Examined Lives in part chronicles my growing distance from my father and stepmother. I had already lost connection with my mother as a result of her lobotomy and institutionalization. My father’s blind seeking after his wants and needs with little consideration for mine and my stepmother’s obvious hostility led to my seeking my independence and forging my life for myself after my first year of college. We did not have any blow-ups nor did we stop speaking to each other. We talked on the phone and wrote letters periodically, but rarely visited. I never went home again.
As I was researching Examined Lives I found a letter of my father to his sister, written late in life, in which he talked about his own estrangement from his family. His resulted he felt from just one incident when he was only 10. The family had returned from church and his mother was sitting on a piano bench with her ulcerated leg propped on it (my father felt guilty even at that age that he had somehow caused it as a result of his birth). She lit into my grandfather for having looked at another woman during the service. She then announced that she was leaving and taking Christine, my father’s sister, with her. She looked pointedly at my father and there was a pregnant pause at the end of which my grandfather finally said “I’ll take him.” Something just snapped in my father and he no longer felt part of the family. He at his age could not just leave or stop speaking to his parents, but he learned to hid his emotions. He never cut off relations with his family, but always presented an up-beat face to the world regardless of his true feelings. That was to play havoc with his relations with my mother and ultimately myself.
I still, however, had my Aunt Christine and my brother Ricks, with both of whom I was close. Still it has taken several depressions and the care of an analyst and psychiatrist to make me realize that I estranged myself too much not just from family, but from the good people around me. I somehow thought I was an outlier, too much of an imposition on others, when in fact I have realized that I have many people, relatives or not, who truly care for me and love me. It has been a marvelous feeling to let them into my life and feel their warmth, like family.
I lately came across an article in the New York Times reporting on studies about estrangement, which has been the subject of a great deals of research in the last five years. The author of one of the studies (“’You’re Not Welcome Here’: A Grounded Theory of Family Distancing”) Kristina M. Scharp defines estrangement as “actively trying to distance yourself and maintain that distance” from family members. It turns out is not uncommon; it does not usually happen suddenly or on a whim, but over a period of time; and it is not due to one single factor.
All this mirrors my own experience, if not my father’s, although I suspect his did not result from just one incident. It turns out I am hardly alone in more ways than one.