Maybe I'm Just like my Father

“Maybe I’m just like my father,” Prince sang the year I turned thirteen. “Too demanding,” “too bold.” At stoplights, in malls, on rides at the county fair, “When Doves Cry” rang out, voicing a consuming fear of my generation, one of the mysteries of every generation. To what extent do we choose our own path, and to what extent are our lives determined by how our parents’ impulses, foibles, and talents remix and repeat in us?

Prince was raised a Seventh Day Adventist (which a friend calls “Jehovah’s Witness light”). Later he became a Jehovah’s Witness. “I don’t really see it as a conversion,” he once said. “More, you know, it’s a realization.” Most of what I know about the faith flows from conversations with friends raised in the church, and from reading books like Amber Scorah’s (excellent) Leaving the Witness, but I feel a kinship with anyone indoctrinated in that kind of fundamentalism as a child.

I’ve mentioned that I grew up with a fear of generational curses. It’s a concept I associate with evangelical Christianity, but one that reverberates through many religions. For evangelicals, the idea flows from verses like Exodus 34:7, in which the Lord characterizes himself as “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,” and so forth, but also one bent on “visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” Ezekiel 18:2 contemplates the proverb “the parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”

It’s been interesting in recent years to see anti-science evangelicals grapple with the concept of epigenetics. Some have seized upon intergenerational epigenetic changes as the mechanism by which generational curses are passed down; others claim that because the curses are spiritual, they aren’t contained in matter. I’m sure the theories are multitudinous but I’ve cut myself off from researching them.

I was fascinated to learn from Dan Piepenbring’s recent essay, “The Book of Prince,” that Prince Rogers Nelson himself wrestled with the idea of “the sins of the father” and “cellular memory” before he died.

“I wanted to ask: Do you believe in cellular memory?” he said. He meant the idea that our bodies can store memories, and that experience can therefore be hereditary. “I was thinking about it because of reading the Bible,” he explained. “The sins of the father. How is that possible without cellular memory?” The concept resonated in his own life, too. “My father had two families,” he said. “I was his second, and he wanted to do better with me than with his first son. So he was very orderly, but my mother didn’t like that. She liked spontaneity and excitement.”

The conflict of his parents lived within him. In their discord, he heard a strange harmony that inspired him to create. “One of my life’s dilemmas has been looking at this,” he told me.

I’m excited for the book, The Beautiful Ones, which is out next month.

Until next time,