Edward Albee is famous for George and Martha who eviscerated each other in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Eugene O’Neill wrote about the murderous, incestuous Mannon family in Mourning Becomes Electra. Tennessee Williams’ Mrs. Venable pimped for her son, Sebastian. He consigned Alma (Eccentricities of a Nightingale) to a life of repression, sexual frustration, and finally prostitution. The boys in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and Death of a Salesmen were trapped by the illusions, immorality, and deceit of their parents. Shakespeare wrote of palace dramas where royal families seemed to nothing but plot, scheme, and murder their relatives.
So, nothing new here. Families may indeed be the crucibles for maturity. As Albee said, only through the powerful, blood lusts, jealousies, and spite intrinsic to families can we learn about life. However, life, literature, and a spin around the neighborhood show that families teach painful lessons indeed.
Take the Pendergasts – husband, wife, two children, and a mother-in-law, to all appearances a happy family living a normal life. However, the husband is a serial philanderer, the wife a vixen with a bent for Prada, the daughter already promiscuous at eleven, and the son an angry predatory transsexual who can’t make up his mind who he is.
The mother-in-law lives in a small basement apartment, a disgusting mess, strewn with torn clothes saved from five decades ago, old newspaper clippings, and hairbrushes so thick with old hair they looked like vermin.
“Old people have colitis and lavender perfume”, said Grandma in Albee’s An American Dream:
Old people aren’t dry enough, I suppose. My sacks are empty, the fluid in my eyeballs is all caked in the inside edges, my spine is made of sugar candy, I breath ice, but you don’t hear me complain. Nobody hears old people complain because old people are gnarled and sagged and twisted into the shape of a complaint.
Doors would slam at the Pendergasts in the middle of the night. I could hear Mrs. Pendergast’s howls through the open window in her upstairs bedroom. Whether they were howls of pain or cries of ecstasy, she screamed like a clawed alley cat and thrashed around the bed until the glass panes shook. Bobby Pendergast danced around the garden in a pink, frilly tutu, went inside, and then, dressed in SWAT and carrying a plastic AK-47, stomped and kicked the tulips until the flower bed was tilled and turned, the tulips had all been beheaded, and the stems were crossed like a Jolly Roger.
Every morning, however, the Pendergasts were the model of middle class propriety and sensible, respectful good taste. Mister was cleanly shaven, sharp in his modestly elegant designer suit. Missus looked lawyerly and proper, leather briefcase tucked, lipstick in place, and a faint scent of Dior trailing behind her. The children were dressed conservatively for school. No sign of daughter’s sexual daring in her uniform. No sexual confusion in son’s khakis and blue Oxford button down.
The Karamazovs, the drunken Tyrones, the greedy and plotting Giddens, the three Chekhov sisters, Hedda Gabler, Strindberg’s Laura. In Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, the entire Rosmer family is beset by guilt, weakness, and torment. The Master Builder’s wife is as crazy as a loon and blames her husband for every family tragedy. So angry is he at her, himself, and God, he climbs higher than he should and falls off the church tower to the cheers of his mystic lover.
The stories write themselves, or so it would seem by a ride around the neighborhood. Bill
Dickens was the priest at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church on Aberdeen Street. He served the wealthy upper class residents of Meadows Park, ran a model pre-school, and was generously inclusive in his reference to ‘the wider community’ by which he meant the poor and the disadvantaged. Father Dickens was the ideal Episcopal priest – liberal in his secular beliefs, pious and reverential in his sacerdotal duties. No one could fault him for his moral probity, concern, and congeniality.
His home life was a different story altogether. His wife, whom I met frequently in the alley where our children played, was a disappointed, bitter woman who sneered at her husband’s ‘sanctimony’ and insufferable piety. “He talks the talk”, she said, “but he is full of shit.” It wasn’t long before I noticed that something was up. Her car smelled more and more of cigarettes and perfume, and in the afternoon she always had the slightly disheveled, hurriedly-dressed look of someone just back from a cinq a sept. “He’s a prick”, she told me. “A lazy, pompous prick.”
He never seemed that bad to me. I could never square his secular interests – home improvement, Redskins football, car repair, and California wine – with a ministerial life. A man of God should be more austere, more outwardly observant at least. The Catholic priests of my childhood never went out of character. They always wore the clerical collar, never missed a chance to talk about Jesus, and always said, “God bless you” when they left.
Bill Dickens, however, never gave the slightest hint that his life was all about God, Jesus, and the disciples. To all intents and purposes he could have been the owner of a dry goods store or a teacher at the local high school.
