Why can’t Tommy come over to play?
When our eldest son had just turned five and his sister was almost four, we moved to a new home in a semi-rural area. There seemed to be no young children in the neighborhood, but right across the street from us lived two brothers of about ten and twelve. They lived in absolutely appalling squalor and had parents who ignored their basic needs. The oldest boy, Tommy, struck up a friendship with our children and played with them in our front yard where we could watch them. In spite of his home circumstances Tommy seemed like a nice boy and one of us was always around so we relaxed thinking all was well.
One day Bear went downstairs and found Tommy had sneaked our daughter into the house and into her bedroom, closed the door and was kissing her and removing her clothes. Bear marched Tommy out the front door and told him to never come to our home nor touch our kids again. Going to his parents would have been absolutely futile, the State Children’s Services already had a bad name, and we were reluctant to start a neighborhood feud. Our daughter and son were told Tommy could not come over anymore, and Bear talked privately to our daughter, asking why she didn’t stop Tommy from what he was doing and cry out for help. “Well,” she said, “you kiss mom all the time so I thought it was OK.” Yikes! Bear let her know that what Tommy had done was not OK and told her what she should do if the circumstances ever arose again.
A couple of days went by and our son came and asked why Tommy was not allowed to play anymore. As much as I could I filled him in on what Tommy had done and said we couldn’t trust him now. Our son went off for awhile, then came and asked if Tommy could come over again if he apologized to Bear. I sent him to his dad to find out. Not wanting to discourage good behavior on Tommy’s part, Bear said he would consider it. Our son talked to Tommy and he did come and apologize. Bear thanked him for his apology and told him he would think the matter over, but both he and I had absolutely no intention of letting Tommy be around. We hoped to let the matter drop there.
A few more days passed and our son approached me again. This time he said he had come up with a solution to the problem. He had a really bright idea alright: “Whenever Tommy comes over we’ll just lock Sissy in the closet until he goes home.” The sheer audacity of my son, the male, chauvinist pig in training, was overwhelming to me. What kind of a kid was I rearing here anyway? I kept my cool, stood there for a moment and finally asked if he really thought his sister should be locked up. He sighed and said, “I guess not,” and left.
That evening I told Bear about our son’s “solution.” We both had to laugh at his ingenuity. Then I put my mind to his obvious need for proper training. The next day I looked at our son and realized he was just five years old, barely out of infancy. He had needed friends to play with, and Tommy had filled some of that need. He had no concept of what constituted improper behavior on the part of a much older boy. He was not a beast, he was a lonely little boy who needed to learn more about the problems of the larger world. We began discussing some ideas with our children much earlier than we had thought we needed to, and began doing more as a family to try and find other children for ours to be around.
Later I gave serious consideration to my son’s idea of locking his sister in the closet. I wondered if that same thought hadn’t been a societal and cultural solution to the matter of protecting women in a barbaric society. You know, “The boys are coming from the Mountain Tribe, hide the women.” So the women were placed in protective custody away from the men. Perhaps the women finally rebelled at being stuck off alone in a room away from their accustomed quarters, so the family built a larger secure space for them. A Harem for the women. Then what had started out with good intentions became first a tradition and then a prison as the years passed.
I began to consider many cultural things we in the west find degrading to women, such as veiling and chadors. Perhaps wearing such coverings also started with good intentions. Think about living where sand gets blown about into eyes, noses and mouths. Even the hair gets filthy. Wear at least a head covering or robe that can be quickly pulled over the head and face in a sandstorm and you solve a real problem. As the years pass the wearing of head coverings of different kinds becomes another rigid rule.
What about the women who are forced to walk three steps behind their men? Is it possible that custom also started as a protection for women in nomadic societies? The men walked in front with spears and clubs to protect the important but physically weaker women and children. Soon what started out as a protective measure became a rule and then a law. Women MUST walk three steps behind their masters.
Over time did these and other customs cause men to degrade women in their own minds and consider them as evil chattel? It would be a short step for some men to blame women for their own problems, even if you leave Mother Eve out of the equation. What about our own thinking today when boys and men are treated disrespectfully and their very nature as men is questioned? We drug boys and deny they are different than girls. Do we have customs that serve no good purpose? Probably. And conversely, in our hubris have we destroyed societal norms that were a protection to us all? If you look at the moral squalor around us you’d have to say yes.
I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you more of Tommy. We watched as he and his brother became more and more untamed. The family finally moved some years after the happenings I’ve described. Then one day the news covered a story of two adult men who held a party where teenagers were supplied liberally with drugs and alcohol. Three of those strung out teens stole a car, drove on the wrong side of the highway out of town and hit a State Trooper head on. After the trooper’s death the two adults were charged with Involuntary Manslaughter and Contributing to the Delinquency of Minors. One of those men who held the party was Tommy. I watched his first court appearance on TV. The other man involved in the party was busy laughing, acting tough, and giving the finger to everyone. And Tommy? Well, I have never seen a more broken person than Tommy. His whole skinny little body was quaking, he was crying and groaning as he wrapped his arms protectively around himself, rocking back and forth. He never raised his eyes as the tears ran down his face. He looked as though he had stepped from a torture chamber in Dante’s Third Circle.
As I watched I saw the young him and the things I knew about his life. I felt so guilty and wondered what I might have done to help him. Maybe once in awhile I could have brought him over for cookies and milk at a clean kitchen table and that would have given him hope. Some small sign of caring might have been enough, but in reality I still don’t know what we could or should have done.
The broken man he became haunts me as much as the young boy he was.