My Dad and Me, Part 6

A Christmas Special

Eruptions of Joy

The same uncle who offered free education to all my dad’s siblings (whose name was also Joseph, which really confuses things, so I’ll call him Uncle Doctor, because he was a practicing physician in Nashville) visited my grandfather and family every Christmas (you know, the more I write about him, the more curious I am about his character). The late 1940s in Cullman County, Alabama, on an ersatz farm set high up on a 10-acre hill sloping down into some pretty steep bluffs dividing Cullman County from Blount County at the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River, was an unkind era. It was archetypal Appalachian poverty.

Snow, on the other hand, brings life to this place, an otherwise dead deciduous area, the hills singing those light, joyous songs which come with a surprise of heavy frozen moisture, high enough altitude to get bursts of snow, far enough south that the sun springs to his work first thing in the morning to melt it all away so that a million wooden xylophones play in rhythm as water drops from branch to branch, gaining speed for percussion, landing with prattling rills in puddles, creeks, gullies, and the Mulberry Fork of the Warrior River, first causing a babbling of the woodland orchestra, building finally into the deafening symphony of nature, waters rushing. It really is glorious to walk in the woods the morning after a December snow.

Thus arrived Uncle Doctor, with great aplomb and to outbursts of glee, for he brought glad tidings of great joy in his own person, bearing gifts of nuts, apples, candy canes, and the delight of delights: oranges. He was like another sun breaking through the gray of winter, melting away the fear and un-joy of existence in orbit of the alcoholic’s sun, which lit everyone in its hideous perversion of not-light. Music played in the old homeplace, whose advantage was indeed size, a much bigger house than the little house in Cullman, so that several families could lodge with some comfort for a few days over the great Christmas holiday. Stories were told. Children, fueled by fruit and sugar, ran. Even the hounds panted with excitement.


My dad went to great pains to recreate this spirit for us every Christmas.

I remember, with considerable fondness, driving a half hour from our house in the foothills of North Carolina (the far western and northern foothills between Hickory and Wilkesboro) into the mountains, the Blue Ridge Mountains, in the late 1970s and early 80s, the tail end of that wonderful and violent culture. We were going to get a Christmas tree. There was, perched atop a mountain, a house, an old farmhouse with several gables looking out over the valley.

In that house was a large family, a multi-generational family, with grandma shuffling through the house, trying to help with Christmas preparations, but having to sit for periods of time at several waypoints because her legs were so swollen with some ailment. Children my age swarmed about, greeting my dad, the great Lutheran pastor who condescended up the mountain to be seen with them, who brought them greetings from the Lord himself, with his greater-than-God chesty baritone, “Merry Christmas!” Everyone shouted back, the older ones through tears, “Merry Christmas!” and we were off.

One of the men brought around the truck (memory says it was a 1932 Ford, the venerable), and he and I and one other man and my Dad piled into it somehow. Where the controls came up through the floorboard I could see light framed by ancient rust, and we bumped along a bright red dirt road which became a bumpier dirt path which became stones and grass. The truck would go no further. We piled out. It was much colder than at home.

Here grew a cedar forest, of sorts, ditch trees, that is, skunky cedar pustules dotting the mountainside, yet a tree of this genus and species was precisely my dad’s object. Guided by laughter and happiness of the poor, he made his way until he found the perfect round ball of cedar-y goodness. I helped haul it back to the truck, my sturdy 8-year-old legs guiding the way for the men who were bearing its weight (it was a monster tree) while I held its top with mittened hand.

One of the grandmas, a large scary woman whose smile radiated happiness and warmth into the cold, upon our return shuffled in her pain to grant me the gift of two cookies.

Once home, Dad immediately cut out the top and installed it in the living room, where it took up almost every cubic foot available. The first time he did this, my mom says, she nearly went into conniptions, having been raised in Germany, where a Christmas tree is most certainly a sharply-peaked cone, and not this hideous, burgeoning ball of cedar. But then dad put white lights in its center, whereupon the tree took on a mysterious glow, and then he loaded it with colored lights throughout, making it shine, finally adding the novelty lights on its very outside: bubble lights; flame lights; dancing figurines; frosted snow globe lights; you name it, he threw it on until the tree could bear no more, blazing away in glory. After all the decorations were hung, he then covered it in tinsel.

The beauty of the ditch tree was overwhelming. We four children went berserk.


Without money he somehow acquired the most interesting gifts, the master of finding misfit toys a home. Among the junk and clothing was always one, something so perfect, so fun, and usually unheard of: one year it was a game named Bop-Bop-n-Rebop, a battery powered competitive game with a spinning disk. We crept forward to it, afraid of it, in the dark, hearing Santa Claus depart from our roof with a gust of wind and a play of sleigh bells, until finally one of us was brave enough to turn it on. It buzzed loudly with a motor within, causing us to start back in thrilling fear. What was it? We played that game for years.