He was boring. There was not a glimmer of insight or intelligence in the man, and if he was as insufferable as his wife said, then I wasn’t sure how much longer the marriage could survive. It went on far longer than it should have until Martha Dickens began to shove her tapped booty in her husband’s face. She wanted the prick to lose his precious sanctimony and his Biblical forbearance, and throw her out of the house. At least she would be recognized as a woman!
No such luck. Bill Dickens had the patience of Job and the forgiveness of Jesus Christ. He was patronizing, demeaning, and insulting, Martha said; but all with a treacly irony and superiority.
At 3 am one summer night I heard Bill Dickens yelling, “Cunt….Cunt…CUNT!”. Then shattered glass, a woman screaming, the sound of a fight, and then silence. I looked out the window to see Bill Dickens get in his car and speed down 49th Street. A few minutes later the police came, and the whole drama unfolded. Apparently Martha had come home drunk from one of her assignations, tossed her come-filled panties in her husband’s face, and said, “Fuck off, you faggot!”. That did it. All the screws came loose; all the careful wiring in the pre-frontal lobes frayed; and the carefully-maintained chemical balance in the hypothalamus got thrown so badly out of whack that Bill Dickens turned into a whirling dervish of anger, hatred, and violence.
“Still waters run deep”, my mother said when I told her the story. I should have known better. Even the dullest, most predictable, and simple-looking families are fucked up. What good was Albee?
The only reason why people willingly sign up for this hell is that loneliness must be a horrible and unbearable fate. Putting up with a harridan like Martha Dickens or her dullard pastor husband must mean that the thought of the alternative – a solitary life – is simply unthinkable.
What else could it be? Every young couple standing in the wedding arbor must have an inkling of what is to come. What idealism, suspension of reality, or native ignorance must be at work to blind them from the facts. Nine times out of ten “I do” means “I will put up with”.
One of the most arrogantly venal and irresponsible women I have ever met dropped her son off at my daughter’s kindergarten class. She dragged the obstinate, yanking, pulling, spitting Landon into the room, gave him a push towards the teacher, said, “He’s your problem now”, and walked to her car.
Neither she nor her husband gave a shit about Landon or each other. They were a two-earner power couple with law practices on K Street who spent as little time together or at home with their son as possible. Why they even had Landon was a source of continual neighborhood gossip. How could two absolutely irredeemable parents have a child? Lineage was the only answer possible, but woe be to the heir.
The marriage between my aunt and uncle seemed as good as it gets. Whenever we went over for Easter or Christmas dinner, Auntie Bess was in the best of spirits, and Uncle Dave was as chipper and lively as always. The meals were always elaborately Italian, diverse, and delicious. My cousin Jean was just getting interested in boys, and her brother spent most of his time in the basement playing with his chemistry set. We played badminton, walked down to the shore, and sat on the porch.
It was only after my uncle died that my aunt opened up. He had intimidated, threatened, and even beaten her for all their married life. Because she was so dependent on him, his professional position, and good salary, she couldn’t leave him. He had turned into what she had always feared – his father, a tough Sicilian with the medieval attitudes of the old country. My aunt had always thought of leaving my uncle, but never could. “The day they lowered him into the ground was the happiest of my life”, she told me.
Unfortunately her children were by no means unscathed by their brutal father and their mother’s impotence. The son was arrested for vagrancy and delinquency in high school and later ended up in Danbury prison. The daughter left home at 15, a runaway far before the days lost children’s pictures were put on milk cartons, and never even showed up at her mother’s funeral. Children are the innocent victims of fucked up parents.
The best marriages I have seen are those which are contractual but fluid. The pre-nups are legal and explicit – who gets what, but more importantly who can do what. In other words, as much of the duplicity and deceit common in most marriages is avoided and along with it the guilt and recriminations. Caught with your pants down? First time offense? Deal with it, and move on.
Despite all this, most people have a modicum of decency in them; and older couples who somehow make it to old age take care of each other. More likely they been so worn down by the tedium of the years that they simply do what is required. They help each other down the stairs or off the toilet just like they took out the trash or washed the dishes. There is something to say about hanging in there.
“Irrelevant suppositions”, a colleague of mine said when he heard my theories. “Even gay people want to get married today. Do you think anything will be different for them?”
It was a rhetorical question. Of course married life would be beset by the same jealousies, suspicions, and spite that straight couples have. The good news is that there would be no children to suffer unless gay couples so badly aspire to the heterosexual ideal that they insist on artificial insemination and double fatherhood. Let’s hope not.
“You’re such a cynic”, my mother said; but I quickly changed the subject before she started in on my father.