The radical feminists are using the O. J. Simpson tragedy to trash their usual suspects: “patriarchal” men. Stimulated-perhaps overstimulated-by the fallen hero’s case, Mariah Burton Nelson for one has gotten a good deal of media ink for charging that the patriarchal sports world “trains men to hate women.” Though Simpson was the son of an abandoning father rather than a patriarch, his misogynistic violence is nevertheless blamed on the woman-hating culture that supposedly breeds in exclusively masculine redoubts: certain combat units, college fraternities, and ballplayers’ locker rooms.
But even as the gender feminists accuse patriarchal men of the appetite for violence against women, they themselves, in their usual imperious fashion, want to have it all, including the right to hold, simultaneously, two mutually incompatible moral and political positions. On the one hand, they are justifiably outraged by the evidence of increasing domestic violence against women, but on the other hand they are utterly committed to bringing about, within the American family, and under the antiviolence banner, the conditions that underwrite and even guarantee male violence.
The feminists aver that the male tendency to violence is not innate, not a law of human nature, but a mutable product of our social nurture: it is a breakdown product of patriarchy (particularly white, Western patriarchy) and can be blunted and overcome only by implicit gynocracy, or by androgynous parenting arrangements-fathers and mothers as clones of one another. To this great end, the female presence must be injected into all the festering compost heaps of patriarchy and gynophobia: women must be enrolled in combat units, female reporters must have free access to men’s locker rooms, and fraternities must either be disbanded or degendered. The “empowerment” of women and the concomitant disempowerment of men is the only cure for noxious patriarchy and the antiwoman violence that it presumably sponsors.
They don’t get it. After decades of exposure to the social and psychological disasters, particularly those afflicting our inner cities, that have accompanied the deconstruction of American fatherhood, the gender feminists still don’t get it. Though they insist that such cannot be the case, it becomes increasingly clear that the mayhem inflicted by violent men on women (and on other men, and on society as a whole) has its roots not in conventional patriarchy, but in the increasingly matriarchal nature of the American family. Ever since Philip Wylie wrote his angry text on American “Momism” back in the thirties, various astute commentators, including a number of women, have been telling us that American children, and especially boys, need more patriarchy-in the best sense of that term-and not more “empowered” matriarchs. These children particularly need fathers who are different from their estimable mothers in equally admirable ways: tough without being macho brutes, stern without being petty tyrants, and yes, affectionate-but on the whole, less nurturing than their wives.
I can write these heresies without fear of reprisal from the politically correct: I resigned long ago from the American Psychological Association, and at my age I no longer worry about building a career. It is, of course, not enough to be outrageous; unfashionable views must be bolstered by evidence, including a brief review of the young boy’s psychological development in the two-parent nuclear family. We should consider the basic requirements for “good enough” masculine development, as well as the predictably bad consequences-for example, the strong likelihood of male violence against women-when certain bottom-line requirements are violated.
Thus, as we consider the new uniparental or bi-maternal parenting (for example: “Murphy Brown”/single mother households or lesbian couples) we have to evaluate not only the well-being, freedom, and rights of those engaged in these unorthodox arrangements, but also the developmental requirements of the children that they presume to raise. What is good for General Motors is not necessarily good for the country; and what feels good to new-style or homosexual mothers is not on that account necessarily good for their kids. Mother Nature may be female, but she is not, in the current sense of that term, a feminist. She does not accredit parenting arrangements that flout her laws, even if they are promoted-in thunder-by a self-anointed Sisterhood.
Let us begin with one of Mother Nature’s clear ordinances, a developmental imperative that is recognized, in both ritual and common practice, by all successful human societies. It is this: in order to mature as distinct individuals and as future fathers, at some culturally recognized point boys have to separate, in the psychological sense, from their mothers-whose biological destiny they do not share. Men’s work is done on the communal periphery; thus, before they can become creatures of the perimeter, and long before they can begin to think of themselves as reliable parents, boys have to free themselves from the sense that they are extensions of the mother-that they are no more than their mothers’ home-hugging little sons.
At the proper season, patriarchal fathers-fathers, that is, who are different from admirable mothers in their own impressive ways-play a unique role in fostering their sons’ psychological migration away from the Magna Mater and towards some worthy role on the periphery. The competent father, seemingly adequate to all challenges (very much including provocations from his son), stands forth in the son’s eyes as enviable but also admirable: a pillar of strength. As such, he spreads an umbrella of security under which the son can temporarily shelter, even as he slowly declares himself to be a distinct person, separate from the mother. Thus the father whose special, “patriarchal” virtues distinguish him from the mother becomes at the proper season what the psychoanalysts call a “transitional object”: standing apart from the mother, he provides a secure way station on the son’s psychological voyage away from her, and allows that risky evolution to go forward.
