arguments to split the energy of the mother as if she were some atom capable of energizing them more fully if they could only have her to themselves.
For the answer, read Oedipus by Sophocles on some rainy afternoon. This ancient author knew much about the father-son wound. He knew every son must someday symbolically or metaphorically “kill the father,” which every son knows and every father also knows, which is why it’s so difficult for Dad to acknowledge that his son is becoming a man. Where there are two men and one woman, the energy is shared. Where there is a man who knows there is enough energy to go around, the split is seldom seen. Where there is a woman who holds to her own energy and doesn’t feel responsible for a man’s, men can come and go and leave her still feeling whole and intact. On good days there’s plenty of energy to go around.
When a son rejects his father’s fears that there is too little energy to go around and asserts himself, he begins to “kill the father” in another necessary rite of passage. If a son finds the courage and responds to the need to look his father squarely in the eyes until the elder looks away, he’s done it. When the son finally allows himself to succeed in the areas in which his father failed, then he’s accomplished it. The day the son breaks the pattern that has tied him to his father’s psyche and soul, he’s achieved it. These are just a few of the ways that the son symbolically and necessarily “kills the father.”
Each man must find the manner that suits him to kill off the father who lives in his muscles, brain, soul, and dreams. Each man must wrestle with the fear that comes with the process and the ongoing destruction. If a man does not kill his father, the father will know it and on one level be glad to continue being the dad. But on another level, he’ll never respect his son who never quite became a man and the equal and perhaps friend he’s always longed for his son to be.
“When I go home,” said Jason, “Dad’s Dad, and I’m like I was at twelve or thirteen. Nothing has changed. When we’re sitting around at night talking, he’ll get up from his chair and say, ‘Well, it’s time we all get to bed. We need our rest,’ and we all do it, including me.” The forty-two year-old attorney looked not a day over thirty, even though as he talked in the men’s group his shoulders curved toward the floor.
Lots of men think that if they have children and become fathers that this will “kill the father,” but this alone is not enough. “My dad tells me how to raise my own son and points out ways I’m screwing my boy up every time I go home for a visit,” says Roger who is thirty-seven and a licensed child psychologist. Roger doesn’t see that his father does this because Roger lets him, doesn’t stop him, just gets mad at him, holds it in, and swears he’s not going home again, but then returns to experience it all over again.
What happens to the son who kills the father? He confronts his worst fear, which is buried so deep that most men never acknowledge it, that Dad will disappear, reject him, and the son will die. Most men forget that Dad did a lot of disappearing and rejecting all during their earlier years but still they didn’t die. The son also confronts another fear which is his own mortality. For as long as Dad is Dad and he’s his son, his boy, then he won’t really have to grow up, become responsible for himself (because Dad is still responsible for his life and situation), and finally get old and die. When a son kills his father he becomes a man who will someday be “killed” by his own son. The moment a man kills his father he tastes his own death.
In the poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, the speaker is watching his father die and he demands his father, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light . . . Do not go gentle into that good night.” In other words, whether Dad is dying physically or in a son’s psyche, the son faces his own death at that moment.
When a son metaphorically kills his father, he will have more energy. He’ll get more things done than he would have if Dad’s voice had been pushing him in other directions. He’d be more likely to act on Joseph Campbell’s injunction, “Follow your bliss.” He’d take back the projection of godliness he’d placed on his father, see him as “simply” human, and become more human himself. He’d stop making other men and women into the parent who wasn’t there for him. He’d become an anchor to his own children and a model for masculinity and an adult when he’s with his lover or wife. The son who kills the father becomes a man and stops being a boy.
Now one may ask what is the responsibility or obligation of the father to this process. If the father has healed some of the wounds inflicted on him by his father he will be conscious of what his son is going through. He will not be the father who makes such banal statements like, “I can always take you down,” “You’re getting too big for your britches,” “I’ll always be your father.” These men feel like they must beat their son at anything, the son my love. If the father who is a pro basketball player as one of my clients is, said to his son, “you’ll never beat your old man” to the son who loves the sport, eventually the son will snub his father and become an accountant. If the conscious father sees that his son is a lover of basketball or chess this father will let his son win but just barely which is saying “son, my star is in decline and yours is soaring, good luck,” to future chess master or all-star. In other words, the father lets the son kill him gently. If not, the son becomes over-attached to the mother, living only a mile from her when dad dies or in her basement apartment so she won’t feel so alone. More on this mother-son wound in the next essay.