From The Men They
Eli H. Newberger, M.D.
Chapter 18 - ENABLING
In relation to adolescent
development, the term "enabling" has a double edge. On
the positive side, psychiatrist Stuart Hauser draws a distinction
"enabling" and "constraining" patterns of interaction
in a family. Enabling interactions include explanation, problem-solving,
and empathy. Constraining interactions are distracting, devaluing,
or judgmental of a family member's behavior or opinions. Laurence Steinberg
writes of Hauser's work and related research by others:
Not surprisingly, adolescents
who grow up in homes in which the family tends to interact in enabling
ways score higher on measures of psychological development than
do those who grow up in relatively more constraining families.
One recent study found
as well that adolescents' needs for autonomy can be especially
frustrated when their parents form strong coalitions with one another.
Rather than viewing attachment and autonomy as opposites, these
studies of family interaction indicate that the path to healthy
psychological development during adolescence is likely to combine
the two. In other words, adolescents appear to do best when they
grow up in a family atmosphere that permits the development of
individuality against a backdrop of close family ties. In these
families, conflict between parents and adolescents can play a very
important and positive role in the adolescent's social and cognitive
development, because individuals are encouraged to express their
opinions in an atmosphere that does not risk severing the emotional
Some parents might consider
individuality strivings by an adolescent to be categorically a challenge
to family ties, but Steinberg suggests—correctly, I believe—that
the adolescent needs the support of family ties as he explores individuality
and independence. Likewise, parents might believe that open conflict
between themselves and adolescents is unmistakably a sign of broken
family bonds. Again, not necessarily so. The adolescent profits from
a certain amount of conflict with parents, particularly when parents
have the wisdom to make dear that the conflicts do not threaten the
basic bond between them.
I shall return to this positive
concept of enabling later in the chapter, but first I want to refer
to another use of the term "enabling" that has emerged
in the literature about human personality. Here enabling is used
to indicate behavior that tolerates, sometimes ignores or denies.
or even promotes self-destructive patterns of behavior by another
person. In this chapter, I want to keep both definitions of enabling
A neighbor told me that
if I was interested in boys and character, I should look into a recent
episode in the suburban town where I live. just outside Boston. In
the spring of 1998, the neighbor reminded me, both local and Boston
newspapers reported an incident that began with drinking at the senior
prom and spilled over to the high school graduation ceremony three
days later. I called the high school headmaster. Bob Weintraub, whom
I had never met before, and asked him to tell me what had happened
at the prom and afterward.
"The kids know that
possessing alcohol or drugs at school is an expellable offense,"
he began. "We reemphasize school policy at prom time because we
know it's a big issue. We would rather not have any tragedies in the
community. Every student picking up a ticket to the prom signed a written
contract acknowledging that he or she could not participate in graduation
ceremonies if caught using, or even in possession of, drugs or alcohol
at the prom or party after the prom.
"At the graduation
rehearsal, one of the deans and I repeated the terms of the contract.
We said it several times. We also said we knew some of the seniors
weren't present for the rehearsal, so their friends should remind
them of the agreement."
"Have you had any violations
of the rule in the past?" I asked.
"There usually are
one or two kids who violate the rules of the prom," Weintraub
"and we just send them home. Again, this year, a boy walked in
drunk and fell down. Some of the other staff took him off to a room
to tend to him. When they asked him where he had been drinking, he
said there was a lot of booze on a bus that some seniors had rented
for the night. About fifty kids allegedly had rented the bus, and one
of the kids had signed for it. It was a private bus company. No parent
had signed off on it. They rode in the bus from our town over to the
town where the prom was taking place. I understand they took a rather
circuitous route and spent about forty-five minutes on the road, drinking
"Once the senior told
us there was more booze on the bus, the issue was no longer what
to do, but how to do it. The prom was in its mid to late phase, but
all the students were still there. With other staff members, I located
the bus. The driver didn't want to let us on, but we just said, 'Get
out of the way.'
"In the middle of the
aisle was a huge plastic garbage pail already one-third full of empty
bottles—Seagram's and the like—and beer cans. We searched
the backpacks in which the seniors had packed casual clothes for
the after-prom party, and took a dozen of them off the bus because
they contained significant amounts of alcohol. The confiscated bottles
and cans covered a large table top the next day. Quarts of vodka,
quarts of rum, lots of stuff. Most of it hadn't been opened yet.
