It’s a common enough American story, one that has happened again and again in place after place, but people are not aware of that. Each thinks their story is unique in both good and bad ways. The current craze for genealogy should be turning out the secrets and bitternesses, but I’m not hearing about that. I guess they're shoving stuff back into the closet.
Greg Hirst says that among the families of the Blackfeet the main topic of conversation when the old women get together is all the family material: who was adopted, who couldn’t seem to stay married, who made a lot of money by accident, and so on. He says that very late when all the children have gone to bed, they told the stories no one should properly know: the murders, the affairs, the major betrayals, who died in prison.
Often the stories across the continent began on frontiers and when they became cleared of the original inhabitants by disease or military force. The best agricultural land was along the rivers because they flooded and renewed the fertility as has happened since Egypt grew up along the Nile. The first transportation was by river and then roads developed, pretty much parallel. Land became surveyed and then developed into fields owned by families. When they did well, they built big houses for their extended families, and possibly big barns for hay and cattle or horses.
Farms were along both sides of the road and they struggled along through wars, depressions, and prosperity. Their children married each other, which sometimes turned out very well and sometimes produced disasters: violence and runaways, alcoholism and child abuse — maybe sexual.
Then came the industrial revolution so that a train ran nearby and an industry developed within commuting distance. Maybe Ford or Boeing or Amana or General Electric. Now it was possible to keep the family farm going by working on assembly lines. In order to market what was produced, from automobiles to sewing machines to refrigerators, the parallel industry of advertising sprang up. People saw more things to want.
Farms are hard work but if there were unmarried uncles and male children, it was a dependable way to eat, especially if there were still access to unclaimed land or government land where there was hunting and fishing. But if things were going very well, it became a point of pride to send children to college. This set up a whole new class of problematics — literally involving class in the sense of status, and now also the gender gap when girls were limited to nursing and teaching, while for boys the sky was the limit. Jealousy arrived, and arrogance over the stupid ones left behind. It was easier to deny and force secrecy than to get to root causes. Religion could be used to suppress.
Of course, there were always the scramblers who left for the big city and made a lot of money for a while, but then got busted back to the farm, making their wives — who might not have grown up along the riverside road, but had seen the world and loved the glamour, so that now they were bitter and blamed their menfolks for not staying rich, since that was the purpose of men — to make money. War messed everything up even more with men killed, crippled, frozen by trauma. The more sentimentality tried to compensate by talking about patriotism and loyalty and how love conquers all, the more tempers flared. God became a tyrant, just like dad. A punisher.
Denial was the best choice, because it put everything off to the future. Sometimes the family, rather unconsciously, settled on one person who would save the family fortune by being brilliant in some middle-class way, like inventing something or becoming a very important person with some company that sold plastics, which were the future. Maybe they would write a book. But maybe that family member was unsuited or just didn’t want the burden. Maybe drugs came along.
The bicoastal culture phenomenon also came along then, mostly driven by the formation of cities and then megacities, ports for international trade. They included foreigners, black people, whole sections of gays, and networks of crime, including white collar swindlers in the casinos of stock markets. Since so many jobs were deadly dull, entertainment mushroomed into huge sports empires and picture show chains which almost forced television into existence. Back on the farm there had only been radio.
Now there was an appetite for stories, but if a person from those little river farms used their families as material, all that yearning and frustration, all those hidden atrocities and humiliations, that storyteller would be cursed and ostracized. At the same time, there would be some who felt they had been overlooked and wanted their story told. Murder and muck-raking always sell, so the industry that grew up between authors and audiences to find and promote the stories were eager to hear the worst, the most shocking, esp. about the families that had become famous. Tell us about presidents who run down the hallways of the White House, nude, chasing fancy women who were also gangster molls.
When that grew boring, people wanted to hear about the shockingly miserable, the zombies in shooting galleries, the crazies who kept girls captive and forced them to have babies, the cannibals, and then on to the supernatural, the werewolves and the vampires. The terrorists. By the time the farmers on both sides of the river road had computers and at least one person in the family could get on the internet, or maybe the famiiy had cable with sensational faked news, everything was exposed. The world was an evil place and there was no place to hide.
The writer wanted to tell true things, but also to sell; wanted to protect the family but knew only the dark would sell; and then the big house burned but anyway the extended family had shrunk to only a few, maybe one stubborn old hermit who moved into the bunkhouse. Everyone else had worked themselves to death or just couldn’t find anyone along the road who would marry them or didn’t have the emotional energy to marry anyway. Some just left. Some straggled back beaten or infected or addicted. The successful ones felt guilty, esp. when the remnants asked for help. The one who was ingenious enough to run a crop-dusting business either crashed or became demented from the herbicides and pesticides.
All the whole time the screens in the house showed laughing beautiful young people doing wonderful things in Tibet or New Zealand or Manhattan, like an alien race that cried out, “Buy, buy, buy! Make money so you can buy!” When the twin towers were destroyed, the president said, “Don’t panic! Go shopping.” At least the later president didn’t say, “Buy my daughter’s line of clothes.” He hired little people to say that. And to keep the secrets safe.