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.

Duke Family 2010 November 056

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).

DukeFamily2009January 021

“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.”

DukeFamily2008September 063

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.”


DukeFamily2009August 083

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?

vacation 003ed.png

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’être 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


The Loud Thing Quiet

Unquiet has crept into the warp and woof of my daily sensibility. Disquiet, perhaps. Restlessness in conscience.

I have settled firmly into middle-age. It began five years ago, on my fortieth birthday, when, just as my elders predicted, my eyes began to shut down. Let me qualify that: I still have perfect vision, 20/20, clear as Burl Ives’s Lipton Tea, up until about four feet in front of me, and at that distance coming in, I emit high-pitched yelps to determine location and motion.

After a period of mourning, I made my way to the local apothecary, made visual contact with the proper aisle from the doorway, then, as I approached the reading glasses section, I slowed down, the weight of middle-age anchoring my every step. Youth stood somewhere outside, waiting for the next gust of wind to carry it away. My hand reached out, fumbling for a pair of reading glasses, any pair that I might hold up to my eyes so that I could read the advertised power of magnification on the various offerings of the entire inventory of reading glasses. I found a pair which suited me practically: very narrow rectangular glasses over which I might peer at recalcitrant students. I scowled in the mirror at the sight: reflected back at me was an adult version of myself. Then, without having to move my feet, I reached over to pick up a bottle of analgesic (heh: he said “anal”), and I began to read it.

For the first time in a considerable number of months, I felt joy, and it was the joy of relief, for I could read once more, and I could read without suffering. The lights in the building suddenly flickered, and as I looked up, I heard a sudden gust of wind, a short, fresh breeze, and then it was gone.

reading glasses rectangle

The preparation of youth to ride on the career arc is a preparation filled with anticipation, a sack of doubts enclosed each by a little plastic egg of knowledge–Knowledge–the ground upon which we tread in order to shuffle around on this groundless mortal coil. Indeed, youth does somehow blossom, as experience teaches us failure and success, more or less, for some more or less than others, the pink blossoming yielding to rich green, perhaps a little money in the bank, a spouse, a house, a bigger apartment on the way to a suburban home in which to continue growing and prospering. The early stages of prosperity is our obsession, and our minds are ever fixed upon it. The first whispers are heard but not heard.

It is all for nothing.

“I am rising in my field of expertise! See, I have established myself! Even failure is a learning experience, a temporary setback, a springboard from which to leap up and forward, wiser, craftier, warier.”

The birds of the air and varmints of the earth find the fruit of your vine to be very sweet indeed, and free. New York State grins, saying, “Thank you very much.” The Treasury Department of the United States scowls, saying, “You should be grateful we leave you anything at all.” You find yourself thinking forbidden conservative thoughts, but you comfort yourself, saying, “‘Tis libertarian, dammit, not conservative.” As soon as you think those thoughts, the institutions which preserve for you a modicum of happiness and comfort approach, hat in one hand, other hand outstretched, eyes low, “Please, sir, your children thus benefit.” And you put money in the outstretched hand, and a little more in the hat.

It seizes you, the loud thing, shouting when you try to sleep, “IT IS ALL ASHES!”

“No, no. It is sweet fruit of my labor. I taste a little bit of it; it tastes of prosperity, of longevity, of fortitude! See? I can see it! I have reading glasses now!”


Breath quickens and labors, the fruit of which is open eyes, aching shoulders, crazed twilight fantasies of an arc which is pointed downward. What seemed a gentle grade yielding after a length of time to the end of it all has steepened dramatically, ending in a sucking maw.

“Father. Husband. Vocation. Avocation. Citizen. They’re going to take it all away. All of it.” These are mere offices, at that, without any inherent malice in and of themselves; they represent how we even awaken to the rising sun.

The coil of mortality tightens ever so. It is the loud thing, sending whispers over every single thing you propose to do.

The mediocrity I can live with; the general futility troubles me greatly. I thought I was pursuing him, but it is not so; he has only waited for me, and I am his. I thought I would advance some ideal, even in mediocrity, just pushing the thing forward infinitesimally, along with all my peers, in the right direction, but there is no pushing the thing. It is ephemeral, a cloud, a deception, not even a coherent dream. It is, indeed, an arc which ends in utter meaninglessness. Why do we percolate so?  Why do we puff ourselves up over accomplishment? Why do we think we can see what is right before us?


