Don’t Talk, Don’t Trust, Don’t Feel

Gem & Dixie, Lucy Barton, and Dysfunctional Family Systems

I could not stop feeling panic, as if the Barton family, the five of us — off-kilter as we had been — was a structure over me I had not even known about until it ended. I kept thinking of my brother and my sister and the bewilderment in their faces when my father died. I kept thinking how the five of us had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenaciously around one another’s hearts

The above is from Elizabeth Strout’s My Name Is Lucy Barton, a story I almost feel the character Gem in Gem & Dixie could tell in about thirty years. I highlighted many such quotes from Strout’s book, feeling an eerie resonance with Lucy Barton’s story, as full of gaps and only glancing looks at certain details as it is. This is not a Bastard Out of Carolina or a Recapitulation, not a detailed account of dysfunction and its damage. More a feeling, an allusion, a conversation that talks around its subject, a buried body and we’re only looking at the gravestone, the flowers.

When I talk about how and why Gem & Dixie came to be, I tend to talk in somewhat scripted circles and can only touch on factors that are too broad and deep to fit nicely into a “Where’d you get your idea?” narrative. Where it may have started out as “A Simple Plan meets Thelma & Louise!” it turned into what all my books ultimately are — me playing the hand I’ve been dealt as a person and a writer in what I hope are increasingly deeper and and more interesting ways.

I come from a family of addicts and codependents, functional people and nonfunctional people, abandoned children and abandoning parents; people in various stages of recovery, and people who died before they could.

Everyone in that family tree who carries the DNA of our issues was once a child.

The addict isn’t the only person who needs help to become well again. Growing up in an Alice in Wonderland-like world where one pill makes you large and another small (at least on the inside) messes with everyone’s sense of reality and predictable life order. Nothing is the way it’s supposed to be in an alcoholic family. Normal routines are thrown out of balance. Promises are broken. Intimate relationship connections may morph from being close and warm to cold and distant and often no one even knows why. Truth becomes so laced with lies that it gets difficult to separate fact from fiction. Adults fall in and out of normal functioning which leaves children to scramble around on their own to restore order, kids in addicted households may vacillate between having no power at all, to drowning in way too much power. Their childhoods become strained and burdened.

This (emphasis mine) is from Tian Dayton’s article What About the Family? The Adult Children of Alcoholics Co-Dependent Story (an amazingly comprehensive summary of the issue, actually, by the woman who wrote one of the better books on the subject, The ACOA* Trauma Syndrome). It’s a topic I’ve dipped in and out through the years, knowing that I had a host of issue stemming from the above outlined facts. Around 2013 I took a deep dive into the matter, as the effects this all was having on my life and relationships became no longer bearable.
(*adult children of alcoholics)

That also happened to be around the time I sold this idea of “A Simple Plan meets Thelma & Louise!”, a story I knew would be about sisters, I knew would involve conflict and leaving and poverty. I did not know it would be so much about what I’ll call ACOA issues. I did not know how reading “the big red book” of ACOA and a dozen other books on codependence and addiction and emotional sobriety and trauma, for my own health and recovery, would feed this story of sisters with problems.

Or did I know? The subsconcious is always doing and planning and plotting and arranging, as it seems so often to know what we need or what we think we need, or it at that we need to be prepared to get through something, to learn something, to move forward even along some plodding, switchback route.

…children [of alcoholics] grow up with three dangerous rules: don’t trust, don’t feel, and don’t talk. Since alcoholic parents are so self-absorbed, they forget birthdays and other important events, leaving their children with the sense that they can have faith in no one. Since the parents inflict so much pain on their families, they teach their children to suppress their emotions just to survive. Indeed, alcoholic parents are prone to angry or violent outbursts that (along with the drinking itself) they end up denying, and children in such a home may buy the delusion, themselves. Since the children are inculcated to deny the reality around them, they develop a resistance to talking about urgent, important, or meaningful aspects of life. — from A Toxic Brew | Psychology Today

“Don’t trust, don’t feel, and don’t talk” could literally be Gem’s life mantra. From a craft perspective, that can be a hard kind of character to give the leading role to. One reviewer referred to the prose style in Gem & Dixie as “almost terse.” I don’t think it was a criticism as much as an observation that tells you something about who Gem is and what she allows herself, mentally and emotionally.

