Critical Father Theory
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, my stepfather worked as an auto mechanic in Upstate New York, at a ‘youth camp’ nestled in a pine forest. The bucolic sobriquet was a euphemism; this ‘camp’ was a medium-security pre-prison of sorts for boys 14-17, mostly from New York City, sent up following precocious encounters with the law. These youthful offenders were not the worst of the worst. Boys implicated in rape, murder or similarly terrifying offenses were assigned elsewhere, to compounds with barbed wire and armed guards.
As it happened, campers liked to hang around the garage, and over the years, some who showed diligence and aptitude with tools were taken under my stepfather’s wing. One was a teenager known to us by his street name, Diamond — a slight, scarred young Puerto Rican from the South Bronx. He’d landed upstate via his work ethic in a gang whose directive was simple: entering members had to have stolen and handed over at least $4,000 of goods (the equivalent today of more than $20,000). No slacker, Diamond had aced this assignment by the age of 14.
One night, my stepfather signed Diamond out of institutional custody and brought him to our house for dinner. At the end of the meal, my mother surprised him with a cake she’d made, festooned with candles for Diamond’s 15th birthday. Upon seeing it, to the amazement of my siblings and me, this tough son of some of New York’s meanest streets broke out sobbing like an inconsolable toddler. As it turned out, nobody had ever made him a birthday cake before.