Helen Keller

Yet we say to ourselves: isn’t life so much better? See these graphs! Poverty is being eradicated the world over! But to what? Toward a sun which will wink out? To alleviate our suffering and the suffering of others to help endure the blink of an eye we appear? We are by far the most prosperous people in the history of the world, yet we are by far the most unhappy, contentious, childish wretches in the same measure. We are decidedly ungrateful, a spoiled lot of undisciplined toddlers, emotionally underdeveloped babies, despite all our self-praise through various international prizes and awards. How do we see ourselves in this way?

It is a malady of the human heart, I think, to know with absolute certainty that we are to make progress to a kind of permanent prosperity, but with equal certainty knowing that such permanence is fleeting. A notion of preserving something “for the children” is a noble one, but it is not anything at all. As Michael Jackson taught us, we are the children. What he never taught us was of whom we are the children. He did not because he could not. Not even he could see the object of our desire.

reading glasses 1

If I may speculate on the crisis which afflicts the middle-aged, we who eschew checking the clock in the middle of the night for the effort of finding one’s reading glasses, it is just this unanswered question: the days of being cared for are long gone; the days of caring for are waning quickly. And what then? I suppose one ceases avoiding the anxiety, standing to, representing in your body a piece of eternity, if there is such a thing, getting on with it because that’s what there is to do: get on with it.

As for me: it’s time for me to drive my kid to hockey practice.

Nihil Nisi Bonum

Death made an unexpected visitation upon one of our friends, and now he is excluded from our company, unless you happen to be of his faith, and then you are excluded from his company, for the time being, and, really, only by sight. As such, he has unfortunately embodied this website. Brock Cusick, requiescat in pace.

I was thinking about–can’t help but think about–our last conversation. It was…how shall we say…not one I wish was our last, but it stands as our last conversation, and it was unpleasant, so there you go. Until the great test of my faith shall come, it will remain standing as a monument to the ruin wrought by pettiness. How petty? How petty a conversation is it that mars the dignity of a perfectly innocent, genuine, kind, nihil nisi bonum fellow? He was giving me a hard time about my decision for my D&D character to roll initiative at disadvantage, and I was annoyed. That’s how petty.

I’m 45 years old with four children! He was 39 years old with three children! And all the responsibilities thereof, which we commonly consider of adulthood, requiring some measure of gravitas, sobriety, and maturity! It was so petty, so petty, but it was the last conversation I ever had with Brock. He private-messaged me, which annoyed me, but that was Brock. That was his way. And he was adorable that way, a wonderful teddy bear of a man, but I was so annoyed.

There was another important death in my life, one which I may or may not write about all the time, and I know without being told that his wife–the fellow who died importantly, his wife–I know she was in the room screaming at him about something, probably something important, and she walked away–he was standing while they argued, not at all ill, not visibly, accomplishing some chores around the house–she walked away, and when she returned a few moments later, he was dead on the floor.

And so we are excluded from each other. It is true.

Only in part, I think. A marriage of over thirty years, even a rocky one, has probably established some rather deep roots, giving life to life, a grandeur nourished to grow around a knot. Brock was kind to me, and I, to a lesser degree, was kind to him. In addition to the faith we share, we have nourishment in kindness which does not have to be overcome by the rot of pettiness. This petty conversation we had is no horrible disfigurement; it is a knot, character for the grand old living tree.

I was afraid to go to bed on Monday night, the day I learned Brock died. I was afraid in the realization that I could be so reaped by death, and excluded, leaving my wife and children excluded from me and all the roles I fulfill for them, along with friends, students, clients, and family. Unable to sleep, I wandered from room to room in the house, resolving to behave more gently, kindly, and, as it is with teenagers in the house, with long-suffering fortitude. I sincerely hope that I have been properly chastised, on the one hand, to act as fertile soil for the roots necessary for relationships to grow. I sincerely hope that I have been comforted, on the other hand, so that I can forgive myself for being so bloody annoyed at Brock.

I think it is childish and entirely selfish for me to have said, as I have been saying, “I never want to make another friend ever again.” For all the unnecessary hurt we dole out to each other, even by dying, kindness is far more nourishing towards growth, far more than withdrawal.

Philosophy as Genre

As we walked along the paved path in Millerton, NY, my father posed to me this question:

“What is the point of all this reading you’re doing? What are you trying to accomplish?”

