My Boy, My Prodigal
About the Guest
There are defining moments in every life. Dennis Mansfield, an executive film producer and father of three, talks about his spiritual journey, his marriage and his children, particularly his oldest son, Nate. Dennis talks openly about Nate’s early drug use, his spiral downward into the drug culture, including his run-in with the law, and his attempts with his wife to help their prodigal son.
Dennis talks openly about Nate’s early drug use, his spiral downward into the drug culture.
My Boy, My Prodigal
Bob: Dennis Mansfield remembers when and how he learned that his son was leading a double life.
Dennis M: When I made the decision to run for Congress, we spent about a year, preparing for it—running for it. Then, five days before the election, we had a statewide debate on television. When it was over, a reporter came up to me and asked me, “Is your son Nathan Dennis Mansfield?” I looked at him and I thought, “Oh my heavens! What’s happened?” He said, “Did you know that your son had been busted, five months before, on drug charges for paraphernalia?” I knew nothing!
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, March 21st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. Dennis Mansfield joins us today to talk about the news that rocked his world—the news that his son was a prodigal. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. There are—in all of our lives, all our families—there are defining moments. There are those moments that if you write the history of a family, some dates are going to stand out as landmark dates. Some of those dates are high-water landmarks—
Bob: —wedding dates—
Dennis: Some of them are valleys.
Dennis: Some of them are valleys. And we have a friend with us, here on FamilyLife Today, who went through a long, dark valley; and it didn’t turn out quite like he and his wife thought it would turn out.
In fact, you know, we read in Luke, Chapter 15, the parable of the prodigal son. The story is a beautiful story because it ends with the father looking out the window and here comes his son. They’re united, and they have a celebration and a feast. We just kind of feel like that’s the way it all ought to work out. Well, sometimes, prodigals don’t work out that way. And Dennis Mansfield and his wife Susan know that well. Dennis, welcome to the broadcast.
Dennis M: Thank you, Dennis. Thank you, Bob. It’s an honor to be with you.
Dennis: Dennis and his wife Susan were married in 1977. They have three children. Dennis was, for a number of years, worked with Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, and Promise Keepers—is an artist through video and film. Currently, working in an organization called 8:4; is that right?
Dennis M: 8:4 Pictures.
Dennis: 8:4 Pictures, what’s the significance of the 8/4?
Dennis M: Psalm 8:4, “Who is man?”—you know: “Who are we that we get to stand before God? Who are we that we get to see what He does and the joy of His creativity?” And that’s why we chose Psalm 8:4.
Dennis: Well, Dennis has just finished a book called Beautiful Nate. Throughout the broadcast, I’ll refer to Dennis as Dennis the Greater. [Laughter]
Bob: Just to keep it clear?
Dennis: Yes, just to keep it clear—“Dennis the Greater, answer that question if you would.” Well, introduce us to your family. You had three children; right?
Dennis M: Yes. Dennis, I was one of those rare young men who, when we came to Christ—I was already married two years. So, I didn’t grow up in a Christian family. And Susan and I were married in 1977. We just thought, “Well, I guess we’ll just try and figure this thing out.” Well, we came to Christ; and we immediately started hearing about child-rearing.
Well, Nate was our first. He was born in 1981. Meg came after three years later in ‘84. Then, for whatever reason, God did not allow us to have any children until a caboose boy came around in 1992, Colin. So, we have three.
Dennis: Your son, Nate, brought quite a drama and quite a story to your family. When did you first really suspect that there was something serious taking place in Nate? When he was a teenager—college? What point did you—
Dennis M: That’s a great question. It really was preteen. I began to see things in him, where he would be a deceiver. He would go in and figure out ways to scam on getting deals from supermarkets or coffee. He was always just looking for the deal. And in that attitude of deception, ultimately, fed the attitude of rebellion—and the rebellious attitude that was picked up by the people—whether marijuana started it or it was just adjunct to being rebellious, I don’t know. But it went hand and glove. And I did not know he was smoking because I didn’t—I didn’t do drugs. And he was just getting worse with his surly attitude and his behavior patterns.
