I never thought that I would come upon a novel that would describe so accurately some of the feelings that I had as a child and teenager about my father’s quarrelsome siblings (three sisters and one brother). Confusion is certainly one word that described my feelings about them as a young child. Fear and anxiety were other feelings. There was a lot of drama in the lives of my aunts and uncle, and that drama extended to and included us when we were together with them. Being around them was nerve-wracking, because you never knew what dramatic spectacle would unfold when you were together with them. My father was the peacemaker in his Italian family; it was a thankless role, and one I am not sure he really wanted, but one that he felt he should take on given all the problems between the siblings. He was a good and kind man, stable and dependable, not prone to unpredictable outbursts of temper or emotion. His siblings were the opposite. Their behavior led to arguments in funeral parlors, crying jags in others’ homes, angry phone calls and snippy letters, returned gifts, perceived slights, arrogant behavior, inferiority complexes, and a whole host of other strange occurrences. Children were not excluded from their punishing behavior. If they were upset with my parents, they punished us as well, e.g. by not remembering our birthdays. Only one aunt tried not to be like the others, but the others ran roughshod over her because she was a passive soul for most of her life. I can remember Sunday family dinners that ended in conflict because my mother felt that it was time for my aunts and uncle to go home since it was a school day for us the next day, whereas they felt that it was their right to sit in our living room until they decided it was time to go home. It made for uncomfortable occasions, which caused problems between my mother and father; my mother felt that my father took their side, while they felt that he cow-towed to his wife too much. Then there were the letters detailing the perceived slights and insults they felt when they visited us (again my mother’s fault although my father came in for his share of criticism as well). Or the angry phone calls where my uncle would berate my mother to my father, who again was put in the position of defending his wife against his birth family, a position he hated. He wanted so much for both sides to be friends, something I knew would never happen. Even as a child, I knew this with absolute certainty. I’m sure my mother knew it too. The differences between them were too great. I remember being fascinated by adult behavior as practiced by my father’s siblings; it was unpredictable, unstable, dramatic, emotional, anxiety-inducing, fear-inducing, and ultimately childish. I may have been a bit scared (and scarred) by it as well. My father’s siblings were not really adults, but rather children whose emotional needs had been stifled (due to circumstances beyond their control that had to do with my grandfather’s financial losses during the Depression) and which led to their becoming immature adults. That’s the way I look at them now, and that has helped me to forgive their behavior. But when I was a child, I felt torn. I was intensely loyal to my father and mother, but I wanted to have good relationships with my aunts and uncle. It was not to be. I remember feeling suffocated at times by the idea of extended family. It seemed to me that family, as my father’s siblings defined it, meant that everyone had the right to have an opinion about what everyone else in the family did. They did not understand boundaries, nor did they understand that marriage meant that you put your spouse first, ahead of them. It was expected that you would listen to them and abide by their comments and advice; if you didn’t, you were subject to their tongue-lashings and scorn, as well as their anger about being ignored or slighted. I never really knew how to deal with my aunts and uncle when they lived, and when they died, it was hard for me to feel any emotion at all. My father was sadly the first of his siblings to pass; I often think that the stress of dealing with his siblings played a large role in making him ill. I felt mostly relief when each of my father’s siblings passed. I was free, we were free, and my mother was free. Free from behavior that threatened to suffocate and to annihilate one’s idea of oneself. Because the concept of wanting a life for oneself was forbidden in my father’s family. It was not allowed that one could want that, or want to prioritize one’s spouse and children. One had to exist for one’s birth family, and make choices that always included them, no matter what. One had to put birth family first ahead of spouse and children. Looking back, I see how strange it really was. But it was my only point of reference, my only definition of adult behavior that I had, and I see now in retrospect that it was warped.
Elena Ferrante’s book Troubling Love describes an Italian family quite different than that of my father’s family. Delia, the main character, has complicated feelings about her relationship with her mother, Amalia, who separated from her physically-abusive husband when Delia was a young woman. When Amalia is found dead (drowned in the sea) and Delia goes to her funeral, it unleashes a torrent of thoughts and feelings that we are privy to as readers. The story involves other characters and sub-plots that help us to understand (without accepting or forgiving) Amalia’s husband’s jealousy and rage. But Ferrante is unflinching in her description of abusive men, for whom she has no use. She depicts them in all their garishness, naked rage, and lust. It is not a pretty picture. Ferrante is so good at describing exactly what it is that Delia feels, but at the same time, we end up wandering with Delia through her tangled nightmares as she relives the traumas and memories of her childhood and youth. There were events that happened in her childhood that should not have happened, and behavior that she and her sisters should have been shielded from. But they were not. It is the feelings Ferrante evokes via her writing that struck a nerve in me. She can describe those feelings of suffocation, of cloyingness, of bewilderment, of duty, of need, in a way that I intuitively recognize and remember.
As I grew older, I made myself a promise that my life would be so different from the lives of my aunts and uncle, and it is, but only after much reflection and risk-taking. When family life is not about love and loving others, but rather about hatred, conflict and jealousy of others, it is no small task to try to undo that or to surpass it. Troubling Love is not a book for everyone’s tastes; many people will find it disturbing and uncomfortable. It is both those things. But if you have experienced the claustrophobia of one type of family life, you will be drawn into her story, and it is well-worth the read. I don’t know if I could have appreciated Ferrante’s book had I read it in my twenties; it is the only book written by her that I have read so far, but I do think that I could manage to read more of her writing. A lot of years have passed and I have the distance necessary for me to read such stories. One can ask, why do you want to? My answer is that it is a way of facing those early fears and bewilderment and finding out that one has overcome and perhaps understood them. Literature serves many purposes; for me, it is not solely about entertainment, but rather about finding answers on this life journey. It has always been about that for me.