“Look around Marshall, we’re all we’ve got.” My mother spoke unequivocally. “And it’s enough.”
She was referencing her eldest sister death, and the fact that our nuclear unit would not be attending the funeral. It was in Ohio, “for Christ’s sake,” and the farthest west we ever traveled was to western Pennsylvania where both my parents grew up. Moreover, travel back there (or back in time for that matter) was always fraught with tension and malaise. My mother looked at her family of origin with a sense of deep scorn and victimhood. In her mind, she had escaped their backwardness, their coldness, their false religiosity and even their shared history. She did not want to be reminded of her childhood, her connections now frayed between most of her siblings, and the stark reality that she had no feeling for them. Little did she know she’d be dead in five years and it would be her remaining brothers and sisters’ families who would be so comforting to me in my loss.
My family of origin did what we always did- disengage from any distasteful event or distress. Mi familiglia (ha, ha, ha) was a closed and rigid system not uncommon to mid-twentieth century America, and boy did I feel alone.
Assessing my family of origin, I liken it to a full and fearless moral inventory; the kind engaged with 12 Step programs of recovery. Except that in this go around, no one escapes analysis, not even the dead.
To begin with, my mother’s family has always referred to themselves as “Pennsylvania Dutch.” Indeed, you can access websites dedicated to this specific, fictive culture’s cuisine -- if you have an aversion to fresh, leafy vegetables! In Martinsburg, Pennsylvania that expression for cultural/ethnic identification is illustrative of the mindset of many rural residents of that state.
In my estimation, the desire for Pennsylvania’s German families to ascribe their heritage the Dutch label clearly positions them as feeling inferior and desirous of a higher socio-economic and cultural affiliation. The term “Pennsylvania Deutsch” is hardly recognizable as the correct moniker for a group that desired (and attained) complete assimilation into the hierarchy of the preferred American social statures of the Dutch and English.
On the other side, my father’s family is mostly (supposedly) Anglo-having Walters and Johnson as the primary (known) surnames, with the Germanic Detwiler appearing periodically. By the time my parents moved to New York (up and out) and became parents themselves, their defining feature of their own ethnicity was -- they had no ethnicity. Ethnicity was reserved for the Poles, the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the blacks and “the others”-- of which we rarely (if ever) associated with.
Thus, such exotic items like garlic, olive oil, cheeses other than “American”, wine, meat other than beef, chicken and pork, any fish that wasn’t frozen and bread-encrusted to be slathered in tartar sauce, basil, cayenne, brown rice, whole grains, all lettuce that wasn’t iceberg, and any “ethnic” dish that didn’t hail from a large company such as La Choy, Ortega or Chef Boyardee, among others (this is not an exhaustive list), were virtually and conspicuously absent from my childhood dinner table. We were, by God and by the blandness of our palate, Americans. And no hyphen was ever required or offered.
Not ironically then, the “family’s façade” was both culturally and familially reinforced Implicit was that we were better than our forebears and aligned with the nation’s elite class (eHI was born during the Johnson presidency). What decidedly separated us from our Pennsylvania and Ohio relatives was that my father had an advanced degree and that each of the children in our family had their own bedroom in our grand, newly-built, Ranch-style suburban home surrounded by acres of lawn (I should know --I mowed it) and woodlands. With this setting in place, any eruptions and/or crisis that occurred within the family could be easily contained by both geographic distance from any inquiring relative and proximate distance from any nosey neighbors.
We were self-contained to the point of absolute insularity. We each depended upon our own individual modes of diversion and entertainment as both escape and reaffirmation of our autonomous superiority. We believed in the American dream of ascendancy and that dream didn’t entail a lot of looking back. W.A.S.P. culture looks forever forward and upward through the lens of wealth, education and identification with the powerful --something I now know as grandiosity.
Not incoincidentally, my father’s continual (if infrequent) verbal message to me was imbedded with cryptic undertones. “Marshall,” he’d reveal, “no matter who you choose to be with, always make sure that she’s a smart woman.” On occasion he’d amplify, “Intelligence cannot be substituted with beauty or sex appeal. Remember how I’ve always cherished your mother’s intelligence.”
