Untangling the Knot: My Search for Democracy in the Modern Family

Sabine Heinlein grew up in a family where everyone was treated as equals. It didn’t work out like they hoped.

Sabine Heinlein | Longreads | October 28, 2014 | 16 minutes (3,966 words)

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No one has assessed the family’s dark side quite as fittingly as R.D. Laing, the Scottish leader of the “anti-psychiatry” movement. Laing considered the family “one of the biggest knots in which man has ever tied himself.” While his idea of schizophrenia as a family illness has largely been disproved, Laing’s crisp, honest and complex observations of the family system are still invaluable. In The Politics of the Family, he wrote that among family members “different mappings” happen simultaneously. Your map—your distinct reality, role and projections—differs from that of other family members. To survive, a family resorts to a “shared fantasy image.” Anyone who gives up this image “shatters the ‘family’ in everyone else,” Laing wrote. “[I]f someone breaks such a ‘deeply’ implanted social law, we are inclined to say that he is ‘unnatural.’”

To say that my mapping differs from that of my parents and sisters would be an understatement. Imagine five different maps superimposed onto each other, with each family member insisting that her map is the one to follow. It’s almost impossible to navigate your own system or even to find your way out of it.

Like many families in the 1960s and ’70s, my family operated under the tenets of democracy; in theory we were equals. My parents encouraged individualism and allowed us to question and challenge hierarchies. I was raised to be independent at a very early age. While my father was mostly absent, he dutifully fulfilled his assigned role as the breadwinner. My mother, our primary caregiver, stayed home, unfulfilled. She was proud when neighborhood children said she was more like a friend than a mom. She confided in us my father’s and her marital unhappiness and infidelities. Secrets were virtually nonexistent. While in the privacy of our home her palm occasionally slipped onto my cheek, she opposed physical punishment in public. Quoting child psychologists, she advocated a hands-off child-rearing approach. Problems were supposed to be talked through, not hidden under a veil of silence.

In practice my parents were bad examples, stuck as they were in the mazy channels of communications. My mother flies off the handle easily and my father does not like to talk about problems; it tightens his throat, he once told me. There was much yelling in the family, much intentional hurting, much running off and away—routines that have extended into adulthood and old age. My parents’ contradictory approach tore through the family like a hurricane. Eventually it became impossible for me to share my family’s fantasy image. To me my family appeared like a broken mirror, its thousand little shards impossible to assemble. I’d never be able to get rid of those cracks.

To see myself in one piece, I had to distance myself and work on creating my family of choice. I am still interested, though, in how other families function. Isn’t it always easier—and more rewarding—to look from the outside in? I believe that gaining distance from our kin enables us to see ourselves more clearly. There is much to learn from the ways other families succeed or fail. That’s why I asked friends how they navigate their families’ varied realities. Does your family exercise free speech and compensate for—or at least accept—its members’ weaknesses? Does it celebrate their strengths without jealousy? How do you communicate with each other and what challenges mutual understanding?

Traditionally, a family’s primary purpose was to reproduce the species, maintain its culture and religion, provide economic stability, and care for its elders. But in the 20th century, as gender equality and non-traditional family systems took hold, the parameters shifted (and continue to shift in the 21st century). We thought we knew how to do things better and thought we deserved more. As I interviewed family experts and friends about their notion of functional (and dysfunctional) family, one thing became clear: The last 40 years have brought more freedom, openness, transparency and equality to families. But as we were harvesting these fruits of family democracy, our expectations and demands gave birth to a conundrum of unfulfilled needs and misalignments that have never been solved. I wondered what a successfully democratized family would look like. How can its members learn to navigate democracy’s sometimes turbulent repercussions without clinging to the resentments sowed in its wake?

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I met Anne and her husband John several years ago while reporting on my first book. I liked them very much and sometimes wished they had been my parents. Anne is a retired elementary school teacher and John is a sociologist. Both seemed empathetic: Anne had been volunteering in prison for decades; and John had several prison pen pals, because he believed that the transparency of regular correspondence made inmates less vulnerable to abuse. When I visited them, John and Anne asked me a lot of questions and listened—really listened. In conversations, their sharp intellect allowed them to shift easily to a larger, sociological perspective. Over dinner one night, the couple, now in their mid-70s, told me about the family’s joyful cross-country camping trips. With their little sons Paul and Tom, now in their 40s, strapped to the back of their motorcycles, they visited national parks and Disneyland in California. Everyone in the family agrees that they were open about and supportive of their son Tom’s homosexuality. The pride and love with which Anne and John shared news about their children and grandchildren filled me with envy. “How do you do it?” I recently asked Anne, suggesting I use her family as an example of successful democratization.

