Apart from my low-level, quasi-superstitious OCD-ness, I like to think that I am mercifully free of neuroses. One bête noire, however, has long been eating away at me: the disgust aroused by my family’s loud chomping at the dinner table. It began in adolescence and has flavoured most of the meals we have shared ever since. They blithely, loudly munch away; I inwardly grimace. This disgust has extended to discomfort when eating in the company of other people, where the occasion feels forced or the conversation becomes too rectangular.
My family’s mumbly mastication disturbed me because it resembled speech. Their chewing was heavily vocalized, their squelchy pleasure audible. This offended my sense of injustice. How could they be so vocal in their eating and so reticent on other matters (i.e. the misery plaguing us). And worse: they even put on airs of happiness. Sauces got cordially passed. Pleasantries were exchanged. Opinions were politely prodded at.
I have nothing against my family. And it has to be said that my mum’s cooking is extraordinarily good. But our psychologically unsustainable notion of normal family life has been fucking up people for far too long. Think of all the American films – the West’s lowest common denominator – about sons trying to earn the approval of their father, daughters striving to win over their mother’s affection, resentful siblings fighting to reconcile. Just about every psychosis in the book begins with home sweet home.
Our family got two cats when I was 6 years old: Jason (black) and Bimbo (white). For some reason I never understood, my mum loathed Bimbo but loved Jason. Jason got to sleep indoors, was petted, got to play the fambly cat. Bimbo was exiled. A bowl of food was left outside for her every day and that was it: she was on her own. I would go and give Bimbo a saucer of milk and stroke her desperately arched rear. As the years went by, she became mangier and thinner until one day she just disappeared.
I am leaving out so much detail it is almost criminal. But the ridiculously named Jason and Bimbo epitomize the schizophrenia families induce in people. Call it love-hate. Call it neediness-v-greediness. Call it what you want but the damning statistics speak for themselves. Much of the Western World has a divorce rate of over 50%: 1 in 2! Those are worse odds than Russian roulette for god’s sake. So why do we persist in this outdated model of knocking out kids, walling in our well-being and enacting a statistically doomed role?
Of the hundreds of families I have seen and known only a few have impressed me. B’s were truly lovely. J has an amazing mother and a touchingly warm but undemonstrative relationship with her siblings. But most families leave me feeling queasy. They are tidy units of predictable, regular and wasteful consumption. They consist of squirming egos vying to differentiate themselves, one from the other, in the familial scheme of things. I didn’t say much at the dinner table but I learned more from observing the dynamic of mealtime conversations than from all the books I ever read.
I once fiercely loved my family. But the horrible truth is we should never have ever been a family. That dangerously atomized, psychologically incestuous, complex-moulding model is no longer fit for purpose. Or to put it another way, most people are not fit to play at happy families.
When I am confused about some aspect or other of human behaviour, I find it instructive to return to the original function it served. Dig beneath the layers of so-called culture and tradition, get at the earthy root of it. If a sigh is a mental fart, and moral indignation is an adaptive twist on physical disgust, what, then, is family? For a very long time family was a nice little cottage industry as far as nature was concerned. It knocked out children, many of which died. The ones that lived helped out around the homestead until they could be married off. The daughters left (thanks for the dowry). The sons stayed to keep the family business going. No doubt there was love and tenderness in many homes. But mostly it was work: life-sustaining labour so gruelling and all-consuming that it left no time for petty questions of self-identity or the luxury of self-fulfillment.
Bored, horny aristocrats invented romantic love. Bored, desperate aristocrats fell for romantic love. They wrote songs, poems, farces, tragedies. Love was born on the back of the brutal feudal system that supported it. Later, the Industrial Revolution helped to industrialize love. Slowly but surely all that steam morphed into popular romance. Strict cultural mores kept some of the excess steaminess in check but the historical drama of Victorian London was played out in a toxically erotic smog.
The 20th-century family seemed, for a time, like the perfect social fit. It raised children to be outwardly well-adjusted adults. It lived mutually fulfilling lives. When retirement came, it pruned flowers in the garden and looked forward to seeing its grandchildren.
I got up at 5:30am to write this (it turns out I am obsessive in the old-fashioned sense of the word) so forgive me if my point wanders or my reasoning wavers.
Even the relatively sturdy 20th-century family (riddled with complexes but functional) cannot withstand the voracious, rapacious narcissism of the 21st century. The giddiness of love is one thing. The drudgery of family life another. They will not twain well in this age of gluttonous pleasure-seeking, insatiable neediness and infantile self-entitlement.
The only reason why love and marriage go together like the horse and carriage is because nothing else rhymes with marriage (well, there is miscarriage). Songwriters for the Eurovision Song Contest face a similar paradigmatic problem with the word ‘love’: shove, glove, above, dove…
Well, I shove my glove in the face of familial love, albeit I do so with a dove from above. Our family model is not only outmoded and failing on its own terms (the production of well-adjusted people), it is causing untold needless suffering. I felt jealous when I read about a South American tribe in National Geographic that collectively takes care of children and collectively sleeps in a hut. Incidentally, they don’t go in for 8 hour shifts of sleep like we do, but intermittently nap as and when they need it. That strikes me as a much better and healthier system than our (too-big-to-fail) model.
My favoured solution, if you can afford it, is to be together as a couple, have children if you want them, but live separately. That way, your binary partner and children will only see the best of you because you would be the best of you, not the emotionally drained, resentful, frustrated crank that is the average married person.
I used to teach writing. One of my students memorably wrote in an essay: “Marriage is the leading cause of divorce.” I chuckled at the time but there is a certain logic to it: the institution of marriage is so contrary to human nature that divorce is not the tragedy we make it out to be but a logical, even (unconsciously) desired denouement.
Whenever J and I are feeling down, we go to YouTube and watch a grainy old video of David Hasselhoff singing Looking for Freedom on top of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Just as the martial arts star Chuck Norris helped end communism in Romania, so David, a beacon of freedom in his jacket outfitted with flashing lights, played a major role in unifying Germany. Can we not emulate these heroes and tackle the industrial complex that we call marriage?