The Catholic Thing
The Lost Boy Print E-mail
By Austin Ruse   
Friday, 07 February 2014

I weep like a baby at lost boys on film. I do not know if “lost boys” is an ancient literary theme. There is Jesus in the Temple, but he is not really lost. William Blake has a beautiful poem about a little boy lost. There’s Peter Pan, of course.

But modern cinema seems to deal with this question quite a bit. Is it because lost boys have grown exponentially since mid-century?

Steven Spielberg’s AI: Artificial Intelligence shows us the sentient robot-boy David, the first of its kind who can show real love for his owners. He is placed with a family whose real son is held in a state of suspended animation until a cure is found for his deadly disease. A cure is found, and he returns home to find he has a robot rival.

The real boy orchestrates incidents that make his parents fear David and the clinic decides to destroy him. Instead the mother drops him in a frightening forest with his talking teddy bear. David begs his mother not to leave him.

David and Teddy venture through a vast and dangerous dystopia where robots are tortured and killed. They search for the Blue Fairy, from Pinocchio, who can turn him into a real boy that his mother might welcome home.

That is the gaping hole “lost boys” seek to fill. Through no fault of their own, they are thrown into the world and all they want is home, mother but mostly father.

Slingblade is the story of mentally deficient Karl, who as a boy was forced to dispose of his newborn brother, the survivor of a home abortion. Karl puts his brother in a shoebox and buries him alive.

At 12, he kills his mother and her boyfriend and is institutionalized. Upon his release he comes to meet 12-year-old Frank, whose father committed suicide and who lives with his mother and a string of abusive boyfriends.

Though Karl himself was a lost boy, it is the longing of young Frank that breaks your heart. He says, “Sometimes I wish I was still little and he was still here. Mama's real good, but I wish I had both of them. We went to Memphis in the car once. It was raining so hard we couldn’t see the road but I wasn’t scared because as long as Daddy was driving nothing could happen to us.”

The lost boy movie par excellence is another Spielberg movie Empire of the Sun, which Spielberg calls his most profound work on the “loss of innocence.” The son of rich British expats living in 1937 Shanghai, Jamie loses his mother in a panicked crowd when the Japanese invade. He spends the next eight years in an internment camp located near a Japanese landing strip.

        Lost boy: A young Christian Bale as Jamie in Empire of the Sun

Toward the end of the war Jamie watches a kamikaze ceremony: three young pilots going to their certain death. Jamie salutes them and sings the haunting Welsh lullaby Suo Gân. (Listen to this on YouTube. You won’t regret it.)

Sleep child on my bosom
Cozy and warm is this;
Mother’s arms are tight around you,
Mother's love is under my breast;
Nothing may affect your napping,
No man will cross you;
Sleep quietly, dear child,
Sleep sweetly on your mother’s breast.

The end of the war comes and Jamie wanders half starved, but is finally rescued and placed in a hopeless orphanage. One day he hears, “Jamie?” His weary eyes see his mother and she holds him to her breast – and for the first time we see Jamie close his eyes.

I have a personal reason for tearing up at scenes like this because the lost boys are always my little brother. Our father died when he was only eight, ten years my junior.

You would rightly think an older brother would make things as right as he could for his little brother. Not me. Just down the road at school, I might have been a million miles gone, caught up in my own selfish world, far removed from the pain of my little brother.

He was amazing, though. Doug fought for the fathers of other boys to become his own. And they did. They taught him to hunt and fish and camp. I see pictures of him, brave Doug, alone but surrounded by boys, but especially their dads. He is still close to many of them, closer to them than to me.

And so when I have seen those film images, I think of Doug. And how I left him when he needed me and never went back. How he had to go in search of men to replace not just a father, but an older brother. And I blush with shame.

One day my wife said, “Have you ever thought that maybe you’re the lost boy?” That knocked me sideways.

