Saturday, November 06, 2010

A 'dysfunctional' family gathering

Yesterday we celebrated my birthday, another year older and all that. It was essentially an ordinary day – work to schedule and then in the evening a celebration. If not for the celebration and the occasional good wishes from people, including some in blogsville - thanks Kath, thanks Jim – it might have felt like any other day.

Birthdays are a big deal in my family. We celebrate them with gusto. The one day of the year when you really count. The one day of the year when you are entitled to feel special. The one day of the year when people are required to be kind to you, to avoid conflict, to make an effort for you, and so on and so forth.

My grandson gave me a portrait of his grandmother: black lines against a sea green wash. He included a wobbly line in the middle of one stick like projection to mark my broken leg. My grandson decorated the frame himself with sequins, coloured ice cream sticks, spare scraps of material and glitter.

It is a masterpiece and one I will treasure always. My first ever piece of his artwork. My grandson is three. Given that both his parents are artistic, I imagine he might inherit the art gene and the same tendency to create beautiful pieces from them. Though he may not. Inheritance is a mixed bag.

Last weekend my nine sisters and brothers proved this point when we came together for the first time in thirty-eight years. The reunion had not been easy to organise. It came about as the brainchild of my older sister, my youngest brother and me.

Other attempts in the past have failed. We three met some months ago with the thought that as we are all getting older it is high time we tried to make peace with one another and to sort through some of the unspoken issues from our past lives together.

Our birthdays span eighteen years and we stretch across Australia in four different states. Between us we have produced twenty-three grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, including one who did not make it, and an eighth child on the way.

We led different lives as children even when we were together. The four oldest were born in Holland before the real troubles set in (at least they were not evident then, though there were rumblings) with immigration from Holland to Australia, another five children and my father’s lapse into alcoholism and all that followed.

Over the years we became a fractured family. At my father’s funeral twenty-eight years ago, eight of us attended. One of my brothers was overseas at the time and he chose to stay away. My oldest brother wrote the eulogy and I well remember my 'unreasonable' anger with him for describing our father as a man I scarcely recognised.

My oldest brother’s father from his childhood was a far more coherent and decent man than the father of my childhood and yet at our father’s funeral the only man described to the attendant mourners was that of my oldest brother’s somewhat idealised view.

Such is the spread of experience.

At one time over this extraordinary weekend, some of us sat together in a small café in Griffith NSW - a country town chosen as an neutral midway point - and talked together about what it had been like for us. Some of us I say, including all four of the girls, and my youngest and oldest brothers.

We four younger ones were able to tell my oldest brother about how difficult life had been for us with a father who clearly preferred his sons to his daughters, who considered the girls to lack intelligence and who believed that women were good for three things – for housework, for making babies and for male sexual gratification, irrespective of age.

My father was a misogynist.

I can feel differently for him now. I can feel compassion for him now dead all these long twenty eight years but then even when he died, even after he had managed to stop drinking for the last five or so years of his life, I still felt my anger towards him, and my fear.

To be able to tell my oldest brother who looks exactly as my father looked when he lived – the same clipped grey beard, the same intense blue eyes, the same tall but stopped figure – was the closest I will ever come to talking to my father in person.

Despite the similarities however my oldest brother is different from his father. He has two children. And he has been ‘successful’ in his life. He has had the freedom to move from one career to the next, four in all he says, from his life as a lay missionary, and at one time a potential priest, from a senior public servant advising government on matters of policy, through his years as a PhD candidate and working for private enterprise through to today where he advises industry on best practice to enhance sustainability in such places as meat processing works, and as the farmer of cashmere goats. He has mellowed.

We have all mellowed or so it seemed to me over the course of the weekend, though the four in the middle are perhaps more troubled.

Two of my middle brothers are reluctant to speak. One articulates his rage, though he will tell you through gritted teeth that he is not angry. He wants to leave the past in the past.
‘Paint over it,’ he says. ‘If it reappears, paint over it again.’ The irony here is that this brother is an artist. Another brother who has been silent for many years and continues to remain silent, came to the reunion, as he said to me during the course of dinner, because it would have been ‘churlish’ not to come.

He cannot, he told me, give people what he imagines they want. I do not know what this is but I know that I for one want him to talk. But this brother is locked into his own world and experience. He dominates with his silence.

Silence is powerful. While the rest of us tend to be loud, opinionated, dominating leader types, this one brother sits in silence. Not that he is unsuccessful in his chosen career, as in teaching in computers, but there is a divide between his work and his personal experience such that no one can get to know him.

My immediately younger sister is another one who will argue that the past is in the past.
‘It is over and done,’ she says. ‘Let’s just have a good time.’ She socks away another glass of wine. My sister drinks too much, but by the size of her she does not eat. She is skin and bone.

I write these things and worry that I am telling tales out of school. No names mentioned. These are my siblings, or at least my version of them. We love one another, I dare say but some of us are also angry with one another, too, for all the hurts and misunderstandings.

