Family Friction: The Rise of the Dysfunctional Family in Literature

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Editor's Note:

Susan Rieger is the author of the 2014 novel The Divorce Papers.  She is a graduate of Columbia Law School and has worked as a residential College Dean at Yale and as associate provost at Columbia. Here, Susan discusses the literary appeal of the dysfunctional family.

When I found out that Signature had reviewed my new novel The Heirs  as one of “9 Tales of Dysfunctionally Delicious Families,” I was delighted and surprised. I loved the review but was caught out by the the editor’s headline description of the Falkeses, the family in the novel, as dysfunctional. I had regarded the Falkeses as a highly functional family, all of them, father, mother, five sons. They were, to my mind, engaging, intelligent, talented, disciplined, and successful. (An author is like a fond mother.) They weren’t perfect, not by a long shot, but they were, at worst, I thought, neurotic. They loved each other; they supported each other; they forgave each other.

When I think of dysfunctional families, I think of parents who are addicts, alcoholics, abusers, and the like, parents who generate emotional and physical havoc in their families, undermining if not ruining their children’s hope for happiness.  As for the children who reek or perpetuate the havoc –the ones who pull the wings off flies, lie compulsively, bully and beat up weaker children, and the like – they’ve given up on happiness for themselves and everyone else.

I sense I’m in the minority here, seen as nitpicking, defending bad behavior, perhaps even “enabling” it. In popular culture, the notion of the dysfunctional family has become so wide-spread and inclusive that no one blinked when Mary Karr wrote after her book tour for her memoir, The Liar’s Club:  “I ginned up this working definition for a dysfunctional family: any family with more than one person in it.” Under this definition, dysfunctional families are the norm, the standard: I’m dysfunctional, you’re dysfunctional.

How then to we describe families whose behavior is abusive and destructive? The pathological family? I’d like to gin down the definition of dysfunctional family, substituting in many cases Tolstoy’s “happy” and “unhappy,” as in the now famous opening sentence to Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The updated version doesn’t have the same poignancy, the same bite: “All functional families are alike; every dysfunctional family is dysfunctional in its own way.”

Whatever language we prefer, the question becomes: where in literature do we find functional families, the happy ones that Tolstoy alludes to? I’ve been fretting over this question for days now and the only book I can think of is Little Women.

Brutal dysfunction is literature’s preferred lot. The Greeks gave us The Oresteia.  The Bible’s first children, Cain and Abel, are fraticidally dysfunctional. Shakespeare is rife with obliterating dysfunction, King Lear being the most worst, followed closely in body count by Hamlet. Dickens specialized in cold-blooded stepfathers. One might even argue that the Benetts in Pride and Prejudice are dysfunctional, at least under the Karr rubric. Mr. Benett is lazy and irresponsible; his wife is silly and vulgar, though, to her credit, she recognizes her duty to marry off her five daughters; the three youngest daughters are as silly as their mother and 15 year old Lydia violates all bounds of decorum and decency by running off with a bounder. The main story line is the classic comic marriage plot – girl meet boy, girl hates boy, girl marries boy – but simmering underneath is the constant threat of the “bad” members of a family ruining the happiness of the “good” ones.

The truly amazing thing is the number of gifted writers who have triumphed over their truly dysfunctional upbringing. Memoir and autobiography would be a forsaken genre without miserable families driving their offspring’s literary output. Many of my favorites are tales of dysfunction: Notes of a Native Son, Bad Blood, The Glass Castle, This Boy’s Life, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, The Color of Water, Tender at the Bone, Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Blood Bones and Butter, Fun House. I am not alone in my tastes. Dysfunction sells.

Many novelists, no doubt, are also survivors of family dysfunction, but novelists make things up, and while their own histories may provide the germ of their plots, more than anything, they want to make a made-up story seem true. When my grandfather died, his obituary was in The New York Times. My mother had often talked about her father, a poet and labor organizer, but they were estranged and rarely saw each other. At the end of the obit, the list of survivors included two daughters. I knew only one, my mother.

When I asked my mother, she said that my grandfather had been married before he married my grandmother and that he had had a daughter with his first wife. They didn’t like each other—my mother saw her half-sister, at the funeral, the first time in decades, and never saw her again. In The Heirs, I upped the ante, making the story more painful, more tumultuous, more unhappy, more mysterious than my tamer, quieter one but not, I would argue, dysfunctional.