It was to be drunk after the prom. I was stunned. You know, after
the warnings and knowing the kids for a long time, I'm still stunned
by it all.
"All of a sudden there
was a second bus there. The two drivers moved all the kids' packs
that we hadn't confiscated onto the other bus. They obviously were
trying to eliminate any kind of liability they might have incurred.
The kids came back and saw a bunch of us standing there. They started
whispering to each other, knowing they'd been discovered. I told
them to get on the bus so I could talk to them, which they eventually
did, but it was a very upsetting scene.
"They weren't obviously
drunk—we had already sent home the one or two who were. They
were in formal clothes with their dates. And they were in no mood
to listen to me. A couple of them became self-appointed lawyers,
telling me I had no right to search the bus because it was private.
My colleagues couldn't believe the abuse they gave me. You know...
'Get off the bus'...'Get out of here'...some nasty obscenities.
"'This isn't working,'
I said to myself. So I negotiated with a couple of the senior boys.
Off the bus and away from the rest of their peers, they were very
reasonable. They said, in effect, okay, we're not happy about this,
but you warned us and we got caught, so whatever happens is fair.
'I don't need your clothing,' I said, 'but you have to identify whose
stuff this is, and then I'll take the booze and you take the packs
and clothing.' Most of them came and claimed their packs, and I took
their names. Two of the packs went unclaimed. I put all the alcohol
in the trunk of my car.
"There were nine seniors—seven
boys and two girls—among the ten students identified by us
as having alcohol in their packs. The prom was on Thursday night.
Friday morning other staff members and I called the nine seniors'
parents and asked them to bring their kids to a meeting at the high
school on Saturday morning.
"Graduation was to
take place on Sunday. Some of the parents asked me over the phone
if I'd made a decision about what I was going to do, and, if so,
why we needed to have a meeting. 'Because I don't want to do this
over the phone,' I said. 'I want to talk to you. This is a big issue.'
"The meeting lasted
four hours. I ran the meeting by myself, but I had all of the major
administrators of the school system with me, and the complete support
of the school committee and the town selectmen. The parents of the
nine had met together on Friday night and developed a strategy that
all fifty-five seniors on the bus had been drinking, so none of them
should be allowed to attend graduation. If I accepted their argument,
they thought, I wouldn't have the nerve to keep that many kids away
from graduation ceremonies.
In my opening statement,
I said: I have evidence on nine seniors. I am not so naive as to
think only nine had been drinking or were going to. But I only have
evidence on nine. I'm not going to ignore the rule because I don't
have evidence on forty other suspects. I understand the pain this
brings to them and to their families."
"How did they take
your position?" I wondered.
"The tone of the meeting
was up and down. There were both civil and ugly moments with the
parents. Some of the parents are lawyers, so the group didn't have
to bring outside lawyers to represent them. But the anger was very
deep, and some parents did throw expletives at me. The seniors who
accepted accountability on Thursday night had changed by Saturday
morning. To their families they had become heroic figures, martyrs.
"My job involves handling
many disciplinary situations. For example, I've handled three expulsions
of boys this year—one for weapon possession, one for assaulting
a teacher, one for selling drugs on the school campus. One of the
things I say from time to time, reflecting on my job, is that 'No.'
is a complete sentence. In our town, for many parents, 'no' is not
a complete sentence. It is supposed to be the first word of a process
that leads to a compromise solution. Why not, the parents asked on
Saturday morning, let the kids come to graduation and do some community
service? I told them that community service is something everyone
should do. I know it's much used by the courts in place of other
punishment, but it usually goes along with other punishment.
"Despite the fact that
their kids had signed written contracts about alcohol and the prom,
the parents still tried to argue that I hadn't been very, very, very,
very clear about the rules. Yes, I said to them, I was very, very,
very, very; very clear. But they hated it that they had no power
because their kids had disregarded the contract.
"They went crazy because
it was going to be a public humiliation for them. You're not punishing
our son, they said, you're punishing our family."
"How did the parents
evaluate your handling of the situation on prom night?" I asked.
"I think all of the
parents acknowledged that I did the right thing in confiscating the
booze. Begrudgingly, but they did. Some of them acknowledged that
their children had done the wrong thing. But they didn't want the
penalty. One story within the story says it all. By way of background,
everyone—parents and school staff—pitches in to help
prepare the party after the prom; it's a great community event.