I was only eighteen when my father died. His death set me adrift in the world, and the world was foreign to me. The only tutor I allowed was the Zeitgeist, which was especially unfriendly in those days. I didn’t even decide to grow up until 36. I lived a remarkably unserious life with education, jobs, and relationships doused in years of long nights carousing with friends thinking we were really something.

By the grace of God, I pulled out of the ridiculous trajectory from which I am left with a headful of regret and handful of funny stories. But I was lucky.

As a nation, we are awash in lost boys who may not be so lucky. The National Survey of Family Growth shows 27 percent of American children live apart from their fathers; that’s 10 million lost boys. So who is protecting them as you read this?

The next time I see a lost boy on film, sure I’ll weep for my brother and even for me. But all of us should weep for the boys who, even now, are lost and alone and looking for home.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute (C-FAM), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-FAM.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (22)Add Comment
written by grump, February 07, 2014
Nice piece, Austin. For me the "lost boy" movie that always gets me is The Black Stallion in which young Alec loses his dad during a storm at sea and is shipwrecked with a wild Arabian horse. The two quickly bond in some of the most memorable and poignant scenes in all of cinema. Besides the wonderful photography the music is captivating.

There are many other films about surrogate fathers, mothers and siblings who helped fill the gap of a lost family member. In literature, I can think of young Pip helping the convict Magwitch and years later the deathbed scene in the 1946 film version which always makes me cry. Pip visits the dying Magwitch and tells him of Estella's fate, and that he, Pip, is in love with her; Magwitch passes away, a contented man, but not before he and Pip express their love for each other.

written by Mack Hall, February 07, 2014
Amen. Thank you. Well said.

And how many boys now have a father who will teach them hunting, fishing, how to change a tire, how to sharpen a pocket knife, to open a door for a woman of any age, to remove the stupid ball cap when addressing his mother or any other woman of any age, to remove the stupid ball cap in anyone's house or in an office or restaurant, to be protective, to respect himself by respecting others?

Where in contemporary culture (cough) or even in church are boys taught virtue?

But it's probably George Bush's fault. Or those darned teachers. Cops now, too. Always someone else's fault.
written by Steve Golay, February 07, 2014
Maybe the Homophiles who are visiting your articles over at Crisis can pick up a bit of knowing. They will not locate their lost fathers in each other, no matter how much they pile on in their tweed jackets and pipes. (Referencing a telling photo I saw on Spiritual Friendship.)

Doing so, they will always remain lost boys.
written by Mr. Levy, February 07, 2014
Powerful, Mr. Ruse. Thank you.
written by Seanachie, February 07, 2014
Outstanding article, Austin...points well and poignantly made. The essential developmental roles of both mothers and fathers in the lives of their children cannot be over stated. I suspect that Jimmy Stewart's Christmas classic 40's movie, It's A Wonderful Life, brings a tear to your eye as well...perhaps too The Five Sullivans.
written by Layman Tom, February 07, 2014
Damn it Austin! I almost made it all the way through this week of Mondays without feeling particularly bad and then your piece took me out like a gut punch.

I miss my boys horribly when they are not with me. I fought hard to get equal access as well as equal say in their raising, but 50% leaves me missing out on half of these remaining golden years in their lives.

We talk often on here about the relative merits of this or that. About whether this politician or that bishop understands the moral ramifications of their actions. We talk about what the Church recognizes as upright and also sinful behavior and intentions. We, most of us anyhow, know that there is true evil at work in the world and can point to it easily. But I want to say that divorce is one of the greatest evils. I know because I looked it in the eye. It beat me down. Only through faith in God did I ever get any relief. But that faith was severely tested. I was lucky enough to receive God's grace and, although a jackass of the highest order, to recognize it and reach out for the lifeline. I hurt for the men out there whose faith has been damaged or worse didn't have any to begin with. Far worse an evil however, is the toll divorce takes on innocent children. I cannot dwell on that because it's too horrible. It's too close. I saw a part of them die in my own living room. It's not fair that there are lost boys at all. But less so that there are many who are lost because of a conscious decision that that's ok compared to the personal desires of one or both parents.

