Prologue to new book: Prodigal Father Wayward Son

Co-founder of the men’s movement, former enfant terrible of American philosophers, bestselling author and trapeze artist: at age 83 Sam Keen is adding another layer to his already impressive resume: written with his son Gifford, Prodigal Father Wayward Son, is the definitive roadmap to reconciliation between fathers and sons. Intellectual Conservative has an exclusive preview of the Prologue, below, and be sure to watch father and son discuss growing up and healing in the video interview above. The book will be released in April 2015.


There must always be a struggle between a father and son,while one aims at power and the other at independence.
— Samuel Johnson

SAM: It should have been a moment for celebration.
It was one of those crystalline days with azure skies and a brisk wind blowing through the aspens that make people fall in love with Santa Fe. We had spent the best part of a weekend hiking the trails above town, struggling to resolve quarrelsome issues and ancient resentments that had haunted our relationship since you were a small son and I a fearsome father.

GIF: At the time, to all outward appearances, you and I were the best of friends. I was finally making good: married, kids, retired at forty from a successful high-tech career. We spoke on the phone every week, got together on holidays. You bragged about me to your friends.
But on another level, we had been stuck for many years in a strange purgatory. Underneath the surface camaraderie, on some half-unconscious plane, we were still continuing the guerrilla warfare that had been our shared burden since I was a child. Subtly, without intention, I’d kept the narrative that you were a rotten father alive. You countered with a competing, unarticulated narrative that, despite your long-ago shortcomings as a father, our current difficulties all stemmed from my inability to grow up, to let go of the past, to be a Man.

In short, although we had built your house together, gone camping and hiking, and shared hundreds of hours of conversation, we were still stuck in the destructive, power-based relational patterns established when I was a boy. During the last three days, I had talked frankly to you about the understated ways you were still putting me down, constantly assuring yourself of your position as alpha male in our little pack. We discussed how our chronic, low-level discomfort was caused by old destructive patterns still being played out in our current interactions.

You told me how painful it was that I continued to bring up the divorce and those awful years. I spoke of my frustration with your ambivalence — how at times you were supportive, then at others so carelessly demeaning. For the first time in ten years, we were making real progress on a previously intractable problem. Both of us were filled with the hope that we
would finally be able to shed our skins and settle into that easy, elusive friendship we’d always felt was possible but that had somehow escaped us, floating tantalizingly just beyond our grasp.

SAM: I was due to return home that afternoon, so we decided to treat ourselves to breakfast at Café Pasqual’s. After huevos rancheros and café latte, we were walking down Water Street. I was congratulating myself on a weekend of civil conversation during which we had managed to talk productively about old injuries resulting from my divorce and leaving

GIF: And then it happened. “So,” you asked, “what are you going to do now that you’re not working?” It was casually said, but there was a nasty gleam in your eye, a critical
tone in your voice. This seemingly innocent comment struck deep. It was as if the only effect of all our recent conversation had been to expose my most vulnerable wounds to your disparagement. You might as well have said, “What kind of a worthless man sits around the house meditating and taking care of the kids? It doesn’t matter how much money you have, you’ll never be a Real Man — like me — until you do something worthwhile in the world.”

“You’ve been feeding me this same crap since I was a kid,” I said. “I quit my job because I hated it, and unlike you, I wanted to spend time with my children.” So easily, so smoothly, without thought or volition, I fell back into those old, familiar dance steps. You were always inadequate, a lousy father; you abandoned me, and I’ll never forgive you was my unspoken message.

“I thought you weren’t going to do this anymore,” you replied angrily. “I’ve paid for my mistakes, and it’s about time you realized it. So I’m telling you for the last time: Just knock this shit off.” Two to tango. What you really meant was:  Quit whining. The only problem here is that you’re too weak to get over things that happened thirty years ago. And besides, I’m a man and you’re just a boy. I’ve been kicking your ass since the day you were born, and I’ll keep doing it till the day I die.

SAM: Suddenly, without warning, you were possessed by a fit of blind rage. You stepped close, started poking me in the chest, and screamed in my face. “All that crap you did to me as a child is still going on. You’re still bullying me.” I was baffled by the attack. It seemed to come out of nowhere, just when I thought we had reached a new level of understanding
and forgiveness. When I registered the charges that were being hurled at me, and the rage behind them, my frustration overflowed its banks, and I also began to shout. “I have told you a hundred times how sorry I am for the pain I caused you by abandoning the family thirty years ago, but I thought we agreed
that we weren’t going to do this dance anymore. No more guilt trips.”

GIF: I was overcome by white-hot wrath. “Fuck you,” I shouted. “Ever since I could remember, you’ve been pushing me around, cutting me down, intimidating me with your anger,
browbeating me with you moronic Calvinistic values. And you’re still doing it. Right now.” By this time we had stopped on the sidewalk and were facing each other; the tourists were starting to stare — but I didn’t give a damn. I stepped up close and poked you hard in the chest, my face inches from yours, screaming at the top of my lungs. “So listen up, you bombastic prick: I’ve spent my whole life terrified of your disapproval, trying to live up to your impossible standards, and I’m fed up with it. I don’t give a damn if we end up best friends or if we never speak again, but I will not stand for this condescending bullshit ever again. Not one more time. It ends. Now!”

SAM: After a couple more violent interchanges, you started to walk away. Then you turned and stood firmly in the middle of Water Street. In a voice that drew a line in the sand, you shouted, “You’re never going to push me around again. Never!” With that, you walked away, leaving me on the sidewalk — stunned.

GIF: A huge wave of relief washed over me. I didn’t know what it would mean, but one way or another, it was over. We stared at each other in silence for a long moment, and then I turned and walked away, leaving you to your rental car and the long drive to the airport.

SAM: I made my way back to my car in a state of confusion and sat for an hour. Anger was gradually supplanted by profound grief. I drove aimlessly for an hour before I went to the café where we had agreed to meet to say goodbye before I was to catch my plane. I waited. I waited longer. After an endless time, I left town, engulfed in a cloud of despair. It seemed we would never exorcise the ghosts that haunted us and kept us from the intimacy we both wanted.

Thunderheads, harbingers of a coming storm, were gathering on the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, rapidly obscuring the azure sky. As I drove south, I wondered if you would ever speak to me again. After trying and failing so many times to dissolve the lingering hostility that kept us apart, had we finally reached a dead end, a rupture that couldn’t
be healed?

How had we come to this?

Had I lost my son?

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