The Father Effect: Why John Finch Dedicated His Life to Help Us Heal The Father Wound

One of the basic facts of life is that each of has had a father and a mother. Most men and women can picture our mothers in great detail, but our memories of our fathers are more vague, shadowy, and troubling. That was certainly true for me. When I was five years old, my mid-life father became increasingly depressed because he couldn’t make a living to support his family. He took an overdose of sleeping pills and ended up in a mental hospital.

John Finch had a similar experience with his father, but with a much more tragic ending. In his book with Blake Atwood, The Father Effect: Hope and Healing From a Dad’s Absence, he begins with a letter he received from his father on April 10, 1979:

To My Darlin Wife & Sons whom I dearly love,

I couldn’t do something illegal & immoral to get money to pay the bills. It would hurt you all so much more and God might not forgive me. I know of no other way to keep from hurting you more. I don’t understand why other than from my own weakness that this has come to this. I ask for your love, forgiveness, and pray for God’s forgiveness. My last thoughts are of each of you and I pray that each of you Pattye, Larry, Scott, and John will live this life in truth and love and that you will know that I truly loved you with all my heart.

All My Love,

Dad

John was eleven years old on that tragic day and he remembers his tears as a forty-year old man holding a picture of his lost father. “It’s not the picture itself that makes me cry. It’s knowing what I now know about my dad: how the lack of a father in his life led him to make many bad choices that eventually sent him to prison and ultimately, I believe, drove him to suicide.”

I first met John through a brilliant film he made about his father, the day he took his life, and how it impacted John and his family. He also interviewed many experts who help men and women deal with the impact of lost fathers on our lives. You can learn more about the film and the book here: http://thefathereffect.com/. Contrary to what you might think, the film and the book are full of hope and healing with lessons for the millions of men and women who have grown up with a physically or emotionally absent father.

I believe there is one problem that surpasses all others in its impact on men, women, and society. It is the father wound. We focus on the importance of mothers in determining the well-being of children. However, the father wound, resulting from physical or emotional absence of the father, has been largely ignored. The father wound may be the most pervasive, most important, and least recognized problem facing men and their families today.

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Healing the Father Wound You Never Knew You Had

There is one problem that surpasses all others in its impact on men, women, and society. It is the father wound. We focus on the importance of mothers in determining the well-being of children. However, the father wound, resulting from physical or emotional absence of the father, has been largely ignored. The father wound may be the most pervasive, most important, and least recognized problem facing men and their families today.

Here’s how one man described his wound:

“My dad had a ‘nervous breakdown’ when I was around 5 years old. I’m 73 and still remember the ‘shame.’ My mother used to take me with her to collect him after he had been given ECT – still hurts today. Not only the father wound, but because my mother took me as a surrogate partner, my life has been littered with very nice women who could never live up to her standards, even though she’s been dead for 32 years. I’m okay but still working on those wounds and doing my best to help others heal too.”

The father wound doesn’t just impact men’s lives. Here’s how one woman described her experience:

“I feel very threatened and feel like my partner is going to leave me all the time. I have a lot of chaos in my life and nothing seems for certain. I was the ‘black sheep’ of the family on top of the dysfunctionality of a father who was present physically, but not emotionally. I feel that getting older I have become more scared and in more pain. It has been very difficult for my partner. I don’t want to hurt him anymore. He is too good for that.”

On May 7, 2016, six months before the Presidential election, I wrote an article “The Real Reason Donald Trump Will Be Our Next President.” In the article I concluded, “Mr. Trump seems to have suffered abuse, neglect, and abandonment as a child.” He was raised by a father who worked seven days a week, whose basic value was “win at all cost,” and had little time for his role as a parent. Many people identified with Mr. Trump’s rage, without recognizing the underlying cause, and voted for him. When wounded children grow up to hold important political offices, the impact can be felt throughout the world.