Bob: Was he starting to smoke marijuana preteen?
Dennis M: No, I don’t believe so. I think he probably, with his buddies, would sneak in to drink people’s beer. You know, I started losing track of who his buddies really were—the kids that were in Christian school and all that.
When we moved into teen years, the best that I can figure is somewhere around his junior/senior year, he started smoking pot—don’t know that he was involved in any other drugs.
Dennis: When a couple watches their son go through a rebellion that spirals out of control, downward, it’s not just the child that spiraling out of control. It has a way of defining a marriage and a family in ways people can’t even imagine. How did it impact your marriage and also your family?
Dennis M: It was insane! The anger level—the divisiveness that Nate brought into Susan and my relationship was insane. It was as if we knew that we shouldn’t be acting this way towards each other, but we loved our son. He became a master at peeling one parent off from the other—of dividing and conquering.
So, suddenly, we found ourselves, at each other, trying to—either discipline Nate, on one hand—or to stand next to him and support him, on the other. Meanwhile, he was off to the side—I’m sure—smirking.
Bob: Were you the “grace” parent, or were you the “law” parent?
Dennis M: Bob, I think that in a chaotic, near-insanity type environment, where drugs are involved in a family—of rebellion, deep rebellion—I think the parental roles trade off back and forth.
Dennis M: In our case, there were times where I was the “Sure, Honey, here’s fifty bucks. I’m sure you’ll love going to the movies.” And he’s going to go buy something we didn’t want him to buy. Other times, I was the anchor that said, “No, you’re not going to do it.” It was my inconsistency—but on the other hand, it was also my hope—“Oh, he’s getting better.”
Dennis: A parent is set up. He wants the best for his son, his daughter. He’s set up for hope—
Dennis M: He’s set up for failure—is what he’s set up for.
Dennis: Really, he is.
Dennis M: And I tell you—for the guy that knew it all—the Focus on the Family guy—I was scratching my head going, “Can I do anything right?” It was a horrible feeling.
Dennis: And to that point, Dennis, I don’t think our listeners—unless they’ve been the parent of a prodigal—can understand the hopelessness, the sense of despair, the shame, the feelings of being a failure, of thinking back through all the mistakes you’ve made and trying to place blame on yourself for what’s going wrong in a child who clearly has his or her own will. But these parents still have needs. They need friends to come alongside them.
Coach a person, who is listening right now, who is not the parent of a prodigal—they know the parents, and they are afraid to say anything. They don’t know what to say if they do encounter them. How can they be an encouragement to that couple or to that mom or dad?
Dennis M: I’d like to speak to both the coach and the player—because the coach, you can enter in and honor that friend of yours—where you see the prodigal by asking questions, not making statements: “Marge, how is Tim doing right now? Can you tell me a little bit about what he’s involved in?” “How is Heather reacting at school?”
Asking questions does so much for the parent of a prodigal to open up. Coming in and telling them anything—there is no street “cred”. It is like: “Are you kidding me? Why don’t you just be quiet and walk away from me because I am so bruised, internally, that there is nothing you can tell me that’s going to heal me.” So, coach with questions.
Secondly, for the parent that’s out there—that’s listening right now, who is weeping, because they know what I’m talking about—
Dennis M: —they know what two/three o’clock in the morning feels like—
Dennis M: —they know what having their son chest-thump them and say, “You know, I have no use for you,” and going out and leaving. The only thing I can say to you—and I want you to hear me with all my heart—is that Christ loves you, and that He loves you, and He loves your child, and He will do whatever it takes to bring that child, not to you, but to Him. That has got to be your prayer! To be reconciled only with your child is a minor thing because, if they’re in drugs, they are cons. If they are in drugs, they are lying to you.