No mention in this notable fatherly bit of sophistry was there a word about sharing similar interests with a prospective partner, nor the importance of seeking emotional compatibility. No, I.Q. had primacy. Intellectualism was bliss and in me alone he foresaw the seed of (his) brainpower manifest and capable of being fruitful. For on neither of my other siblings was this advice so equally conferred.
I was the favorite son. The focal point of the family’s stress, delight and identification. Burdensome? Yes. I was quickly anointed/incorporated as the “symptomatic member” of my family. The one who acted out the family’s distress and superiority. Yet, because this identification produced such high expectations that I continue to aspire to, I not only have the capacity to be grandiose, but I am also saddled with an awareness of the ramifications of my grandiosity as well. This awareness tempers my need for self-importance, but it doesn’t erase it…
My family was patriarchal in both design and execution. My father diligently went to work, while, based upon his salary, position and job locations, we dutifully followed in tow. My mother would be in charge of the food preparation, overcooking the typically brown-colored meal of meat and potatoes, stews and soups (see aforementioned websites). By five p.m. we’d all sit down in our kitchenette, in our heavy, colonial style furniture (from Ethan Allen, of course) forcing down huge tumble-full’s of whole milk while mumbling through agonizingly forced responses about our ‘how our day was’. Afterwards we’d all retreat to our private domains, alone and without comment. It was regiment more than closeness that created these rituals (more like modes of operation) that only my elder sister would later replicate in her own family.
What is striking about my family’s routines is the absence of celebratory and unifying rituals. For the most part --for nothing was ever all or nothing (not even the absence of any rituals) --we did not go to church. We did not go on vacations. We did not go shopping together. We did not experience the majority of life together. We were mostly in our own orbits. We watched a great deal of television. As my brother and I got involved in team sports dinnertime was practically eliminated. Holidays were obligatory affairs, joyless in their purpose and practice. Life was centered on food. As children we all got the opportunity to choose our dinner/dessert on our birthdays. But conversely my parents withheld dinners as punishments as well. In sum, many rituals in our house felt meaningless and arbitrary (we were not the Cunninghams of “Happy Days”) simply because the tone of the household was so oppressive.
We were also not a family of hugs and kisses. On the contrary, my father routinely (and ritualistically) spanked all the children in the name of discipline. But it was I for whom the most lavish punishments were bestowed. He tried belts. He threw groceries. Often he pulled down my pants and underwear to get at my bare-bottom. I was the one his violence was usually directed towards. I was the one who demanded it with my temper tantrums, my continual acting-out behaviors in school, my teasing of my younger brother and, my “demonstrative nature” (my parent’s phrase).
And in me my father’s rage was passed down. Physical displays of caring stopped approximately after I reached early boyhood (age 5). And did not return until my sister’s first fiancé, an extraordinarily lovely Italian man named Dana (who I adored) gave fierce hugs and kisses all around upon entering and departing our home. After Dana’s genuine show of passionado, which shamed my parents into recognizing their coldness, they proceeded perfunctorily to dole out physical affection (hugs and pats) to my brother, my sister and me. Yet, this meager display could hardly compensate for all the years of violence and distance and recrimination. Mi Famiglia, ha, ha, ha…
For certainly both my parents suffered, in Terrence Real’s words, from “covert depression”. Accordingly, one way for my father to compensate for his depression was to be in complete control. Although my father did not view himself as an authoritarian, his detached moods, unresolved childhood traumas and rages dictated the family’s interaction up until my mother’s death (from a heart attack suffered because of her chronic obesity). Consequently, if families have life cycles, we most certainly exhausted ours shortly after my mother died.
Given the design of the nuclear family, a sudden, violent or traumatic end to the cohesiveness as a family would seem to be the rule rather than the exception. So like my mother’s reaction to her sister’s death, I ended all meaningful interaction with my sister, and intermittently with my father and brother, when our mother died.
