Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

Thursday, July 11


Julia Lambert relishes what seems like a perfect life at the start of Cost, the novel by Roxana Robinson. A college professor, landscape painter and mother, she strives to observe and appreciate details in everyday routine: “The extraordinary loveliness of the world, how it was infinite and generous in its reach, how it could be soft and glistening, tangled and dense, velvety and bright.” That beautiful life spirals out of control and the novel's pointed insights and exquisite writing offer a model for any writer hoping to analyze family dynamics.

The book takes on the character of a holiday get-together, a family of grown adults who have not seen one another in a while and must overcome the distances that have developed. There are competing interests among two sets of spouses and two brothers with multiple and abrupt points of view, lending a sense of urgency as the family endures a roller coaster of emotions and questions revolving around guilt, shame, longing and lost trust. Robinson has a knack for suddenly, casually dropping eye-opening details from the past with a sentence or two.

Another son brings his brother's addiction to Julia's attention while she entertaining her parents at her cabin in Maine. Before hearing about Jack's addiction, her chief worry is the cognitive deficiencies of her neurosurgeon father and once-competent mother and how “they were starting to seem like strangers.” Both parents have a glimmer of awareness and Katherine, the mother, reflects on her losses:  “The small hard, bright facts, like nails that should connect it to the rest of her life, were missing. The place where her memory had been was gone, blurrily erased, like a window grayed by mist. … This was happening gradually, as though pieces of her mind were breaking off and floating away, like ice in a river.”  Still, Katherine is intent on keeping her condition to herself while mourning the loss of self, thinking about “how few new things she would do, how many things she would never do again…. Her world had narrowed.”

Despite her dementia, Kathrine senses the family's divides - between her daughter and ex-husband, between her two daughters and two grandsons. She mourns the loss of a close connection with Julia and wonders why her two daughters do not get along. She had once hoped that her daughters' disdain for each other were a phase and might end, but the attitudes were entrenched. “Hostility in the family seemed like such a waste. But she’d learned years ago that she could do nothing to fix this.” She appreciates time with Julia despite the inevitable flaws. “One thing you learned as a parent was humility.” 

Julia’s beautiful life falls apart that summer, exposing cracks. Initially in denial about the severity of Jack's problems, she insists that the entire family must confront her son at the Maine cabin, hoping that a family intervention might bring Jack to his senses. She also reaches out to Wendell, her ex-husband who has since remarried – both had affairs before their divorce – and a sister whom she rarely sees. She relies on the older brother, Steven, to deliver Jack to the cabin while shoving aside any interest or discussion about that son's work as an environmental activist and plans to apply to law school. Julia keeps talking about “we,” noting “Once we start, I guess we can’t stop it” and Steven realizes he has lost all agency for the endeavor: “he understood they had become partners.” He cares about his mother, gently confiding his concerns about Jack and divulging his own history with drugs, a problem quietly conquered without the support or knowledge of the family. 

Julia strives to be loving and supporting but sees her life was separate. “When your children were small, you tried to conceal your doubts and fears, your pettiness and failures. You tried to be what they needed – strong and certain, pure and loving. Of course they learned quite soon who you were – weak, uncertain, impatient, ungenerous. There was nothing of your character they did not know. Though there were parts of your life you kept to yourself…. There were secrets that should die with people.” 

Two family members, both the elderly mother and the addicted son, have a tenuous grasp on reality. Katherine, while pleasant, is confused and refuses to admit her challenges. “It felt precarious but exciting to carry on like this, to engage, ask questions. She felt as though she were flying, out in the wind, tied to something below by a thread. There was a continuous risk that she’d be found out, the air currents might suddenly tip her to the earth.”  She feels sly, moving through what is a slippery sense of time and space: “The thing was not to pause. It was like walking a tightrope: never think about falling, never stop moving.” 

She panics about losing memory. “Who were you if you had no past? If you existed nowhere but in this room, right now?” 

Katherine’s husband, Edward, as a retired neurologist recognizes that the outcome for those diagnosed with either heroin addiction or dementia is bleak. He grieves his wife’s decline as she repeatedly expresses newfound shock after being reminded about Jack’s addiction.  “He felt as though a blazing mirror had been held up to him. It was as though his entire life was being reassessed by someone else. He was powerless to control it, forced to observe it.” 

He also finds himself grieving that he never took the time to understood his wife, her needs and dreams. “The ideas was a kind of shock, that there might be another, alternate view of their life together. He’d always seen himself as the center of things, moving across the landscape of their life like a roiling storm center on a weather map.” Belatedly, he finds himself wondering if Katherine “might have been at the center of another system, possibly just as strong, just as roiling, but invisible on his map.” He concludes, “Getting older, it was impossible to see things the way you’d always seen them before.” Once renowned in his field, Edward feels rudderless, “Which is what age did to you, it stripped you of what you’d had, of your presence in the world.” 

The family is not close and all members distrust attempts for closeness. Growing up, Julia and her sister, Harriet, were discouraged from showing feelings, and the latter questions why society values close family ties. “What if your family happened to be made up of people with whom you had little in common, whose company you didn’t enjoy? Why wasn’t your family equally to blame, for not being close to you?” Both sisters tend to blame their father, Edward, and Julia assesses him. “He let nothing go by. He had to correct the world.” 

The intervention leads to a stint in rehab and eventual failure. Wendell's fury grows with futile attempts to convince Jack to listen and acknowledge the seriousness of his problem. “The way he acts, not looking at us, not talking to us, not admitting what he’s done, as though he’s too cool to deal – he acts contemptuous of us. … He devalues himself, the whole enterprise of having him and raising him – he acts as though it was all worthless. He doesn’t care about any of it…. He’s contemptuous of everything we’ve ever done as parents.” 

The struggle overwhelms the family and Julia slowly realizes that her life will never be simple or content again. “The unbearable pathos of objects. It was so strange that they all looked just as they had yesterday, though everything around them had been caught up in violent change. It was like a neutron bomb: a huge detonation, shattering all the humans but leaving the objects intact.”

Jack’s trouble rapidly spins out of control during the novel, at great cost for Julia. By the end, Julia wonders if she shares her father’s domineering presence. The sisters regularly accuse him of not being generous but in the end, he alone extends generosity that can only partially cover the economic costs that Jack's addiction delivers to Julia.  

Stripped of denial, Julia accepts the circumstances of Jack’s life and her own role with resignation.  “She believed in nothing so simplistic or logical as a natural moral system, no abstract code meeting out judgment. She didn’t think this was a punishment for adultery, nor for poor mothering, nor for her many sins, accruing over the years to a sum that required, by some terrible accounting, the unthinkable payment.”  Beauty no longer distracts her or gives her solace and instead, “Humility lay over everything like a gray mist.” 

She tries not to blame herself, but then, “of course her fault. She was his mother.” 

Thursday, January 18

Collateral damage

Despite or maybe because of his self-centered ways, an Irish poet attracts female fans in The Wren, The Wren by Anne Enright. After the wife falls ill, Phil McDaragh leaves home and two daughters who are left wondering what they did wrong. Pain, distance and a tolerance for abuse reverberate through three generations. The poet leaves the country, conceding his writing is nostalgic. He writes only about Ireland because “You can’t leave a place like that,” Phil said. “It’s always with you.” He travels to Italy, where it’s claimed he abused another poet, and to the United States, where he marries a student. 