"On Thursday afternoon,
one of the senior class mothers helping to set up for the party came
over to the superintendent of schools and the cochairs of the school
committee, who were also doing their bit, and said, 'I just want
to congratulate Bob Weintraub on the great job he's doing, taking
such a strong stand against drugs and alcohol.'
"A few hours later
I busted her son as one of the nine seniors caught with alcohol in
their backpacks. Her son had two quarts of hard liquor. He was one
of the boys who helped me negotiate a reasonable solution to the
standoff in the bus. What is scary is that he told me his parents
knew he was taking the alcohol to the prom, and told him to drink
in moderation. When I spoke with his mother about the Saturday morning
meeting, I said, 'I have a tough question to ask you. Your son told
me you knew he had those two quarts, and that you told him to drink
in moderation. Is that true?' There was silence at the other end
of the line. Finally she said, 'Sandy's sobriety is his responsibility.'"
I couldn't help uttering
a murmur of dismay.
"That's a true story,"
Weintraub said, "and it's not the only example of that kind of
behavior I could cite. I believe that some of the parents must have
bought the alcohol for the kids. One of the kids caught with alcohol
on the bus had a party at his house during the school year that practically
destroyed the house. Another of the boys wrote to our local paper after
the story broke, saying he couldn't believe he was being punished in
this way for one thing. But his school disciplinary record just for
his senior year shows he's been in trouble from day one—fighting,
being incredibly disrespectful to teachers, things like that.
"In addition to projecting
onto me a lot of anger they were feeling toward their sons or themselves,
the parents were also in heavy denial. I was about five minutes into
my opening statement at the Saturday morning meeting, and had already
made it clear that the nine would be barred from graduation
ceremonies, when a parent raised his hand and said, 'Bob, can you
just tell us what you're going to do and be finished with this?'
And I said, 'I thought I was clear, but I can say it again. The kids
are not going to be participating in the ceremony.' The same exchange
happened with three more parents. They weren't listening.
"Toward the end of
the Saturday meeting, the nine seniors went off with some alcohol
and drug counselors, leaving me alone with the parents. We worked
out an agreement with all of the families that the students would
receive from one to ten individual counseling sessions—we have
a very good drug and alcohol prevention program—and then receive
their diplomas at some unspecified date.
"Saturday night, the
mother I referred to before, who knew her son was going to break
the rule, called me to say that maybe we should give the nine seniors
their diplomas soon since they had made a commitment to counseling.
I said I was flexible about the timing. 'They've earned their diploma,'
I said. 'Their diploma is not the issue.' 'Okay, that's good, Bob,'
the mother said, 'Let's talk about the diploma on Monday.' I said,
'Monday, after graduation's over? Fine.'
"Sunday night the nine
excluded seniors and their parents came to graduation and sat in
the audience out on the athletic field. They were very disruptive,
the parents as much as the kids. They were shouting and harassing.
During my talk, two of the senior boys who were excluded from the
ceremony came forward and threw their caps and gowns at the stage,
to the cheers of their parents. It was a miserable, miserable time.
It ruined everything.
"After the ceremony
was over, the mother I've referred to and another parent came over
to me on the field. She was enraged to a level I have never seen
in anyone before. She had her finger in my face, and she was shaking,
and her face was about to explode in rage. 'Bob, you just don't get
it,' she said. 'If you don't give them their diplomas right now,
you're going to have a riot on your hands, and we're going to destroy
"There were police
with me who heard her. 'I think she's really threatening you,' one
of them said. 'You seem to think this is going to be okay, but we're
nervous about it.' For some reason I didn't feel in danger. 'I already
told you the diplomas are not a big issue for me,' I said to the
two enraged parents. 'The issue for me is getting some help for the
kids. But I have to find out whether I can get the diplomas. Right
now they're locked in the safe.'
"The three plainclothes
police insisted on staying by my side. A few minutes later, the superintendent
of schools and I and the deans of students, accompanied by the police,
walked up the steps of the high school between the glaring nine seniors
and their parents. The atmosphere was just electric with anger. One
by one the students were admitted to my office, received a diploma,
and walked out to be cheered in the corridor by the other students
and all the parents. I felt like I was in an Ionesco play."
Walking the Walk
The complicity of parents
in the problems of their kids doesn't have to involve anything as
dramatic as drinking at the prom.
