Tuesday 17 September 2002

Happy families

“All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Happy Families card game: Mr Bones the Butcher, his wife, son, and daughter

Happy Families is the British version of Go Fish, played with a pack of 44 cards depicting the father, mother, son, and daughter of eleven families (Bun the Baker, Hose the Fireman, Bones the Butcher, Tape the Tailor, and so on). As in Go Fish, the goal is to collect complete families by asking another player for a particular card.

Even at the age of ten, playing the game with my mother and father, the happy family seemed such an absurd notion, completely at odds with the reality of my own family and the families of my schoolfriends, in which happiness was counterbalanced with unspoken grief, frustration, anger, tension, and lies.

Given the enormous amount of social and cultural energy devoted to supporting the charade of the seamlessly happy family, I was hardly surprised to read that Mike Golby had:

received two e-mails from overseas demanding my blog’s closure. The e-mails resulted from my publishing, in haste and unthinkingly, the name of a family member when relating events surrounding my wife’s rape in 1999.

Mike corrected the error and apologized, but apparently the two relatives continue to insist that he stop blogging. In an email to a range of people (presumably on his blogroll), Mike framed a request for comment and support in terms of “freedom of speech.” At the risk of offending Mike and anyone else, I find “freedom of speech” to be almost as exhausted and discredited a term as “patriotism.”

In free societies such as those in which most bloggers live, speech is subject to a range of constraints: the laws dealing with libel, slander, and hate speech; the imperatives of political correctness; and, perhaps most properly, the tact and compassion essential for the smooth running of a community. So, Mike, if you’re looking for support on the basis of “free speech,” I’m afraid I can’t accommodate you.

Because there’s a more important issue at stake for me than “free speech.” Something I might describe as “quality of speech.” Even relatively repressive societies frequently exempt—to varying degrees—artists from many of the restrictions placed on “normal” citizens. In return for a greater degree of intellectual, social, and sexual freedom, artists create works that reflect, criticize, or (most commonly) celebrate the ideologies underpinning the society.

Because the family is regarded as the building block of most societies, a considerable degree of cultural capital is expended in creating artistic works that reinforce and amplify the myth of the happy family. I would characterize most, though not all, of these works as sentimental—using the word in a perjorative sense. But in a comment on my previous post, Loren Webster suggested that “99% of Americans” look favorably on the term:

“Sentimental” has positive connotations, not negative ones. We associate it with things we know are not necessarily true but things we would love to believe.

Things like Santa Claus, things like joyous Thanksgiving reunions with loved ones, even if we only love them at a distance, are considered “sentimental.” Even when we consciously know these things are not entirely true, we would like to believe them and see nothing wrong in believing in them.

I was astonished when I first read Loren’s comment but, on reflection, why should I be? The evidence for Loren’s assertion is in my face every time I turn on commercial television. It’s only a minority who wants to see, in Brecht’s phrase, how things really are.

My guess is that, for Mike Golby’s relatives, the real transgression was not that he named a family member but that his weblog is, among many other admirable things, an uncompromising assault on the myth of the decorous happy family.

Dorothea Salo appears to agree. Responding to Mike’s plea for support and advice, she wrote:

Some people speak about themselves and their families in clichés and polite fictions for many of the same reasons corporations speak in empty, sonorous PR, not least among them desperate fear of the truth. Some people, submerged in the family fictions, lose their real voices in part or wholly…

Blogging threatens such families for the same reasons it threatens PR-dependent corporations. It threatens the fiction, the public façade of perfection, the private walls around anger and pain and disagreement and error.

The “public” nature of blogging is only an excuse, really, for those who want the façades maintained. The same fury arises when a family member obtains private therapy, joins AA or Al-Anon (two organizations heavily invested in the privacy of their members), or even just talks to a friend. Public or private is not the issue; the issue is talking truthfully, or writing truthfully, at all. To anyone.

I myself believe the fictions need to be deconstructed, the façades ripped away from what lies beneath. Talk about things that hurt—this hurts beyond belief. Still needs to be done.

It hurts to write and it hurts to read. Many of Mike’s posts about his wife and family are almost unbearably painful, which is why they are so extraordinary and so valuable. Not that I don’t feel a degree of sympathy for the relatives who’ve been upset by what he’s written. That’s what happens, though, when you have an artist in the family.

There are all kinds of recommended strategies—particularly for writers—by which you can avoid offending family members who’ve been unwillingly or unknowingly coopted into one’s fictions: blend personality traits from three family members into a single character; change the relative’s hair color, give them freckles and a big nose; double their age and change their sex.

None of those strategies work for a confessional artist like Mike Golby. We all get dealt good and bad cards in the great game of life and, sometimes, the artist in the family is one of life’s bad cards. Mike’s relatives are making more of it than that, for reasons Dorothea and I have guessed at. We’ve both chosen to take Mike’s side because we value (in Dorothea’s beautiful phrase) his “eloquent personal transparency” at the expense of their psychic discomfort.

This is why it’s so much more than an issue of free speech. Mostly, when we talk about free speech, we are concerned with a person’s right to express what they believe is the truth, with the emphasis on the content of that expression. In the case of Mike Golby’s weblog, the form of the expression is equally important. Mike’s words, his literary style, and the weblog form itself coalesce into a aesthetic work that is the only necessary proof of his good faith.

Mike talks about it—following David Weinberger—in terms of “writing himself into existence.” But he’s really chasing something far more ambitious: writing a family—happy and unhappy by turns—into existence. And, by extension, writing all of us into existence, surely the function of any serious work of art. You have to pay attention though, to catch the glimpses of intense, authentic happiness, rather like life itself.

I’m not suggesting that happy families are impossible, or even unusual. Rather I’m protesting a pervasive myth based on what Dorothea Salo calls “clichés and polite fictions.” Nor am I saying there’s no room at all for sentimental depictions of the happy family but we live in cultures that—proportionately—offer hardly anything else: not just things that are “not entirely true” but things that are manifestly false. It’s this preponderance of family kitsch that makes a weblog like Mike Golby’s so precious. In Blogaria, most everybody aspires to be a journalist. Artists are distressingly rare.



These 1000 words are indeed summed up in the row of Happy Families cards ;-)

Well said, and yes, it puts Mike and his amazing blog in perspective. The blog must continue. There will no doubt be many more battles for him and his family, but the world would be poorer without his output.

Posted by: Allan Moult on 17 September 2002 at 09:54 PM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour