Tuesday, July 10, 2018

As I "Rest," Thinking About Family: What We Say It Is, What It Often Really Is

In the U.S., we live in a culture super-saturated with sentimental rhetoric about “the family” and how “the family” is the ultimate solution to all social ills. American culture is also notably hypocritical about moral and religious issues, and the hypocrisy extends to what we think about “the family.” While pretending to live some ideal, religion-based version of the family, a large number of us have the kind of complicated, messy family lives that real-world people as opposed to hypocritical religious idealists always have. Our rhetoric and our reality don’t match, and this impoverishes our understanding of what family is really all about, and of so much else that takes place around us.

In my experience, North Carolina gay writer Allan Gurganus offers an accurate, non-idealistic, reality-grounded definition of how family actually often operates when he states, in his book White People:

Without much accuracy, with strangely little love at all, your family will decide for you exactly who you are and they’ll keep nudging, coaxing, poking you until you’ve changed into that very simple shape. They’ll choose it lazily. Only when it suits them.  Maybe one summer moment (p. 65).

Family is often, in reality, what loves to script and slot you, to assign you your place – your place as dictated by family – and to punish you if you get outside your assigned place. Family is what often likes to punish you and use you as a whipping boy or girl for faults and foibles, and sometimes dark sins, that are carried within the family itself, but which it thinks it can rid itself of if it pretends you are the exclusive carrier of those sins, and expels you from the family circle.

Gay folks have long known in our bones that this is how family functions in actuality. We bear the scars of this behavior carved into our flesh.

The reality many of us have to face when we encounter such demonic iterations of family: there’s simply no escaping the abuse. Yes, we can and often do distance ourselves from the abuse. Yes, we can and often do accept the expulsion from family crafted for us by family members who delight in hurting us, because doing so satisfies some cruel blood lust in them. 

What we cannot do, ever, is “win” the battle to prove that we are not who we have been scripted by family to be – the scapegoat, the whipping boy or girl. Our very protest proves to those who have configured our humanity in that distorted pretzel shape that we are exactly who they want to believe we are: the aberrant misfit who deserves the abuse they want to heap on us.

Our protests prove that they are normal, the norm by which humanity is to be judged, and we are the opposite of that, the shadow by which they define themselves as the light. This is the aspect of family that can create such a tortured puzzle for those of us who do all the “right” things to distance ourselves from the abuse, to put ourselves beyond its reach, to divorce ourselves from those whose definition of family is their right to abuse and our obligation to accept abuse.

The very hard lesson to learn about family – and I’m suggesting it’s harder in cultures that love to glorify family in an entirely idealistic and false way, like American culture – is that one key definition of family often turns out to be, in the real world: those who enjoy hurting someone else. For those of us who experience that definition of family, the big challenge is figuring out what to do with that shocking knowledge. This is what I mean when I say that family can place us in a no-win situation from which escape seems impossible even when we have done all the “right” things to escape.

The hyper-individualism of American culture, which sits uneasily with the sentimental rhetoric about “the family,” assumes that we can make ourselves and simply slough off our family when our family is harmful to us. That approach to life ignores the fact that who we are is socially constructed. We are individuals in charge of our own destiny. We also live in a social matrix that defines us as who we are in manifold ways over which we have no control. Because we are black, poor, female, an immigrant, we find ourselves scripted by social forces beyond our control, no matter how hard we work to assert ourselves and our unique humanity in the face of those forces.

This is what I mean when I say that we can do all the “right” things to escape from toxic family dynamics, and still find them affecting our lives. Such effects are a consequence of living in a world where, as individuals, we do not have total control over our lives. Families that abuse a family member set a script for abuse that goes beyond the family circle. Individuals and institutions intent on heaping abuse on targeted minority groups, for instance, often pick out as a target the person thrown away by her family. They reason that if a person’s own family can do this to that person, then it will be easy for me to do the same.

This analysis implies, of course, that all of us who care about protecting vulnerable people from abuse – children separated from their families at the border, as an example – need to work to build social structures that prevent people from being thrown away, treated as subhuman, targeted by the blood-thirsty and greedy, who abound in the real world. To accomplish that, we have to stop placing so much stress on hyper-individualism and strengthen the social matrix in which we all live – extending the notion of family to everyone around us.

Those children on the border are not our children, a Catholic Fox News journalist informs us

They are quite precisely our children, Jesus tells us.

The painting at the head of the posting: "He Ate with Outcasts," a rendition of the family meal that was the last supper, by artist Margaret Puckette. Steve and I own this painting, and I discussed it at this previous posting.

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