I’ve been reading this fantastic book, “The Family That Couldn’t Sleep”, about the history of prion research and fatal familial insomnia. It’s incredible; I’ve been taking every excuse to babble about it all week. The author’s approach is so compassionate and yet comprehensive – there are a lot of not-so-great people who nevertheless do important work in the field of prion research, and D.T. Max presents their crimes evenly alongside their discoveries, neither excusing them nor allowing their crimes to obviate their contributions. It’s terrifying and inspiring and dense with super strange facts that will make you a Cool Guy among the “morbid history nerd” demographic.
But this isn’t a book review, because apparently my elders would prefer I chose more uplifting reading material – my grandmother came in to say, “Sigh. Life in general is so much more! As you “season” with age, you’ll see.”
Reader, I did an acrobatic pirouette off the handle.
I haven’t been subjected to that “when you’re older you’ll understand” bullshit in a good long while, because at 32, most people seem willing to sell me booze and engage with my ideas as if I were some kind of adult. It’s true that we’re always children to our families, there’s no possibility of ever entirely discarding the trappings of that relationship, but I think it’s possible to honor a shared past without inhabiting it, to love the child we remember without erasing the adult we see. It just requires a conscious effort to look for more than what we expect, to look at a person for their identity rather than their role.
it’s just a phase
Because that’s it, isn’t it? We slot people into roles in our lives as appropriate – mother, father, partner, boss – and then we try to optimize our relationship according to society’s instructions for interacting with that role. We look at our family and compare it to other families we see, and consider ours more or less successful based on how well it matches up to the cookie-cutter. We catch our child misbehaving and crowdsource the answer, looking for how kids that age are supposed to behave. Is this normal? Is it a phase?
That word, phase – do people still say that shit to their kids? “Oh, it’s just a phase, you’ll get over it. You won’t care about that in six months. No, don’t spend too much money on that, she’s only going through a phase.” Really think about what that says for a second. You’re saying to your child, “You have no expertise on your own feelings or desires. This thing that feels very important to you is not important, and the degree to which you lack understanding of that is the degree of your immaturity in my eyes. It would be best to crush your enjoyment of that thing immediately and waste no more of anyone’s time liking something you might dislike in the future.”
the apex of human understanding
Note that “growing up” is always seen as synonymous with “agreeing with me.” There is no world in which a child grows up, acquires experience and perspective, and still disagrees with you. Your worldview is the apex of human understanding, and all life is a grim slog toward the enlightenment you’ve already achieved. All of this is implicit when someone says, “When you get older, you’ll see.”
Trouble with that is, if you look at the world this way, you will only ever see yourself. That’s all you’re interested in. It’s all you’re looking for, so it’s all you’ll find. You’ve told the people you love that what matters to them is only real if it also matters to you. That what they are is only worthy if it matches what you were looking for. Someone you love came to you and said, “Hey, this thing is super cool, and it fills me with the sublime joy of discovery and makes me want to learn more.” And you said, “That’s not the kind of thing I figured you’d be into. Stop sharing your discoveries with me until you mature into someone who likes what I like.”
Is that the relationship you want to have with your family?
your irresponsible brother Dave
Aren’t you at all worried that you’re missing out? Don’t you ever wonder who that person is? Not the role they’re in – not “your granddaughter” or “your partner” or “your irresponsible brother Dave,” but the actual person hidden behind the role you talk to when they pick up the phone. Maybe actually talk to Dave, for the first time in years. Dave’s forty-three – have you been calling him irresponsible since he was eight years old? Does that not seem like bizarre behavior, to not update your opinion of a person for thirty years? If you met forty-three-year-old Dave in a bar or a park, would the two of you get along? Would you even talk?
I think the sad truth is that a lot of people wouldn’t choose their family for friends if they’d been given a choice. And it’s not because we don’t have things in common – shared space and shared time creates commonalities, and so does any attempt to shape your loved ones to resemble yourself. One way or another, we usually have a lot in common with our families.
What we don’t have is any reason to seek out their company, a lot of the time. The jokes about family time being as taxing as it is rewarding are pretty universal – why is that? Why do most people not quite like being around their families? A lot of those jokes rely upon this idea of having to perform, to live up to what the family expects of you. Here we are again… “family” is conditional upon your ability to conceal what you are, to go through the motions, to avoid the missing stair.
someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose
Any long-term relationship is susceptible to this. The older a relationship is, the more opportunity there is to create habits that wear into wounds. You started joking about Dave being irresponsible when he was eight, and he laughed then, and so you kept it up. Dave kept laughing because Dave didn’t have any power – if it bothered him, he didn’t have any safe opportunity or framework to say, “That joke actually does hurt me. Could we stop joking about that and joke about literally anything else, please?” He’s hopefully never before been confronted with the idea that someone who loves you might hurt you on purpose. That’s a brutal revelation, one that a child has trouble absorbing, and so he tries to ignore it. Dave keeps laughing. If he conceals that it hurts, they won’t be hurting him on purpose. If I don’t call it rape, I can pretend I wasn’t raped. Faking it is less painful. It keeps hurting, but over time Dave gets inured to it. He doesn’t even hear the jokes anymore. He doesn’t see his family much either. Not for any particular reason, they don’t do anything really bad. They’re just… not as good to him as his friends are. And somehow that’s called “family.”
