Can anyone really go home?
“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” (Thomas Wolfe –“You Can’t Go Home Again”)
You can pick your friends but you cannot pick your family. The truth of that maxim depends though on how one defines “family.”
I have been blessed with friends whose parents, especially their fathers, considered me part of their family. After having tragically lost my father, that father-image/role was invaluable.
Others tell me how they feel more connected and akin to friends than to their own families. Over the past few years, I’ve come to appreciate that as well. I’ve come to differentiate between what I call my “DNA family,” those with whom I share nearly identical DNA structure due to having the same parents, and my “virtual family.”
In the novel by Conrad Richter, “Light in the Forest,” a three-year-old boy in 18th-century Pennsylvania is abducted and raised by Indians. When he’s an adolescent, True Son is forced under terms of treaty to return to his natural parents.
However, he’s thoroughly imbued with Indian culture and tradition, and is unable to re-socialize back into his birth tribe. He flees back to the Indians, but his Indian father rejects him.
In their exchange, True Son gives voice to his despair by plaintively asking, “Then who is my father?”
That cry contains the essence of a fundamental truth: The constructs of family, tribe, and clan entail far more than DNA. They are heaped with values, traditions, rituals, and expectations.
In that construct a gatekeeper, a keeper of the flame, often arises. He/she enforces the tribal code and controls access and status.
In a quite powerful novel, “Prince of Tides,” Pat Conroy explores that theme in a southern context. To an outsider, the ways the family interacts and the roles members play are macabre-like. The mother, the keeper of the flame, primarily focuses on the family’s image and goes to extreme lengths to project an image of wholesomeness and abundant love despite horrible events, including a family rape scene so well written I had to go for a walk after reading it to catch my breath, that cascade upon them.
The children play their roles, dutifully submitting to her will with devastating personal consequences, psychological baggage they carry for the rest of their lives.
What makes great fiction great is the way in which the author explores universal truths and archetypal images that speak to readers, for anyone who has had the experience of being an outsider in his/her own family or tribe—the extended family—is able to grasp what Conroy is conveying.
I have learned and occasionally remind friends when engaged in deep discussions about their family relations that the tribe is the most powerful influence in anyone’s life. An enduring myth grows that oftentimes results in a larger-than-life, heroic status for the family, sometimes deserved, but usually not.
With that arises a sense of uniqueness—that we, the family, are different than others—and thus special. Those who live in proximity to their families are usually unable to see that for what it is, because reinforcing, socializing agents such as their churches help contribute to that mystique by repeating the story. A legend grows.
That process courses through even our global society, hence, the concept of “American exceptionalism,” that our experience sets apart and above all others. That’s nice to entertain except that it is nonsense: There is no exceptionalism, familial or national.
The problem for the individual who calls attention to that, such as Wolfe’s hero George Webber, is that he/she faces either submitting to the will of the tribe and repenting or being shunned and excommunicated. As Joseph Campbell expresses it, that’s when the adventure begins for the individual is compelled to leave. He/she becomes a sojourner.
The reason those who insist they can go home and perhaps do is that they never left in the first place; they’re nomads who gathered their material possessions along with their tribe’s values, traditions, and expectations and trucked them off to another place.
To find such persons, simply walk into a bar dedicated to a team different from, in our case, the Broncos, during the season. They’re sporting more than black and yellow (Steelers) or green and yellow (Green Bay) shirts.
Next week: The duty of the sojourner.