Happy families and unhappy families

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Tolstoy wrote, famously, that all happy families are alike, and that every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

 

 

I have two comments on this:

 

 

a)     I think we say “dysfunctional” nowadays, though I’d hate to read a translation of “Anna Karenina” with the word “dysfunctional” in it;

b)     I do not believe there is any such thing as a happy family.

 

 

I know I sound terribly cynical, but hear me out.

 

 

First of all: yes, I know, mass-murder families, sex-crime families.  Yes, those are really awful, and “dysfunctional” is not a strong enough word to describe them.  But here I have to invoke Woody Allen’s Law, also known as the Horrible/Miserable Divide.  In Woody’s own words, in “Annie Hall”: “I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.

 

 

Yes, indeed, we are all lucky to be miserable.

 

 

My family was – what can I tell you? – normal.  We fought.  We did not necessarily like each other very much.  There was strife, and sometimes bad feeling that went on for years.  To use one example, my older sister Darlene and I had no real love for each other after about 1970.  We argued, fought, were terribly snide to one another.  My mother was very close to both of us, and used the traditional method of dealing with these situations: when she was with me, she agreed with me, and when she was with Darlene, she agreed with her. 

 

 

And who can blame her?

 

 

I used to think we were a nightmare family.  Now, with the calm (tranquilized?) perspective of late middle age, I look back and compare us to other families of my acquaintance, and realize that we were pretty much normal.

 

 

But here’s the other thing: I have learned to mistrust people who claim that their family life is/was perfectly happy. 

 

 

I learned this primarily through a school friend who insisted that her family was something between a Currier & Ives etching and “Leave It To Beaver.”  Then I met said family.  Father: abusive.  Mother: passive alcoholic.  Brother: growing up to be a mean-minded tyrant like his father. 

 

 

Lovely!

 

 

I was talking about this with a student acquaintance, and she was astonished. Her family, she said, was very close.  They actually like each other.

 

 

Well, I suppose miracles happen.

 

 

But I have my doubts.

 

 

Learn to love the misery, kids.  Remember: you should be thankful that you’re miserable.  

 

 

Because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.


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About Loren Williams
Gay, partnered, living in Providence, working at a local university. Loves: books, movies, TV. Comments and recriminations can be sent to futureworld@cox.net.

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