The weekend moved in waves. First the light and simple small talk that is a feature of most initial comings together and then one of the few spouses who joined us, my first married sister-in-law, who claims to be the oldest one of all, stood to give a short speech, which she read from a scrap of paper.
‘You need to get together the nine of you,’ she said. ‘Find a room and talk. You owe it to yourselves. Your past experience as children has affected not only your spouses but also your children. You need to talk.’

I am grateful to my sister-in-law for speaking thus, though two of my siblings leaped up, those who want to bury the past in anger and my oldest brother who said to me later that he thought my sister-in-law had pushed it too far.
‘We need to move slowly,’ my oldest brother said. ‘We don’t want to alienate anyone.’ He is right.
‘But we cannot move too slowly,’ I said. ‘Soon one of us at least will be dead.’

After my sister-in-law’s speech and a few howls of protest from those who would prefer to squash their memories, I leaped to my feet.
‘You ignore the past at your peril, ‘ I said, quoting some famous historian I read somewhere whose words still resonate for me. ‘We need to talk about the secrets, about the incest. We need to talk now. Or at least to listen to one another to those of us who can speak.’

I cracked it at this point. I sobbed in despair that we might never get together and talk in the way I had imagined. I had not driven in a car with three of my Melbourne-based siblings for six hours from Melbourne to Griffith to share pleasantries. I wanted to have meaningful conversation.

Meaningful is a term that is open to interpretation. For me in the end we held meaningful conversations but not once did it happen in the company of the whole group, though we tried after the dinner to pitch up together with an extra bottle of wine in one of the rooms in the hotel in which my youngest sister slept.

But our silent member did not come to this gathering and others soon fell off along the way. A few of us die-hards, mostly from the Melbourne contingent, stayed talking till one am. Even so we shared breakfast together the nine of us and talked together in pockets.

I have heard that everyone agrees to meet again another day.

Maybe that is the best we can hope for, to come together again somewhere down the track, and hopefully not at a funeral, whether that of my mother who at ninety one is likely to be the first to go, or one or another from the rest of us.

I wrote a paper once in which I described aspects of my experience. The paper was on autobiography and narcissism. Some of my colleagues were outraged. How can you do this they said, too much self-disclosure. One person described my family of origin as ‘dysfunctional’.

I bridled at the term. Who or what is dysfunctional, if not a convenient term by which to denigrate people. If you saw my family of origin now with all our quirks and idiosyncrasies you would see a family of high achievers, not that high achievement rules out personal difficulties. All bar one of my siblings have married at least once and had children of their own, and these children, the adults among them, in their turn are also successful.

My family of origin includes two accountants, three teachers, four psychologists, one artist, five PhDs, two yet to complete, one celebrant, one environmental consultant, one IT expert who teaches at tertiary level, three artists to varying levels of exhibition, two of whom are commissioned to present their work, two published ‘creative’ writers, three other writers published in their technical fields, one highly successful business man, director of companies and wealthy in the extreme. Many of us share multiple roles. No one is unemployed.

Do I sound defensive against the charge – a dysfunctional family – perhaps, or proud? My parents, for all their difficulties, valued education, even for the lesser mortals, the girls. They recognised that in education lies advancement.

For this I shall always be grateful. For the rest I have mixed feelings, but we are not dysfunctional in that typical 'social work' use of the word, not a multi-problem family any more than any other family.

What is it that Tolstoy writes? ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’


Zuzana said...

Dear Elisabeth,
I guess it is the fact that your writing so always so candid, which makes me come back to your lovely place.
I admire the fact that you are able to write so freely, disclosing your past and everything it involves, the god and the bad. But perhaps you do this in a form of a release, almost a therapy, putting words on paper, coming to terms with a certain and terrible pain inflicted when you were a child. I am sorry that you had to go through it. I can nowhere recognize any of that, as my upbringing was very harmonious and loving. Not that my family life was perfect, far from that. But I always felt safe at home.
I too prefer, just like some of your siblings, to leave things in the past. I rarely allot blame onto anyone, even those who did me wrong, as I find that only if I forgive and acknowledge the wrongdoing, can I myself move on.
Beautifully thought provoking and so very honest post.
Have a lovely weekend,

Zuzana said...

Oh, and a happy belated birthday as well dear Elisabeth.;))

Art Durkee said...

I have found sometimes that overachievers are running hard and fast to avoid those silences in which bad memories and bad thoughts arise. Gotta keep busy, or you get sucked down. When I see a group of overachievers, I sometimes wonder what truths they're all running away from.

At the same time, who am I to say anything? Me, with far too much creative production to my name, but no career or employment at this time. (Not entirely my fault, though, as the economic context is severe and the cultural context is hostile to the arts in general.)

I am reminded of the history of the development of the martial art of Aikido. The founder was a martial arts master before developing his own art, and he taught for over 6 decades. But what happened was that as he aged his style of Aikido continued to become more and more elegant and refined. So there are now several divergent styles of Aikido, some based on the more physically active "harder" style of the founder's younger years, and others based on the more energy-aware and less purely muscle-based style of the founder's latter years. So the children of the founder, if you will, have different perspectives on the art depending on what period of the founder's life they studied with him. Your clan reminds me strongly of this divergence.

