Anne Tyler's 'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant': a critical feast.
One of the many advantages this contemporary theory provides is an understanding of how the "self" evolves as part of a social environment; family systems theory goes beyond the self as a psychologically separate unit.(2) Carlfred Broderick and Sandra Schrader give an overview of the distinction between psychoanalytic and family systems therapy. They write:
Psychoanalysis by its very nature is concerned with the internal dynamics of the human psyche, and with an analysis of the patient-therapist relationship. Freud left a legacy of conviction that it was counter-productive and dangerous for a therapist to become involved with more than one member of the same family. It is not clear from his writing exactly what prompted him to feel so strongly on the matter. (16)
I include works by Anne Tyler in my literature classes because her writing offers us insight into the human psyche and the family systems which influence the psyche as the stuff of interpersonal as well as intrapersonal relational structures. It comes as no surprise to learn that Anne Tyler is herself the wife of a child psychiatrist (Petry, Critical Essays 7). What is more interesting is that the characters in her novels are so meticulously constructed that they stand up to clinical study. In reviewing the critical literature on Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, one finds not only literary critical approaches, but also clinical psychoanalytic ones. In "Anne Tyler: The American Family Fights for its Half-Life," Leo Schneiderman's argument is grounded in object-relations theory(3); he asserts that "Tyler's families have only a half-life, perhaps because their members do not love or hate each other with enough intensity" (78). Schneiderman goes on to explain that "the breakup of the American family in Tyler's fiction is accompanied by egregious failures of parenting involving non-nurturant mothers and physically or psychologically absent fathers" (70) and that "the great weakness of the kind of American family portrayed by Tyler is that its members require proximity rather than intimacy" (79). Schneiderman does a competent job of looking at several of Tyler's novels from an object-relations perspective.(4)
Object relations as a term "refers to specific intrapsychic structures, to an aspect of ego organization, and not to external interpersonal relationships. But these intrapsychic structures, the mental representations of self and other (the object), also become manifest in the interpersonal situation" (Horner 3). In contrast to the study of intrapsychic structure, family systems therapy regards the entire family rather than the individual as the matrix of identity. We cannot understand the individual without understanding the family system, and we cannot understand Tyler's characters without understanding their family systems. Thus, one theorist whose approach is useful in a critical analysis of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is the family systems therapist James Framo, who classifies himself as an "integrationist," one who integrates his study of the intrapsychic and the interpsychic influences on and within families. Framo develops further the "theory of intergenerational transmission of beliefs, attitudes, and symptoms."(5)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant offers us a rare study of the "intergenerational transmission of symptoms" of an entire family - Pearl and Beck Tull and the children, Cody, Ezra, and Jenny. Tyler offers us not only a plausible clinical study, an amazing feat when we consider that the characters are fictional, but also the potential for insight into the family systems theories of Framo and others such as Carl Whitaker and Augustus Napier who document the process and results of family therapy.(6) Their "intergenerational" transaction theories suggest that the partners in a marriage bring their internalized paradigms of "family" with them. In the initial stages of romance, each projects an idealized concept of the self on the unsuspecting other. When reality sets in, each wages a power struggle ostensibly on behalf of his or her internalized family-of-origin and its concepts and structure. But each partner also struggles to be him/herself and to be part of a new family structure without destroying either. While the couple either survive the power struggle or separate, some continue to be locked in its impasses until they die. Many couples deal with their struggle by changing the couple from a dyad to a triad as a child or children are brought into the conflict to form differing configurations of alliance and opposition. The children, who invariably suffer their own consequences of the involvement, in turn internalize aspects of "family" that replicate the original conflicts. What is worse, as adults the children may be attracted to partners who can replicate the conflicts they experienced in their families of origin. As Framo explains, "Intrapsychic conflicts arise from experiences in the original family, and reparative efforts to deal with these conflicts impel the individual to force close relations into fitting the internal role models" (137). The reason we select partners who resemble our caretakers is that by replicating childhood wounds we seek to heal them (these are "reparative efforts"). Whereas we rely on "love" to help us in marriage, in childhood we probably lacked the element of romantic love - at least mutual romantic love - in relation to our parents.