The subject line in Anne’s response to my interview request read “Pop the Bubble,” undercutting my optimistic reading of the family’s dynamic. In her candid email, in which she cc’ed her husband and her sons, Anne was quick to take responsibility for things that had gone wrong in the past. “I think my biggest mistakes with the kids were when I went along with John’s decisions and actions and didn’t stand up to him, especially when he was too harsh,” she wrote. While she read child-rearing books and attempted to raise their sons within the democratic principles of her Quaker community, in practice, democracy was a challenge. John’s volatile temperament and “his lifetime of ailments” had damaged her family. (John did not participate in the email conversation, even though Anne said she wished he would.)

Asked to recount an incident that best illustrates his family’s undercurrents, Tom, the older son, remembers dancing around the Christmas tree with his little brother Paul. When John heard the record skipping, he stormed into the living room, yelling and knocking over the tree. It was Anne who quietly picked up the shards and moved the tree to the basement, where, to avoid further damage, Christmas was to be celebrated from now on.

John, Anne and my parents were brought up in the economically and emotionally deprived environment following World War II. For the most part, their parents’ generation still applied an inflexible and authoritarian child-rearing approach. Families had a more or less clearly delineated hierarchical structure.

“[In the ’60s and ’70s] parents were anxious to do the best for their kids and excited to give them things that their parents had to sacrifice or put on hold during the Depression and World War II,” said Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington and author of The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap. “It was a time period when women were told they should find all their happiness in giving their children more than their parents gave them and in being a wife and mother. But they began to think that maybe they wouldn’t. So you’d see women going back to school, going back to work and arguing with their husbands.” Coontz added that these changes contributed to rapidly rising divorce rates. On the one hand, our parents were hopeful and excited about their new roles and their children’s increased opportunities; on the other hand, they soon learned that these opportunities didn’t come without pitfalls. Coontz likened the family environment of the ’60s and ’70s to “a pressure cooker of hope, optimism, fear, anxiety and tension.”

Central in the launch of a more individualistic and democratic parenting style was pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose first edition of the wildly popular bestseller The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published in 1946. Spock advised parents to trust their instincts, treat their children as individuals, let them grow at their own pace, respect their feelings and suspend corporal punishment. Spock’s impact on child-rearing began with the baby boomers and solidified when our parents raised what became known as Generation X. Brought up in the turbulent times of the 1960s and ’70s, my generation benefitted from the sudden economic expansion of the late ’50s and ’60s; we had opportunities that our parents never had. We were encouraged to go to college and choose our careers according to our talents and likings. In other words, the third and fourth editions of Baby and Child Care, published in 1968 and 1976 respectively, found fertile ground. Spock’s ideas have continued to shape contemporary child-rearing practices, even if indirectly, and are echoed in approaches such as “attachment parenting,” which is based on the idea that the emotional bond a child forms with her caregivers has lifelong consequences on their relationship.

Tom said his mother Anne’s guilt often goes overboard. She continues to feel responsible for her sons’ past psychological problems. When Tom and his younger brother struggled with addiction issues—Tom is a recovering sex addict and Paul had problems with alcohol and marijuana—Anne and John readily attended family therapy sessions. Yet, Tom remembers, John offered little active participation. “Our family conversation style is forced, not natural,” Paul agrees. “I don’t feel that our family has achieved the described ‘democratization.’ We have never found a comfortable way to bridge our love-language barriers. We will write a letter or send a card with heartfelt sincerity. I think we each take ownership and responsibility for our past actions, but we do not speak of them. Our family uses acts of love more than words.”

While unconditional love has helped Anne, John and their sons to bridge the new possibilities and old expectations, for Anne democratization within the family remains a work in progress: “We mostly followed John’s lead and wishes in decision making, problem solving, work and play. Having said that, I was the one who insisted that we have children, and I did the majority of childcare. I gave John the power in our marriage, just as my mother gave it to my father. There was a profound imbalance, which has equalized over time. Now, with John having Parkinson’s disease, and with it diminished executive function, I hold the power. After 52 years of marriage, this has been a remarkable confidence-building switch for me.”

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My friend Jake, whose story illuminates the gap between theory and practice, broke up with his parents more than ten years ago. Both of Jake’s parents are social workers—and they have fought with each other for as long as he can remember. Jake’s parents often threatened to get a divorce but never followed through. While his mother taught her children analytical thinking and communication skills, when it came to her relationship with his father and the problems that engulfed the whole family, she seemed helpless.