I do my best. I try hard to be a good example and to teach them all the things you talked about and more. I stay involved in their lives and take any opportunity for extra time with them as a gift. But the fact remains that they are partially lost. They will ever be damaged because their mother and I dealt them a faulty hand. It makes me sad every day that I could not save my marriage, not because I miss my sacramental life, or that I miss my lovely ex bride, or that I’m lonesome or can’t keep house as well. I’m sad because it was my job to “drive the car” and I failed them.

I take my initial sentence back. Instead I want to thank you Austin. I have my boys this weekend, so now I will attack the weekend with renewed fervor. I’m going home in an hour or so and can’t wait to hug them and spend time with them. For very personal reasons then, I think this is pne of the most powerful pieces I've read here.

written by Austin Ruse, February 07, 2014
Tom, wow. Just wow.
written by Aramis, February 07, 2014
May God bless you Tom. You will be in my prayers at Mass this Sunday. None of us is without sin and we all have a cross to bear. Yours sounds more robust than most people I know, but it sounds like you are competing well. Someday your boys will appreciate the burdens you carried for their sake.
written by Avery Tödesuhl, February 07, 2014
My favorite lost boys film is "Lord of the Flies."
written by Beth, February 07, 2014
Layman Tom, my mass this weekend is for you and your boys.
May God deeply bless you all.
written by Dave, February 07, 2014
Austin, this is quite simply the most beautiful thing I've seen of yours in print, and I thank you for it.
written by Paula, February 07, 2014
BLACK SWAN GREEN by David Mitchell which mentions another great from the past, "Le Grand Meaulnes”
written by Maria Tierney Koehn, February 08, 2014
Hello Mr Ruse and Readers, Wow (crying) just Beautiful. Sad and dear and beautiful!

I find the Blue Fairy, from Pinocchio is like a symbol of Our Blessed Mother to help so many lost boys (now a days lost girls too) to live a chaste life to hear the harps sing as it were.

Listening to a mother like that, leads you to her son who knows the Father. To go to Jesus and follow Him, to allow Him to be your teacher, your Brother one will see the Father. The beautiful story of your brother and you is what each of us have to journey through. We need to find our Brother and by having Him The Heavenly adopts us :).

I had a wonderful father myself and he was an artist and I have been thinking much of him and how events through life was an example of the heavenly Father's love. That is a need to fill for many of those souls that only God knows the heart of.

There is a line in scripture: The Father draws all mankind to Himself. How true.

Draw :)

When I was four or five and we were in the cabin Up North (in Michigan). Dad had scrap square pieces of emerald green paper for us to draw on. This day he was doing the drawing. We sat on a dinning chair one at time and he sketched a picture of our faces. I think I may have it somewhere if it hasn't been destroyed in the move. I hope my brothers have theirs. He really captured us :) . God does that far better :)

May have been the same trip or the year before but we had gone Up North in Michigan one summer when I was 4; Dad got plaster mix and mixed it with water and poured some on the sand not so far from the lake. To a 4 year old that was pretty cool and my brothers (ages 2, 3, and 5) and I put our hands and or feet in it. I just remember how neat it was of him to think to do that and how Dad was special and he had to be pretty brave to wear his orange, black, grey and white swimming shorts and matching button up shirt with seals all over it :) . After his surgeries left large scars across his heart and one going to his neck; you wouldn't think about them to much until you saw them when he was getting ready for Sunday Mass and on our summer vacation. That warned life has some pain in it; yet it also is like a badge of courage. We had a metal blue thermos and a pinkish metal cooler that Mom and Dad carted on all our trips Up North. Mom loved to walk the shore line with us. Not to many people around. Skipping stones were a given activity. We would be scattered along the shore line and it felt we could walk the shore forever together, but my Mother would eventually say it was time to turn back. Usually right after we got to a fresh water stream that flowed to the lake. I think that was at the National Park right off Lake Huron. The little creek would numb your sore bare feet. It was so cold and would sting a little but refreshing! Mom and Dad held hands and the world just seemed right. Michigan summers sure did seem to have a pureness to them. We could see, smell and sometimes hear the lake from the little cabin my parents rented from their friends. Sleep was restful until the planes started flying then Mom would want to go home early. The airbase was near by.

