'Men of the house': a legacy of abusers

This Just In...

May 04, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

A man who described himself as a proud relative of Frank Scarpola, convicted last week in the child abuse murder of 9-year-old Rita Fisher, wrote a letter to The Sun last summer to defend Scarpola as a "kind, friendly, somewhat naive gentleman" who moved into the Fisher home in Baltimore County and took on the duties of "man of the house." And that, the relative wrote, took guts.

Especially given the state of the Fisher household at the time:

A mother, Mary Utley, who seemed either to be irresponsible or maladjusted; Scarpola's girlfriend, Rose, often severely depressed; and two younger sisters, Georgia and Rita, with emotional and learning disabilities. The house was a mess. And the youngest girls, the Scarpola relative reported, were "absolute terrors ... just wild with behavioral problems at home and at school."

Stepping into this maw and assuming command, declaring himself "man of the house," constituted an honorable act, the Scarpola defender told us.

Of course, evidence at Scarpola's recent trial showed that his idea of home improvement consisted of hitting Georgia and Rita, locking them in a dark room in the basement for several hours at a time and tethering Rita's hands with shoelaces to a bedroom dresser. Where do you suppose a man of 20 or 21 gets such ideas?

From other men?

From a man, or men, he might have seen in action early in his life?

Scarpola admitted as much from the witness stand.

Most of us guys get all our ideas - good and bad - about manhood, fatherhood and "the man of the house" from the men who hover about as we grow up. We take some cues from famous role models - the ones we know through mass media. But their influence comes late and is therefore limited. In the main, we get ideas about manhood from men close to us, starting with father.

For several generations, before the number of fatherless households escalated, "the man of the house" was not actually in the house much. He was the fellow who showed up at 5 o'clock to instill discipline in what he believed had been, just about all day, an undisciplined, overly feminized household. He compensated with his callused hands, or his belt buckle, if he had to.

Since the Industrial Revolution, when fathers left the farm and marched to the factory, they have been 5 o'clock shadows, men who show up at the end of the day and restore order with their iron presence.

It's a terrible job, we've been told, but someone's got to do it.

So the father, almost an outside force in several generations of American families, gets the nod. I had such a father, a 5 o'clock shadow whose daily arrival we feared.

Frank Scarpola's idea of father was exactly this - disciplinarian, outside force. His burden was extra heavy, we're told, because of the behavioral problems of the youngest girls, Georgia and Rita.

His response to this was to inflict physical and mental abuse.

TC From where do such ideas of "parenting" come?

The assertion has been made many times - and has been supported by research many times - that children who are abused by their parents tend to grow into child abusers themselves. The jails and mental hospitals are full of such people.

Studies have shown that the transformation from abused child to abusing adult begins very early in life.

For instance, a 1986 University of California, Berkeley, study at a day care center showed that children as young as 1, 2 and 3 years old exhibited the behavioral characteristics of abusive parents; when confronted with a child in distress - a playmate who was crying - the toddlers reacted with violence. The sight and sound of a crying peer aroused no sympathy and actually provoked reactions ranging from anger and threats to physical attacks.

Non-abused kids showed concern or sadness in response to the sight of a child in distress. The abused kids, on the other hand, yelled at, slapped or even beat the crying playmate.

The UC researchers, Carol George and Mary Main, reported in Development Psychology that the "abused preschoolers not only mirrored their parents' self-isolation and aggression, but, like their parents, seemed to respond almost reflexively to the distress of others with fear and anger."

Sound familiar? Frank Scarpola, his girlfriend and the girlfriend's mother reacted with violence to children in distress, Georgia and Rita.

They behaved like the half-adults author Robert Bly describes in "The Sibling Society": selfish, scornful of children, adrift in a world of adolescent envy and greed.

Bly believes it's a societywide phenomenon, this adolescent culture in which the responsibilities of true adulthood have been abdicated. In this culture, he argues, the half-adults have no problem abandoning children or abusing them.

And Bly's vision adds another layer to an already complicated set of social problems that include child abuse.

But I'll leave the Rita Fisher case with a simpler thought:

Somewhere along the line, we must purge our world of the idea that kids need a good beating now and then. I've been with men who feel that way. I'm sure some women feel that way, too. I'm sure they learned it all from their parents - their mothers or their 5 o'clock shadow fathers.

But the thing is, there are plenty of things we learn from our parents that we manage to purge because they are unhealthy and destructive. We'd better, or our children will learn from it, and faster than we think.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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