My Father Before Me: How Fathers and Sons Influence Each Other Throughout Their Lives (Book Review)
Author: Diamond, Michael J.
Publisher: W. W. Norton
Reviewed By: Louis Rothschild, Vol. XXVIII, No. 3 (Summer 2008), pp. 84-85
When considering popular psychology publications and psychoanalysis, the cover art featured on the Black Cat paperback edition of Must You Conform (Lindner, 1956) strikes me as rather provocative. There a viewer finds a color photograph of a naked woman whose back is turned while next to her in black and white, a faceless man appears facing forward wearing a grey hat and suit. The brute force of the dichotomized colorful female’s body on the one hand and a static and disembodied male suit on the other depict conformity as aversive and rigid. To view this image some fifty years after publication, I am reminded of the well-documented loss found in this gendered split between the subjective and objective (Benjamin, 1988). In what many consider a post-modern climate in which such gendered binaries long reified in modernity have been ruptured by gender plasticity, comes a psychoanalytic study on the relationship between fathers and sons targeted toward a popular audience. One might expect gender trouble.
I am happy to report that in his study of fathers and sons, Michael Diamond successfully negotiates two narrow lanes. Not only does he chart a clear linguistic path between the Charybdis of popular psychology and the Scylla of academic theory and research but he simultaneously negotiates the plasticity of contemporary conceptions of gender with the lived constraints of culture and biology. In building upon earlier work on fathering (Diamond, 1998), Michael Diamond has not only impacted the world of gender studies, but has delivered clinical psychoanalysis to a wide audience without sacrificing fidelity. As measured by its standing in the nonfiction adult social sciences section on Amazon.com, the work is popular and has been well received. To that end, the book serves as a stark reminder that as in Lindner’s time, psychoanalysis continues to be a significant component of our culture’s zeitgeist in the quest to situate the self and family.
The book centers around the thesis that a “good enough father” is an ideal second other that may be found across the lifespan in the guises of model, challenger, guide, mentor, fallen hero, aging equal, wise elder, and aging elder for a developing father and son. Across these stages Diamond posits a persistent need to be both independent and connected. Diamond notes that fathers are typically more disruptive than mothers who tend toward attunement. However, he also notes that mothers and fathers each contain aspects of the capacity to privilege independence and connection in a manner that fits quite well with Blatt’s (2008) observation that both the capacity for independence and connection are necessary for a healthy psychology in any individual. Although Diamond is clear regarding such gender equity, he chooses a conventional use of the word father while simultaneously reworking the space signified by that word. While he does not overtly speak of a method of deconstruction, the trajectory of his work reminded me of what has been called putting under erasure (cf., Fairfield, 2002). As Fairfield notes, this entails striking through the word (e.g., father) so that although the conceptual system of our culture is being utilized, the very reworking of such a system is simultaneously made explicit. I found myself thinking that such a style would have served to persistently remind me of the difference that is found in this book. However, I do think that it would have lent heaviness to the work leaving it difficult to access in another direction. To that end, I believe Diamond deserves credit for choosing a quiet path of reworking as opposed to a louder one.
This reworking entails altering the lack of a nuanced conceptualization of fathering with our shared social representations of popular culture and in our professional literature. Such a reworking is made possible by the feminist movement of the 1970s and the subsequent economic changes that often lead to dual careers in which men have had to become more active in the parenting sphere. To that end, this book supports and extends a conception of masculinity that is not built on a misogynistic scaffold while affirming the intersection between biological sex and gender identity. It is in this context that Diamond discusses the mirroring that may take place when a boy stands next to his father while he shaves to show that active engagement affords a more realistic way of being a man for a developing son.
Fathering then is conceptualized as a relational space of bidirectional influence due to a mutual identification between father and son. Simply, each develops. In writing about an example of a gay son and the manner in which engagement affords increased understanding of masculinity, Diamond shows the manner in which a son’s presence affords a space in which a father may address his own often changing identity if he is able to tolerate what is mirrored by his son. This theme of containment facilitating bidirectional growth is situated throughout the book in several perspectives and stories. Parenting, however, pace Erickson, is not essentialized as the only way in which to be generative.
Although the book focuses on the relationship between fathers and sons, in so doing it also captures vital aspects of the contemporary nuclear family and intrapersonal development. In accounting for the dominant cultural representations of a father as singular protector and provider and the subsequent damage done when one is not able to live up to or conform to such an ideal as is illustrated in case material of dad who earned less in dual income family. Diamond shows the manner in which masculinity is compelled to evolve in the participation of second shift labor. Not only is the demand of working with feelings of being forced to grapple with meaning and self-worth when one perceives mother and child as self-sufficient unit, but the difficulty of negotiating an identity of what a masculinity looks like once the hardness of phallic narcissism is no longer relied upon, are shown to be central challenges on the path toward a mature integration of a more cohesive identity.
n such an integration Diamond finds a place for hardness and softness. For example, he notes that the caring father often is called upon to assert his worth with his capacity to also be an exciting lover. That such a multifaceted stance affords a capacity to connect and allow for separation in a manner that not only serves as a vehicle to diminish a boy’s omnipotence, but also allows the emergence of a representation of mother and father together. Diamond refers to this as a “parenting alliance,” a union that continues throughout a child’s development.
Not only does the text afford a re-conceptualization of fathering, but also the reader is treated to a personal down-to-earth narrative. Diamond disclosures range from playing with his own children (male and female) and being a fallible little league coach, to examples of his clinical engagement across a variety of cases. He interweaves interpretation of literature ranging from Greek mythology and contemporary texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird, to the lyrics of Joni Mitchell, and even a discussion with a neighbor regarding parenting and uncertainty. For a reader of this newsletter, I wholeheartedly recommend the book due to the quality of the clinical vignettes and this intimate self-portrait of an analyst in life both inside and outside of the consulting room.
Benjamin, J. (1988). The bonds of love: Psychoanalysis, feminism, and the problem of domination. New York: Pantheon Books.
Blatt, S. J. (2008). Polarities of experience: Relatedness and self-definition in personality, development, psychopathology, and the therapeutic process. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
Diamond, M. J. (1998). Fathers with sons: Psychoanalytic perspectives on “Good Enough” fathering throughout the lifecycle. Gender and Psychoanalysis, 3: 243-299.
Fairfield, S. (2002). Analyzing multiplicity: A postmodern perspective on some current psychoanalytic theories of subjectivity. In: S. Fairfield, L. Layton, and C. Stack (Eds.) Bringing the plague: Toward a postmodern psychoanalysis, pp. 69-102.New York: Other Press.
Lindner, R. (1956). Must you conform? New York: Grove Press.
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