The thing is, you can't force people to talk. Nor can we ever force them to accept that our reality is incongruent with theirs. The most we can do is speak our own truth, and keep speaking it, and speaking it for our own sake even if no one else is listening.

Ruth said...

You sound like me, ready to face a challenge head on. We can't make anyone else face what they aren't ready to face. But you never know what steps they might make as a result of your/my boldness. It does sound like there is profound work to do in your family, and I sincerely hope you and they can find ways to do it. Those of you who are ready really can go ahead, even if the others aren't ready, I think.

We had a gathering many Christmases ago with the whole family (we are eight kids), and after my parents left, several of us began talking about our family pains. Some looked nonplussed, with no concept or experience of any pain. Extraordinary how differently each person encounters their own family.

Our experience is the opposite of yours, with the eldest four having the strictest and most difficult experiences with Dad, whereas the last four had a more mellow and lenient dad.

I'm sorry for what you've been through in life, it sounds incredibly difficult. I hope that you, for yourself, will find ways to work through it that will include at least some of your siblings and that will provide you with lots of loving support and understanding from your family.

Anonymous said...

First, sincerely, i want to wish you a happy birthday, ok, a little bit late, and you are right, maybe we should make the people around us and that we love, to feel special every single day of their lives, or at least as much days as possible. My mom says that is useless to gift a flower to a tomb, so rather we should give flowers to the people while alive. So, i wish you many many great days.
I also feel my self amazed about the way you can write and share all those things concerning your personal life and still doing it in a very respectful, even objective, way. No, is not easy to do so and most of the times, when we talk about our own life we might end sounding pityfull or absolutely pedant, only describing the facts and deeds on the edge of the exaggeration. But you still do it in a fantastic way, i don´t know, even like if we were reading the report of a top journalist and not the words of a woman that is playing a main role in the middle of the story.
Disfunctio. . what?? not at all !!
To begin with, it is fantastic that all the members of your family had been able to build their own lives, with their ups and downs, with all the possible adversity and success, but still their own lives. I came from a culture where your are educated to feel guilty if you even dare to think about a life of your own, far from the rest of the family, even if such family is the worst influence and, let´s say it, the worst thing that could ever happen to you. And of course, i know many people whose parents were the most irresponible individuals who made nothing about their future but wait that their sons could grow old and take care about them, of course, without even having made a single little effort in offering their kids an oportunity of a better life, all the opposite, some times such parents being more an obstacle and a weight than anything else. Fortunately i can´t complain since i wasn´t member of a huge family, being my only universe my mom and my brother, and i can feel proud, lucky and satisfied for having the most affectionated mother that anyone could have had, a mother who really assumed the compromise having a son is, and like she says, being her only reward to see their sons haviing a life as happy as possible.
Definetively dear Elisabeth, no, you are not being defensive, you can feel proud and gratefull for having a family like that you have, yes, nobody and nothing are perfect, but a good beginning could be, to have a normal, imperfect, common, happy family.

My best regards and wishes for you.
Oh, and by the way, thanks again, for all your great comments, i always appreciate them so much.

River said...

As a description I think dysfunctional is almost as useless as normal. There are so many meanings or variations on meaning to both. I prefer the term unique. Every family is unique, every person within a family is also unique.
Your childhood sounds highly disturbing, but as you left that childhood behind, you became the amazing woman you now are.
I wish my parents had valued education for girls.

iODyne said...

dear Elisabeth, your nine siblings is a terrifying concept to this Only Child.
Wishing you many more birthdays and good health for them too.

Kath Lockett said...

Elisabeth, what you and your eight siblings went through is horrific and unforgivable and yet somehow you have all survived and are dealing with it in nine very different ways.

Just getting together and skirting around the issue is a huge step and might be the best that can be achieved with nine very different people involved.

My husband's family is also described (often by me, admittedly) as 'dysfunctional' but, apart from LC, none have survived a terrible marriage and childhood. The mother left and LC's memories are of being eight years old, running to a phone box in Whyalla when Dad was in the shed and ringing his mother (she was living with her parents in Adelaide) with coins he'd saved up; telling her that he missed her and loved her. "She didn't say it back to me," he told me years later; just the one time.

Father is now an alcoholic who is, by and large, filthy and (almost) homeless, living in a tiny caravan on a meagre strip of land outside Morgan with no electricity or running water. Eldest son hung himself in 1988; second eldest took several overdoses and is still on medication that has turned him into a ghost with barely the capacity to wake up in the mornings; elder sister is violent and angry and had several police interventions when she'd physically attack their mother; youngest daughter is dishonest, battered, lazy and ripping off Centrelink.

LC? Survived. His stories - on the rare occasions he reveals them - are horrific and touching and brave. Like the Silent One in your family though, he hates reminiscing or trying to work it out. In his mind, he survived and is continuing to do so. His strength astounds me.

