Often it is only shared blood that constitutes the basis for a group of people to be called “family.” Sometimes a family is emotionally stronger for lack of blood ties. Which ever it is, family is such a fundamental concept to humankind, that we all want one.
If you were to provide an oral history of your family, what would be the story? Would it be the same as your siblings’ and parents’? One of the many reasons Arnaud Desplechins’ movies resonate with audiences is for the skill with which he conveys the intermingling of memory, myth and reality in exploring the theme of family disunity. He seems to be saying that every member of a family has his or her own personal myth, and the fact that they rarely map to the others’ is the source of the family conflicts with which most of us are familiar.
A person’s mythic role within a family — whether to one’s own mind that of hero, survivor, savior, prodigal, favorite, rock, martyr, victim or leader to name a view options — becomes an obstacle against proper empathy with each other. I wonder if it all comes down to love, and how it is apportioned and expressed. Not all mothers and fathers love their children, and children have been known to hate their parents. Or maybe it comes down to genes, an undetectable brain chemistry. Regardless, as the Salon.com critic said in reviewing Desplechins, some people are most lost within the context of their families. It can be sad to see, but the goal should not be unity necessarily but a less idealized accommodation than we are normally offered by culture.
In the past, before powerful courts of law, family feuds took care of personal gripes and griefs. People didn’t always try to get along, and weren’t always expected to. Self-banishment would put geography between incompatible people. Violence settled matters. Now that we are more civilized and globally connected there is no escape….we talk it out, thinking we can understand each other, even if the misunderstandings are embedded so deeply that for most a lifetime of meditation or mediation might not help.
I’m always struck by how specific incidents are recalled differently by the individuals involved. Who is correct? Within families, these memories often begin early and cluster around old power struggles, hurts, slights or resentments and become part of the fabric of one’s psyche and personal narrative. They almost never go away, and the feelings almost never stop stinging. So everyone is correct. And therein lies the source of dysfunction.
American films tend to deal with family dysfunction with tired old tropes: parental affairs, siblings as mental cases, substance abuse, physical violence. A some point someone opens up a metaphoral vein and releases of flood of emotion that the family coalesces around. The family is healed. Desplechins doesn’t console us with any of that. Dysfunction is alive and well in families with none of those pat excuses. In Desplechins’ films, there are reconciliations but they are not resolutions. He refers to the psychological baggage we carry around, that prevent us from fully functioning, as “impedi menta.” It’s nice to have a label for it. The point is we live with our experience of family forever. It is what it is. Our memories and myths are us.