Central Christian Church in Mesa, Ariz., hosted 2,000 people last week for the screening of a documentary called "Absent," a movie directed by Justin Hunt, who is a member of the church, that examines the impact on society of growing up without a father.
Seated across from Hunt during the Q & A session after the screening was Metallica lead singer James Hetfield, whose father left his family when he was 13.
Hetfield is one of the people featured in the documentary, during which he explains how some of the lyrics he penned for Metallica songs deal directly with the pain he suffered as a result of his father leaving.
“He left without saying goodbye,” Hetfield says in the trailer. “He left a note – he left a note, and it wasn’t even to me.”
Hetfield’s mother died from cancer when he was 16.
All these years later, Hetfield is married and has three children of his own. He hasn’t always been the type of father he knows he should have been, but he says it is better to make mistakes than not showing up.
“You can change the past by not recreating it,” Hetfield said in March on Fox & Friends on Fox News when discussing the movie. “And that’s what we’re here to state – is that as a man you can show up for your kids’ lives ... you know, this is an adventure for me.
“I’m able to go back in my father’s footsteps and his father’s and kind of figure out where the father wound is coming from and figure out how he didn’t know how to be a father because of where he came from and I’m here to be the warrior and step up and say, ‘The lineage of that stops here.’”
After the screening, Hetfield and Hunt took questions from the crowd.
“I really learned so much from this process,” Hetfield told the audience, according to the Arizona Republic. “When Justin asked me to be a part of this, I had no idea how much it was going to affect me, my family. My relationship with my son has definitely changed quite a bit.
“The relationship with my girls as well, has just totally stepped up to another level of me showing them how much they should appreciate how beautiful they are just as they are. Tackling some of the issues that are starting to come up with teens. My oldest is turning 13 next month and, you know, learning about sex, learning about dating, learning about puberty, things like that. It’s a very scary subject, especially for a dad.”
Hetfield grew up in a home in which his parents were into Christian Science and he felt alienated as a child because he couldn’t participate in some aspects of health class and he had to be exempted from taking a physical for the football team. He tried to explain it all to his friends but it was awkward for him and he says he never fully understood it.
“I was put through some tests as a child, and, you know, religion was really difficult to grasp as a child,” Hetfield said when the subject of his faith came up at the screening. “My father being the equivalent of a pastor and really hardcore at home, I felt very smothered by all of that and I didn’t understand. And I didn’t feel free to ask questions about it because that would bring up my lack of faith. So, I have learned what great things have happened to people that can embrace a power greater than themselves. And, myself, being able to let go of the steering wheel and not trying to drive my life and knowing that there is a higher power taking care of all of us.”
No word on when “Absent” will be released on DVD, but the plan is to continue with screenings across the country as well as in London this summer.
James Hetfield still feels the wounds left by his absent father—and he's healing them by being the best heavy metal dad he can be
By Jason Walsh
They f-ck you up, your mum and dad, they may not mean to, but they do—they fill you with the faults they had, and add some extra, just for you—poet Philip Larkin, "This Be the Verse"
James Hetfield was 13 years old when his father abandoned the family.
Virgil Hetfield was a truck driver and practicing Christian Scientist—but he was also unable, or unwilling, to cope with the pressures and responsibilities of being married and raising kids. In 1976 he left the future Metallica frontman—along with James's mother and younger sister—to navigate adolescence without a father. Not long after that, James's mother Cynthia was diagnosed with cancer and, under the tenets of Christian Science, relied on prayer alone to cure her of disease. She died in 1979, and James went to live with his older half brother. Parentless, he sought comfort in alcohol—and found solace in the primal-scream-therapy of '70s heavy metal, learning more about the world from Aerosmith and Motorhead than he did from a dad. He was 16.
Today, James Hetfield leads one of rock 'n' roll's most successful bands. A decade into substance-abuse recovery, he lives comfortably on a beautiful estate in Marinwood with his wife, Francesca—and he remains a voice for thousands of dispossessed youth across the world.
But his most important job title, he'll tell you, is also his toughest—dad.
"It's not easy," Hetfield recently told the Pacific Sun, echoing the sentiments of anyone who's ever had kids. "And I understand some of the struggles that [my father] had. But I would never abandon, no matter how tough things were."
Even after more than 30 years, and failed attempts at reconciliation—Virgil died in 1996—his father's departure from the family left wounds that time and success couldn't heal.