As does yours. Keep writing, Elisabeth!

steven said...

elisabeth - the candor with which you describe the process of approaching the process of unpacking and reassembling the collective knowing of your family's self is breathtaking. i come from a much smaller family and found myself at the age of thirty three visiting a therapist twice a week for a year to help me step back and see as much of what made me what i was - or how i chose to see myself, my family and others - as i was capable of. the net result was that as i unpacked all the rubbish, let it go, came to know who i was and am in the present moment, my family was able to move on because someone had changed the nature and terms of their place in the whole. my role in the dynamic was changed - for the better. they were then able and willing to undertake their own work. i no longer place any expectations on my friends or family to adhere to my perception of what is right or good or healthy. it isn't my work. what is my work is to be available to support their own efforts as needed. you are brave to value the need for obviating the difficult. steven

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

What a powerful post to share with us. Your writing always resonates with courage and honesty, even, or rather especially, when touching on such difficult to discuss topics as you do here and in other posts about your father. It is a privilege to read you, Elisabeth.

May each new birthday see you continue to develop as such a soulful and compelling voice.

Elizabeth said...

First of all, Happy Birthday, Elisabeth! And I thank you for sharing your remarkable family with us so candidly and authentically. Your voice is always honest, filled with life and all that life holds -- love, bewilderment, intrigue, horror and acceptance. Whenever I read your more "in-depth" posts, I want to hear more -- and I don't think this is voyeurism but rather I seek to understand and trust your wisdom.

Ms. Moon said...

Ah. This sounds so familiar. My family of siblings is smaller than yours- only four of us.
And yet- same-same.
One brother who rails at me when I speak the truth. He literally tells me that things I remember did not happen. One brother who is quiet, one brother who is burying himself, all by himself.
And me, who has gotten years of therapy, who can hardly speak to my mother who also tells me that things did not happen as I recall them.
I believe, dear Elisabeth, that it is not what you all have achieved in this world that proves you are not so dysfunctional- I think it is the fact that you are willing to try and come together to talk.
I also think your sister-in-law was brave and right. The sins of the father affect everyone who comes into the circle of the family for many generations unless there is a path to healing and that path has to be one of communication, no matter how much it hurts.
And happy birthday. I am so glad you were born.

awyn said...

Wow, Elisabeth ... what an incredibly informative, interesting, and well-written essay about your talk presented recently. Definitely worth sharing. Happy (Belated) Birthday!

Heidrun Khokhar, KleinsteMotte said...

Bringing a family together is so difficult when the siblings are so spread out. The oldest are old enough to be parents. That adds to the complexity. And each child has it's unique relationship with each parent.We all remember our experiences differently. The things shared in common are the events that were created by the parents such as a religious holiday. Coming together as a group must have been quite a fun thing. I'm not sure what the point of getting all to see the good or bad in the parents would achieve since that would be so different for each of you. If it's time together you want to encourage then it should be a memorable fun time.
That will get them willing to try again. Good luck.
A happy belated birthday to you. Have you been to Holland lately?

Candice Michele said...

I'm not sure how you got on my blog list, but I'm glad you're here.

It sounds like you and some of your siblings are ready to work on the past. Ideally it would be great if all nine of you could all do it together wouldn't it? I only have one sister and she chose to pick mushrooms rather than speak to me on her last plane trip home. I've learned, with a family that thinks nothing at all like I do, to do what I need to make myself right and meet up with them where I can.

Be sad that the others can't start with you, but when one starts a journey, others follow. Good luck. I look forward to visiting again.

and Hugs

Eryl said...

Firstly: happy (belated) birthday. Secondly: what's a 'functional' family?

Keep on doing what you do, Elizabeth, your honesty is astounding, and enlivening.

Laoch of Chicago said...

Birthday felicitations!

Anthony Duce said...

As always, I enjoyed your writing, and the willingness to expose so much in each post of you and your families story. I don’t think families come normal. I do think some struggle more then others though, but it’s relative. We will each defend and at the same time feel defeated, based on the good and the bad experiences, even if horrible stuff for one would have been welcomed by another. Happy Birthday.

Christine said...

Had to smile at this...
Many Happy Returns!

Elisabeth said...

I cannot imagine what it might be like to have an untroubled past, Zuzana, though a you say, I have memories both pleasing and displeasing.

To me, all memories, whatever judgments we might give them, for good or for ill, are part of the rich tapestry of who we become. For this reason I cannot let go of the past, in the sense that I cannot forget, not that I am nostalgic in any way for what has gone on before, nor desperate to hold onto a long list of unresolved grievances. I'm of the view that every time we remember we reconstruct and in this sense the past keeps changing. It's not set in stone.

We do the best we can, you and I in our different ways.

Thanks for the birthday wishes. Zuzana.

Elisabeth said...

I know what you mean, Art, about those over achievers who race hither and thither, fearful of stopping.

I've been accused of doing a much myself, though lately, at least since I broke my leg, I could hardly be accused of rushing, at least not physically.

I am old-lady slow. I hobble. It frustrates me, but I will have to learn to live with it.

I think the development of any theory, any body of knowledge and any craft needs to undergo the process you describe here with Aikido, otherwise it becomes ossified.

I like the idea of my clan becoming more refined with time and age, despite our difficulties.

