Produced for PBS by Craig Gilbert in 1973, An American Family was a broadcasting experiment that has since become one of the most critically-analysed television series. Unlike latter-day “reality TV” shows, the participants, the Southern California Loud family, were filmed in their own environment, living their own “real” lives; its current counterparts transplant real people either into completely unreal situations (Survivor, Temptation Island, etc.) or into bizarre simulated contrivances of “real life” (MTV’s The Real World, Big Brother.)

Filming took place over the course of seven months, mostly in the Loud family home in Santa Barbara, California. A total of 300 hours were filmed, which was then edited down to 12 one-hour “episodes” for broadcast.

The experiment could be considered either a success or a failure. It was surely a success as entertainment. Few other experiences compare to watching the Louds drink and dysfunction (after the show aired they complained that the editing misrepresented them). I found watching them fascinating mainly because they seemed to be people whose lives had very little content. They seem to have trouble communicating for the simple reason that there is nothing to communicate.

As a social experiment, it was a failure. In the course of filming, the family members’ relationships with one another clearly showed more and more strain, and they even seemed to grow more and more listless and bored. There is some debate about how much of a role the constant presence of cameras in their lives had in the breakup of William and Pat Loud’s marriage, or for that matter, in their son Lance’s coming out of the closet. It’s my sense that the family was a shambles to begin with, though being under scrutiny may have hastened its collapse.

Lance Loud was perhaps the most interesting member of the family. He has the distinction of being the first openly gay “character” on TV. In the late 1970s he went on to form punk band The Mumps. He died of complications resulting from hepatitis C Dec. 22, 2001.

I was woken up by the normal chorus of morning sounds. Normal for my family, which, when complete, is made up of two parents, five school-age children, one toddler, two foster babies and myself. The dog was on the sofa bed with me, snoring (probably taking a break from being manhandled). Children were running in and out of the kitchen, stopping for cereal, fruit snacks and juice...spilling, needing a band-aid or hair brushed...I curled up in my blankets, and squeezed my eyes shut knowing that there was no way I would fall back asleep. Someone had forgotten their knapsack at Aunt Betsy's and Tiger brought her kittens into the garage again, requiring one of us to bring them back to the porch. As I was stumbling into the kitchen for coffee, the dog threw up on the rug.

In my house, it's best to stay out of the way of the human throng while everyone gets ready for school. By the time I was out of bed, everyone but Kayla had gone (I drive her to her school, which starts later). Before we left, we watched flag ceremonies, clips of memorials being held and montages of video taken on September 11th of last year. I tried to observe a moment of silence but was interrupted when the dog tried to eat one of Tiger's kittens and was attacked, causing it to run yelping into the family room where it cowered behind the recliner. On the road, the man on the radio told us to put on the headlights in remembrance of the victims of 9-11. Looking at the other cars, I noticed that most had their brights shining and I turned mine on.

"Christa, do you know why we're supposed to drive with the headlights on?" Kayla asked, her emphasis on the y-o-u, the standard puberty challenge: What do you know and how much attitude can I give you?

"It's like when you drive in a funeral train with your headlights on. It lets other people know that you are mourning or remembering someone who died. Today, I have the headlights on to let people know that I'm thinking about the thousands of people who died last year."

There is little rest for the biggest sister, even one as seldom-seen as I tend to be. Something always needs doing in a house with eleven people in it, and so another person will soon be put to work answering questions or changing a baby or heeding the call of "look at me look you're not looking look!" The only quiet time comes at night, when my siblings are sleeping upstairs, my father has dozed off in his recliner in front of the ten-o'clock news and the day's last pot of coffee is being brewed. And sometimes there is no quiet at all: Joshua's ear hurts or Alyssa is hungry or Kayla won't leave Patricia and Hannah alone. I am the only one with real free time. While everyone else is at school or work, I am free to drive my father's little red pickup all over. Daytona Beach, Florida is only eighteen miles away and it's an hours drive to Orlando, but I am a sucker for company and I get lonely and then I leave and when I see them they are older and we know each other less.

That afternoon, the kids trickled home from school, dumped their things by the hall-tree and generally went haywire while my father started looking into dinner. Michael and Hannah both asked me why I couldn't play video games with them, and Hannah started to cry when dad said that he wanted to talk to me and that they should go play in the family room. I took her aside and told her very, very secretly that I suck at Nintendo games and that I would go outside with her later to look at the kittens. Thus satisfied, she ran off and my father began Standard Fun Lecture #1:

"He-llo! Christa, you nimrod, I keep telling you, if you moved down here you could live at your grandmother's rent free. And see her more, and your brothers and sisters more, and me more, but do you listen? No. I just don't know about kids today and I'm not getting any younger, I'd like to see grandkids before I DIE, he-llo. Look at the dog. Rascal wants you to come live down here, dontcha boy, good boy. Flo-ri-da. You could go swimming every day."

Dad opened a box of rice, poured it into a pan and grabbed the Windex off of the cue to duck and cover.

"If I wanted any shit from you, I'd squeeze your head...SQUIRT...if you lived here, we could find you a nice family-minded boy...SQUIRT SQUIRT... at the church who would provide for you in the way in which I would see fit...SQUIRT...PATRICIA, GO OUTSIDE! I'm serious, you know. I don't want to put a crimple in your wimple, Peanut, but I'm your father, I know what's best for you. New York won't make you happy."

He went back to making dinner and I was shiny and streak free, as well as at a loss for words. How am I supposed to choose that option? I was saved by my brother Dean, home from the skate-park, who came into the kitchen to harass me. I slapped him upside the head and kicked him in the shin, he yelled 'GIT SAI!', Judo chopped me and I was free to push the question of where I will end up out of my brain for a while. We sparred and my father shook his head, asking himself "What foul brood hath sprung from my loins!"