Of course our reliance on "love" - and particularly on "romance" - gets us very little. Love is the beginning of the problem. What heals dysfunctional families is not only love but work, and, among other kinds of labor, the work of therapy. Although Tyler's characters in Dinner are in need of therapy, as readers we watch them do the best they can to survive without therapeutic intervention. As literary critics we can apply family systems theory to their predicaments. As readers we become, intellectually, at least, their therapists - and, in a sense, our own.
The name Ezra gives to his restaurant - the "homesick" restaurant - thematically tells us what we already know - that we who have dysfunctional family backgrounds are sick of as well as sick for home. Alice Hall Petty clarifies these distinctions:
What [Anne Tyler] "really believes" [about families] is nicely conveyed by the word "homesick." As various commentators have pointed out, its meaning is multifaceted. At one level, "homesick" can mean "sick for home," longing nostalgically for the warmth and security associated with the locale and group with which one is most familiar, and perhaps even emphasizing selectively one's positive memories to such an extreme degree that the remembered "home" is essentially a fantasy. On another level, "homesick" can mean "sick of home," yearning to break free of the strictures which are the underside of that security while not denying either the attractiveness or the value of it. On a final level, "homesick" can mean "sick from home" - psychologically debilitated as the result of "home" not just in the sense of one's childhood domicile, but more obtusely in the sense of the traumatic experiences, dubious parental examples, and even the genetic legacy that are so often visited upon hapless offspring. (Understanding 186)
It is true that the children in the Tull family remember "home" in a way peculiar to each, but in a way which indicates that they have all suffered from a mother who was not a nurturer and a father who was not present. In an article entitled "Rewriting the Family During Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant," Caren J. Town writes that in Dinner "each character tries to construct a family for him or herself, the original family being - as are many families - profoundly unsatisfying to its members" (14). Likewise, this lack of satisfaction and the subsequent ambivalence about relationships - family and otherwise - are expressed by Greg Tamblyn, a contemporary singer, in a song called "I Have A Tendency to Codependency"; one of the lines is "I hate you, I love you, I need you, leave me alone." The problem is about boundaries of the self, about control issues, about differentiation and integration - and it starts with the family - which starts with the couple.(7) In Dinner, we are privileged to see the family's origins in a way that allows us to understand why this family is both sick of and sick for home. The parents, Pearl and Beck, meet when Pearl is on her way to becoming "an old maid" (4). Because Tyler gives the reader a narrative voice for each of the characters and we come to know them intimately as a result,(8) we hear Pearl's story as she tells it in her own narrative voice, complete with inflections of irony, gusto, and disappointment. Her suitors "never lasted," until she met Beck Tull: "She was thirty years old. He was twenty-four - a salesman with the Tanner Corporation, which sold its farm and garden equipment all over the eastern seaboard" (5). Even in her desperation to be married, Pearl reflects that
Some might say he [Beck] was . . . well, a little extreme. Flamboyant. Not quite of Pearl's class. And certainly too young for her. She knew there were some thoughts to that effect. But what did she care? She felt reckless and dashing, bursting with possibilities. (5)
Pearl (a nonbeliever) begins to give up her sense of self when she attends the Baptist church as a guest of her girlfriend and meets Beck. She joins the church for the rest of her life - "as if Beck were her reward for attending with the Baptists" (5). Pearl has always felt that she is not quite acceptable as a woman. Just before she meets Beck, Pearl assesses her lack of matrimonial appeal:
It seemed there was some magical word that everyone knew but Pearl - those streams of girls, years younger than she, effortlessly tumbling into marriage. Was she too serious? Should she unbend more? Lower herself to giggle like those mindless, silly Winston twins? Uncle Seward, you can tell me. But Uncle Seward just puffed on his pipe and suggested a secretarial course. (4)
For Pearl, as for so many young women, marriage is the measure of one's worth. Instead of going to college (which she would regard as "an admission of defeat" relative to the marriage issue ), Pearl seeks validation beyond herself. This psychological scenario has the potential to lead to terrible "homesickness." Pearl has no clear understanding of self or family. Uncle Seward certainly can't advise her about her own femininity; in fact, her family is only mentioned in relation to uncles, aunts, and cousins, and she loses her connection to them as the novel proceeds. Without a knowledge and acceptance of the self, there is no "home" (Kegan 196). Pearl will do anything to supply herself with what she lacks internally - she will even marry Beck Tull, knowing, on some level, at least in her assessment of what "others" might think, that he is unsuitable for her.
