Boys without men

When a middle-class mom needs fatherly advice for her son, she turns to a gang member named Crazy Ace.

By Celeste Fremon
Published April 13, 1998 5:56PM (EDT)

Just around this time three years ago, Academy Awards Monday to be
exact, a tiny vascular balloon exploded in the brain of my son's father,
inundating his left frontal lobe with blood. The cerebral aneurysm didn't
kill Will's dad, who is also my ex-husband, as at first we were terrified
it might. Instead, it unhinged the mechanism with which he encodes and
decodes speech. When he talks to us, it's as if he's reaching from the bottom of
a Lewis Carroll rabbit hole, trapped in a realm where the only language
spoken is a jumbled blend of real words and jabberwocky. Will still sees
his father for dinners and occasional outings, yet his role is more
caretaker than it is child.

Now that I'm raising my son as a single parent in the truest sense, I
attempt to be the best mother time allows, while also trying to do those
things I imagine a father might. Will and I river raft, fish and ski
together regularly (he snowboards). I've taken him parasailing,
rock climbing, tracking wolves in the wild. I've even promised to take him
sharpshooting at a firing range because, although I abhor firearms, I want
to ensure that guns aren't an attractive mystery.

But I'm not a father. And the older he gets, the more I see the effects
of that lack. I try my damnedest to model for Will the way to be a good
person. However, I cannot, by definition, tell him how to be a good man. I
can't, for example, tell him how a guy should deal with a bully.

My limitations came particularly into focus a year after Will's dad got
sick. Will, who was, by then, in the fourth grade, began coming home from
elementary school in a state of high distress. He wouldn't say what was
wrong but left a visible trail of emotional bread crumbs: bursting into
tears at the smallest homework-related frustration; staring absently into
an interior distance, his 10-year-old shoulders tensed as if against a
defeating blow. Finally, after days of prodding, I got him to confess that
he was being pushed around on the playground by a fifth grader. The
bullying was mostly verbal: threats, name-calling and some personal form
of insult that Will considered so egregious, he refused to reveal it.

My son is a bright and, in most ways, fearless child. He jumps his bike
and skateboard with an abandon that gives me the vapors. During the weeks
spent at our summer cabin in West Glacier, Mont., he always manages to
become friends with any new neighbor faster than I do. However, when faced
with this typical schoolboy badgering, Will seemed to have no defenses.

Concerned, I rummaged around in my own experience for what I hoped was
helpful advice. "Don't pay any attention to that kid. He only picks on you
because he doesn't feel very good about himself," etc. The Psych. 101
approach fell woefully short of the mark. "You don't get it, Mom," Will
said quietly, then laid himself down on his bed and turned his head away
from me. Over the next week, the bullying continued, with my son still
unable to ignore or confront his juvenile harasser. Instead, he developed
stomach aches and pleaded to stay home from school.

I asked Will if he wanted me to speak to the bully. He said, "No" with
extreme prejudice. I tried reporting the kid to the school principal, an
unnaturally cheery woman who informed me she could do nothing unless my son
would come to her office and repeat to her exactly what the other kid was
saying. Then she could bring both boys in for "conflict resolution."

"Yeah, right," Will said with a horrified roll of his eyes.

"I wish I could talk to my dad," he said. Yes. Of course.

Groping for a substitute male perspective, I called my brother, a good
and caring man, hoping he could help. He offered Will a string of snappy
retorts he might toss back at the offending child. While the quips were
great theory, and made Will laugh, in practice, he wasn't destined to be
the Noel Coward of the playground. The bullying, the stomach aches, the
distress continued. Then, just when it seemed he must somehow hang tough
till the fifth grader left for middle school, aid materialized in the most
unexpected manner: Crazy Ace called from prison. Deus ex gang member.

I had been working as a journalist specializing in East Los Angeles street gangs for seven years. It's an admittedly peculiar specialty for a middle-aged white woman, and there were times during those years when I found myself shuttling schizophrenically between yuppie Cub Scout meetings and urban shoot-outs, a fact that did not, I'm sure, add to my son's sense of security. However, there were payoffs too, in the form of relationships. I got to know scores of gang members well -- some of whom call me collect from correctional institutions when they get locked up. A homeboy with the street name of Crazy Ace was then among my most regular callers.

In order to rise high in the ranks of street gangs, one must possess
intelligence, a bad-ass ultra-cool persona and the ability not to blink in
the face of danger. Ace had all those qualities in lavish abundance. So the next time he called, on a whim I decided to apprise him of my son's
dilemma and ask if he had any advice. He suggested I put Will on the phone.
Will had met Ace only once in the past, but remembered him vividly.
Wide-eyed, he took the receiver and listened.

Afterward I asked Ace what he'd told my kid. "Just mainly to try not to
let it get to him," he said. Exactly what both my brother and I had already
advised. But coming from the infamous Crazy Ace, it had weight. Within
days, Will seemed calmer.

