Bestselling author Sam Keen (Fire in the Belly) was a leading light in the men’s movement that began in the 1970s. For decades, Keen, now 83, and his son Gifford, 54, a novelist, hardly spoke to each other. When they did, the simplest conversations became tempestuous arguments. Sam viewed Gifford as a child who refused to grow up; Gifford thought Sam was a rotten father who was never there for him.
About five years ago, father and son began exchanging letters, telling each other stories of pain and animosity and digging out the roots of their conflicts. The letters form the core of a new book, Prodigal Father, Wayward Son: A Roadmap to Reconciliation (Divine Arts, April). In their letters, Sam and Gifford Keen found they told the same stories over and over again, and that the stories possessed an outsized emotional power. In the retelling, they began to lose that power.
What prompted this book?
Sam Keen: It grew out of combat, an epic fight we had on the streets of Santa Fe about six years ago. I’d deserted the family when Gifford was young, and he was hurt and angry. He was always accusing me, and I was always defending myself. [After that fight] I thought I had lost my son, that he’d never speak to me again.
Gifford Keen: I realized I had forgiven him for all he had done, but that he had never forgiven me.
Sam: The pivotal moment came when I was in Iran and fell and suffered a subdural hematoma. When Gifford came to see me in the hospital, he said, “Dad, whatever I had against you, the statute of limitations has run out now.” I realized that nine of the most powerful words in our language are “I was wrong. I am sorry. Please forgive me.”
Sam, in what ways did this book develop your ideas from earlier books--To a Dancing God (Harper 1970), Apology for Wonder (Harper 1969), and, especially, Fire in the Belly (Bantam 1991)?
Sam: I think of all of my books as one book. So much of my theology is about soaking in the wonder of the world around us, and I did that when my son was born. In To a Dancing God, I encouraged people to go to their personal stories to experience the sacred, to create their own myth.
Gifford: The sacred character of the story is the key. I’ve heard many of the stories we share in this book told over and over at our family gatherings, often for a laugh, but when I re-told them [in the letters] I saw they weren’t just funny--they revealed the depth of my struggles with my father, the ways I had blamed him for what I viewed as his tyranny over me.
Sam: I did everything as a father that the author of Fire in the Belly said you shouldn’t do. I created a stereotypical son, one who would obey me no matter what. That book was an intellectual exercise, me offering a road map to being spiritual in the men’s movement. But I didn’t get down and dirty and personal. Prodigal Father, Wayward Son is a much more vulnerable book. I had to go to the place of my deepest shame: when I told my first wife during our divorce that I just couldn’t take our son.
What themes do you hope readers take away from the book?
Sam: The best gift is always when a father or mother is a kind of raconteur to their kids. I hope sons will go to where their relationship has gotten stuck and say “tell me a story, dad,” that fathers and sons will tell their stories to each other.
Gifford: A handful of stories became mythic and were the lens through which I saw my dad. It surprised me that fathers don’t have the same kinds of stories about their sons. And I discovered that by identifying these mythic stories and telling them as an adult, they seemed to lose their power.