“They don’t love him. They fear him. That’s the difference.” This line was delivered by Lorenzo, played by Robert De Niro, in the film A Bronx Tale as he tries to help his nine-year-old son understand the difference between a gangster, Sunny, who appears to be “loved” by the neighborhood citizens and his bus driver father who is “loved” by his regular riders. It’s an emotionally tough scene to watch as his son struggles to see the difference between the oppositional relationships. The boy clings to his father’s chest, arms and legs wrapped around his dad for protection and giving back that love the best way he could in that moment as they leave Sunny’s bar and head down the street to their home.
The scene hits me square in the face every time. So much of my life lessons came from fear, not love. My father was prone to demonstrations of rage, though he never hit. It was the fear of not having my dad’s love. The power of that relationship – whether it’s ingrained in our DNA or socially taught from books, movies and television shows – is tangible. And when that power is abused or neglected it can be destructive.
To be a man, to be masculine, to be strong and powerful the way I saw my dad, was so important to me. If I disappointed him, it crushed me. When I made him proud, even just throwing a baseball and hitting his glove dead center eliciting a thumbs up and “atta boy” from him, I felt on top of the world. Those moments were much fewer than the moments where I feared him or feared he would take his attention elsewhere – to work, to his cars, friends, his new family. I learned to adjust my behavior to avoid that fear – be the dutiful son, don’t make waves, don’t complain, be vociferously grateful for the few moments I got him to myself.
What I could never tell my dad all those decades ago was how much I needed his love, attention, and support. He never knew how lost I was without it. Only as an adult in my 40s was I able to convey to him what my childhood felt like, and his response was he never realized how much he wasn’t a part of it. We both lost out.
As a father now to my own teenage son, I see how much pride and joy I get from sharing time with my boy. The power of being a father is not just for the benefit of the child, it’s for the father as well! My sense of self is bolstered by expressing my love, teaching what I’ve learned about life and relationships, and knowing that he may be able to pass down those lessons to his children if he’s lucky enough to have them. He’s still a pain in the butt, and that’s good! He feels safe enough to challenge his boundaries without being reckless. I’m doing my job!
My eating disorder developed from multiple reasons, genetics being the key point. Society taught me, and both my parents reinforced, that thin is ideal and muscularity is the core of what makes me sexually valuable. But what really drove my behaviors home was my deep unmet need to be shown unconditional love the way Lorenzo showed his son rather than the fear of loss engendered by Sunny. I hope all fathers take a moment to figure out which model they’re demonstrating to their kids, and perhaps, pun intended, stay away from the Sunny side of the street.
By Andrew Walen, LCSW-C, LICSW, CEDS, Founder, CEO at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Andrew please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.