As a psychotherapist who has treated more than 30,000 men and women over my long career, I have seen the devastating impact absent fathers can have on the lives of their children and how the wounding causes problems at all stages of life. Boys and girls who experience the father wound often become adults who unknowingly wound their own children. Once I recognized and understood the prevalence and importance of the father wound, I could help people recover from problems that had previously been resistant to both medical and psychological interventions.

According to the National Center for Fathering, “More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.” [Read more…]

5 Surprising Ways the Father Wound Harms Women

I’ve been dealing with the father wound for most of my life. When I was five years old my mid-life father became increasingly depressed because he couldn’t make a living supporting me and my mother. He took an overdose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. Many of us grow up without the presence of a loving, engaged, father in our lives.

Some of us lose our fathers through illness, others through divorce, death, distance, or dysfunction. Like most losses, the wound is covered over, we get on with our lives, and often are unaware of the ways in which the loss impacts our physical, emotional, and relationship health when we become adults.

The impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) on adult health has been well documented in a number of landmark studies. “ACEs” comes from the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases (including heart disease), depression and other mental illness, violence, and being a victim of violence. The more ACEs we have as children, the more likely we are to suffer physical and emotional consequences as adults. ACEs are quite common and include bullying, losing a parent due to divorce, death, deportation, or dysfunction, physical or emotional abuse, parental neglect, or being separated from a parent due to illness or injury.

As I began to understand my own father wound I was able to heal some of the chronic problems I had been experiencing including being angrymanic and depressed for most of my life. I’ve come to see that the father wound often goes unrecognized and doesn’t just impact males. [Read more…]

6 Ways the Father Wound Can Harm You and Your Family and What You Can Do To Heal

For most adults, the father wound, is invisible. Children are very aware of a father’s absence due to divorce, death, disconnection, or dysfunction. Children know the pain of a father who may not be a loving support for his family because the father may suffer from mental illness, have an alcohol problem, be preoccupied with work, or be physically or emotionally abusive. But humans are resilient. We get used to whatever we experience in childhood and by the time we become adults, the wounds have been covered over and we often forget their childhood origins.

This was certainly the case in my own life. When I was five years old, my father had what was called a “nervous breakdown.” He took an overdose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental hospital, north of Los Angeles. After being hospitalized for three years, my mother was told that he would need to be hospitalized, perhaps for the rest of his life. My mother finally got a divorce and later married another man.

Gradually I came to forget the pain I felt losing my father. I learned to be independent and take care of myself and tried to make my own way into manhood without the presence of a father. But the father wound, like other effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), doesn’t go away just because our conscious mind has buried the experience or we have learned to “forget the past” and “get on with our lives.”

I became very successful in my career as therapist helping men and the women who love them. I had fourteen books published including international bestsellers, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, Male Menopause, and The Irritable Male Syndrome. Yet, my personal life was chaotic and dysfunctional. My first marriage ended in divorce and I quickly fell in love with a woman who slept with a gun under her pillow to protect her “from men.” That marriage was short-lived. I became increasingly angry, manic and depressed.

I had multiple layers of resistance, thinking that since I was a therapist I could handle the problems myself. Being male and being a therapist kept me in denial a long time. But I finally reached out and got help. I learned that I was not alone. According to the National Center for Fathering, “More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.” [Read more…]

Why I’m Writing a Book About the Most Important Problem Facing Men and Their Families Today

I’ve been writing books that help men and the families who love them since my first book, Inside Out: Becoming My Own Man, was published in 1983. Getting books published that focus on men is never easy. The perception in the publishing world continues to be that men don’t read books about men’s issues (unless it’s a sports book) and women aren’t that interested in books that help men (Men, as a group, are doing pretty well. It’s women who need help, many believe). I believe the world is changing and hopefully the publishing world will catch up.

As a writer, psychotherapist, and community activist, I resonate with these words from the philosopher Paul Tillich.

