Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Last night we saw Soulpepper's production of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. It's the autobiographical story of his mother's struggle with morphine addiction, but really, in its most basic moments, it's story of family and the cycle of chaos carried between generations.

MARY. [with strange, objective calm] The past is the present, isn't it? The future too.

I've been thinking a lot about family lately, which isn't unusual. Some of my fondest (and most common) memories are those with my sister, sprawled across her bed, scrutinizing the ins-and-outs of our own. We would arrogantly cast aspersions, dissecting why this and how that from the comfort of adolescence. We didn't know the half of it. We didn't realize, really, what came before our parents; we only measured their success by our own murky happiness. We didn't have all the information - it was, instead, bottled inside them, and inside many others before.

Well into our late-teens we had four remaining great grandparents. Rare, certainly, and, looking back a wasted opportunity to ask many questions so few would've wanted to answer, in all our tight-lipped, WASPy pent-upedness. From here, now, the secrets and shame and skewed realities were always on clear display, but at the time our grandparents were just sweet-smelling old people towards whom we felt a disembodied affinity. Herd allegiance. 

In the years since we've become adults, we've gathered more information. Bizarre tales of child rape and abuse, but also run-of-the-mill things. We've come to understand how alliances formed and how grudges held on. Why heavy, self-protective veils have been drawn. How moments of deep sadness were left to fallow. We've seen how a cycle of shame and addiction can trickle through. More than 100 years worth of it.

It's only in recent weeks, since my 80-year old grandparents filed a separation agreement to dissolve their 60 year marriage, that I've been closely considering the cloud of chaos that existed around me as a child. And around my parents, both during their own confused formative years, and into their adult lives. And before that. And, so on.  And, while O'Neill writes in Long Day's Journey, "None of us can help what life has done to us," we can control what we do going forward.

I've been less than present during this particular shitstorm. I haven't visited, or so much as picked up the phone, really. I get updates from my sister, who (having stayed near home to live and raise her family) bears the brunt. My parents are also good referees, though I wonder how often they'd all like to escape.

The biological connection we feel to family is strong and, if allowed, overpowering. We're drawn, animals that we are, to the herd. Add to this the emotional gravity of these bonds and we run the risk of falling down the rabbit hole every single time. Danger. Flock and protect. Sacrifice yourself to keep the weakest among the group safe.

I'm not sure if it's latent anger, my own ill-begotten ability to compartmentalize, or simple self-preservation, but I'm certain that I don't know how to participate in any of this right now. I've been too comfortable, my entire life, in an everlasting storm of conflict and resolution. And those are dangerously easy emotions to access. The spikes of fervorous passion followed by great and comforting swells of conciliation. We become addicted. And, for me, it's time to recalibrate. To be clear: This is not an act of anger or a statement of blame. Only an experiment in quieting the patterns forged deep in my brain.

And so I will wait until the biological desire to rush home dissipates and the other kind sets-in. The kind that involves thoughtful choice and the ability to approach unfettered by 100 years of chaos. I have, in the meantime, myself and my own family to take care of. I must ensure the past doesn't become our future, too.

(Joe Ziegler, in rehearsal. Photo by me for Soulpepper.)

Do yourself a favour and take in this masterclass in acting on-stage now at the Young Centre. Nancy Palk as Mary, real-life husband Joseph Ziegler as  James. Their boys played by the excellent Evan Buluing and Gregory Prest. Tickets available here.
I Like My Baby (March 3, 2008)
White Culture (April 11, 2008)
The Best is Ready to Begin (August 4, 2008)
On Siblings (August 20, 2010)
Anxiously Awaiting (November 5, 2010)


  1. a lot to learn from this.

    and, man can you write. but that I knew already.

  2. I enjoyed reading the parallels with my own life; it reinforces the notion that we are, as a human race, more alike than we are different. Well into our forties with the death of our father newly behind us, my brother and I would be lost without each other.

  3. Thanks for sharing this. Strikes a chord...

  4. Beautiful writing and beautiful photographs - nice combination!

  5. Reading this stirred up a lot of emotion. Going through a "shitstorm" of my own, complete with family feuds, mistresses, divorce, and dark secrets from the past, I just want to pretend that it doesn't involve me directly. But whether it's the "herd mentality" or latent guilt, I still feel its effects every single day.

    Will be sure to watch Long Days' Journey Into Night.

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. I packed by bags for an extended guilt trip years ago. Still trying to get off the bus.
    Well done, Jason.

  7. your write incredibly well. i have regret for not sitting and asking questions before it was too late but i also
    very early on knew that i had to move far away not to get trapped in the fish net that had trapped so many members of my family. i am comfortable with the distance for it allows me to not enter a situation when the dust is still flying around but instead i wait till is settles.

    again beautiful writing

  8. Just found your blog and love it. However, this particular subject struck a cord. Thank you for the
    insights into family history. It was a good reminder, for me, that emotional and geographical distance can give a vital perspective. My hope is that all of your famiy is healing.