Parental Dysfunction Resolved Through Literature

Peter Orner’s latest masterwork presents an uncrossable paternal schism―to cross it we’ll have to open a few more books

Dialogue & Discourse
9 min readDec 15, 2022


Header for Article — Cover of Still No Word From You over a forest train tracks — Cover courtesy of Catapult Books, forest train tracks courtesy of Adobe Express

Part 1 in a 2-part series inspired by Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin.

Peter Orner has been known for writing highly readable, accessible short (and often bite-sized) tales that among other things, deliver an emotional wallop.

Unlike his contemporaries Dan Chaon or Elizabeth Strout, whose emotion-infused writing leaves you devastated with no way of getting back up, Orner offers a hand to the reader―his friend on this journey through raw sentiment.

At the very least, his more intense pieces are brief, and if you can resist throwing your book across the room―it’s nearly impossible to resist jumping into the next tale.

And his latest collection brings everything up yet another notch

Cover of Peter Orner’s Still No Word From You — photo courtesy of Catapult Books
Still No Word From You — Notes in the Margin

Still No Word from You: Notes in the Margin is a collection of 107 (!) autobiographical tales, often set against the book that he had been reading at the time.

It’s impactful, and as good as or even better than anything he has written before―

But for the purposes of this article―let’s explore one aspect of it:

A paternal schism.

Orner writes deftly about the relationship (or non-relationship) with his own biological father, and his reaction (or non-reaction) to paternal episodes that defy explanation.

And generalizing that theme out, we could call it:

Unexplainable parental dysfunction.

The theme of the unexplainable parent can, unfortunately, resonate with some readers

One of the reasons why Still No Word From You resonates so well is that this world is filled with individuals who act in ways that defy explanation.

And there are parents that defy explanation, and the unextractable nature of your relationship with them takes the difficulty up another notch.

We’re not talking about the flawed-but-salvageable parental relationship here―

A father who loves you but is a workaholic, or a mother who cares for you deeply but is an alcoholic.

We’re talking about the parent who absolutely, incorrigibly defies explanation―

The father who leaves without any warning, or the mother who is pathologically unable to give a single kind word to her only child.

That is the theme we are going to explore here.

That is the schism we are going to bridge.

A wooden bridge going into a lake — photo by Aidan B on Unsplash.
Photo by Aidan B on Unsplash

This article series will attempt to resolve the problems of the unexplainable parent

This is not a book review, other than:

Still No Word From You is incredible, five stars, and you should read it immediately.

That’s the book review.

The main purpose of this article series is to take Still No Word From You’s theme of a paternal schism, generalize it out into unexplainable parental dysfunction, and then attempt to resolve this seemingly irresolvable state of being.

And we will attempt to accomplish this with two approaches.

The first approach will be from a literary perspective, with a bit of help from the psychological side of literature.

The second approach, shown in part 2 of this series, will attempt to explain parental dysfunction through quantum physics. In fact, we will travel 13.7 billion years, and resolve an unresolvable parental schism through an understanding of the very foundations of this universe.

All right, let’s begin.

Parental dysfunction resolved through literature, specifically Melissa Broder

Cover of The Pisces by Melissa Broder— image courtesy of Penguin Random House
Melissa Broder’s The Pisces is insane, and you should read it right now

Peter Orner’s work takes the dark, unexplainable truths about life and places them bare in bite-sized tales.

One of his contemporaries, the author Melissa Broder, explores similarly difficult themes, but instead of expressing them through punchy short tales―

Broder takes the bitter edges of life and plunges them inward, or at least into her characters.

In the inimitable The Pisces, a woman falls in love with a half-human sea creature but―

The book is insane because of every part besides the merman. The main character is self-destructive in unimaginable ways, and takes every opportunity she can to make a bad decision, and then seeks out turns for the worse.

The cover of Milk Fed by Melissa Broder, image courtesy of Simon and Schuster
Melissa Broder’s Milk Fed is a bit less insane than The Pisces, and you should also read it right now

And in the follow up tale, Milk Fed, the similar but slightly-less-self-destructive heroine identifies one of the sources of her own trauma, a fraught relationship with her mother.

Now, I am making no assumptions about Broder’s own life, but the source of her characters’ problems are often straightforward, and the heroine from Milk Fed has a mother who is pathologically unable to say anything positive about her.

No I love yous, no good job

No positive words at all.

Again, this is an unexplainable parent.

And Melissa Broder resolves this impossible dilemma through literature — or at least bridges the gap in some regard

To a normal person, the notion of saying something positive about your own children is so obvious that it’s nearly insulting to even have to think about it.

But the mother in Milk Fed just cannot do this.

The mother’s child can beg, plead, coerce―

But the mother will not budge.

Not a single kind word.

Melissa Broder has her character resolve this through a literary analogy, suggested by her literary therapist.

Broder calls it going to the hardware store for milk.

A hardware store aisle — photo courtesy of Eduardo Soares and Unsplash
You can find many things at the hardware store, but if you ask for milk, they might not have it. Photo by Eduardo Soares on Unsplash .