As for your struggle, Art, to me your art - music, poetry, prose, photography and wisdom make up for your inability to get employment, but it seems tragic to me that a man with your skills is not better recognised.

On my blog I have mentioned Gerald Murnane, the Australian writer. I'm not the only one who thinks that in years to come he might be regarded as another great in Australian literary history but there was a time not long ago, when GM in his sixties got up early every day, around four am to go off to the local news agency to cover individual newspapers with cling wrap so that they could be thrown over people's fences in the early morning deliveries.

I think this is appalling but GM needed to augment his income. Here in Australia and perhaps in your neck of the woods too, we do not look after our artists well enough.

Thanks, Art.

Elisabeth said...

You of all people will know something then of the experience of growing up in a large family, in all its joys and its sorrows.

I understand that there can be reversals of who cops it worse, the oldest or the youngest.

In my mother's family of seven, her sister younger by six years will say loudly that her parents should have stopped having children after the first two.

According to this aunt, fifth born and one of twins, there was no room for anyone after the first girl and boy were born. My mother the oldest refuses to see it like this. She idealises her family of origin.

I know we can't force people to acknowledge these discrepancies, but, as you say Ruth, we can lead by example. Sometimes the reluctant ones might follow.


Elisabeth said...

Alberto, thank you for all your kind words.

Our cultures are no doubt very different and what you say about the ties to family in your country that are more like handcuffs or chains is very sobering.

I cannot imagine being forced to respect parents who did not respect me.

There were times when my father failed in his duty to his children and there were also times when my mother wanted us to turn a blind eye, but in our society at large there is no pressure to go along with these abuses.

It must be very hard to have parents who bring you up only to have you look after them in their old age. I'm pleased to hear that your mother at least is not like that. And what of your father?

I am all for respecting our old people, especially now as I get older, but I do not think it should be part of the bargain for living.

If our parents respect us as children then I have little doubt that our children will respect us in our old age.

Thank you also for your heartfelt birthday wishes, Alberto. I am so pleased to have come across you and your work. It is so good to exchange ideas across so many seas.

Elisabeth said...

I agree River, the word dysfunctional is itself dysfunctional.

It doesn't help much on the categorizing stakes.

I'm sorry to hear your parents did not value education for females. Let's hope that one day in the future, not too far away such denigration of all female educational needs will become a thing of the past.

Thanks, River.

Elisabeth said...

Helena, of Marshall Stacks, I hope we nine siblings are not so terrifying as you imagine.

If you could have seen us in the flesh wandering down the main street of Griffith on an overcast Sunday morning you would not be one bit intimidated.

We looked like the proverbial pack of aging fogies.

Thanks for the birthday wishes.

Elisabeth said...

I used to think my father would wind up a hopeless old tramp like the one you describe here, Kath. He did not. My mother would attribute this to a miracle.

It must be hard for LC coming from such a 'dysfunctional' family. How good it is then that he met and married you and that he is not repeating history.

His story is poignant in the extreme, that poor little boy desperate for his mother's love. Kids have it tough sometimes.

Thanks for the good wishes, Kath.

I tend to associate you in my mind with another Kath, a Kath I once met many years ago in a professional writing and editing class.

I don't think it's you, but somehow I think of her when I read your blog and your comments elsewhere.

Sh is/was thoughtful, deep and lovely, like you.

Elisabeth said...

Therapy helps, Steven. I've had years of it. In fact, in my family it seems, those who've visited therapists seem to have a less painful time just being together.

This could just be my perception, but it seems so. Or maybe it's more the case that once you've been in therapy you are more likely to be able to put your emotional experience into words. I'm of the view that this is helpful.

I try to let other people have their experience, however different from mine, but I am not so tolerant when it comes to my beloved sisters and brothers.

Unfairly and unreasonably I know, I expect more of them.

Thanks, Steven.

Elisabeth said...

Such kind words, Lorenzo. I stand abashed.

I don't read myself as particularly honest or courageous when I write and it intrigues me that others read my writing this way.

Still I'm glad it resonates for you. That's all I am to do, to communicate something of my experience and when it reaches other people, I'm delighted.

Thanks, Lorenzo.

Elisabeth said...

You speak of candor in my posts, Elizabeth and all I can think is that there is so much more I might write were I free to do so.

They say the Internet is a democratic and open space in which people can write as they please, but I don't find it to be so.

I'm constantly aware of the constraints.

There are so many times when I wish I were a genuine and 'hardcore' fiction writer so that I might better disguise my story behind a few imaginari facts and still be able to tell it.

It's the stories that matter to me. They beg to be told but there are so many others involved and as you well know, we need to be careful when it comes to writing about our own experiences when thy involve other people.

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Elizabeth, and for so much more.

Elisabeth said...

Ms Moon, do I read correctly? You're the only girl in a family of four boys. That must have been something in itself.

And then, from what I read, there are secrets and omissions in your family, too.

It's tough, for most of us. The blogosphere is filled with our struggle and our protests.

We try to talk about our experiences, our lives, our stories and there are others who lived these lives alongside us who cannot bear to remember or to see, or whose lives may have been so radically different even when they were in the same room, at the same time.