My father is hardly the type to suggest one ought to read less, and he is without a doubt where I inherited my habit – some might say compulsion – of regular reading.  Yet his reading is often directed by some overarching questions or project. So what he was asking me was not “why are you reading so much,” but “what’s the goal? What’s driving it?”

If I had to answer, I’d have to say: more questions than I can count. More than I know how to formulate.

I started out on the trajectory that ended up shifting my reading habits from being heavily skewed towards popular nonfiction towards being heavily skewed towards academic philosophy with some specific questions and even a specific project, which has been all but abandoned.

What I came to feel was that philosophy could not provide satisfying answers to those questions. Literature and poetry and art in general are, without a doubt, more fertile grounds of exploration.

Yet after concluding this, I continued to read philosophy. If anything, I read more of it.

Hence my father’s question.

The answer is simple: because I love it.

Richard Rorty said that philosophy is a kind of writing, which is not quite right: it is a genre, and like science fiction it can take forms other than writing. To the tradition of thought we could broadly characterize as rationalist, this is a heresy; to them, philosophy is modeled on science, not literature. To model it on literature is simply a sign of the unseriousness of pragmatists like Rorty and postmodernists like Derrida.

But to say so is to presume that science is serious while literature and art are not. This is precisely what I would dispute, with Rorty. Great literature and art have the potential to broaden our horizons, to teach us about life and the human experience. To show us the way to wisdom.

Philosophy, like other genres, can broaden our horizons as well.

Or perhaps I’m simply an unserious person, putting off the literature and poetry I ought to be reading more of, in favor of philosophy, my favorite guilty pleasure.

The Safety Razor

My friend Adam Gurri (who, if you didn’t know, adds excellent content to this blog on a regular basis) recommended, upon being asked, that I try a safety razor instead of a disposable razor. He recommended a particular style and brand, which I used as a basis to pick one for myself. When it came in the mail, I inserted the razor blade, tightened the nut, lathered up, and became grateful to Adam for the recommendation.

My father taught me how to shave, one of the greatest days of my life, that he should look at me and see that I need to shave, and that he should be the one to teach me. This was thirty years ago, I think, when I was 15 years old (I know without a doubt it was before I was 16). He demonstrated very clearly, using a not-inexpensive disposable razor. These were the days when a wet-shaving disposable razor had only two tiny blades embedded within.

“It’s your face,” my dad said. Now, we were not terribly poor, but neither were we rich. When he died, I discovered that he had basically kited credit card bills from that era unto the next one, which endured, say, fifteen years, just to float the family along in a lower-middle-class lifestyle. The four of us had the opportunity to go to college, in other words. Yet he was buying the expensive disposable razors.

“It’s your face, the first thing you present to people. You want to give them a well-groomed face, something pleasant to look at, not something pock-marked, scraped, and spoiled.” Then he showed me how to shave in the direction of my whiskers, even teaching me that it changes direction at certain spots on my neck. I must say, I had very few shaving-related blemishes throughout the remainder of my adolescence. On one occasion I sneezed and cut myself. I was late for school, bearing the cuts below my mouth, but that is all.

A year or two before he died, I discovered in the back of his station wagon (“Old Woodie” he called it) a sack full of the cheapest disposable razors available. I confronted him. He replied, “Aw, Dave, it’s just a face scrape. One scrape is as good as another.” He had just filed for bankruptcy after incurring some massive expenses due to the mental health issues of his adopted son–along with some other, er, irregularities that life had presented him, shall we say…

I did not believe him. As I have grown into middle-age, I have maintained his original philosophy of a well-groomed face as a presentation to the world. It is, first, love for self, which in turn becomes love for neighbor, and readily so. “Look,” I say when I present a groomed face, “I love myself, and I love you so much that I should care for myself to be in your company inoffensively, as inoffensively as I am lovingly able.”

In the meantime, disposable razors–or the industry thereof–has become risible. Not two blades! No, no longer two, but three! Three? No, four! Five! A million! And with comfort grooves here, flexion there, lubricating strips below! Were you just now comfortable with the last improvement? Now we shall reduce the quality suddenly and precipitously, in order to encourage you to move to the next, more expensive solution to face presentation.

But this is not necessary, is it? Men have been presenting their faces to the world, and in much more expectant societies than ours–for thousands of years! A proper razor is a piece of metal polished properly. That is all. The rest of the presentation is a little skill coupled with a little love.