“Every serious thinker must ask and answer three fundamental questions:

  • What is wrong with us? With men? Women? Society? What is the nature of our alienation? Our dis-ease?
  • What would we be like if we were whole? Healed? Actualized? If our potentiality was fulfilled?
  • How do we move from our condition of brokenness to wholeness? What are the means of healing?”

Many have attempted to answer the question, “What is the nature of our alienation, our disease.”

I’ve come to believe that one important answer, that has been largely neglected, is the dis-ease of fatherlessness. It’s certainly a problem that has impacted my own life ever since I was five years old when my father became increasingly angry and depressed because he couldn’t find work to support his family. After struggling for years, he took an overdose of drugs. Luckily, he survived. He was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital and I grew up without a father. [Read more…]

How My Father Escaped From the Act Like a Man Box and Saved His Life

If you’re male, sometime in your life someone has told you to “act like a man.” I heard it from my first wife when she got mad and screamed it at me after I had refused to confront a guy who had sold us a faulty appliance. I heard it again from a friend who wanted me to leave this same woman after she had taken her anger out on me…again, and punctured the tires in my car.

Most of us grew up with certain rules that required men to act and be a certain way that were different from the way women were required to act and be. Growing up I knew that a man must fight anyone who disrespects him, his mother, or his wife. I learned early that a man must be the breadwinner and support his family, no matter what.

Writer and activist Paul Kivel described these manhood mandates as putting us in the Act Like a Man Box. As I grew up I found my life work helping men and women break free from the restrictions that keep us locked down. I came to see that the Act Like a Man Box and the Act Like a Woman Box were mirror images of each other.

When I read Betty Friedan’s book, The Feminine Mystique in 1963 I realized “the problem that has no name,” which is the title of Chapter 1, highlighting the dissatisfactions that women were feeling, also stirred similar feelings in me. The book begins with these words: [Read more…]

From Madness to Manhood: My Father Escapes From the Nuthouse

We were planning to celebrate my 13th birthday with a dinner at my special restaurant, The Pump Room, which served my favorite dessert, a strawberry short-cake with homemade whipped cream. But the celebration was interrupted with a phone call from my uncle, Harry.

“Edith, Muni escaped from Camarillo today,” uncle Harry told her. I could hear his anxiety and worry coming through the phone lines as I put my ear close to the receive to listen.

What do you mean, he escaped,” she asked. I could hear the fear in her voice. “He’s been there seven years and the doctors told me his condition was chronic and untreatable and he could never leave.”

“Yes, I know. They told me that too. But he escaped.”

“How the hell did he escape?” Her voice was controlled, but I could hear the panic begin to rise.

“I went to visit like always and he seemed to be better so I took him into town to get an ice cream. He told me he wanted to get some stamps and went across the street to the post office. He never came back and I couldn’t find him.”

“How…”

“He just disappeared,” Harry said. “I looked everywhere, then finally went back to the hospital and told them. They’ve put out an all-points bulletin and they feel he’ll likely be apprehended and returned soon enough, but I wanted you to know.”

When my mother explained what had happened I was shocked and disoriented. After I stopped visiting my father when I was six years old, I stopped thinking about him. It was too painful. Bill entered my life and my father’s memory faded. My mother didn’t talk about him and he became a shadowy figure who slowly disappeared from my world, like cigarette smoke dissipating from the air. [Read more…]

From Madness to Manhood: Sunshine and Shame

Growing up in the San Fernando Valley was a delight. It seemed that summertime lasted forever and our little home in Sherman Oaks was the center of a wonderful universe from which I began to explore. The front yard was big and it was lined by trees, which I soon began climbing. I was a small, slightly built boy, always one of the shortest boys in my classes, a fact limited my potential to impress the girls. My mother always told me not to worry that I would grow to be a tall man, even though both she and my father were short. “Yes, but your uncles are tall,” she would tell me and I looked forward to the time when I would get my growth spurt. I hoped and prayed to be six feet someday, but I never grew taller than five feet, four and three-quarter inches.

