After school one day my son Joshua, then in the 5th grade, slid a thin hardcover book, Bruce Lancaster’s The American Revolution, from his burgundy backpack.
Joshua had bought it for a quarter at his school’s book sale. When he handed it to me I felt light-headed and confused because I’d seen this book before. As a 9-year-old, in 1973, in Massachusetts, Lancaster’s book captivated me. I thumbed to page 7 and there it was, just as I’d remembered, a drawing I’d spent many childhood hours trying to reproduce: young colonists dressed as Indians with war paint smeared on their faces, wielding knives and throwing broken crates of tea into Boston Harbor. Returning to the present, I managed to mutter, “What made you buy this book?”
“I don’t know,” Joshua replied. “I like the pictures.”
I told Joshua that when I was about his age this was my favorite book. I took it out of my school’s library many times, I said, and would spend hours gazing at the pictures. Joshua smiled but I could tell that he didn’t grasp the significance of his choosing The American Revolution from among the dozens of books his school was selling off. Why this book, the book of my childhood? What are the odds that my son would choose the very book that over 35 years ago gave me so many hours of joy and anguish?
Then there’s Bruce Lee. Many boys who sprouted through their adolescence in the late 1970s had a poster of the martial arts movie star taped to their bedroom walls. I did. However, I went a tad beyond that. I insisted that my hair be cut like Bruce Lee’s was in Enter the Dragon. I walked around in those little black Chinese slippers Lee wore and forged a pair of wooden nunchakus. Joshua discovered Bruce Lee on television and, again, replicated my childhood. I emphasize for doubters that I never mentioned Bruce Lee to him, being too embarrassed to admit that I used to walk around pretending to be Lee, quoting movie lines such as, “You have offended my family and you have offended the Shaolin Temple.” No, he discovered Lee on his own and, like me, wanted to become Lee, right down to the haircut; and being smarter than me, he constructed his nunchakus from rolled up cardboard, thereby avoiding nearly fracturing his skull.
Joshua’s attraction to both The American Revolution and Mr. Lee seems too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence. Is it genetic? The prospect fascinates and scares me.
My wife Ann’s contribution to Joshua, as she readily admits, seems muted. The lottery that is the melding and expression of the parental gene pool seems to have tipped way over toward my side. I’ve already reconciled that my son has inherited my physical traits. But must he also have my likes and dislikes, my social anxiety, my hair-trigger temper, my pessimism? Must he be me all over again?
Nausea sets in every time Ann, my outspoken 4'10" Bernadette Peters look-alike, with her Geico Gecko British
accent, says to me, “Right, well bloody hell. That’s you all over again,” when Joshua, now 14, says or does something that comes right out of the Fontaine genetic playbook. Then the sentiments arrive: innocence and guilt. Innocence because I had nothing to do with the constellation of genes I passed on; guilt because I know what Joshua is in for. Seeing my childhood repeated through my son’s childhood is like watching a sadistic version of the movie Groundhog Day. But I can’t leave the theatre.
Ann, for the most part, has learned to live with, though not entirely accept, the temperament of her husband and his clone. Out of earshot from Joshua, Ann will sometimes share her view about how my genes influence her precious boy (“You’ve ruined him”).
Perhaps ruined is a bit too strong. After all, it’s not just undesirable traits emanating from my genes. I’m reasonably intelligent, I’m kind-hearted, I’m athletic, I’m a clear thinker, I’m loyal, I’m trustworthy, I’m intrinsically motivated. Still, I tend to agree with my darling wife. The ledger, the pros and cons, lean toward the prospect that Joshua will be a social outcast, a recluse who, like me, clings to chronic pessimism to justify his inability to interact in a meaningful way with most people.
To assuage the vague yet gnawing sense of responsibility that plagues me, I’ve sought alternative explanations, trying to attribute our similarities to something else, anything else. Each of us is an only child, so maybe that’s what makes us so much the same. Unfortunately, this is a weak explanation because mountains of research have discredited the hypothesis that such children are inevitably spoiled, bossy, solitary, lonely, aggressive, maladjusted misfits. So even though Joshua and I embody some of these traits, social psychologists say it’s not because we have no siblings.
Of course, even if I can’t find convincing alternative explanations for our identical natures, it’s still possible that I’m inflating the role of my genes. After all, they are just little segments of DNA that tell a cell how to make a particular protein. They can’t be too influential over personality. Can they? The science suggests that if I am overreacting, it’s not by much. Genes do influence one’s personality. Thomas Bouchard, in a recent review of the literature published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, concluded that psychological traits are substantially influenced by genetic factors. Specifically, heritability estimates for traits such as neuroticism and social anxiety are in the order of .40 to .50. It’s a sizable chunk to be sure, but not the sole, or even dominant explanation for how we turn out. One way to think of it is that genes move us toward the edge of the cliff but they don’t push us off. Something interacts with them to help formulate the way the various DNA strands build our personality. Be it loving or unloving parents, Gilligan’s Island, a casual sniff of cocaine, a dedicated teacher, or what have you, some sort of experience—what science calls an exposure—interacts with our genes to nudge us in a certain direction, but by no means is it inevitable.
To illustrate, I come from a long line of alcoholics. My father, uncles, and paternal cousins have all been known to drink until they assault someone and then drink some more. I do not drink. Why? Because I fear that if I were to start, I’d end up, to quote Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, “in that drunk tank in Atlanta.” Chances are I have a strong genetic pull toward booze but I refuse, through sheer dint of will, to give it any purchase, any room to express itself. My conscious and ongoing refusal to let the heritability of alcoholism “out of the bottle” gives me hope that Joshua has a good chance of bypassing certain propensities that he might have inherited from me.
