All happy families resemble one another,
each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
Leo Tolstoy -- Anna Karenina
Frankly, I didn't expect that I would be so profoundly affected by seeing the movie August: Osage County. I had heard it was hard to watch, but because of Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, I wanted to see it.
Actually, "being affected" hardly expresses my condition as I watched that movie.
I had no idea that I would not talk for a good thirty minutes after leaving the theatre, I was so moved by the tragedy of it all.
I felt as if someone had ripped open my heart and wrung it out.
I felt like I had been in the movie, playing all the parts, so great was my empathy for each of the characters, or perhaps it was that the actors played their parts so pitch-perfectly that I they made me feel with them and for them.
After the movie, I knew it was their story, and not mine. I didn't over-identify with the characters to the point of losing my own identity, but after the movie, I was exhausted.
I am one of three sisters and I am the mother of three daughters. Like this Oklahoma family, I grew up Baptist. Except for five years I spent in New Mexico, I've spent all of my life in Texas, but Texas is close enough to Oklahoma for me to understand this religio-political culture.
I have no problem understanding how someone can offer thanks at the dinner table while wars and rumors of war are simmering and sometimes raging among the people who are holding hands, with bowed heads.
Just because you don't get along or are mad at each other doesn't mean you can't pause to thank God for your food, and it doesn't mean you're a hypocrite for praying when your life is in total chaos all around you.
Someone said that there was no redemptive character or moment in the movie, but I disagree. If nothing else -- and there is a lot more -- August: Osage County holds up a vivid, heartbreaking picture of the truth that says that you are as sick as your secrets.
The movie also helps us all see what devastation ensues when the whole family is organized around the unacknowledged sins of the father or the mother, sins that get inflicted on the children, sometimes to the seventh generation.
We call it "family systems" now, and the Bible talks about how what you do to one person matters. My mother always said, "Be sure your sins will find you out," and she told the truth. Sometimes our sins get outted in our children.
Did anyone but me notice that no one stopped the granddaughter from smoking pot?
Is there any reason, coming from that family, that she wouldn't have smoked pot, flirted with an older man or hated her mother?
It's not new news that the rules of a dysfunctional family are Don't talk, Don't trust and Don't feel, but we who come from families where there is not active addiction to alcohol or drugs are a bit resistant to knowing that those same rules apply to all dysfunctional families. As in everything, there are degrees of dysfunction, and the truth is that addictions to people, processes, distractions and things can destroy a family.
When it's alcohol or drugs that make the family system run, the destruction is often deadly, sometimes dramatic and finally, obvious.
The outstanding acting by everyone in the movie was so good that I almost forgot that this wasn't an actual family that I knew. That struck me first, but then I completely forgot that those were actors on that screen and I realized that I do know that family -- In fact, I know lots of them who have endured that kind of pain.
Could anyone leave that movie and say, "I just can't relate to those people" or "That's a bit overdramatized, don't you think?"
If so, I think you've been sitting on the front porch of life a bit too long. It may be time to come down from that imaginary world and let your heart be broken for the vast numbers of people who have endured the kind of soul-pain the Weston family held and perpetrated.
Naiveté is cute on a three-year-old, but it wears thin when we who should know better about how the real world works play it dumb.
One critic whose analysis of the movie I read suggested that you could understand this movie only if you saw it as a comedy.
I'm not even going to dignify that with a response except to say, "Are you kidding me?"
There were other things that walloped me in the heart as I watched that movie, but perhaps the strongest dynamic that hit me hardest and first was the way in which it appeared that the cause of all the problems was the mean, foul-talking mother played by Meryl Streep.
She was the one who had the addiction to pills.
She was the one who was mean, and she was the one who had cancer.
The problem was her fault, after all, and if she could have been nicer to everyone , everything could have been better.
So often -- too often -- it is the mother who shoulders the blame for what goes wrong in a family. Too often, the children gang up with one parent against the other. In this movie the mother was "the presenting problem", the designated addict, the one who was acting out. More often than it should be, the mother takes the brunt of others' ire.
My friend told me that that is because children know that their mothers won't leave them, generally.
I say that it started in the Garden of Eden story, and people got in the habit of blaming it all on poor Eve. Adam ate the forbidden fruit every bit as much as Eve did, but somehow, Eve gets the blame.
I've even heard it said by religious people that sin came into the world through a woman, a statement and a rationalization for all kinds of crazy rules and regulations that makes my blood run cold. Thanks be to God for the wise man who, shocked by hearing that, said, "But Jesus came into the world through a woman, too."
However you shape your theology, what I saw in that movie was a sick, pathetic, broken woman and a family of blamers, none of whom cut her any slack.
The longer I watched, though, the more I saw that no one cut anyone any slack. Blame ran out-of-control through the family and no one escaped, reminding me again of the rule of thumb that says that "children blame; adults take responsibility."
Violet's brother-in-law Charles Aiken tried his best to soften things up, but his efforts seemed a bit touched with something that didn't quite ring true to me. If you're going to solve the problems in a family as torn asunder as this one, tippy-toe methods just don't do the job and good ole boys don't cut the mustard because they can't give up their image enough to be really helpful in the grit and grime of recovery.
Tough love requires strong people and tough methods. It's not easy, exorcising demons like these.
Charles was so cool that it made me wonder, afterwards, if being cool was his way of either distancing himself from the family dynamics or colluding with the family secret. Maybe it gave him a weird kind of power in the family.
I was struck, as well, by the various ways in which the three sisters acted out the family dysfunction, either by running away from the family or running toward it, as if either involvement--estrangement or enmeshment -- could solve the problems that started at least in their grandparents' generation. To hear Violet and her sister Mattie Fae talk about their upbringing was all the explanation you needed to know about the origin of the anger and disrespect that spewed from their mouths.