But allow me to go back to my family’s roles and to clarify and expand. John Bradshaw’s text, On The Family was the first book on psychology to be added to my personal library. In the early nineties I ate it up as nourishment for my soul. In fact, it continues to be my guide as I seek more recovery for myself and recovery tools for families as well. Briefly, Bradshaw’s work highlights the dysfunction of most modern, western, nuclear families. Drawing on Erikson, Maslow, Piaget, Kohlberg, Alice Miller, Virginia Satir, Jerome Bach, Murray Bowen, Patrick Carnes, Pia Mellody, as well as the AA Big Book, he coalesces into a coherent theory why and how shame drives families and individuals to dys-function.
There is no more powerful dysfunctional feeling than shame in our society, in our families and in ourselves. Its spell over us is so profoundly complete that many academics, well-meaning counselors, social workers and of course, most people not in therapy, fear uncovering it in themselves or others. Our dominant culture does not have an adequate language to talk about shame, which of course reifies the power and the hold that shame has in this culture. So when I reached for Bradshaw’s work as I was beginning recovery and therapy, I knew that I was opening a door to an emotional and intellectual understanding and healing that would profoundly mark and change me. It was like my first experience reading Emerson. Completely transformative.
Thanksgiving 1991. My parents home. I came in with a plan: to explain to the family we had communication problems. I was coming off my first year in therapy, recovery-work and my first year living in New York City as a sophomore in college. I was optimistic. I was expecting something good. I was wrong.
Mi familiglia (ha, ha, ha) was not ready for the new me, for “the Scapegoat” to break free of that role (I had indeed failed out of my first year of college --and my dabbling in substance abuse was known to the family). That evening my family all remained in the formal dining room after the Thanksgiving feed and chatted (not the norm). I took the lead by sharing my newfound road to enlightenment.
My father, my mother, my elder sister, her husband and my younger brother were all silent as I described the principles of recovery, my desire for improved family relations and how I had needed to change because I had not coped well in the past. Each revelation was met with a stony silence or with a forced half-grimace and an “Uh-huh,” as if I were informing them that I was going to be a mercenary soldier in the Russian-Afghan War. Finally, my brother-in-law excused himself, as he thought this was “private family business” and that he, “shouldn’t be involved.”
After he left, I plowed on, plainly stating that we all had some problems to work out. At some point my mother started weeping, real tears (not the kind she was accustomed to shedding at the close of yet another romance novel). She was hearing what I was saying, if she couldn’t respond to it. The most adamant defender of the family system was my sister. She was convinced it was me that was messed up (wasn’t the therapy and recovery program evidence enough?) and she didn’t think the conversation needed to continue.
At one point during this exchange I referenced the topical Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings (my sister had become a staunch right winger) mentioning that I considered Senators Hatch and Specter to be a-holes, no, make that “motherfuckers.” This importunate phrase brought my father’s wrath. He suddenly raised his fist in the air, reflexively cocking it as if to hit someone (a moment I am sure no other present will now remember) and held it there for a short second before haltingly bringing it down against the arm of his chair. It had taken all of his 54 years of self-control not to bring it down mightily upon the little-used, $2,500 Ethan Allen dining room table. Finally he spoke with the upmost clarity of diction. “In this house we do not use that kind of language.” He continued through gritted teeth, “In your world you can do as you want, but here you best do as the Romans.”
But alas and alack, infused with the zealotry of my new recovery, I continued berating the crotchety old Senators, “But what are they then, if they aren’t motherfuckers?” My father immediately left the room glowering. The room stilled. The night had taken an ugly turn. Although that shouldn’t have surprised me, as earlier in the evening I had entertained that Dad might share some of his fears. To which he responded with a menacing chill, telling me that he was, “not about to share any of my fears.” That in fact, he would, “never share any of his fears with me.”
After my father’s exit, my brother, who had been quiet except to mumble some tepid support for my sister’s reactionary logic, looked aghast. He was now paralyzed with astonishment and fear. Years of watching me get physically abused by our father had taught him how not to be bullied, but he was unprepared for this. At last my mother finally convinced my father to return and for he and I to hug and reconcile. Our clinch was icy. When we broke there were calls for “unity” and “family” from my sister’s husband. Yet no one else moved to embrace. My mother wept uncontrollably, but still without comment. She’d be dead in 18 months. And I silently vowed to never again share a holiday with my sister.