Another year my dad found a plastic spaceship-shaped—how to describe it? Within it were thousands and thousands of army men colored alternately red, white, and blue, armed and equipped for deep space exploration, whose container unsnapped and laid out to become a map of the moon or some distant planet. It became my favorite toy through the rest of my childhood.

Singing dominated our celebration, with dad ensconced high on his throne, breaking open walnuts or peeling oranges, popping the flesh into his mouth, which was wide open with laughter and song and smiles. At that moment his sole purpose in life was to give us joy.

During the week he presented my mom with a jar of pickled herring. She pried it open and likewise popped the flesh into her mouth, washing it down with a glass of peppermint schnapps or vodka, causing her cheeks to flush rose and lips to burn bright red. Her eyes shone, and he and she disappeared for a while, leaving us children to frolic noisily, under the power of those lights, the sugar of very many cookies and chocolate candy, and so many wonderful toys, indeed, under the power of the song of the very rushing waters of the joy filling all the earth with gladness.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

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My Dad and Me, Part 5


Upon those in orbit the sun shines, exposing everything to all. There is nothing private which will not be under consideration at all times. No closet exists in which to pray.

“I simply went from institution to institution,” my dad said. Considering the institutions he chose: the US Navy; a Benedictine college; the LCMS seminary in Springfield; and, finally, the LCMS ordained ministerium, one can barely distinguish among them and the institution into which he was born, the Joseph W. Duke family.

He was trying to help me. He was trying to help me, yet being captivated to his father, he created for me (for us, I think) an oddly-bifurcated existence. At the same time he preached radical rebellion against the system, he preached as fervently a devotion to it.

In defiance of all good sense and reasonableness, in addition to a family opposed, Dad moved us from the Gulf Coast to Central Illinois, at Christmastime, just before my sixteenth birthday. There was, shall we say, some culture shock. I wrote “home” to all my friends, something like eleven or twelve letters. None of them wrote back.


One day not too long after I wrote those letters, my dad called a family powwow, whereupon he accused me of some terrible crimes, mostly thought crimes, blasphemies (I won’t go into detail here; they are graphic). I was stunned. Why would my father accuse me of such gross violations? What was the provocation? And why in front of the entire family? None of it made sense. I cried bitter tears before him and my mother and my three sisters, tears not borne of innocent denial but of shame and wonder.

Years later–this is the nature of the thing:

An excursus:

I always resented being accused of being sheltered by my mom and dad because nothing could be further from the truth. With my dad making himself the sun of his own system, he became all things to us, magisterially omnipresent, always judging, commenting, criticizing, analyzing, to the effect that we were essentially in pieces, dessicating–in public. Thus we were unprotected, unsheltered, but dazzled by the brilliance of my dad, dominated by him as those wandering in the desert are dominated by the sun. He was ever-present and merciliess, in that sense, but I’m sure it looked like he was overprotective.


A further excursus:

I hesitate to analyze and dessicate my own father’s corpse without checking myself. I hasten, then, to remind you, gentle reader, that he was already one step, one full step removed, from exacting the same kind of abuse as was set upon his flesh as a living nightmare. Love impelled him to treat us better, as I hope love impels me to treat my own sons better, my own family. Nevertheless, these are the things he did in spite of love, as it happens we do one unto another. Thus we learn love, learn about love, its creeping, persistent nature, as it teaches us, winding through the generations, sometimes apparent.


Years later it occurred to me, finally (as is obvious now), that my dad had stolen those letters, opened them, and read them carefully. He was trying to cut us off entirely from our previous life, in a perverted effort to move us forward with our lives, in the same way one might crack open an egg to force the chick from its incubation in advance of the completion of its gestation. In so doing, he read my anger, my fear, my nostalgia, infatuation, love, and, to be specific, the lyrics and names of some of my favorite bands. I was into punk music (such as it is).

This is the bifurcation: the cliche “I learned it from you!” is apropos here. Dad was the one who taught me to rebel in the most radical manner in which I could dream. The punk rock scenes of the 1980s were at once rebellion and fantasy in every extreme, with its angrily driven themes of overthrow. “Overthrow of what?” Whaddya got?

Sometime before the move:


“Yes, son.”

“I’d like a pair of black combat boots.”