Phil disappoints any who admire and support him. His daughter, Carmel, and his only granddaughter, Nell – conceived by a mother with no husband as a means to defeat loneliness – narrate most of the story, with Phil’s poetry scattered in between. Midway in the novel, Phil describes a childhood that includes animal cruelty, an abusive brother, rejection of a neighbor girl whom he once adored and a mentor’s disappointment with his decision to become a poet rather than join the priesthood. “I thought, at twelve years old, that I would never forget the look on the old priest’s face, that I would set my course by it. Now, I now the indelible thing was the glance I exchanged with the badger pup, as he waited for the fatal blow to fall. Nothing in my life, before or since, has matched that connection. It was a peak of understanding from which my whole existence, with its loves and false joys and tedious losses, has slowly fallen away.” Only Phil’s feelings matter, nothing else. Beautiful words cannot compensate for brutal ways.

Despite irregular correspondence with his family, the daughter and his only granddaughter ponder the man's legacy and words, often troubled by sweet words and descriptions of nature masking the lies and suffering of a restrictive community. “Phil's hands shaped the air in front of his rotting chest as he talked of the little Irish wren, and there as just a whisper of alcohol there, softening his tongue and wetting those mischievous, fond eyes. It was so easy to hate this man - the facts spoke for themselves - but it was still hard to dislike him. And it was devastatingly easy to love him. To flock around and keen when he died, because all the words died with him.”

The internet exposes bad behaviors that are far less tolerated decades later. Carmel searches online for an interview with her father broadcast in the early 1980s and discovers the hypocrisies of another era. The interviewer fawns, suggesting that Phil has a great understanding of women and Phil agrees. Laughing, Carmel decides that her father is "slightly creepy” and perhaps she was better off with him removed for so long from her life. Such observations contribute to breaking the family's cycle of adoration and self-abuse. 

Letting go of the past, Carmel welcomes her free-spirited daughter while acknowledging that “She had not been a good mother…. All the love in the world would not make her a good mother. It was always such a wrangle. She could not hold her daughter, and she could not let her go.”  The two women move on from past quarrels and contradictions, misunderstandings and painful memories to regard each other’s emotions and work a bit harder at getting along. 

Thursday, August 3


A child can develop resilience despite domestic violence, neglect and abandonment, poverty and inequality.

In Hang the Moon by Jeannette Walls, Sallie Kincaid is born into a comfortable life in a small, early 20th century Virginia town that is run by her father, known as the Duke, and his sheriff brother-in-law. Soon after her mother dies, the Duke marries a woman who resents Sallie, especially after she has a son who prefers music and education to fishing, hunting, risk-taking and rough-housing.  

Tough and matter-of-fact, never bitter, Sallie adores her father and accepts that he wants a strong son to resume control of the family business – a general store that organizes county moonshine sales. After the death of her mother, the Duke's second wife, all Sallie wants is to be part of a tight family. So she respects and gets along with her half-brother, Eddie. She follows her father’s orders to mentor Eddie on toughness, and the two have a wagon accident that nearly kills him. Her father sends Sallie away to live with her mother’s sister, providing minimal support. The child assumes the move is temporary, helping her aunt scrub wash to get by. 

Education is an afterthought in the poor community, though a teacher takes a liking to the intelligent girl and relies on her to help with younger students and offering advice that Sallie remembers years later: “teachers don’t know everything, but as long as they stay a step ahead of the students, the students think they do.”

The father sends for Sallie a decade later after the stepmother’s death. Teenaged Sallie is resourceful and loyal, but the father envisions one path for girls, and that is marriage. He expects her to tutor the brother, but Eddie knows far more than she does. She takes advantage of his lessons, but also worries about his values, once asking, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, is it always smart to let everyone know it?” The boy replies, “Absolutely. Nothing is more important than the truth.”  

The father marries a third time. Eddie adores the new stepmother and a baseball player friend, and Sallie longs for a “paycheck job,” one where she showed up, worked the hours, and collected a paycheck, allowing her to send money to her struggling aunt. Sallie convinces her father to let the stepmother tutor the brother and make Sallie wheelman – collecting payments from the many land tenants. 

As an adult, Sallie learns her father kept many secrets. A black tenant is another half-brother. Her aunt resorted to prostitution after losing the wash business and is mother of half-sister/cousin, a long-time servant. Her father shot her mother after a domestic dispute.  

