heading

The Calabrian Corner


Dysfunction, Calabrian–Style

My interest in family dynamics stems from my belief that, for most people, the familial bond is perhaps our strongest emotion. Indeed, primatologists have indicated for decades that familial loyalty can also be witnessed among other species that share our phylogenetic Order (see, for example, (i) Kinship and Dispersal, (ii) Kin Selection, (iii) Allomaternal Care). Hence, the analysis of familial situations in my writings, whether those situations be of the turbulent variety or of the kind that generate the proverbial 'warm fuzzies', ultimately connects with people who share my beliefs and interests—and hence my appreciation for the emotions at play when family dynamics are thrust into challenging circumstances. Two famous films that illustrate this point, for example, are: Madame X, and An Affair To Remember. Inevitably, viewers of those movies fall into one of two categories: (i) the ones whose throat chokes up, whose eyes well, and whose nose starts to leak like an old tap; and (ii) the ones who show no discernible reaction. I cannot say whether or not people in the first group identify more personally with the characters in the film since several studies indicate that genetic and environmental factors contribute to a person's physiological response to situations (see, for example, Stress-Risk Factors, or Physiology and Neurobiology of Stress and Adaptation). Nonetheless, I believe that, for people in the first category, those kinds of scenes trigger emotions that are personal and relevant to their own lives, although some would argue that it is merely the difference between empathy and sympathy at play. Regardless, it is the existence of such a dichotomy that tells me that each of us shares similar feelings and emotional reactions with a substantial number of our fellow human beings; hence, people with the ability to put their emotions and experiences into words will often be sharing something valuable with their readers. It is that belief that served as motivation for me to write In the Twilight of the Moon, as the following paragraphs might suggest.

I suppose that, first and foremost, as a Calabrian male raised in an English–speaking country, I have always been fascinated by the notion that, according to some of my elders, certain members of our clan have allowed non–Italian issues to seep into our Calabrian household. A typical example would be a character with the following traits:

  • dropped out of school
  • has diffuculty holding a job
  • disappears for days at a time
  • attracts unstable friends

Clearly, there can be many routes to the evolution of this type of personality. In my clan, and to the astonishment of my elders, the sources sometimes were traceable to depression (see, e.g., wikipedia, and CMHA), bipolar disorder (see, e.g., wikipedia, and Helpguide), and schizophrenia (see, e.g., wikipedia, and CMHA). Furthermore, each of these is an illness that my kin could not possibly be expected to understand. And to complicate matters, my older relatives were also not capable of factoring in the important notion that they were now living in a country where mysterious conditions that used to get their sufferers labeled adversely in their Italian hometowns are actually now addressed by the appropriate scientific terminology. Hence, the removal of the 'we' versus 'they' barrier has brought those shunned labels close to home. Much less surprising, of course, was the appearance of alcoholism in some of our families, although the concomitant existence of substance–abuse usually generated denial. Those of you who have had similar experiences in your own clan will no doubt appreciate the relevant undertones in my novel. More precisely, there are certain behavioral expectations that Calabrian parents thrust onto their children, and when the inevitable clash of cultures makes its appearance in an immigrant family, everyone lands on unfamiliar territory. Hence, the parental expectations, coupled with the adolescent child's need for parental approval, result in some very powerful, sometimes conflicting, and occasionally violent emotions. The following is an excerpt from my novel that illustrates some of these dynamics at play:

My brother Marco and my father had been arguing over his mysterious employment almost daily and it finally came to a head a few days after Marco failed to show up for a party in honor of Uncle Frankie's birthday. My father suggested that whatever illicit activities Marco was involved in were more important to him than his family. Marco burped in response and that set my father off. I was closest to him and he slapped me on the back of the head, sending me reeling; and when he pulled his hand away he aimed to give Marco a backhand to the face. But Marco caught his wrist, stopping his arm in mid air. That moment will remain etched in my memory for the rest of my days. Although fleeting, it defined our family dynamics from that day onward. Several things happened the moment Marco's hand and my father's forearm locked in mid air. For starters, my stomach went queasy. In that split second my mind assimilated and understood how my father would respond; he'd generate all the fury he could muster to regain control of his family. I was trembling, and although extreme anxiety had paralyzed my body, my brain searched frantically for a way to eradicate myself.

The second thing that happened in that moment was Marco's metamorphosis. It was even more frightening than my father's rage. Marco had crossed a forbidden threshold and a derogatory smirk etched a savage confidence into his eyes. There he was, holding our father at bay with one hand. The one person who had always been able to control him was now reduced to, at best, his equal. Marco didn't say anything. He just grinned disrespectfully. He didn't need to say anything.

The last thing that took place in that instant during which my father's authority was taken from him was something that, curiously enough, saddened me. My feelings remained confused for the longest time after that. During that moment, the world as I knew it changed indeliby and forever. As much as I feared my father's anger, I always believed that he loved us, and I felt that, in his own way, he believed that he was disciplining us for our own good. I think he believed he was helping us become better people. Clinging to that thought had always been a source of stability for me throughout his many tirades. Cloaked in all those feelings, I fervently believed that, although I feared my father in our household, outside the house I felt that he could protect me—and that had always made me feel safe. The incident with Marco changed all that. After all, if one of my father's children could handle him, how could he protect me from the dangers of the outside world? My world crumbled that day and I would be spending every day thereafter trying to piece it back together.

The underlying causes of this kind of behavior are often difficult to trace, especially for our aging parents, uncles and aunts who are convinced they did everything right. Indeed, they certainly could never be expected to understand their role in denying and enabling their child's behavior. More importantly, there is no denying that, in most cases, they did the very best they knew how to do—and as I got older, it is the realization of this fact that has helped me appreciate the deep level of caring that our Calabrian elders brought to the child–rearing table.

Until next time ... 'ndi vidhimu' (we'll be seeing you). ... return to previous screen ...

Please check back periodically for further musings from The Calabrian Corner. Ciao for now.

Note: In the Twilight of the Moon can be previewed through Amazon Kindle.

*****