Published simultaneously at Bunchfamily.ca
So like seemingly every other writer in Toronto, I've been reading Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, and last night around 1:30 a.m., I finished it (#31 of 2010). Was it the masterpiece it was hailed as in this review by the New York Times? Naw, I don't think so. Its excellence follows an upward curve; it starts rough, then gets steadily more captivating until the concluding pages are approaching brilliant.
But there was too much backstory for me—too much going back in the narrative and recounting past events, "He had done this," "She had done that," rather than recounting events as they happened—"He did this, she did that." Recounting backstory is always less captivating than chronicling story, if only because, by recounting the past from the point of view of a future narrator, we have a clue to the end; that is, that the narrator remains alive to tell us the events we're following. Nevertheless I thought it a fascinating depiction of a North American family, one with some problems I found particularly disturbing—and which may disturb other Bunchland readers, as well.
The book's story revolves around the marriage of Walter and Patty Berglund, two middle-class gentrifiers in St. Paul, Minnesota. What has been semi-obsessing me since I first started reading the book was the relationship between stay-at-home mom Patty Berglund and the youngest of her two children, Joey. (The couple also has a daughter, Jessica.)
"Patty was undeniably very into her son... Joey was the child Patty could not shut up about. In her chuckling, confiding, self-deprecating way, she spilled out barrel after barrel of unfiltered detail about her and Walter's difficulties with him. Most of her stories took the form of complaints, and yet nobody doubted that she adored the boy. She was like a woman bemoaning her gorgeous jerky boyfriend. As if she were proud of having her heart trampled by him: as if her openness to this trampling were the main thing, maybe the only thing, she cared to have the world know about."
Nice, right? Except what starts as a disarmingly close bond between mother and son eventually constricts into something less benevolent. What's between Patty and Joey grows too close, too intense, too emotionally intimate. Patty spends long hours in Joey's room in his early adolescence, talking to him about the world and about her feelings, which seems fine, except she also starts confiding to her son about her relationship with her husband, Joey's father. And then, inevitably, Joey does something that enrages Patty—he starts dating someone who Patty doesn't feel is worthy of Joey's attention.
"The move was a stunning act of sedition and a dagger to Patty's heart," Franzen writes. Shortly after, Joey and Patty go to the family cottage, just the two of them, and the trip quickly turns poisonous. "... the only neighbor who'd seen them there described a terrible afternoon of watching mother and son lacerate each other over and over, airing it all in plain sight. Joey mocking Patty's mannerisms and finally calling her 'stupid' to her face, at which Patty had cried out, 'Ha-ha-ha! Stupid! God, Joey! Your maturity just never ceases to amaze me!"
And then things get really ugly, to the point that Joey moves out at 17, ending his relationship with his mother for a time. The story of Joey and Patty resonates with me in several ways. I was extremely close with both my parents, early in life, and then in late adolescence our relationship grew difficult—not as difficult as what happened between Joey and Patty, but still. It was tough for my parents and I. Patty perceived Joey's behaviour as betrayal. One could perceive my problems with my parents as betrayal—in late adolescence, as well as later in life, as I was having my drug problems.
I'm semi-obsessing about all this because I'm starting to conceive of the problems I had with my parents, in late adolescence, not as peculiar to my family and our circumstances, but as an inevitable component of child-rearing. The betrayal of parents by kids seems to be something that affects many families. So what's the likelihood it will happen with my own kids, with whom I happen to be extremely close? And how does the loving parent ensure the parent-child relationship doesn't grow too close, the way it became with Patty and Joey? What I'm wondering, also, is whether my son and my daughter will do something to me that I'll regard as "a stunning act of sedition." My eldest is 4, today, and it is disturbing to think that in 13 or 14 years, I could be engaging in knock-down drag-out fights with my perfect little boy. Is betrayal inevitable? Do all kids eventually betray their parents? How horrible that must have been for my parents! And how horrible will it be for me?
I guess one way to deal with it is to be prepared for it. The strategy isn't to cut your kids off now. It's not to start inuring yourself to the pain they're going to cause you, a decade or so down the road. You have to open yourself up to the pain. That's one of the beautiful things about being a parent, I think, is the vulnerability that comes with the job. It's to recognize that pain is part of the job, and when things get really bad, when the kids are 17 or 18 or whatever and doing their best to rebel against everything you stand for, perhaps the best thing is to try to stay objective about it, to avoid taking it personally, to regard it as an integral part of a child's growth process, and the relationship gets through it only if you continue the unconditional love that you had at the beginning. That's what I'm thinking now, anyway. But things might change—maybe get back to me in a decade or so.
Christopher Shulgan is Bunchland’s guest editor for the month of October and the author of Superdad: A Memoir of Rebellion, Drugs and Fatherhood.