“The word dysfunction has, I think, served its purpose and now has lost its meaning. Every family, like every person, is imperfect, after all. The idea that there is a family somewhere who functions, is an odd concept. In my youth I was running from my family to try to find out who I was–their influence distracted me. Now I see what a powerful hold they have, no matter what.”
I heard this quote today, while I was listening to the Garrison Keillor’s “Writer’s Almanac” podcast. Its powerful words made me immediately rewind the thing four times, so I could capture it on paper. Susan Minot, an American short story author, resounded with me in these four sentences.
As a writer, I have tossed around, and smoothed over, and reexamined my childhood thousands of times. I wondered if my parents were just as screwed up as every other parent out there. I promised I’d never make the mistakes they did. I’d always had this Moses quote pointed out to me me, that God “visit[s] the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation,” which I understood to mean, “but for the Grace of God, we’re all screwed.” If there ever were a Scriptural argument for nurture winning out over nature, this is it.
I was very concerned that my kids would have drinking problems, or that they too might suffer from sexual abuse the way I was (funny how, despite all decades, and thoughts to the opposite, I still somehow think of my sexual abuse as my fault). I wanted to protect my kids from all that stuff. My own laziness. My wife’s propensity to becoming a workaholic.
Reality changes all that. My kids were born with their own set of problems, with their own personalities. We try as best we can to inject a sense of morality into their lives (“don’t hit your brother” still seems to escape them) and I continually hope they move that direction in the future. I can’t guarantee they won’t jaywalk, or pee into a waterfall in front of 75 people at a national park, but I do the best to instill in them a sense of public behavior.
Back to my youth, we were messed up, sure. But whose family isn’t? Thanks, Ms. Minot, for reminding me. I turned out all right. I do the best I can. So do plenty of other folks; most of them deserve medals for the simple act of getting out of bed in the morning, because on a Family scale of 1 – 10 (1 being Ingalls, and 10 being Manson), I can at least say, hey! I wasn’t raised to be a Kardashian sister. Every once in awhile, some person (who thinks they’re being hilarious) tells my wife “My family put the fun in “dysFUNction.” Judi always responds, “Oh yeah? My family put the F.U. in “dysfunction.” Gawd I love my wife.
Where does that leave me as a dad? The same as it does for every parent. Dysfunction is the great equalizer. There’s no perfect family. As parents, we can only do our best and remember to smile a lot: especially when the kids come home with their first date, and they have forearm tattoos depicting the Kama Sutra and holes in their ear lobes the size of bicycle tires.
[UPDATE: To be clear, my family was not responsible for my being sexually abused. It’s just the way my tweaked-out mind works, and the stuff it worries about when I have too much time on my hands]