After the Duke’s death, the stepmother quickly remarries the baseball player and agrees that Sallie invite the maternal aunt, a “fallen woman,” into the family home. Eddie and the Duke’s sister protest, and Sadie argues for forgiveness. “People who’ve never gone without find it easy to pass judgment on those who’ve struggled.” 

The Duke’s sister and her sheriff husband take control of the business, battling with the stepmother, regarded as an outsider, for guardianship over Eddie. The aunt makes the stepmother’s life unbearable, prompting the woman to flee and Eddie to commit suicide. 

Next, an older half-sister and preacher husband take control of the family business, insisting on enforcing Prohibition rules and hiring a ruthless security officer to end moonshine production. Profits plummet and tenants become desperate, testing Sallie’s conscience as wheelman. “It’s when the boss asks you to do something you know to be wrong and you do it anyways. That sort of work whittles away at the soul.” 

The sister dies of cancer and Sallie takes control of a failing enterprise, remembering old lessons as she struggles to learn who to trust. She recalls trying to save up for a gun when leaving with her impoverished aunt and a schoolmate offering to let her help his family harvest and sell chestnuts for six cents a basket. “The frost had knocked the nuts out of the trees and the ground was thick with them. Mr. Webb told us we had to make haste, seeing as how bear, deer, boar, and people would all be fighting over these chestnuts and in a couple of days they’d be gone.“ She needs thirty-four large baskets to buy the gun, but comes up a bit short.

Sallie visits the family to collect her share, fulling expecting them to avoid payment. The quiet, stern man advises that the price of chestnuts was not what he had expected, with a blight killing off trees to the north and chestnuts in short supply. The shortage means chestnut prices went up, and he pays her seven cents per basket. “Some folks say they hate to be proved wrong, but I was never happier to be mistaken.” 

Based on such experiences – at times, the novel reads as though a series of short stories – Sallie develops her own moral code, running the illegal business but discouraging lies, corruption and long-time disputes. She is quick to forgive and move on, and that policy applies to the paternal aunt who long made life difficult for Sallie, her mother and her aunt. Sallie leads the family and tenants on producing and running moonshine into nearby Roanoke. “Outlaw. Rumrunner. Bootlegger. Blockader. I don’t for one second forget that what we are doing is illegal, but legal and illegal and right and wrong don’t always line up. Ask a former slave.” She adds: “Sometimes the so-called law is nothing but the haves telling the have-nots to stay in their place.”  

She maintains the operation doesn’t involve stealing or coercion. “Just helping out the people of Claiborne County who through no fault of their own are in an awful bind. Obey the law and starve. Or break the law and eat. Not a lot to ponder there.”  

For Sallie, family is sacred, and she realizes her father “whose approval I so craved” did not feel the same. The Duke “loved being loved, but he never truly loved anyone back. He took what he wanted from people, then once he got it, cast them aside.” 

The historical novel is bittersweet, optimistic and certainly idealistic about bootlegging and a woman running a business in the 1920s. Sallie succeeds by embracing all members of her family and community, wayward in so many ways, as long as they get along and work to love and protect the whole.  

Friday, December 16

Hell within


The Ghetto Within by Santiago H. Amigorena describes a carefree man leaving Poland to start a new home in Buenos Aires in 1928. His mother expects weekly updates about his new life, but Vicente scoffs, and despite his Jewish heritage, Vicente and friends scoff at the old-fashioned ways of their Jewish parents. Early on, Vicente makes halfhearted attempts to convince his mother and other family members to flee Warsaw, and as the decade progresses, he mostly stops writing. By 1938, her letters stop, too.   