“Ah, son, the symbolism of violence is appropriate with you and your friends, and, in fact, has some basis in Christian doctrine: the violence of the crucifixion and its inexorable march over the face of the earth, bringing a kind of participatory death with Christ. If only there were more hope in your expressions, as there is in Christianity…”

He didn’t have the money to buy me black leather boots, but the sentiment was galvanizing, to be sure.

After the move:

“Son, I’m going to search your room while you’re gone to school.”


“Teenagers can’t be trusted. You all live in a fantasy world.”


Dad told me that he once inadvertently, as he put it, surprised a sister-in-law as she lay resting in one of the bedrooms of the old homeplace. There is some confusion in his telling of the story, in my remembering of his telling, but it seems to me the circumstances work out like this: he came home from high school to the boys’ room to throw his homework on the bed. He heard something upstairs. He went upstairs to see what it was he thought he heard, opening a bedroom door.

Thus inadvertently, he surprised his sister-in-law, whose husband was at war, who was lying on top of the bed, without any clothes on (this is a family website, so I adjure you to use your most earnest imagination in the most clinical way). She was (how can we be delicate?) delighting in herself. Now, when she spotted my dad in the doorway, this anonymous teenage farm boy who was a dead ringer for her absentee husband, she did not succumb to modesty; no, she rose from the bed and pursued my dad, who, as he put it, ran.

“She kept saying, ‘You want some, John, don’t you?'” he told me. “I ran through the house and out the backdoor, and she stood in the door completely naked, still saying, ‘You want some, don’t you?'”

Coming up in an environment of such a nature, one’s framework might be a little malformed, don’t you think?

I have my guesses why Dad thought he should tell me that story. I don’t think I want to finally know why.


Somewhere along the line, my grandfather as a young man was sent from Alabama to Texas to study at Southern Methodist University in preparation for the ministry. Seeing as how the experience made him into a militant atheist, and this just after the turn of the Century, and in the American Bible Belt, it stands to reason that my grandfather was disinclined to go to SMU in the first place. So why did he go? When he finally came back twenty years later, he had in tow a woman who was everything an American Indian, if not full-blooded, then she certainly looked like a full-blooded American Indian, and she had borne him five children.

They spoke of his mother, my great-grandmother. No one mentions my great-grandfather’s response; only hers.

A generation or two later, after my great-grandfather and great-grandmother had died, after my grandfather had died, and after my Uncle Forehead flunked out, my dad was ordained into the ministerium of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, completing that cycle, but it wasn’t Southern Methodist! Dad closed the emotional loop, but he somehow closed it wrong, in the wrong way. It was that Lutheran pastor from Wisconsin, invading the prodigal son’s farm, armed only with a little mercy and a healthy thirst, ready to pick up that jug of Wildcat Whiskey to fuel the one and quench the other. With that little act, he threw a perfectly good system off its axis, causing it to wobble until I found myself standing over my dad’s casket, staring at him for the first time since he died.

There would be two funerals: one in Louisiana, where he died; and one in Alabama, where he would be buried. I wouldn’t go to his first funeral. I didn’t know anyone there. I didn’t want to go to his second funeral; I knew everyone there. I talked to the funeral director, telling him I had to drive from New York to Alabama, and would it be possible for me to view the body in private before they brought him to the church. The funeral director made all assurances. When I got to the funeral home at the appointed time, there had been a delay, and I would not be able to see him before the public viewing at the church building.

The place was already overflowing an hour before the funeral, every pew full. The funeral director stationed us at the casket in the foyer, and my mom sidled up to me when they opened the casket. It was a show, you see. Many necks craned to watch the performance. There he was, the old man, slightly disfigured from the fall he’d taken at his sudden death, in addition to the degradation of a few days of southern heat and humidity. While I grieved, I chastised myself sharply that I hadn’t made a different kind of effort to see him before these moments. My own self-absorption had robbed me of a private, family viewing. I was incapable of projecting my own boundaries.

“They took his beautiful blue eyes and donated them,” my mom said. That’s all she said. There he lay, in his sacramental garb, adorned in his chasuble, whence he would rise to bless his congregation, as a shepherd under the Good Shepherd.

No, not even a closet in which to pray.

My Dad and Me, Part 4

Feeling Gravity’s Pull

In an alcoholic family system, what is escape velocity? Put another way: my dad was in a desperate state his whole life to escape his father’s gravity field, as I tried to demonstrate with his throwing down the belt. His own parents could not throw down the belt, or would not, being borne up on many hands, justified by the mouths of many neighbors. My grandfather’s uncle, by offering to pay for the college education of all the children, should any so desire, exerted his own force against that system, pulling my Uncle Forehead apart in the process.

