can we heal what family means?

Katie Ward Knutson, Metro II

Good morning on this quiet and sunny Tuesday morning. How is your heart speaking to you in this moment? Are there words or stories that your fingers are ready to unfurl onto the page? Did your dreams bring offerings that you’d like to be able to remember? I’m slowly, reluctantly, moving through my stretches, and feeling the resistance build in my shoulders. I don’t want to have to stretch before I write, and yet that’s the body I inhabit right now. What happens when we let ourselves be exactly as we are? What energy gets released when we stop trying to pretend like we’re already someone or somewhere else?

Today I am full of questions and mourning and loss. Today I am wondering about family, how we learn to exclude ourselves from it, and how we unlearn the lessons about family that came to us when we were children: that family is not safe, is a site of abandonment and/or control, and is better shunned at all costs. Today I don’t know how to participate in family, and am feeling that place of separation and longing.

A few days ago, I learned that a seventeen-year old boy I loved, my ex-wife’s eldest nephew, died at the end of the year. I hadn’t seen him for eight or so years, since she and I broke up. My memories of him are all of a brilliant, beautiful, quiet, curious, creative, imaginative young boy — I don’t have any stories about the young man he became. I want to tell you stories about who he used to be, how we knew each other, but they don’t feel like my stories to tell — I am not of that family anymore. I forfeited those stories when I walked away from a family that had let me in and allowed me to stay, and now I am not a part of the family that is communally mourning this boy, this young man, this nephew.

I don’t have good words right now. I have loss in my body, guilt and shame and mostly sorrow and bafflement. I have the places that used to hold him, and I question all of my choices. This is not material for a blog post, the death of a child. Who am I to believe I get to write about this relationship that I abandoned? How many ways can we fail a child? How do we write those stories?

I left that relationship with my exwife because I was looking for something new, and did not know how to seek and hold on at the same time, how to radically change and still be accepted and acceptable. These were the lessons about family that lived in my body: family is a place of confinement in which children are harmed; family is a site of control and indoctrination; family will force you to be like them, or behave in ways they approve of and understand, or else they will shun you; family will not save you. From many of my queer friends I learned that family turned its back on what made it uncomfortable or worried or angry. In my twenties, I had no allegiance to family — as family (I believe) had had no allegiance to me or to my sister. Family had left us to rot in the hands of a monster; what could we possibly owe to family after that? What could family give to us?

We talk about being a nation with family values — but there are millions of damaged children who would beg to differ with that self-satisfied language.

I learned to walk around the edges of community, not how to immerse myself in its arms and hearts and complicated love. I believed I was better off outside the grip of family — no one to tell me what to do, no one to whom I was beholden. And so what about this aching in me, this longing to belong, this desire for someone to reach out and claim what I came to believe was unclaimable? The truth was that I believed I was not worthy of claiming, that I did not deserve to be a part of the group — at the behest of my stepfather, the man who abused us, I had acted in unconscionable ways. I believed that if anyone knew the truth, I would no longer be welcome in any community or family. Better not to get too comfortable anywhere; better to turn myself away first — or turn away from myself first.

This is the long legacy of trauma — how such violation and abandonment hacks away at the parts of us that do intimacy, and how long it can take to heal those tendons and muscles. We are tribal animals — yes, we deserve privacy, security, solitude, space. And, too, many of us long for community, for those places where we are welcome in all of our messiness, for what is difficult about us as much as for what is beautiful and generous; we long for places where others embrace us for our humanness rather than in spite of it. In these spaces, in these positive places of family and tribe, we might learn ourselves how to embrace our own humanness — not because these groups of people are ideal or perfect, but because they’re not.

I tell you all this to explain myself. I want you to understand why I left those kids. I want him to understand, even though he can’t read this now. I can rant all I want about families that leave and abandon, and yet I turned right around and did the same thing. I can tell you about trauma rehearsal, I can find good reasons, I can find words that would make permissible sense of my walking away from children I loved, that would excuse my betrayal. This was a choice I walk with now.

I have no answers this morning. Just a missing. Just a wanting for things to be different now. Just deep breath and the quiet sun and wishing to hear his voice again. Just wanting to release the part that continues to believe it is unwelcome in human community, that trauma aftermath that wants me to live isolated and alone and thereby prove my abuser right: that I am unworthy of loving.

Can we heal the parts of ourselves that long for acceptance and family? What does family invoke for you, for your writing? Bring that to the page today, if you wish, for ten minutes or twenty — start with “Family is” and follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go. If you find yourself stuck, you can begin again with “family is” or move to “Family isn’t” — see what comes.

Keep writing and breathing. I miss you and I’m sorry. Thank you for your words.


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