For Beck, the courtship and potential marriage are also a test of his worth. "Courting her [Pearl], he brought chocolates and flowers and then - more serious - pamphlets describing the products of the Tanner Corporation. He started telling her in detail about his work and his plans for advancement" (6). What Beck wants - his dream - is to be appreciated and loved. Thus, the match is a coupling in which both partners desire the same thing from the other - acceptance, but because of their own needs they are helpless to supply the other with what each lacks. This impasse will become the power struggle over whose needs will be met preferentially - in truth, no one's will.
Although Beck transfers frequently within the company, chasing "some incentive - a chance of promotion, or richer territory," Pearl as narrator tells us "it seldom amounted to much. Was it Beck's fault? He claimed it wasn't, but she didn't know; she really didn't know" (7). That Pearl doesn't know is a betrayal Beck senses, and he protests that he has "never let [his] family go hungry" (7). Pearl
admitted that, but still she felt a constant itch of anxiety. It seemed her forehead was always tight and puckered. This was not a person she could lean on, she felt - this slangy, loud-voiced salesman peering at his reflection with too much interest when he tied his tie in the mornings, combing his pompadour tall and damp and frilly and then replacing the comb in a shirt pocket full of pencils, pens, ruler, appointment book, and tire gauge, all bearing catchy printed slogans for various firms. (7)
Beck's favorite song, "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen" (7), suggests a family systems theme for both partners in the marriage, for, as Virginia Satir suggests of such partners, they are anxious, fearful, and at a loss to help one another. Satir discusses the issue of partners who lack self-esteem and the ability to trust one another (based on self-esteem). In such a marriage, she writes of the partners: "Each feels he has barely enough to sustain his own life, let alone the other's life,' and "each behaves as if he were saying: 'I am nothing. I will live for you.' But each also behaves as if he were saying: 'I am nothing, so please live for me.'" Satir concludes, "Because they lack trust, certain areas of joint living which especially challenge their ability to take into account the individuality of the other are especially threatening to them. These areas are: money, food, sex, recreation, work, child-rearing, relations with in-laws" (15).
There can be no question that Pearl's and Beck's areas of conflict include food and child-rearing. These issues are of major importance to the novel, and it is clear that each partner lacks a sense of self-confidence or security within the self that would enable him/her to address these areas. The marriage breaks apart when Beck announces that he does not want to stay married, that he has been transferred to Norfolk, that he intends to go alone, and that he will not be back to visit the children (8). Pearl says, "I don't understand you." Then she reflects, "It was the purest fact of her life; she did not understand him and she never would" (9). Whitaker and Napier comment on this stage of marital conflict:
Beneath the developing storm of anger and blaming are two cowering, wounded, lonely, tearful children, posing as adults. Though each knows about the needy child in the other, they both are afraid to admit its existence. Each would like to break down and cry and admit how scared and lonely he or she feels, but neither one dares. (118)
The key question here is, "How can I help my [husband/wife] with [his/her] feelings about [himself/herself] when I have the same feeling about myself?" (Napier and Whitaker 118). Pearl dreams of marriage as the answer to her needs (it is not) and Beck dreams of making Pearl happy (he can not).