Perception is in the eye of the beholder.

Thanks for your comments here, Ms Moon. You know about these amazing events, I can tell from your blog, your vast contact with so many identities, your life as an actor and as a daughter with a mother who prefers not to know. And yet you struggle on, and your writing reflects the struggle as do your photos and your thoughts.


Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Awyn. I'm glad you enjoyed my essay. It's hard writing when I feel my thoughts should be kept under wraps. Thank goodness for the readers in Blogland.

Elisabeth said...

I went to Holland in 2006, Kleinstemotte. I went for a conference in Germany and then to do research on my family history in Holland.

It is only the second time I have visited. Holland means so much to me even now, even from so far away.

Holland is a place in my childhood imagination, loaded down with my mother's hopes and dreams. It stands in marked contrast to my home in Australia. Again I think the second genration can feel the weight of their parent's immigration pain years after the event.

I hope you do not think I'm interested in blaming, Kleinstemotte. I am not. I am interested in connecting. Sometimes, however, in order to connect we need to sort out our conflict, but blaming never helps anyone.

Thanks, Kleinstemotte.

Elisabeth said...

It's lovely to meet you here, Frosty Duncan, and thanks for your kind words.

How sad for you that your only sister preferred to pick mushrooms rather than talk to you.

I agree, it's sad that not everyone is willing to try to talk together, but as you say, we have started on a journey and hopefully in time reluctant others might follow.

Thanks, Frosty Duncan.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Eryl. I'll keep trying. It's beyond me not to.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for your birthday greetings, Laoch.

Elisabeth said...

I agree, Anthony, families don't come 'normal' and all our abnormalities for want of a better term are relative.

Some of us are lucky. We find an outlet in art, in writing or in some other creative endeavor to help soothe us.

And every stroke of the pen, dab of paint, and splash of the brush helps.

Thanks, Anthony.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks, Christine. It can all seem so serious at times.

I'm glad someone at least can smile.

Jim Murdoch said...

I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone whose family was not dysfunctional; the adjective is redundant as far as I’m concerned. And yet most of those families still muddle through. I come from a family where all three children thought they were the black sheep. Birthdays came and went without much fuss in fact I can’t remember my sister’s or my father’s birthday; my mother was born on Boxing Day which is a hard one to forget and my brother’s birthday is only a few days after mine so I’ve always remembered it. I couldn’t actually tell you even what years my parents died. I have two train tickets in my wallet with the dates on them but I’m straining now even to remember the months. Those were the last two times I saw my siblings so I would guess about ten years ago. I’ve moved house twice since then. I think most kids go through a period where they feel there was some mix-up when they were born, that their real family is out there somewhere. I never felt that and I have always been a dutiful son and brother but that was it. Their lives and mine diverged a long time ago. Does this make me sad? Yes, but as I’m sad most of the time it’s hard to distinguish one sadness from the next.

My father also softened in his last few years by which time we’d all moved away but I was the only one who lived locally; the other two live in England now. So I got to see what was left of him. He lost his sight and his hearing – he wasn’t completely blind or totally deaf except when it suited him to be – and often I would arrive on a Saturday afternoon to find him sitting alone in silence in the ‘house’ – no radio, no TV, just his thoughts. (The ‘house’ was what our family called the back room downstairs – no idea why.) Despite his failings he always supported his kids, often financially which was easiest, but he would do his best to try to understand the life choices we made even though we all disappointed him in our own unique ways. I find it hard to think of him as a bad man but my brother and sister who had very little contact with him towards the end weren’t quite so forgiving the last time we spoke.

All us kids have been married more than once. When I last saw my bother he was going through a second divorce. My sister’s second marriage was not an especially happy one – the man she married the second time is very much like her dad, controlling – but I imagine they’re still together because of their religion. My marriage to Carrie, despite a bit of a rocky start (two strong personalities from two different cultures and even eras) is as happy as it’s ever going to be. We have settled and I mean that more in terms of finding a comfortable position than conceding things although there has been some of that too obviously. I have met her family once but have made no great efforts to integrate. They know I’m good to and for her and that’s as much as they need to know too.

I’ve not made the same mistakes my father did. I’ve made my own. I prophesised as much when I was in my teens; even then I was bright enough to realise that I wouldn’t make no mistakes. My first wife divorced me when my daughter was two. That made me very angry because I became a part-time dad, something which was never part of the plan. We have a good relationship but we don’t live in each other’s pockets. Since she’s been taking her Open University degree I see her maybe ever two or three months. It’s enough. My wife’s kids live on the other side of the Atlantic and she only sees them three times a year and that’s only recently she’s upped the frequency and that’s more because her parents are getting on no w and not in especially good health.

Anyway, I’m glad you appreciated my wee e-card. It was a spur of the moment thing. I’ve actually forgotten how old you are already.

A Cuban In London said...

Happy birthday, fellow Scorpio!

The term 'dysfunctional' has been so used and abused over the years that it's lost part of its poignancy and strength. I guess it all started with Woody Allen. :-)

Great post. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Taradharma said...

Happy Belated Birthday.

