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You can’t put your arms around a memory (of your absent father).

by Dr John Barry

Johnny Thunders, guitarist with the hugely influential New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers, is a rock & roll icon. His is a story of incredible talent tragically squandered to heroin addiction. This article speculates that the cause of this tragedy was dad deprivation.

His story is depressingly familiar, echoed in the lives of contemporaries of the music scene in the late 70s, such as Sid Vicious and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. Like Vicious and Jones, Thunders (real name John Anthony Genzale) had a dad-shaped hole in his life. Shortly after he was born into an Italian-American household in Queens, New York, Thunders’ womanising father left home, leaving him to be raised by his mother and older sister.

His sister’s record collection – mainly girl groups like the Shangri-Las – helped fill the void for a time, and we might speculate on how this influenced the cross-dressing of The New York Dolls. But Thunders was also a natural athlete and excelled at baseball. He even got a tryout with the Little League’s Philadelphia Phillies, but he wasn’t allowed to take part because of the requirement of the presence of a father.

But clearly Thunders had spirit and he transfered his energy into guitar playing and fashion. These activities however didn’t fill the dad-shaped void in his life, as suggested by his tendency to take drugs. He and The Dolls became notoriously unreliable due to the influence of drugs and addiction, and his music career was crippled because of the music industry’s lack of willingness to take a risk investing their money there.

Drug-taking wrecked his mental health too. Thunders was sometimes described as appearing depressed. One story tells of him fleeing a hotel room, terrified because he thought Darth Vader was hiding behind his curtains. Psychologists of a psychoanalytic nature might read something into the fact that the Darth Vader character was created as a ‘Dark Father’, which is perhaps what Thunders’ father became due to prolonged absence.

Like his father, Thunders was popular with women. He tried to settle down and had three sons with wife Julie Jordan in the late 70s, but his drug use made his life shambolic and incompatible with family life. In the early 1980s Jordan took the children from him, and he never saw them again. His eldest son Vito, would later be jailed by drug trafficking, perhaps also a victim of dad-deprivation.

There is a rumor that is interesting in regards to Thunders and Sid Vicious, both of whom were victims of dad-deprivation. It is claimed that Thunders introduced Sid Vicious to heroin, waving a syringe in his face and shouting: “Are you a boy or a man?” Perhaps this shows that in the absence of healthy rites-of-passage, men will create unhealthy rites-of-passage.

Thunders’ drug abuse made him hard work for anyone around him and contributed to his notoriety, but it would be naïve to think that it contributed to his talent. In fact his drug use vastly reduced his creativity and output, and who knows how many more great songs he would have recoded had he hadn’t been so addicted and self-destructive.

According to Thunders’ biographer, Nina Antonia: “The thing that was always missing was a father figure”. He could have been a massive success, but he became best known for failure. One of his best known songs is “Born to lose” – clearly that’s how he felt, and that’s how he lived. He died tragically aged 39 in New Orleans in seedy and mysterious – possibly murderous – circumstances. Definitely not the way any father wants their son’s life to end, and something for all fathers to learn from.

 

About the author

Dr John A. Barry is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, Honorary Lecturer in Psychology at University College London, clinical hypnotherapist, and author of over 60 peer-reviewed publications on a variety of topics in psychology and medicine. John is a professional researcher and has taken an interest in improving the teaching of research methods and statistics. He has practiced clinical hypnosis for several years and is a member of the British Association of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis. His Ph.D. was awarded by City University London, on the topic of the Psychological Aspects of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, which is also the topic of his forthcoming book (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019). He is co-founder of both the Male Psychology Network and the Male Psychology Section of the British Psychological Society (BPS).

 

Further reading

Antonia, N. (2000). Johnny Thunders: In Cold Blood. Cherry Red Books.