Dennis M: See their mouth? It is saying lies; okay? “Oh, but they are never ly—” They’re lying to you if they’re in drugs because that’s the culture. Christ never lies, and He will not take their lies. He will be that Hound of Heaven that will lovingly go after them. I’m telling you—I’m speaking from over a decade of experience.
Bob: Was Nate coming home stoned? I mean, was it obvious that this was what he was doing?
Dennis M: It was very interesting. We’d go away for a weekend, with a Christian ministry thing, and come back. The house would be a mess. Knock on the door, on Monday: “Yes, your son had a party here, and the police came. Thirty-five people left and ran over the fences, and we had to chase people down.”
I literally brought him in to face the police officer. My son, Nate, looked at this police officer—a gentleman that had great respect in our community—and said, “You’re a liar! That never happened.” That’s Nate telling the police officer! I remember thinking, “This poison is now in the DNA. It’s in his marrow.”
Bob: So, you’re seeing the disrespect that’s emerging—this attitude. Are you seeing the drug use, the marijuana use, manifesting itself in other ways other than the disrespect?
Dennis M: Normally, in his speech. There’d be dullness. There’d be that sort of Cheech & Chong feel to his expressions. Yet, I was like, “Well, boy, you’re sounding pretty slow.” “Yes, I’ve got some chew.” I didn’t do chew.
Bob: Like chewing tobacco?
Dennis M: Like chewing tobacco. I saw the lie, but I began to believe the lie. That was the deepest sorrow for me—is that I knew it and was sucked into it.
Dennis: Here’s something that a parent who has never had a prodigal can’t possibly understand. You so want to believe the best about your child. It is—I don’t know if it’s a desire to rescue, a desire to get out of a hopeless situation—but it is the heart of a parent to want to believe—
Dennis M: Yes.
Dennis: —even a lie.
Dennis M: Yes.
Dennis: And so people are listening: “How could you do that? How could you hear the lies and then rush into believe it, even though you’ve heard 553 lies that have preceded that—that you caught them in a lie?”—right?
Dennis M: That’s exactly right, Dennis.
Dennis: I wrote down three things that I want to say to the parent, at this point. Number one: Protect your relationship with God. Get in the Book. Remind yourself—speaking of a lie—remind yourself of the truth.
Secondly, protect your relationship with your spouse. Don’t let that be destroyed in the midst of this battle. And I want you to comment on this before I get to my third one here. Was your marriage ever in trouble to the point where you and Susan felt like, “I wonder if we’re going to make it?”
Dennis M: We weren’t to that point. We were headed to that point. What I mean by that is we had so grounded ourselves in Christ that we knew that that was truth. And we moved towards it; but it didn’t feel like it, Dennis. It didn’t feel like it because I’ve got, in front of me, this child that I’ve raised, who is now adolescent coming into adulthood—and he’s telling me what he is doing, and I’m believing him because I want to believe in him.
Well, finally, Susan and I looked at each other; and we went, “He is lying to us.” He is not a liar, in the truest sense. He is someone addicted to drugs—who is lying to us. We began to disassociate our hope and bring it into reality of fact—big difference.
Dennis: There really is. And you said something there that’s a key word to play off of. You can’t live your life by feelings because the addict will use your feelings to manipulate you and play you against the truth.
Dennis M: They will steal your money. They will sell your things from home. They will do everything they can, and they will not blink an eye.
Dennis: So, protect your marriage. And I meant to add to that, also, protect your family. One of the things that can happen with the other children is they can begin to rush in to rescue mom or dad from all the pain—
Bob: Or be left completely out of the equation because mom and dad are so consumed with one child—they don’t have time for anybody else.
Dennis: Oh, absolutely, Bob, absolutely. Then, finally, my third point—and this is where the body of Christ, the Church—this is where community, this is where relationships are a huge payoff. Protect a friendship or two with someone you can trust.
Dennis M: Yes.
