A Conversation with the Three Doctors, Drs. Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt
How do you describe this book, and where did the idea for it come from?
Rameck Hunt: I initially came up with the idea because I wanted to build a better relationship with my dad. There were so many things I wanted to ask him, but I didn't know how. I'd often wondered, for example, whether he wanted my mom to get an abortion rather than have me, and whether he thought about me when I wasn't around; but I couldn't bring myself to ask him, because the questions made me uncomfortable. So I thought if we wrote a book in collaboration with a disinterested third party it could serve as a vehicle for providing the answers. When I started research for the book, and explained to George and Sampson what I was doing and what I wanted to get out of it, they thought it was a great idea and they joined in.
George Jenkins: We see this as an attempt to get a conversation going about parenting, about the relationship between fathers and sons, and about the issue of fatherlessness prevalent not just in America's inner cities but all across the country. We thought the best way to do this was for us to write about our own experiences growing up with absentee fathers and the extent to which it left gaping holes in our lives. We write about the things we missed out on that might have helped us have an easier journey. We write about the bumps and obstacles that got in our way. And we explore a lot of questions fatherless children ask. Above all, we celebrate the fact that it's never too late to connect with your father.
Why is this such an important topic?
Sampson Davis: There's a growing epidemic of fatherlessness in our communities that needs to be addressed. At one time nuclear families were the backbone of this country. Statistics from generations past indicate eighty to ninety percent of U.S. households were made up of married couples with their children. That's clearly no longer the case. In fact, in 2001 it was reported that nuclear families dropped below twenty-five percent of U.S. households. Single-parent homes, and particularly those headed by women who have children—families typically poorer than two-parent families—are becoming the norm. Obviously, relationships don't work out all the time, and you move on for any number of reasons. But whether or not the relationship works, you still have a responsibility when a child is involved and that child is looking for love, guidance and care not from one parent alone but from both.
Knowing that so many relationships end in divorce and separation, and having grown up with absentee dads, we thought it was important to create some kind of blueprint or path for fathers—indeed, for both parents, and for their kids—to follow. We know this isn't easy to deal with, especially if you're no longer living in the home, but that doesn't excuse you from being accountable. We certainly don't expect this to stop people from separating or divorcing, bu/t we do hope it will move them to take a more active role in their kids' lives.
Rameck Hunt: Are we expecting to change the world? Yes. Do we think we will change the world? We certainly hope so. A friend of mine, a psychiatrist in Jamaica, likes to say, “Aim for the sky, land on the roofs.” We're aiming for the sky.
Describe your childhood experiences with your fathers.
George Jenkins: My parents were married for a brief period—about two or three years—but it was a very rocky relationship. Dad abused alcohol, and Mom had little patience for his heavy drinking. She wanted to raise my older brother and me in a healthy environment, so she moved us from South Carolina, where we had been living and where my father remained, to New Jersey. Dad never made enough money to take care of his responsibilities to us, and there wasn't much effort on his part to be a presence in my life or to help Mom in rearing me. She bore the brunt of all that. When I decided to make the leap to college and professional school—a time when I needed him most—that hands-off approach continued. I watched mom wear herself out working a number of jobs at a time so I could concentrate on my studies. That created a lot of resentment in me toward my dad over the years. He and I would talk on the phone occasionally, and the conversations were always friendly and warm. But 675 miles separated us—a distance he seemed to have no interest in bridging—so no matter how pleasant the conversation, there was nothing on which to build a father-son bond. It was like being in a platonic relationship when you're really starving for a romantic one. As a child, I convinced myself I was cool with my dad's absence. After all, hardly any of my friends had fathers, either. As a grown man, I know better. When we decided to write this book, I stalled, switched gears, and for a time stopped writing altogether. It was hard to grasp how deeply I had buried things and how unwilling I was to disclose them.
