A Tale of Two Stepfathers

A while back, I was over at my parents’ house for supper, and we watched an episode of Adam-12 that… stuck with me, I guess. I had intended to write about it then, but life happened. Still, with the recent news out of the NFL (not to mention the NCAA and Rotherham), the subject is as timely as ever.
Also, a brief note before I begin: The stories I’m about to relate happen to deal with men, but… let’s just say that the wicked stepmother trope also exists for a reason.

(I’ll put the episode synopsis behind a cut, just in case there are any Mark Oshiro-level spoilerphobes reading!)

Reed and Malloy resolve a hostage situation and arrest the hostage-taker, only to discover that he’s stolen a car. They trace the owner and go to let him know that the car’s been found. But the owner is a singularly unpleasant individual. His first instinct is to blame his wife for everything, even though the theft turns out to be his own fault–he’d left the keys in the ignition. Then Reed and Malloy learn that this family is also one of several in the neighborhood that’s been targeted by a string of petty thefts; the husband’s lost a new portable color TV he’d bought for his den. When they ask him for more details, he informs them that no one else in the family is allowed in that room. And when the wife notes that the theft must have occurred while she and her son were asleep and alone in the house, he reacts as if she’s criticized him for working nights. Later the wife explains that when the family moved into this house, the “den” had been earmarked for her son, so that he could have his own space and a place to have friends over, but because her new husband was jealous of her son, he’d commandeered the room for his own use.
Later still, after Reed and Malloy catch another thief whose MO doesn’t match the petty thefts, the son of this family goes missing. One of the boy’s friends isn’t terribly cooperative at first, but a short while later, he runs to the house to summon the officers–and only them–to see something. It turns out that the son has dug a “cave” in an embankment beside a newly-built overpass and furnished it with the stolen items, but part of the cave has collapsed, injuring him.
“It’s his dad’s fault,” the friend declares as Reed and Malloy start to dig. “All he wanted was a room of his own.”
The mother rushes to the site once one of the officers calls for backup and lets her know what’s happened, but the stepfather refuses to leave work, telling his wife not to bother him. An emergency team does get the boy out alive, but I suspect the stepfather wouldn’t have shed any tears if they hadn’t.

It’s tempting to moralize at this point about what a “real” man will or won’t do as a stepfather. But that runs the risk not only of engaging in the No True Scotsman fallacy, but also of dismissing the story as fiction. The thing about Adam-12 is that like Dragnet before it, the show’s scripts were based on real LAPD case files. Some abusive jerk really did commandeer his stepson’s room for a man cave and snap at his wife for calling him at work when the boy’s life was in danger. And you don’t have to look far to find instances of men perpetrating crimes against their stepchildren that are just as bad or even worse… far worse, in some cases.
Insofar as abusive stepfathers actually exist, they are real men.

But good men are not abusers. Good men don’t belittle their wives or view their stepchildren as a threat. Good men love their stepchildren like their own, whether they officially adopt them or not, and will move heaven and earth to help a stepchild in trouble.

Good men, in fact, are much more like Philipp Buchmeier, whose true story I fictionalized somewhat in Loyal Valley: Bystanders. In reality, Philipp was away from home the morning his stepsons Herman and Willie Lehmann were captured by Apache raiders, and by the time he returned, the Apaches seem to have had enough of a head start that going after them himself wasn’t practical. So as soon as he learned what had happened, he immediately sent word to Fort McKavett and asked for the cavalry’s help. His letter has not survived, to my knowledge, but Capt. Carroll’s orders have, and they conclude with the instruction to “endeavor to the utmost to intercept the Indians that stole the two children of Phillip Buckmeier [sic] of Loyal Valley on the 16th Inst.” That doesn’t provide much of a basis for deducing what Philipp himself said, but the impression I’ve gotten from what I’ve read, including Herman’s own memoirs, is that Philipp really did think of the boys as his own sons. And Scott Zesch argues that under the circumstances, sending for the cavalry was very much a long shot with minimal chance of success–so minimal, in fact, that most other victims’ families in the area never tried it. Yet Philipp did, and his choice enabled Willie to make good his escape and find a way home. Nor did Philipp give up on Herman, even when Herman returned after eight years and struggled to reintegrate into white society, sometimes deliberately acting out for the sake of scaring people.

Now, abusers like the stepfather on Adam-12 typically portray themselves as good men and may even believe that lie themselves. In Internet parlance, they’re often Nice Guys, men who think that because they don’t do x, y, or z, they’re not only entitled to whatever they want in the way of female attention but also can get away with seemingly less-bad behavior like coercion and emotional abuse. But as C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity, “No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good”–in fact, it’s impossible to succeed without God’s help. (And it’s worth noting here that Lewis was himself a stepfather later in life and did love his stepsons dearly, though he refused to let them change their name for fear of dishonoring their biological father, who was still living.) There may be a degree of goodness inherent in a person’s nature that makes it easier, or harder, to choose to pursue healthy relationships in the right ways on the basis of agape, and actively following Jesus makes a world of difference in that regard because the Holy Spirit helps us make virtue a habit. There’s grace, too, for the times when we mess up, as long as we repent. But in the end, each action is still the result of a choice. And what struck me about these two stories was how stark the contrast was between the ways each stepfather reacted to a threat to his stepson’s life.

One man chose his family. One man chose himself.

Which are you?

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