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Tessman, L.H. (1994). Fathers Who Fail: Shame and Psychopathology in the Family System: Melvin R. Lansky. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1992, 272 pp., $36.00.. Psychoanal. Psychol., 11(3):413-417.

(1994). Psychoanalytic Psychology, 11(3):413-417

Fathers Who Fail: Shame and Psychopathology in the Family System: Melvin R. Lansky. Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1992, 272 pp., $36.00.

Review by:
Lora Heims Tessman, Ph.D.

In ancient Greece, the question “Who is the real parent of the child: the father or the mother?” was debated (Griffin, 1993). Griffin noted:

Like other patriarchal peoples, the Greeks liked to say that it was the father, the mother providing only the receptacle in which this seed was nurtured: analogy—the sowing of seed into the passive earth. But there were always other views competing for attention, and Aristotle, for instance, maintained that women, too had a kind of seed and so were truly parents. (p. 45)

Historians of more recent times have traced the drastically changing conceptions of the father's role in relation to the American family (Demos, 1982), but none have doubted his emotional power, for good or for sorrow, in the development of the child. Near the end of the 17th century, father's role as “moral overseer,” companion, and teacher was seen as essential to building the child's character (Demos, 1982, p. 433).

In preindustrial times, it was a picture of “active encompassing fatherhood, woven into the whole fabric of domestic and productive life” (Demos, 1982, p. 429). Not until the beginning of the 19th century, when economic modernization meant that home and workplace would no longer be the same, did distance and part-time involvement come to characterize fatherhood. Father as good provider was now expected to succeed outside the matrix of domestic sharing. As Demos noted, “A man who could not find his way in the world was likely to seem a failed father in his own eyes, and in the eyes of those who mattered most to him” (p. 435). Melvin Lansky's riveting book is about fathers who cannot find their way in the world of either love or work, but are driven to self-destructive bonds with others by problems with their “paternal imago” (p. 17). We all have much to learn from his work.

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