Is your family crazier than mine?

January 17, 2020

This is how we start out: innocent children, blank slates. However…

Every time I think my family has the corner on dysfunction I learn that other families I know have it even worse. From publicly throwing each other under the bus to sexual abuse and elder abuse, some families are all about darkness.

I used to think about my crazy family dynamic more than I do now. When I did, I saw clearly how this happened in my own generation. More puzzling was how my parents got so damaged. Because trust me: parents only damage their kids because they, too, were damaged.

My father was a middle child. His brothers didn’t seem to suffer from the abuse he described he faced as a child and I wonder if my father was the only target or if they just weren’t impacted by it.  Or did it even happen the way he described to us?

My mother was close with her father, and he was a beautiful man. But it was only a few years ago at breakfast with my favorite aunt that I realized that he had had a lifelong gambling problem. My aunt confirmed it. Reluctantly. Because she didn’t like to talk badly about anyone, especially the dead. But by the next year she, too, was gone, the last person who could’ve shed any light on that dynamic.

Besides emotional and physical abuse, my family specialized in enabling of bad behavior –and that impacted how we grew up (or didn’t). Fear. Entitlement. Blame. Excuses. There was an amazing amount of delusion. 

But in a recent conversation with a longtime acquaintance I saw that their family had their own version of dysfunction.  It’s all relative, I suppose. (So to speak.)  

I do think it’s helpful to our own personal growth to have some level of understanding about how it all came to be. It helps us avoid making the same mistakes and helps us catch some of our own dysfunctional behavior that might be happening without our even realizing it. 

You may not wonder now about the roots of your family’s particular brand of dysfunction, but I recommend you ask questions of people who can tell you while they are still alive.

The decades pass quickly and one day, like me,  you may find yourself still wondering…with no one to ask.

I’m reading a stunningly good memoir about family by the Scottish actor Alan Cummings, called Not My Father’s Son.  Besides being a really good actor, Cummings is an exceptional memoirist. It’s both heartbreaking and inspiring. I highly recommend it. You can find it at this affiliate link.

7 comments on “Is your family crazier than mine?
  1. lisa weldon says:

    Oh, I couldn’t agree more. Delving into my mother’s past has led me to understand, allowed me to forgive, and pushed me to change the inherited behavior…and not pass it on. Excellent article, Carol.

  2. Beth Havey says:

    I believe Alan Cummings is not only terribly talented, but also gay, and that he was mistreated by his father. That’s a metaphor for a generation of parenting mistakes. And I totally agree, if you have a question, ask it. My husband was one of 11 children. From even our dating, I could see that he wasn’t getting the individual encouragement that he deserved. I helped supply that. In my family, my father died very early in our lives, but we had four women to guide us, my mother, my grandmother and two loving aunts. Even a kind neighbor might be able to supply words that send a child in the right direction. YES, ask questions before the person who might know something, dies.

  3. Oriah House says:

    Sadly it is not always true that a parent that damages their children was damaged themselves. I spent years trying to track down even a whiff of abuse in the early (or even later) life of my violent abusive mother- and there was nothing. Turns out her life-long rage, cruelty, and inability to empathize or connect with others (all classice characteristics of psychopathy and/or sociopathy) may in fact have been a result of a biological brain deficit.Experiments have shown that the brains of psychopaths do not have receptors for the tend and befriend hormone, oxytocin There are similarly other mental illnesses that are rooted in biology and genetics (schizophrenia being one) that could interfere with a person’s ability to be a good parent even though they did not have an abusive childhood. I say all this to caution us about one-size-fits-all explanations. What we do not know or understand about human behaviour is vast.

  4. Excellent writing. I agree with you about asking the questions now. My sis her and I are working on a history of our family. Why did we not ask questions when we were younger. Now everyone is gone and we’re guessing not really having the answers. So ask those questions while your family is alive.

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