Keep on keeping on. Your paper was excellent - I read the whole danged thing!

You are, it seems, the family's conscience (and some of your sibs are as well). My wife is a survivor and the personal implications for her, her child, and me as her partner in life have been devastating. It MUST be talked about by all those who want to talk about, that is the only way to work it through (but as a therapist, you know this) and even then the ill effects are likely to keep cropping up. There is no PAST to these incidents...they are right in your face in the present. Until they're not. I have no idea how to get there, but get there we must.

Thank you for a most thoughtful and true post.

Glenn Ingersoll said...

Happy Birthday. Mine was a week past.

My family was fractured & spread out - dad's 3 wives meant 8 kids, wholes, halves & steps. I don't think we were ever all in one room together. We probably came closest when my youngest sister got married a year ago. We got a nice photo of mother (my stepmother) surrounded by her children & their spouses. She has now passed on.

I didn't use to believe anyone could really have a happy childhood - what a myth! I thought adults who remembered a happy childhood were just painting over troubles. Now I'm more willing to believe that some people actually do have happy childhoods. There are freaks in the world.

Unknown said...

Very Belated Happy Birthday, Elisabeth!

I can see why your blog is so popular. You write candidly and from the heart and give us a real insight into your life. Though you're at the other side of the world from me, you suddenly appear to be so close when you confide so intimately in your fellow bloggers.

As for your family, i don't think it's dysfunctional, not at all. With so many siblings and hence such a large family in general it's a wonder there aren't more disagreements and fallings-out! Most other large families would be riven with dissent.

Anyway, excellent writing, full of human interest, a veritable microcosm of the wider society. Keep it up!

Christine said...

Yes... I wondered who, exactly, is dysfunctional? - a family whose members struggle with its history each in their own way, and well enough to tolerate the presence of an 'outlaw' whose status enables her to speak to some of the terrible things that occurred where other, 'insiders' may dare not. Or a group/organisation/ etc that has its own culture and history - and secrets...and who, perhaps, is not yet ready to tolerate... something? I smiled at the juxtaposition...

Elisabeth said...

Jim, I'm a tad older than you remember? 1952, maybe more than a tad.

I suspect you didn't intend it but your comment here made me sad, in the way that reading about people's pain often makes me sad, the sad that you feel when you identify with someone's story and there's nothing you can do but absorb the gist of it and feel sad.

I think I feel saddest of all for my brother, the one immediately above me, the one who cannot articulate his pain, even as he insists everything's all right, my intuition tells me this is not so.

The story of your father nearly blind and deaf alone in his 'house' and alienaed from at least two of his children is also sad. From what you have already told me I gather he expected far too much of his children - a recipe for disaster and mutual disaapointment.

Even so we try to keep trying to please these parents of ours, at least I do, even after they're dead.

Thanks for the birthday wishes, jim. I am very grateful.

I can only imagine what it's like to be married a second time round. It seems to me after over thirty years of married life together my husband and I have undergone many transformations.

Neither of us are the same as we were. It's not quite the same, but maybe close to a second and even athird marriage in some ways, but with the safe consistency of both also being the same.

Thanks, Jim

Elisabeth said...

Greetings fellow Scorpio.

I didn't know the term, dysfunctional started with Woody Allen. You learn something new every day.

Thanks, Cuban.

Elisabeth said...

I'm glad you read the essay, TaraDharma. I hope it was helpful.

It's sad to read that your wife too has suffered as you say. There are survivors of abuse everywhere. It's extraordinary the degree to which some people resist knowing about it.

Thanks, TaraDharma.

Elisabeth said...

The myth of childhood happiness is powerful, Glenn. Most of us want to believe in it.

We bring our children up in the light of it, hoping to make it better for them relative to our own experience.

Your family sounds extraordinary, Glenn, all those wives for your father and the subsequent siblings, part, whole step etc. Family gatherings must be quite an event.

Thanks for the birthday wishes.

Elisabeth said...

Chris, I'd never quite thought of my family as a microcosm of wider society but perhaps in some ways it is.

Thank you for your appreciation of my efforts to tell my story as I see it. Some like you might say it's candid, there are others who might say 'too much information'. I find it hard at times to strike a balance.

Thanks, Chris.

Elisabeth said...

I now understand your amusement, your smile at least, Christine.

Some might call the organisation's response hypocritical.

I still puzzle over it, even as I recognise it as symptomatic of a long history of institutionalised idealisation and an intolerance for those who might tarnish the image.

Thanks for clarifying your earlier comment, Christine

Marja said...

See my comment hasn't been processed yet but just in case it didn't come through A belated happy birthday and the essence of my comment was that everybody processes things in different ways. I was never able to discuss family stuff with my brothers properly but could do that very well wit others. Have to go back to work again :0) Groetjes

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for the birthday wishes, Marja. Brothers can be difficult people with whom to communicate. They can also be angels.

Ginnie said...

How is it, Elisabeth, that without knowing you I was riveted to this story, through to the very end. In fact, while reading the part about your dad, I immediately thought of the Robin Willimas' movie, "The Final Cut." If you've never seen it, I 'spect you'd be entranced by the idea behind the movie, dealing with the morality of what we remember "out loud" at the funerals of our loved ones.

