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One Author's Inquiry Into Her Family

It’s hard to get an objective picture of the family you grew up in. Our perspective is built into the fabric of our family. Bowen family systems theory describes the differences in people’s ability to live their lives based upon an understanding of the challenges and foibles of our parents, carrying a less polarized perspective into our own life as we create our own families and are members of society.

After reading Jeannette Walls', The Glass Castle, I heard questions like “How could these children turn out so well with those parents?” or “I got so mad at those parents. How could they be so irresponsible?"

In The Glass Castle, Walls writes her life story without blaming her parents. Beginning with a scene of her mother rooting through a garbage can viewed from her taxi cab, Walls describes the family she grew up in. Perhaps It was essential for her to write about her family’s life to have an understanding of herself. In The Glass Castle, she is able to appreciate her parents even when their choices could be described as “irresponsible.” For example, her mother spent money for paints for her artwork, while her family was going without food; or her father lived his dream invention rather than providing life’s basics for his family. All the while both parents framed their life as a creative adventure. And it was, such as giving constellations in the night sky for a gift. Her parents were a remarkable mix of enthusiasm, hope, shape-shifting and unable to live an ‘ordinary’ life. The result was that the children were left to become responsible on their own.

From a Bowen theory perspective, the emotional reactiveness in this family was primarily contained in the parent’s tumultuous marriage, and with each parent’s individual functioning. So rather than having parents who were overly worried about the children, this family seemed, instead, to leave the children more emotionally free to function for themselves in the world. This is not to say that this situation was optimal for children, rather it is pointing out that the family dynamics resulted in children who seemed to function more capably than their parents did.

As an example, the parent’s followed their children as they each left for New York. As the children become adults, they were in the position of caring for their parents. As in the first page of the book, the issue never changed. The issue is how to accept our parents for who they are and to relate to them regardless of their lifestyle.

How did this father and mother become this way? That is a logical next question, which is partially addressed in Walls' latest book, Half Broke Horses—a primer for Bowen theory. Walls describes how three generations of a family adapt to war, natural disasters, and the family experiences that provide the background for Walls ‘mother in The Glass Castle.

While Walls had intended this book to be about her mother’s life on the ranch, her mother preferred the book to be about the life of her own mother. This speaks to the relationship between the mother and daughter. Walls’ grandmother was a force and had a strong opinion about what she wanted for her daughter. A poignant example was how Walls’ grandmother decided that she would make sure not to tell her own daughter she was beautiful because she did not want her to become like her youngest sister, who killed herself . These are powerful forces generation to generation. It is in all human families that one generation adapts to life’s intensity and fears for and wants to protect the next generation. This fear communicates incapability, which the next generation lives out in its own way.

In the acknowledgements, Walls gives her “deepest thanks” to her mother for her significant contribution to the book. I am curious. How has the writing of these books affected the relationship between the author and her mother? How have these two books affected the family as a whole?

My deepest thanks go to Walls for this remarkable story of her human family.

Filed under Family, Bowen family systems theory

5 comments for "One Author's Inquiry Into Her Family"

Jim Smith says:

Priscilla, thanks for bringing this to my attention. There is endless variation in the adaptation of the human family. There have never been two individuals, let alone two families who are the same. There is much to be learned from this one about not getting caught up into good guys and bad guys.

sarah birnbach says:

I love your new website and your blog posting.

Jill Hershberger says:

Intrigued. I need to go back to the book The Glass Castle, since I was in West Virginia at the same time the author was and knew some of the characters. Right now I am re-reading "Should You Leave" by Kramer and pondering the Murray Bowen chapter.

Kristy McCracken says:

Kristy McCracken says:

Priscilla! I stumble upon your site and blog. The Glass Castle is one of my favorite books. I loved the first sentence of this blog post. It can be difficult sometimes to get an objective picture of what life should be! I will visit more!

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