A week later, I dragged another gang member into the role of counselor.
This time it was a homeboy named Grumpy, who imparted essentially the same
tips Ace had given. "But," he added, jotting something down on a piece of
paper, "give your son my pager number. And tell him, if that kid keeps
giving him trouble, to just page me. I'll come up and have a word with that
little fool."

This last was said as an affectionate joke, and I passed it all on to Will
as such. Joke or no -- the bodyguard idea cheered him up immensely. Grumpy,
as his name suggests, looks like a huge, tattooed version of the
bad-tempered Disney dwarf. The idea, however fanciful, of this enormous
gangster suddenly showing up on the Topanga Elementary School playground to
growl menacingly at my son's attacker: "You gotta problem with my friend
Will?" ... well, it was delicious beyond expression!

The bully problem wasn't solved overnight. But somehow Will ceased to be
tormented and, under the unlikely tutelage of Grumpy and Ace, a new
confidence bloomed in his demeanor. The bullying incident also precipitated
a sea change in me as a single parent -- albeit a discomforting one.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

When I first began investigating gang life, I recognized right away
that, although there are many causal threads leading to the tragedy of gang
warfare, one thread is most consistently present: The majority of gang
members are boys raised without fathers. Without male role models, they
turn to each other and the street in order to fabricate their manhood. The
results are chronicled each night on the evening news.

In the beginning of my research, I failed to connect the homeboys'
problems with the kind of issues my own son was likely to encounter. After
all, they were born into grinding poverty, raised by overwhelmed mothers
who found themselves trapped in a permanent underclass. Will, on the other
hand, was being brought up in an enlightened, affluent neighborhood, with a
caring extended family and a mother who attempted daily to open to him a
myriad of possibilities. Looking back, I think my inability to see obvious
points of similarity was partly denial. It was also partly a result of the
fact that Will was still young, and the no-father crisis had yet to reach
gale force.

Following the bully incident I began to see a different picture. Surely,
my son was in no danger of becoming a gang member. But what of more subtle
threats to his soul and psyche that were looming outside the periphery of
my gender-specific vision? After all, most of these homeboys had caring
mothers too. Yet each spoke of the loss of the primary male in their life
as an unhealable wound that caused pain beyond reckoning. How could I be so
naive as to believe that the pain -- although acted out differently -- was
any less for my kid?

Will's dad and I divorced when Will was 4. Even then, my ex was
alcoholic, undependable, not the kind of guy who was ever going to coach
the neighborhood softball team. I hoped, after the divorce, I'd remarry in
a few years. Then Will would have a new male role model in the terrific
husband/stepfather I'd no doubt soon meet. In the meantime, I made sure he
had plenty of contact with his grandpa, my own dad and my brother. But
then the years came and went. My dad died. My ex had the aneurysm. And I
didn't remarry.

After the bullying, it began to occur to me that remarriage might be an
ever-receding mirage that would come after Will's most crucial need for a
father had already passed, if it came at all. Suddenly each interview I
conducted with a gang member felt unnervingly instructive. "By the time I
was 12," one homeboy told me, "I thought I was the man a' the house, an'
ain't nobody gonna tell me what to do. If you the only vato in the house,
you grow up thinkin' you the man. An' you don't know a damn thing about
being a man."

I cried as I drove home from that particular conversation, frightened
because I already saw inklings of the pattern in Will -- a dislike of
teamwork, the hard-headed desire to do things only as he saw fit, a visible
well of loneliness that I often couldn't penetrate -- and I dreaded what
such signs might imply. In the early years of childhood, a male child can
cling to his mother. During the pre-pubescent years, he must push away and
look to his father. But what about the boys who have no dads to turn to?
Some become mama's boys. Others spend a lifetime proving that they are not.
When a boy is at that age when he should be identifying with the father,
and there is no one, who does he understand himself to be? If he isn't
mama's boy, he must be nobody's boy.

Of course, I knew that plenty of guys grow up without fathers and turn
out perfectly fine and happy. When I ran across their profiles or
biographies, I'd try to squirrel away each new example as a hedge against
my worry. But, in truth, the successes of far-away men seemed too abstract.
I needed to see some happy endings at closer range before I could believe
they had any real significance for me or for Will.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

During the first few years of my gang research, the situation in East
L.A. was at its most calamitous. Nearly every night, teenagers whom
I knew and liked were shooting at other teenagers whom I knew and liked.
But time passed, truces were made and boys I'd met at 15 entered
their 20s. Some went to prison, others morphed into their absent
fathers and disappeared into crack, alcohol or equivalent chasms of
despair. But there were still others who attempted against impossible
odds to build decent lives for themselves. Take, for example, Crazy Ace.

One of seven children, Ace's main male role model was a father who
repeatedly knocked his mother to the floor and beat the kids on a regular
basis. When Ace was 6, his dad and his uncle strode into the house and
pulled a gun, announcing that "this time" they were going to kill his
mother. "All of us kids jumped on both of them," Ace told me. "That's the
only thing that made 'em stop."