So there we were: my “Dependent” father, who was abandoned by his father as an infant, left by his mother when he was age 13, completely immersed with my mother (the “Enabler”) who escaped her own family to latch onto a rageaholic, workaholic, and emotionally unavailable abuser when she was 14. My mom (also an addict), unable to support me, whether I was a child being struck violently by her husband, or as an adult son was advocating for a change in the family system. My sister, the first child or “the Hero,” who carried “the family’s dominant values and themes” and will respond vis-à-vis to my father, worried that my shit would rub off on her. And then my brother, the third child, who is “the best symbol of what is going on in the marriage,” without any emotional intelligence, without a clue on how to identify or speak to anything that was going on, continued to sit stupefied. And lastly me, the second child at twenty-six, (an addict-like my mother) fighting off an internal monologue of profanity, swearing off all idealism (at least when I was home) and reluctantly coming to grips with my “family trance,” decidedly miserable over seeing it in action.
I had met up with another meta-rule and/or narrative about my family: we were healthy, functional, happy, and anyone who countered that viewpoint was subject to ostracism. Subsequently I’ve learned that this type of psychological control also increases acting-out behaviors by the children. It was a sickening display of my family’s shame, and the dysfunctional mechanisms to keep that shame in place (predicted by Bradshaw), deeply emblematic of the way we were, and the way we would always be.
But wait, I have not spoken of my family of origin’s operations from a strengths perspective, and I would be sorely deficient not to do so. For although I want to communicate effectively, and to some extent, dramatically, I don’t want to perpetuate the myth that all was wrong all the time. Again, a narrative tells us much more than description or analysis can, because we are a culture of storytellers and of storytelling.
I was 12. Preadolescent. Not yet battling my own demons (see memoir). My mother had set the table for dinner (note that the majority of my deconstruction of my family revolves around the dinner table). Dinner was our normal fare of meat and potatoes, except for my mother’s plate. Instead she had fixed herself a salad (iceberg lettuce, naturally) with low fat Italian dressing and she was drinking water as a substitute for iced tea. She was on a (rare) diet. Maybe day 3 or 4 of the diet.
As we convened, my sister sat down (she was 16) and my father commented to her that she was looking particularly “lovely and trim.” I do not remember these words; my brother actually filled me in about that later. What I do remember is at the beginning of the meal, in the flow of conversation between my parents, my father said to my mother, “Peggy, that’s an awfully large salad, don’t you think?” To which my mother’s face registered equal parts disappointment, surprise and anguish. In a split-second she put her fork down and shoved her salad bowl against the lazy susan in the middle of the table, smashing the bowl in the process. Exclaiming, “I can’t take it. I can’t take it anymore!” she then fled the table and went upstairs to her bedroom.
What happened next I alone could relate (both my brother and my sister had forgotten this part). After the meal (we continued to stay at the dinner table and pick at our food in silence) my father went upstairs. In a hushed state, we could hear the cries and the remonstrations from behind our parents’ bedroom door. This was the first, and only time I could recall my parents actually fighting or having a disagreement in front of us. Normally their relationship was private to us. In fact, I could only recall a single instance when my father ever went to kiss my mother (she was on the phone and actually rebuffed his advance).
My father didn’t return into the family room until much later that evening. He came back chastened and quietly gathered us for this message: “Your mother is going to be alright. We all love mother and we must continue to love and support her no matter if she loses weight or not. I have told your mother that I love her unconditionally and that I don’t want her distressed. Please be aware that she is still upset and probably won’t be coming down here this evening.”
These assertive words so eloquently expressed by my father were exactly the right ones for us to hear. His display of compassion was expressed authentically and without qualification. My father loved my mother dearly, and that was the powerful and true message to us. Granted, this unusual stress was not ultimately handled well (my mother died at 51) yet in that moment of crisis my father acted exactly as I would want to do. An appropriate action in any family context and a noble legacy to pass on. For that I am eternally grateful- no ha, ha, ha needed.