Good Old Fashioned (Dysfunctional) Family Values

I am an only child, which is only one of the demons inspiring my nervous twitches, lack of well adjusted social skills, and a host of other irritating personality traits.

My mother and I get along, for the most part, provided we avoid certain issues and not discuss certain situations. She is a few years beyond fifty, but could easily be mistaken for fifteen years below that. A tap dancer (this year professionally and competitively), she recently got her braces off (no, I don't mean that figuratively), and I'm horrifically proud of her for getting them on in the first place.

However, as most mothers do, she just doesn't understand. Obsessed with expanding my personal wardrobe, pants, tops, sweaters, everything is purchased furiously, frivolously, and frequently. I don't deny her because I am young and such an action I am practically incapable of such an action. But she has trouble realizing that a pair of blue jeans is no replacement for my own personal angst (nothing is, other than graduating from adolescence). No matter how often I try to confess my lack of singular satisfaction through expensively shaped cloth, she shuts her eyes and ears, and feels guilty that only two tank tops could not quench my anger. And the cycle repeats again.

My father has less of an interest in buying my love from the nearest Banana Republic. Him and I argue frequently and viciously because we're so damned alike and are convinced we know what's best for ourselves and each other. And we're never wrong about anything. Ever.

But he does have actions which frequently assault me with false love. He is trying to give me an advantage not within the realm of fashion and ego, and beyond that, make up for all the times he's made an extremely erroneous decision, or needed a Teen Girl's User's Manual. It's usually the latter.

Ahh, there's absolutely no substitute for being emotionally indebted to ones padres, never allowing oneself to become angry at something that warrants anger due to overwhelming guilt, constantly feeling that you cannot live up to standards....

But it's okay. I love my mother. I love my father. It's just going to take a lot of dedication on both sides to come up with an agreement that will allow no one to go crazy, preferably in the company of trained professionals, just in case a riot breaks out.

Dysfunctional family theory is in part informed by a fallacy: that alcoholism and other addictions, as well as domestic violence is just as prevalent in middle-class American families as in disadvantaged ones. That they're not reported as such, or represented is ascribed to denial and a surmise that they're such a social norm that they're not even discussed.

The fact is that addiction of all kinds is less prevalent when there are social checks against it: a working mother who's also involved in community service has simply fewer opportunities to drink than an unemployed homeless man collecting disability checks. (It would also be much more likely that someone would notice liquor on her breath if she were nipping on the sly.) It's true that there are and were successful people who have battled drinking problems and other addictions, notably entertainers or writers. At the same time, most of them weren't in what would be called "normal" circumstances, but in environments that somehow or another supported their lifestyle: Keith Richards at Nellcote, for instance, had not only large amounts of money to spend on himself, but maid service, as well as other servants, a wife who also shared his tastes, and nannies for his three children. Although the Rolling Stones did tour in the early 70's, most of the time Keith didn't even need to get up in the morning if he didn't want to. Not exactly the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit...

But aren't there all these stay-at-home moms hooked on tranquilizers, and businessmen taking N-martini lunches? Nice stereotype...but how many stay-at-home moms are there anymore? Drinking lunches used to be part of the expense-account lifestyle, as well as the well-hidden fifth (or bar) in the office. Kind of hard to stash a bar (or anything larger than a nip) in a cubicle...and taking long offsite lunches on company money is frowned upon, nowadays. Yes, there are people, notably those with borderline personality disorder, who can be incredibly abusive parents and spouses and still maintain that "nothing's wrong" to neighbors and caregivers. But they're usually accessorized by one or more family members who at least seem troubled, at the very least. "It" (Dave Pelzer) may have had a Cub Scout den mother as a mom, but surely a kid who walks around looking unkempt, stealing food, should tip someone off that this particular cub is being raised by wolves.

What seems to be the case is that some writers on recovery (mostly Baby Boomer lesbian feminists) were trying to reconcile the emphasis within AA on job, family and church with their own free-form lifestyles. By portraying Leavittown as a hotbed of addictive behavior, and their own (often abusive) families as the norm, they were able to justify part-time work in an organic food co-op, living with various "domestic partners" (while still maintaining distance from their own families) and sometime participation in a drum circle as being a much more supportive environment than what they left. Black scholars found this idea useful in decrying the "white nuclear family" as being a "decadent dead end", as opposed to the much more nurturing "village" model, where girls are mothers at sixteen, and have their children taken care of by a network of older female relatives. Subsequent popularizations of this notion has led to almost every dissatisfied teen crying "dysfunctional family!" when their parents don't behave in the ways they've decided they should.

This is not to say that there aren't (especially nowadays) more stable lesbian households than some heterosexual ones, or that there aren't unhappy families, but that one should approach this particular body of literature about them with a grain of salt. Because of their families, these authors hold, they have wounds that will never heal and can never quite be as happy as...well, who? It's never quite explained where these magical families are, so quick are they to dismiss every shred of conventional stability as illusory. They are the innocent ones, the suffering ones: the others are evil. The truth is that it's true, once the slate is written on, this is how it's going to be, but what happened is not necessarily a gaping wound for the rest of one's life. Bad families are a dynamic, it takes two to tango, and several more to do the quadrille of general deceit and bad feeling. The way out of this is simply distance and forgiveness.

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