Traditional societies typically organize rights of passage, ordeals of one sort or another, to mark the boy’s passage from the status of “mother’s son” to that of “father’s son.” The ordeal, whether it entails penile sub-incision with cowrie shells, or being responsible at age thirteen for the day’s Torah portion, is usually managed by the community’s collective fathers, who closely monitor the candidate for signs of weakness. If the boy breaks and cries under the ordeal, then he is still his mother’s son, not ready to join the male collectivity of fathers and age-mates of the community’s perimeter. But if he endures with some grace the punishment that the fathers mete out, then he has earned the right to be their son, the apprentice who will some day inherit their special powers. Under that sign, he can continue the process of individuation, and separate from the father-just as he had earlier on separated from the mother-to become finally his own man.
Besides sponsoring the boy’s symbolic rebirth as a father’s son, “patriarchal” dramas of this sort also sponsor the boy’s growing mastery over his violent drives-the destructive impulses that place him, early in life, in opposition to the father and the father’s law. Despite their many faults, patriarchal fathers are the best means that our species has devised for managing a very grave threat to any organized social life: male-particularly young male-violence. Our streets have been “Beirut- ized” by violence from sons without fathers, and without superegos.
The fathers’ role in bringing civilization in the form of the superego to their sons has been clarified by many psychoanalysts, the leading students of what is known as the “Oedipal” track in child development. In their narrative, little boys, charged up with untested illusions of omnipotence, are driven early on to challenge the prerogatives and possessions of the father. If they come up against true patriarchs, fathers who are neither antagonized nor intimidated by their small sons’ enmity, these same little boys are quickly (and with real relief on their part) introduced to some basic propositions of the masculine reality principle: “You are not big, powerful, and supremely competent; instead, you are small, puny, and completely unready. However, matters can change; and if you pay him proper respect, your father will help you escape from your unfortunate condition.”
Thus, when the small sons of patriarchal fathers realize-however grudgingly-that they cannot win the father’s prerogatives and powers by force, they are ready to receive another bulletin from reality: “If you can’t lick ‘em, join ‘em.” Young sons give up infantile fantasies of coopting the father’s powers by violence in favor of a disciplined filial apprenticeship. From then on, a boy’s self-esteem will be based increasingly on experiences of real mastery, rather than on hectic fantasies of omnipotence.
The boy concedes his own omnipotence to his father; and through the intervention of his father, gives his potentially antisocial aggression a positive, pro-social sign. In effect, the boy’s aggression follows the general line of masculine evolution: as he becomes a “father’s son” and moves his sights beyond the mother’s home, his aggressive potentialities track with him, and find new targets. From now on, his enemies will not be found in his own house or significant community, but will come to him from the outside, from beyond the periphery. Fathers’ sons can be very good killers, but not of their kin, or their neighbors. Mothers’ sons by contrast are indiscriminate: they are murderously aggressive within the home as well as outside of it-they are apt to abuse their aging relatives, their wives, and their children. But while the admittedly square and even priggish sons of patriarchal fathers may grow up to patronize the women of their house and town, they very rarely assault them. Instead, they are protective (sometimes overly protective) of their mothers, wives, girlfriends, and daughters: when killing is involved, they kill the men who come from the outside to hurt their women and children.
In short, the boy comes out of the Oedipal engagement with a built-in internal presence: the superego, the sometimes harsh inner monitor that will not let him hurt-or even think of hurting-those whom he either loves or should love. But restriction is not the whole story. Via the superego the father’s son also gains an internal (and therefore trustworthy) sense of resource: so long as he acts in the service of his community, and against the enemies of his loved ones, he will have access to his own vital energies, his own iron rations of the psyche. Now he can make and fill his own bottles; he is, in the psychological sense, weaned. Thus assured, the boy is ready to slip the psychic umbilicus and graduate from “mother’s son” to “father’s son.” It does not much matter whether this transition is accomplished informally within the home, or formally, via rites of passage, in the larger society; in either case, the son is launched, under the father’s aegis, on the journey away from the mother and into maturity.
This is not an ideal outcome-after all, as the feminists remind us, the father’s son is still quite capable of violence against foreign women- but considering the usual alternatives it is about the best that we can expect. But what of the boys who grow up under the ambiguous familial conditions that are rapidly replacing normal patriarchy? What is the fate of sons who grow up without a father, or with a father who is little more than an androgynous, often ineffectual, clone of the mother?
One consequence is clear: in the absence of a compelling father, the mother’s presence fills not only the outer domestic frame, but also her son’s interior psychic space. These boys-the offspring of single women, lesbian couples, or devalued “pops”-will not, in the proper season, attain psychological distance from their mothers. But children without fathers will usually find alternative, though less trustworthy ways to cut the golden cord. Boys who cannot achieve psychological distance from their mothers fall back instead on unreliable substitutes: physical distance and social distance.