Now for me, I am not brave enough to put a straight razor to my face, considering the fact that my father taught me with a disposable razor. I do wonder, however, how it is he abandoned the razor of his youth, the safety razor with its easy replaceable blade, a very cheap piece of properly polished metal, for the abomination that is known as the disposable razor. Was it the lure of the “space age”? The call of mid-Century ineluctable advance toward true technological utopia? Was it laziness? Was it loss of love?

I miss seeing his face, and talking to him. I’m grateful to him for teaching me to shave, but I’d like to ask him what it was that set him on a path, beginning with the disposable razor, leading to “one face scrape is as good as another.”

Whatever it was, he certainly traded away quality for it.


Reasons for Knowing Knowledge

There are many theories of what knowledge is. That is clear enough from the past 400 years of philosophy, never mind the thousands before that. What has drawn less interest is that there are different reasons we may wish to know what knowledge is.

René Descartes and David Hume were quite clear on why they wanted to know of knowledge. Though they had radically different theories of knowledge, each believed that epistemology was necessary to shore up the foundations of other fields. From this perspective, historians and physicists and linguists need to wait around for philosophers to sort out how they can tell if they actually know anything about their fields. That is the central conceit of the so-called “demarcation problem,” for example.

It is against this sort of epistemology that Richard Rorty framed his pragmatism as anti-authoritarian. Imagine historians thinking they were the authorities on statecraft or politics. It’s laughable. Much has been said about the value of knowing history so one doesn’t repeat past mistakes, but to think of history as primarily a source of practical insights is to seriously misunderstand the field. I have to wonder if anyone who suggests such a thing has ever actually read a history book. Or, on the flipside, perhaps they are a little too well read in history and too short on practical experience. In any event, one needs to be deeply disconnected from either history as it is written, or the practical affairs of the world, to think that the former could be a manual for the latter, or that historians are in a special position to tell practitioners how to do what they do.

To Rorty, the image of philosophers lecturing scientists on when they can know they know anything in their own fields is even more absurd than the image of the historian telling politicians and public officials how to do their jobs. Scholars and scientists did not wait around for the perfect theory of knowledge to be developed before getting to work. And the notion that outsiders to those fields are in a position to dictate the terms of inquiry for insiders is highly questionable. I won’t reconstruct Rorty’s argument here, but suffice it to say that he sees epistemology of the Cartesian and Humean sort as a sort of will-to-tyranny over other disciplines.

His pragmatism is cast as a liberation of the disciplines to pursue their own discourses on the terms negotiated by fellow practitioners, rather than by interfering outsiders. Its value is akin to the counter-punch in boxing; rather than making the first move, it comes as a response. If we imagine historians and physicists minding their own business and pursuing their work, when a interlocutor comes along with an argument drawing on philosophical positivism or related frameworks, pragmatism is the tool to get that interlocutor to back down.  It nullifies the stultifying effects of tyrannical philosophy, rather than offering a substantive alternative.

Because he deflates all of philosophy’s big claims to value, Rorty concludes that there’s little use for philosophy any longer, except as a field of caretakers for a set of classic texts. This is where I must part ways with him.

I look instead to Hans-Georg Gadamer, the pivotal figure in 20th century hermeneutics. Like Rorty, Gadamer didn’t see his theory of interpretation as a guidebook for the social scientists whose fields he discussed in the course of Truth and Method and other works. He had no interest in dictating the terms of inquiry for practitioners. And like Rorty, in as much as it has practical value, it is of the counter-punch variety. Unlike Rorty, however, Gadamer views hermeneutics as discipline itself, as legitimate a field of inquiry as history. Like history, it is a study of human doings. Yet as hinted above, the relationship between these fields and practical insight is a complex one. Gadamer no doubt underplayed the practical value of hermeneutics, but, as mentioned, historians and especially history enthusiasts too often overplay the practical significance of history.

The reasons for knowing knowledge, interpretation, or history that align with the spirit of inquiry in these fields is much more indeterminate than something as simple as generating practical know-how. It is more like satisfying intellectual curiosity, or attempting to deepen your knowledge of the human story, or simply taking pleasure in developing and exercising the skills of inquiry and argument in a specific domain. I would sum up this non-authoritarian (contra Descartes and Hume) but non-eliminative (contra Rorty) sort of reason as seeking wisdom. That is an appropriately vague and indeterminate answer for the question I wished to pose in this post.