The second of the children to take up his offer was my dad. The patron, unfortunately, died when my dad enrolled in St. Bernard College, and with the person went the promise. Dad should have steered himself away from college, then, according to pattern, according to orbit, but there was one source of discomfort applying unbearable pressure toward college. Call it an act of God, call it an act of sabotage; it was probably arson.


My grandfather died in 1967, aged 76. My dad was 26 years old, living in the old homeplace with his three younger brothers and sisters–and Mama. Shortly after the funeral my grandmother asked for an electricity upgrade from one of her sons-in-law, who was a journeyman electrician. He made the upgrade, which was by all accounts a simple one. She, being entirely ignorant of electrical wizardry, complained that very day that her son-in-law had done a shoddy job. He protested vociferously to the contrary. The household went to sleep that night.

My dad tells it like this: “The alarm went up that there was a fire in the house. I made my way through to each room to make sure everyone was safely out. When I came out the front door, there was Mama, with the baby in her arms, standing on the lawn watching the house burn down.”

The baby? How old was this baby? She must have been twenty years old at the time, maybe in her late teens. Even so, this is the way my dad tells it: “…with the baby in her arms…”

There is another question, a rather obvious one, at least to me: did Mama start that fire?


Coincidentally, my dad thought he would go to college after all. There was food there, and shelter. In order to keep living there, all he had to do was convince the Benedictine brothers running the place that he was a diligent student, working hard, and constantly paying down what he owed for tuition, room, and board.


I am prepossessed with a kind of panicked question: have I grown? That is to ask: have I escaped? I have written in a different place, long after my dad died, something like, “There is a hot wire connected to me, connecting me to my dad even though he lies in the grave. Perhaps one day I can visit his grave and throw dirt on that wire–or do something to sever this power flowing from him to me.”

It took something as drastic as the literal burning down of his homeplace to propel him a geographical distance of a mere twelve miles from the center of gravity. He made very little emotional distance otherwise.


My Aunt Mamaclone tried to escape when she was thirteen, hopping on the back of a motorcycle with a boy a little older than her. Aunt Mamaclone was like my grandmother in every way, which includes a rather robust frame, a frame which challenged the frame of the motorcycle to such an extent that my grandmother, running on foot with a wooden spoon in hand, almost caught it. Topping a slight rise in the dirt road, the motorcycle gained the momentum it needed to escape her reach, and Aunt Mamaclone was whisked to Florida, where she married and began to make family.

Some years later they were squatting in a vacant house in sight of the ashes of the old homeplace.


What is the escape velocity from an alcoholic family system? I don’t think there is one, meaning, I don’t think there is an escape, but I do think there is a distancing from the center of gravity. When Dad threw down that belt, he was, by that example, setting us one full orbit away from my grandfather. In a generation or two, perhaps if I set forth some other example with my own children, they shall be as Pluto, in the orbit of my grandfather, but only nominally, such that no one recognizes them as under his pull.

It was a fire which became an impelling force within my dad, and he never rested, as though it had been a fire hotter than the sun stoking his pieties, causing him to do wondrous things, even becoming a Lutheran pastor, completing the transference of status from Uncle Forehead to himself, disturbing the orbits of many.

My Dad and Me, Part 3

Setting Up the System

My dad was the ninth of twelve, eleven surviving to adulthood.

Mixing the kingly court and the solar system orbit metaphors isn’t original with me, but I wouldn’t be able to cite a popular or famous example of it. I have in my mind’s eye the court of King Henry VIII. If ever there was a fully-detailed example in history of a functioning family system, what with a half-dozen wives and all, it’s the court of King Henry the VIII, tyrant. Surely he made his court orbit around him, inasmuch as one would expect a king to do, but moreso, perverting the expected norms. He was, after all, the Eighth Henry, following a solid five hundred years of growing English court tradition. Yet we all agree Henry VIII is an inflection point in history, whose gravity is still felt in our civilization to this day, history books and learned people arguing to what extent that is true.

Take, for example, Cromwell, poor Thomas Cromwell, who tried to trace his lord’s mercurial paths, not understanding, not until the very end, that Henry had made himself into the sun. From the family systems perspective, Cromwell thought he was his own man, having found a place in the court of a king which gave him right and authority to enact his ideas according to his core ideology, aligning his behavior within the realm created by the king, i.e., Henry’s apparent governing philosophy. However, when he asserted himself in the wrong direction, moving out of his assigned orbit (according to the metaphor), an orbit which Cromwell was not privy to recognize, he was murdered by the king.

Duke Family 2010 April 123

A Short Excursus

Not so much for the living, but for the dead do I change the names. Writing the scenes as semi-fictional keeps the vaults sealed and the graves undisturbed.