Here is what was so dramatic and painful for me to see: Each sister was riddled with pain and each person was carrying more than her share of the family pain that didn't start with her!
A lifelong member of Alcoholics Anonymous told me one time that behind every victim is the hidden perpetrator and behind every perpetrator is a hidden victim, and that came roaring back to me as I watched the Westons' story unfold.
Could you really assign blame to only one person?
Was everyone at fault in some way in this movie?
Or was it that every single person was a carrier of the family illness, suffering it in his or her own way? Was it that every person was contributing to the family sickness in a system and a culture in which no one knew how to get any help except by repeating the past or running away from it?
At first, I thought the father was the stable one, but the more I thought about his role in the family, the more I was struck by how rarely he was shown looking straight into the camera. I was struck by the fact that the father had a name normally given to a girl-child, a fact that was even more interesting in a family of all females, but the thing that walloped me was the way he let his wife be The Designated Problem.
How convenient was that for him?
How he hid, that father. He hid in his poetry and in his past glory. He hid in his study and at the lake, but in the end he couldn't hide from the secret that had eaten away at the core of his family as surely as cancer had eaten away at his wife's mouth.
How helpful it is to have someone who is so obviously sick or crazy or bad that everybody has someone to point to or harp on, so that your own flaws and failures can go unnoticed.
How easy it is to choose one person to be the scapegoat in the family so that everyone else can keep up their images.
It's easy, but it's wrong.
Family secrets do eat away at the integrity of life. Carried silently, banished to the dark basements of consciousness like an old, ugly gift, family secrets scream silently, demanding to be brought out into the light and seen for what they are -- destroyers of trust and love.
In the end, perhaps the most redemptive act was displayed in the mother, after all, and that may seem odd, given that she was the Big Problem.
Perhaps redemption is to be found in the fact that she finally exposed the family secret and finally spoke the truth.
When Violet finally spoke the secret, the family itself was perhaps destroyed beyond reconciliation or hope. We aren't given that happy ending, are we?
And sometimes things have to be broken and shattered all the way before anyone can start picking up the pieces.
Sadly, tragically, sometimes there's no one who is able or cares enough to pick up the pieces, and perhaps that is the reason we tread so fearfully into the dangerous waters of family pain, addiction and dysfunction.
Perhaps, though, in hearing the truth, Violet could die in peace, and perhaps, the daughters could finally stop fighting themselves and each other over what they thought was the problem and deal directly with the real truth, the long-held secret that had destroyed their parents. Perhaps with their parents' secret out of the way, they could finally look at their own flaws and grow up.
Someone wise has said, "The truth will set you free, but first it makes you miserable."
Each daughter, fleeing the family home, was truly miserable.
You can only hope that somehow, and in some redemptive way, each daughter found a new life and could start over in a hard-won freedom.
I couldn't miss the power of redemption in Johnna, the kind-faced Native American helper Beverly hired to care for his ailing wife.
Ridiculed by Violet, Johnna's quiet presence and good cooking nourished the family in simple ways.
In the end, she was the one who had the strength and discernment to intervene on behalf of the granddaughter.
In the end, she was the one who gave solace and comfort to Violet, like a mother, soothing her hurting child.
As I see it, Johnna was the Christ-figure in the movie.
There's potential redemptive mercy and grace in that movie that some will take away and some will not.
To be able to view that movie and then vow to face your own demons and your own flaws just might save your own life and that of your family members. If that happened, that movie will have had a redemptive value.
To watch that movie and recognize dynamics in your own life that are being repeated over and over can motivate someone to say, "Enough. The cycle of violence (addiction, craziness, dysfunction) stops here, with me."
To be able to have empathy and feel with those who suffer in the ways those family members suffered can, of course, cause you some discomfort and pain, but if you can feel with another, that compassion and empathy you exhibit might be a lifeline thrown out to the person who is about to drown in the mess of addiction or dysfunction.
Any time I've been able to step over myself enough to feel with another hurting human being, it's been redemptive for me, as well.
The truth is that we are all in this life together, and life is messy and it is hard.
There's one more thing.
If you can see that movie and summon the humility and gratitude to say, "There but for the grace of God go I," you will have joined the human race.
It's the truth. As hard as that movie was to watch, it reminded me that but for the grace of God, I would be carrying that kind of pain.
Whatever any one of us can do, every one of us can do -- for the good or for the ill.
That's part of what it means to be human.
I'm not a movie critic, but I love movies and I love thinking about them, pondering them and turning them over and over in my mind, seeing what I can learn about life.
What about you? Have you seen this movie?
If you have, how did it strike you?
Whether you have seen it or not, is there a family secret that has burdened you for a lifetime? If so, what are the benefits of keeping that secret hidden from plain sight?
Is there someone in your family of origin who plays the role of The Problem or the scapegoat? How did that get started? What effect does it have on the rest of the family?
What role do you play in your family -- the Problem, the Rescuer, the Victim, the Trouble-maker? the Black Sheep, the Good child, the Hero, the Martyr? the Outcast?
How would you like to see the dynamics in your family change?
What could happen to make your family more of a place of grace, mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance and....love?
Who could get that started?
For what blessings from your family of origin are you most grateful?
What blessing have you received that emerged from a childhood wound?
In all of this --
grace to you --
*** A friend wrote the following comment in an email:
You touched (our) vulnerability ....and that is where redemption comes. August: Osage County holds up a mirror to ourselves. The people are a mess in all the ways all of us are a mess -- only more so. The exaggeration helps us to see it, I think - but it also can perhaps enable us to deny it because we can say that at least we are not THAT bad.