April 28, 2000
Cuban dads countJonetta Rose Barras
It isn't just that he lost his mother; he watched her die what must have been a horrific death in the waters between Cuba and Florida. The images are too dramatic and traumatic to be articulated fully — not even in his native language. The memory of those hours lives even now in six-year-old Elian Gonzalez's mind, hidden from public view. They will serve as a silent prism through which each future decision, each future choice is sifted. And despite every and all efforts, they will reverberate in his life forever.
Those who doubt the immense pain that lies just beneath the sweet, innocent smile of this young boy need only read Maxine Harris' book, "The Loss That Is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father." Interviewing more than 60 adult men and women, Ms. Harris, a clinical psychologist and co-founder of the Community Connections in Washington, has documented the long-term effect and "unwanted legacies" from a childhood shattered by the death of a parent. It may take years before we ever hear directly from Elian the agony he now bears.
"Children have no story, no organizing text with which to process their loss," explains Ms. Harris. "They must therefore rely on adults to teach them how to mourn, how to grieve."
But for nearly six months, the adults in Elian's life have only made him a human sacrifice at their anti-Castro-anti-communist-anti-Clinton-familial dysfunction altar. They are wrapped in the all too popular American rituals of narcissism and myopia. Even after his unprecedented rescue, they insist on holding the boy hostage to their political interests and conspiracy theories, more fantastic and surreal than any written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Moreover, some exhibit signs of mental illness; how does a 21-year-old become so obsessed with a child that she only recently met). These adults, who call themselves relatives, who claim to love him, have made and continue to make a carnival spectacle of Elian's pain, his grief and his loss. The media has done no better.
Despite his unquestionably disturbing experience, some would expand Elian's anguish, using the legal system and other machinations to separate him from his father — his one surviving biological parent, the balm for his wounds. This is unfathomable, especially when weighed against the fatherhood movement in the United States.
Discounting the importance of fathers is expected from groups like the National Organization of Women (NOW), which advances a cross-dressing orthodoxy that declares males and females the same, nearly indistinguishable except for little things like sperm and testosterone. No one expects it, however, from Vice President Al Gore, himself a father of four, who spoke at the first National Fatherhood Summit. Nor does anyone anticipate this dissing of fathers from the Bush Boys — presidential candidate George W. and Florida Governor Jeb — whose Republican Party has advocated family values. And certainly, it isn't expected from congressional representatives, many of whom recently signed legislation that provides federal funding to organizations throughout the country attempting to reunite fathers with their families.
These leaders say they understand the dangers of fatherlessness, which has reached epidemic proportions in America. They know fatherlessness is a silent killer. Experts repeatedly have acknowledged the correlation between father absence and juvenile delinquency, poor educational achievements, unemployment, substance abuse, obesity, and depression. It is responsible for much of the economic deprivation that sweeps many urban centers and for the kind of social dysfunction witnessed just this week in the District where gun-toting teen-agers shot as many as seven children between the ages of 11 and 16. A closer look at both the victims and the perpetrators in the violence at the National Zoo on Easter Monday is sure to reveal father absence. National leaders understand the consequences of having, as was the case in 1995, more than 20 million children growing up without fathers in the home. And yet, they would deny Elian his father simply because the man is Cuban and has refused to defect as others have.
But those who share NOW's view of fathers as superfluous do not understand the powerful influence of these men in our lives. They are equally as important as our mothers to our holistic development. And when they are taken away from us, the loss is as devastating. Some might think loving surrogates — a great uncle, a grandfather —sufficient to replace this loss; they are not. For all the love my own grandfather displayed and continues to display, he could never replace my father.
I invite those who persist in this fight to strip Elian of his father and his childhood at this most crucial time in his life, to come, sit next to me. Let me show you the huge gaping hole in my heart, where a father should have been. Let me tell you a story of fatherlessness. Bring a handkerchief. It is a sad and painful tale, begun when I was just a little older than Elian. Inside, I am still crying over the loss. I have been weeping for decades. Is this really the gift America wishes to bequeath to Elian?
Jonetta Rose Barras is a columnist for The Washington Times. Her column appears on Fridays.
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