Every family has its own culture. One may be the result of über-brainy parents that ban television, while another could be the product of two artists whose kids seem pressured to be creative, eccentric or mentally unbalanced. My parents are both shrinks, and so our family culture was a particularly calm and encouraging one. “That’s good that I died in your dream, Micah,” my dad once said to me. “That means you’re integrating your inner father and becoming more independent.”
When I was young, my parents were still in the budding stages of their careers. As I learned to play with blocks, my father completed a post-doctoral dissertation on the influence of Taoism in Jungian psychology and my mother went back to school for her master’s. Then, as I started primary school and my sister was on the brink of teenagehood, into our lives came the man who would really light the fire under my parents’ psychological behinds: Dr. Arnold Mindell.
Mindell was their guru; during the nascent years of his ascendance in certain Jungian sets, my folks were inner-circle disciples of his new and radical brand of therapy called Process Work. I knew him only as “Arny,” a mischievous and stern sergeant who went almost everywhere shirtless. In the one photo we had of him, which my dad had taken, he wore a black cowboy hat cocked sideways over his shaven head. He could peer hawk-like into your eyes and say hello to your naked soul.
In those days, my parents were constantly surrounded by a clique of thirtysomething flower children who, like them, wanted to travel further into each other’s psyches than any shrink had ever travelled before. They bathed themselves in conflict resolution. They ate Jung for breakfast and regurgitated him for dinner. “After I illustrated the dream by using model glue and the unwound fabric of my mother’s apron, I realized that my mother complex was making it impossible for me to nurture my creativity. Micah, can you please pass the salt?”
With this kind of foundation, you’d think our family psyche would have been in top condition—and you’d be right, if you examined only me. I was the poster boy of our family culture. I drew pictures of my dreams with crayons, which my dad used to study the archetypes lurking in our unconscious. I took part in testing new Process Work methods, embracing the opportunity to understand my dreams through interpretive dance and role-playing. If our family culture was a high school, I was the prom king.
But Andreya, my sister, would have none of it. She thought it was ridiculous. To make matters worse, she was usually fighting with my dad and refused to let him use his newly acquired techniques to fix her. “I don’t want to do that pretendingstuff,” she would say when he plied her to “do a process.” “There’s nothing to figure out. I’m just mad.” What started out as a simple refusal evolved into full-scale rebellion. Looking back at it all now, with the help of hindsight and my parents’ old friend Arny, it’s easy to diagnose the disorder that plagued the family psyche.
In his writings, Arny points out that every culture, whatever its size, has a mainstream faction and a marginalized faction. He calls the second, smaller group the “terrorist.” It’s a loaded term in the post-9/11 world, but it’s not always used in reference to violence or international politics. According to Arny, the “terrorists” in families are the ones who act in opposition to the accepted pattern of behaviour. They refuse to be involved in the family rituals and don’t laugh at the family jokes. Alienating themselves further, they commonly become alcoholics or drug addicts. They get into trouble, they score poorly in school. They crash the car. They are the black sheep. To return to the family-as-high-school metaphor, the “terrorist” is the loser that eats lunch alone in the farthest reaches of the cafeteria—the outsider, the embarrassment.
Andreya was our terrorist. In a household where harmonious communication was the strictest principle, her interminable anger cast her firmly in this role. However, given that she’s black in an otherwise all-white family, she may have been doomed to be the black sheep from the start. Technically, she’s half-black, and technically she’s also my half-sibling, but I always just called her my sister because she’d been there since I was born. We share a mother, but her father went a little psychotic when she was three, and my mother left him and a year later met and married my father, who legally adopted Andreya. The fact that she is physically different from the other family members did not necessarily mean that she would be the odd one out. But as one can gather from our fraught social history, physical difference has always been the easiest way to choose a scapegoat.
So how is a family to restore peace? The obvious solution is to kick the lousy member outof the family. The gay brother would probably be happier on his own anyway, away from his fundamentalist Christian family. And if Susie wants to be a musician, she’s going to have to get used to sleeping on the street. If you kick the loser out of the family, it becomes a group of just winners again, right?
Wrong. By Arny’s way of thinking, the terrorist is not an individual, but a role. In his 1995 book about group conflict, Sitting in the Fire, he writes, “Roles in groups are not fixed, but fluid. They are filled by different individuals and parties over time, keeping the roles in a constant state of flux.” In other words, the group always needs a shadow figure, a receptacle for its “unacceptable” behaviour. If you kick the “bad” person out of the family, the role becomes vacant and, who knows, you may be the next to fill it.
Arny’s solution to this terrorist threat is to listen to the “bad” faction and to try to incorporate his or her needs and way of being into the whole. I witnessed several attempts by my parents to “incorporate” Andreya into the family culture, but one of these made an especially lasting impression: “Well, if you’re just going to stare at the ceiling instead of making eye contact with me and won’t tell me how you’re feeling, why don’t you describe what you see?” My father said this in the fluffy-edged psychologist voice that he would have used with all of his clients that day. It’s a soothing sound that begins further back in the throat and is followed by a series of slow, encouraging nods. I always knew when he spoke like that to my sister that things were not going well. “Perhaps you see a story in the shapes of the plaster that will help us to know what’s happening with you?”
