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Healing the Father Wound

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CII_logotype_clr_ctrFounded in 1906, Children’s Institute, Inc. (CII) is one of the oldest and largest children’s service organizations in L.A. County, serving more than 24,000 children and families each year. CII serves Los Angeles’s most vulnerable children—those harmed by family and community violence, abuse, or coping with the challenges of poverty. At the core of CII’s work is the agency’s comprehensive service model, which addresses the evolving needs of the whole child and entire family. Out of that innovative approach grew Project Fatherhood,SM  a program created in 1996 by the late Dr. Hershel Swinger, the agency’s former Senior Vice President of Programs, to address the problem of absentee fathers. 

Dr. Swinger had long observed that fathers were most often left out of programs designed to strengthen low-income urban families, and prevent child abuse and neglect. He envisioned a way to increase their involvement in the lives and upbringing of their children, especially those involved in the child welfare system. Through clinical, family support, and child enrichment services, the program gives fathers the tools to become actively engaged parents. 

Over the past 20 years, Project Fatherhood has reached more than 9,000 fathers and 12,000 children across Los Angeles County. Fifty area organizations have been trained to deliver the program model and CII continues to operate numerous fatherhood groups. Project FatherhoodSM continues to exemplify Children’s Institute’s commitment to developing leading-edge programs that deliver lasting impact to the children and families the organization serves.

CII provides services throughout central and south Los Angeles County, including three comprehensive campuses: the Otis Booth Campus—just west of downtown Los Angeles; the Mid-Wilshire Campus in Koreatown; and the Burton E. Green Campus in Torrance. Additional service sites are located in Watts and Long Beach, as well as 32 early childhood centers and 60 family child care homes throughout the County.

In Watts, South Los Angeles, Jorja Leap was recruited as co-leader of one of the men's groups. She recounts her experiences in Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities. Working with these men led Leap to reflect on her relationship with her father, who had asked himself the same question the men in Project Fatherhood asked. "How can I be a good father when I've never had one?" With Father's Day approaching this Sunday, we share with you an excerpt from her book in which she talks not only about her father but the other father figures in her life.


Daddy's Girl

image from www.beacon.orgOver the past weeks, I have been thinking a great deal about my own father. The men who come to the weekly meetings possess something in common with him that I am hard-pressed to describe. It is a deep and abiding sense of sadness, an unnamed loneliness. It springs from something they share, black and white: the father wound. I remember my father, who adored his mother but always felt separate and quietly troubled in his feelings toward his own father.

I recall very little of my father’s parenting methods, save a few things. He was a creature of habit, careful and dignified. I never saw him wearing pajamas. In 1971, when the Sylmar earthquake shook all of Southern California in the middle of the night, he magically appeared fully dressed. He cooked homemade pancakes every Saturday, biscuits on Sunday, waffles on Wednesday. In his drawers, his personal articles were neatly arranged; the “emergency money” rested next to the condoms. Most significantly, he was unfailingly loyal—to my mother, his brother Jimmy, and his sisters, Katie and Ernestine. He was the rock of the family, inexpressive and strong.

Over time, particularly after he was diagnosed with cancer, I came to understand how he had struggled as a parent. His father was distant, unavailable—working six days a week and sleeping all day Sunday. There was no “father-son” relating, although this certainly was not unusual among immigrant men. The emotional absence of his father was never openly acknowledged, but occasionally he would admit to having had doubts about his ability to be a good father. The words haunt me.

“No one was really a father to me, so I wondered how to be a good parent,” he told me. The deaths of his mother and then his father, one year apart, brought out the confessor in my father. For the first time, he told me things I had never known about his life. With all the zeal of a true believer, I asked him if he wanted to go to therapy.

“Don’t you think it would help you to talk about your dad to someone—a therapist?”

“No, not really. I talk to your mom and I talk to God.”

“But maybe someone who’s not involved—who could help you?”

“Why do I need help? I pray. It makes me feel better.”

There was no gift card for my father, no enticement. When cancer came, he even dreamed that he was talking to God and that his Heavenly Father was going to help him. But he also told me he felt very alone.

I think of my father now with my own sadness. When I was a child, my family promoted the idea that I was a daddy’s girl, but this had not turned out to be the truth. Instead, he and I shared a loving but difficult relationship. I am not sure my father ever truly understood me, but somehow that didn’t matter. The irony remains that without being able to fathom what I was about, he was there—a steady presence in my life until the day he died.

He was the child of two immigrant parents, raised by a doting mother and a man who truly had neither the experience nor the desire to serve as a loving father to his son. In certain ways, my father struggled with the same issues the men in Watts did: how could he be a father when he never really had experienced one? But that struggle ended with him. I had plenty of demons, but I never endured a father wound. I had no knowledge of what these men went through.

