My parents, farm people at the beginning of the twentieth century, were not just the first-born. They were smart achievers so, as the eldest, they soon were handed the duty of becoming high status people who -- because they were “gifted” -- were supposed to reflect well on the family and protect lesser members. In spite of being female, I inherited this role. I was eldest. I had two brothers, one of whom was temperamentally averse to this role, and the other who was pretty much a free-wheeling youngest. The older brother, who left at seventeen by joining the Marines, was still somehow obligated to be the manager of whatever riches might accrue to us, though they accumulated modestly in my mother’s school-teacher’s estate. My father, after a good start, took a long slow glide into helplessness by the time of his death in his early sixties. My mother was vigorous to 89. The free-wheeling brother, victim of a closed-skull brain trauma, followed my father’s path.
Through to maturity, I followed the script, getting good grades, scoring high on the National Merit and Honor Society tests, shining in plays and so on. But the ties to family frayed in college and broke at graduation. My mother was bitter -- she (and a scholarship) had paid my way through on the expectation that I would contribute to the family. By that time I had become convinced by my family that I was somehow faulty -- emotionally unstable and entirely selfish. I think this came from misguided attempts to control me. I had resolved never to have children because I understood my temperament to be inheritable along with my naturally curly red hair, a mixed blessing. Of course, by the time my mother had married and moved to the city, she had been estranged from her father and to a much lesser degree from her sisters. If you leave home, you become different, and you might not return. Still, for ten years she had contributed much energy and a part of her salaries (bookkeeping) to her birth family. It was the script she understood.
I did return twice over a lifetime, getting my mother’s hopes up. Once in the Seventies and once in the Nineties, both times of economic collapse both personally and nationally. She didn’t want me to come back -- then she didn’t want me to leave. Both times I had become so different from my family that I was of little use to them. My goals and methods were totally different.
Early in life the command to achieve but always to serve the family humbly without personal benefit fit very well with marriage to an older sculptor: I worked as hard my mother had, he walked in the glory (not that he didn’t work to his limits). But he had the same conviction that I had about being “bad seed,” for much the same reason: family attempts to control him for their benefit. The irony is that his true achievement and fame as an artist was invisible to them. They never praised him for it -- always changed the subject to money, which is the Achilles Heel (I mistyped “hell” at first) of all artists.
I don’t know why parents think that confronting their children with their shortcomings and mistakes evidently believe this will bind them closer, but parents and even teachers do it everywhere. So do marriage partners and children. On the other hand, I resist praise, interpreting it also as control, esp. since the praise is rarely relevant to what I do and am proud of. Very few are astute enough to figure out the puzzle. When they do, usually they have the same inner dynamics.
I repeated the script again by entering the ministry, which thrives on this scenario. I’ve repeated it in other ways since, until now, out of rebellion, it brings me to this solitary writing without any expectation that it will improve my status and with such a dispersed family that it’s hard to know what I could do for them. A few still cling to the idea that I’m smart and therefore have an advantage, a “gift” that I didn’t earn and that they don’t have. My seminary and denomination are dissolving out from under my feet, morphing into exactly what I was trying to escape, that materialist and institutional drive to achieve status and power through owning the “family” members.
For an artist/writer who is not writing escapist schlock, the struggle to belong without being owned becomes a preoccupation verging on obsession. The movie called “The Bigger Splash”-- a loose narrative of David Hockney’s relationship with a young man named Peter [sic] -- wanders through the days and dilemmas of the artist “writing on water” at the boundary between the outer world and one’s inner construct of it. The outer world, which includes the force of time, is uncontrollable, but Hockney ponders and records a painted version that can be regarded, felt. This interesting movie records from the outside -- without taking sides -- the loose group of lifelong friends who generally support Hockney, trying to understand what might seem inscrutable, trying to understand how to fit in, and all the small memes and tropes that create relationship. These people bring each other bouquets. Peter, who is quite beautiful, is not a bouquet. It is not clear whether he left or Hockney simply moved on, the splash now ended. It IS clear that the gallery owner who tried to profit from Hockney had to close. And the painting of “The Bigger Splash” remains, a moment made poignant by its indeterminacy.
The “fan groups” around art/writing have certain principles that they enforce by giving or withholding attention, prizes, reviews, attendance at shows and so on. Rule one: You must admire us for admiring you. Rule two: Once you become famous for something, you must not change, but you must surprise us. Rule three: It’s good to do a forbidden thing so long as you do not close us out, but rather let us enter it safely. Rule four: Do not have secrets. Do not tell lies. We want access to your reality. These rules can be obscene, pornographic in their invasiveness and insincerity, the very thing that laws against public fucking and nakedness are supposed to oppose.
And yet the enforcers feed off the creators at fancy patterned tea parties and receptions as stylized as were ever portrayed on the BBC. Dressing up, jeweling, imbibing special beverages from special vessels (those fragile teacups, those champagne flutes!), they condition us and control our responses. “This,” they teach us, “Is sophistication!” I’m very naughty to talk this way on the eve of the auction frenzy in Great Falls, which is a kind of family event. Except that there will be many small intimate encounters in motel rooms (the auctions are all held in motel convention halls), some of which may turn out to be fertile. Well -- that’s family, too.
Society and family progress by branching. Individual members go their own way, sometimes detach entirely. There is an underground convergence of sources that is even more important than what supports the “leaves” of works on paper. The internet “daylights” much of what was once hidden, disconcerting those who care to look, like the John Taliaferro (1996) bio of the C.M. Russells which stepped away from the usual assumptions. Charlie stepped away from his own birth family to come West, the same as I did -- except that I had to go east in order to get to the same place. Neither of us ever really went home again.