In working on my latest book, The Ghost of My Father (reviews, free chapter) I’ve read many books about fathers, both good and bad. There is a long history of bad ones and it puts most of our modern complains about parents into sharp relief. My book is strictly about my own experience with a distant father, and the hard work of sorting out the consequences now as an adult. But for all of my complaints about my father this list expresses the wide spectrum of how bad some fathers have been.
- Emperor Constantine. Reigned over the Roman empire around 300 A.D. He led the way for the endorsement of Christianity, as a supporter of the Edict of Milan. Where he got into trouble, as many Roman emperors did, was how he handled his family. He had his son, and likely heir, Crispus murdered. And of course, he also had Crispus’ mother Fausta murdered just two years later. The history of Rome and many empires is filled with fratricide, filicide (killing your child), patricide and more.
- Peter The Great. Curiously similar to Constatine, Peter had his son Alexei executed. To be fair Alexei grew up with an allegance to his mother, who despised Peter. Alexei put himself into exile, which generally pissed Peter off and he returned only with assurances that he wouldn’t be tortured or killed. Those assurances were ignored and Alexei was tortured to death.
- Bible grab bag: Lot, Jephthah, Noah. There is plenty of bad fathering described in the bible (including perhaps by God himself), and although I believe the bible is best understood as fiction the importance of the book earns these fathers an entry. Between Lot’s incest with his daughters (and allowance of their raping), Jephthah killing his daughter, Caleb trading his daughter to whomever could conquer a city (it turned out to be Caleb’s brother), Noah cursing his grandson Canaan to a lifetime of slavery for his father seeing Noah naked, and on it goes.
- Ivan the Terrible. He makes Constantine and Peter look meak, as rather than have officials take care of the deed, he committed filicide by hand, brutally striking his son’s head with a staff. The reason for this fight? Ivan physically attacked his daughter-in-law for wearing immodest clothing, and Ivan’s son tried to protect her. This scene is captured in a famous painting.
- Marvin Gay Sr. Marvin Gay Jr. always had a difficult relationship with his father, and he was thrown out of the house on several occasions. Alberta Gay, Marvin Jr’s mother, said, “My husband never wanted Marvin, and he never liked him. He used to say that he didn’t think he was really his child. I told him that was nonsense. He knew Marvin was his. But for some reason he didn’t love Marvin and, what worse, he didn’t want me to love Marvin either. Marvin wasn’t very old before he understood that.” As he rose in fame and wealth Marvin Jr. added an ‘e’ to his last name to distance himself from his father. They were estranged for many years, but eventually Gaye tried to reconcile with his father, presenting gifts. In one last argument things got out of hand and Marvin Sr. shot Marvin Jr. twice, killing him.
These are extreme cases and it’s a relief in some ways to realize that as bad as your parents might have been, they weren’t anywhere near as bad as these ones were to their children, as you’re still alive to read this (and I’m still alive to write it).
I started with other people’s lists but did my own research to confirm/deny facts and pick the 5 worst examples.