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Chardon High Shooting: Symptoms of the Father Factor

Image by Aaron Josefczyk, Reuters.

On Monday, a teenage gunman shot five of his peers at Chardon High School. When this story first broke, my initial impulse was to skim the news for hints about the shooter’s family life, as I’ve become more aware that there is usually a “father factor” in these sorts of stories.

T.J. Lane’s motives for shooting his five classmates (three fatally) are still largely a mystery, and I will leave journalists to speculate on the mental processes leading up to Monday’s horrific events. However, I did discover that Lane’s story does indeed have a father factor. It would seem that the lifestyle choices of Lane’s father had a significant impact on him.

According to multiple news outlets, T.J. Lane was born to Sara Nolan, while she was in a relationship with his father, Thomas Lane. Sara and Thomas’s relationship was tumultuous and eventually ended in divorce after repeated incidents of domestic violence. T.J. stayed with his mother, and it’s unclear if he had much contact with his father afterward.

It’s reported that his father went on to marry another woman and started a family with her. But he was repeatedly abusive to this woman, and went on to get in trouble with the law for assault, kidnapping, and attempted murder.

Clearly, having an uncommitted and unstable father was a significant part of Lane’s story.

The knowledge that his father acted violently toward the women in his life must have had an impact on T.J., and the absence of an involved father probably left T.J. craving affirmation, acceptance, and without a clear idea of what a healthy relationship between a man and a woman could look like. T.J.’s Facebook page shows that he was dating a girl from his youth group, but that she recently broke up with him to date someone else. The new boyfriend is reported to be one of the victims of Monday’s shooting.

T.J. Lane is ultimately responsible for his own actions, but I have to wonder: would he have done this if his father had been positively engaged in his life? Would these three high school students be dead today if T.J. had a dad who cared about him and modeled healthy relationships with women? Would T.J. have shot his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend if his own father wasn’t abusive to T.J.’s mom?

These questions deserve serious consideration. As this shooting and its aftermath plays out in the media, I’d urge you to remember that the news stories we read are often just about the symptoms of deeper issues.

Many heinous events like these have a father story behind them. We’ve noted before how the D.C. sniper situation in 2002 was largely cause by two men with deep father-needs, and how the Tuscon shooter last year was affected by his negatively-involved father. And just this summer we saw a mass murderer in Norway whose life was marked by his absent father.

An involved father makes a significant positive impact on the lives of his children, and you never know what might be averted by ensuring that you are a positive and loving presence in your children's lives.

The Father Factor in the Tucson Shooting

"The family was contemptuous. It wasn't the son. It was the father."

Those are the words of a female neighbor of alleged Tucson shooter, Jared Loughner. As details about the Loughner’s family begin to emerge, a not unexpected picture is coming into focus. Apparently, Loughner’s father, Randy, was far from a positive force in the life of his son and family.

Another individual who used to spend a lot of time with the Loughners said the family's home was "cold, dark and unpleasant" and that he always felt "unwelcomed."

Most importantly, this same former friend said he never observed “a particularly loving relationship between the Loughners.” Finally, and sadly, Loughner once told this friend that he loved his dog more than his parents. More details are here.

This is not entirely different than what we learned about the D.C. sniper after his shooting rampage in the fall of 2002. As details of Lee Malvo’s family life emerged, it became clear that he did not have a close relationship with his father – he was, in fact, desperately yearning for a close relationship with his father and tragically chose John Muhammad to replace him.

Decades of research show that boys who have fractured or nonexistent relationships with their fathers are more likely to act out violently than sons who are close to their fathers. Unfortunately, our nation’s prisons are filled with men who had poor relationships with their dads.

Clearly, there were a number of factors that led to Jared Loughner’s heinous act, but to ignore the “father factor” is to ignore an important root. We will continue to monitor this situation as more details of his family life emerge. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.

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.

Can you hear his soul?

Recently, my wife, who is a family practice doctor, shared an interesting story with me. She was doing examinations on a 7-year-old boy and his 5-year-old sister. Because doctors visits, especially when shots are involved, can be a bit scary for kids, my wife at times lets the children listen to each other with her stethoscope before she examines them.


The little boy insisted on going first and he pressed the scope gently to his little sister’s chest. My wife explained the sounds that he would hear as he found his sister’s heartbeat. Now, it was his little sister’s turn. She quickly put the stethoscope on and pressed the listening device to her brother’s chest. As she listened intently, the little boy turned to my wife and asked, “What does my soul sound like?”


As they finished the visit, my wife spent some time speaking with the children’s mother. She likes to do this to get a better understanding of how her little patients are doing at home. For example, she asks if the children are eating and sleeping well and if there are other situations happening at home that could impact their health. Their mother quickly offered that their father, who she never married, recently moved out and moved on.


I suspect that my wife told me this story because I am fond of saying that kids have a “hole in their soul” in the shape of their dad and when a father is unwilling or unable to fill that hole, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed. Kids say the darndest things and I could not help but wonder if this little boy with his seemingly nonsensical question was saying something more profoundly about himself and expressing a more deep-seated need than hours and hours of therapy could ever reveal.


Several years ago, I came across this article, which I highly recommend that you read as well. It features an interview with Dr. Diane Schetky who served as an expert witness for the defense at the trial of DC sniper, Lee Malvo. In any case, when Schetky asked Malvo why he blindly followed Muhammad’s instructions, he said, “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.”