"I have some examples
at school," Bob Weintraub says, "where parents are influenced
by their kids in a way that's not helpful to the kids. Attendance,
for example. Too many parents call their kids out and make excuses
for them. Kids say they don't feel well—with no convincing
evidence—or have to study for a math test, and parents take
them out of school. Grades, another example. If the kid doesn't get
a good grade, parents are often in the teacher's face saying the
child deserves a better grade.
"I think there's a
generally critical environment about educators. I can't remember
one example from my own school years of my parents talking negatively
about teachers or coaches; but I think it's very common in our town
for parents to criticize educators, and I don't think that's helpful
to kids. When things are going well for the student, teachers are
respected, and when things are not going well, teachers become the
enemy, regardless of the family's social class. This is a very diverse
town. The seniors who got in trouble at the prom came mostly from
affluent families. As you know, I'm not interested in squashing freedom
of speech or openness; that's not what this is about. This is about
the impact of what you say in front of kids.
"Parents are not vigilant
about the parties their kids go to. There's lots of drinking and
drugs going on at parties—mainly parties that lack adult supervision.
And because parents don't want their kids to be social isolates,
they let them go and tell them to be good. It comes down to the fact
that many parents talk a good talk, but when it comes down to their
very own child, they refuse to walk the walk.
"I'm not about to cast
anyone off into the tundra for making a mistake or three. That's
not why I am in this work. I understand all that. But I do think
it's critical to hold kids accountable for their behavior. If you
don't, they get very confused, and they push it until they do something
tragic. So that's where it's at for me: getting parents to acknowledge
that being strict is good, that saying 'no' to kids is okay. Even
if it's painful in the short term, it's really good for the long
term. And the short term, by the way, lasts
for about six hours. If there's pain, it's over and you move on.
When I penalize kids, we usually have a better relationship the next
day than we did before, because the kids know exactly where I stand.
"Some people say to
me, 'Oh, Bob, you can't have it both ways. You can't be friends with
these kids and then be their disciplinarian.' And I say, 'Excuse
me. You don't see what I do in this school in terms of discipline.
I think most of the students will say that I'm nice, I'm a friendly
person, but don't cross the line or else you're in deep trouble.
I have a history of taking violations to the school community in
a very serious manner.'"
I believe the point Weintraub
is making here is another example of the point made at the beginning
of the chapter. Some people assume that the disciplinary mode has
to be harsh and unfriendly, and that the school administrator ultimately
responsible for discipline should present a stern, seemingly unfriendly
presence to students to buttress his authority; but Weintraub is
taking the correct position that one can be firm, fair, and friendly
In Weintraub's account—and
in other true stories in this book—there are examples of families
where there has been an inversion of power. The boy is controlling
and manipulating his parents rather than his parents providing a
framework of regulation, communication, and support for the boy.
By caving in and defending their children's wrongdoing, they are
enabling it, and neglecting to encourage responsibility. This phenomenon
cuts across all social classes. Pascal Lehman in Chapter 1 mentions
a classmate whose affluent parents "act afraid of him."
Mechanisms of Defense
What makes parents so vulnerable
to being enablers of their sons' misbehavior? Psychological mechanisms
of defense can be contributors. Faced with the prospect of unpleasant
reality, the self, the ego, has astonishing capacity at times to
deny what to others may be fairly obvious. Bob Weintraub referred
to two defense mechanisms—denial and projection—in his
conversation with me. His knowledge of these mechanisms surely helped
him to understand how to cope with this crisis without losing his
poise and fair judgment. I want to refer to two other defense mechanisms,
too—displacement and overidentification.
Parents who understand these
mechanisms can sometimes interpret the behavior of their sons and
spouses more sensitively and respond more appropriately. But a strong
cautionary note needs to be sounded, too. Defense mechanisms are
just that—they allow us to hold ourselves together in the face
of unpleasant and even frightening feelings, impulses, or realizations.
One doesn't simply strip them away, or challenge them. It's better
not to understand the concepts at all than to misunderstand them
and use them as weapons—as in, "There you go again, using
denial to wiggle out of a jam." That can force an even worse
A person using denial, for
example, may resort in the face of threat to a more primitive and
aggressive self-protection strategy, such as projection. People who
have grown up in so-called "alcoholic families" know that
breaking the code of silence imposed by denial may provoke verbal
or physical violence. This is another reason that it is always well
to keep in mind seeking the aid of mental health professionals or
groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Their useful guidance can be helpful,
and it's often in the process of counseling that parents develop
insight about where these reactions are coming from—one's relationships
with one's own parents, for example—and what needs to be done
to change them.
