Last week’s news that a Texas college student allegedly stabbed at least 14 people was just the latest example of young people accused of committing violent crimes, and again leaves us desperately searching for explanations.
“When these acts of senseless violence occur, I think it’s human nature to look someplace to lay blame,” said Hingham’s Tom Shulman, a certified financial planner and father of an 18-month-old son.
“As a new parent myself, I have been wondering how child-rearing plays a role in producing the kind of child that can maim and murder.”
Shulman confronted that question when he read Noah Hawley’s thought-provoking novel, “The Good Father,” which describes a man who is forced to examine his role in a crime committed by his teenage son.
The 2012 book, Hawley’s fourth novel, begins when Dr. Paul Allen, a respected rheumatologist, learns on the news that his oldest son, Daniel, has been charged with assassinating a charismatic presidential candidate.
Daniel’s parents divorced when he was 7, and he was largely raised by his mother and shuttled back and forth between parents on the requisite weekends and holidays.
In the 18 months before the shooting, Daniel dropped out of college and took a cross-country journey to find himself, even changing his name in an effort to repudiate his family attachments.
When Daniel pleads guilty to the murder and sits on death row, Allen begins retracing his son’s movements before the assassination, in the desperate hope of finding any alternative explanation for the murder.
Part mystery-thriller, the book skillfully intersperses factual history and text about other 20th-century lone male assassins. It also chronicles the private, anguished journey of Paul Allen, who finds himself haunted by Daniel’s statement that “Parents are supposed to protect you. Mine just didn’t seem that interested in me.”
“I think we can all understand this father,’’ said Shulman. “Like any parent in this position, in the beginning Paul desperately clings to his son’s innocence.”
But over time, “the good doctor looks inward,” Shulman said, and questions how the breakup of his marriage and lack of closeness to his son may have contributed to the crime.
“ ‘The Good Father’ provides no pat answers here,” he said, but “points out how easy it is for us to judge from afar how someone else’s parenting, like divorcing, is the real culprit.” But he notes that the story also forces us to remember that not all children of divorced parents turn out badly, just as not all children from happy marriages turn out well.
Shulman adds that Hawley also raises the important question of where a parent’s responsibility for a child’s actions ends, and the child’s responsibility begins.
“It hit me as I was reading that when our adolescent and adult children grow up and separate, they become their own person — and we aren’t completely responsible for their fate,” he said.
As a psychologist, it’s my opinion that violence and aggression are contextual and can be determined by many factors, arising from school (such as ostracism or bullying), home (sexual abuse, domestic violence, neglect), personality (anger issues, low self-esteem, depression), drug/alcohol use, and the larger social environment (access to firearms and even violent media).
As a new father, Shulman admits it was “disturbing to consider the possibility that as a parent, you may eventually discover you don’t really even know your own child — what they are thinking, what they are exposed to outside the home, or what they are capable of. But Hawley is a really good writer. By the end of the novel, you can’t help but feel empathy for the pain and suffering of all the characters.”
In particular, says Shulman, “when the father’s new marriage and family clearly suffer under the stress of hate mail, media scrutiny, and forced relocation, it really made me appreciate the sheer malice and public venom they must absorb.”
From my professional view, we must acknowledge that such parents straddle a very difficult line between loyalty to their child and sadness for the pain of victims’ families. Inevitably they are likely to feel both anguish and responsiblity, but the bonds between parent and child are not easily broken.
Tom Shulman agrees. “I think Noah Hawley sums it up best, when he says of fathers and sons: We’d give almost anything to trade places with our children, and to absorb their suffering and ease their pain.”Nancy Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @DrNancy_Globe.