Dennis: It helps to have someone from the outside who you invite in—
Dennis M: Yes.
Dennis: —to your valley because the valley is so insane. The valley makes so little sense—that you need someone just to remind you of the truth: Number one, about God; number two, about yourself; number three, about who you were as parents—somebody who has witnessed what you did and say, “You know what? You guys weren’t failures.”
Dennis M: I tell you, Dennis, Michael Boerner, who is one of my dear friends and one of the friends of the ministry—
Dennis M: —was that man for me. He reminded me—he brought me back to the anchor of who I was in Christ. To that person who wants to be a coach and wants to help someone through it—don’t pretend that you know what they’re going through. Michael never pretended that he knew what I was going through. Just go in and say—ask questions, “How are you?” Again, I go back to questions. To the person—that comes in, who wants to give Scripture and beat the daylight out of parents who are already beaten—“Go away!”
Bob: Tell our listeners what you were doing at this time.
Dennis M: Here’s the irony. I was serving with a ministry called Focus on the Family. I worked in association with Focus as one of the executive directors of the Family Policy Council. I was considered the “pro-family guy”. I was the go-to-guy on how to raise a family.
Bob: Well, in fact, you decided to get politically involved.
Dennis M: You know, I did. After a decade of serving in association with Focus on the Family, an open seat for Congress occurred. In Idaho, there are only two seats. It’s a very small state. That seat was open; and then, I decided, “Yes, let’s run.”
Bob: So, you ran for Congress; and that’s when you had a point in this story that was kind of one of those dates that gets marked down on the calendar as a defining moment for your family.
Dennis M: When I made the decision to run for Congress, we spent about a year, preparing for it—running for it. Then, five days before the election, we had a statewide debate on television. When it was over, a reporter came up to me and asked me, “Is your son Nathan Dennis Mansfield?” I looked at him and I said, “Oh my heavens! What’s happened?” He said, “Did you know that your son had been busted, five months before, on a drug charge for paraphernalia?” I knew nothing, five days out from the election. I was suddenly thrown into this.
Bob: Now, wait. Your son had been arrested?
Dennis M: Had been arrested—was out of our house, had been arrested—never told us. The court date kept being moved along, by whatever powers that be—and, eventually, was announced, five days before the election.
Bob: Was he—this was post-high school? He’s living on his own?
Dennis M: He was in his senior year. We had had the moment of time when—we’re talking about moments—in his senior year, where he blew up and said, “I’ll see you in the obituaries,” in December/January of his senior year. He moved out—he moved out of our house—he was 18. So, why he was so angry and why he moved out in that December/January period was because he had been busted. He never shared that with us.
Dennis: So, here is the media—
Dennis M: Oh my!
Dennis: —five days before the election, wanting to play that card to bust you and keep you out of Congress.
Dennis M: Well, keep me out of Congress—to call me a hypocrite, to go against every stand that we had taken, for a decade, to blow out the credibility of the pro-life stand, pro-choice in education stand, the stand against the gay agenda—all those things. It was a perfect “Man bites dog story”. They went after it, and they bit hard.
Dennis: And I’ve said it more than once, here on today’s broadcast, Dennis. A parent who has not been through this cannot imagine the chaos that each phone call brings, that each new set of circumstances bring. I mean, it’s absolutely a crazy-maker for a parent.
I do not know how a person, who does not have a solid faith in Jesus Christ, handles these kinds of storms. They have to move to denial—to some kind of disassociation with reality and escapism, of their own, to drugs, alcohol, affairs, etc.—because the pain can be unbearable in addition to just the mental games your mind plays of all the what-if’s of what’s taking place: “Where is he? What’s he doing? What’s next?” It really is an incredible set of circumstances.