Duke Family 2010 April 038

All the children were beaten, as was per usual in poverty-ridden Appalachia (northern Alabama is at the geographic tail end of that region), but one of my uncles was a special target. I knew him before he died, and I think fondly on him as a favorite uncle. He was tall, slender, stooped, and had a protruding forehead hanging over hollow eyes. I remember when he’d look at me, his vision, recognition, came from somewhere far distant, then, suddenly, engagement rushed forward, perhaps in an observation or a joke.

If it was an observation, he waited patiently for a response. “Golf is a sport I can neither stand to play nor stand to watch,” he said. He said nothing further until I managed to interact with him. I was…thirteen, perhaps. I had nothing to give him. On the other hand, if it was a joke, he began to laugh before he delivered the punch line, a look of surprise overcoming his countenance, as if he himself had not been expecting the wit. “If they go to commercial, David, it’ll be a miracle if anyone…ha ha ha…comes back to watch golf…” (forced laughing). I laughed politely. He withdrew again.

Duke Family 2010 April 031

I’m trying to think if Dad let him smoke in the house. This was after my aunt died from lung cancer when she was still very young, in her still-tender thirties. I can’t remember if Dad let him smoke in the house.

These things are important, you see. Uncle Forehead’s life was already over, barely in his forties, but he’d long since given up. His career in the Navy had already ended. He hadn’t married–and wasn’t going to. Even if same-sex marriage had been created before he died, I don’t know that he was the marrying type. He had otherwise given up.

A further digression (there are many gears and axles grinding away in a family system): Uncle Forehead’s Navy career began, even though he was a year older than my dad, after my dad’s. When the family was full-sized, that is, when all eleven surviving siblings were actually near at hand, a great-uncle came regularly to the old homeplace, offering a profound opportunity to every single one of his nephew’s children: a free college education. He himself was a medical doctor with a practice in one of the large cities, and he was willing to pay for any and, if need be, all of the children’s post-secondary education. It was written in stone; nay, it was written in the finest blood which had ever flowed through a man’s veins. To pay for college! In the 1950s!

None of the older children accepted. Only two of the younger children accepted. Uncle Forehead was one of them. He was sent off to St. John’s College in Kansas, a preparatory college in the old educational system of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He was being groomed to matriculate into the St. Louis Seminary to train for the pastoral ministry. It was known far and wide that not only did Uncle Forehead have intellectual qualities head and shoulders above anyone in the entire county, but he was a tender child, a thoughtful youth, a wonderfully caring, merciful individual. When others caught flies, he fought for their release, demonstrating his fine character, a prime candidate for shepherding a pasture in God’s Holy Flock. Everyone set their pride upon Uncle Forehead’s brow: he would restore honor to the family. With great aplomb they sent him off, with parties, gifts, prayer books, and a few dollars, waving goodbye as the Greyhound bus slowly accelerated west.

He flunked out.

His stint in the Navy began shortly thereafter.

I have in my mind’s eye a picture of my uncle sitting in the comfy chair, watching golf, cigarette smoke wafting into the curtains. But, then again, I don’t trust my memory on this one. Did Dad let his brother smoke in his house?

Duke Family 2010 November 017

So we have our roles to play, and they are static roles. We are put in orbit, if under the power of an alcoholic, then as by God himself, and if by God himself, then woe be to that one who thinks to change what orbit has been given to him!

I have seen this pattern, for example: in certain kinds of not-for-profit organizations, such as churches, local charitable agencies, civic clubs, and the like, the treasurer’s position is the most radioactive of all the offices in such a club. If a new person should join the organization, that person is very quickly shepherded into the recently vacated treasurer’s position “because the last guy had some personal issues and had to leave our organization. Really, it’s quite easy: just record income and outflow, and give a report at each regular meeting.” Riiiiiiiight…

The new member then seeks to discharge her office with honor and integrity, quickly discovering the radiation emitting from that checkbook. What is it about other people’s money that makes other people crazy? Well, it does. Soon, this honorable person seeks to right obvious wrongs with regard to procedure, and when she does, she is invariably accused of evildoing, insinuating that she is stealing money from the organization.

I’ve seen it a million times, I swear.

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My dad told me that his father, the venerable Uncle Joe, had the evil eye for his brother, my Uncle Forehead. They all received their portion of beatings, the sort where mother and father bragged to anyone who would listen (I indeed personally overheard this braggadocio decades after the initial defense), “He back talked me, so I took a leather belt and beat him until I saw blood flow. He’ll think twice before he talks back.” No, he won’t. He’ll talk back twice as much, and with less thought than before, but, oh, well. Nevertheless, this speech was always met with approbation throughout the land (I was too young to judge).

