Behind the high walls and razor wire of American prisons, the most visible and deeply felt deprivation and longing is not just for freedom, but also for fatherhood.
“Nikolai Petrovich went out to meet (his son, Arkady) in the garden and, upon approaching the arbor, suddenly overheard the rapid footsteps and voices of two young men. They were walking on the other side of the arbor and could not see him. Nikolai Petrovich hid.
‘You don’t know my father well enough,’ said Arkady. ‘Your father is a good man,’ Bazarov said ‘but he is antiquated; his song has been sung.’
Nikolai Petrovich listened more intently. Arkady made no reply. The ‘antiquated’ man stood there without moving for a few minutes, and then slowly made his way home.” (Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev, Fathers and Sons, 1862)
Once upon a time, when These Stone Walls was in its earliest existence, I wrote a post about the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. Cain first appears in Scripture in the Book of Genesis (4:1). Having given birth to the first human born of a woman, Eve declared, “I have produced a man with the help of the Lord.”
It was great, of course, that Eve acknowledged the role of the Lord in this, but some have erroneously interpreted this to mean that no role at all is attributed to Adam. Just seven verses later, Cain has murdered his brother, Abel, and is exiled to wander “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden.”
That was the title of a 2010 post of mine with some interesting reflection not only on the deeper story of Cain and Abel in Scripture but on prison. I hope you will pay that post a visit, for the Land of Nod is where I wander now, and the most visible, hurtful, and deeply felt deprivation, here is not just the demise of freedom. It is also the demise of fatherhood. And it is felt as well far beyond these walls. Humanity is weaker for its loss.
You have probably, at some time in your life, heard of a term in modern philosophy called “nihilism.” It comes from the Latin word, “nihil” which means “nothing.” You may have seen the term, “Nihil Obstat” on the title pages of Catholic books. It’s the mark of a censor denoting “nothing objectionable” to faith.
An English derivative is the word, “annihilate,” which means to reduce to nothing. Nihilism was a movement in philosophy that began in mid 19th-century Russia. It scorned authority and tradition and promoted radical change in society. Its adherents believed that tradition, reason, and family systems lent nothing to humanity except bondage. Its agenda was to end Christian influence and to render obsolete the faith of our fathers.
Nihilism paved the road to Communism, and Christianity was its greatest threat. The term first appeared in literature in the 1862 novel, Fathers and Sons by Russian writer Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev. His principle character, Bazarov, introduced nihilism to Western minds by rendering fatherhood and tradition obsolete. The sad excerpt atop this post sets the stage.
One result of the slow but steady annihilation of fatherhood in our culture is what the world just witnessed in Ireland. The Irish “Pro Choice” referendum to repeal a 1983 Constitutional amendment banning abortion reflected not only the diminishment of respect for life but also the diminishment of fatherhood.
All the language and rhetoric preceding the vote was dominated by the same terms that swept America: “a woman’s right to choose,” “a woman’s reproductive rights,” and “my body, my choice.” The right to life itself fell silently away, and along with it, the partnership of fatherhood also remained silent – or perhaps rather “silenced” – throughout the debate.
Many readers have asked me to write about this, and I do plan to tackle it further in a future post. For now, I can only urge readers with a pro-life conscience not to dismay or be dissuaded by the Irish vote. Since 1973 when the United States Supreme Court issued its deeply divided vote affirming Roe v. Wade, American voices of respect for life have grown thunderous despite being largely silenced by the mainstream news media.
It is both notable and hopeful that the late Norma McCorvey – who was plaintiff “Jane Roe” at the center of Roe v. Wade – later in her life became a devout Catholic convert and dauntless pro-life advocate. She worked tirelessly to resist the culture of death that her own case set in motion at a younger age. People change.
Take heart as well from what is happening right now in Poland in the aftermath of the Irish vote. Under a Communist government and its annihilation of the authority of the family, tradition, and faith, Poland had been one of the easiest places in Europe to procure an abortion. Ferries transported women from other parts of Europe to Poland for the free “procedure,” as the media likes to call the termination of infant life.
