Parents Talk Back

Clayton Lessor, 56, talks openly about his terrible childhood.

He describes his late father as an alcoholic who was very abusive at home. He grew up with broken bones, black eyes and chronic abuse. He remembers the nights he slept in the backseat of a car.

He lived with his grandparents six months out of each year from when he was 4 years old until he was 16. One week from his senior year of high school stands out as particularly awful: His mother burned down their house, his dog died in the fire and his girlfriend dumped him.

“I don’t remember being in school the last two months,” he said. Still, he managed to graduate and eventually joined the Air Force, a decision he credits with saving his life. During his 24 years of military service, Lessor got married and divorced twice. He decided to get a degree in psychology, hoping to figure out why he kept picking the wrong people to marry.

“I needed to look at myself,” Lessor said. What he discovered was a significant amount of pain from his troubled and estranged relationship with his father.

“I missed out on a lot of developmental stuff,” he said. Lessor worked on “re-parenting” himself and learning the lessons he never got from his father. From this work, he decided he wanted to help other boys in similar situations. He created a 10-week “rite of passage” therapy group for boys who missed out on growing up with a healthy father figure.

He also self-published a book for mothers of adolescent boys, “Saving Our Sons: A Parent’s Guide to Preparing Boys for Success,” which serves as a guidebook for his 10-week Quest therapy program. In it, he lays out a path for healing those suffering from what he calls “father wounds.”

What exactly is a father wound? It could be the pain from having a physically or emotionally absent father, an abusive father, or one who just doesn’t know how to raise a son, Lessor said. It could even be a lost connection over time.

More than 2,000 boys have gone through the Quest program over the past 17 years. The groups meet for 90 minutes once a week in Lessor’s St. Louis-area office. He tells the boys, between the ages of 11 to 19, the things he wished he’d known at their ages. The session topics include identifying their own pain, facing it and learning how to cope with it in healthy ways. He wants to give them a place to deal with shame and anger, feel supported by a community and find a sense of achievement through their deeds.

He was 31 years old before he went into therapy, and says most men who suffered in their childhoods will end up self-medicating or running from the past to avoid dealing with how it impacts their present lives.

“The wound doesn’t heal itself,” he said. “It doesn’t just go away with time.”

He recalls the final straw with his own father. He had come home from the Air Force to get married when he was 20 years old, and went to visit him.

“He tried to kill me. He choked me. He was drunk,” Lessor said. “That was it. I was done.” He spent a long time working through his own grief, and says it’s possible to come through the other side stronger than before.

“It’s scary and painful,” Lessor said, but “you come out better if you finish the work.”

For him, it also brought a sense of acceptance.

“My childhood was suffering,” he said. And yet, he’s forgiven his parents. The emotion that comes up occasionally from the past traumas is just sadness.

“I don’t have any anger or hate,” he said. “It comes up once in awhile -- what comes up is just sadness, and then I move on.”

More importantly, he has found meaning and purpose through those life experiences.

“It wasn’t the childhood I would have chosen,” he said. “(But) my mom and dad were a gift to me.”

It was those dysfunctional relationships that led him to do the work that is so meaningful to him today.

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