Vincente’s indifference and scoffing soon transform into despair as news about the war in Europe and atrocities gradually filter through. He receives two final letters from his mother, in 1940 and the other in 1941, describing deteriorating conditions and an uncertain future with Germans herding Jews into a ghetto, treating them worse than animals. In what would otherwise be an ordinary, peaceful life, Vicente’s spirit is crushed, tormented over his mother’s last communications, obsessing if she went hungry or still wore a favorite shawl. 

Vicente sinks into a deep depression, spending some time with family and friends but no longer speaking, instead mostly gambling to confirm his own failure as a human being. His wife and her family are understanding, trying to accommodate him. Rosita and Vincente, both with “the hesitant, pale, mute fragility that revealed they had been much loved as children,” simply cannot comprehend the full extent of cruelty.

He describes scanning the newspapers for any bit of news before receiving his mother’s last letter – “for signs, for cluses, for hints that might help him understand – and searching, like everyone else, for reasons not to understand…. Like every human being, Vicente had wanted to know and, at the same time, had preferred not to know.” He longs for ignorance and the ability to erase his memory. “It is perhaps one of the most singular traits of a human being: just as the body, when it has endured too much suffering, or has grown too weak, temporarily lapses into unconsciousness… so that it can survive, or rather so that something can survive – something that is at once still human and already less than human, something that is still ourselves and is already no one.” 

Forgetting is impossible though. Every morning is the same for Vicente, “the same memories, the same guilt, the same longing to forget.” He waned to forget words and sentences and meaning, longing for "a silence so powerful, so constant, so insistent, so relentless that all things would become remote, invisible, inaudible." He walks miles to be alone, hoping to escape his fears, but silence brings no relief. "[U]nfortunately, though stillness is the opposite of motion, there is no opposite to thought, nothing that counters the workings of the mind: not thinking is merely another form of thinking."  

Most of all, he hopes to flee the voice of his conscience, even as he tortures himself about his inaction. “Something must be done to counter the nothing that I can do. I can do nothing. I cannot do anything. I have never understood the difference.” 

One account of the camps describes an inmate who asked why after being given an order an the guard pushing the man and retorting: Hier ist Kein warum. Here there is no why: “these words summed up the determination of the Nazis in the camps to create a space that was utterly different, a space in which there was no why.” Vicente determines his life is worthless, also lacks “a why,” and so, “He became another, another devoid of meaning, devoid of hope, devoid of a future.”  He describes feeling alone, sinking, heading only toward a grave. He becomes a shell, neglecting wife, children, job and friends.

Later Vicente’s grandson assumes that his grandfather must have wrestled with the notion that escape made him a traitor. Amigorena himself fled dictatorship in Argentina for Europe: “I was not where I should have been.” 

But the grandson does not complain or accepts the life given to him. “I do not know whether, before he died, Vicente realized that remaining silent was not a solution,” Amigorena concludes. Instead, language is intertwined with memory, providing guidance as guilt and despair pass to subsequent generations. To avoid being complicit, survivors and their descendants must reject attempts to forget or deny the evil. 

Thursday, January 8

Free speech

Terrorism starts at home, so suggests the tale of Fear of Beauty. The petty resentments, the irrationality, the scapegoating and complaints, the displays of anger, the bullying, fear of competition, marginalization, abuse and more.

Police quickly identified the three suspects accused of bursting into the offices of a satirical newspaper in Paris, Charlie Hebdo, and killing 12 with assault rifles. News reports describe them as two brothers and a brother-in-law. The case bears similarities to the bombing of a crowd at the Boston Marathon - with two Tsarnaev brothers named as suspects.

The three in Paris will not slow satire in the West. All they accomplished was to ignite interest in a struggling publication and unite diverse citizens to stand up for freedom of speech and embrace satire and other forms of scrutiny. The killers revealed their fears and have shown that ideas and pens wield power.

The Arab League and Al-Azhar have condemned the murders. Leaders of many organizations recognize, as we have said on this pages before, a faith is unsustainable if it cannot endure such scrutiny and tests.

By evening, the news reported the two brothers in the France killings were orphans.