In the new documentary Absent—director Justin Hunt's study of the damage wrought by patriarchal abandonment—Hetfield joins directionless 20-somethings, street-hustling prostitutes and a prizefighter-turned-felon in sharing their stories about what it means to grow up in fatherless homes. (On March 3 at the Rafael Film Center, Hetfield and Hunt will present Absent and answer questions following the screening.)
"The thing that hurt the most—and when I look back at it, I get really mad," Hetfield says in the film, "is that my dad left without saying goodbye. He left a note... he left a note and it wasn't even for me."
Hetfield would spend much of his music career writing a few notes of his own back to his parents—such as this verse from 1988's "Dyers Eve":
Hidden in your world you've made for me
Ripping wounds in me that never heal
Undying spite I feel for you
Living out this hell you always knew
We interviewed the soft-spoken head banger about his absent father, life in Marin and the unique challenge of being a good dad—while being leader of the biggest heavy metal band in the world.
• • • •
How did a nine-time Grammy winner wind up in an art-house documentary about parenting?
I think [filmmaker] Justin [Hunt] was basically looking for somebody who had a little bit of a name and a good story—hopefully somebody interesting—and somehow he came around to me. He got a hold of us through the Metallica fan club and it went on from there. I was able to see some of his earlier work as well—he's done a number of different things, but this time he decided that [absent fathers] was an important topic and something that needed to be said.
Was it difficult to open up about your father for the camera?
I thought it was easy—always easy to talk about that stuff. I'm now 10 years into recovery myself and am pretty comfortable with just telling the story of my upbringing. I've come a long way from it and now it's more of a story, not it being so much as this is me. Still, every time you talk about it—especially in a heightened sensitivity arena like in front of a camera—it always stirs up more than you think it's going to. And it's good.
Your story has more to it than an absent father, though. A lot of viewers of the film will be equally drawn to what you say about being brought up in a Christian Science household—it's one of those religions that most people have heard about, but few really understand its strict only-God-heals-the-flesh doctrine.
Religion itself can get a little off track. It can lose the spirituality part and get a little hung up on the do's and don'ts and the rules around the religion—instead of the openness and love and the exploration that a higher power has given us. And [Christian Science] was certainly one of the religions that, as a child, didn't make a whole lot of sense.
In the film you talk about having had to "learn how to love the family"—after never having been taught that kind of love as a kid. That sounds so counterintuitive.
It really boils down to—and really does in everything—it boils down to attitude. How are you approaching this? In the beginning my want to separate the two was great—here is my world and here is my [family] world. And I was split between the two worlds. But I realized that they need to live together. They need to collaborate, they need to speak to each other, they need to communicate their feelings to each other and that way they'll be able to coexist.
Is it difficult to be a "present" father, while being the frontman for Metallica?
Through time it became easier, but it's a career of extremes. My kids complain a lot about me being gone, and then they get overwhelmed when I'm home all the time. So it's very different than a 9 to 5. I'm very fortunate—I'm able to take my kids on tour. Yank 'em from school, or in summertime we go and do a lot of worlding. But, there's the part where there's not a real lot of structure in my being with the kids.
How old is your brood?
I've got two daughters and a son; right now they are 9, 11 and 13.
They're just about at the age where they'll start getting into bands.
Into bands, or liking music? I think there's a little of both going on. The girls have graduated from Hannah Montana up to more of the pop world. And my boy, he just loves rock, he just wants AC-DC all the time, or the Ramones. Those are his two favorites. I find that the less I push them, the more they enjoy it. I want it to be natural, as it was for me as a child. Having musical instruments, as well as art tools or hammers or any other things that pique their interests—and you never know where it's going to come from. Having a place where they can get lost and draw or sew or any kind of hands-on thing. I think those are important skills to have—along with studies of reading and writing and that stuff—but the arts is something that tends to be missing in schools and I love having those tools available to them.
What about your kids listening to your music—is there an age, say, where you'll let them listen to "Enter Sandman," yet they're not quite old enough for Kill 'Em All?
[Laughs] The angle that I need to come in with is from that of being an artist. Here's my expression—but it might not be age-appropriate right now. And that's fine. But it's not wrong.
Do they ask you what the songs are about?
