I really don’t see myself in you
If you think Andre Dubus III had a hard time growing up with an emotionally distant father, you haven’t met Augusten Burroughs, Alison Bechdel, David Small, or Frederick Buechner. Or you haven’t met their fathers. Or their mothers. Or the families in Andrew Solomon’s latest book, Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity.
In a better world (or in the parallel universe of my addled brain), writers like these will each have a shot at the Nobel Peace Prize for illuminating the battles waged in our own homes. Their books won’t solve poverty, mitigate global warming, or prevent nuclear war. But anyone who takes to heart what they’ve said or drawn about surviving childhood and parenthood is entitled to what Buechner calls peace “beyond all understanding.”
“Son” and “Father” are the titles of the first and last chapters of Solomon’s book. Together they’re the perfect lens with which to view my parent-child preoccupations on this blog this month. These two chapters chronicle Solomon’s personal struggles in those roles amid societal hang-ups and bioethical dilemmas. Dwight Garner of the New York Times says: “Mr. Solomon’s first chapter, entitled ‘Son,’ is as masterly a piece of writing as I’ve come across all year. It combines his own story with a taut and elegant précis of this book’s arguments. It is required reading.” I have one word to describe this first chapter’s 47 pages: superb.
Solomon states: “My study is of families who accept their children, and how that relates to those children’s self-acceptance”—a disclosure that seems to forebode pat resolutions and trite parenting tips. But this author is no pedantic Pollyanna who wants to turn us all into group-hug addicts. His aim is much more realistic, complex, and daunting. He interviewed more than 300 families over 10 years and completed a book with 702 pages (plus 254 pages of Notes, Bibliography, and Index) and immeasurable reserves of candor, wisdom, and hope.
He wants to tell us what it means to be parents to children who are “different”—those who have “horizontal identities [that] reflect recessive genes, random mutations, prenatal influences, or values and preferences that a child does not share with his progenitors.” What does it mean to have a child who is gay or transgender, a child with a physical disability, or dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, or schizophrenia? What about children “conceived in rape” or those considered prodigies?
On page 1, Solomon says:
Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger, and the more alien the stranger, the stronger the whiff of negativity. We depend on the guarantee in our children’s faces that we will not die. Children whose defining quality annihilates the fantasy of immortality are a particular insult; we must love them for themselves, and not for the best of ourselves in them, and that is a great deal harder to do. Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.
That passage reminds me of a line in the movie version of Running with Scissors, Augusten Burroughs’ memoir/theater of the absurd. Alec Baldwin, who plays Augusten’s father, tells his little son: “I really don’t see myself in you at all.” Sounds familiar. Or familial. The voices of these virtual strangers in our homes. Their alienating negativity or denial. Or shock or disappointment: “How could you have turned out this way?” The same lines that children or teenagers might hurl back at their parents. Or more to the point: “I don’t ever want to grow up to be like you.” So much for Pollyanna.
What does it mean to have children like Augusten Burroughs or Alison Bechdel? What does it mean to have been “raised” by the parents of David Small or Frederick Buechner? While researching materials for this monthlong series of posts inspired by that poignant father-and-son photo of Andre Dubus and Dubus III, I often wondered: What if Dubus III had grown up in the Buechner home instead? Or what if Augusten got to hang out with Alison’s closeted gay dad? What if Alison had met David Small’s closeted lesbian mom? What if Augusten had done therapy with David’s analyst instead? (Yeah, the wise, compassionate White Rabbit in Stitches instead of the turd-reading Psychiatrist from Hell in Running with Scissors.) What if the suicides of Alison’s dad and Frederick’s dad had been prevented?
What if the dysfunctional Burroughs, Bechdel, Small, and Buechner families had met—or read about—the benevolent, though no less conflicted, parents in Solomon’s book? What if, during my childhood, my parents had read and understood all these books about different children, difficult parenthood, traumatic childhood? What if I had read and understood all these when I was much younger? Would the “whiff of negativity” have dissipated? Would loving children—or loving anyone else—be less an “exercise for the imagination” than a natural, universal effect or cause of what it means to be human and alive?
I do not indulge in all these “what ifs” to trivialize what happened to these authors or to the families in these books. And I do not mean to cast my parents in a harsh light. They did what they could, knowing what they knew. They’ve done a flawed but fabulous job of helping me become who I am, whatever that is. And I am grateful for all that. I am fully aware that, in those families and mine, what happened happened. Mind games won’t change that. The writing and reading of a thousand “misery memoirs” cannot undo a single damage. But counterfactual thinking does serve some purposes. Two years ago, I began collecting Internet sources on this coping mechanism for no particular reason except that I was (oh, here we go again) “bored, depressed, and stranded.” Here’s one from ScienceDaily.com:
According to a new study, counterfactual thinking — considering a “turning point” moment in the past and alternate universes had it not occurred — heightens one’s perception of the moment as significant, and even fated. Armed with a sense that life may not be arbitrary, counterfactual thinkers are more motivated and analytical in organizational settings….
In “Father,” the final chapter of Far from the Tree, Solomon suggests (though he doesn’t use the phrase) that counterfactual thinking can help parents realize how much they value their children. What if they were offered an alternate universe in which their children’s “defects” didn’t exist? What if they could exchange their children for “better” ones?
Most of the parents I interviewed for this book said they would never want other children than the ones they had, which at first seemed surprising given the challenges their children embody. But why does any of us prefer our own children, all of them defective in some regard, to others real or imagined? If some glorious angel descended into my living room and offered to exchange my children for other, better children—brighter, kinder, funnier, more loving, more disciplined, more accomplished—I would clutch the ones I have and, like most parents, pray away the atrocious specter.
Would Augusten, Alison, or David have made the same choice as those parents did if that glorious angel had descended into their less than glorious childhood? Would any of us have opted for “better parents” had we been visited by that atrocious specter? Or, as David Small says, would we now “acknowledge that, with all [our parents’] faults—because of them, in fact—” we are who we are, “both for good and for ill”?
Oh please, can’t you just move on already? Precisely. We look back so we can move on, as Solomon, Dubus III, Burroughs, Bechdel, Small, Buechner, Mary Karr, et al. would agree. If this Peace Prize-worthy bunch isn’t enough, then take it from Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Or heed Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.”
Counterfactual thinking allows us to look back or imagine better worlds so we can sort the facts from the feelings—and to accept that sometimes those feelings are the facts. Through the talking cure or the interpretation of dreams, by drawing pictures or taking notes, by turning horror into humor, or simply by refusing to shut up or give up, we make sense of what happened. Small says, “Only language brings order to the chaos of memory.” Like Bechdel, we can be the “avid archivists” of our own lives, letting others see our invisible wounds. And Buechner reassures us that there’s no need to apologize for the self-pity. He knows that “to keep track of these lives we live is not just a means of enriching our understanding … but a truly sacred work.”
In an interview, Burroughs once said: “I always win the fucked-up-childhood contest no matter who’s in the room.” It’s hard to argue with that. But, my dear Augusten, isn’t it also good to know you’re not alone in that room? With all these truth-telling, bigotry-busting books around, it won’t be too hard anymore for you to see yourself in others and for us to see ourselves in you.