Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy began Anna Karenina, a book I should cop to never having read, with the words, “Happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
My own family’s particular unhappiness was, on its surface at least, so unusual that it defied belief, and I tended over the years to keep it to myself. Long story short, when I was ten years old my parents separated, and within a year they both came out of the closet. I’d suffered my first unrequited crush, on a grown man, the year before, and my one brother would eventually turn out to be the only straight one among us, a sort of photo-negative reversal of the usual situation gay kids find themselves in, growing up feeling freakish and alien in a family of heterosexuals.
Given just these bare set of facts, the reaction over the years from friends and strangers has always been illuminating. Certain gay guys would get a starry-eyed look as they imagined this alternate-universe childhood, as if I’d been raised by some fabulously surreal pairing – Cher and Elton John, maybe. Ellen and Liberace. More than one guy asked if I ever cruised the bars with my Dad.
The gap between these fantasies and the reality kept me reticent. I mean really, look at those plaid pants.
But maybe I should revise my statement. My own family’s particular unhappiness wasn’t about homosexuality. It was about how two adults tried, with varying degrees of grace, to exit a family created more from convention, from social pressures, than from love or lust. To exit a family that didn’t fit, with two sons still in tow.
There was a lot of unhappiness, more than I cared to dwell on, and throughout my teens and 20′s I did what a lot of gay boys do, I too exited my family, the best I could, just like my brother had tried, unable even as a young writer to think of my family as particularly fertile material, and it wasn’t until my mom died, when I was thirty years old, that I turned around and looked back. And began working on this book.
But if my family has remained, if not completely unique, then at least fairly unusual on its surface, the consequences of our particular kind of unhappiness are common to every family. The pull between social obligation and authenticity. The need for attention. The pain of abandonment. Favored sons, scape goats, and black sheep. The baffling power of parents to reduce grown men to little children again within ten minutes at Thanksgiving dinner.
Unhappy families are so common now as to appear the norm. Friends with happy childhoods speak of their families with a tone of quiet apology, as if they’d been graced with unfair luck.
It took a while, but after my parents’ exit they each created a new family, with same-sex partners and stepkids, each with its own particular laws of physics – each with days both happy and not.
Tolstoy’s opening sentence is quoted often, no doubt because it feels, to many people, true. Maybe your family was happy like other happy families, or unhappy in its own way. Maybe your family, those lovely, frustrating, adoring, infuriating people, fell outside the lines of convention. How did they form you?
Before the internal editor and the censor and the sentimentalist kick in, what do you think of, when you think of your family?