Later, after Pearl's death, Beck tells his son Cody why he left the family:
"Oh, at the start," Beck said, "she thought I was wonderful. You ought to have seen her face when I walked into a room. When I met her, she was an old maid already. She'd given up. No one had courted her for years; her girlfriends were asking her to baby-sit; their children called her Aunt Pearl. Then I came along. I made her so happy! There's my downfall, son. I mean with anyone, any one of these lady friends, I just can't resist a person I make happy. Why, she might be gap-toothed, or homely, or heavyset - all the better! I expect that if I'd got that divorce from your mother I'd have married six times over, just moving on to each new woman that cheered up some when she saw me, moving on again when she got close to me and didn't act so pleased any more. Oh, it's closeness that does you in. Never get too close to people, son - did I tell you that when you were young? When your mother and I were first married, everything was perfect. It seemed I could do no wrong. Then bit by bit I guess she saw my faults. I'd never hid them, but now it seemed they mattered after all. I made mistakes and she saw them. She saw that I was away from home too much and not enough support to her, didn't get ahead in my work, put on weight, drank too much, talked wrong, ate wrong, dressed wrong, drove a car wrong. No matter how hard I tried, seemed like everything I did got muddled. Spoiled." (340-41)
Beck cannot deal with the loss of the idealized phase of courtship/marriage. He still needs to be needed. He tells Cody that he couldn't cope with "everything tangled, mingled, not perfect anymore."(9) While we will look closely at the ways in which the dysfunctions in Beck's and Pearl's relationship translate themselves to the children, we must look first at Pearl's reaction to Beck's leaving, for her reaction has a powerful influence on the children. Napier and Whitaker corroborate in their clinical work the hypothesis that a mother's reactions to the circumstances of her marriage are of primary importance to her children:
Because the mother-child relationship is the primary model for intimacy in our lives, it forms the basis for the deepest levels of intimacy in marriage. It is this early relationship that appears to set the tone in our lives for profound issues like the degree to which we trust and care about the Other and trust and care about Self and the degree to which we distinguish between Self and Other as separate, yet related entities. Fathers are certainly important in many ways in the early lives of their children, but this influence is expressed most crucially in the kind of participation they have in the marriage. If the relationship between husband and wife is good, the relationship between mother and child is likely to be good. But whatever the situation in the family world, this world is most intimately communicated to the child by the mother. It is the mother-child relationship that is later transferred most powerfully to the marriage. (119-20)
Unfortunately for Pearl's children, the mother-child relationship suffers as a result of Pearl's perceptions of Beck's inadequacies. After Cody's birth, even before Beck has left, Pearl tells us, "I don't know why I thought just one little boy would suffice" (2). We notice, uncomfortably, that Pearl expects the child to meet her needs - to "suffice."(10) We realize that this is Pearl's own voice here, a voice that reflects her perspective and not an ironic commentary on the character. She continues:
But it wasn't as simple as she had supposed. The second child was Ezra, so sweet and clumsy it could break your heart. She was more endangered than ever. It would have been best to stop at Cody. She still hadn't learned, though. After Ezra came Jenny, the girl - such fun to dress, to fix her hair in different styles. Girls were a kind of luxury, Pearl felt. But she couldn't give Jenny up, either. What she had now was not one loss to fear but three. Still, she thought, it had seemed a good idea once upon a time: spare children, like spare tires, or those extra lisle stockings they used to package free with each pair. (2)
In fearing the loss of her children, and in knowing the loss of her husband, Pearl makes the children's lives a misery and transfers an inescapable sense of anxiety to them all. No child of the Tull family ever feels "at home." Sick for home and sick of home, they suffer from the shame and dread they have come to know in relation to failing to meet their mother's needs. Beck's absence reinforces their misery; they see that he has not met Pearl's needs, either.
As the oldest child and the first son, Cody gets a larger share of Pearl's resentment, perhaps; significantly, because he is the hyper-vigilant guardian of the family system, he acts out more than the other two children. His experience of his father's leaving is described as follows:
One weekend their father didn't come home, and he didn't come the next weekend either, or the next. Or rather, one morning Cody woke up and saw that it had been a while since their father was around. He couldn't say that he had noticed from the start. His mother offered no excuses. Cody, watchful as a spy, studied her furrowed, distracted expression and the way that her hands plucked at each other. It troubled him to realize that he couldn't picture his father's most recent time with them. Trying to find some scene that would explain Beck's leaving, he could only come up with general scenes, blended from a dozen repetitions: meals shattered by quarrels, other meals disrupted when Ezra spilled his milk, drives in the country where his father lost the way and his mother snapped out pained and exasperated directions. (46)
Cody finally confronts his mother about his father's absence, but she "[chooses] that moment to come over and smooth his hair down" (Cody's narrative voice here). She remarks, "My, . . . you're getting so big! I can't believe it." She adds, as Cody shrinks back in his seat, "You're getting big enough for me to start relying on." Cody answers her, "I'm only fourteen." Cody shrinks in fear from the implications of the burden placed on him by his mother's statement. After this confrontation with her, Cody sets out to prove that he's "only" fourteen by indulging in sibling warfare with his brother Ezra. When he hears his brother singing in the shower, Cody "open[s] the door just a crack, snake[s] one arm in, and turn[s] on the hot water in the sink. Then he travel[s] through the rest of the house, from kitchen to downstairs bathroom to basement, methodically opening every hot water faucet to its fullest." The narrative voice - Cody's own - adds, "but you couldn't really say his heart was in it (46-47).