My stepmother came home from the daycare center she owns, bringing Alyssa and Baby-Josh, the fosterlings, and my littlest brother, Joshua. Michael remembered that he had a present for me: a bag of the gemstones he finds at his school (the ones I like so much). Kayla whispered that his gems are just pieces of broken beer bottles, so I punched her in the arm and told her to shut her big stupid face. It's the way things work in a family that size: I don't tell Dean how heart wrenching getting older can be, he doesn't tell Kayla that everything that seems important in middle school is just crap, she doesn't tell Michael that his gems are nothing but glass and so on, though I suppose it's all about growing up, sex and Santa and death.

After dinner and cleanup, I fed Alyssa (who has known no other family but mine), my stepmother readied the little kids for bedtime and, after something resembling quiet settled over the house, my father fell asleep in his recliner. I sat in the other recliner with Alyssa while she let out a series of loud belches which culminated with her throwing up on my bare shoulder. I Windexed myself and forgave her - it's impossible to hold a grudge against eyes that pretty. She fell asleep and I shared her warmth, patting her back when she wriggled then repeating as necessary, until I also slept.

Ah, if only my father knew what's best for me...I suppose I would first need to know the answer to that question. Family versus freedom and excitement versus whatever the other thing I feel is called. I want both, which will never be possible. Until the time when I'm forced to make a decision, I'll jump back and forth between my life and another desirable life that I've only experienced the fringes of. Can't have it all, I know, and nothing is perfect...oh, how well I know that, but let me dream of a halfway point where distances don't matter and I can eat my cake and have it, too. While I imagine, I'll exist in happy confusion and depressed satisfaction. Because Limbo ain't all that bad.

A Portrait in Watercolor
Circa. 2005

Paul grabs the remote control for the television and hastily changes the channel. He has had enough of this program and is determined to find something more to his liking. He gets really angry every time that commercial for CARE comes on and shows him pictures of starving children.

"Why don't their parents get fucking jobs? I should go there and lathe the motherfuckers."

His beer is empty, so he places it down on the coffee table next to the eight empty cans already in place. He yells to his wife to bring him another beer, and moments later she slowly meanders into the room with a cold can of beer. Her skin is pale white and her struggles are easily noticed by even the most casual onlooker. She fights to think of just one reason to get through just one more day.

"Here's your beer, Paul."

"You want to do it later?"

"I don't think I could handle it emotionally."

"I get up every morning to put in a ten hour day at the cock processing plant and you can't handle it emotionally? Go take another pill, Ellen. Go take another pill."

"I need those pills for my depression and anxiety."

"Yeah, and I need these beers just to deal with your raggedy ass. Why don't you try getting up and going to work sometime?"

"I can't look at those people every day. I have my job working for my sister's craft store, but she lets me come in when I'm feeling up to it and stay home when I'm not."

"What kind of liberal, namby-pamby crap is that? I should lathe off your head and puke shavings down your neck. Get the hell away from me, I'm trying to watch some kind of cop drama here."

Paul is not assuaged by her departure, and even after she is safely back in the kitchen, he follows her, nearly tripping over his seven year old son, who is on the kitchen floor with tools and wood building a spice rack for his mother.

"The kid smells like shit, Ellen. When's the last time you changed his diaper?"

"He's seven. He doesn't wear diapers anymore."

"I don't remember potty training the little bastard."

"We didn't."

"Who did?"


"Have you been mixing your pills with liquor again?"

"I can't. You had them build that cabinet for the liquor with doors that are only six inches wide and then stuffed it behind the bulkhead."

"Yeah, I lathed that fucker in there real good."

The front door opened, and Chelsea, the fifteen year old daughter of the family, struts in wearing a very short pink skirt and a shirt with spaghetti straps that barely comes down below her peach-shaped breasts.

"Hi Dad. Hi Mom. Hi Tommy."

"Fail any tests today?"

"Just one, but they say I'll pass because they are grading on a curve because everyone failed because there was like a gas leak and some of us might not be able to have children either, and that would be like a bummer but I don't really want to have children because I think giving birth would be really yucky and look at mom, she's like fucked beyond belief."

"Chelsea! What did I say about that word!" screamed her father.

"Yeah, I know, use 'lathe' instead because it is classy. 'Mom is lathed beyond belief.' Happy?"

"Honey," interjected Chelsea's mother, "What is this about a gas leak and you not having children?"

"I guess it was really bad and everyone had to go home because it was really toxic so we only had a half day."

"Half day? What kind of liberal namby-pamby crap is that!" screamed Paul.

"I guess a janitor died from it, which is like sad and stuff."

"No it isn't. Those kinds of people always end up on welfare or social security or some kind crap that lathes away my hard earned paycheck. Honorable to die on the job before you become a lathing burden on hard working Americans like me."

"Yeah, well. Whatever."

"If it was a half day, where have you been until six o'clock?"

"I was lathing Brandon Turner. We did it anal so he didn't have to use a condom."

Paul crushed his beer can and threw it at the wall. "You little slut! What did I tell you about staying away from boys? They are all dirty little bastards!"

"It felt real good in my ass, dad. Can I go upstairs and play with my Care Bears now?"

"Go up there and don't come down for two weeks or I will beat you with a belt so hard no one will ever want to even look at your sorry ass again!"

"Oh, and Chelsea," reminded her mother, "please don't smoke drugs in your room anymore. Your Aunt Martha is coming by on Monday and she has asthma."

Paul turned around and tripped over Tommy again. Cursing loudly, he grabbed another beer and opened it while looking down at his young son.

"Damn, that is one lathed up, half-assed spice rack you're building there."

"Daddy, I have poop in my pants three days now."

"Tell your mother. My blood is up!"

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