Opinion » John Rember

Family Politics

Narrative therapy and the dinner table

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It's a sign of mental health if a person is truthful, a sign of even better mental health if that person is truthful about her life. If that person is truthful about her family—that's a level of mental health most folks can only aspire to.

That's because families maintain stories about themselves. These stories keep families intact when everybody might otherwise run screaming for the door. Most people tell stories that begin, "I'm proud to be a member of my family, in spite of how Uncle Joe behaves at Thanksgiving, because we are... (insert valorous, tough, joyous or genetically superior here)."

The family story will contain heroes and villains, tough times and sad times. Often it will have a happy ending, although family stories that end in shame and betrayal have even stronger holds on their members. In hospice situations, for example, siblings who hate each other have a harder time pulling the plug on brain-dead parents than siblings who don't.

But families often have a member who refuses to believe the family story at all, because she's only a supporting actor in it, or has a lousy role in it, or both. (If you have a lousy role in your family story, it's way better to be a supporting actor than a star.) Or maybe she's simply better at seeing that the family story is a sticky narrative Mobius strip imprisoning whole generations in contrived beginnings, middles and ends.

Family therapists call this troublemaker the IP, or "identified patient," because other family members consider her crazy and want her put away. She keeps spoiling the fun—not that the spoiling can't sometimes be part of the fun, as evidenced by those families who pick a brand-new IP every time the old one is packed away to an institution for the criminally insane.

I thought I'd bring up this deadly serious topic before Thanksgiving, a holiday when families can freely bulldoze their members, crushing true-stories-under-construction (mental health projects) under the treads of heavy family myth. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing noted that when families eat together, ghosts sit at the table. The shades of great-great-grandparents arrive at the dinner table and start carving the meat—some of it, unlike the great-great-grandparents, still alive.

Family therapists and social workers tend to see IPs as the products of families, rather than as contrary jerks who ruin holiday meals. Therapists understand Uncle Joe will get drunk before the turkey's out of the oven and start arguing religion with the in-laws—who came all the way from Rexburg in spite of what happened last year. But it won't do any good to ban Uncle Joe from the table. The family will find someone to take his place, somebody who might not have Uncle Joe's ability to avoid outright warfare with a sudden grin and the shrugging admission that we'll all find out the truth about religion when we die.

You may think I come from an alcoholic family where a rigid cover story was enforced (and we had to tell the truth parenthetically if we told it at all). Not true. My family had its cherished if unspoken rules, but making everybody act in the same play wasn't one of them. Our Uncle Joe stayed sober until the in-laws went home. Religious arguments were usually about who was the most agnostic.

Our family members did have to have a personal narrative that strung together the events of our lives. Our stories needed to be plausible. They had to have an element of fair play. If they weren't true, at least they ought to be true.

If there was a taboo in my family, it was a taboo against bullshit. (In spite of this, I became an academic. But I didn't become a politician, so I didn't violate the taboo completely.) My father elaborated the taboo further in a Sartre-for-Dummies moment, when I was about 12.

"It's a tough world," he said. "Bad things will happen, but you can avoid some of them if you make the right choices. If you can't avoid a bad thing, don't give it so much importance that it ruins your life. Pay your bills before they're due. If you take a job, do it well and get out before you get stuck. You're on your own, kid."

Life as a teacher has shown me that few families give their members this sort of free ticket to existence. Most families force lifetime roles on people. You'll know what I mean if you've been cast as the Pretty One, the Smart One, the Cranky One, the Athletic One, the Hard Worker, the Addict or the Pretty Smart Hardworking Athletic Crank Addict.

Consider, if you can, the entirely reasonable premise that each human being starts with a deep, family-dwarfing connection to the Infinite, and you'll see that families too often conspire to block that connection.

Family therapists do their best to encourage IPs to stand outside of the family story, to chart who's cast as what, to see when being in the middle of a bunch of method actors obscures the truth and makes you crazy.

You can try this at home, kids. This Thanksgiving, try standing aside from the family story and seeing who's playing what role, whether the drama is happy or sad, spoken or unspoken, good for you or bad for you. Check for ghosts. Wonder if you're an IP. You can thank me later. I'll understand if you're someplace in the Infinite, and don't include a return address.