My Dad once spanked my sister, the tenderest of us, the one upon whom my dad conferred every characteristic of his dead sister, because she wouldn’t practice her piano. He spanked us with a belt. On this occasion, it raised a little welt on her baby-soft skin (I can still see it as my mother showed it to him, accusing him before the entire family). He was horrified at himself, threw down the belt and never spanked her again. I cannot remember if he spanked any of the rest of us, but if he did, it was not memorable (he hit me once, but that’s a different story in this saga, relating nothing to discipline, but to unfettered rage, q.v. later).

My dad said he heard a voice coming from the well, a pitiful, high-pitched, inarticulate plea for help. When he peered in, he saw nothing, but he heard his brother, my Uncle Forehead. “Help, please help. I’m cold.” Dad ran for another brother, the brawny one, and they pulled him out. Uncle Forehead was covered in welts from head to toe, bruised, beaten, and nearly dead. My grandfather had beaten him until he was unconscious, then threw him into the well.

What crime had he committed to incur such extraordinary wrath? Alas, it was all part of a familiar pattern, an extreme instance within a perfectly normal relationship. What had he done this time? Who knows? He was the one who could not obey.

My Dad and Me, Part 2

Introducing the System

This series is ultimately about the relationship I had with my dad.

That sentence, you see, bears parsing and correction. It is a thing needing correction. It is not ultimately about the relationship I had with my dad. It is, in fact about my relationship with my dad, but this series is ultimately about me. More than that, it is not about the relationship I had with my dad, but the relationship my dad had with me: My Dad and Me, you see. I actually have a relationship with my dad, even though he is dead 13 years now (d. 2005).

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“The Navy was just another institution, Dave,” my dad said to me once. “I just went from institution to institution.”

He was warning me, trying to send me further away than he had gotten. I think he felt he had never escaped orbit: his Navy service (1959-1962) gave him nightmares the rest of his life; afterward he went home for several years before the old homeplace burned down; which compelled him to go to college, in part to find a place to sleep; which, in turn, encouraged him to do something. St. Bernard College (pr. Saint BER-nerd), by the way, was a Roman Catholic Benedictine school in Cullman, Alabama. From there he went to Concordia Seminary in Springfield, Illinois–a particularly significant event.

Within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, an alcoholic system itself, was a little trouble: it touched the edge of its own illusion and blew into smithereens at about the same time my dad enrolled in the seminary. A further digression (as systems go): the Lutheran Church was born in anger and fear, despite the world-shaking strength of Martin Luther. He stood up to Pope and Emperor, but Pope excommunicated him, and Emperor condemned him to death. Just or unjust, these circumstances are not quite the environment for a movement to grow in health. If you keep your finger on the same thread, you find a man whose disciples claimed he was the Son of God, yet he was crucified. Stay with it a bit longer so that you find an Exile, then an Exodus from slavery. Further back is Abraham, who Moses reminds his people was “a wandering Aramean.”

Back to Springfield, my dad found himself jumping into a frying pan, from where he found himself jumping the rest of his life from one frying pan into another, until perhaps, he finally fell into the fire below. Hell? If so, then before he died. If he wasn’t consciously warning me from committing this error, he was, in his way, encouraging me to escape.

His admonition, then, I see as his working it all out. He himself was trying to escape, but he found that he never escaped, he could never escape; his own father had too strong a hold on him, on his spirit. His father kept him in his orbit to the end of his days–my dad’s days. I think maybe at the very end, in the week before he died (he knew he was going to die from a blood clot in his lungs, but he had told everyone the contrary), he finally escaped. He said something which makes no sense without pages and pages of context, but what he said indicates to me that he finally understood what it was to be free from a system even while remaining in it. A free man within it, perhaps, admonishing his son to be free.

DukeFamily2009October 390

My grandfather was known affectionately in the environs of the dirt farm as “Uncle Joe.” The alcohol drove him far and wide, and what he did when he was gone is largely unknown, but he did collect a few people along the way, men who were of his substance, fellow-alcoholics, and they sometimes lived under Uncle Joe’s roof, sleeping on the floor in the living room. I have sensationalized the picture in my mind, but I am not far off in relating it as a veritable court, the court of the king. He was King Joseph; that is to say, “Uncle Joe” was his royal name. These men advised him in his court, and he made kingly decisions, which they executed in his behalf. As I understand, they were perfectly respectable men within the realm: no violence or untoward behavior was perpetrated in the court of Uncle Joe.

They danced when he drank, dancing the mountain gigue, feet ablaze, fueled by Wildcat Whiskey. Of such was his council. While they danced he called to his queen, my grandmother, the Indian woman from Tupelo, Mississippi, and he sang to her the song of a king who is king because he is an alcoholic. He sang to her of their first child, Francis, a little princess who herself danced around a kettle of boiling water hanging over an open fire. She should never have been born, so the doctors said.


