we will not be controlled by a smiling god

I’m having difficulty dealing with the idea of “positive” and “negative” coping strategies. It’s both an abstract and a concrete problem for me right now.

This is another manifestation of that thing where I don’t like absolutes to the point where I know it drives some people up the wall. I’m shaped enough by culture to acknowledge dichotomies as a roughly functional paradigm, but I have a hard time polarizing them. “Am I a bad person for doing this?” a friend asks, and my first reaction is, “Well, ‘bad person’ isn’t really a thing. You made a hard choice but it doesn’t affect who you fundamentally are.” WHICH IS NOT HELPFUL I KNOW, so I sit on it when I can.

But I have a hard time not seeing the word like this: every cloud has a silver lining. Sometimes an act of unequivocal good can have negative consequences. Any decent medicine in the wrong dose is a poison. Every tool is a weapon if you hold it right. Sometimes violence can be an act of peace. The image that comes to mind when I think about this tendency in myself is Janus, the ancient Roman god of doorways, who looked both ahead and behind. My role in life is so often performing that flip of symbolic inversion, changing good for bad and shadow for light, and inviting people across thresholds of transition. It’s always more complicated. It’s time to change now.

(Everyone who can guess my MBTI type now wins a warm sense of self-satisfaction.)

At my great-aunt’s funeral reception a few years ago we got to swapping stories with cousins we don’t see that often. My paternal grandmother was one of… oh, let’s keep this vaguely anonymous; ten or twelve children. And she’s one of, let’s say, half-a-dozen girls. I think I have more than fifty first and second cousins in that family alone. Anyway. We got talking. One of the things we got talking about was our great-grandfather’s glass eye, which everyone involved at the very least agreed he had.

Second cousin A heard that he’d lost his eye in the Great War.

Second cousin B always thought it was when he’d worked in a coal mine, and a chip of coal flew up into his face.

Uncle C laughed and confessed that he’d heard once that he injured it in a fight when he was drunk.

Yes, Aunt D added, quick to top that one; the fight had been with his wife, when they were both drunk.

Surely not! some of the cousins cried, while others laughed and muttered, No wonder they keep telling stories to cover it up.

“Not that you’ll ever know for sure,” Uncle E said, taking a sip of his beer. “Those sisters, they’re tight and thick as thieves, and they’re taking that secret to their graves.”

The phrase code of silence comes to mind a lot when thinking about that family. But it’s not actually a code of silence; it’s a code of smiling and laughter. My grandmother and her sisters may tell a different story from each to each, but one thing their stories relentlessly insist on is that Everything Was Happy We’re All Fine Here How Are You, Pay No Attention to the Man Behind the Curtain.

Now, here’s something I’m not going to run by a couple hundred of my closest relatives, but I’m still sure of: something stinks here. I’m a therapist; we’re basically scenthounds for secrets and covert violence. And if you told me that story like it was about somebody else’s family the first thing I would ask is, what are those girls covering up?

This is what it looks like from the outside when a family is committed to hiding something it’s ashamed about. What is it? I don’t know. I already have hints of alcoholism and violence, but I don’t know what else could be there. I’ve seen other families like this that hid everything from chronic money problems where the family tries not to let on that they’re constantly on the verge of bankruptcy, to chronic incest where everybody knows who’s being molested and who’s doing the molesting and a lot of them have grown from the first to the second. It could be anything and I don’t know, and as my grandmother and great-aunts have begun develop dementia and die, I may not ever know.

But okay, you know what? If you are willing to posit a Dark Family Secret, this was a pretty okay way of dealing with it. My grandmother and her sisters chose to approach life with cheerful optimism. Humour and levity are coping mechanisms in our family. I grew up in a close family that was consistently there for me, with grandparents who unquestionably loved me. There is a lot of good here.

The shitty thing about coping mechanisms is that when you start using them, you don’t usually know what their cost will be, and you don’t always know when to stop using them.

This memory has been haunting me since my dad’s breakdown begins. It’s of my grandmother telling a story she told several times over my life (she has a set repertoire she seldom deviates from). I can picture the room we’re in, the last time she told it maybe five years ago; I’m standing by the door, watching her tell it to someone new.

It’s the story that demonstrates how no one my father’s family is musical. Or maybe it demonstrates why, since telling the story perpetuates it. The story is about my dad when he was in grade school. At school, they were having some kind of concert or pageant or something, and the day they handed out parts, Dad marched home proudly and announced, “We got our parts, and I’m one of the Singers!” My grandmother congratulated him, but thought, But no one in our family can sing! Oh no!

Well, my father went off to the first rehearsal for this show, and my grandmother waited to see what would happen; and when it was over he marched proudly home again and announced, “I’ve been moved. Now I’m one of the Speakers!”

That’s the end of the joke. Everyone laughs here.

When I was a child then there would be a footnote, because I could sing, and my parents paid for singing lessons when I was a child. So the story changed to Nobody in Our Family Can Sing Except Lis. So when I was growing up, I was totally distracted from the story itself, because I was already anticipating that sweet delicious hit of praise at the end. I vaguely connected this to the fact that my father burst into trills of song occasionally, but deliberately did it off-key, with a self-mocking air. His voice, when he uses it, is a deep, resonant thing.

So what absolutely slays me about this story when I remember it now is the casual cruelty of it. It’s also one of the only stories my grandmother ever tells about my father’s boyhood—I have the vague sense that there are others, but I can’t remember them. So for the amusement of friends, family, and new acquaintances, she tells this charming little tale of the time her son felt proud of something he totally sucked at, and how funny it was when he didn’t realize he’d been told that he wasn’t good enough.

It’s a story my dad has had to sit through retellings of for basically his entire life. Not only do I not wonder at all that singing for him is an area of deep shame and thwarted longing, but I especially don’t wonder that he has trouble reaching for “feeling words”. Where was the space for him to express what he felt, when one of the fundamental narratives of his childhood was that his feelings and thoughts about himself were wrong, when he thought he was being accepted by the community he was really being rejected, and he was destined to be ridiculed for that?

Ever since Dad and I broke our own pact of silence last winter, I’ve been able to see things about him in a new light, and suddenly the fabric of my childhood is littered with landmines like that.

Sooo it’s no fucking wonder Dad keeps winding up back in hospital, since he’s exploring his childhood in new! exciting! ways! Fortunately, he’s in an intensive outpatient program.

None of this keeps me from being disappointed that Dad’s siblings are going fucking ballistic over his failures as a son/brother right now. I mean, I expected them to react badly somehow, just based on the family systems principle that when one person in a rigid system breaks out of their role, everyone else is going to work extra hard to force them back into it; but I’m still disappointed with their timing and execution.

We are a long long way from being the kind of family that can talk about hard things without ripping each other to shreds. My nuclear family is learning how to be, and we all have the healing ribbons of skin to prove it. My extended family… not so much. Not yet.

Though a girl can hope.


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