As sister Ruth has already said, she was in the last group of 4 siblings...I was in the first group of 4...growing up in our family. It seems there are more issues you're dealing with, perhaps, but the similarity is that all 8 of us are gifted in one way or the other. Gifted and in various degrees of troublement, if that's a word. Ruth, the baby, is the one we all smile down on...11 years my junior. She ended up being like an only child after the rest of us had left home. I was the #3 child, and in that regard became the Golden Child of the family. Still, coming out after 21 years of marriage quickly knocked me off that pedestal, rest for the weary!

Anyway, you write beautifully, and for that I can understand why you follow my sister. Thank you for taking the time to stop by my own journalistic/travel blog. That means a lot.

Enchanted Oak said...

I laugh at my word verification: Platturd! That is a noun referring to a useless item of platitude.

Your reunion was fascinating and painful to read. How wonderful to let me in to your life this way! I don't read for platitudes. I read for honesty and the human condition. I am enamoured of the human condition in all its manifestations.

Of course the label "dysfunctional" is ridiculous. I'm glad to see you take such a stupidity to task.

Your family's various characteristics, such as the silent brother, the ones who wish to "forget the past," all are helpful to me as my siblings and I adjust to the aftermath of our mother's death and the loss of both parents at last. I cannot understand the gyrations we go through, the changes in the relationships, the virulence of the distaste for one another that has erupted. As I read about your family, I think perhaps we must allow all manner of responses in our siblings as a matter of respect. Judgment based on our expectations or needs are simply not fair.

You are brave. Thank you.

Phoenix said...

The worst thing my father ever did, worse than the abuse and the screaming and the punching and the molestation, was pit my two older brothers and I against each other. If we had learned to band together, we might have been able to stop his merciless bullying; but as it is, we abandoned each other and ganged up on each other, because we were simply relieved not to be the target for once. My father compared us to each other at dinner and undermined any friendship or camaraderie that could have come from growing up in the same house.

As a result, my brothers and I do not really talk to each other about the abuse. The oldest one doesn't even know what happened to me; and when the middle one and I start reminiscing about what my father did my mother screams that it's in the past and we must leave it there.

My brothers are stilted and limited; both live with my mom because they have not yet found their way, even though the oldest turns 39 tomorrow. My mom excuses their behavior and addictions because "they had it so hard."

I am the only one who talks about the past; and so I am the only one who has moved on from it.

That's the way it works. BUT - as your sister in law found out - you cannot force people to face what they are not ready to. Some people do not want to heal because they have made their wounds part of their own hearts.

Elisabeth said...

I have not seen The Final Cut Ginnie, but it sounds intriguing. I must check it out.

How amazing, to think you're Ruth's big sister.

As far as I know none of my siblings blog. I prefer it this way. I'd be fearful of how they might read my writing.

My siblings know I write. They know i write autobiographically, but all of them bar maybe two, the two I'm closest two ironically would not want to read my writing, at least that's what I imagine. We don't talk about it much.

You two, you and Ruth are lucky to be able to communicate so well across the blogosphere.

It's interesting, to me at least, that as the third child you say you were the golden child.

My third daughter is also a fair live wire and gifted, but her sisters are also gifted in their different ways.

It's sad that you've fallen off your pedestal for 'coming out'. Today the headlines in our newspaper The Age include a blurb on how most private girls grammar schools in Melbourne refuse to allow students to take another girl as their partner to the school formal.

The girls are only allowed to bring along a male partner. Earlier this year my sixteen year old daughter raised the roof over a similar policy at her school. I wonder what they're frightened of, the schools that is.

My husband suggests it's probably a commercial decision to keep the conservative paying parents happy, but I suspect it's broader than that. Still it's good that it's reported in the newspapers here now. It challenges the unspoken status quo.

It's good to meet you here, Ginnie.

Elisabeth said...

Families change whenever a new baby arrives on the scene, when marriages fail, and equally when family embers die.

It's not surprising then that your family go through such 'gyrations' Enchanted Oak after the death of both your parents.

My husband's family after his parents died went through a wonderful process of coming together for the first time, the six siblings that is. But more recently ten years after this after the birth of the first grandchildren, a feud has developed between two of the siblings which is causing people grief.

Families are strange groups, the strangest and most powerful group of all and it's clear that all families have their strengths and weaknesses, including ours - yours and mine.

Thanks, Enchanted Oak.

Elisabeth said...

You are the only one who talks about the past, Phoenix and so you move on. This is very evidet in your blog and in yor life generally.

I can understand how awful it must have been for you to have a father who set up such rivalries between his children.

As you suggest it's the worst abuse of all because it takes away an essential strength that children have when they are not only children, the love and support of their siblings, however delicate these feelings might be.

I'm sorry to hear that your brothers are so emotionally stunted.

Some mothers don't seem to realise that in order to let their children grow, they have to let go, and one way of letting go is to acknowledge past difficulties.

Thanks, Phoenix.