I think it's important to
add that sometimes it's necessary for parents themselves to get professional
help to change. I'm a great believer in timely therapy with a psychologist
or social worker for parents in the interest of their better understanding
themselves and helping their kids, and a great skeptic about simply
referring the child for treatment for his ostensible problem.
Parent groups, run by informed
professionals, can also help immensely. It becomes clear that you're
not the only person with an important problem, and you can share
insights and strategies, and seek and find support as you struggle
through the complexities of addressing your child's provocations.
Feeling guilt over a child's
misbehavior may motivate parents to respond inappropriately—trying
to defend themselves rather than deal thoughtfully with the child.
The parent may wonder: What did I do wrong? If I'd raised my son
the right way, he wouldn't have done what he is accused of doing.
The fault must be mine. What should I do? The pain, the conflict,
is just too much to bear. If a parent can get an accusation dismissed,
then the guilt diminishes. Easy rationalizations—"Boys
will be boys"
or "You're making too much of this" will do for starters.
But if soft diversionary tactics don't work, some parents attack the
accusation with every weapon at their command. Parental guilt turns
parents into unlicensed lawyers, and teachable moments into adversarial
situations. The son who doesn't understand what's going on in his parents'
heads may take their tactics at face value, and conclude that he is
indeed the victim of malicious prosecution.
Because of the very poised
response of Bob Weintraub to the senior drinking crisis at his school,
I think there was little opportunity for the parents to employ the
defense mechanism known as projection. Projection involves
attributing to another person in the situation the feelings we harbor
ourselves. So, again, a parent might be angry toward a son for embarrassing
the family, but elects—again, unconsciously—to
project feelings of anger to someone like Bob Weintraub. If Weintraub,
then, expresses anger for the disrespectful way some of the seniors
responded to his exposure of their drinking plans, the parent can
zealously defend the son from Weintraub's anger—but really,
from the parent's own anger projected onto the headmaster. But Bob
Weintraub didn't give that defense mechanism an opening. At the final
faculty meeting of the year at his school, one of the teachers stood
up and said, "Bob went through this really difficult process
showing an incredible amount of respect for everyone, and that wasn't
easy because he wasn't always respected, and I just want to congratulate
him." All the faculty stood and cheered.
Another defense mechanism
is overidentification. Some parents meld so completely with
the lives of their sons that everything the son suffers is felt by
the parent as an experience of the parent's own. A son's successes
may be treated by his parents as though they were successes of their
own; accusations by others of misbehavior by the son may be perceived
by the parent as a personal attack on the parent himself.
The more public a son's
successes or errant behaviors become, perhaps the stronger a parent
is tempted to overidentify, and, with respect to errant behavior,
to behave in a way that might seem out of character compared to the
parent's usual conduct. A parent need not—should not—cease
to be supportive of a son who has gotten himself in trouble. Being
supportive includes being empathic and tending to the stress the
son is experiencing. But the parent need not abandon his own values
and adopt his son's way of viewing the situation. Doing so lessens
the parent's opportunity to be a healing force—perhaps even
to support a son in acknowledgment of wrongdoing and the penalty
or restitution flowing from it, and then to help him move on to the
next phase of his life
The boys I talked to in
the course of preparing this book constitute mostly a well-parented
population who have coped successfully with all the stages of their
lives. Quite a number of them, however, have had brushes with disciplinary
action at school or with law enforcement authorities. There they
find even in childhood and adolescence that others identify with
them differentially depending on their social class (expressed in
dress and comportment, and in family status) and race. Bob Weintraub
has already referred to occasions when courts seem to treat affluent
kids' misbehaviors lightly.
One boy I talked to mentioned
this episode: "During ninth grade I started stealing, like a
lot. In February of that year I got caught shoplifting and actually
went to court. The people there were totally biased. I went in with
a tie. The others were mainly black kids. The prosecuting attorney
was like, I'll take care of you because you're not like this guy
over here, this scum. They recommended to the judge that it not go
on my record, but I bet that's not how the others got treated. It's
not like I stole a thousand dollars' worth of merchandise. It was
petty theft, but, still, they bent the rules. Like, look at my privilege."