A lot of times there's certain things they see or hear that they just don't understand. That's also fine. Maybe later on they'll ask the questions—the children have their own filter on what's interesting and what's not. Still, right now we'll be watching a movie and some couple will start kissing and they'll go—ewww! And pretty soon that will change for them. They have a lot of age-appropriate filters within themselves. But, obviously, as parents we are the ones that guide them and kind of know when it's the right time and when it's not. Kill 'Em All? You know... it's more humorous. When they hear something like that on the radio, they're like, "Dad... that's you? You're singing like a screaming girl!"
From time to time I'll hear from other parents at your kids' school that they've seen you at drop-offs and pickups and student assemblies—and they always seem really astounded that you do this. Do you feel there are lower expectations for you as a parent, simply because you sang "Creeping Death"?
[Laughs] Yeah, well stereotypes are stereotypes. It's not my mission to break them, but to be the best I can be for my family. I don't like that they're surprised, though.
Maybe a better way to put it is that they're impressed.
You know there's a part of me that loves the recognition, but on the other hand to have someone think, "It's
so great that you're here for your kids!" It's like, what the hell? You're supposed to do that. I also see some other parents that are overbearing. That are there all the time—they do not leave the school. And that, I think, is... well maybe not bad, but a little smothering compared to the real world. I like to reside somewhere in the center—which is very hard for me to find [laughs].
You could live anywhere you wanted—what makes Marin a good choice for you and your family?
Normally I'd say the weather, but not so much these days. Things can be simple here. I can be very incognito, I can go pretty much anywhere and not get hassled. There's a sense of friction here that kind of keeps me sharp.
What do you mean by that?
I don't know... politically. [Hesitates] I don't want to get into politics, because I really hate them, actually. But I guess I mean ideals about how things are to be. There's a lot of people who are pushing agendas and, you know, it tends to keep me on my toes. Marin gives me a lot of lyrical fodder.
So "Bleeding Me" is really about Marin?
I also like that the people have a tendency to be a little more open. Though, underneath it all they're all pretty scared, as we all are, of change. I like the landscape, the way that the Bay Area is set up; I just find it beautiful and great to get around in. Being a family that loves to explore and travel, we love going to other places as well, but this is always nice to come home to.
Absent talks about how when kids from fatherless homes grow up to become parents themselves, they tend to approach parenting by making harmful "vows"—such as "I will never do this." Or, "I will always do that." Did you find yourself making those kinds of vows?
Sure, sure. It comes a lot out of resentment and a lot out of unforgiving—all of those not so great things. "Always" and "never," those are black-and-white words that don't apply to the real world. It's nice to have the thought perhaps, but it's really passing on some kind of shame that you have from your parents—and that doesn't need to happen. The main thing is starting over fresh and allowing [your kids] to be who they are. They have their own path, they have their own higher power that's looking out for them—we're just the guardians. We're "to be there" and to keep them safe and fed and loved—the simple things in life. Let them explore and embrace their world.
The movie quotes a statistic that says children in fatherless homes are 20 times more likely to end up in prison. When Metallica played at San Quentin in 2003, did you ever look into the crowd of cons and think—that could've been me?
Yes. There's a sadness to that—them not being able to see their calling. I'm very grateful to have had at least some grasp about what was there, and what was always going to be there for me, which was music. These words that were speaking for me—when I felt that I couldn't speak. And we as a band have had the pleasure, and I guess blessing, of being able to go into San Quentin and also places like the San Francisco Symphony—and play music to both ends of the spectrum. You really see that there's absence on both ends—whether you're physically not there, or mentally not there.
Marin is becoming known for its "mentally not there" parents—some child experts are linking it to the county's high rate of teen suicides.
Some fathers are really workaholics, lost in their work, and not really facing why as, say, the hunter of the family, they're going and doing what's supposed to be—and then not really being able to connect with the family. They're just being the breadwinner. And missing out on a lot of life, as well.
It's interesting how the film places fatherhood into a historical context. The Industrial Revolution changed America from an agrarian society to an industrial one—and suddenly the dads were leaving the house from 9 to 5 and coming home and going to bed and not being part of the family.
My boy asked me a question once that really spun my head. He asked me, "Dad, why do we have to work? Who invented work?"
What did you tell him?
I didn't know what to tell him. I just thought—wow. But the movie touched a little bit on, at least in American culture, how the 9 to 5 became extremely important in the role of the father. For better or worse.
If your father were alive today, what would you tell him you've learned about fatherhood?