There was a split rail fence that enclosed the yard without cutting us off from the neighbors. The split rails and the rest of the house was built by the man who sold the house to my parents in 1944 for $4,500. He had worked for the phone company. Times were difficult during the war years and the phone company couldn’t pay him. He finally had to leave to find a new job and the phone company paid what they owed him in telephone poles, which he used to build the house and the surrounding fence.

In addition to the fence, the house was made of roughhewn timbers. There was a large fireplace in the living room made out of stones that were brought in one at a time from the river that ran two blocks from the house. There was a large mantel piece above the fireplace where my mother placed mementoes from her time in New York. One I still have is small container with the face of an old man with a beard and turban and a cover on top. I always thought he looked very exotic, like one of the wise men who came baring gifts from afar. [Read more…]

From Madness to Manhood: In Search of My Lost Father and Myself

Camarillo State Hospital

“Kids have a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad. And if a father is unwilling or unable to fill that hole, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed.” Roland Warren.

I was five years old when my uncle drove me to the mental hospital. I was confused and afraid.

“Why do I have to go,” I asked Uncle Harry.

He looked at me with his round face and kind eyes. “Your father needs you.”

“What’s the matter with him?” I was beginning to cry and I clamped my throat tight to stop the tears.

I sank down into the leather seats of uncle Harry’s new Buick, a soft yellow beauty. It had four ventiports on each side of the engine that I imagined were eyes that could see into the future. The grill in front looked like an open mouth with huge teeth. I would worry that it might swallow me up if I got too close, but I felt safe inside the car.

Harry was a song writer and sang the words to one of his most popular songs, Sweet and Lovely, which had been recorded by Bing Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald. He looked at me and smiled, patting my knee as he drove. “Sweet and lovely,” he crooned, “sweeter than the roses in May. Sweet and lovely. Heaven must have sent him my way.”

Harry called out the names of the towns as we drove through them–Encino, Tarzana, Calabasas. I loved the sound of the names and imagined them as kingdoms in far-away lands where I would slay dragons and rescue damsels in distress.

As we drove up to the building I didn’t know what to expect. Camarillo State Hospital looked like one of the old California missions with palm trees in front and a big bell tower in the center with adobe buildings that had grassy lawns in front. But as we got closer, I saw the windows. They weren’t like our windows at home, but had thick bars over them and they were painted a puke pink, like Pepto-Bismol. [Read more…]

Lost Fathers: How Deaths, Divorces, and Disconnections Impact Our Health and Happiness

1j5rneyi28q-zara-walkerLike most people, I’ve come to accept the inevitable losses in my past as part of life, something everyone experiences. As we get older we must deal with our parent’s death, the loss of friends, and other family members. But there are certain losses that have a lasting impact on our lives. As a psychotherapist and marriage and family counselor, I’ve long been aware of how the loss of close family members at crucial times in our lives impacts our health, well-being, and our adult relationships.

Recently, I’ve been reading It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shape Who We Are and How to End the Cycle. Wolynn is Director of The Family Constellation Institute and The Inherited Family Trauma Center and is North America’s leader in the field Inherited Family Trauma. In the book he says:

Depression. Anxiety. Chronic pain. Phobias. Obsessive thoughts. The evidence is compelling: The roots of these difficulties may reside not in our immediate life experience or in chemical imbalances in our brains but in the lives of our parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Scientific research over the past several years, now making headlines, supports what many have long intuited—that traumatic experience can be inherited. Even if the person who suffered the original trauma has died or the story has been forgotten or silenced, memory and feelings can live on, encoded in everything from gene expression to everyday language.”

He notes that the loss of connection with our mothers is one of the primary losses that may impact our emotional well-being and the stability of our adult relationships. In taking a serious look at my family history I was able to have a much better understanding of my own issues with depression and bipolar disorder, and more importantly I discovered new ways to heal these long-standing issues, without long-term use of psychiatric medications. [Read more…]