While my relationship with my father had never been idyllic, there was no doubt in my mind that he loved me. And yet his love was part of a deeper contradiction. My father neither understood, nor even liked, the young woman I was growing into. I was too loud, too inquisitive, too restless. “You ask too many questions, Jorja Jean,” he would offer, and there was no joy in this observation. I was the child who was difficult to stomach—rebellious, angry, and provocative. As a teenager, I smoked pot, grew the hair on my legs, and appeared at a Greek wedding braless, wearing a tie-dyed bedspread, while he stood next to me in a suit and tie. I don’t know if he wondered how he spawned this wild child. I certainly did. I felt separate from him, alien. And yet, there was never a doubt in my mind that if a crisis were to arise, he would be there, whenever I needed him. He was the father you called in the middle of the night when the car broke down or a boyfriend was too drunk to drive. And when I was troubled and unhappy, anxious and unstable, he was the one who arranged for me to go to therapy. The whole concept of therapy and dependence on a therapist—a Jewish one at that—were equally difficult for my devoutly Greek Orthodox father to stomach. Yet he paid for my weekly sessions, telling me, “It’s my responsibility. Mom and I did something to create this problem, and we need to take care of it.”

What could be a better example of love than a father who did not completely understand his daughter but still supported her and paid for her to do things that might threaten him (going to college) or that he did not believe in (going to therapy)? While often questioning the choices I made and the life I was trying to live, my father took complete and unconditional responsibility for me. At times I felt his disapproval, but I still felt deeply loved.

When I was in my first year of college, my father was diagnosed with cancer—islet cell carcinoma. It’s an unusual form of the disease, although well known now as Steve Jobs’s cause of death. But thirty-four years before that—before liver transplants and genetic mapping, when chemotherapy and radiation were crudely delivered in mega doses—my father was unspeakably brave as he endured all that 1970s oncology and hematology had to offer. He had one major surgery to remove part of his colon, his spleen, and part of his pancreas—but the bad news kept coming. The cancer had metastasized to the liver. The surgeon, a brilliant but humorless man, told my father to get his affairs in order. Instead of resigning himself to his fate, my father volunteered for and endured a six-month trial of chemotherapy, augmented by radiation. The treatment, arduous and experimental, bought him four years of good health.

I was suspicious and frightened, already stuck in the anxieties of my first year of college, when all this began. I decided what I needed was backup—lots of it. There was my beloved Theo Pete, who already served as a second father and an intellectual role model. But I needed someone to call in the middle of the night, someone who would act as a wiser balance to all my angst and rebellion—even someone who could set a limit on me when no one else could. I needed boundaries, borders, fences. I needed more than a little psychological discipline. My Theo Pete had four children of his own. While he and Thea Adrienne always served as an emotional horn of plenty, I still knew—deep down—it was not fair to demand that they take care of me as well. I needed a father of my own.

Dr. Joseph Rosner, whom I would ultimately call “Papa,” was unlike anyone I had ever known. First of all, he was probably the proudest Jew I had ever encountered. (This was an immediate issue. Despite the profound tolerance practiced within my immediate family, most of my extended family was somewhat anti-Semitic.) Here was Papa, born in New York, raised in Harlem, full of life, opinions, and therapeutic instructions. He spoke the magic words—“You can call me twenty-four hours a day”—and meant it. When I tried this out once at 3 a.m. (I wanted to leave a party without my date, who was getting more stoned as the evening progressed), he answered the phone and began yelling at me to quit worrying about what anyone thought, go home, go to sleep, and forget about it. “There will be other parties—you have a long life ahead of you,” he barked. That was what I needed. The day my father died, I was comforted by Papa and by Theo Pete. In that moment, I was covered on all fronts. But I still feared the future.

The need to turn to a father never goes away. The men in the group all knew this. I certainly knew this. It has been over forty years since I met Papa. He is still the father I know I can turn to if the need arises, even in the middle of the night. (I try not to do this, as he is now ninety-two years old.) I still laugh when I think about how people close to me have quit trying to understand our relationship and have accepted his place in my life. Mark knows he is part of me, and Shannon thinks of him as a grandfather. I am lucky they understand. I still need that one person who holds my personal history and understands it better than anyone else on earth, who remembers me as the girl I once was—and still act like from time to time. I needed my father, just as the men in the group needed their fathers. The problem was that for them, there was no Papa, no Theo Pete, no Daddy. There was going to have to be another strategy. The men’s promise to help each other—especially the older fathers’ desire to serve as role models for the younger men—was a start.


About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgJorja Leap is the author of Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me About Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption, hailed as “an eye-opener and heart expander” (San Francisco Book Review), and Project Fatherhood: A Story of Courage and Healing in One of America’s Toughest Communities. Leap has been on the faculty of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs since 1992. An internationally recognized expert in gangs, violence, and crisis intervention, she is the senior policy advisor on Gangs and Youth Violence for the City and the County of Los Angeles.