Sampson Davis: The Pop I knew was present physically for my early years, but was an absentee father nonetheless. He was a very stoic man from the South, with a strong, solid demeanor that commanded respect. But his relationship with my mom was incredibly volatile, and domestic violence in our household—on both their parts—was the norm. Added to that was the wear and tear of trying to raise a family of six on a meager income amid the land mines of inner-city Newark. Pop's way of coping was to retreat behind a closed door, to wall himself off. There was never an attempt on his part to open himself up so I could ask him the questions every boy wants to ask his dad: What do I do in this or that social situation? Do I shake the person's hand? Do I make eye contact? How much do I ask? How little should I ask? What about girls and dating and sex? And I longed to hear him say “I love you” to me. Those three words would have meant the world. Even doing something as simple as going fishing with him would have been wonderful, because it would have allowed me to get to know him on a more personal level. Instead he was just this physical presence I called “Dad.”
When I was about twelve or so, he divorced my mom, and later he remarried. I've been told by my stepmom and my stepbrothers and sisters that with them he was the kind of man—the kind of father—I so desperately wanted. They always talked about how great and kind and giving he was. As I researched his life story for the book, I learned for the first time that he had courted my stepmother for roughly ten years before they married—from the time I was about four. In essence, he had left me to fend for myself after his marriage to my mom soured and he headed off in search of love.
Sampson, you make it pretty clear that both your parents contributed to the turmoil, anger, and bitterness in their marriage. Are you ever angry with your mom for the part she played in pushing your father to “wall himself off” from you?
Sampson Davis: My parents' method of conflict resolution certainly left a lot to be desired, but I can't blame my mom or fault her. She was in the trenches fighting alongside us. When you're cold and your belly's empty and you look to your left and see that your moms is there, and you look to your right and see that your dad is not, you can't help staying with your moms. I do wish they had learned to resolve their arguments in a more suitable manner as the years went by and tensions between them continued to build. (I was ecstatic when they got divorced, because I knew, for the first time in a long time, there wouldn't be commotion at home.) Parents often forget: Your children are you. They copy your behavior. That's what happened to my older brother. With mom and dad fighting all the time, he followed the same pattern in his relationships. It's something of a common model in my community: a couple hammering away at each other over their differences. Either they don't know how to get past them or they don't want to.
Rameck, what about your experience with fatherlessness as a child?
Rameck Hunt: I don't have many memories of my dad, because I never lived with him except for one summer when I was in high school. You see, I arrived sort of gift-wrapped in scandal. My dad—who was in college at the time—had two girlfriends competing for his attention—my mom and another girl—and he got both of them pregnant. My half sister and I were born eighteen days apart. Basically, Dad ended up choosing my sister's mom as the ultimate victor in the girlfriend competition, so he and my mom were never together after I was born. About a year later he was arrested for armed robbery. (He had become addicted to heroin while on a Christmas break from school.) It was the first of several prison stints, ranging from eighteen months to two years. The memories I have of him are memories of the prison, where Mom took me for regular visits. I grew up thinking that that was his home, that he lived in a faraway dormitory. The only time I saw him—the only time I'd get his undivided attention—was when he was in jail, or occasionally between prison sentences.
Did you feel a lot of animosity toward your dad?
Rameck Hunt: No, I never did. As long as I got to see him every once in a while, it was enough. I didn't question his absence. In my world, daddies were kind of an oddity anyway. It was the rare kid who had one in his life. The thing about my dad was, he really wanted to do better. He wanted to be there for my sister and me. He knew it was going to be difficult, but he was constantly battling his addiction. And even though he had this problem, he made me feel, at least in some sense, that I was a priority. If I saw him walking down the street and asked him for five dollars—and he had only enough money in his pockets for a ten-dollar bag of heroin—he'd give it to me without hesitation. He'd be scratching and itching and jonesing for a fix the rest of the day, but he'd put me first. Nevertheless, in my single-mom household, it was clear I would have to teach myself to become a man; I couldn't rely on him to decipher those mysteries.
George, you've talked about the resentment you felt toward your dad—particularly as you were struggling with college and medical school. Ultimately, however, you built a better relationship with him. How were you able to put that resentment aside?