It’s worth recounting a bit of history about Malvo. He was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1985 to Una James. His father, Leslie, reportedly doted on his young son. However, Leslie Malvo worked off-island, and during his long absences, Malvo was“ inconsolable.” Over time, James suspected Leslie of infidelity and moved with her son to a small, rural part of Jamaica without telling him where they had gone. “Lee was devastated by the loss of his father,” according to Schetky.

Malvo met Muhammad when he was just 15 and was immediately drawn to him. So much so, he quickly began calling Muhammad “dad.” In fact, Malvo told Schetky “I was desperate to fill a void in my life…” And the rest, unfortunately, is history.

It doesn’t take much to see some similarities between Malvo and the little boy in my wife’s office. Am I saying that this boy and others who get disconnected from their fathers will grow up to be emotionless killers? Of course not. But what I am saying is that Malvo was once a young fatherless boy with a “soul” that few seemed to hear except a man who would eventually convince Malvo to be “heard” in a tragic way that ruined his life and ended the lives of so many others.

Crime of fatherlessness...

In light of the execution of D.C. sniper John Muhammad last night, I thought that you would find of interest a piece that I wrote about 7 years ago in the aftermath of the shootings. Of note, this was very real and personal for me. On October 22, they caught Muhammad and Malvo sleeping at a rest stop that was one exit up from my wife's office. It's a pretty secluded setting and there is a gas station--that she frequently uses--right across the street.

_____________________________________
In the days since John Muhammad and John Lee Malvo were detained in the “Beltway Sniper” case, we have all wanted to know why these crimes occurred. Who were these cold-blooded murderers? How do people become so unabatedly evil?

Many have made up their minds about John Muhammad. He is an angry, frustrated, middle-aged man with gripes against his ex-wives and his country. It has been reported that he was sympathetic to the 9/11 terrorists. It is not too difficult to put the pieces together with him.

But what about the 17-year-old boy, who is now believed to have been the triggerman in these vicious acts? As we learn more about Malvo’s upbringing and his tumultuous childhood, things start to become clear. How did a young boy with a bright smile and a promising future become a 17-year-old killer? The answer: John Lee Malvo did not have an involved father.

Malvo’s childhood was characterized by constant moves from one school to another, one island to another, and one caretaker to another. His mother, Una James, was constantly trying to find new work and a new life for her and her son throughout the Caribbean. Many of the people who knew James and Malvo became exasperated at the constant upheaval in the intelligent Malvo’s life. However, the biggest mistake James made was that she did not feel it was necessary for her son to have a father.

As Malvo grew up, he searched for his father from time to time, but had limited contact with him. Friends and relatives point out that Malvo was keenly in need of a father figure in his life and he tended to flock towards older males in his neighborhood. But his mother and her sister grew up without their father. James simply did not realize the importance of father-love for a child. Her sister said, “We grew up without a father. We don’t know father-love.” She went on to say that James did not realize that her son needed the father-love they never had.

Leslie Malvo, the biological father, owns a construction contracting company in Jamaica. Reporters located him the day after his son was arrested, and he commented in American media that he had been following the sniper murders. This is not a poor man living in an isolated, backwards village. He owns a business and reads American newspapers. However, he was a failure as a father. He did not contest James’ attempts to keep him uninvolved with their son. He never sought out his son, or tried to improve his son’s life despite his relative wealth and despite the fact that James was causing such upheaval in the younger Malvo’s life.

Eventually Malvo had become tragically accustomed to childhood without a father. But as a boy enters his late teens he wants to find out what it means to become a man. He looks for examples of mature behavior from the adult males around him. He loves his mother, but begins to pull away in an attempt to establish independence - to fill the “hole in his soul” in the shape of his father.

In one of the many unstable settings Malvo found himself in, this time alone on the island of Antigua and his mother in Jamaica, John Muhammad entered the picture. Muhammad was a human smuggler, getting people from the islands to the states. He was a powerful looking ex-military man with strong political and religious convictions. To the impressionable Malvo, Muhammad immediately became an attractive and authoritative “father figure.” Through many twists and turns, the two ended up living together in the United States, apart from James, and in relative poverty. Lee Boyd Malvo changed his name to John Lee Malvo taking the name of his new “father” and becoming his “son.” Muhammad’s interest in guns and shooting provided another means for the two to bond. We now know what the grotesque product of that bonding would become – 10 dead, 3 wounded, millions scared.

The statistics of father absence are potent, and illuminate several aspects of the Malvo case. A study of 1,800 middle-school students found that children who did not live with both biological parents were more likely to carry a gun. The likelihood that a young male will engage in criminal activity doubles if he is raised without a father. Seventy two percent of adolescent murderers are fatherless. However, as helpful as these statistics can be, they sometimes obscure the human tragedies that lurk behind them. Lee Boyd Malvo was abandoned by his father, and kept away from him by his mother who grew up without her father. He then turned to another man, who also did not know his own father. Together they killed.

Many will continue to analyze why these two men committed such crimes and they may come up with some very definitive answers. Psychologists, criminologists, academicians, and forensic experts will feed us with countless explanations. But we must look at this crime at its roots, as a crime of fatherlessness. If we do, not only will we have the greatest understanding of what happened, but we will also begin to embrace the solution to this problem - men must be involved, responsible, and committed fathers so that their shoes will not be filled by the likes of John Muhammad.

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