This essay was originally published on June 15, 2012.
Anyone who has slogged their way through Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is familiar with the line, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anyone who is of my generation and grew up watching “The Brady Bunch,” “Leave It to Beaver,” “Father Knows Best,” and the rest of those happy-go-lucky family shows, and wished they had June Cleaver or Carol Brady for a mother, knows exactly what I’m talking about. Once the masses tired of the Carol Brady/June Cleaver unattainably perfect mom hooey, we were given shows like “Eight is Enough,” “Family,” and my personal favourite, “Dallas,” to sink our teeth into. I bring this up because the re-boot of “Dallas” premiered this past Wednesday, and at first glance, Larry Hagman’s J.R. Ewing has lost not a lick of his implacable cruelty, which is comforting in a sense, but deeply disturbing in other ways.
When I was younger, I had many illusions about the sanctity of the family. My own was a pretty frightening amalgamation of deeply flawed characters who were always hell-bent on tweaking one another utilizing the most vindictive forms of behaviour even the most talented fiction writers would have trouble conjuring. As I aged, I attempted to bury the abject dysfunction of my own lot in favour of observing the dysfunction of others. I loved playing voyeur and watching other families rip themselves to pieces at a distance. The ones I was privy to made me feel better about my own; I took comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only person who grew up in a loony bin. I was still on the lookout for that seemingly perfect, supportive, unconditionally loving group of people that would tolerate just about anything. If they’re out there, I still haven’t found them. If you happen to know who they are, please let me know so I can halt my ongoing search.
The resurrection of “Dallas” is proof to me that despite the attrition of the generations, there are certain patterns of behaviour instilled in every family that are about as hard to eradicate as fleas, lice and termites. They are passed down genetically as well as learned, and no amount of outside influence can disabuse these individuals of their destiny. Yes, they are actors re-creating iconic television roles, but they are also depicted as having adapted to the changes that have taken place over the decades. That holds true for fictional families as well as real ones, in particular my own, since none of the deeply flawed characters who are at this moment still drawing breath, seem to have learned anything from their personal histories. And, as with re-booted television series, new characters have been added that deepen the intrigue, and add to the lunacy.
Watching the first episode of the new “Dallas” brought on an epiphany that made me feel both lighter and unbearably sad. Lighter in the sense that life does indeed go on, but sad because those who were once malevolent and vindictive will always continue to be so. Even if they can manage to convince the world that their facade of decency and altruism is genuine, those who have the misfortune of knowing another side of these individuals will always be privy to the truth. What you do with that knowledge has everything to do with shaping the person you were, the person you are, and the person you want to become. You can either wallow in destiny, or you can take the necessary steps to distance yourself from it. Do you want to be a victim of nature, or do you want to nurture yourself beyond that to which you were born? The choice is yours; and it is one many of us struggle with.
I hope those of you who are members of similar familial loony bins have taken comfort in these words. As for those of you who come from a mythical, perfect family, please identify yourselves. I’d so love to be disabused of my cynicism.