And a follow-up on parents and success: Thanks to Mary Achor’s tip in the comments, this take by Doug Wead on “absent fathers” as a good thing in the life of children:
Thanks to Freda Zietlow for pointing me to this piece in the Wall Street Journal on the dysfunctional families of future presidents.
As you guys already know, in one chapter of my book I’m looking into the subtle and unsubtle ways that parents influence the future success and failure of their children. Hamilcar played a huge role in the life of his son Hannibal (my main character), and not just while Hamilcar was alive.
Now, the Journal‘s Sue Shellenbarger has this to say about US presidents and their parents:
The families that have produced U.S. presidents … show a striking tendency to be deeply flawed. The childhoods of past presidents have been marked to an unusual degree by absent fathers, mothers so overinvolved that they could easily have been the original helicopter parents, and in some cases outright dysfunction…
Childhood events that would destroy most children seem somehow to spark greatness in leaders-to-be, says Doug Wead, author of two books on presidents’ families. As two candidates with highly unusual family backgrounds vie for the presidency, Mr. Wead even sees Sen. McCain and Sen. Obama — to different degrees and in starkly different ways — fitting a pattern he describes as “Mama’s boys with absent fathers who were perceived by the sons as high achievers,” he says….
Some presidents’ families have been famously dysfunctional. Thomas Lincoln abandoned 9-year-old Abraham and his sister, 12, for several months in their frontier cabin right after the death of their mother, while he went to find a new wife, says Doris Kearns Goodwin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author most recently of “Team of Rivals,” a book about Lincoln. When Thomas finally returned with their new stepmother, Sarah Bush Johnston, the couple found them “wild — ragged and dirty,” seeming barely human, the stepmother later wrote…
In another notably troubled family, Bill Clinton’s father died before Bill was born; his stepfather was a womanizer and an alcoholic who beat his mother, Virginia, according to biographer David Maraniss. Although Virginia, a warm, nurturing woman, made her son the adored centerpiece of the family, President Clinton said later that he often pined for his birth father…
Even the McCain family, with its tradition of distinguished military service, fits the pattern of an absent father and an overinvolved mother who fills the gap, Mr. Wead says. Sen. McCain’s father was a respected four-star Navy admiral and commander of Pacific forces in the Vietnam war, but he was mostly absent from home during Sen. McCain’s childhood. Sen. McCain reflects pride in his father and was taught to regard his long absences “not as a deprivation, but as an honor.”…
“This boy is really doing his civic homework during an important election,” you may be saying. Actually, no. I’m doing research for (no surprises) my book.
You see, these two–Obama and McCain–made me think of my main characters, Hannibal and Scipio. No, it’s not because Obama is half African (I’ve explained here why I don’t think that Hannibal was “African” in that sense). No, it’s not because McCain has “something Roman about him”, as a friend of mine said, referring to McCain’s martial honor code. And it’s only a little bit because both pairs were formidable rivals and opponents.
It’s because Hannibal and Scipio, if they had written books, might well have given them the exact same titles.
Hannibal lived his life as he did, one could argue, because he inherited a “dream from his father,” Hamilcar. Hamilcar had fought the Romans in the First Punic War, and felt humiliated when Rome won, and wanted revenge. He even made Hannibal, when the boy was nine, swear an oath to keep the “faith of his father”. (100falcons has a nice write-up of it here.)
Scipio could have said the same. He had the same name as his father, Publius Cornelius Scipio, and fought in his father’s army against Hannibal, when Hannibal seemed invincible. His father and uncle later died in battle against Hannibal’s brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. Scipio, too, was keeping the “faith of his fathers” when he rose at a precocious age to become Rome’s leader and last hope.
So, fathers clearly matter. Or perhaps only for sons? For Amy Tan, it seems to have been her mother who was the important early influencer.
Lots to ponder. Lots to ponder. The role of background in life choices, goal-setting, Success, failure….