Your family's dysfunctional


Caught the second episode of Big Love last night. Since we no longer have a TV, we're dependent on the charity of friends. I don't know if I've said this before, but I think Big Love is pretty fucking great. There's something about Bill Hendrickson that looks familiar...Hmm. Wonder what it could be...

Meh, anyone who reads this blog knows me well. I don't come from a polygamous family, but Clan Coates was done different. My Dad has seven kids by four women--the seventh isn't pictured because my mother was actually carrying him at the time. I also count an eighth brother who was the child of my Dad's first wife. I count him because we also spent a lot of time around each other as kids, so much that he calls my father Dad (along with biological father, who raised him). I've taken to calling my family "complicated" in interviews, and while that probably sums it up well for outsiders, it always makes me cringe even as the words come out my mouth. Before I ventured into the wider world, before I left Baltimore, I never thought of my family as particularly complicated. They were just my family. And I loved them like other branches of the Mother (Father?) Tree.

Polygamy aside, there's a lot about the show that rings true. Like Bill, my Dad ran his own business and took great pride in this idea of building his own fiefdom here on earth. I don't know if Pops thought of it that way, but he had this "Booker T meets Malcolm meets Emerson" thing about independence and family. Unlike the Hendricksons, my father's kids were impressed into the family business from day one. Two of my brothers, one of my sisters, and my Dad's first wife still work there. I'm obviously not there, but nothing prepares you for the writing life like apprenticing in publishing.

Anyway there was a moment in this week's episode that really caught me. Don Embry (probably my favorite character on the show) is having a crisis of manhood. Two of his wives have left (understandably) and taken the kids. Embry is now in violation of "The Principle" and is being barred from seeing his children. He breaks down in front of Bill and tells him that he's failed as a man. Bill picks him up, makes him feel better, and tells him about their mission to establish something independent or self-sufficient so their families can prosper.

I really related to that scene on a personal level. I've never been sure how right this was, but my concept of manhood always revolved around children and similar notions of independence. I knew I wasn't going to have seven kids by four women, but I thought I'd have four kids by one. Heh, of course that was before I'd ever had any real adult experience with women. But still I think part of the reason why I was so happy to have Samori when I did (age 24) was that I thought "real men have families." It's a stupid thing to think, right? Like something out of the 1940s? Part of me shudders every time I say it. But it was religion for me.

I was watching Don break down, and thinking about how much of my identity is tied up in my partner and my son, so much so that if they left, I'm not sure who I would be. Knowing men who've gone through divorces, fathers who've lost their kids, I know that's not an uncommon feeling. The men sound like exiled kings, like monarchs dethroned. I'm sure there are women reading this thinking, "that's part of the problem." Maybe so. My point isn't that it's right for a man to feel like this about his family, but that it's a point of vulnerability for men that we don't hear enough about.

One of the consequences of feminism is not simply redefining roles for women--an unquestioned good--but redefining roles for men. I think that will be a good in the long-term too, but right now a lot of us are in this space of trying to figure out who we are and what we should be. Bill Hendrickson is a guy inventing manhood in this new world--all of his wives want to work, for instance. He comes from a community where the existing definitions were untenable and repulsive. And yet even as he constructs new definitions, he can't escape the root of the old, of the ancient and all its questions and conundrums. I'm a modern man, and the child of a 60s radical. And yet even as my Dad tried to remake himself, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before him, even as I try to remake myself, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before me, old magic is at work, and ancient identities, that we thought we'd shed, call us back home.

You should see a Coates family Christmas. Assembled are all these parts, which social workers would dismiss as stepbrothers, half-sisters, step-aunts, half-nephews etc. A great time is had by all. And yet every year the man who made it all possible, my Dad, is never there. He doesn't celebrate Christmas. He is busy reinvinting.