Cody resists his mother's efforts to "rely" on him, but, at the same time, he develops an obsessive jealousy of Ezra. Cody complains to his school friends of his mother's preference: "She likes Ezra best, my dumb brother Ezra. Sissy old Ezra." (53). Looking at family systems theory, we can predict that Cody will bring his family-of-origin issues to his own marriage. But our predictions seem almost conservative when we learn that Cody steals Ezra's fiancee (whom Cody doesn't even find attractive), marries her himself, and then moves his family constantly in the way that his father had moved from "transfer" to "transfer" until he finally moved out. What's worse is that Cody suspects his wife Ruth of conceiving their son (Luke) with Ezra. In avoiding Ezra, Cody never comes "home" in a substantial way again. He doesn't need to, for he embodies the family's "home" in his "lack."
Pearl wonders whether she could have prevented the marriage between Cody and Ruth. She thinks:
Ridiculous, of course, to imagine that anything she did could have mattered. What happens, happens. It's no one's fault. (Or, it's only Cody's fault, for he has always been striving and competitive, a natural-born player of games, has had to win absolutely everything, even something he doesn't want like a runty little red-head far below his usual standards). (194)
Family systems theory teaches that there can be individual responsibility without the assignment of blame; in the family there is a complete system in which each person plays a part and performs one or more functions.(11) And Pearl is no shallow character. She understands the unhappiness in what Cody has done in marrying Ruth, and she knows on some level, "ridiculous" or not, that she must take some of the responsibility even through "imagining" that "anything she did could have mattered." She repeatedly reflects on the question of whether the children might "blame her for something she's done" (24, 206). When Pearl finally visits Cody and Ruth, "she [feels] in their house the thin, tight atmosphere of an unhappy marriage. Not a really terrible marriage - no sign of hatred, spitefulness, violence. Just a sense of something missing. A certain failure to connect, between the two of them" (201). Pearl can understand that "failure to connect," for she has experienced that with Beck. And now Cody and Ruth repeat the family pattern - Cody, suspicious of Ruth's imaginary betrayals, not really wanting her but wanting to possess her because Ezra wanted her and because Pearl seemed to favor Ezra over him. Cody actually says to Ruth when Luke is almost fourteen, "'Admit it,' Cody said. 'Isn't Ezra the real, true father of Luke?'" (255). Emotionally, with this marriage, Cody also can reenact Beck's abandonment of Pearl; by marrying Ruth, Cody can find reasons never to come home again. Thus, he can wreak vengeance on Pearl for preferring Ezra and vengeance on Ezra for claiming Ruth first as his love. And if Cody cannot have Beck's love, he can be like Beck, keeping his distance from his wife Ruth and his own son, feeling that they are not "really" his family. Cody perpetuates the sad family legacy.
Ezra does his part to maintain the family system, too. He carries around with him his grief at "losing" Ruth in the same way that he has seen his mother carry a lifetime of grief over Beck's absence. At one point, after Pearl has visited Cody and Ruth and has realized that they are not happy and that Ezra is still grieving, she confronts Ezra. She asks him, "Don't you ever think of just going there and trying to get her back.?" Ezra answers, "I couldn't," and Pearl wonders, "Could it be that he took some satisfaction in his grief? (As if he were paying for something, she thought. But what would he be paying for?)" (206).(12) As we pay for the relationships of our parents, so Ezra pays for his parents' relationship.
The remarkable thing about Ezra and about people in general is that some of them are able to give to others what they themselves have needed but never received. Thus, Ezra stays with Pearl. He creates his life through his decision to open a restaurant - the "homesick" restaurant - where he can give people the nourishment Pearl never gave him. Pearl is described as "a non-feeder, if ever there was one" (179). The description (given by Cody to Ruth) is graphic:
Even back in [the children's] childhood, when they'd depended on her for nourishment . . . why, mention you were hungry and she'd suddenly act rushed and harassed, fretful, out of breath, distracted. He [Cody] remembered her coming home from work in the evening and tearing irritably around the kitchen. Tins toppled out of the cupboards and fell all over her - pork 'n' beans, Spam, oily tuna fish, peas, canned olive-drab. She cooked in her hat, most of the time. She whimpered when she burned things. She burned things you would not imagine it possible to burn and served others half-raw, adding jarring extras of her own design such as crushed pineapple in the mashed potatoes. (180)
Though Cody and Jenny suffer eating disorders of a kind (Jenny skips meals and diets, and Cody doesn't care about food at all), Cody describes Ezra as a "feeder." He reflects:
Yes, only Ezra . . . had managed to escape all this. Ezra was so impervious - so thickheaded, really; nothing ever touched him. He ate heartily, whether it was his mother's cooking or his own. He liked anything that was offered him, especially bread - would have to watch his weight as he got older. But above all else, he was a feeder. He would set a dish before you and then stand there with his face expectant, his hands clasped tightly under his chin, his eyes following your fork. There was something tender, almost loving, about his attitude toward people who were eating what he'd cooked them. (181)
That Ezra can access the potential to give what he has never had may be part of a family dynamic in which a family member compromises what Napier and Wittaker refer to as "his/her own needs in order to please" another (223). Ezra, having witnessed his mother's distress at the necessity of preparing food for her children, attempts as an adult to please her. Thus, he will stay with her and not abandon her, however overwhelmed he may feel, and he will attempt to give her the nourishment she was unable to give him.