Taking after his old man, however, Joshua inherited catastrophic social anxiety. He crumbles during face-to-face encounters, staring at the floor, giving one-word answers, and seeking to disengage, to get away, preferably to the safety of his room. Any function we attend will find Joshua and me huddled together like refugees, talking to no one, fidgeting, stuffing our faces, and planning our escape.
Ann has given up on me, long abandoned the hope that I will ever transcend my anxiety and develop social skills commensurate with my position as an Associate Professor at a major medical school. “You’re an unsociable git,” Ann says, “You never look at people when you talk to them. You’d be a full professor by now if you learned to play the game. Why are you such a wanker?”
Joshua, in Ann’s eyes, is not a lost cause. Indeed, she believes her vigilant interventions are slowly transforming her son into a social dynamo. “I make him talk to people. I don’t let him hide in his room like your mother used to let you do. He’s not gonna be like you.”
Ann’s right, Joshua is becoming more social, but not entirely due to her efforts. It’s due to a variety of factors, not the least of which is the interactive technology strewn about his room. Joshua, via Xbox and MySpace, interacts with the local and global world in varied ways, and this, I’m convinced, is softening the pull of genetics and moving him toward a level of social functioning that’s far superior to mine.
In the anonymity of cyberspace he is freer to transcend the interpersonal
|"Joshua is moving toward surpassing me in every way. I am both jubilant and jealous."
retardation he inherited. When forced to reflect on this Joshua says, “I can talk to people. When you are afraid to talk to someone face-to-face, you might talk to them on the Internet and get more confidence.” Online he is Wagaa, a username derived from the squawk Bruce Lee emits when he snaps a neck. His MySpace profile says his interests are skateboarding, exercising, and spraying opposing armies with paintballs. He has 111 online friends and interacts freely and confidently, his fingers tapping out the evolving cryptic code of IM speak. On Xbox Live, he plays the interactive first-person games Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 with kids from down the street and with others from as far away as Germany. Rachel, a large-eyed, petite classmate, recently transitioned from being a cyber girlfriend to a legitimate “let’s go to a movie” girlfriend. (I didn’t have a girlfriend, legitimate or otherwise, until I was 20 and that was only because she was desperate enough to pursue me.) To distinguish us further, when I pick Joshua up after school he is often sitting on the cement steps surrounded by girls. When asked about his newfound social skills, Joshua says, “It [the Internet] makes you come out. It makes me more outgoing, I guess.”
But it’s more than just his use of
cyberspace. Joshua makes no bones about it; he doesn’t want to be like me and will do whatever it takes to avoid carrying the torch of my social ineptitude. “You don’t talk to anyone,” Joshua says to me. “You just stare at them. You gotta’ stop it.”
I try to laugh it off, but I know he’s right. Throughout school and beyond people viewed me as stuck up, as some kind of self-absorbed, arrogant bastard who thought he was superior to everyone. I felt just the opposite. I was so pathologically shy that I withdrew and avoided any, yes any, social situation; not because I felt superior but because I felt so inferior. I became a recluse, head down, just plodding along obsessively focused on grades, the only thing I believed I could control.
Like all parents, I want Joshua to become better than me—intellectually, socially, emotionally. I’ve come to realize that, despite possessing the most undesirable of my genes, he can accomplish this. Thanks to cyber-technology and his own efforts to force himself to confront social situations, he’s moving toward suppressing the pull of my genes and surpassing me in every way. I cheer his reluctance to replicate my adolescence. If truth be told, I’m jubilant and jealous.
You’d think that Joshua’s choice to work toward bypassing the social incompetence that hangs off my DNA would lead to a vibrant father-son relationship. You’d be wrong. As I trespass into his inner sanctum, a good-sized room with hardwood floors littered with granola bar wrappers and crushed soda cans, I receive a murderous look as he simultaneously minimizes the MySpace screen on his computer.
I approach and he sighs. He knows what’s coming.
“Joshua, did you do your geography homework?”
“I’m not going to do it. He lets us do it in class.”
“Why don’t you just do it and get it out of the way.”
“I can’t. I lost my textbook.”
“You lost your textbook! How did you do that?”
“I don’t know. I just lost it.”
“Why do I pay for school when you don’t care?”
“Why are you so nasty? All you care about is school.”
“You can’t even take care of your stuff.”
“Leave me alone. I don’t want to talk to you.”
I leave, he slams the door. I walk away rubbing my temples. Here’s the difference, I think, what most distinguishes us. His lackadaisical attitude toward schoolwork is the antithesis of who I was. For me good grades were the only reflection of my value. I’d spend hours learning useless things so that when one of the geriatric black-robed nuns asked a question, my hand went up reflexively.
Joshua’s attitude toward school haunts me. As he is fond of saying, “I don’t want A’s. As long as I pass, that’s okay.” This amps up my blood pressure. Upon reflection, however, I realize he’ll probably be better off if his value as a human being is not contingent upon his school performance. He’ll go to his prom, I didn’t. He’ll have a social life, I didn’t. He’ll enjoy his high school years, I didn’t. He’ll make lifelong friends, I didn’t.
But, that said, why can’t he put in a little more effort to please his old man?
After about 20 minutes, Joshua runs down the stairs to get something to eat. He sticks his head into the den where I am watching a man named Bear Grylls who, trying to survive without water in a desert, is about to drink the fluid trapped inside the digestive tract of a camel carcass.
“What you watchin’?”
“Man Versus Wild,” I reply.
“Oh. You know I love you, but I’m not you. All right?”
I smile and say nothing but think: yes and no.
Kevin Fontaine is an associate professor in the Division of Rheumatology at Hopkins.