Pop Talk: Prodigal sons (and daughters)
In the movie Everybody's Fine starring Kate Beckinsale and Drew Barrymore, Robert De Niro plays a widower trying to connect with his four adult children.
A retired phone company worker, he embarks on a cross-country trip to see his artist son in New York, his advertising executive daughter in Chicago, his conductor son on tour with an orchestra in Denver and his dancer daughter in Vegas.
The premise of the film is that even though everyone says they're fine, living up to their father's imagined expectations of their lives, they're not.
(Spoiler!) Beckinsale's character is going through a divorce, Barrymore is a lesbian showgirl with a baby, his conductor son actually plays percussion and his artist son, on whom he'd pegged perhaps the greatest expectations, has died of a drug overdose.
The tagline for the film is "Frank wanted the holidays to be picture perfect. What he got was family." While his late wife had been privy to their children's problems, Frank lived in the Delusional Daddy Bubble, none the wiser to his children's struggles. And the bubble burst.
Much like it did for Bert Newton. But more on that in a minute...
Yesterday, after dutifully calling my dad for Father's Day, I attended the Brisbane Writer's Festival and listened to authors Anna Goldsworthy (Piano Lessons), Larissa Behrendt (Home and Legacy), Nadifa Mohamed (Black Mamba Boy) and Sheila Fitzpatrick (My Father's Daughter) talk about how their fathers have informed and shaped their work.
Goldsworthy talked briefly about her father, Peter, "cannibalising" her piano lessons in order to research his book, Maestro, Behrendt talked of her bitterness towards her father for his infidelity, Fitzpatrick said she railed against her father (the journalist and radical historian Brain Fitzpatrick) and Mohamed spoke of her father's reluctance to express emotion over his challenging upbringing in Somalia (challenging is an understatement).
All high achievers in their chosen fields (Goldsworthy is also a concert pianist and mathematician), Behrendt a lawyer, Fitzpatrick a professor of History, and Mohamed a passionate human rights advocate at just 29 years old, their fathers were the central characters in their books as well as their lives; one of the driving factors for their success.
The themes common to all of them was the idealising of fathers, and the striving to please them, and the disillusionment that occurs when we reach an age when we determine that they are not the perfect creatures we once thought they were. Also canvassed was the idea of the separation of the public and private self: who dad was at home and who he was in public life.
I spent a lot of time thinking about Bert and Matthew Newton last week, and what their relationship might be like – but more particularly the disconnect between the public and private lives of the two men and in their own relationship.
As I watched Bert's bewildered face on A Current Affair, his wife Patti (the matriarch of Australian television) talking about her deeply troubled son with an acute pain and sorrow, while also defending her husband's status as a beloved Australian TV icon, I couldn't help but feel a deep sadness.
"I think it's worthwhile saying, Tracy, that the things that have unfolded in very recent times – the great majority of those things – we learnt about through the media," Bert told Tracy Grimshaw. "We should have seen the signposts... We knew that there was a major difference in attitude between Matthew and [daughter] Lauren, but now that it's come to this, we still love him, we support him – and want him to get well – but in this situation there are no winners. No winners at all."
I talked to my psychologist last week about the issue: she suggested that if we can't communicate what we feel in words, our natural response is to express those feelings physically. Of course, there are positive ways to channel this pent-up emotion, like going for a run or creating something or, erm, blogging.
But sometimes we fall into negative behavioural patterns thinking them the best way to relieve the anger, the anxiety, the hurt. These patterns of self-expression can become habitual if not nipped in the bud early on. As the whole nation now knows, Matthew has had psychological issues since his teens.
"He's always had a bit of a problem with temper, even as a kid, but I do think it's accelerated and I think probably his lifestyle in Sydney and getting in with all the wrong people," said Patti. "He's never really accepted the fact that he had an illness. I remember he was about 16, maybe younger 14, we went to see a psychologist, I think it was, and this psychologist said to Matthew, 'You make sure you never do drugs or alcohol because you have the personality that it will take over your life and that was at 14."
As J.K. Rowling said in her brilliant Harvard address back in 2008, there comes a time when we have to stop blaming our parents: "There is an expiry date on blaming your parents for steering you in the wrong direction; the moment you are old enough to take the wheel, responsibility lies with you."
The women on the Brisbane Writer's Festival typified this idea, of taking the best parts of their fathers (and mothers) and leaving behind the negative bits to forge themselves a better life. As a friend reminded me yesterday, we don't have to take on the faults of our fathers; we can use them to inform more positive life choices.
The Bible tells us that parents are to love their children through discipline. "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him," says the Proverb 22: 15. Having lacked a certain discipline in my teens, I can see too well how the lack of it in one's upbringing can impinge on adult development, particularly if the role modelling at home has not been entirely positive.
It's no secret that Bert has battled with his own demons. While it is most certainly true that Matthew is responsible for his reprehensible actions, for Bert to distance himself from his son at this time grieves me. It smacks of Delusional Daddy Syndrome. You can't take the good and not the bad – children are a package deal.
When the whole world conspires to turn against you (and we can be in no doubt that Matthew has curtailed his career for the forseeable future in addition to losing the love of his life), a child (even a man-child) should be able to turn to his parents for both direction and unconditional love, not rejection.
In the parable of The Prodigal Son, Jesus tells the story of a man who has two sons: one gets his inheritance, leaves home and plunders his fortune. Destitute and with nowhere to turn, he returns to his father who receives him back compassion and a festive celebration: "Let's have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
The man's other son is none too pleased with this state of affairs, as he has obeyed his father's orders all along with no celebration. "My son," the father said, "you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found."
This Bible passage demonstrates God's mercy. The son returned with a heavy heart and downcast eye; afraid and full of repent, he was rewarded with his father's absolute forgiveness. There was no anger, no pity despite his pitiable condition and the fact he'd brought the trouble on himself; just compassion and love and blessings.
In a world that prefers an eye for an eye, the idea that a person could be forgiven for their sins is almost insulting. But as we saw when Judas denied he knew Jesus, only harm can come from betraying those we claim to love.
So, Bert, I would suggest that you take ownership of your son and his actions and the part you may have played in shaping the man who he is today and love him until he comes back to life and starts to make more positive choices for his future. To really know your son and to embrace his imperfections and listen to him would be the best thing for all involved. Let your private self – the guy all Aussies love – match the public self.
Do you want your legacy to be 60 years on TV or a son you lost for good?
Girl With a Satchel
P.S. This is not to discount the suffering experienced by Rachael Taylor. My sister went to uni with Rachael and, by all accounts, she's a lovely girl – very ambitious, having moved from Tasmania to Sydney in late teens to pursue her dreams, which she is realising with gusto. This is an extremely unfortunate setback – both privately and professionally – and I hope she gains strength from her experience, as did the beautiful Brooke Satchwell, who was perhaps not compensated or acknowledged fairly enough by our judicial system.