A kind of Rorschach test: What does your family stand for?

Circa 1935: Dennis Sullivan’s family visited Coney Island and had this portrait taken. His mother is the woman in white, third from the right in the second row, and her mother is in white all the way to the right. Four of the author’s aunts and one uncle are in the photo as well as lifelong family friends.

The presidential candidates are out on the trail again and the topic of “family values” is back on the agenda, if only slightly. I like that. I like talk about the family.

When I’m in conversation with folks at a coffeehouse or casual-dinner setting and the topic of family comes up, I invariably ask the person who’s sallying forth about it: What does your family stand for? And invariably I get: What in the world does that mean?

And I say, well: Do you come from a creative family or maybe a family that likes to laugh and, when it does, the pain of life is relieved somewhat? Does your sense of humor provide perspective when times get rough?

“What does your family stand for?” is a kind of Rorschach test. Someone connects with one of the inkblots and says: Oh, look, that’s me, there’s my family, we’re into power; we love money; we thrive on prestige, privilege, and things elite. Our Sermon on the Mount is: Do unto others before they do unto you and then cut out.

There are people who say their family has believed (and practiced) for generations giving an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. They say they’re “into” justice, standing up for policies that meet the needs of everyone.

Asked to give an example they say: Well, every person on Earth has a right to full health care from the day they’re born till the day they die, no exceptions. And when you ask why they say: Because Health and Healing are inalienable rights.

I’ve talked to people who come from laissez-faire families who care about nothing and it makes no difference; they say they want to keep stress down.

With respect to “What does your family stand for?” it should be pointed out that this is not a niche or boutique question designed for a certain few. It pertains to everyone, and anyone interested in bettering personal development and mental health must answer it, and do so through serious self-reflection. Become an Ancestry.com for the genealogy of morals.

Secondly, the question in question is not academic because the family — and that includes everybody who has a say in it — wills you something.  And you’re willed not just proteinic DNA but social DNA as well. In some cases, it means the row assigned you is easier to hoe; in others, it entails seeing a therapist for 30 years to peel off layers of familial gunk.

Thus, answering “What do I stand for?” has to do with finding out what you were “willed” and how your legacy affects your standing in the world. It’s a sad game because it involves our forebears saying: Here’s a little keepsake, I hope it works out for you — we are never consulted.

Some people get left holding the bag. They’re willed racism, hating black people and Jews and demeaning women, Muslims, and people whose sexual being requires complex solutions for well being.

If a family’s traits are based in aggression — perhaps from a fear of scarcity — those traits can erupt when the family comes together. Every year, hordes of articles are written during the winter holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, et al.) advising people how to emerge from family encounters with their hide in tact. 

The great Irish lyrical poet, Michael Hartnett (1941-1999) has a poem called “That Actor Kiss,” which speaks to his relationship with his father especially during the father’s last days.

His father is in a hospital or nursing home and Michael, as he’s looking at his father in bed, leans over and kisses him; later over a drink he realizes that was the last kiss he ever gave the man, and also the first.

He says the shame is that that “kiss fell down a shaft too deep/to send back echoes that I would have prized.” And what did the father leave him?

(he willed to me his bitterness and thirst,

his cold ability to close a door).

Hartnett says he was given an acerbic tongue based in loss, a fondness for the drink, and a revenge that gets even with people by shunning them.

I teach, maybe “facilitate” is a better word, a course at the Voorheesville Public Library called “Writing Personal History for Family, Friends, and Posterity.” People in the group write stories about what they were willed, where it’s gotten them, and how they feel about the deal. It’s self-analysis and writing your own obituary rolled into one.

One inventive member of the group, Jim Corsaro, says in a story “Family Closets” that his garrulous Italian-American family in Niagara Falls were forever gabbing, talking about everything under the sun.

But he said he never heard a word about his brother being gay, which everyone had to acknowledge when he died of AIDS in a far-off land. Jim said he got the job of telling his mother about the death and the way his brother died. Much to his surprise his mother said she always thought her son was gay.

But what kept the family from acknowledging a sexuality that was different from theirs (presumably) and required a dose of empathy?

In conjunction with the publication of his memoir, “But Enough About Me,” the actor and movie star Burt Reynolds said growing up he always said his father was his hero but when Burt came to be an actor the father kept saying acting was for sissies. Plus he would not acknowledge his son was a going concern and, no matter how big Burt got, he refused to see him as a “man.”

As in the case of the Corsaros, Burt’s father could not stretch to meet the unique needs of a kin. Their scales of justice were skewed, unbalanced, exclusionary, discriminatory, callous — and toward a son, a brother, someone they once loved as a child.

Someone told me recently that if he starting talking about “What does my family stand for?” he’d wind up writing a book. And I said: Well, what’s holding you back?