Another defense mechanism
is known as displacement. I suspect there were elements of
displacement in the reactions of some of the parents in the story
Bob Weintraub told. The parent, upon learning that a senior son has
been excluded from high school graduation for possessing alcohol
at the prom, feels embarrassed and humiliated for its effect on the
The parent is angry. The
son would appear to be the appropriate object of his or her parental
wrath. But something stands in the way of the parent expressing anger
toward the son. Perhaps the parent also feels guilty about the son's
misbehavior. Or perhaps the parent overidentifies with the son. The
sticky thing about defense mechanisms is that various combinations
of them can coexist in a single parental reaction. In any case, the
parent might direct toward someone else—displace—the
anger that logically would be directed toward the misbehaving son.
Someone else might be a high-school headmaster.
The Dangers of Denial
The most widespread and
supple of the mechanisms of defense is denial. Denial has been much
publicized in the 1990s as a defense mechanism frequently employed
by people addicted to alcohol or drugs; the same literature has targeted
the families and associates of addicts as "enablers" because
they tolerate rather than challenge evidence of addiction, maybe
even protect addicts from others who would challenge them. Denial
is a convenient defense in many other situations. An example is the
well-publicized story of Alex Kelly.
In 1983, when he was a high
school student in Darien, Connecticut, Alex and three other boys
began a series of burglaries of neighbors' houses. They used the
money to buy drugs. Eventually they were caught; Alex pleaded guilty
to nine burglaries as a juvenile offender, and was sentenced to a
maximum of thirty-five months in a juvenile detention institution
where he entered a drug rehabilitation program. To his more rebellious
contemporaries, Alex was "cool." A young journalist who
grew up in Darien remembers: "People who knew about this at
the time said, 'Yeah, that's crazy. This guy is crazy.' But they
said it with a touch of admiration, like, this is real rebellion.
A lot of people staked their rebellion on being associated with Alex
Kelly rather than doing the things he did."
Sixty-eight days after Alex
was sent away, he was released on probation by a judge who found
him essentially rehabilitated. For a year, Alex made the judge look
prescient. He studied himself onto the academic honor roll, starred
on the football team, captained the wrestling team, and warned other
students about drug abuse. Some called him "the comeback kid." His
principal says, "He was the charming All-American boy. 'With
it.' as the kids say. He was in the inner circle, an accomplished
athlete, lots of things that kids want to be."
Then Alex was arrested again
in February, 1986. A seventeen-year-old Darien girl told the police
that Alex offered to drive her home from a party, drove instead to
a deserted country club parking lot, and raped her. Police were already
investigating the complaint of another sixteen-year-old girl, who
said that Alex had offered her a ride home four days earlier and
choked and raped her. Both girls claimed that Alex threatened them
with repeat rape or even death if they told anyone of his sexual
Alex's father, in a 1996
ABC Turning Point documentary narrated by Forrest Sawyer,
recalled the moment he heard of the arrest. "I got a telephone
call from the police department, so I dropped everything and ran
Forrest Sawyer: "Did
it ever cross your mind that it was possible?"
Alex's father: "No."
Forrest Sawyer: "Not
Alex's father: "No.
I know Alex. To this day there's no question in my mind."
asked Alex's mother: "Why would two young girls come
forward and accuse a young man of rape under similar circumstances?"
Alex's mother: "Good
question. Unbelievable. I don't believe it."
Alex's high school principal
told Forrest Sawyer that she first heard of the arrest of Alex in
a telephone call from the chief of police. "He said to me, 'We
have come this close to two possible murders this week:" Sawyer
reported her words to Alex's parents: "This close. .
. to two murders."
Alex's father: "It's
got to be one of the most irresponsible things I've ever heard
for a chief of police to ever say...if that is the truth. Irresponsible!"
Forrest Sawyer: "There
were, according to the two alleged victims, threats of murder."
Alex's father: "I
don't believe that."
Concerned that Alex's presence
at school while he awaited trial would cause anxiety and distraction,
the school administration graduated him in absentia a month after
his arrest and forbade him to return. Alex noted that "All of
these people that were so supportive and so behind me—they
did all they could to, like, take credit for what I was doing. But
the second any sort of rough times came. any allegations. they just
A few days before he was
to go on trial for the second of the alleged rapes. Alex Kelly jumped
bail, flying to Europe with a ten-year passport in hand. Ten years
later, with capture virtually certain, Alex turned himself in, was
extradited to the United States, and went on trial. The first trial
ended in a deadlocked jury. At a second trial, Alex was found guilty
and sentenced to twenty years in prison. The judge rationalized the
severe sentence not on the flight to Europe but on the nature of
the crime and on Alex's lack of remorse.