Going to the hardware store for milk

In Milk Fed, the main character is speaking with her therapist:

“You were going to the hardware store for milk again,” said Dr. Mahjoub.
“Well, maybe just a tiny bit of milk,” I said.
“That’s the problem,” she said. “You have to expect nothing.”

That might not be the most satisfying resolution to an unexplainable parent, but it certainly makes rational sense.

You don’t go to the hardware store to ask for milk, and if you do ask―you can count yourself fortunate if they give you directions to a store that has it.

The hardware store has no milk, and your parent might have no kind words.

You have to expect nothing.

Again, it’s not the most satisfying analogy―but there is a resolution there, and a directive.

Expect nothing.

Furthermore, there might be an upside to this when examining your own unexplainable parent―with an emphasis on the words might be.

Under the going to the hardware store for milk paradigm, there is a hardware store, one that contains quite a bit of value in a dimension other than what you are looking for.

The scope of the value might have harsh delineations, but there is still value there.

You might have an emotionless mother who works long hours to keep a roof over your head.

You might have a ne’er-do-well father who loves you dearly, and tells you that every day, but is completely unwilling to do anything beyond sitting on the couch.

And of course, there are limits to this analogy―because some unexplainable parents have no redeeming qualities.

You might find yourself in a hardware store asking for milk, and not only does the hardware store have no milk―

It might not even have tools.

And for this kind of wretchedly unexplainable parent―we have to double down on the literary analogy―and might even have to get a bit crude.

The unspeakably abhorrent driver

There is another therapist’s analogy that can resolve parental dysfunction.

It’s a bit crude, but parental dysfunction can also be crude, so bear with this article.

A person driving a car — photo by Jackson David and Unsplash.
Photo by Jackson David on Unsplash

Imagine you are in the passenger seat of a car

The driver of the car passes gas.

You ask the driver to stop.

The driver then eructates, and then becomes flatulent again.

You roll down the window, and in response the driver rolls up the window, locks it, and then passes gas once more, all the while laughing.

What would you think of the driver if you were the passenger?

You would think what anyone would think:

What the heck is wrong with them?

That is a normal response, and the correct one.

This all changes though, when the driver is your parent.

The parent as the impossibly bad chauffeur

One of your parents―or perhaps both of them―might have exhibited behavior as unexplainably abhorrent as a driver that exhibits deliberate flatulence.

When it is your parent driving you abhorrently down the highway of life, you don’t ask:

What the heck is wrong with them?

Instead, you ask:

What the heck is wrong with me?

And rationally, you know you are not supposed to ask that of yourself

You might not be able to help it, but you know that is the wrong question.

It is not you that is passing gas in the car, nor is it you that abandoned your family without explanation, or is unable to share a single kind word.

And that rational understanding, albeit through a literary analogy, is a starting point.

A person silhouetted against a sunset — photo by Dilan NaGi on Unsplash.
It is difficult to separate your own sense of self from a parent’s unexplainable behavior — but the separation can make rational sense at least. Photo by Dilan NaGi on Unsplash

These are starting points

A father and son silhouetted on the beach — photo by Dvir Adler on Unsplash.
Photo by Dvir Adler on Unsplash

It’s not that easy of course―this is your parent, or parents plural, and often an analogy or two are not enough to resolve the distress you have received during childhood―

Or perhaps you are continuing to perceive that distress.

In fact, it’s so difficult to process these things that Orner, Broder and countless others write whole books about the feeling.

But it’s an understanding, and a start.

Sometimes you are in a hardware store with no milk, and sometimes you are in the car with an insane driver.

And for the next part of this series, we are going to explore the roots of childhood distress, and explore them on a fundamental level.

In fact, we might explore them on the fundamental level.

We will go back to the source of all strife, and we mean all strife.

The root of your parent’s shortcomings began long ago.

In fact, it may have begun 13.7 billion years ago, when the universe had just begun.

Jonathan Maas is the author of Klareana: The Human Child, and directed the movie Spanners, which is available to watch for free on YouTube.

Melissa Broder has an essay collection called So Sad Today, and two fiction books that are beyond excellent. The Pisces shocked the world, and Milk Fed gave the world a more nuanced, but still impactful type of punch.

Still No Word From You: Notes in the Margin is available wherever books are sold, and has been lauded by The New York Times, among other places.

Jonathan Maas recommends you read any tale by Peter Orner, and if you want a different, albeit equally incredible take on the responses to the difficulties of life, you should read the graphic novel Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank, by Peter’s brother, Eric Orner.

Additional reading suggestions

Maggie Brown and Others — by Peter Orner, published by Little, Brown and Company

Cover for Maggie Brown and Others by Peter Orner, photo courtesy of Little, Brown and Company
Maggie Brown and Others

Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live — by Peter Orner, published by Catapult Books

Cover of Am I Alone Here, Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner, photo courtesy of Catapult Books
Am I Alone Here

Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank — by Eric Orner, published by MacMillian Books

Cover of Smahtguy: The Life and Times of Barney Frank by Eric Orner, photo courtesy of MacMillian Books

Klareana: The Human Child — by Jonathan Maas, published by Cynical Optimist Press