For some people, holidays evoke images of close, loving families straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. They love their families and cherish the memories of the past and love everything about seeing their families for Thanksgiving.
For others of us, spending time with families sounds like a terrible idea, because it makes us feel lousy and it brings up bad memories of the past. What’s more, family-oriented holidays can be times when there’s an unspoken conspiracy of silence to pretend that the rest of your family’s history never happened.
For those of us who see extended families that way, it’s more Norman Bates than Norman Rockwell.
Another family holiday coming around reminds me again of the fundamental split between these groups. For some people, it’s a wonderful time. For others — including me — it’s just a reminder of families who were more painful than loving.
What’s worse is that most of those who attach pain to family still go through the motions of pretending to be part of something loving and special. But the maudlin things that families say to each other on family-oriented holidays are rarely consistent with how they relate to one another for the rest of the year.
I can never decide whether this inconsistency is sad or funny. I guess it’s both. This is why so much of life is self-satirizing to me. If you had a Norman Rockwell family, that’s great. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about the way others of us feel — because it seems to be considered impolite to admit that the other side of the coin exists.
When I was a child, holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas were times when I knew my father was going to be angry and there was going to be tension in the house. When I was very young and my mother still lived with us, they would end up arguing and things would be dangerously tense. (She left for the first when when I was 5, and she left for good when I was 9.)
At times, my father was kind and loving, but he could become a raving angry man without warning. When my mother didn’t do things his way, he was angry and belittling. When his three children did something he didn’t like, the kind Dr. Jekyll could easily turn into the screaming Mr. Hyde. I associate holidays with fear and anger at worst and resentment of other things at best. We never knew what to expect.
Other people have very different stories. Maybe their families weren’t filled with anger and yelling. Maybe their formative years were filled with the silence of indifference. Or maybe their lives were filled with physical abuse. Or sexual abuse. There are many, many different forms that dysfunction can take, but they usually share one common theme. We don’t talk about what happened. In fact, many people pretend it never did happen. Sometimes, those who caused the problems swear that you’re making everything up.
Some of us react by staying away from families. I quit going to any family-related holiday gatherings as soon as I got out of college. Others grudgingly attend such functions, but feel angry about being there. Many use alcohol or other drugs to get through the holidays. And many burn with anger at having to pretend to be nice to people who they harbor grudges against.
On holidays, I’m frequently invited to other people’s family gatherings, because some people know that I don’t have family of my own now. I appreciate the offers, but I decline. Here’s why. I want my own. I want it very much. But until I have my own family to build loving traditions around, other people’s gatherings seem to be like grotesque parodies of something I’d like to exist in my own life.
So even loving families come across as living, breathing satire to me.
Satire is for idealists who have been bitterly disappointed by reality. When I made my first short film, it was a satire of politics, a field where I once thought I could make a difference and change the world. When I think about other satire that I’d like to do in one medium or another, it’s all about things that mean something to me. I don’t do satire because I hate family or hate the maudlin love of homeland or anything like that.
I do satire because I want to believe. I want to believe that people can live together in peace and care about each other and respect each other’s rights. I want to believe that families can love each other and trust each other. I really want to believe. But I don’t see those things in real life.
So when I make fun of dysfunctional families, it’s not because I don’t think loving and functional families can exist. It’s certainly not that I don’t care. It’s because I care so much that it hurts. And because it hurts, I have to make fun of the absurdities I see.
Despite everything I’ve experienced, I’m an optimist. I still believe I’m going to be able to create a happy and loving family — the kind I never had growing up. Until then, I’m going to keep feeling pain about what I experienced and I’m going to keep looking for ways to express that need and hope in creative ways.
I might make fun of everything that seems sacred to you at times, but it doesn’t mean I don’t care. It just means I want to believe — and I’m still desperately searching for a way to save my bruised faith in family and build something worthy of believing in.