Probably none of the parents
whose stories have been told in this chapter were motivated principally
by concern for their own or their family's reputations. What stirred
them was the urge to protect and support their sons.
The parents of Alex Kelly
were said to have had greater hopes for Alex's success than for his
two brothers. Alex was to be the star of the family, and he showed
considerable promise of fulfilling these expectations. There wasn't
anything the family wouldn't do to enable Alex to be a success. The
burglaries conviction was a trouble sign apparently largely ignored
in the glow of his sports achievements and his academic record. Alex's
arrest on two different rape charges was a stunning blow to him and
to his family.
One can feel compassion
for them—the family's hopes collapsed as swiftly as a house
of cards—while believing that denial and flight simply delayed
a resolution of wrongdoing. Alex will be middle-aged before he leaves
prison. One of his two brothers died of an overdose of drugs while
Alex was hiding out in Europe. The only way the family seemed to
be able to survive these tragic changes of fortune was through denial:
Alex still protesting his innocence, his parents still believing
Parents sometimes believe
they are showing unconditional love when they really are exhibiting
mechanisms of defense—denial. displacement, overidentification,
and the like. We can't any of us be simply objective in our evaluation
of others' behavior; our hopes and expectations inevitably are going
to be entangled to a degree with our perceptions of what is going
on. But there is no reason to be confused in principle. Loving a
son does not require denying his wrongdoing; his wrongdoing never
justifies ceasing to love him.
While one might expect single
parents to confront unique challenges in nurturing good values and
behavior in their sons, one of the families who demonstrated positive
ways of supporting character as sons grow up was a divorced mother
and her fifteen-year-old son.
When I asked the mother,
Marilyn Bendix, about her situation, she said, "I always correct
the term 'broken home' when I hear it applied to a family like ours.
Brett lives in a 'fixed home.' In many ways, his dad is a wonderful
person, but in the family he was very self-centered, resentful of
any time I spent on anything else, even Brett. And he was an alcoholic.
There were incidents of drunk driving. I'm the adult child of an
alcoholic, so I know the problems an alcoholic brings to a family.
When Brett was four, I could already see evidence of his becoming
an enabler for his dad. I decided then to get a divorce, even though
I had been married for sixteen years. It was very awkward and uncomfortable.
It took Brett's dad a few years to forgive me for divorcing him,
and to stop drinking.
"Brett has told me
that one of his only memories of living in our old house is peeking
through the upstairs banister into the foyer below and watching us
starting to fight—though our fights were never physical. My
goal as a single parent is to provide Brett with a safe and peaceful
environment. In fact, our life is a little sheltered from typical
family dynamics. There is no sibling rivalry, my attention goes nowhere
else, I'm here at his beck and call. In some ways that's unnatural,
and in some ways he's definitely spoiled.
"There have been times
when it was very difficult for Brett not to have his father here.
I remember as early as day care when they had a 'father's day' and
Brett couldn't deal with all those boys and their dads. For me, it
has been hard in some respects to be the mother and the father. In
other respects it's much easier to be the one making all the decisions.
"My main job is supporting
Brett. I work my job around his schedule as much as I can. I have
to work, but I make sure that I am home every night. I go to his
sports games. When he was little, I would throw balls to him. I'm
the one that took a baseball in the leg."
Marilyn is aware of the
contribution male mentors can make to a boy growing up with a single
mother—not to underestimate the contribution they can make
to boys living with both parents. One of Brett's mentors has been
a coach Marilyn and Brett met when Brett was playing in the Pop Warner
football league. The romance didn't last between Marilyn and the
coach, but the friendship among them all did endure.
