Feature Archive

Sins of the Father

Is abuse hereditary?

WebMD Feature

Sept. 11, 2000 -- If you struck up a conversation with Harold Atkins in the deli of the suburban San Francisco supermarket where he works, he might show you pictures of his new baby boy, or his two other young sons, ages 5 and 7. He might tell you how his grandmother taught him to cook and encouraged him to enroll in culinary arts classes when he was a teenager.

You'd never guess that this polite 24-year-old was only 15 months out of San Quentin Prison after serving nearly five years for attempted murder. He shot a man during a fight that followed a bout of heavy drinking. His violent past might make more sense once you learned of his hard-drinking father, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison when Atkins was only 1 year old.

Although he didn't grow up with his father and was raised instead by his grandmother, Atkins fears that he inherited his father's penchant for violence and that he may pass on this violent tendency to his sons. His older boy has flashes of temper that remind Atkins of himself as a youth, and also of his father.

"He had a bad temper, and I had a bad temper," Atkins says. "We used violence, we lashed out at things. I was just like him." Today, father and son write occasional letters to each other, but Atkins can't visit his dad in prison while he is on parole.

While locked up, Atkins got sober, gained control of his volatile temper, and enrolled in college classes with the goal of becoming a counselor for young men like himself. But he knows he is only one drink, one outburst of temper away from landing in jail again. Did Atkins inherit his dad's quick temper, violent impulses, and alcoholism? Or are their similarities the result of both growing up in poor, fragmented families in rough neighborhoods, where violence and drinking were commonplace? And, even more worrisome, are his young boys destined to grow up "just like" their father?