After the fall of Communism, Poland rediscovered its heart and its faith. A 1993 law barring abortion in most circumstances was passed. Today, in polls gathered after the Irish vote, 65-percent of Poles want to either retain that law in place or strengthen it. Do not be surprised if a sex-abuse scandal now emerges in Poland as it did in the U.S. and Ireland. Scandal has become, as I wrote in a Linkedln article, “A Weapon of Mass Destruction.”
THE FALLOUT FROM ABSENT FATHERS
This is not just a crisis for the right to life, but for the right to manhood, and for the most part, men have not risen up to respond to it. Since Roe v Wade was passed in 1973, men have drifted from embracing their traditional roles as father and leader. The trend has been for men to remain silent on this issue, going gently into that good night instead of standing up to rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Our culture’s 45-year old experiment in a woman’s “right to choose” at the exclusion of men has led to other venues for the diminishment of manhood with disastrous consequences. There is a direct and alarming correlation between the explosive growth of America’s prison population and growing up without direction from an attentive, involved, and nurturing father.
I see this every day in the walled-off world around me. Back up a month on These Stone Walls and you will find a guest post written to honor Mothers Day entitled “To Mom from Your Son, Joseph Daniel, in the Lion’s Den.” At the end of that post, we appended links to four other posts honoring Mothers Day. Each was written by another prisoner with introductions by me.
Each of these four prisoners honored their mothers but also acknowledged all that their mothers endured during their sons’ reckless adolescence in the absence of fathers. It will be difficult for any reader with a heart to read their accounts and view these young men simply as prisoners with all the suspicious baggage the term contains.
Look at the photo above of several young prisoners graduating from high school here. You have likely seen this photo before in these pages. I took this photo. Their broad smiles and displayed diplomas were aimed at me. Who could possibly look upon these hopeful faces and say that their song has been sung? Are they nothing but criminals beyond hope for redemption?
Each person in this photograph grew up in a home with no father. For all but one of them, the recklessness of their youth was informed not only by that deprivation but also by the lure of its natural replacement, membership in a street gang that led them only to prison.
The one exception to that is the one in front, Pornchai Moontri, who at age 18 was condemned to 45 years in prison, the first seven in the cruelty of solitary confinement. That most important story was recently told in “If Loved Ones Fall Away from Faith, Let Them See You Believe.”
These are not evil men. Evil is found here in abundance, but these young men have, with a little help, placed all their new found energy as men into repelling it. I have, for the last 24 years, been stepping out of necessity into empty shoes that should have been filled in the lives of these men by attentive fathers, but never were.
The rest has been grace, and even then grace can only take hold in the heart of someone whose mind has not yet been occupied by a mindless gang, the new replacement for fatherhood and family on “the streets” and in prisons across America.
In a recent post on These Stone Walls, I wrote about a staggering statistic. In the thirty years between 1985 and 2015, the population of the State of New Hampshire increased by 34 percent. During the same period, the New Hampshire prison population increased by nearly 600 percent. What has happened throughout the United States mirrors these New Hampshire statistics.
There are several factors involved in the fact that prisons are now replacing parents in the upbringing of large numbers of discarded adolescent and young adult men. The sentences judges impose have grown longer to reflect the politics of a tough-on-crime agenda like that promoted in the 1990s Clinton Crime Bill.
Prisons have also burgeoned with the closing of services and facilities that once housed the mentally ill. Now they are warehoused in prisons instead of state funded hospitals and treatment centers. The most devastating factor is the massive increase in drug traffic and drug addiction throughout America.
Regardless of the demographics of crime and punishment, the people who are coming to prison in mindless, aimless droves all have this one thing in common. Eighty to ninety percent of them grew up in fatherless environments. Without reinventing the wheel, I wrote about this phenomenon in a Fathers Day 2012 post on These Stone Walls. It is the top link in a short list at the end of this post.
That post struck a chord with readers who know experientially that the story it tells is true. Here is another staggering statistic about these men. In 2008, 1,070 of them were granted parole to serve the remainder of their sentences under public supervision. By 2010, over 500 of them were back in prison for either parole violations or new offenses.
