For Mother’s Day: Ma Barker and the Ideal Ma

Herbert Hoover was largely responsible for spreading the idea that Ma Barker was a ruthless and intelligent planner of robberies and murders. The truth might be a bit different, but even if she were not a leader of a gang composed of her sons, she seems to have been an accomplice in their crimes. Her complicity has made her the subject of articles, books, film, and even an opera. Walking one’s children down the path to imprisonment or death in gun battles is hardly the ideal image of a mother’s role. Ma Barker is the antithesis of the ideal “Mother.”

The problem we all face is that once we establish ideas of what roles people should play, any variation, any exception, throws us into self-doubt and confusion. “How could a mother guide or support her children in a life of crime?” Yet, as Ma Barker’s life demonstrates, such mothers exist. Did Ma act in the best interests of her sons?

In the second century Alciphron wrote a series of letters to capture the nature of his era. He wrote fictional letters from prostitutes, gamblers, sons, and mothers living in Athens and in the countryside. In one of those letters, a son asks his mother to leave the farm and join him in the city for a festival. In another a mother named Phyllis writes to her soldier son Thrasonides, asking him to return to the farm:

“If you only would put up with the country and be sensible, and do as the rest of us do, my dear Thrasonides, you would offer ivy and laurel and myrtle and flowers to the gods at the proper time; and to us, your parents, you would give wheat and wine and a milk-pail full of the new goat’s-milk. But as things are, you despise the country and farming, and are fond only of the helmet-plumes and the shield, just as if you were an Acarnanian or a Malian soldier. Don’t keep on in this way, my son; but come back to us and take up this peaceful life of ours again (for farming is perfectly safe and free from any danger, and doesn’t require bands of soldiers and strategy and squadrons), and be the stay of our old age, preferring a safe life to a risky one.” (Source)

Ma Barker or Phyllis? Both were “country folk” in origin. You would probably say Phyllis had her son’s best interests at heart. Not that you imply a life on the farm is a superior life to one elsewhere, but rather that a life of peace is superior to a life of violence. Fictional Phyllis is an ideal mother concerned about her son’s safety, but one could hope that she is a representation of most mothers.

This might seem to be a strange Mother’s Day essay. There’s nothing profound in it: Just a thought that in a sense we all have children by virtue of our influence on those in a younger generation. We don’t have to be blood relatives to set values for those too young to know the consequences of their actions. And we don’t have to be literal mothers; everyone can be a surrogate mother. 

Every generation has its children gone astray. Every generation has “Phyllises” who wish to save them from the dire consequences of bad choices and actions. So, I’m recommending here that if you wish to be an ideal “mother” (gender is irrelevant here), you might get a wayward child to listen to Episodes 53 and 54 of Tackling Life, the free podcasts by Ray Lewis and Dr. Christian Conte available on iTunes.** In the those episodes, the two join Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel in Graterford State Correctional Institution, a maximum security prison to discuss with lifers how they went down a Ma Barker type of path instead of a Phyllis path and how they have since come to understand and regret “the moment they made the wrong decision.” Wetzel, Lewis, and Conte are actively trying to change the culture of violence and self-destruction that permeates much of American life and to decrease recidivism. That lifers can change their perspectives provides encouragement that those not yet lost to crime can alter their paths with compassionate guidance. Why should, as Secretary Wetzel asks, we have to work for redemption and restoration on the backend of wrong decisions? Why can’t we front-load the help with sufficient skill that today’s youth understand their actions have consequences that could be dire?

Every generation probably has its share of Ma Barkers. Maybe all of us should serve in the role of a Phyllis. Call back to a peaceful life those who have taken up the life of the sword.

On a Personal Level: You might think I recommend Tackling Life because I am related to one of the hosts, but I believe the burgeoning following of the podcast is the product of the inspirational nature in what Ray Lewis and Dr. Conte do. Most of their shows are so highly inspirational and entertaining that they have now a worldwide following, as evidenced by their Fan Friday episodes and messages from Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia by people seeking the concrete advice and motivation that the hosts readily give. Tackling Life episodes also center at times on interviews of people with inspirational stories. Now some 50-plus episodes into their first season, the two motivators are doing what they can to improve the lives of their listeners as well as the lives of the many people they address in their public appearances. Ray is busy working to improve the lives and safety in communities fraught with violence; Dr. Conte is busy exercising his Yield Theory to alter the lives of violent offenders to ensure they do not return to their criminal activities. And both have addressed issues of personal responsibility with high school and college athletes. Secretary Wetzel, Dr. Conte, and Ray Lewis appear to be fulfilling roles as modern surrogate Phyllises. Are you fulfilling yours?