What We Learn We Read Books About Families |

“I don’t want to talk about my family,” I announced to the therapist at the beginning of my very first counseling session. “I had a perfect childhood.”

I wasn’t there to marinate ad nauseam in some theoretical Freudian stew of discontent that didn’t actually exist. I just had some patterns that I recognized as unhealthy and could use a bit of help breaking.

I didn’t understand the therapist’s inscrutable little smile for a long time, but now, after about two decades of mulling over, dissecting, analyzing, and working out my complicated family dynamics (complicated family dynamics are universal; it’s only in the details that they vary, to borrow from Tolstoy’s famous quote) and how those patterns inevitably sprang from them, I think I might.

I had an idyllic childhood—spending endless weekends camping out together on a literal deserted island tucked away in a lesser-known section of Georgia’s sprawling Lake Lanier, waterskiing as my siblings and I spotted for one another one by one, catching our dinner every night and cooking it on the bonfire with our parents, building forts and swimming, and taking gleeful DIY mud baths with my brother and sister in the lake.

I had a traumatic childhood—my sweet but flawed alcoholic father drinking himself to death when he was just 49 and I was barely into my teens; an abusive alcoholic stepfather who unpredictably vacillated between hero and monster; a harrowing court custody battle to end the parental rights of the brute, who legally adopted us for those few terrifying years.

My family gave me some of the best, most foundational memories of my life—and some of the worst. I am shaped by them in positive ways I haven’t even fully scratched the surface of; I work hard to be different and correct old unhealthy imprinting from them. They are the people who know me best—and least. I love my family of origin more than any humans on this earth, save my family of choice, my husband. Yet as adults I am estranged from my sister, on shaky ground with my mom, and my brother and I labor to find things we have in common besides the deep love we feel for each other.

As my friend and author Ann Garvin (and quantum mechanics) says, two things can be true at once. Family dynamics, as I mentioned, are complicated.

Therapy, it turned out, was simply a continuation of a process I’d begun early in my life, as early as my first Beverly Cleary book, where I puzzled out whether I was the Beezus to my little brother’s annoying Ramona, or the pesky Ramona to my big sister’s Beezus. Stories were the microscope I took to my family—are we like this thing? This one? Or this? Were we like the family fiercely held together by a brave and determined mom against an evil that turned her husband berserker, like in Stephen King’s The Shining? Did our early troubles with my father and stepfather mean that my family, like Garp’s in John Irving’s wild ride of a novel, was “pre-disastered”? (Spoiler alert: Nope.)

Books helped me examine my own family dynamics from the safe remove of someone else’s. Mommie Dearest lent drastic perspective to my complaints about my own mom’s perceived flaws. Little Women left me bereft that I didn’t have quite the same extraordinary emotional resonance with my siblings, but Flowers in the Attic showed me that it was okay because there was such a thing as being too close. Dammit, it is a Freudian stew.

As I got older, with objective eyes I could see how the weight of duty and expectations Don Corleone laid upon his children in The Godfather led each one down a tragic path, and remind myself it isn’t selfish or immoral to pursue passions of my own—which gave me the strength to light out, alone of all my practical, traditional family, from our Georgia hometown for the bright lights of the Big Apple to chase a mercurial career in theater.

The caustic but hilarious barbs of the grieving Foxman family in Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You gave me a fresh appreciation for the laser humor and wit that are a hallmark of my family, a comfortable veneer we put over the raw, aching love we all feel for each other but aren’t going to make a Hallmark production out of.

Anna Quindlen’s Black and Blue let me finally face and work through the painful legacy of abuse my family didn’t talk about. Toni Morrison and Celeste Ng and Brit Bennett helped me see the corrosive cost of those secrets—and the transcendent grace of authenticity and forgiveness.

Story is how we gain insight, clarity, and understanding about every facet of our own lives. Through immersing ourselves into the tortuous dynamics of fictional families, we can begin to examine all the ways our own families may have influenced and shaped us—for good and ill—and travel emotional roads that may be far too rough, unpaved, or intimidatingly uncharted for us to venture onto in real life.

In my own writing career I’ve come to see that all the stories I write are about family, too; I’m still trying to understand and figure out the people we are tied to and didn’t choose, who may reflect our values or not, be close to us or not, love us well or poorly or even seemingly not at all.

For all their imperfections and failings, the deaths of a thousand cuts or the sweeping scythes of major upheaval, there’s something powerful and indelible about those foundational filial ties that forces us toward growth and expansiveness—a lifelong Zen lesson in learning how to love and accept those we may not understand (or even like sometimes). Even if we can’t always keep them in our lives.

Meanwhile I keep seeking new perspectives and comfort and understanding in books. I read Jennifer Weiner’s In Her Shoes and I remember all the wonderful fun and unfettered love my sister was capable of. I read Nadia Hashimi’s A House without Windows and I’m so grateful for the heroic way my imperfect but loving mother took care of us even when she was scared to death for our safety, for our finances, for our future. I read Vincent and Theo by Deborah Heiligman and I am grateful for the iron grip my brother and I keep on our relationship even when life takes us down wildly divergent paths.

Sometimes the thicket between those paths is too dangerous to tread in real life, too fraught or untrodden or overgrown. But books can forge a way through—the transformative power of story frees us to love more deeply and understand the people who shaped us.

Featured image: @tonymeyers via Twenty20

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