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A Good Poem About Whether A Parent Deserves Blame

We’ve been talking about parents and how they affect the mental health of their children.

I really like this thoughtful this poem by Tony Hoagland, in which:

  • a man enters therapy, and
  • he comes to view his father as the source of his psychological problems.
  • He calls his father and rails at him for all the supposed damage
  • the older man’s inadequate parenting did.
  • The son then realizes that he was too harsh.
  • After all, his father is just a well-meaning, elderly man.
  • His father even paid for his son’s therapy!

I especially love Hoagland’s realization that…

  • there were “two fathers.”
  • One is the real-life older man who is trying his best, while
  • the other is a construct of the son’s imagination
  • created by the son to heap blame on.

Phone Call

By Tony Hoagland

Maybe I overdid it

When I called my father an enemy of humanity.

That might have been a little strongly put,

a slight overexaggeration,

an immoderate description of the person

who, at that moment, two thousand miles away,

holding the telephone receiver six inches from his ear,

must have regretted paying for my therapy.

What I meant was that my father

Was an enemy of my humanity

And what I meant behind that

Was that my father was split

Into two people, one of them

Living deep inside of me

Like a bad king or an incurable disease –

Blighting my crops,

striking down my herds,

poisoning my wells – the other

standing in another time zone,

in a kitchen in Wyoming,

with bad knees and white hair sprouting from his ears.

I don’t want to scream forever,

I don’t want to live without proportion

Like some kind of infection from the past,

So I have to remember the second father,

The one whose TV dinner is getting cold

While he holds the phone in his left hand

And stares blankly out the window

Where just now the sun is going down

And the last fingertips of sunlight

Are withdrawing from the hills

They once touched like a child.

My interpretation: During the phone call, the son realizes that he is ranting at the “wrong” father. He has created an “enemy of his humanity,” living inside his head, in the form of his father. This “enemy” is not the son’s real father, but is instead a scapegoat explanation for the son’s issues.

What is your reaction?

A Good Poem About Whether A Parent Deserves Blame

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS

Leigh Pretnar Cousins, MS is an educator, counselor, writer and speaker. She's been a tutor, test prep coach and home school teacher for over thirty years. Click HERE to visit Leigh's website and to subscribe to her newsletter, "Learning Something New."

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APA Reference
Cousins, L. (2010). A Good Poem About Whether A Parent Deserves Blame. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 20 May 2010
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