By now you might be wiping your brow in relief, saying to yourself, “Wow, these alcoholic family systems—I’m glad that’s not my lot!” Ah! But Triangles!
An alcoholic family system ought to be considered a basic system of relationship triangles that’s gone radioactive. The intensity is scaled up to unbearable degrees. It is normal stress, normal anxiety without its protective measures in place, proper boundaries. The core of the family has gone critical.
A relationship is simply something between one person and another. A third person adds stress to that relationship; it is tested: perhaps the relationship is strong enough to endure the third person. Most relationships are not. Consider now the sheer number of friends you’ve had who are no longer your friends. Is it fair to say a third party dissolved that relationship? Perhaps. Perhaps not. It depends, right?
Moreover, most relationships are tested by more than one triangle. We are, in fact, in a moving network of triangles, all our relationships being tested by multiple third persons, triangles which entangle, creating anxiety, heightening anxiety.
Blood relationships we are born into. Mother and son. Father and son. Either relationship is automatically in a triangle. Add a sister. Add a brother. Add more siblings. See? It’s a family!
Mother has a mother. So does father. Mother and father have a relationship, a relationship which is not blood, but a relationship which is a union of sex built upon mutual promise, a promise of sexual faithfulness. Mother’s mother pulls against that relationship, testing it. Father’s mother does the same. Perhaps the mother’s father also pulls. And so forth…
Here would go at least one great story as an example, but this is a series about my dad and me. My dad is long dead, and many of those who are part of this relationship are also long dead. When it comes to relationship triangles, however, far too many members of those triangles are alive, and no good example exists without including them, and I simply won’t do that out of respect for their reputations. In other words: it’s not fair to tell any stories. Well, any of the good ones. Here are lesser examples, and these examples signify triangulation from those outside the family, which are milder in effect, but still having had an effect:
When I was in grade school, there were a series of teachers who happened to be pastors’ wives, both in public school and in private school. My dad, of course, was very ostentatious about his membership in the clergy, so everyone in the region knew who he was and what he was about. In addition, he took on that noble task of being an outspoken advocate for the pro-life position, which was politically unpopular at the time, even among the clergy (sometimes especially among the clergy). An ecclesial supervisor of his had taken an advocacy position for the abortion movement, which set my dad and him at odds.
“David,” my dad told me later, “You have no idea what it’s like to speak clearly and forcefully for the policy and position which our church body has adopted, in an effort to pointedly shame the ecclesial leaders, after repeated failed private meetings finally forced a call for an accounting in a public meeting, only to have the ecclesial supervisor begin to cry. He put his head down, David, and he wept openly, feigning with his hands as if to pick nails out of his hands, saying in front of everyone, ‘John, John, why do you persecute me?'”
He told me this story ten, maybe fifteen years after it happened. We were driving somewhere together, and I saw him grip the steering wheel with both hands, and it seemed he was about to tear the wheel off its mount. When he told me the story, an incident from one particular year in grade school flashed into my mind.
The teacher, who was this ecclesial supervisor’s wife, had enjoined the class to draw pictures of home life. The boys conspired together to make a big joke of this, and we decided to subvert the assignment for laughs. While the girls drew pictures of petting their doggies or eating supper or swimming in their pools, we boys drew pictures of abject violence. What a lark! I used black and red, drawing a towering father and mother, somehow without any artistic talent depicting him with an upraised hand holding his belt.
To be fair, my father did on occasion use a belt as a disciplinary device, but only rarely, and I beg the reader to understand that an occasional belting was a perfectly ordinary and acceptable form of corporal discipline in 1980 Appalachia—along with a hickory switch. In context, my dad was sparing in his application of corporal discipline, but a rare occasion or two (as I noted in an earlier account) made a memorable application of it.
However, for the laughs I drew with black and red crayons, understanding perfectly what I was doing, labeling the picture: “Every day when I get home my parents yell at me and beat me.” I submitted my magnum opus, returning to my desk winking at my mates, who all chuckled at the joke. Once I stationed myself at my desk, I forgot about the assignment entirely.
Some time later—I have no idea how much time elapsed. I remember drawing the thing and I remember the incident later on, but an enormous gulf stands between the two moments—some time later, I was confronted with the picture. My dad was hysterical for some reason. Someone was asking me if it was true. As for me, I was confounded. Of course this was a joke. Didn’t everyone understand this was a joke? We all drew the same thing. Why didn’t everyone understand this was a joke?
Ah, but ten years later I understood: my drawing hadn’t been submitted to the principal and then upward to the appropriate family agency for investigation; it had been handed to the ecclesial supervisor, who used it as leverage against my dad, to make him a liar, to out him as a child abuser who used his pro-life advocacy as a cover for his own anti-child treachery.
After some years we moved from Appalachia to the Gulf Coast, to a region where there are more black Lutherans than white. My dad became a low-level ecclesial supervisor, so we were often in the midst of black neighborhoods and townships, and very conspicuous. On one occasion my Dad dropped me off at a church building just before noon, when the service was scheduled to begin. He wanted me to be there in his behalf (I still don’t quite understand this kind of plenipotentiary representation) and he drove off to another church service in another part of town. So there I stood, all by my conspicuous lonesome, waiting by the propane tank at the side of the building, watching people walk by, who stared at me, watching people drive by, who slowed to stare at me, and I tried to act naturally, a teenager, new to the Gulf Coast, a foreigner from Appalachia, already struggling with self-confidence.
Finally, at about 12:15, someone came by the church. I sighed in relief. The man got out of the car and recognized me, calling to me by name, smiling and waving. He unlocked the door, then drove away. I gaped in disbelief. After a while, a few people began to arrive, making preparations for church. All of them took individual notice of me, and, eventually, began to talk to me. When the word was established that I was Pastor Duke’s son, a handful of ladies presented me to the elders, who set about making me comfortable. Their own children were introduced to me, and that day I made friends.
On many occasions I accompanied them on their mission trips through the region, even staying with them in Selma, Alabama during a week-long youth retreat. The young men of that culture took me in (see Judith Rich Harris, RIP), and even though they never treated me as their own (how could they?), they honored me with a measure of acceptance I treasure to this day. They explained to me R&B music, taught me how to dance, showed me how to woo women, and so forth, all the things important to a young man.
Naturally, then, when I had a little money in my pocket to buy some clothes, I modeled myself after them, buying clothes which I imagined I looked good in, according to their friendship.
Back at my dad’s church on the first day I wore my new clothes, the son of the chairman of the congregation took me aside with a concerned look on his face, saying in a low tone, “Don’t you know that only n—–s wear clothes like that?”
Some time later, the chairman of the congregation developed some health issues, finding himself in the hospital for the first time in his life. He said to my Dad—who is a Christian pastor, mind you—he said, “Fate has been good to me until now.”
Do you see the relationship triangle? Do you see why his son came to me with that absolutely audacious judgment against me?
So then, add the radioactivity present in blood relationships…