Barbara Ehrenreich argued in 1983 that the “breadwinner ethic” had more or less collapsed in America. Men who avoided marriage were “deviant” in the fifties; now they are considered quite normal. By 1990 one third of all children (sixty percent of blacks) lived apart from their fathers, and fifty percent of children of divorced families saw their fathers once or twice per year, or not at all. Fifty percent of all children spend part of their childhood with one parent. Researchers conclude, “When men relinquish ties to their children during childhood, they rarely resume them later in life.”
Even if the father is physically present, he is far more often an Ouranos than a Kronos type: emotionally detached, overworked, hiding behind the newspaper, answering the son’s curiosity with, “Ask your mother.” In 1996, after fifteen years of leading men’s conferences, Robert Bly argued that Oedipus is now irrelevant. How can a boy desire to kill his father if he has never met him? “Father-longing is beginning to replace father-anger.”
A numbing of the pain – but also of creativity – takes over. Psychologist Samuel Osherson sees a “wounded father” in such men: “When a man says he can’t love his children because he wasn’t loved well enough, it is the wounded father he is struggling with.” Not having known the father, the son will either idealize or degrade him and all he stands for. He feels betrayed – but he interprets the absence as his own fault. He may determine to be everything the father was not, or form alliances with mother and siblings to deceive the father. He carries the knowledge that the family is not a safe place to be emotionally vulnerable into his own fatherhood.
When a woman, the primary victim of patriarchy, is forced to teach a boy how to be a man, he learns to mistrust the masculine. Reacting against a suffocating or emotionally needy mother, he learns to mistrust the feminine as well. He is compelled to act out the old patriarchal curses in yet another generation: innocent violence and violence against the innocent. Often he will attempt to prove his masculinity by getting a girl pregnant at too young an age and refusing to support her.
By contrast, writes Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel, “Only an initiated man could marry a woman and not be miserable and disappointed.” Indigenous wisdom is clear: uninitiated men are dangerous to women. Untransformed male energy cannot approach actual women without resulting in abuse or dysfunction. But it does not approach from a position of strength. When a man decides that the only way he can get what he wants from a woman is to rape her, writes Camille Paglia, “…he is confessing to a weakness that is all encompassing. She is abused, but he is utterly tragic and pathetic.”
He may act out his rage within his new family, like Kronos, or turn that rage against himself in the failed attempts at self-initiation that become suicidal “accidents.” More likely, he will shy away from all commitment, as in the Ouranos model. Resisting pressure to grow up, he encounters marketing strategies that define him as a “metrosexual,” narcissistically obsessed with his appearance and consumer gadgets. By 2000, popular culture had replaced the benevolent family man and the stoic warrior-hero ideal with the unattached adult teenager whose childlike fantasy included all of the perks of adulthood and none of its responsibilities.
This vicious spiral of mistrust makes men secondary victims of patriarchy. When boys cannot find meaningful images or stories that reflect the abundance of their polytheistic souls, they become compliant consumers instead of knowing themselves. They identify with corporate logos instead of a heritage of compassionate masculine elders. They belittle the fathers they long to be seen by. Having less relation to ancestry than any generation in history, they search for a connection with father, clan and sacred king in all the wrong places.
Girls who lose fathers through divorce are far more likely to be sexually abused and to become pregnant as teens than girls from intact, two-parent families. I am not minimizing their plight. They may be narcissistic, needy or depressed. They may fill the lack of meaning in their lives with eating disorders, rituals of consumption and scarification and early pregnancy. But compared to uninitiated males, they are unlikely to seek their souls by abandoning their children or going to war.
Nor am I implying that the mere presence of a father in the household makes for well-adjusted youths. Many boys do fine without fathers, except for a predictable drop in their socio-economic status. But statistics only hint at the long and gradual decline of male initiation and paternal involvement. By and large, American men have abandoned their sons to the schools, the streets, the prisons – and the women.
With little or no masculine energy in the household, the feminine fills the vacuum. Carl Jung wrote that the negative side of the mother archetype is “terrifying and inescapable like fate.” For men it becomes mixed with projections of the anima, and statements of men about the mother “are always emotionally prejudiced…showing ‘animosity.’”
American boys come of age without knowing who they are, but desperate to extricate themselves from this maternal matrix and find their way to a sense of masculine identity. They want to kill some outdated boy within so that their real selves can emerge and their real lives can begin. But without true elders, not to mention concerned fathers, our demythologized culture provides only the “toxic mimics” of real initiation: violent sports, substance abuse, gang affiliation and the military. For role models boys see only athletes, narcissistic entertainers, blatantly dishonest political leaders and local gangsters. Finding our way back to effective rites of passage is becoming more and more critical.