Barry J (2017). How much empathy do we have for a Lonely Boy? https://malepsychology.org.uk/2017/01/09/how-much-empathy-do-we-have-for-a-lonely-boy/

Barry J (2019). Born to lose: the sad start and tragic end of Sid Vicious https://malepsychology.org.uk/2019/02/02/born-to-lose-the-sad-start-and-tragic-end-of-sid-vicious/

Farrel, W (2018). The Boy Crisis: Why Our Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It.

Jones, S. (2016). Lonely Boy: tales from a Sex Pistol. London: William Heinemann. ISBN-10: 1785150677

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Book review. Updating timeless advice for fathers: Owen Connolly’s ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants’

Review of Owen Connolly’s book ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – from Father to Dad’.

by Dr John Barry

In his book The Boy Crisis, Warren Farrell warned us about the dangers of ‘dad deprivation’. This is the phenomenon of boys who drop out of highschool, become unemployed, prone to imprisonment. Almost every mass shooter since Columbine has been a boy who grew up with minimal or no father involvement. So what has happened to fatherhood? Masculinity is often devalued (e.g. the recent controversial APA guidelines) and dads are portrayed as bumbling fools in the media.

Against this backdrop of boys who desperately need dads, and men who feel disenfranchised from the fathering role, what is a man to do? Well, consultant psychologist Owen Connolly may have some answers in his book ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – from Father to Dad’.

In a slim volume that avoids unecessary jargon, Connolly gives practical advice to men in a way that answers questions to the everyday problems of parenting. The giants on whose shoulders we stand are those generations of men who have lived before us, and through their struggles and survival have passed on instincts we can tune in to in order to sense that we are doing the right thing for our children. So a lot of the advice is about tuning into our own feelings and needs as well as those of our children and spouse. But it’s not all touchy – feely. For example, there is the Top 10 Discipline Tips which offers practical ways of dealing with your child when they are being unruly.

Connolly recognises that we all have strengths and weaknesses. He asks men to recognise this, and to play to their strengths. He understands that when men are distressed, they often want a practical step-by-step approach to solutions, so the simple Q&A format adopted in this book makes perfect sense, as is the practical advice.

An example of the Q&A format is the question: ‘Does a man’s childhood affect the way in which he will parent his own children?’ The advice given is: “When each of us reaches 16 or 17, we become our own person, and after that it’s important for all of us to have a look at our lives and value who we are and shed many of the labels that were put upon us. We have to start looking at the positive aspects of ourselves” (Connolly 2006, p. 14). This is based on the idea that if we don’t learn to love ourselves, our negativity will be a disadvantage to anyone around us. Such advice fits in very well with modern ideas around positive masculinity, and the book has many examples of timeless good advice.

The book has four sections: Men & Women, Parenting Small Children, The Teenager, and Parenting Today. There is also a workbook section at the back, with some questionnaires, as an aid to self-reflection and development. These add to the overall user-friendly feel of the book. Those who like an index at the back of the book and references supporting every single statement will feel a bit lost at times, but for those who simply want solid advice, such academic niceties are not needed.

One of the take-home messages of this book is ‘any man can be a father, but not everyone can be a dad’. The aim of this book is to help men to connect with parts of themselves that are beyond modern fads about masculinity, and understand how to be a dad.

 

Connolly, O. (2006). ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – from Father to Dad’. Dundrum: Nurture Press.

To purchase this book please email info@counsellor.ie 

 

About Owen Connolly

Owen Connolly is a consultant psychologist and marriage and family therapist in private practice in Dublin. As well as “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – From Father to Dad”, he is co-author of the book “Parenting for the Millennium”, a best-selling book on childcare. He completed his training in the UK, Ireland, and the USA. He lectures in childcare and parenting, and is Chairman of the Nurture Institute of Further Education for Parents, a not-for-profit organisation which runs parenting courses and day-long seminars on fatherhood throughout the greater Dublin area.

Owen is running a workshop on the subject of ‘fatherhood and being a good dad’ at the Male Psychology Conference at UCL in June 2019.

 

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