It is hard living without a father to show the ways of becoming a man. Mom eventually dated some men, but they either frightened or bored me. One, a swarthy ex-boxer, bought me boxing gloves and a punching bag; but I was too scared to follow his instruction. Mom said I had an “inferiority complex, ” a new phrase out at the time. Another was nice. He took me fishing, but lost his way in a morning fog, destroying my trust in him and manifesting my intense fear of death. Mom eventually married him, as I’m sure you know from her laments to you. He never was much of a father to me, but he was the only father I had, and I love him still. But he never provided me with a model to follow. I spent my entire adult life searching for father figures.
Finding a father figure can be a challenge when one is young and all one’s teachers are female. Perhaps that’s the reason I don’t remember much about my childhood. My female teachers just didn’t seem relevant to my life. I already had a strong female figure in my life. Mom was nothing if not strong. What I needed was a male role model. Finally, in 7th and 8th grade, I encountered male teachers who gave me my first idea of how to be a man: a man of learning. After flirting with the idea of becoming first a geneticist and then a psychiatrist, I settled on the career of a college professor and the discipline of sociology.
In my life, the theme of searching for a father is linked to the theme of saving lives. I didn’t want you to die. I wanted to save your life, only that damn fence got in the way! To save a life is, in a way, to give birth — or, at least, to give new life to someone. Once I saved a boy from drowning, only to have the lifeguards snatch him away from me after I plucked the child from the water. I saved a bird, too. En route up Mount Whittier, in California, I freed a bird tangled in a fine wire and watched it fly away. Both times I gave new life, only to have it taken away, first by man and second by nature.
In graduate school, my search for father figures and my desire to save lives joined in subtle and complex ways. My first mentor, a noted historian and sociologist, died one year into my teaching assistant-ship and left me rootless yet again. There is little wonder why my doctoral dissertation, and indeed most of my post-dissertation writing, participate in the genre of scholarship that attempts to “save” forgotten or neglected figures by demonstrating their contemporary relevance.
Throughout my entire adult and intellectual life, I had been recapitulating the central episode of my childhood. I attempted to save the father from oblivion. Perhaps Keebler-Ross was wrong and denial of death never really goes away. All of these efforts to “save” forgotten scholars are, I think, doomed to failure. I am no more likely to save them from oblivion than I am to save you from myocardial infarction.