An acquaintance, the poet Cathy Smith Bowers, once told me something that should be obvious but had never occurred to me: The adrenal glands of children who grow up in chaotic households pump Vesuvian eruptions of the hormone epinephrine when their parents (or their parents’ boyfriends/girlfriends) hurl invectives and/or furniture at each other.
In plainer English, growing up in fucked-up households tends to fuck you up, not only mentally, but physically as well — as if there is a difference anyway.
Cathy went on to say that once these children leave the war zones of their childhoods, they often develop a need for high levels of adrenaline and a hankering for jangled nerves, for that elevated heart rate, that feeling of excitement, and, of course, there’s nothing like a little snort of cocaine to replicate that bodily high, and nothing like a drug habit to create chaos, and thus, to bring the family melodrama back full circle.
Cathy, like many of us, is no stranger to the toll of growing up in an unhappy home. Here’s her poem “The Boxers” that makes manifest her point:
When my father, after twenty years, came home
to die, circling, circling, like an animal
we believed extinct, it was my crazy aunt
who took him in, who told later
how the taxi had dumped him
bleached and whimpering on her porch.
And she who had not lived with him
thought his sons and daughters cruel
not to come when he began to call our names.
He died, and soon after, a package in brown wrapping
arrived at my address. My sister, who did not
attend the funeral, kept urging me to open it
and I kept saying I would, soon. Every day
when I came home from work, there it was
sitting at my back door, the remnants
of my father’s life—years in the mill
spinning and doffing, then drinking into morning
as he railed at the walls, the cotton
still clinging to his fists. Weeks had passed
when finally my sister and I, after two stiff bourbons,
began to rip the paper, slowly in strips
like archaeologists unclothing a mummy.
And all that was there were a few plaid flannels,
the jacket to a leisure suit, and a pair of boxers,
white and baggy, Rorschached in urine—a smaller size,
my sister said, than the way she remembered him.
Then she offered to drop the things at the Salvation Army
store she passed on her way home. In July
we went shopping for swim suits and I could
see her in the curtained stall across from mine.
She was pulling her slip over her head when I saw
she was wearing them, her thighs like the pale stems
of mushrooms emerging from the boxers’ billowy
legs, whiter, softer now, washed clean. I still
can’t say why my sister, that day in the Salvation
Army store, glanced up, as I’ve imagined,
to see if anyone was watching
before she slipped those boxers from the soiled heap
of our father’s clothes. Nor why
I took so long to open that package, both wanting
and fearing whatever lay inside. Like a child
huddled by the campfire who cries out in terror
at the story someone just told
and, still weeping, begs for it again.
“The Boxers” by Cathy Smith Bowers, from The Love that Ended Yesterday in Texas. © Texas Tech University Press, 1992. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
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When we look to literature for examples of dysfunctional American families, we immediately think of Faulkner’s Compsons, any number of Tennessee Williams’ people, the Tyrones of Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night, and the tortured families who inhabit the pages of Pat Conroy’s novels.
Our friend Megan Conroy sometimes stays with us for a few days in July when she travels from California to visit her famous father, stepmother, and aunts and uncles at Fripp Island. Unfortunately, this year she couldn’t make it up to Charleston, so she invited us down to Fripp to her father’s beach house.
Situated on a lagoon, the Conroy beach house is the antithesis of gothic — open and airy and looking out onto a backyard where practically tame deer feed. When we arrived, Megan greeted us and introduced her uncle Mike, who bears a remarkable resemblance to his older brother and who can give him a run for his money as a raconteur. Also there were Mike’s wife Jeannie, his sister Kathy, Megan’s sisters Jessica and Melissa, their husbands, and a host of grandchildren too numerous to name.
Pat and his wife the novelist Cassandra King arrived after a midday dinner of fired chicken, macaroni and cheese, red rice, cantaloupe, and coleslaw. The older folk traded stories in typical Southern fashion in the open family room while younger members of the clan watched Germany battle Algeria in another space.
Rather than what you might expect, hanging out with Pat Conroy on that day was more like hanging out with Sam Clemens than Eugene O’Neill.
A few excerpts:
Pat: [My arch-conservative ex-father-in-law] makes Rush Limbaugh look like Chairman Mao.
Megan: I didn’t want a fancy wedding dress until I tried one on. I didn’t want a veil until I tried one on. When they told me don’t you want to take off your veil after the ceremony, I said, “No, when do you ever get to wear a veil?”
Pat: That dress cost a million dollars. Cassandra, remember when you opened the closet door and found it standing up by itself? Horrifying!
In other words, the Conroys seemed like one big happy family and that at least the youngest have broken the dysfunctional cycle of self-generated misery that dysfunction tends to generate, which is remarkable given the scorched earth of the Great Santini’s children’s childhoods. To wit an excerpt from Pat’s memoir The Death of Santini:
When I was thirty years old, my novel The Great Santini was published, and there were many things in that book I was afraid to write or feared that no one would believe. But this year I turned sixty-five, the official starting date of old age and the beginning count down to my inevitable death. I’ve come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day. I can’t run away, hide, or pretend it never happened. I wear it on my back like the carapace of a tortoise, except my shell burdens and does not protect. It weighs me down and fills me with dread.
The Conroy children were all casualties of war, conscripts in a battle we didn’t sign up for on the bloodied envelope of our birth certificates. I grew up to become the family evangelist; Michael, the vessel of anxiety; Kathy, who missed her childhood by going to sleep at six every night; Jim, who is called the dark one; Tim, the sweetest one – and can barely stand to be around any of us; and Tom, our lost and never-to-be found brother. My personal tragedy lies with my sister, Carol Ann, the poet I grew up with and adored…
I’ve got to try and make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning, another dive into the caves of the coral reef where the morays wait in ambush, one more night flight into the immortal darkness to study that house of pain one final time. Then I’ll be finished with you, Mom and Dad. I’ll leave you in peace and not bother you again. And I’ll pray that your stormy spirits find peace in the house of the Lord. But I must examine the wreckage one last time.
Yet they appeared to me one big happy family!