My Dad and Me, Part 5

Boundaries

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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

“Dad?”

“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.”

“Why?”

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

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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.

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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 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?”

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“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.”

Thunderstruck.

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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