ALL IN THE FAMILY
A recent New York Yankees radio promotion employed a narrative structure involving estranged brothers who had not spoken to each other for twenty years. But then when one of the brothers acquires free tickets to a Yankee event and offers to take his brother, the rift is instantly healed.
That this minor promotional campaign chose to deliver its message by highlighting family dysfunction is, to say the least, odd. Yet here was some script writer who believed that this scenario would ring true to audiences. What was he tapping into?
It’s doubtful that the United States, in elevating the family to sacred status, was special. But maybe it was insofar as it was responding to certain persistent threats to family life here, e.g., individualism, geographic mobility and the pressure on extended families posed by urban living. Perhaps we found reverential attitudes reassuring amidst a turbulent society.
Family farms, family businesses, family vacations, family loyalty, family reunions, family values – all evoke warm feelings, identify a set of fundamental relationships that we celebrate. We view the family as a source of caring, instruction, comfort, emotional support and financial assistance – in short a sanctuary against a cold and often impersonal society.
Yet most all recognize there’s another side to the story, a less edifying one for sure. Probably at no time in our history have we been willing to explore this issue as much as in recent decades. Therapists tease out troubling family dynamics from among the millions who seek their help. Confessional memoirists reveal family secrets and often perversion that once would never have seen the light of day. Sitcoms playfully deal with seemingly idiosyncratic family situations while policy makers worry about the social costs and consequences of domestic violence and dysfunctional families.
But it’s at the ground level where I’m normally positioned that I hear numerous tales of family disharmony and disruption. Each time I’m surprised as details are offered and frictions of long-standing exposed. Here are people I respect, identify with – solidly middle-class Americans who openly reveal destructive fissures within their families: A brother who has been out of touch for over twenty years; his children and their whereabouts unknown; a child who moved out years ago and hasn’t been heard from since; feuding sides of a family who’ve not communicated for years; invitations to family members for holiday get-togethers that go unanswered; family gatherings where warring factions are barely able to keep the peace; children (mostly women) caring for ailing, elderly parents, who receive little or no assistance from siblings (usually brothers) families torn apart by the provisions of a will.
It saddens me when I hear these stories. Perhaps we’ve expected too much from familial ties and networks of relatives. Sentimentality simply may blind us to the realities and challenges of family co-existence. Perfect families probably don’t exist and never have. Indeed, escaping from the emotional pressure cooker that the family often becomes can be a positive development altogether liberating.
The family will, because it serves often as a crucible of comfort, caring and connection, remain part of our lives. It may be our last line of defense against assaults from the outside world even while it disappoints and damages us.
Enter – but at your own risk.