Thanksgiving: A time to celebrate family dysfunction? | Community Spirit
By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY
Getting together for Thanksgiving may bring to mind turkey, football and of course, giving thanks.
But Thanksgiving in the USA also seems to have become a time to celebrate (and vent about) our dysfunctional families.
The collection of characters around the Thanksgiving table has become fodder for jokes, movie plots and exaggerated television stereotypes of the American family gone awry. And rather than being perceived as troubled or in need of intervention, dysfunctional families and their interactions, however strained, are increasingly viewed as normal -- and even create a common bond, experts say.
"There's a little bit of dysfunction pretty much in every family," says Daniela White, a psychiatrist in Houston. "But because family members show empathy or sensitivity or they have good boundaries or they handle conflict in an appropriate way, those little dysfunctions don't come to the forefront." In families where they do, she says, "almost universally in those dysfunctional families, you see a lack of empathy or inadequate boundaries or inappropriate behavior toward each other."
Clinical psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo of Chicago says family dysfunction "tends to be based on something that happened in the past that we're still reliving in the present."
"It may be related to a specific incident, but usually it's more a way of coping. It's how they interact. One plus one usually equals more than two in terms of dysfunction," she says.
But family is what it's all about at Thanksgiving. According to a Pew Research Center survey in 2010, 89% of those surveyed planned to have a Thanksgiving meal with family.The typical host planned to set places for a dozen relatives; 62% said 10 or more would be present for the holiday meal.
White says unresolved conflicts often resurface when we're in close proximity with family members, such as at holiday gatherings. And we might say or do something we later regret.
"They have choices to tolerate or not tolerate those types of behaviors," she says.
Many family member today are more psychologically self-aware than in the past -- and they recognize that real families can't live up to TV's 1950s perfect-family fantasies. We also love to analyze our own families.
"We're kind of sarcastic dysfunctional," says Tara May, 36, a retail manager in Houston. "We understand we have our issues and we deal with it a lot through humor and sarcastically... which is a little passive-aggressive."
But May says, "to me, my family is normal."
"You have parents and step-parents and step-siblings and everybody just kind of comes together and acts like one big family," she says. "There's still some chaos and funny stuff, but in the end, everybody can tolerate each other."
As individualism has become more important, families increasingly accept their differences, says Robert Thompson, who directs the Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture at Syracuse University.
"Celebrating the dysfunctionality of the American family normalizes this," he says. "Face it: family love can be a very contentious thing. It can be argumentative. If we didn't love these people, we wouldn't care what they were saying."
TV is rife with dysfunctional families, from Showtime's Shameless Gallaghers in Chicago toArrested Development's Bluth family in Newport Beach, Calif.
But Renana Brooks, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., cautions that seeing such families on the screen can also be troublesome.
"It trivializes it for people in a lot of pain and it overstates it for people that are not," she says. "Every interaction you have is criticized in your own head because it doesn't match the ideal we're supposed to have -- the perfect amount of similarity and difference so the family functions smoothly. You've got this model that's beating you up."
Monica Ancira, 37, of Clovis, N.M., is a certified nurse assistant and a divorced mother of three. She says seeing dysfunctional families in the media leaves her "upset sometimes."
"I do identify with it. It brings back a lot of pain," she says. "People need to take it more seriously."
In decades past, if families weren't perfect, they kept it to themselves. Not so today.
"The way society has evolved -- we're more transparent now, and with the expression of feelings and the way we've encouraged that -- that's why we're more aware of it," White says.
"This is just part of our culture. It's like complaining about your mother-in-law. It's a way to bond with other people -- misery loves company," Lombardo says. "It can make us feel a little better: 'It's the family that's dysfunctional, but it isn't me.' "
Among movies that have seized on Thanksgiving as a setting for dysfunctional family themes are Woody Allen's 1986 Hannah and her Sisters, Avalon (1990),about an immigrant family in Baltimore, and The Ice Storm (1997). Pieces of April (2003), starring Katie Holmes, also takes place on Thanksgiving, as a family tries to create new memories and make peace with the past.
Its writer and director, Peter Hedges of Brooklyn, N.Y., says Thanksgiving is his favorite holiday.
"It's a perfect holiday about gratitude and being with people you love -- and sometimes the people you love are those you don't like all that much, and that's when it gets interesting," he says.
But the Thanksgiving film most often cited by pop culture experts as the dysfunctional family classic is Home for the Holidays (1995), directed by Jodie Foster.
Starring Holly Hunter, the movie was based on a short story of the same name by Chris Radant of Martha's Vineyard, Mass. The idea came from her real-life recollections, which she says stemmed from jotting down "secret notes under the Thanksgiving table."
"I thought of it as a dysfunctional family, but on reflection, I think these families are very functional. They're dealing with people who are very unalike – who have distinct personalities and ideas from different decades and like different music and think in a different way," she says. "Sometimes they look like you, but you can't figure out why they aren't any closer to you than they are."
"It's difficult, but it functions," Radant says. "It may not even be fun, but you can walk away with the resolve that at least they're mine. I like that part, because I want to be theirs."