I guess I would say that it's not easy. And I understand some of the struggles that he had. But I would never abandon, no matter how tough things were. No matter how much resentment I had—or how much frustration I had with my partner or with the whole family. Abandonment, to me, is a core thorn in my side. And I would not wish that upon anyone, knowing how much it hurt me.
When your son gets to the point where he might become a father, what advice will you give him?
What I can say is, do your best. That's all. Even if it's not good enough for that son, you can sleep well thinking that you did your best. I hope my father was able to come to that conclusion before he passed. It was easier for me to understand his struggles when I saw where he came from.
Have you forgiven your father?
Well that has to be, it really does. I do believe he did his best and he had lots of things to deal with as far as struggles of his own. Some of those were passed to me and I'm battling—I'm going to war, I'm the warrior—to try and not pass that on as well.
Join James Hetfield and director Justin Hunt in person when Absent screens Thursday, March 3, 7pm at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. 415/454-1222 or http://www.rafaeltheater.cafilm.org .
Email Jason at email@example.com .
The highest compliment to me from James is to have his respect for me and my art like i do for him and his
The Bulgarian Metclub chapter Harvester of Sofia has the pleasure to meet you with Justin Hunt. He is an American filmmaker and became popular among Metallica fans with the film „Absent” in which James shares the story about his father who left the family when Hetfield was only 13 years old. The documentary movie examines the need for an emotional bond that children without fathers often experience. Justin Hunt was negotiating with possible narrators when his big break came via an e-mail. “I was driving on the freeway I almost crashed,” Hunt said. The e-mail was from METALLICA. Hetfield wanted to be involved with the project.
We contacted Justin for an interview:
Do you remember your first Metallica show and what impression the band left in you after that?
My first show was in 1999 at the blockbuster pavilion in Phoenix, Arizona (USA). i drove 9 hours to get there from las cruces, new mexico. jerry cantrell and days of the new opened for them. i was blown away. all i’d heard up to that point were tapes and cds, and this was real and in front of me. i could feel jason’s bass in my chest. it was amazing and unlike any other experience in my life, up to that point.
Have you ever thought that after more that 30 years Metallica will be one of the biggest bands in the music scene ever and that they will go beyond every boundary of the heavy metal music?
having studied, for the past 20 years, their professionalism, drive, management of self and business, marketing tactics and sheer aggression at taking control of their situation, as opposed to reacting to it, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that they are where they are.
Which are the songs that you think Metallica should play on stage more often? What is your dream setlist?
i think it’s important to mix up the set lists. so, i don’t have a ‘play more’ wish list. i am, however, a fan of a few of the classic concert favorites: bellz, one, creeping death, harvester, etc. if there is a track or two i’d personally like to see in concert that i haven’t yet, i’d say fixxxer, outlaw torn, bleeding me.
What has changed in the band as Rob came in? Do you think the fans already prefer him to Jason?
no comment on that one. i wouldn’t speculate or presume to speak for the fans on who they like better. they’re both amazing musicians. personally, i always had a liking for jason and his attitude, from the fan’s perspective. it did my heart good to see him onstage with them at the hall of fame induction.
How do you see Metallica in the near future (10 years) – less concerts and 1-2 new albums at most or nothing will change much and the band will continue roaming the planet with lots of shows each year.
i think metallica will continue to do what they’re best at doing, playing music for their friends, until they feel that they’re not doing it at their highest level. that’s how they operate, at the top. if ever they don’t feel it’s their best, then they’ll more than likely make what they feel is the best decision for the band and the hundreds of millions that love them.
What is Metallica personally for you? Did Metallica change your life in some way?
metallica is, and has been, my best friend for the past 25 years. they mean the world to me. they completely changed my life and how i approach it. actually, i wouldn’t say they changed it. they shaped it.
Did anything changed now after you and James are friends? Is there a difference between James Hetfield from Metallica and James the person?
our friendship is something that i have the deepest respect for. i think so many people are used to, and need, james hetfield of metallica that they lose sight of the fact that james hetfield is also a human being, just like you and i. is there a difference between the two? not much. what you see onstage now is the same james hetfield that makes faces at and jokes with my two children or that i discuss issues we face in life as men with. he’s utterly authentic as a person, and just happens to be one of the greatest guitarists and front men of all time. the highest compliment to me is to have his respect for me and my art like i do for him and his.
You made some screenings across USA. Do you have plans doing this in Europе?
i’d like to do some screenings in europe, for sure. i really just need to create a grassroots effort there and get the support of people like you to help get those things in motion. i’m doing all of the booking myself, so if anyone wants to do a screening they need just reach out and spark the conversation.
