I’ve often criticized what one might call the “paternal abandonment script”–the standard assumption that if a father doesn’t remain in his children’s lives after a divorce or separation, it’s because he “abandoned the family” and/or chose to remove himself from his children’s lives.
This script is pushed heavily by both the left and the right, including: feminists; influential fatherhood expert David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values; presidential candidate Barack Obama; former Vice-President Dan Quayle (and his famous 1992 Murphy Brown speech decrying fatherlessness); and countless others.
I’ve detailed in numerous newspaper columns the many barriers mothers and the family law system place between fathers and their children and won’t reprise the argument here. But many times I see references to fathers who “abandoned” their kids when, upon closer inspection, it is very unclear that such “abandonment” occurred. This is particularly common when dealing with African-American fathers.
I noticed this again recently when reading the autobiography of Dick Allen (pictured), probably the best hitter in the major leagues during much of my childhood. There are numerous media references to Dick Allen (aka Richie Allen) being raised by a single mother. For example, in Dick Allen, the Phillies, and Racism, William C. Kashatus writes, “Allen was the youngest of three boys raised by a single mother.”
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas reports that Dick Allen was the son of “Era Allen and her husband, a traveling truck driver who later divorced her. Era Allen raised her youngest son primarily on her own.”
Allen doesn’t focus on this issue in his autobiography, but in passing makes several assertions which contradict the paternal abandonment script written about his family life. According to Allen, his mother and father had a rocky, up and down relationship which finally ended when the couple divorced. That’s not exactly “abandonment.”
Allen’s mother and father divorced when Allen was 15, meaning that the father had been with the mother as they raised all of the other children and up until Allen, the youngest, was almost grown. That’s not exactly “abandonment,” either.
In the book, Allen wonders what became of his father, but says that he would never discuss it in his family because any mention of his father greatly upset his mother. In other words, Allen thought that if he had a relationship with his father, it would have been a betrayal of his mother. Allen was fiercely loyal to his mother, often with good reason. But the “having a relationship with your dad is a betrayal of mom” is a central part of Parental Alienation. Again, this isn’t exactly “abandonment.”
Dick Allen’s father was a traveling truck driver, so he was probably gone a lot, even during the time his relationship with Allen’s mother was good. Allen’s dad probably wasn’t a Father of the Year candidate, but there’s not much evidence that he was a bad guy, either. All we know for sure is that he didn’t get along with Allen’s mother. And that doesn’t mean he abandoned his kids or was a bad father.
[Late note: Richard Allen Jr., Dick Allen’s son, wrote to me about my piece above, and adds some new information. According to Richard Jr., Dick Allen, in contrast to the paternal abandonment script, “did have a relationship with his father, however it was separate from his mother.” In other words, he continued his relationship with his father after the divorce, but probably refrained from mentioning his relationship with his father to his mother.
Sources I’ve read say that Dick Allen’s father was a truck driver and Allen was the youngest child. According to Richard Jr., Dick Allen’s father was a sanitation worker, not a truck driver, and he was not quite the youngest in the family–he had one younger brother, in addition to several older siblings.]