George Jenkins: Time and distance and the struggle for an education made it a little easier. When I was actually going through it, I didn't want to have any part of him. I'd get off the phone after one of our calls and then have to go study, and it was a constant reminder that he wasn't there. When I got out of school and didn't need his support as much, I found it easier to concentrate on having a relationship with him. Once I started to let some of my resentment go, I was able to talk to him more and ask some of the difficult questions I had always wanted to ask. And the more we communicated—the more I learned about what had happened to him and how things had ended up the way they had—the easier it was to continue letting go of that old resentment. One of the messages we want to reinforce here is that despite the best of intentions on the part of our parents, sometimes things go wrong. I began to see that my dad didn't intentionally make things the way they were, nor did he want them to be that way. And so I was able to deal with it better.
When did you most feel your father's absence?
George Jenkins: For me it was a lot of small things: trying to figure out male grooming; handling situations with my peers; figuring out how to sidestep confrontation or avoid the pitfalls of Newark's streets, where fistfights could ignite in a flash. I just wish I had had the support that a father is supposed to give you. Rameck talks about the fact that even when his father was desperate for cash to get his next fix, he'd share whatever money he had. He saw there was at least some sacrifice on his dad's part. I never experienced that with my dad. I didn't need him to have all the bases covered, but I needed to see him at least making an effort. And that never happened.
How did you deal with it?
George Jenkins: I ended up attaching myself to my friends' parents. And of course I relied on Sam and Rameck. We all leaned on each other. If I didn't know something, I'd ask them, and they'd pass along whatever lessons they'd learned. It was Rameck, for example, who taught me how to drive a stick shift. All three of us talked to one another about relationships and anything else a father and son might talk about. We kind of raised one another and pushed one another along. I figure each of us had twenty-five percent of the experience that equaled out to about seventy-five percent of a father, and then we fudged the rest.
Sampson Davis: There were two things I did to cope. As a preteen I found an awesome mentor in a guy named Reggie Brown. Age-wise he was more like an older brother, but in many ways he was my father figure. He taught me how to drive and invested a great deal of time teaching me kung fu. (It wasn't about the martial art itself; it was the bonding that was important.) Eventually, as a teenager, I turned more to the street—friends my age who were also wandering, trying to find themselves, trying to work out their own definition of what a man is supposed to be. Unfortunately, on the street the definition of being a man often includes standing outside a bar or on a street corner drinking beer, staying out until all hours of the night, and not being accountable to your kids. Today, when a friend tells me he's going to the park to play with his kids, I think, “That's the way it's supposed to be.” But back in my teenage days I'd have thought that was corny, that men weren't supposed to do that. The street supplied me with a lot of wrong answers, and as a result I got into a great deal of trouble.
When did you feel your father's absence most? Was it as a kid, as a college student, or is it now as an adult?
George Jenkins: It's difficult to say where or when your father's absence had the most impact, because it's something you put out of your mind. You have your own life to live and tough times to get through, and it seems a waste of energy to dwell on things you can't control. You almost have to be in denial about it in order to accomplish what you want, or to keep it from eating at you. I should add that there was one positive side effect of not having my dad around. Many of my friends spent an awful lot of time trying to please their fathers. I had friends in dental school who were studying dentistry because that's what their dads wanted. Sam, Rameck, and I felt we were making choices for ourselves. We were our own men. We were chasing the dream because we wanted to, not because we had to. That's something we always appreciated. There's a level of comfort in that.
Sampson Davis: I strongly felt the void in high school, and even more so in college. College was foreign territory to me, and I remember being envious of classmates who would show up at school functions with their dads and moms. There were times we'd be preparing for a test and a friend would say, “My dad's a pharmacologist and he told me what to study.” Or someone would say, “When I get out of here I'm going to go into radiology with my dad.” They had a sense of bravado. It was as if they knew everything was going to be okay. I wasn't like that. I was strictly on my own. I always felt I was hanging on by a thread and if it got any thinner I would fall.
Rameck Hunt: I think it affected me most in junior high school and then high school—my early teen years—because that's when those hormones start to rage; that's when I was starting to become a man and I had no freaking clue. I was confused. I had to learn about sex from my friends. My mom's sole lesson was, “Keep it in your pants.” Any education I got beyond that came from the street.
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Read some quotes from inside The Bond on Confessions, Regrets, Reconnections, and Forgiveness here»
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