Jake’s parents went to graduate school at a time when family systems theory and other novel psychological approaches began to replace psychoanalysis. Murray Bowen, one of the major figures of family systems therapy, agreed with R.D. Laing’s notion that it is not only the individual who is sick but the whole family. But Bowen and his colleagues were not interested in Sigmund Freud’s notion of the unconscious. While the psychoanalytic method still dominant in the 1950s and ’60s focused on internal mechanisms—a person was to understand his or her own hidden desires and frustrations and take responsibility for them—family systems therapy held that insight accomplishes little; what needed to be changed was the outside reality. To help family members in the process of “differentiation” (the psychological term for the healthy development of a person’s selfhood) one had to intervene and shift the dynamics that made the system sick. In his seminal paper “On the Differentiation of Self” Bowen recounted how he successfully (at least according to his own assessment) implanted lies and misunderstandings in his own family to destabilize the dynamics he deemed unhealthy. And Bowen was not the only one who advocated interruption, bluntness and even lies. In her 1978 essay “The One-Way Mirror,” New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm describes how Salvador Minuchin, another prominent family systems therapist, encouraged the parents of an anorexic girl to force-feed her in public.

Jake, who is 41, noticed and tried to address the dysfunctional dynamics in his own family at an early age. One time, when he was nine or ten years old, he staged a family intervention that would have made Bowen and Minuchin proud. Anticipating yet another fight at the dinner table, he hid a tape recorder. “If only they could hear themselves fight, they would realize,” he thought. When he played back the tape to his parents, they laughed. Then they yelled again.

Jake, a successful videographer, told me that he considers his family relationships a form of emotional abuse that “is not locatable on a single thing, like physical or sexual abuse. It permeates every single thing—like communication, judgment and money.”

It is not that Jake hasn’t tried to understand, challenge or interrupt his parents’ continuous fighting; it just never seemed to work. He remembers probing his mother, asking her how she could possibly put up with her awful relationship with his father. One time, while she was baking a cake, he got her to tell him that she knew very early on in the relationship with his father that something was fundamentally wrong. But then she turned around to use the blender, literally drowning out the conversation.

About ten years ago, in the car after a family reunion, Jake found himself dragged into a huge fight between his parents over a promise his father had broken. It was then that he decided to cut off both his mother and father. “The incident was only a catalyst,” Jake explained. “Over the years, I have discovered a lifetime of reasons. I needed to be away from it. When I was around them, I was part of it. And I didn’t want to continue to reinforce that part of me that was part of this system.”

Joshua Coleman is an Oakland-based psychologist whose complicated relationship with his own daughter served as a motivation to write the self-help book When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You and Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along. He told me, “We [parents] started thinking much more about what our children thought. We instilled in them a greater degree of self-esteem and self-possessiveness and taught them to be in touch with their feelings. There is a lot of positive that comes from it, but the downside is that this has really heated up the family environment, which wasn’t true when there was a bigger division and when the roles weren’t as blurry.”

Family historian Stephanie Coontz agrees: Intergenerational communication is often complicated by the fact that “the parents who raised you trying to be more individualistic have not gone to the kind of extreme self-exploration and therapy that some of their kids and grandkids have gotten into.” Coleman aptly develops Coontz’s thought: He describes my own generation as wanting “their parents to speak in a language that they weren’t raised to speak in.” He sees his role as teaching parents to speak their children’s language.

I asked Jake what his parents could do to heal the rift. First he told me that his parents simply don’t possess qualities that he’d associate with people he wants to hang out with. “It’s not a genuine meaningful interaction, just boring or mundane.” Then he said that he wished his mother could tell him, “‘I stayed in that relationship because I was codependent, and I was too scared to change my behavior—and I really regret that. Maybe I could have had a better life if I had done it differently.’” Jake added, “That would be meaningful and open up a channel where I could extend more generosity or compassion and where she would meet me on a human level.”

Most traditional family systems therapists I have spoken to hold that true differentiation can only be accomplished within the family system, but Nicholas Strouse, the director of Westport Family Counseling in Connecticut, disagrees:  “Often those who are alienated have developed the ability to be the observer, to watch, organize, digest and gain perspective about the patterns in the family. It’s been my experience that many of these outsiders are able to grow and heal more quickly, whereas the other family members often stick together in a system that really dislikes change.” Both Strouse and Coleman told me that they have seen an increase in family breakups, although it seems unclear whether amplified media attention and psychological awareness have simply encouraged more people like Jake to step out of the shadows.

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As I looked around me, trying to find members of a family that like each other—a family built on transparency, mutual respect and equality—I remembered Rebecca, a 30-year-old fellow journalist and friend. When Rebecca was little, the roles in her family were negotiated as necessary. While her mother attended law school, her father did most of the practical child-rearing. Her mother, now 66, was the decision-maker;  her father, 67, cooked and drove the three children around.

