“The most loving parents can commit murder with smiles on their faces. They can force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.” -Jim Morrison.
In life, we are bestowed certain things, whether we want them or not. The first of those two are our DNA and the family we’re born into. Both of which are the outcomes of our parents’ actions.
From there, our parents still hold the keys to just about everything in our lives. For most of us, that’s a good thing. For others of us, not so much.
The litany of matters that parents influence and affect is staggering both in number and importance. For quite a few years, they are our sole custodians. In a very real sense, they become the Gods of our Everything.
I once saw an interview with Wynona Ryder where she was asked about her childhood. She lit up immediately and with a wide, energetic grin, said, “Our family put the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!” It made me smile, but then I thought, My family was different: We put the “dys” in dysfunctional.
Bluntly speaking, my father was stoic and mostly absent. There were ten kids to feed on a mechanic’s salary, and he either took that responsibility very seriously or else he adored the idea of working away from home.
When present, Dad dutifully did my mother’s bidding, even if it meant doling out harsh physical punishment to his children. Typically, he used the leather belts he tooled downstairs at his work bench. Sometimes, before things got swinging, he would let us pick which belt we wanted used on us. During the festivities, his face remained emotionless, even when sweat flicked off his jowls, even when there was screaming. Never once did I hear him say, “This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.”
My mother was a very complex person. As a young woman, she’d won beauty contests and cooking prizes. She married three times and had six boys of her own, me being the youngest.
She was a gregarious firefly with others, but with us, her family, she became an unpredictable vessel of terror.
She was also an obsessive hypochondriac as well as a pathological liar. That combination made it feel like our house (a makeshift mobile home) was booby trapped. Like there was never a correct answer to any question she asked. Never a right way to do things.
It’s tricky when you can’t trust your mother, and even trickier when you’re a child. It’s a bit like not knowing if the air you’re inhaling is clean or toxic, if your food might be contaminated. It makes you leery and suspicious. Causes you to make comparisons. You start to seriously wonder if all parents are merely Oscar-caliber actors, putting on airs in social circles then morphing into their real demon selves in the spooky privacy of family.
My parents have been gone for many years now, and yet they’re not ever entirely gone. Some days my mother’s ghost hovers over the very keyboard I’m typing on right now. I’ll ask her to leave, but she won’t. I’ll ask her what she wants, but she never says.
There was a period, when I was 14, when my brother and I were left alone for nearly two years. My parents were off moving around the Northwest, traipsing from campsite to campsite. For some kids, being abandoned in such a way might be met with fear and apprehension. For my brother and I, it was the best gift we could receive, a generous reprieve from the tyrannical adults who frightened us like no others.
As I said, I was 14. I was newly in love, or in something like puppy love. Her name was Kristi, and when I bought a kitten, I gave my cat the same name, altering it to Christopher when I realized the kitty was male.
One night I came home and flipped on the lights but everything stayed dark. Black and smoky. Clouds of tar smell. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear Christopher mewling, and when I went to investigate I discovered an electrical fire had burned the entire frame of my brother’s bedroom to cinders.
I eventually got Christopher out of the house and I also took a tin of Polaroids I had of Kristi. The photos were unburnt, but they smelled like briquettes. No matter what I did—applying cleaning solution, or wiping them with a scented cloth—that fire smell never went away.
And that’s how it is with my mother. She’s always there, woven into my skin, into the fabric of me, no matter what I do, no matter how old I am.
I recently read an article entitled, How To Determine If You Have a Dysfunctional Family. It offered a list of 38 symptoms, or characteristics.
When I was done reading, I identified 31 from my childhood family, and even though it was the most harmless of the lot, this one stood out to me:
#15 — You wonder what it would be like to be in someone else’s family.
I remember spending a lot of time doing that—concocting a make-believe family. Even as recently as six years ago, I wrote a YA novel called The Break-in Artist, about a boy who breaks into houses not to steal anything but simply to see how normal families live. That unpublished novel still sits in my computer, but it was therapeutic to write.
While the downsides are obvious, there are a few advantages to having a screwed-up childhood. One is that, if you’re a writer, you’ve got plenty of fodder (albeit mostly dark) from which to mine.
The other advantage lies in symptom #2 on the Dysfunctional Family list: You constantly think about how you will do things differently.
No matter your upbringing, if you are fortunate enough to have children of your own, you get a chance to do things differently, to be a better parent. You also get the opportunity to live (vicariously) a new other childhood.
And parenting—it doesn’t mean you do have to do it perfectly, that you won’t make mistakes. It means taking the terrible moments you lived through and using them to teach you the opposite, how to provide your children with the unconditional love you always craved.