What about the victims of these new crimes? What other publicly funded endeavor could exhibit a fifty percent failure rate, and still function with business as usual? Until we acknowledge that very often one of the victims of a crime is also the perpetrator, no effective intervention can take place in lives ruined by absent or, far worse, abusive fathers.
Remember Jeffrey? He is a young prisoner I wrote about in a highly popular but controversial post, “A Harvest Moon Before Christ the King.” A month after I wrote that post, Jeffrey was moved to another place in this prison. It had nothing to do with what I wrote. It was simply that a bunk was needed for someone else and his last name put him near the top of a disposable list.
I barely saw him for the following three months. Then disaster struck. He found himself in a toxic and abusive environment, exploited by another prisoner with all the degradation that thrives in prison or tries to. Others here see and judge Jeffrey as less than a man, someone so weak in character that his will to survive is frozen in place. For men worthy of the title, this should be a call to action, not scorn and derision.
Jeffrey ended up in protective custody again, locked alone in a cell with little contact for six weeks, and from that ordeal, he was finally moved back to where he had started. On the day of his return, I was climbing down a stairwell as he was climbing up. He dropped his possessions and threw his arms around me. It broke my heart.
But it also made me angry. This was not a gesture of fatherly respect for someone he missed. It was out of desperation. After the latest in his life’s measure of long ordeals, I was the first person he saw who cared at all. This is prison, and some of those young men sent here are vulnerable victims in their own right.
Prison is not something that will teach them any lesson that will prevent future bad acts. It is merely something that they must somehow survive. It is also a place where they are more likely than not to encounter the polar opposite of what they need most.
JORDAN PETERSON: A SUMMONS TO MANHOOD
In some recent posts, I have touted a book that, I am glad to see, is still on “Best Seller” lists months after I first wrote about it. Canadian psychologist and author, Jordan Peterson, was described by Wesley Lang in Esquire magazine as being, “on a crusade to save masculinity.”
I first wrote of him in a reflection on a Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan Her January 27, 2018 column was entitled, “Who’s Afraid of Jordan Peterson?” Formerly associate professor of psychology at Harvard, Jordan Peterson has taught psychology at the University of Toronto for 20 years. Ms. Noonan wrote about his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.
Peggy Noonan was intrigued because the interviewer was critical of Professor Peterson for his resistance to adopting the new orthodoxy of political correctness. Ms. Noonan summarized that the interviewer tried to silence Peterson’s…
“Scholarly respect for the stories and insights into human behavior – into the meaning of things – in the Old and New Testaments. ‘Their stories exist for a reason,’ he says, ‘and have lasted for a reason.’ They are powerful indicators of reality, and their great figures point to pathways.”
Men and women are different, Peterson says, and men should resist becoming “androgenized.” Progressive critics have attacked him repeatedly – probably a good sign that he’s on the right track – and some have labeled him an “alt-right reactionary.” But that is far from true and was leveled by the same crowd that would warehouse your sons in prison just to hide the evidence of what radical feminism has visited upon us. As Peterson writes,
“When softness and harmlessness become the only acceptable virtues, a man will start to act like an overgrown child.”
This is how bullies are created, the very antithesis of what manhood should be. They grow up to make horrible fathers – and then absent ones – if indeed they grow up at all.
So, wake up, men! Get your heads back in the game. And get your butts back in church! You have no idea of the devastation your silence has wrought.
“Prisons cannot replace fathers. At best new prisons constitute an expensive endgame strategy for quarantining some of the consequences of fatherlessness. It is not an act of justice. It is an admission of failure, of the retreat of men.” (David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America Confronting our Most Urgent Social Problem, p 32)
Editor’s Note: Next week These Stone Walls will host a special guest post that readers will not want to miss.
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: Please share this post on your Facebook page and other social media. And as a reminder, These Stone Walls can now be followed on Twitter. You may also like these related posts to honor your father:
- In the Absence of Fathers: A Story of Elephants and Men
- In the Land of Nod, East of Eden
- Coming Home to the Catholic Faith I Left Behind
- Fathers Day in Prison: Consoling the Heart of Jesus