What stuck in my mind was her family’s Christmas tradition. Each Christmas Eve the five family members meet to go to the cinema. The remainder of the evening is spent “dissecting” the movie. On Christmas Day they meet again for a series of lectures. Each person prepares a 15-minute talk about a topic of his or her choice; the talks are followed by short Q&As. Rebecca’s father has lectured about the spread of Islam; her mother about the creation of Israel and about vampires in popular culture (one of Rebecca’s favorite lectures so far). Rebecca has given talks about painter Claude Monet and feminist writer Ellen Willis, her siblings about global warming and swing dancing. Comparing herself to some of her friends, Rebecca says, “We don’t have any big crazies in our family, which is amazing.”

“But what about problems or conflicts?” I asked Rebecca. “How do you solve them?”

“My parents don’t subscribe to the talk-about-your-feelings school,” she responded. “There is a lot of communication in our family about a lot of things, but there is not a lot of communication about family issues.” As an example she recounted how she didn’t find out about her mother’s partial mastectomy until the day of the surgery.

I was surprised because Rebecca always struck me as someone extremely open and outspoken. “The three of us are really self-critical and self-analyzing, because my parents gave us those tools,” she explained, acknowledging that the family doesn’t apply these tools when it comes to emotional problems within the unit. The child of Holocaust survivors, her mother was raised in a cold and silent household and never learned to address emotional issues. While her father was warm and caring, her mother was “super strict” and “paranoid about sharing.” But Rebecca excuses her mother. “She is one of the reasons why I am curious,” she said, remembering the family’s memorable visit to a diner. What was supposed to be a quick break from a big family reunion turned into an animated two-hour assembly. “We were just sitting there, talking about Internet culture!” Rebecca remembered.

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The history of democracy within the family is equally exciting and sad. This summer, my mother visited me in New York after more than three years of oppressive silence. My father and I have found a more or less satisfactory way to communicate with each other. As he grew old and began dividing up the fruits of his lifelong labor with my siblings and me, we have become business partners. For the past few years we have been operating within parameters that I find emotionally deficient but manageable. My mother and I, though, have continued to struggle. For decades our relationship had been defined and battered by a false sense of transparency, honesty and equality. Rusty hooks were thrown into murky water, catching things that should have stayed buried in mud. When I wanted to talk about subjects the way she had taught me to talk about them, I was called unforgiving. She had prepared me to remember but wanted me to forget. Intimacy had been encouraged but also heavily punished. She resented seeing her children get the things she had missed growing up. Each time I opened myself, I was hurt. I had become too smart, she said. I was hiding, she said. I was fleeing, she said. I was confrontational, she said. I shouldn’t analyze everything, and I should instead focus on the good times of the past.

After decades of struggling with the spaces between democratic aspirations and practical limitation, I finally decided to rewrite my map. I tried to do what R.D. Laing deemed impossible: untie myself from my family’s knots. Maybe now, three years later, we could talk like amicable strangers? Maybe the distance had helped. Too much closeness and transparency can’t possibly be good. I had long promised to never bring up the past again. I wanted to start over. So as we sat in my living room for the first time in years, I imagined conversations about books, cooking and animals—anything but family, really—but each sentence I uttered dropped back into the silence that came after I stepped out of the system. Had she not been my mother, we would have never met.

What have I learned from the families and experts I interviewed? That maybe a family doesn’t have to function on every level. That maybe a certain distance and respect for the unspoken is good. It seems, though, that in order to make democracy work, there needs to be at least one shared language that allows for communication, mutual enjoyment and, possibly, intimacy. It doesn’t seem to matter much whether this language is based on intellectuality, emotionality, work or a mutual interest.

While I can now see the origins of my family’s incongruities more clearly, my parents and I have not found a language that allows for a meaningful, loving connection. When I stopped participating in their dysfunctional system, all I was left with was this eerie silence. I had made myself, in R.D. Laing’s words, “unnatural.” While I can see my family more clearly now, and even excuse some of their behavior, I have become unrecognizable, a stranger to them. And yet, there is hope: Democracy is not supposed to lead to an immutable state. It should be up for renegotiation tomorrow, next month, next year. So I hope that one day, before it’s too late, we can meet again and find a mutual language.

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The names of the family members have been changed to protect their privacy.

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Sabine Heinlein is the author of the IPPY Gold Award-winning narrative nonfiction book Among Murderers: Life After Prison and the ebook The Orphan Zoo: Rise and Fall of the Farm at Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. She is a recipient of the Pushcart Prize.

Edited by Melissa Dunn. Fact-checked by Brendan O’Connor.

Illustrations by Kjell Reigstad

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