"He was really nice,"
Brett says, "and I think from coaching football he really had
an interest in being involved in kids' lives. He would stop by and
take me to a sports store, and he actually got me involved in taking
pictures. Different interests than my mom. He told me things not to
do and stuff like that. One time my friend and I had a campfire in
the woods and we got in trouble with the police. I didn't know what
I had done wrong, and he told me." The downside of the Pop Warner
league was that the coach prescribed large numbers of pushups and other
exercises before their
musculature could support it. Brett developed osteochondritis and now
can't fully extend his elbows. His once promising development as a
pitcher in the town baseball league is on hold for an indefinite period. "I
love to pitch," says Brett, "but I guess I'll just have to
work on another specialty. For example, I went to kicking class for
"It amazes me,"
says Marilyn, "that Brett doesn't have to find blame for this
situation. I backed over our cat once with the car by accident and
killed it. Brett told me later that it wasn't anyone's fault. He's
very fortunate to have the ability to be accepting of things that he
can't really have any control over. He also has an amazing amount of
compassion that I would like to take credit for, but he had it too
early for me to take the credit. He's always had a sense of people's
feelings. As a little two-year-old, he never let me kill an insect.
I had told him that 'you should never kill a living thing,' and he
said to me, 'that's a living thing, too.'"
The single child of a single
parent can certainly tempt the parent to zealous protectiveness that
some kids might read as overprotectiveness. "When you are a
single parent, I think you have more love for the single child," says
Brett. "For example, some of my friends will be gone for the
whole day without calling home and I have to call every two hours.
So I think she feels closer because she needs me to call so much
and stuff like that." But Marilyn's need for closeness is something
that Brett can reciprocate. "I tell my mom way more things than
my friends would tell their moms."
Brett's life is full of
the cliques and crowds that I discussed in Chapter 15 as the center
of the adolescent's social life. His mixed crowd consists of about
thirty peers, six or seven of them girls, all of them interested
in athletics. They hang out at each other's houses. "There isn't
much to do in this town; that's why I think some of the older kids
turn to drinking,"
Brett suggests. Marilyn is naturally concerned about Brett and drinking,
but when she brought up the subject recently Brett said to her, "Mom,
how could you think I would drink? That's what separated you and Dad."
The girl Brett likes most
is not in his crowd. "My group are kind of the 'cooler' group,
and she's not considered 'cool.' I told one of my friends, and he
told me that if I really liked her it shouldn't matter just because
she's not in our group. I liked another girl from second grade until
,this year. I'll probably like her all my life, but she's not possible
anymore. She's way too gorgeous—out of my league." "Would
you be comfortable going outside your group to date a girl you like?"
I asked. "I would want to," he replied, "but I don't
think I would have the guts. None of my friends would care. They might
joke around, but they're just kidding, I know that. But I don't think
anything will happen this year. As we get older, I think everybody
will be more in the same group. I think we'll always be tight, but
the guys might start
seeing girls from other groups and bring them into our group. That's
Brett Bendix's life is a
model of the right kind of enabling. It begins with a parent who
has made a resolute decision to put parenthood first in her life,
even though that commitment has led her, without complaint or self-pity,
through divorce to single parenthood. Mother and son have excellent
communication. All of the elements of enabling stressed by Hauser—empathy,
explanation, and problem-solving—are richly present in their
descriptions of their lives. I particularly admire their ability
to explain their lives as well as to describe them in terms of feelings
or incidents. Her protestations to the contrary, I'm sure that Marilyn
had a great deal to do with nurturing Brett's early capacity for
empathy. He has already had some valuable experience with a mentor
and will undoubtedly attract more mentors in the future. The crowd
Brett belongs to is the kind of athletic, 'cool' crowd in which boys
often adopt a macho veneer in adolescence, hiding their uncertainty
and stifling their capacities to be sensitive. But Brett, thanks
in large part to articulate and attentive parenting, has a very distinct
sense of who he is—and isn't yet—as a boy on the threshold
of late adolescence.
Chapter Eighteen: Enabling
S. Hauser, B. Book, J. Houlihan,
S. Powers, B. Weiss-Perry, D. Follansbee, A. Jacobson, and G. Noam,
"Sex Differences Within the Family: Studies of Adolescent and
Parent Family Interactions," Journal of Youth and Adolescence 16
adolescent autonomy S.
Vuchinich, R. Vuchinich, and B. Wood, The interparental relationship
and family problem solving with preadolescent males. Child Development 64
Kelly, interviewed by Forrest
Sawyer, Turning Point, American Broadcasting Company, broadcast
April 9, 1996.
W. Glaberson, "Alex
Kelly, Convicted Rapist, Accepts a Plea Deal in a Second Case from
1986," New York Times (December 24, 1998), A18.