Physical distance they achieve by flight: from the mother’s home to the streets, to the fighting gangs that rule them and, at the end of the day, to the all-male fraternity of the penitentiary. Social distance they achieve by moving out of the mother’s cultural world, and off her scale of values; unable finally to split from the mother, they provoke her-through criminality, addiction, sexual exploitation, and physical violence against women within the domestic space-into throwing them out of her decent house. Finally, they turn to booze and drugs to get the transient soothing, the comfort that they can no longer take (or expect) from their mother’s hand. Through such desperate means, fatherless sons demonstrate-to the world, to their mothers, and to themselves-that they are Men. Finally, by their physical and verbal assaults on women they try to kill off the unrelinquished “woman”-the psychic after-image of the mother-within themselves.
In its essence, this could be the story of O. J. Simpson, whose case is being litigated as I write. Simpson is certainly not a typical product of misogynist patriarchy, taught by his seniors and locker-room companions to bash women. Quite the contrary: at age forty-seven, he seems to be the prototypical “mother’s son,” now wrecked by the troublesome passage into midlife. We have been studying casualties of his sort-black and white, rich and poor- in my clinical service for middle-aged and older adults for the past fifteen years.
Despite his celebrity O. J.’s history is in no way atypical of the syndrome. for starters, the father, known in the neighborhood as “Sweet Jimmy” Simpson, was hardly your stereotypical patriarch. Instead, he was a reported homosexual, who apparently left O. J.’s mother for a man when his son was three years old, and who died, probably of AIDS, in 1986. Left alone, O. J.’s tough and devoted mother overcomes daunting odds to raise him. Nevertheless, as a teen-ager he predictably splits from her into the world of gangs and dope. Far from being corrupted by patriarchy, he is rescued by a celebrated black man: hearing that a potentially great athlete is screwing up, Willie Mays shows O. J. the exciting world that could be his. Thus sponsored by a “father figure,” O. J. finds a route away from the mother’s world that does not lead through the dangerous streets. He accepts the patriarchal discipline of coaches and locker rooms, goes on to win the Heisman Trophy, and becomes the legendary “Juice.”
Pace Ms. Mariah Burton Nelson, Simpson’s violent urges towards women do not really bloom until he retires from football, when he quits the locker room. Having lost the masculine cosmetic of the sports world-the fatherly coaches, the male allies, of the NFL-Simpson (like many of our midlife patients) is then probably threatened anew by his unsundered ties to the mother within, and to her feminine exemplars in the outside world. Once again he is in danger of becoming a “Mama’s boy.” Having lost the “patriarchal” or sportsman’s route away from the feminine, he seems to fall back on his last-ditch, emergency buffers: behaving much like a threatened teenager, he interposes physical and social distance between himself and the dangerous women. Thus he divorces two wives, he is certainly violent towards Nicole Simpson, and driven by his pathological jealousy-the usual fears of a man insecure about his masculinity-he may have killed her. The troubles of a poorly fathered son can afflict not only his childhood and adolescence, but his later years as well.
Most reasonable adult human beings-including the fathers that I have interviewed in peasant societies around the world-are quite aware of the psychological need for patriarchy along the lines that I have described. It is only news to the gender feminists, who have ruled out the very idea of an essential human nature. Thus, the Murphy Browns of this world can for a while demonstrate their independence by having babies out of wedlock, raising them without fathers while holding down taxing professional jobs. They can play the narcissistic game of having it all: career, independence from exploitative men, and babies.
But while the parental imperative can be temporarily violated, the transgressors eventually run afoul of the most stringent rule in nature: that of unintended and often catastrophic consequences. Thus, even as these new-wave mothers congratulate themselves on their own boldness and “growth,” their sons, and eventually they themselves, will be at risk. The child-rearing revolutions that, in the name of women’s liberation from patriarchy, diminish the fathers lead paradoxically but inevitably to the loss of women’s freedom that results from desperate male violence.
Loud blasts from the trumpets of ideology temporarily drown out the muted but insistent voice of the reality principle, but nature denied eventually returns, usually in its most primitive forms. “Take Back the Night” protests will neither repair the damage nor reverse the social entropy that causes it. A measure of patriarchy in the home is, paradoxically, the major guarantor of democracy in our public life. We may still have a choice: either recognize the special grace and status of the father within the family, or eventually suffer-and probably in this order-criminal anarchy, then the Police State, and finally the iron rule of Big Brother over our domestic and public affairs.
David Gutmann is Professor of Psychology and Education at Northwestern University and author, most recently, of Reclaimed Powers: Men and Women in Later Life (Northwestern University Press).
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