About the Film



Death and Dying

Family History



Copyright © 2000 Trish Williams

Social Issues

It was very important to me to view where my father was coming from — the social context. What was his family history, and the profound negative effect it ultimately lead to in his own life? My own conclusion is that he lost his father at a very crucial age in his life, and he had expressed to my mother that he felt social and family pressure to take on a lot of responsibility at this young age, “to be the man of the house”. My father who was born in 1930, grew up in with a mother who had to work to be the primary provider for the family. He also grew up in a time when suicide was less socially acceptable, it was not understood as well in 1943. His family and society taught him to submerge all emotional thoughts about his father, Charles Williams, instead of verbalizing or expressing his feelings. The cultural and family memory was to forget Charles completely. Memory can often be about forgetting.

The social construct of gender in the 1930s-40s clearly had an effect on my father’s life. Men and boys were supposed to be strong. They were the leaders of the society and the family. The social convention of the time was that is was not appropriate behavior for men or boys to cry or show feelings. This was the accepted role of males which my father learned. Even my father’s closest friend from childhood on never remembers my father discussing his father. He views it as one of those things that just wasn’t discussed by males back then. (Temple 1997) My father encountered the double whammy — social male expectations compounded by dysfunctional coping skills and stigma surrounding suicide.

Secrets, I now feel, are harmful to the family. I can’t help but feel the secrets my father withheld regarding his own father’s suicide had a huge impact on his life. My father ultimately denied the truth of his family’s tragic loss of the father. His father’s life ended in tragedy, my father’s life ended in tragedy. Both learned self-destruction. Our society sets men up for self-destruction when they are unable to express their true feelings and experiences. One drawback our patriarchal society has traditionally held for men is limiting their ability to express their feelings.

I have also examined the concepts of dysfunctional family, a late 20th century concept describing how some families continue a cycle of functioning outside of what is seen as normal and healthy. The pattern soon becomes the familiar mode of functioning. The familiar becomes what is perceived as normal from the family’s perspective. Dysfunction is about denial, and denial is about forgetting. Yet I think our culture attributes to and perpetuates this dysfunction. To understand my father, I realized I must try to understand what his family experienced in the era of the 1940s during my father’s childhood. I had to reflect on my father and his family to see the circumstances his past evolved from. I tried to examine the dysfunctional family and how that was a reflection of the times. Society attaches social stigmas to family experiences which then determine how a family copes based on the social ramifications linked with their coping mechanism. How did patriarchal society shape my father’s reactions and attitude? How did his family shape his experiences which ultimately shaped my family?

I had really hoped my father’s closest friend would have some insight into my father’s feelings and memories regarding his father, but he didn’t. My mother didn’t hear many first hand memories from my father either, and generally only small bits were spoken by him when she probed him. She felt this probing was uncomfortable for him, so she kept it to a minimum. I know that if he didn’t discuss it with either of them, that he didn’t discuss it with anyone. I can only conclude that his silence, and their acceptance of it says a lot about the society of the 1940s-50s. Silence must have been considered an acceptable social coping mechanism. This was an important social framework that affected individual thinking for my parent’s generation.

After getting a sense of the social construct of my parent’s generation, I began to look back on my family and my childhood. The concept of the perfect family was a social framework instilled in my parent’s and passed down to my generation. I was born in 1961 and grew up in a small, mostly white, suburban town in northern New Jersey with my father, mother and two sisters. We had a dog, a cat, two cars and a television, like many other families in my town. Looking back, it was really an ideal place and time to be raised. It was a middle income area. Most everyone lived in their own houses, the school systems were good. One or both parents worked, some mothers staying at home to raise the children. Our town seemed to embody the all-American dream for success. Success meant a loving family, getting a promotion at work, climbing the social ladder, going out to a restaurant for dinner, affording nice vacations, dressing to meet social trends, having a nice car and sometimes several cars, keeping up the appearance of your house and yard. In other words, keeping up with the Jones’.

There was no poverty, no significant crime, no overt struggles within the family system in this suburb. In many ways I was isolated from the realities in other parts of the country. We watched TV shows which idealized the American family as perfect, such as Leave it to Beaver, the Andy Griffith Show and Father Knows Best. My family seemed to fit in with the socially constructed image of family life in the 1960s and ’70s. We bought into the American way of life. We all acted, put on an appearance for society that everything was normal, everything was all right. The appearance was what mattered. This was the social construct of the family that I learned from my parents. Yet behind the facade there were hidden problems, conflicts and secrets within the family.

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