It Runs in the Family

Chuck Palahniuk

Family Resemblance
Jan 18 · 4 min read

Some behavior takes over a family narrative, marking future generations with an inescapable legacy. This is especially true of violence and its destructive long-term effects.

Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk has made a career out of writing stories about the brutality that spills out of toxic masculinity and other sources of barely contained anger. These stories began with his paternal grandfather, who murdered his grandmother and then took his own life after an argument over the cost of a sewing machine she’d purchased. He might have killed Chuck’s then four-year-old father Fred Palahniuk too, had he found him hiding under the bed. One of Fred’s earliest memories was of his father’s boots and rifle moving throughout the house, as his father searched for someone else to kill. The next thing he remembers is pouring sawdust on the bodies to stop insects from crawling on them.

According to Chuck, his grandfather had been hit in the head with a crane boom. Some people in the family believed the accident turned him into a “violent, crazy person.” But others contradicted that claim, saying he had already been like that before the accident. “It depends who you believe,” he said. And which narrative sounds better.

Years later, Fred was pursued — and this time, found and killed — by another angry person with a gun whose main target was someone else. In the spring of 1999, he met a lawyer named Donna Fontaine through a personal ad, and they began dating. Around the same time, her ex-husband Dale Shackelford said he would kill her (which, according to Fontaine’s children, was not a new threat) if she proceeded with rape charges she had filed against him in 1998. Chuck has said that he thinks Donna was looking for someone to protect her when she placed the ad.

Sometime after Fred and Donna returned from a date on May 29,1999, Shackelford shot and killed both of them, and set fire to a garage where their bodies were later found. Just a few months later, Fight Club, the movie based on Chuck’s book — a book his dad had loved, a book about relieving the tensions of everyday life (and all the societal pressures that come with it) through underground fighting — debuted at the box office, making him a household name.

In the spring of 2001, Shackelford was found guilty and sentenced to death by the judge in the case. (Years later, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that juries, not judges, must decide on death sentences, ended up commuting the death sentence to two life terms.) After some deliberation, Chuck recommended the death penalty with the requirement that he be present for it, saying, “We rely way too much on other people committing those acts for us in our lives.” Chuck began writing Lullaby when he was writing his victim’s rights statement. His book centered around a lullaby that when read killed whoever listened to it, allowing another entity to commit murder for both those who accidentally came upon it and those who wished to kill without getting their hands dirty (perhaps referencing Chuck’s ambivalent feelings about recommending the death penalty).

Between the two murders that shaped his and his father’s lives, Chuck created his own relationship with violence. He used to like getting into fights “after a few drinks.” In this Independent article, he spoke about the afterglow of those fights and the way it created community and quieted his body and mind.

“Every time I’d feel so good afterwards — being physically and emotionally exhausted, and being able to sleep so well,” he said.

He also talked about “the bond it created” with the people he fought with. He saw consensual fighting as a way to let off steam and prevent more explosive and less controlled forms of violence. Perhaps writing about violence is another way for him to control it, tame it.

In addition to Fight Club and Lullaby, he’s written books about a man who pretends to choke on food in order to collect money to pay his mother’s nursing home bills (Choke), a woman dealing with the mess her comatose husband left behind (Diary), the afterlife adventures of a dead girl (Damned and Doomed), and quite a few other dark stories. In 2019, he came out with Adjustment Day, an especially familiar-sounding tale that follows a revolution led by weary young men who are tired of the oppressive elite, and their new United States, which gets divided into Blacktopia, Gaysia, and Caucasia.

Chuck doesn’t keep his legacy of violence in the family, he shares it with his readers. Both the real and imagined chaos in his life and books reflects the society at large, and our history in general. He reminds us that the violence that erupts from power struggles, nations built and destroyed, and anger, always anger, is always around us, and we all learn to deal with it in our own way. It’s how we come together to deal with it that says a lot about who we are as individuals and as a society.

Does your family have any dark history? Did the history get passed down throughout the years, or did you only learn about it by asking questions and/or doing research?


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The Bigger Picture

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Thanks to Ryan Hussey

Family Resemblance

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Writer/storyteller. Subscribe (https://tinyurl.com/vrxbwa7) to my email newsletter about the similarities that run in famous and not-so-famous families.

The Bigger Picture

Oddly specific. Universally applicable. Submit your writing to biggerpicturemedium@gmail.com.

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