My father, Bruce Bennett Strachan, could not tolerate stress or high emotion at home. I don’t know what he did at work, but mostly there he was solitary anyway, going between speeches and contacts in the field.
Three kids, plus a wife and oldest daughter in — um — opposition, automatically meant lots of racket and conflict. He could not tolerate it or understand it. Probably his own birth family, which was agricultural and outside working most of the time didn’t quarrel much. As adults they seemed to have a taboo on disagreement. They all read a lot.
Nor did he have either the inclination, the knowledge, or the skills to sit down with us and work through our issues. I hope he did that at work, because it seems as though that would have been a big part of the job — keeping co-ops reconciled and functioning. But I don’t think he did. I think it was probably like congregations everywhere in that someone in the community knew how to quiet troubles or they just got used to some people being troublesome.
My mother never did know how to work things out either though she had the training as a teacher. The exception was Mark, my brother. She would sit and talk to him. But she wondered about the social workers who came to the school where she taught and took kids into a glassed side-room in the library for counselling. “What do they talk about?” she wondered. I’ve never heard her discuss abuse of children, sexual or otherwise.
In her late years, when my brother Paul -- after a concussion from falling -- was clearly never going to recover the ability to sustain himself, which we all denied, she would say to me, “Can we talk?” But we never did. There were no real answers anyway. I was terrified that she would try to make me take over Paul’s care when she died and the rest of the family expected that, too. But I could see the possibility of writing in retirement at last and he would prevent that. He didn't want to live with me anyway.
For a long time I was teased by both brothers about my father’s solution for keeping order. He thought it was effective control, but it only affected the surface. This was for traveling. It was a 3 X 5 card clipped to the sun visor with the names of we three on it. This was called the “Plus and Minus System.” If we did something praiseworthy, we got a plus; if we failed some way, we got a minus.
Every morning they were added up and the person who had the most pluses got a dime, the next one down got a nickel, and the bottom one got a penny. Somehow, most of the things my brother Mark did were worth a plus. Almost every thing I did was not eligible for a plus because I was the oldest and expected to do those things. There was an element of sexism as well. Girls are expected to serve.
My father thought that everyone would be motivated by greed and this would control us. After I saw through the scheme, which took about two days, I went out of my way to challenge and be defiant. I set myself to not want or need money or approval. My brother Mark, aged maybe seven, took me to one side and told me, who must have been nine, that I was a fool. “Just give him what he wants,” he advised. “Why invite punishment?” There was a third option, which was to turn invisible. I didn’t take it. A contemporary counselor would point out that picking a fight is always a good way to get contact, which can be “narcissistic supply”. Or just a longing for recognition and — choke — love.
My hatred of the plus-and-minus system became a basic rule of my character, very deep. It’s still strong, the dynamic of refusing control to meet someone else’s desires and the dynamic of just doing without — not wanting. (When I blog about Oppositional Defiance Disorder, I always get lots of comments, so I’m not alone.) Part of this was observing that my mother was subservient and obedient to my father. To her it was marriage’s obligation. When Bob and I got into trouble, she stayed far out of it, even when I ended up in the hospital and the shrink called her.
In my father’s late years, after Pacific Supply Cooperative had become a corporation and fired him, he taught at small colleges, mostly Christian (though he declared he was atheist) and quiet, and even there he boastfully spoke of keeping order by taking names. He didn’t do anything about it — no calling on the carpet or penalties — but was pleased that just whipping out a little notebook and demanding their names was intimidating enough to make them back off. I guess he used grades instead of dimes.
This would hardly be worth considering for anyone except family members except that it is so clear an echo of Trump. Obedience enforced by bribes and intimidation.
It’s also the way bottom level management has operated in most of the jobs I’ve had, certainly it’s the way many high school principals operate. In small towns many of them are athletic coaches while teaching and then move up to something like managing the school’s athletic program as principal. Then they control the money, the permissions, the teachers who don’t cooperate, and can interact with the town’s school board, often men more interested in winning town teams than educational goals. It helps sales and reputation to have teams who go to state. It’s a Chamber of Commerce thing.
Curiously, my father was almost always at war with the female editor of PSC in-house newspaper whom he was supposed to supply with photos and stories. It was hard to know what the problem was, though when he was home we heard all about it at suppertime. My mother would offer explanations and he would shrug them off.
My mother, on the other hand, almost always had an older woman friend, someone wise and reassuring whom she valued and helped, more of an aunt than a mom. Clearly she WAS repeating her family and an early close friendship with her Sunday School teacher. She got along fine with her male principal and esp. a young male teacher who was Japanese. But she had a love/hate dynamic going with two other single female teachers. Some people would sexualize all this.
I find it hard to discuss coherently. Maybe you can tell.
I find it hard to discuss coherently. Maybe you can tell.