The memories are such a gift.

I hope The Lord leaves some good memories of His love for all our children.

Again that was a beautiful piece of art :) your article was. It took me an hour to stop crying and tearing up :).

God bless, Maria

PS The song was beautiful!

Hi Tom, I think you have scares on your heart, like they served my Dad. God bless! Your anguished to be close to your children speaks loud of The Heavenly Father to be close to us. Take care and know how near He is :), Maria

written by Maria Tierney Koehn, February 08, 2014
Sorry scars not scares.
written by debby, February 08, 2014
dear austin and tom,
we are all lost children.
not to diminish your personal pain - but even there, we all have it. whether it is somewhat self-inflicted or imposed on us, it is all the wounds of sin, separation from Love which necessitates separation from each other.
our Hope is in the Good Shepherd. His "favorite" thing to do is to go and seek out the lost.
the lost sheep.
the lost boys.
the lost girls.
each single one.
so, in our effort to co-redeem, let us love each person near us with all we have to offer, in the midst of our woundedness, our smallness, our seemingly insignificant deeds. let us put ALL our HOPE in LOVE Who knows all - and trust in His power to redeem, to save the lost years that the locust have eaten.
add your two pennies to the offering - give all you have.
He will do all the rest. we have an enormous guaranteed return. we cannot change the past, but we can live and love now.
austin, if your brother read this, i cannot help but hope he would know your desire. who knows, maybe someone knows him and has shown him this piece.
it was awesome.
i love to know the real person, the person not afraid to stand in truth. we need humility and honesty in sharing God's love for us. it is the stuff seeds grow in.
thank you.
i love you guys.
written by Austin Ruse, February 08, 2014
Maria, there's a part of AI where David and Teddy are sunk in a car off Coney Island. They come to rest under water and in front of them, also underwater, is the Blue Fairy, which they view in the flashing lights of the car for a thousand years. David is happy, truly happy sitting there and gazing upon this statue. Until I read a synopsis of the movie in perpetration for this column, All these years I thought it was the Blessed Mother. I tried to get that on the column but it was too much for 1,000 words.
written by Chris in Maryland, February 09, 2014
For the sake of our wives and daughters, we need to fight and win the war against boys and men, being waged by the evil one.

Christina Hoff Sommers, one-time feminist, has documented this war in her book "The War Against Boys" which she wrote when she experienced how the "education machine" fought against her own sons.

Here's another proof of the war against boys and men - that the progressive propaganda machine claims that there is a war on women.

All I can say, as a father of 3 girls and one boy, is this - "To Arms!"
written by Layman Tom, February 11, 2014
I wanted to drop a note to all of you. First, Austin, I apologize. I did not intend to hijack your post. Also sorry for cursing at you initially. I just pounded out my thoughts quickly Friday afternoon because your piece had a significant effect on me. I did not expect those thoughts to become a focal point.

Aramis, Beth, Maria, Debby, et. al. I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your prayers are much appreciated and I am humbled that you would do that for me. Every day God shows me mercy and provides grace. Thank you for becoming his instruments in providing for me. I have and will continue to offer prayers of thanksgiving for you. TCT is truly a family.

God Bless,

written by Maria Tierney Koehn, February 12, 2014
Hi Mr. Ruse, Thank you and your article was perfect! Thousand years looking at the Blessed Mother would be delightful since I have been to confession a blue fairy not so much :)

I just know that what the world is missing is a fathers presence. So glad there are good ones out there, but you hit the point of the wonderfulness and importance of a father.