Awful home life notwithstanding, during his elementary school years, Ace
showed promise in athletics. Then, at age 12, as he was walking home
from school, he was waylaid by local gang members who hurt him so badly, he
spent the next two months in a coma. When he came back to consciousness, he
formed a gang of his own.

Crazy Ace got out of prison in the spring of 1996. For the first
half-year following his release, his future looked dicey at best. Although
he successfully completed a job training program, he couldn't seem to leave
gang life behind him, wavering for months between genuine adulthood and the
magnetic pull of his past.

Then one day, optimism reached critical mass inside him and he made the
leap for real. Now, he's working on staff for the Warner Studios-produced
ABC TV series "Nothing Sacred," and his bosses just love him. A few months
ago, he told me that he'd recently gone to court to fight for joint custody
of his daughter. Giddy with amazement, Ace described how he'd stood in the
courtroom and presented his parenting strategies to a judge who ruled
firmly in his favor. He credits his newfound victories to the fact that a
couple of people believed he could be a different kind of man than the one
he grew up imagining. One of those supporters is a priest whom he views as
a surrogate father. Another is a woman: me.

Ace's transformation isn't the only miracle I've been blessed enough to
witness. There's Ramon -- aka Speedy -- who came so close to suicide that
the priest and I had to keep him on the phone while calling the cops on a
second line to forcibly intervene. Now he's working for a company in San
Francisco and is planning a big church wedding in June. And there's Alex,
known as Flea, who went crazy three years ago after his non-gang member
brother was mistakenly murdered in his place. Today he's helping other
young guys like himself move away from the gangs toward a hopeful future.
And Timothy -- Tiny -- who, when I met him, told me he was "dead already,"
but now is married and working for Sony Studios while shooting his own
documentary on weekends.

I could name at least a dozen other young men, all originally
considerably more at risk than my son, all of whom, at least for the
present, have roused themselves out of the emotional quicksand that
fatherlessness predicts. While I realize that today's good achievements are
no guarantee of tomorrow's well-being, either for the homeboys or for Will,
I'm gradually coming to regard these stories as countersigns.

My son is now in sixth grade and attends a public school for highly gifted
children. He's a wonderful kid in whom I see new sprigs of maturity sprouting so fast it takes my breath away. I'm still parenting him alone, a process that's a constant roller coaster of challenges. Some weeks I feel brilliantly up to the task. Other weeks, I'm convinced any fool in the world could do a better job than I seem to be able to manage.

Just the other day, the subject of bullying came up anew. "At
our school," Will told me, "the eighth graders try to beat up the seventh graders,
and the seventh graders try to beat up on us." Oh, God! I thought. Here we go

"But I know how to keep people from messing with me," Will continued.

"You do?" I asked.

"I've learned how to have this look. It's like, 'I'm really crazy so
don't try anything or I'll mess you up.'"

We were in the car at the time -- a frequent venue for our mother-son
conversations -- so he was able to demonstrate the technique by narrowing
his eyes slightly and staring hard at the motorist next to us (who remained
oblivious). Will's mad-dog glare was a junior version of the challenging
gaze I'd seen a hundred different homeboys use. On his young face, it
looked somewhat silly and ill-fitting. And yet, there were also glimmers of
calm and focus behind the look that suggested a self-possession I'd never
seen before -- still unformed, latent, but present nonetheless.

"Oh," I said, carefully. "That sounds like a ... smart strategy. I think
laser stares are good tools to have." The self-possession vanished and Will
glanced at me sharply to check my face for irony. Finding none, he looked
away, his pleased expression ducking quickly behind his recently acquired
veneer of sixth-grade cool.

We didn't talk about it again. But that evening he gave me an extra hug
out of nowhere, and solicited my company more than usual as he finished his
homework, pausing every few minutes to tell yet another dumb joke to keep
us both amused.

OK, here's what I know: My son will never be able to sit down with the
male whose face his own most resembles and talk about first dates, first
fights, first cars, first any and everything. And he may never get to
observe, under his own roof, what grown-up, day-to-day intimacy between a
man and a woman really looks like, with both its raggedy edges and its
joy. Yet, no life is without stupendous holes. We grieve for those we can't
fill, and fill in those we can.

So, if there is no father to bequeath to my son the cloak of manhood,
maybe the needed influence can be quilted together piece by piece. One
quilt square from his uncle, who talks computers with him, another square
from Sean, the neighbor who takes him surfing, another square from his dad,
whose way with animals he has inherited, another from his late grandpa, his
friends' fathers ... and so on. Plus a square or two from Grumpy and Crazy

And maybe some of the quilt pieces are fashioned, not just from males,
but from women -- mothers even -- in whose eyes our fatherless boys can see
reflected glimpses of the men we know they can become.

Celeste Fremon

Celeste Fremon is an award-winning journalist and the author of "Father Greg & the Homeboys" (Hyperion). Her piece "Boys Without Men" will appear in "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood," edited by Camille Peri and Kate Moses, which is forthcoming from Villard Books in May.

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