“I see a ceiling, and I don’t feel like talking about it,” she said.
My mother sat in between the two of them, on the one hand encouraging my sister to comply, but then, in the next breath, warning my father not to push too hard.
“Well then, I’m going to say what I’m thinking,” my dad declared. From the kitchen floor, where my GI Joes engaged in quiet battle, I knew that the impromptu session happening in the family room was nearing its breakdown. “Really, it’s a feeling. Andreya, when you won’t talk to me about the problems you’re having with me, or the issues in your life, I feel like you don’t love me anymore.” Even at ten, I think I cringed.
“It’s just a ceiling!” she screamed. “And I don’t feel like talking about it! Just leave me alone!” She stomped dramatically to her bedroom and the splintering bang of her faux-oak door was the loudest sound I’d ever heard in that house.
When Andreya started high school, her grades plummeted. She stole vodka from the liquor cabinet and escaped from her bedroom window to hang out with other wayward girls. Around the family, she was usually in a bad mood. At the dinner table, my father still tried to have her open up. “How was school today?” he’d ask, as if it were an innocent question. He knew she was failing some of her classes, but thought he could help if only she’d tell him what was wrong.
At the time, so did I. Why wouldn’t she placate him and play along? He’d been a straight-A student from nursery school to graduate school, he only wanted to help her, and he was a trained counsellor. I was certain that he knew what he was doing, that problems only go away if you work at resolving them. It could have been the slogan for our family culture. Bad grades and delinquency were looked down upon, but the darkest sin of all was to be in conflict and not even try to work it out.
But Andreya would not back down or change for anyone. Pressed far enough, she would respond with a teenager’s most deadly weapon: silence. This pushed my father too. It pushed him so far that he’d deliver counsel that wasn’t exactly from the good therapist’s textbook. “Well, I guess it’s up to you, Andreya. But if you don’t start being more assertive with your education, you’re going to end up stupid with no job!”
It’s hardly surprising that she eventually just stopped speaking to him. What wassurprising happened a couple of years later: my mother gave up on marriage counselling, filed for divorce and stopped talking to my dad as well. Our resolutely resolution-powered family went poof, disappearing from our collective consciousness like it had just been a dream.
Sometimes, as Arny knows, the medication can worsen the illness. “Western thought is biased toward peace and harmony,” he writes. “Ironically, procedures that implicitly or explicitly forbid anger ultimately provoke conflict, because they favour people who are privileged enough to live in areas where social struggles can be avoided.” Arny is talking about disputes on a political scale here, but the same thing can—and did—happen in a family.
Using Process Work techniques, my father had been trying hard to keep our family together. But he overlooked one of his guru’s most important lessons: you have to abandon the language of the mainstream to hear the voice of the marginalized. My sister’s mantras—“I don’t want to talk about it,” “I just want to be mad,” “I don’t want to do the pretend stuff”—represented precisely the sort of attitude that our family pushed aside. It was raw, unmediated emotion; it was the kind of talk we all needed more of to become a whole and enlightened “culture.”
Without being aware of it, my dad had been doing everything he could to keep anger out of our house. As family president, he so fully embodied our culture that he was unable to see outside of it. My mother—vice-president and ambassador to the outlying regions—had made some attempts at defending Andreya, but she was torn between two people she cared for. After the divorce, she threw herself more fully into Arny’s teachings, mastering Process Work techniques, focussing especially on recognizing the voice of the marginalized. My father returned to practising straight Jungian psychology, abandoning Process Work altogether, perhaps because he felt that it had failed him.
During the dinner-table battles that took place before the divorce, I used to pretend I was a lawyer acting on my sister’s behalf. But even as prom king of the family culture, I was too young to have any real sway. I was crushed by our family’s dissolution, of course, but I don’t blame Arny or his philosophies. On the contrary, the tools I’ve learned from him and from my parents are what make me ultimately optimistic. Arny and Jung would both agree that whether we like it or not—through emotional crises and even divorce—our unconscious is always working to integrate what we marginalize.
I’ve made a point of trying to embrace conflict in my life—harness-
ing my own Andreya Power. And after ten years of not speaking to each other at all, my dad and sister are visiting again on birthdays and over the holidays. She’s now a single mother with a teenager of her own. Dad is making headway toward accepting that she’s never going to turn into a straight-Aintellectual like him and that she may continue to hold a grudge about how he treated her into the indefinite future. But, oddly enough, Andreya recently, and wilfully, brought therapy back into her life. Each week, she’s talking through her problems with an Arny-trained Process Worker, even sharing a dream or two—on her own terms, of course.