When I was 14, my dad once said you are lucky if you find one good friend in your life time. I had come home from a sleepover before the sun had even gone down and found my Dad on the front steps and I cried so hard. My Dad just held me there on the steps. I sobbed. I didn't want to do it in front of people feeling the touch of unkindness ripped across my heart sadden me so. He was kind and held me as I cried and said what I thought was the strangest thing to say, "Your lucky to find one good friend in your lifetime." If we are going to say we are Christians than it is as my father said you are lucky, but the word blessed is more accurate, blessed to have one good friend name Jesus. That hole in oneself will never be filled without God. A dad will help you figure it out because God is working through them. It may take years (personal experience) I remember taking my pillow and walking back to my friend's house and thinking Dad is so wonderful, does he have one good friend? Many people liked my father, but one good friend? I wasn't thinking of the jealous girl that was unkind to me. I felt sorry she couldn't share our mutual friend well and had thought her life must be pretty lonely before I was upset, but the unkind words had caught me off guard, but again I wasn't thinking of her while I was walking, I was thinking of my Dad. He was generous to us and reflective and prayed, knew he loved God by the words he said and how he lived and he was ever so loving and devoted to Mom. Not one good friend? In that moment of pain and him taking it away with just hearing me cry and holding me. I could hear him. His words were so few, but they stayed and God made them grow. I could see the Heavenly Father through him. I should of done so much better. Thank God for Mercy.

I am going to give this story to God's providence. So I will share it. My son came over to me and snuggled on my lap Saturday and said, Mom I love you. He said it several times pausing in between then he paused one more time and said, "When I have a son I'm going to fake my own death so he can be batman." Which got the whole room started on him. I told him, his son will need him for his dad and if batman knew his dad, think of all the good they could of done together. A different good maybe. I didn't finish and tell him that God is walking through all our moments and He has that want that my son has in his 8 year old heart of wanting his son to protect others, fight evil and do good. I will tell him. :*) I want the same :*)

I found out I have two tumors in my breast last week he doesn't know. I will find out if they are cancerous or not soon. I hope you don't mind me talking here like this. I guess you hit a string. I would truly like for everyone to know God's great love for them. I am not afraid either way and if my dreams and thoughts while working in the kitchen mean anything I just might be called Home soon. Getting ready for His Wedding Feast either way. Our One Good Friend! Leaving things to His Providence :)

Peace of Jesus Christ, Maria

Hi Tom, I just saw what you wrote. Your letter before was beautiful. No worries. Thank you for your prayers! God's best, Maria
written by Layman Tom, February 12, 2014

You did it again. You have enriched my spirit. Thank you for the inspiring example of faith. While you peacefully offer it up to his will, I will pray very hard for the lumps to be benign so you can live a long happy life and continue to set the example for others, particularly your little boy.

Your friend,

written by Maria Tierney Koehn, February 12, 2014
Thank you so much Tom!

Your Friend in Christ :) , Maria
written by Sherry, February 24, 2014
Austin, I could not respond to your column until now. When I saw the picture of Jamie, my stomach clutched up - he reminds me of my two youngest brothers who were nine and eleven when our Dad committed suicide. Dad was a humble, religious, intelligent, good man - but he lost his Mther at three, and he suffered from manic- depression..

As the oldest of six, I had just married and was living in N.Y. A sister a year younger was also married and living up north. But the four youngest were still young and at home. And, our Mom had a really difficult time dealing with it all. I did not recognize or appreciate their needs at the time and that has been difficult for me.

Unlike your brother, my brothers did not seek out and find father-like substitutes. As a result, there have been years of pain and our family is just now starting to heal. My two youngest sisters have not had quite the pain of my brothers but it has been very hard for them. But, through the grace of God, my brothers and sisters are healing.

However, I want to tell you that you would not be the person you are - the person you have become - the person who has contributed so very much - had you not had the crosses that lead to the resurrection. It has been said that it is by our wounds that we able to help others.

You and Doug will be in my heart and in my prayers. And, if you say a Hail Mary for my family, I will be eternally grateful.

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