I come from a family of magicians. We create illusions–not of rabbits or birds appearing out of nowhere–but of who we are. You might say I come from a family of players–and it’s true, three of us have been involved in the theatre–but our greatest illusion requires layers of deception; and we are masters of this.
Take, for example, 1985. The four oldest siblings (of six) were all 19 or older–I was the eldest at 25, my brother 24, my sister, 21, my youngest brother 19. I had come home to live after college–for just a year–because I was convinced my two youngest sisters (15 and 9) needed me. I thought they needed me to love them, to make them feel that they were good enough as they were; and, speaking of delusions, I thought this was my job, my responsibility, a spiritual obligation.
I lived with my sister the Waif (21). I remember going out to bars, down into Philadelphia, with my siblings and our friends, and how they admired us. They thought of us as close, as friends as well as siblings, as fun, as cool. My sister the Waif (also the Party Girl) was particularly good at this spin–she was the club any cool person wanted to join. But there was more–the way we inclined our heads toward each other, the way we danced together, the way we (my sister and I) tried to get our brother (24) to drink and loosen up. The unspoken bond, the complete wordless understanding. These things existed–we felt each other’s feelings, we were bonded, a unit; and, masters of illusion and spin, we could make it look cool.
I wanted it to be cool. I wanted to fit in. I wanted it to be true, that family, our family, could have some kind of love and comfort to it.
Of course, born into this family, I own the legacy of spin. And to spin convincingly, the first person you must convince is yourself. I knew my family wasn’t what I wanted, but I convinced myself if I loved them enough and worked hard enough, I could turn them into what we seemed to be. At the same time, I couldn’t get far enough away. So while I’m living 5 minutes from my youngest sister, living with the Waif, with my brother the Lost Boy (19) about to move in at any minute, I’m also saving every penny I earn to move to Japan.
The fantasy family–that knows our secrets without having to be told, that cares, that loves, that accepts…the siblings who we can talk to about the things no one else quite gets, the hope that the alcoholic father will get sober, the narcissistic mother will turn her gaze toward us…the dream dies hard. It is the dream we can’t give up, and at the same time as we spin illusions for the outside world, we spin delusions, promises we know each other will break.
In early 1985, our friends from the various restaurants at which we worked and three of the four eldest decided to go down into Philly. I wanted to go to the Rodin museum of art; my sister wanted to take me and my brother to South Street to get some gargantuan margaritas. It was a moment of crashing reality for me.
We drove to the city, and arrived at the museum. As our restaurant friends toured the small museum–a walk around and out, maybe 5 minutes, maybe 10–and my brother and sister did the same, going outside to smoke cigarettes and maybe pot, I stood in front of the Cathedral (one of Rodin’s sculptures of hands), disappointment seeping through me. But I also rose on the wonder of those hands, of intimacy as holy; I understood, with my body, the truth of a single moment of touch, the meaning it could hold. An atheist, I sought meaning in art; I always found it in Rodin.
I was the last person to leave the museum. One of our friends, my soon-to-be girlfriend, waited for me at the door, her eyes shining. An older guy, who my sister thought to set me up with, joined us. He looked at me.
“You see something in this none of the rest of us can see, don’t you?” He said.
I nodded as he named my loneliness. Because my fantasy brothers and sisters would have seen it, too, that holiness, that presence in touch, that desire for meeting. I didn’t know why they didn’t. I didn’t know why I did. What made me different? Seriously. I had gone to live in Europe, to swim in those waters, to dream of joining the legacy of artists who had come before me–literature, poetry, sculpture, architecture, history, painting. I craved those things like water or air. Why didn’t they?
We rejoined the group. At a Mexican restaurant on South Street, my brother the Lost Boy sat next to me and snuck sips of my margarita. We’ve always looked alike–I imagine the sweetness of the picture we made, our dark heads inclined toward each other, our voices low as we talked mostly to each other. The happiness that fell over us, the bond, the love, the deep attachment. And for a moment, Rodin and the siren’s song that would define my life vanished.
In the world of psychotherapy, the word enmeshment occurs again and again. My Lost Boy brother had been betrayed and abandoned by both parents; in my memory incidents stand in stark relief of my attempts to protect and comfort him. I have always said that we were the two gifted children in a family of extremely intelligent people–that felt like part of the bond…this sensitivity, this quickness of understanding. When it came to each other, though, the special place we occupied was defined by the darkness that surrounded it. We had no need to explain to each other the pain we carried; it was, after all, the same pain. Both scapegoats, both rejected, both sensitive, both too smart…we were joined in what Patrick Carnes calls a trauma bond.
No need for a family of magicians if the truth can be uncovered without shame.
I have found myself pulled back, however briefly, into the family spell, into the unmet longing for closeness, and I find that I am not the only lonely family member–in some way we are all lonely. In some way we all feel solitary–the only one that gets it, the only one that…fill in the blank. Nor am I the only possessor of truth…or even the one free of denial. As I spoke, over the last few weeks, with one of the other magicians, I found my own denial chiseled free so that I had to see more. And why is more always worse than you thought?
I know, I know, that while family darkness is ubiquitous, so is real love, however conditional.
But I write this in awe of the fantasy family, and respect for its power. I thought I had let go of my fantasy family, that I had grieved, but it seems I have only let go of the fantasy parents, and my siblings remain, in my heart, with that unspoken bond…that I thought was the Cathedral. Only it turns out it’s not.
Yesterday my partner and I had a conversation in the car about how small boned she is, and what is achievable of her desired body and we held out our hands to measure and laughed, as we always do, at my large hand and her small. But that is my Cathedral–those two hands. Love, and the work of living in love, trying to be better for the person I love, being messy and imperfect with her, laughing and teasing her for her quirkiness, and the sudden sacred moments when she is all I see or need to see.
Shared pain isn’t a Cathedral. That’s what the fantasy family is built on–shared pain and the denial of that pain.
I have often wanted to skip the stages of healing to get to “all done.” I don’t get to, and with my partner, now, in mid-life, I’m so glad about that. We had a fight yesterday, and I don’t get to pretend it’s all okay today. I get to turn to her, and open, and know her better. I get to build another Cathedral and another, and another.
I wish I could do this in the family from which I come, but the truth is that I don’t know how, and I never have. In all these years, I’ve learned to prefer cathedral-building to the spinning of illusions. Maybe, looking at the statue in the Rodin Museum of Art in 1985, all I saw was that possibility, all I felt was its call, and in the end, that mattered more to me than anything else.
I would like to spend the rest of my life building Cathedrals. And I think I can. I really do.