Have you ever expected that your movies will have such a huge impact for the people? And have you ever thought that you will make great successes with both of them?
i’d hoped they would, but i never expected it to be at this level. i don’t really make the films with the intent of reaching a certain number of people or affecting one particular group. i just make them because i feel they need to be made, and let God take it over from there.
Tell us more about you future plans?
professionally, i’m just hoping to keep going with these movies and making a difference in this world. i’m shooting my third film now and have ideas for more. i’d also like to direct a feature film soon. one goal i do have is to expand beyond the u.s. and really start causing an impact in other parts of the world on a larger scale.
Don’t laugh a lot now… If you ever make a movie for bullterriers will you call Kerrie King’s father? (Random question from one of our members)
i’ll mull over the bull terriers concepts and make SURE i call kerrie king’s father, should i move forward on that.
Do you know something for Bulgaria?
i don’t know as much about bulgaria as i’d like to. one thing i have been told is that the women there are beautiful, which, as a single guy, makes me want to visit. we should definitely do a screening there! ha ha.
Would you say something special to the members of HOS?
for the harvester of sofia chapter: i can tell you from personal experience that are you supporting not only the greatest heavy metal band of all time, but some of the most amazing men i’ve ever met. the music of metallica comes from within these men, not from the standpoint of ‘what would be commercially successful?’ in essence, you are not ‘fans’ of the music, you are literally friends of metallica who are sharing in their experiences here on this planet. they know who you are and they appreciate you and love you. i’ve been to HQ and have seen the banners hanging from the walls. you mean as much to them as they to you. don’t ever forget that. it’s that mutual love and respect that makes it worth every ticket you’ve ever bought, every line you’ve ever stood in, every shirt you’ve ever worn. and i’m honored, as a friend of metallica myself, to be invited into your chapter to share a few of my experiences. after all, isn’t that what being a metallica fan is all about?
much love from the states…justin
Filmmaker Justin Hunt created a full-length documentary which deals with the issue of absent or disengaged fathers called Absent. Metallica lead singer James Hetfield is prominently featured in the film because of his own personal experience of being abandoned by his father when he was just 13 years old. In an interview with Rockville Music Magazine earlier this year, Hetfield explained that when he had children he wasn’t prepared to be father. "My dad didn't teach me to do this or this…there was a lot of resentment that came from fear. And I figured out [kids] don't need all of that. They don't need the instructions. They need guidance. They need love. They need you to be there, simple as that," said Hetfield.
Hetfield notes he made some mistakes as a father citing an instance in 2001 when he missed his son’s birthday because he was in Russia on a drunken hunting trip. Hetfield now claims that he always puts his kids first, and when special events occur in his children’s lives he’ll “pull them from school and fly them to Lisbon or fly them to Philly, or wherever it is, so the kids gets to celebrate with their Pops."
Absent will be available on DVD starting September 5.
Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio
Do you remember a couple months back, when I wrote about the Central Christian Church screening of Absent, the documentary by Justin Hunt about absent fathers featuring James Hetfield of Metallica?
Yeah, me too. This year has flown by. I feel like I wrote that yesterday, but that was freaking April. Maybe you missed the screening, but if you did and really want to see the movie, you are in luck. Absent is available for pre-order starting tomorrow, August 5. But unlike that screening at Central Christian, Mr. Hetfield will not personally attend private screenings at your place.
This coming Friday, August 5th, at 12:01 am (pst), pre-ordering will be available for the DVD, which will also include numerous bonus features, including two Q&A sessions with Justin and Metallica front man James Hetfield, as well as the trailer for Justin's third film, 'The Speed of Orange'. The official release date for the DVD is September 5th. As a 'Thank You' to everyone for their patience, Justin has agreed to sign the first 2,500 copies ordered. The Absent DVD is available exclusively here on the web site. Click on the 'Store' page to order yours starting this Friday!
In unrelated news, yesterday was James Hetfield's 48th birthday. I know it's customary for the birthday boy to get a wish on his b-day, but I've actually got one pertaining to Hetfield: I'm hoping, praying, and wishing that the forthcoming Lou Reed/Metallica album is so weird it rules.
James Hetfield, lead singer of Metallica, talks with Justin Hunt during a sold out screening of Absent in Phoenix, Ariz.