The doctors were referring to the wound my grandfather received in World War One. He was on patrol when they were ambushed by a German patrol, who (details are impossible to verify) massacred them from behind. My grandfather was shot in the lower back, which passed through him very low, nicking his prostate, perhaps, or otherwise damaging his reproductive organs. He fell. The bodies of his comrades fell alongside and on top of him. He was a corpse, and there he lay amid corpses in a foreign field.

When they discovered him alive, they administered morphine as part of the order of saving his life. Alas.

He had a wife at the time, not my grandmother (I must pause here to note that this is family lore, which is fraught, and there are no witnesses alive. However, it became family lore while my great-grandfather was still alive, who was a witness present when the story was told to my father. Therefore, it has that much weight, if my father has not embellished the story too much). She had heard that he would not be able to father a child, so she welcomed him home, placing before him a cup of coffee. He took a sip and immediately spit it out, for she had sweetened the coffee with arsenic.

Having failed in her endeavor to murder her husband with her own hand, she called to another man who was present, who presently made himself known, causing my grandfather, who was actually weak at the time, to flee. They divorced (see, I have questions: why didn’t she sue for a divorce instead of trying to kill him?). He disappeared. Many years later, in the mid-1930s, he reappeared in Cullman with this Indian woman as his wife, along with five children. Francis, the oldest, was not among them.

When he was drunk, my grandfather would sing the song of Francis, rehearsing as his own court herald his many titles which made him by right the king, calling to his queen to present herself. One-year-old Francis had been dancing around a kettle of boiling water hanging over an open fire when my grandmother, who couldn’t have been much older than fourteen at the time, left the little girl alone for a second while she went to fetch something. She heard screams, which summoned her back to the fire to see the kettle upended and her little baby scalded to death.

Thus my grandfather rehearsed the story, as often as he took his throne in the living room as drunk “Uncle Joe,” while his court councilors danced the truth of the matter into the memories of all the courtiers, attendants, and suitors at hand.

This is the system: the king is king by rights, signified by the scepter of his nightmares, the crown of his addictions, and the throne of his self-righteous imprecations. He has his council, who are slaves to him. He has his queen, who has earned her seat next to him by bringing into being with her own hand her own living nightmare.

My Dad and Me, Part 1

A Series in Several Parts

My wizened therapist leaned back in his chair with a mischievous smile, and in response to a complaint I was relating about my dad he said, “Yet your father’s siblings resented him,” which irritated me because I had wanted to tell him that.

“I never told you that!” I protested. “How did you know?”

“Of course you told me,” he contradicted me, very un-therapeutically. “You’ve also told me that an alcoholic is very close to you in your genealogy, if it is not you or your father; that I do not have the means to know.”

“My grandfather–my dad’s father!” I blurted out, powerless to resist this magician sitting across from me. “How did you know?” It seems I had asked again.

“Nothing to it,” he said. We shall call him Sausage, for that is what I want to call my therapist. His real name relates etymologically to the making of sausages, and I’m feeling rather uncharitable to the man who took the place of my father after my father died precipitously, and who has helped me immensely by introducing me to the concept of family systems theory. Sausage’s apparent strength is listening, but aren’t all good therapists good at listening? His real strength, which he hides until the time for striking is at hand, is a razor-sharp cutting tool, which resides in his mouth, which says things like, “So how does a son show mercy to a mother?”

April 2006 Tom Jack Deb

“Nothing to it,” he said. “Just about every family has an addict in its genealogy, and the whole family tree bends that direction. Its pull is strong on you…” and here it must be said again that, at the time, he was himself bending toward the autumn of his life, which he is now in, approaching the twilight of his days, a smiling, happy, content man who copes with his own filth in ways I only envy. He once called his sister after forty years of not speaking in order to make peace with her and to forge a new relationship which rides atop the forgery of blood.

“Roles,” he said. “An alcoholic system–a system centered on addiction–creates perverted roles, ironclad roles, because the essence of alcoholism and other addictions is perfectionism.”

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I can’t remember my father ever forgiving me.

When he died, my mother venerated him thus: “Daddy only thought of the Gospel. Every word out of his mouth was pure Gospel. Gospel Gospel Gospel Gospel. Daddy equals Gospel.”

I looked into my own heart and found no deposit of the gospel in there. None had been placed there. My father had raised all of us to be perfect, therefore without the need for forgiveness. Perfectionism, you see, is the anti-forgiveness.

The cobbler’s children have no shoes.

