Stories heal families

By Jerry Waxler

When I was a teenager, I started pulling away from my parents. I didn’t understand who these people were, and didn’t think we had much in common. Ignoring all the support mom and dad had given me, the safe and sane home, I longed to escape their influence. When I moved out of my childhood home in Pennsylvania, I tried to put many miles behind me, first moving 1,000 miles to go to school in Wisconsin, and then moving 2,000 more miles to Berkeley, California. The geographical separation was only an external symptom of what I was feeling in my heart. I was trying to shake them off. Sometimes I didn’t speak to them for a year, and never reached out for support. All of this distance was accompanied by enormous pain. I had cut myself off from my family, and wondered why I felt so alone.

But I couldn’t figure out how to break through this wall, and see them as real people. Somehow I had built up such profound edginess I simply couldn’t approach them. So I stayed away, hurting them and myself in the process. While my situation sounds extreme, I have spoken to many adults who hold on to complex, painful resentments about their parents, and would greatly benefit by finding a way back home.

For example, when memoirist Gretchen Gunn first decided to write about her childhood, she knew she had lots of interesting material. She grew up in a hippie commune. And as a tiny child, she witnessed first hand the culture of the early seventies, where people, including her parents valued their own desires above common sense or standards of decency. But Gretchen felt unable to tell the story because she was so angry with her dad’s irresponsibility and abandonment. She thought her anger would get her in trouble, so she decided to write it as fiction. That turned out to be a great choice, because the more she tried to tell the story, the better she understood it.

To write a good story, the goal is to not describe characters like they belong in a cartoon. If they look empty, or the same as every other character you have read about, they will not be interesting to read. Instead of a superficial gloss, you have to look more closely for signs they are human. If your vision is clouded by strong feelings of resentment, disappointment, or other confusing emotions, getting to the human story beneath the cloud of emotions might happen in layers rather than all at once.

So when Gretchen wrote her early drafts, she expressed her disgust, but when approaching the story in this way, it didn’t seem interesting. So she shifted her image of him from a bad person to simply a dead person. By killing off her father, she was able to see the whole situation more clearly. He was out of the picture, and out of her life, and instead of hanging on to her fury, she let him go. This shift in perspective was so profound that she lost her grip on her gripes. There was no more point in being angry, and she felt like she released a huge weight, allowing her to see events more clearly than ever. Even though she had been writing fiction, the act of turning her life into a story had set her free from the demons of the past, and gave her deeper insight into her childhood and her parents.

After my self-imposed exile in California, I moved back to Pennsylvania in 1971. But moving closer geographically did not bring me closer in my heart. I went months at a time without calling home, and skipped most holiday gatherings. After decades of therapy, I went to graduate school and got my Master’s degree in counseling, and started to see the secret everyone else seemed to know better than me, about the ever-present intimacy between a parent and child. My interest in mom increased, and I spoke with her every week, trying to understand how to relate to this person who not only gave birth to me, but taught me how to be a human being. Week by week, year by year, our conversations cleared away whatever issues had kept us separate. Fortunately, my mom lived to 87, which gave me plenty of time to transform my attitude. Finally, I got it! She was a person! A good person. She longed to make the most of her life. She strived to stay fit. And I finally noticed she had many devoted friends who looked up to her. I became one of her admirers. We became friends! At the end of an aerobics class, she wasn’t feeling well, and a neighbor took her to the hospital. When she lay in bed, a few days before the end, she turned to me and said, “I lived a good life.” And so she had, and together, we were at peace with that.

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