Every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way. There are some who hide the nightmare behind a facade of normality and others who romanticize their bizarre behaviors.
My family fell into the latter category, glossing over the pain and self-destructive behaviors with a proudly bohemian narrative. It was rationalization as a form of pride, what “set us apart” from the pitiable pack.
“Leave regular mealtimes and paying utility bills to the squares, we’re too busy discussing the French Revolution by candlelight as the dog shits on the rug.”
It’s a tough routine to break, even after the unstable edifice eventually topples into the abyss. The folks who make an aggressive go at pretending to be “normal” — which is to say “non-dysfunctional” — have some concept of where their families deviate from healthy behavior. That’s not the case with willfully eccentric families, where any concept of normality has been repeatedly stressed as an oppositional state of living.
I knew my family was extremely fucked-up and a source of real physical and emotional pain, yet I never saw it as a structural problem. The body was sound, for my perspective, but compromised by some specific and acute maladies. If fixing the problems involved becoming like those bland “other folks,” then I was was more than willing to eat my daily does of anguish and keep the freak flag flying.
My unwillingness to accept that things had been “not right” befuddled my social services case worker when I disputed his assessments of “abuse” and “neglect” on my parents’ part. He couldn’t understand my insistence that the pain paid for what I viewed as net positives — unlimited freedom and self-discovery and the license to run feral.
It took a long time before I could even begin to see things from the other side of the mirror, and I still haven’t fully shaken off its vestiges. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve described some childhood incident to Maura where I expected a chuckle but got back a look of horror and a “that’s not normal” in response.
“It wasn’t all bad” has become a familiar mantra, though I’ve long since stopped trying to correct folks who view my progress as “despite” my upbringing instead of (the more accurate) “because” of it. I wouldn’t wish my experiences on anyone, but I regret very little of them. The scars I carry are transactional records. I won’t claim that’s a entirely healthy attitude to have, but I know it beats contemplating any alternatives.
I’ve heard other kids from messed-up families who projected their ideal of How Things Should Be on Leave It to Beaver or The Cosby Show or The Brady Bunch or Gilmore Girls. For me, that dream was and always shall be The Addams Family.
They were loving, supportive and completely oblivious how utterly out-of-step they were with mainstream society. They also lived in a amazing house full of weird artifacts and celebrated their storied and bizarre family history. That was the world I aspired to, and had in a real but flawed way.
I only regret that we never bobbed for crabs on Halloween.