He forgave everyone everything, so long as they were not members of his own family. Yet I misspeak: his own brothers and sisters, who did him enormous wrong; his father, who beat him and abused him and them without mercy–these he forgave, in the Gospel sense, too, “Yet seventy times seven, Peter,” says his Lord. Yes, he did. His own offspring, and I think his own wife–these he never forgave. For the longest time we were perfect in every way, but at last, we rebelled, falling short, and we were the objects of his wrath.

“The alcoholic is near at hand,” Sausage says. “My grandfather,” I reply. “Of course,” Sausage says, mischief in his eye. “How did you know?” I ask. “You are bound to it,” Sausage says, chuckling, leaning back.

“Oh, come on, Sausage,” I said. “Can’t you fix it?” (We have that kind of relationship).

He laughed loud and long. He took his glasses off and wiped them clean, gaining control over his faculties in so doing, then he made yet another astounding declaration, as some sort of augur or prophet, a necromancer or spirit-medium: “Your grandfather was a messiah figure.”


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My grandfather died six years before I was born, yet he looms as a gigantic figure (I have a picture somewhere of him at the end of his life, struck already twice by blood clots, still physically dominating everyone else in the photograph), towering over my ancestry, as a kind of mythical gatekeeper, a monster who must be either tricked or defeated by force of divine martial prowess. Only then may I progress into my genealogy to learn about myself. The stories my father and all his brothers and sisters tell of their time together begin and end with “Daddy,” my grandfather (as opposed to the person my mother still calls my father).

“You should read Edwin Friedman’s book,” Sausage told me. “A Failure of Nerve. You’ll learn a lot about yourself.”

And so I did, a few years after he suggested it. In the meantime, however, I tackled my grandfather, bringing him down so that I could deal with him man-to-man, identifying just what he had accomplished, creating, by the power of alcohol, an emotional world in which everyone in his orbit moved only according to his will, even his parents. This system, as it were, works (had a habit of working and still does), and it works too well, functioning much better than a healthy family would, functioning, that is, until the system itself encounters that which cannot be brought into orbit. A single man, no matter how powerful (and my grandfather, as you shall see, was indeed powerful), encounters his own finitude, and those limits are, in all actuality, near at hand, usually found on the lips of someone who sees things and can put a name to what he sees. The battle to fight the illusion of grandiosity, that is, that the illusion is indeed an illusion–this is an important distinction:

The system itself–emitted by its central figure, i.e., the powerful alcoholic–is at violent pains to preserve its world as an actual world, complete with its own received wisdom, traditions, precepts, and reprobrationary structure. It is the perversion of creation and procreation, punching outward to create space against the incursions of an unwanted outside world, the world which causes the pain against which alcohol medicates. My grandfather experienced, for example, a terrible wound received in World War One, his wife’s divorcing him, and his accidentally killing a young black boy. With bottle in hand, the system fights against manufactured grandiosity (it is, after all, a grand system involving the care of many) being named as illusory.

When the system encounters its limits, the edge of illusion, it shatters, only to be reconstituted by its several members in the same way it began: with fear, a bottle, and new satellites. It reproduces, but it does not procreate.

That’s family systems theory as I have internalized it. Almost every family has that particular dynamic within it. That is to say: how far away are you from the alcoholic or addict in your genealogy?

All right then, how do you fix it?

You don’t.

In a way, there is no hope for coming to existence within a healthy family life. There is hope, on the other hand, for existing in a healthy way within the family. That’s just the thing: you are born into relationships. Mother, father, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents. And then, other relationships develop. Grandchildren, mothers-in-law, and so forth, a morass of tangled and tangling relationships within an arm’s reach, all influencing you, as influences in your childhood development, influences in your history, actually influencing you at this moment, each with their own gravitational pull. The unhealthy members are seeking to put you in orbit around them. The healthy ones are not. Simple, right?

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Spot the healthy members, if any, of this small section of a system.

In this series I intend to share a few observations, some of them formal, some of them anecdotal, about family, about how I came to use systems theory, how I find it useful in application to myself and to people I’m called upon to help–I think, most importantly, I’m going to be making the case that the general contours of family systems theory are a framework for best interpreting the world around you, not just in an analytical sense, but in a way to build, rebuild, and repair your relationships at hand. If you think about it, family systems theory might be considered a prime raison d’ĂȘtre of Embodiment and Exclusion.

Forthcoming Family Systems Posts On…

  • Institution-hopping
  • Anxiety
  • Addiction
  • Friedman’s Relationship Triangles
  • Family Systems in Literature
  • Perfectionism
  • Creation, Procreation, and Reproduction
  • Death and Dying as Healthy Institutions
  • Marriage