I got the idea for today’s post from a very unusual program of This American Life. The topic of the 1996 broadcast was Accidental Documentaries. It told the stories of old audio tapes from the late 1960s which were discovered accidentally in a thrift store in Chicago. These tapes were audio letters between a family in Michigan and their son, who was in medical school in California, at the time. The tapes document the life of the family as its members: the father, mother, and the younger sister, chose to share it with their son.
The program's producers got hold of the son who is a physician in California. This is Glass’ report: “We sent him uncut tapes of everything that was on the tape. And he heard them. And he said that it was fine with him for us to play the tapes on the radio. He said that the tapes captured the dynamics of his family perfectly. The drama of a lot of American families is the emotional distance of the father, the father staying away from the family orbit, the father not being around, the father holding himself apart. And Arthur Davis, Junior says that his father was like a lot of American dads in that way and was, in fact, pretty removed.”
I believe that the remote father is not only an American phenomenon. Growing up in Israel in the late 1950s I hardly have any childhood memories of my father. He was always away at work. My mother and my older brother were in charge of my upbringing. I got to know my father only as an adult.
Arthur Davis Junior from the tapes tells a similar story: “He was reared in a divorced home. And there was a lot of bitterness. And so it was pretty tough for him to even consider getting married. And then when I was born, my mom said that he just broke into tears, thinking that he might have to deal with some of those issues as a parent. He never did really want to be a parent. And she really helped him through that a lot. It was very fascinating, Ira. After my mom died, my dad changed tremendously. And he came to live with me, and spent quite a bit of time with my sister and me, and was very connected with us and our children. So that all changed after Mom died.”
And in 1950s Britain, in issues of Girl magazine we could see in pictures and in stories that the father is always away, either physically at work, or emotionally, uninvolved --withdrawn. Even when the father is at home he sits at the table. the newspaper which he always reads separates him from the rest of his family .
I always feel that in the 1950s and the 1960s men had a much easier life at home than they do today: Fathers were spoilt by their family, which demanded nothing of them but gave them a lot of respect.
Some changes are good; my husband was an involved father and we raised our daughters together. And when I think of the close connection that they enjoyed, it seems to me that after all the 1950s fathers did not get the best deal.
This American Life Accidental Documetaries transcript: