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The DC Sniper Story Revisited: Before the "Aftermath"

A few days ago, William Shatner, as part of his new A&E show called Aftermath, interviewed DC sniper, Lee Malvo. I have spoken and written about Malvo frequently over the years because his situation impacted me in several very personal ways.

First, at the time of the shootings, I had just moved from the Philadelphia area—the City of Brotherly Love—to the DC area. Now, Philly, despite the moniker, was no bastion of safety and security but at least we didn’t have to deal with snipers. I remember well that random activities like walking my dog, getting gas and loading groceries in the car became random acts of courage. It was indeed a very scary time that still haunts me a bit today.

Second, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop in Maryland on Route 70. It turns out that this stop is the next exit up from my wife’s office. She is a family practice doctor in a little town called Myersville. It’s a very isolated and rural place and her office is just a “rock throw” from the highway. There’s a little BP gas station across the street from her office where she often fills her tank. You get the point…I have thanked God often that an alert trucker spotted Muhammad and Malvo’s car that October night.

Finally, I remember well the morning that the news reported Muhammad and Malvo had been caught. What especially caught my attention was that they said that the suspects were a 38 year-old man and a 17 year-old boy. I instinctively looked over at my 17 year-old son and thought: What would it take to turn him into someone who would shoot a woman in the face with no remorse? There’s a fatherhood story in here somewhere. Sure enough, a few days later, the Washington Post reported that they had found Lee Malvo’s father who had essentially abandoned him years ago. And the rest, tragically, is history.

In any case, what makes the Malvo story “news” now is that a celebrity is interviewing him and that he has suggested that there were supposed to be other snipers involved. That’s fine. But what makes this story important for me is what made it important years ago. Malvo’s story is less about crime than about how crime is connected to father absence.

“He was a kid who was brainwashed. He was a malleable teenager and lacking love in his life," Shatner said. "John Muhammad supplies the love and influences him to become a killer, and he becomes a coldblooded killer at the age of 17.”

Shatner’s statement is on point but it’s incomplete. Malvo had a mom who seemed to care about him but what he didn’t have was a loving father. Indeed, Muhammad did more than “supply” love. He became the father that Malvo longed for much of his young life. Of note, psychiatrist Diane Schetky, who served as an expert witness for the defense at Malvo's 2003 trial, quoted him as saying of Muhammad, “Anything he asked me to do I'd do. He knew I didn't have a father. He knew my weaknesses and what was missing.”

I often talk about “what was missing” in a child’s life—it’s a hole in a kid’s soul in the shape of his dad. Unfortunately, still today, Malvo shares a potential “weakness” with millions of other kids who are more at-risk to become prey for the many “Muhammads” of this world. However, these guys don’t always come as sniper trainers but rather as gang leaders, pimps and drug dealers who encourage children to sell their bodies and their souls.

It’s worth noting that a disproportionate number of Malvo’s fellow inmates tend to grow up in father absent homes. Despite this fact, we have done too little to address father absence in our nation. Indeed, most of the fatherhood programs that are committed to addressing this issue are grossly underfunded. I know that in NFI’s case, despite that great work that we have been doing to educate and inspire dads and the many testimonials from fathers, mothers and, even kids about the good work we do, it is a daily challenge to raise the needed funds for our important work. But, we press on because the stakes are high and we don’t have a fatherless kid to spare.

I suspect that Shatner’s Aftermath show will do well. Sadly, it seems that time and again we are more interested in the entertainment of the “aftermath” than what needs to be done beforehand to prevent it.

The Toy Story Dad…What's His Story?

This past weekend, my family and I went to see "Toy Story 3." Wow. What a great movie! The dialogue was clever and humorous. The characters and the plot were compelling and entertaining, and the movie has a wonderfully engaging blend of drama and comedy. My sense is that the Toy Story series has run its course. If so, the creators of the series ended on a very high note.

However, there was one aspect of the movie that left me a bit "animated." The plot builds around the fact that Andy, who is now 17, has lost interest in playing with Woody, Buzz and the gang. Accordingly, the urgent crisis for the toys is what would become of them now that Andy would soon be heading off to college.

At one point, there is a scan of Andy's desk and you see a picture from his recent high school graduation. There are three smiling faces: Andy, his sister and his mom. So, for me, the stuffed elephant in the living room was...Where is Andy's dad and what's his story?

Now, I know that this is just a movie, but, unfortunately, art can imitate life. With 24 million kids living in father-absent homes, Andy's family situation is too real and too common for too many children. Nonetheless, this was not an accident or an oversight. Somewhere during the creative process someone made the call to erase dad. Moreover, he was deleted and no reference was made to him. And, well, I am just not comfortable with this new normal.

Interestingly, there was a scene in the movie where I got a sense that Andy was not too comfortable with this either. Near the end of the film, Andy is holding Woody for what will probably be the last time and he says that Woody is his most special toy and that he has been with him for as long as he can remember. He added that Woody was always there for him and, best of all, Woody would never give up on him, no matter what.

Now, you can dismiss this like so much "psycho babble," but it seems to me that Andy, through his imagination and play, ascribed to Woody the attributes of an involved, responsible, and committed father. And, if you followed the Toy Story series, this is exactly how Woody behaved. He was always focused on being there for Andy regardless of the challenges and obstacles. Interestingly, the magic that made Woody a "real" toy was his commitment to Andy, just like what makes a man a real father is his commitment to his children.

In fact, if anyone ever questioned his priorities and purpose, Woody was quick to show them the word "ANDY" written on the sole of his shoe in permanent marker. What an amazing metaphor for what happens to a man when he becomes a dad. I have heard numerous times from fathers how something changed inside of them when they held their child for the first time. Well, I think that children are born with "magic" markers and when their dads hold them for the first time, they write their names on their dad’s souls to remind their fathers who they belong to.

I guess that's why I am a bit troubled by no reference or mention of Andy's dad. Because for all of the real “Andys” in the world, their history is linked to their destiny as men and as fathers. Accordingly, they have to come to grip with and make sense of their father's absence in a real way. And there is no erasing that.

See how National Fatherhood Initiative works with entertainment media projects to promote their fatherhood messages: www.fatherhood.org/entertainment

Don't Fumble the Baby...

Last week, I had an opportunity to speak at a briefing hosted by Congressman Danny Davis (D-IL). The purpose of the briefing was to present these findings of the Commission on Paternal Involvement in Pregnancy Outcomes, a project of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. A key aspect of the commission is to determine ways to reduce infant mortality, which is surprisingly high in the US.

As a member of the commission, I had an opportunity to share a pretty personal perspective on how, as a very new dad, I first learned just how important fathers are to the health and well-being of infants. A reporter wrote this story about my remarks. Are you ready for some football?

Keeping the Father in the Family & Keeping the Scholar in Scholar-Athlete

It was good to see that an NFL team was smart enough to draft Myron Rolle. Despite being the top high school recruit in his class year and an All-American at Florida State, many pro teams were lukewarm and questioned his commitment to football because Rolle choose to forgo playing his senior year to accept the Rhodes Scholarship, thus keeping the “scholar” in scholar-athlete. (Check out the video here to see just how impressive this young man is.)

With the considerable money at stake, I certainly understand concerns that Rolle’s skills may be a tad rusty after taking a year off but some of comments by NFL prognosticators were just nonsensical. For example, former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick said Rolle's intellect could be a hindrance on the field: "If you want to create hesitation on a guy, make him think. This guy can't help but think." Huh???

I played football in college at Princeton and I raised a son who was a scholarship football player at the University of North Carolina. One thing that I remember vividly is that whenever I made a “bone head” mistake, my coach would admonish me to get my head out of my—shall we say—hindquarters and get it in the game. That’s “coachspeak” for think. So, it makes me wonder if there is not something else going on here. Could it be that some don’t want other college players to follow Rolle’s lead and take full advantage of their scholarships by making their studies a priority? That would certainly make life more difficult for college coaches because practice times usually conflict with biology lab times. Well, I hope this is not the case, especially given the dismal graduation rates in many top college football programs and the need for more African American men--football players or not-to earn college degrees.

Interestingly, it’s not hard to see why Rolle has taken the path that he has. On hearing Billick’s comments, Rolle’s father, Whitney, said, "These people, they feel as though you can show commitment in only so many ways. We have taught all our kids if you're going to do something, do it 100%, so to hear these people say that they question his commitment to football, it's a disgrace.”

I couldn’t agree more…Fortunately, Rolle has gotten some good coaching at home over the years.

Biology Matters

Last night I watched the premiere of the new ABC show, "Find My Family." The show helps people find family members that they have lost contact with, such as adopted children, biological fathers, sisters, etc.

Last night's episode was about a couple who wanted to find their first daughter, who they had given up for adoption when they were teenagers. She is now 29-years-old and the parents had been searching for her for the last 9 years. They were reunited with her at the end of the show.

I grew up with my own two parents, so I don't know what it is like to know that you have close biological relatives out there somewhere that you have never met. But the truth that emerged from the tear-filled show last night is that biology matters.

Here were people who had never met before, yet they all had a powerful, undeniable urge to be connected with others who are a part of them. The daughter wanted to know where she came from; to know "who she was." The parents wanted to know the child they had created together; they wanted to see that part of them that would live on after they are gone.

It is important to note that this is not a criticism of adoption - the daughter had been adopted by two loving parents who cared for her and gave her a good life. Adoption is a wonderful thing. But the fact that she did have such a positive upbringing with her adoptive parents is actually further evidence of the power of biology - she still wanted to know her true parents and have a relationship with them despite her great relationship with her adoptive parents.

From NFI's perspective, the show demonstrated why father absence matters. As Roland Warren, NFI's president is fond of saying, "Children have a hole in their soul in the shape of their father." Again, people want to know where they came from, as it helps them define who they are. Father absence makes that task all the more difficult.

In the previews of upcoming episodes, you hear people saying things like, "A part of me was missing that I needed to fill." Surely, we don't fully understand what is happening here, but clearly, people continue to ask that age old question, "Who am I?" In a culture that would downplay the importance of biology in defining family, this show was a powerful reminder that you can't deny DNA.

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