In some ways, it would have been easier to write from Dixie’s POV, the younger sister. She is not as afflicted with the don’ts as Gem. She suffers more from the denial of reality as described in the above, and that is her tension with Gem. Gem sees things as they are and it’s emotionally paralyzing. Dixie sees things as she wishes they were, and as their parents wish they were, and her denial is constantly running up against Gem’s clear-eyed assessment that something is terribly wrong.

In real life, I am the younger of two sisters and Dixie is more me than Gem is. But sometimes the older, quieter sister is neglected in literature (traditionally it’s the Ramonas and the Jos and the Lauras who get to star), and sometimes stories like my sister’s are neglected in real life. Here, I give the disclaimer that Gem and Dixie at most are very exaggerated versions of us, are not us, have completely different lives than we did and whose parents have completely different expressions of addiciton and codependence than ours did. But, what of the quieter, more internal older sibling, who carries the anxiety for both of you, who takes care of you before you knew you needed taking care of, who remembers more from your early years, who once was the only child, who, when she worries, worries not only for herself but for you?

Gem, of Dixie, reports: 
She used to need me to take care of her, and I liked doing it. I liked doing it because, then, I thought I was the only one who could. Even though nobody was taking care of me.

“Nobody was taking care of me” is hyperbole, the hyperbole born of a claustrophobic yet also unboundaried family. There wasn’t “nobody” taking care of Gem. She had food, clothing, and shelter. She went to school. She had contact with life, and adults keeping her alive.

There are the facts, and then there are how the facts feel, and also how the facts shape you.

More from Lucy Barton:

There are times now, and my life has changed so completely, that I think back on the early years and I find myself thinking: It was not that bad. Perhaps it was not. But there are times, too — unexpected — when walking down a sunny sidewalk, or watching the top of a tree bend in the wind, or seeing a November sky close down on the East River, I am suddenly filled with the knowledge of darkness so deep that a sound might escape from my mouth…

My own reckoning with the past has gone through many permutations. For awhile, “hard childhood” was my identity. Then I had a long stretch of “it was not that bad, other people had much worse, move along.” And then back to “hard childhood” and a bunch of therapy and then “I’m all better!” and then an escalation and escalation and escalation of symptoms until I took the aforementioned deep dive into books and groups and surrender.

And I felt that darkness, a sense of total annihilation, my self as a tiny dot in the universe that got smaller and smaller and smaller until it disappeared, and I was nobody, and nothing, and I was terrified and alone.

I still often find myself again in that place of “it was not that bad.” It’s true that there are always other people who had it worse, worse in ways you can’t even imagine. Or maybe you can, maybe it was you.

Ways that are hard for me to fathom, I should say.

“Is it bad enough?” is one of Gem’s issues, too. Dixie seems to think things are more or less okay. Why can’t Gem handle it? When she finally tells someone the full truth of what’s going on, she still wonders — what does it take to qualify as being “in danger” to the point where she can feel justified in asking for help?

How do you know, Gem wonders, when it’s bad enough?

All we know is what we know. All we survive is what we have to. Is it that bad? Is it okay? Is it just medium-bad? We don’t know. We only know what’s ours, and what it is to be us. And Gem and Dixie only know their lives and what it means to be them, in that way that only someone inside your family can.

Had I the good sense to have read My Name Is Lucy Barton before my book went to print, I might have included this as the perfect epigraph:

I know so well the pain we children clutch to our chests, how it lasts our whole lifetime, with longings so large you can’t even weep. We hold it tight, we do, with each seizure of the beating heart: This is mine, this is mine, this is mine.

Gem & Dixie is out today, in hardcover, ebook, and audio

I’ll be on tour in April — Salt Lake, Denver, Decatur, Chapel Hill, Nashville, Huston, Frisco

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Zarr sisters in Golden Gate Park, mid-1970s