The word family whitewashes a lot of behavior that no one in their right mind would put up with from a friend or a partner. We’re looking for the family we expect to see, the one media shows us, and when we don’t see it, we pretend to see it. We play the role and the role becomes who we are.
our teeth are loving
That’s how a family gets to a point of taking pride in their dysfunction. “We’re not like those lame, boring families that are nice to each other. Other people can’t understand this thing we have, but you know our teeth are loving, this is just the only way we know to express our emotions. You’re special for getting it. Outsiders don’t get it.” This is how we immortalize abuse as family tradition. We convey the impression that in order to be “in the club,” in order to belong, those lower in status must submit to whatever treatment trickles down from on high. More than submit to it – celebrate it. Being part of the family means laughing when we make a joke at your expense; can’t you take a joke, don’t you have a sense of humor?
These patterns don’t start as malice, that’s the problem. We don’t start out trying to bulldoze the people around us. We just don’t take it seriously when it happens, and so it keeps happening. When we trivialize what someone’s experiencing – “it’s a phase, you’ll understand better when you’re older” – we teach them that their pain is not important. So they stop telling us about it.
If we don’t create opportunities in our relationships for open communication that sets aside power and status disparities, we can’t ever have genuine, functional relationships with anyone. Power, status – it’s not comfortable to use words like that with our loved ones, and we’d like to believe our families don’t work like that. But power disparity exists, and ignoring it is just a way of absolving ourselves of responsibility, believing that the word “family” is sufficient to keep the family together. It’s not necessary to work on and improve those relationships the way one would with a friend, because “we’ll always be family.” Okay, but if family doesn’t mean “a group of people who love each other and look after each other’s welfare”… what exactly will we always be? We’ll always be connected by blood, but if that’s all that’s required, why does it matter if we spend time together? You want family to mean something when it absolves you, but not when it requires you to do emotional work.
any part of this person you ground down
What if you made it a habit, with all the people you love – friends, partners, family, anyone you plan to keep around for a while – to check in? Not in a “hey, how’s tricks” kind of way – you’re going to have to give them a framework to answer you, because we’re not used to being this honest with each other, and you’ve probably given them at least one reason to believe you won’t react well to anything less than a glowing review. But there are a lot of ways to get at what you want to know, and what you want to know is if there’s any part of this person you ground down to make them fit into the family.
Try any and all of the following, as appropriate to your situation and relationship:
- “Hey, I want you to feel like you can tell me the truth about what you’re experiencing and feeling – is there anything I can do or not do to make you feel safer in doing that?”
- “What have you been really interested in lately that we haven’t talked about? You’re getting into culinary taxidermy? Well that sounds terrifying to me, but we don’t have to like the same things for me to love you, so please, tell me what you like about it!”
- “We go to church/play board games on Family Night/eat at Hooters every week, and we’ve been doing that for a long time, I just wanted to see if that’s still sparking joy for everybody. Oh, you say you never liked eating at Hooters? Well I definitely won’t say ‘why didn’t you mention that earlier’, because we don’t always know how we feel about things right away and conveying that uncertainty across a power disparity is very difficult, and I don’t want to punish you for answering my question honestly. Instead, let’s try another place, and those of us who like Hooters can go tomorrow night.”
- “Hey, I noticed when I made that joke that your laugh was a little halfhearted. If I say something that makes you uncomfortable, please don’t feel like you have to laugh it off – please tell me instead, so I can not do that in the future, because I’d rather we both be having fun when we hang out.”
- “Remember that thing I asked you to work on? Keeping up with the dishes/not picking your nose in front of the dog/not yelling at me when I ask a question? I wanted to say it’s been a lot better lately – you’ve been working on it and it shows, so thank you.”
- “What are some things you’d like to do in life? Let’s approach those NOT from the perspective of me showing you how to scale down your dream until it fits neatly into your standard-issue soul-dead consumer life, but rather, let’s you and I figure out how to break down the existing paradigm to make whatever you’d like to do practical. I promise not to mention money or college in any way during this conversation, because a lot of things can change in twenty years, and my understanding of what the workforce will require from you is probably already wildly out of date, and also your value and the value of what you care about is not determined by the amount of capitalist wealth you accrue, so you should pursue what you’re passionate about and we will make it work.”
Demonstrate, or have the common decency to occasionally feign, interest in your loved ones outside the sphere of your own interests. Acknowledge progress, not just error. Don’t measure others’ success in terms of similarity to you or your dreams. Provide opportunities for safe communication. Be aware of power disparities rather than trying to pretend they don’t exist, and be ready to swallow your pride if it gets in your way. If you can’t hear good sense when it comes from the mouth of a child – or anyone you perceive as “lesser” – you aren’t worthy of any form of authority. Don’t judge your children by how similar they are to you, or to other children, or to children from your day. That’s not useful info – why would you want your children to be similar to you? They live in a completely different world and that will become more true every day.
Don’t look for your own reflection in the faces of those around you. Listen to the person in front of you, right now. They’re giving you a lot of information – we all want to be seen, to be understood, and most of the time we’re broadcasting like neon lights, just wishing someone would ask us what we think or how we feel. Each person is new, and they’re new every goddamn day. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to miss it. If you spend all your time describing the person in front of you, rather than listening to them, they’re going to disappear.