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Dysfunctional Families in Fact and Fiction (and Marriage Equality)

Three events coincided yesterday, giving me occasion to reflect on “family” in all of its glorious and sorrowful messiness.

A friend and I had long discussed going to see August: Osage County on Broadway. Of course, it took the news of its imminent closing to get me to actually go. On the train going up to New York, I discovered that the Mark Sanford affair was conducted on South Carolina’s nickel. Coming back, I learned of Michael Jackson’s death.

Talk about examples of family dysfunction! Sanford’s infidelity, swiftly following Nevada Senator John Ensign‘s, was a reminder that we all, at times, are weaker than we’d like to be. It’s tempting and in a sense justified for the LGBT community to gloat at these transgressions, but I think that’s too easy. Yes, if these guys (particularly Ensign) go on railing against gay marriages, let’s call them on their hypocrisy. And Sanford’s decision to spend taxpayer money for his fling is inexcusable; he should resign for that reason alone. (The impulse to corruption can’t be as powerful as the tug of lust.) But the infidelities themselves are pandemic, and always will be. Gloating turns out to be an expensive luxury for many, sexual orientation aside.

The takeaway lesson was best expressed by one of the characters in August: Osage County, who finally can take no more of her older sister’s stern moral dictates, which bring the family to heel throughout most of the play. Most of the time, things aren’t a simple matter of black and white: we live “in the middle.” If the “middle” is the one portrayed in this terrific play, please nudge me to one side or the other. The Weston family, whose travails are so comically rendered, sets the bar for dysfunction to world-record levels:

“Alcoholism, drug addiction, adultery, sexual misbehavior: The list of pathologies afflicting one or another of the Weston family is seemingly endless, and in some ways wearily familiar.”

Yes, wearily familiar. Every family can recite a (likely less absurd) subset of the list of horrors plaguing this cartoonishly awful family. I recall a conversation with a sneaky-smart colleague, a vocal opponent of marriage equality who told me, after a debate I’d participated in, that he liked my point about how it’s hard to argue for keeping gays out of marriage when straights have done such a poor job of upholding its standards lately.

However sincere, though, his point gets marriage and relationships wrong. It’s not that no-fault divorce or a growing disrespect for marriage have caused these problems, but that human beings are messy — and so are our relationships. I really don’t want to listen to the rote line that “children deserve a mother and a father” one more time. Please, enter the real world and support families (not just through marriage equality, either) that are actually trying to raise kids halfway decently. Trying to make the perfect the enemy of the good is incoherent when the “perfect” doesn’t even exist. Emma Ruby-Sachs says it well, speaking of Sanford’s case:

“[I]nstead of working to find homes for children without parents, politicians like Governor Sanford oppose gay adoptions. Instead of ensuring that each taxpayer is given a credit for their dependants, Governor Sanford opposes the tax rights associated with gay marriage.

“And like anyone who loses touch with reality, Sanford fell victim to his own fictions. His moral code bears no relation to the diverse country in which he lives. It turns out, his moral code bears little relation to his own life.

“Moral politics ignore reality, they serve to ostracize and isolate vulnerable members of society and they are inevitably impossible to follow. Their separation from the messy human condition means that even the people imposing the morally based laws are sinners and transgressors.”

This brings me to the sad end of this post; the early death of Michael Jackson. Watching his physical and emotional disintegration over the years was tough for me. I recall being bowled over on hearing “I Want You Back” for the first time while sitting in my grandparents’ bedroom in 1970. From that moment until sometime after “Thriller,” he didn’t put a foot wrong. But his strange and stage-managed life couldn’t be sustained, and the ensuing years were a stygian whirlpool that I’m pained to recall.

Yet he was married (briefly), and had three children. Is the right of parents to their mother and father really the biggest problem we face? Isn’t it time for a serious discussion of state-sponsored marriage and support for families? Like Ruby-Sachs, I’m increasingly convinced that marriage equality isn’t the toughest issue we face, but until we achieve that marker of formal equality, there’s no oxygen in the room for anything else.

This is what all the fuss was about:

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