Dennis M: It is, Dennis. I think that term that you just coined, “a crazy-maker,” is absolutely true. That’s how Susan and I began to look at this. Nate got busted. We lost the Congressional race. Suddenly, we’re looking around. Nate went through court—did what he had to do. Then, it got crazier. He ended up being arrested in Missouri for drug charges. The wise judge said to him and the other three Idaho boys: “Hey, you guys are better than this! Go get your degree. Show me your degree. Your felony will drop off.”
He came back to Idaho. I asked him: “Are you in school? Are we ready to go?” “No, Dad, I’m not into that.” He squandered—and I thought—he said, “I’ll just never go back to Missouri.” Ironic as it was, he believed he could just walk away from the responsibility of a judge’s order on him for a felony! That’s crazy-maker time.
Dennis M: And as the story went on, it continued to go on. It ended up being that—and a lot of people don’t realize this—that people who are involved with OxyContin® and oxycodone, which are prescription drugs—that when the money dries up for that, the suitable substitute, in the drug culture, is heroin.
And so, suddenly, my precious son, my beautiful Nate, went from oxycodone, OxyContin, to heroin—and was arrested in our community with balloons of black tar heroin. It just got worse! He spent a year in our local jail—then, was sent to Missouri to face that same judge to go to prison.
Dennis: And I restate what I said earlier. Protect your relationship with God. Protect your marriage and your family—and what’s left of your family. And third, protect your friendships because you can’t go through this alone.
Dennis M: Amen.
Bob: You know, stories like this—these are stories that often remain tucked away. We don’t know it’s going on because nobody feels safe to say, “This is what’s happening in our family;” but when you hear about it—when somebody cracks open the door and shares a little bit of what’s happening—you want to be ready to know how to respond—how to demonstrate kindness, and compassion, and empathy, and love for your friend.
It might be good to have a copy of Dennis’s book available—maybe a couple of copies available so that you can give one out when you hear about somebody whose son or daughter is going through something like this. We’ve got the book which is called Beautiful Nate. It tells the story that Dennis has been sharing with us today. You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com to request a copy. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or you can call, toll-free, at 1-800-FL-TODAY—1-800-358-6329. Ask how you can get a copy of the book, Beautiful Nate. We’ll make arrangements to send it to you.
Now, I want to talk for just a minute to those of you who are long-time, regular listeners to FamilyLife Today. I just met a bunch of folks, who are listeners, when I was speaking last month at the Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway up in Hershey, Pennsylvania. We had about 1,800 people who were gathered there. I met listeners who tune in to listen to our program on WAVA in Washington, DC—some who listen on WFIL in Philadelphia or WORD in Pittsburgh—met a lot of you who listen to us on WDAC, out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. It’s always fun to get to meet listeners. A few of you identified yourselves as Legacy Partners. And I’ll tell you what—we really appreciate those of you who are—not only long-time listeners—but those of you who have chosen to invest in this ministry, on a monthly basis. We could not do what we do without a strong base of support from Legacy Partners.
This month, we’re hoping to recruit some new long-time listeners to become first-time Legacy Partners. These are folks who make a commitment to donate to FamilyLife Today on a monthly basis and who agree to pray for us. When you become a Legacy Partner, we’ll send you a welcome kit that’s got some resources to help strengthen your marriage and your family. We’ll also keep you up-to-date each month with what’s going on here. We’ll give you the opportunity, throughout the year, to select resources to strengthen your marriage and your family.
So, we’re asking today, “Would you consider becoming one of our new Legacy Partners?” You can go to FamilyLifeToday.com and click the button that says, “I CARE”. The information you need about becoming a Legacy Partner is right there; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY and say, “I’d like to sign up and become a Legacy Partner.” We’d love to have you join us, and we hope to hear from you. Let me just say, “Thanks for considering this and for praying about it.” We hope to hear from you.
And we hope you can join us back again tomorrow. Dennis Mansfield is going to be with us again. We’ll talk about the time his son Nate spent in prison, and we’ll hear the conclusion of his story. Hope you can tune in tomorrow.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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