Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Rest of the Story

"How sharper than the serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child."


I haven't been inspired to write here the past couple of days, yet here I sit, typing. Why? Because writing is what I have to do; if it weren't here it would be somewhere else. The standard advice for writer's block, or even writer's procrastination, is to sit down, stare at the blank (screen), and write something, anything. As Lear also said, "Nothing will come of nothing." But out of something, something else may come. Granted, this write-at-all-costs mantra was pre-Internet; the adage was never to write something, anything for instantaneous, theoretically global release.

I've always been fascinated by the attractions and repulsions that operate between people--animal magnetism, as it were. Obviously a lot of what folks like me do professionally is to commiserate, if nothing else, with people for the slings and arrows of romantic entanglements. Those are interesting enough, but arguably parent-child relationships are more powerful in the end. Partners come and go, but parents, siblings and children are for life.

Except when they aren't. I'm always intrigued by family secrets of distancing and estrangement. Siblings who grow up sharing so many intense experiences during impressionable youth may turn out to live totally different lives, perhaps to have little to say to one another, perhaps to squabble bitterly over the inheritance or worse. Through what mysterious genetic and social unfoldings does the black sheep acquire his hue?

I've noted before that parenting gone bad seems to engender some of the worst suffering one sees. The divorced father who can't see his children. The dumbfounded mother who sees her boys turn into drug addicts and criminals. And then there is the puzzling torture of the child who won't communicate at all.

I see one every once in while, a middle-aged father or mother whose child is incommunicado. They may seem harmless enough--a woman whose chronic depression may have made her emotionally unavailable to her children, or a man whose alcoholism and workaholism may have left family scars. Their child (or sometimes all the children, or sometimes one child and not the others) not only won't maintain a relationship, but supposedly won't even grant a reason why. Calls and letters not answered, and no forwarding address. The silence is more exquisitely painful than any denunciation.

Was there some unspeakable atrocity of abuse? Most things in life may be atoned for if undertaken with sufficient sincerity, but perhaps not all. Or is this a case of an unforgiving child who has embraced the path of ruthlessness? How much "honor," in the Ten Commandments sense, is owed to the dishonorable mother or father? To the merely inadequate mother or father?

Family secrets. In encountering a person one confronts a subjective world unto itself, and yet there are parallel worlds giving onto a mutual universe. The "history" one obtains one is merely one volume of a potentially infinite library that is a family. The empty chairs in the office may speak alternative volumes. Their would-be occupants may sit in other, similar offices, next to other, similarly empty chairs.


Anonymous said...

Not knowing the entire drama that engulfs and constitutes the life of a person: I think that's the interminably frustrating thing about life in general; and I would think infinitely more so in psychiatry when the shallow coordinates of a fragment of narrative often only reflect blinding white light without the nuances of depth.

It's possible to plumb the far reaches and depths of an infinitesimelly tiny grain of a person's life and be stupendously ignorant of the infinite other grains that make up that person's universe.

It's a puzzle....are we to conjecture and hope we serendipitously hit on the correct solution? Or just writhe in frustration as solutions continually elude us and false clues clutter our perceptions?

Retriever said...

That quote v much front and center right now. Good post. I never understood the play until I had college aged kids. Who inflict far more cruelty on a parent they now despise than any narcissistic fantasies of emotional absence deserve. Thinkng today that crocodile daddies hav the right Ida as i write out checks for college tuition for the ungrateful (that will wipe out my retirement savings)

fraise said...

While some parents certainly are mistreated by their children, there are also parents who will invent stories of their long-suffering goodness and the "astonishing" incommunicado of their children. Narcissists do not live in a vacuum -- some of them also become parents.

My mother tells her therapists stories of a seductive, unintelligent daughter who has succeeded in life by lying, cheating, stealing from her parents, and, of course, seducing those in power. Once this daughter had everything in hand to start off life, she cast away her parents like so much dross, only contacting them in times of dire need.

This daughter does not actually exist, but apparently she shares the same name as me. I long ago told my mother to take good care of her imaginary daughter, because her real one was tired of trying to convince her mother of her existence, an existence that everyone but her mother could see and attest to. The existence of an honest, sincere, hard-working, independent woman who took out loans and worked odd jobs rather than bother her parents; a woman who tried to reach her mentally ill (diagnosed BPD) mother even when her mother accused her of being a whore and told her she deserved to die; a woman who finally gave up when, after a brush with death, the only thing her mother could say to her was, "you should have died, it was a sign from God, I've always said you were worthless. I even tell my therapists about what an awful child you are."

It can go both ways; the places may be switched; it may be the child behaving manipulatively. But not always.