Of course, Pearl is not pleased with Ezra's choices. She had wanted him at least to go to college. And she is also jealous of Ezra's relationship with Mrs. Scarlatti, the owner of the restaurant, who sells Ezra a partnership for one dollar. Mrs. Scarlatti's own son has been killed in the Korean war, and she views Ezra as a replacement of sorts; they nourish one another. Ezra reflects:
His brother and sister were out in the world; he loved his mother dearly but there was something over-emotional about her that kept him eternally wary. By other people's standards, even he and Mrs. Scarlatti would not have seemed particularly close. He always called her "Mrs. Scarlatti." She called Ezra her boy, her angel, but was otherwise remarkably distant, and asked no questions at all about his life outside the restaurant. (128)
So even here we have the eternal tension between differentiation and integration, a tension examined earlier between Beck and Pearl. In The Evolving Self, Kegan defines "the two greatest yearnings in human experience" as "the yearnings for autonomy and inclusion" (107-08). Ezra finds it more satisfying to be needed by Mrs. Scarlatti, who leaves his autonomy intact, than to be needed by Pearl, who threatens to consume or redefine him. Broderick and Schrader discuss the problem of family boundaries in the context of the work of the family therapist Theodore Lidz. They comment that Lidz
became especially concerned with the failure of . . . families to develop adequate boundaries and with their intense symbiotic needs derived from a parent's need for and inability to differentiate himself or herself from the patient. In some cases the parents were distant and hostile toward each other (the condition he labeled "schism"). In others there was a tendency for the mother to become domineering in a destructive way (the condition he labeled "skew"). He felt that the first condition was hardest on male children and the second on females. (21)
Pearl's inadequate boundaries, Pearl's and Beck's (literal) distance, and Pearl's destructively domineering approach to parenting affect all of the children in the Tull family. If Cody and Ezra as male children suffer most from "schism" - and Cody gets the worst of it - Jenny suffers more of the "skew" effect. Jenny is the only child of the family who suffers a true breakdown (after her second divorce); she relives her mother's abuse during this breakdown, for we learn that "All of her childhood returned to her: her mother's blows and slaps and curses, her mother's pointed fingernails digging into [her] arm, her mother shrieking, 'Guttersnipe! Ugly little rodent!' . . ." (236).
Jenny at this time feels "that she had always been doomed to fail, had been unlovable, had lacked some singular quality that would keep a husband. She had never known this consciously, before, but the pain she felt was eerily familiar - like a suspicion, long held, at last confirmed" (235). Jenny feels that she is "doomed"(13) to repeat the tragedy of the family system:
Was this what it came to - that you never could escape? That certain things were doomed to continue, generation after generation? . . . She brought Becky [her infant daughter] a drink of water in the middle of the night and then suddenly, without the slightest intention, screamed, "Take it! Take it!" and threw the cup into Becky's face. (236-37)
Napier and Whitaker clarify what we see as Jenny's impulse to abuse her child; it is the pattern she knows. Napier and Whitaker write of this behavior pattern: "The abused child often clings to the abusing parent rather than go to a foster home, and he later grows up to abuse his own children even though he hated the treatment he received. The pattern one knows is . . . the pattern one knows" (222). And although Jenny and the other children wanted to run away as children, they realized that they didn't "have anyplace to run to" (56). So Jenny begins to repeat the pattern she knows after she has been abandoned by her second husband, Sam Wiley, and after she has left her first husband, Harley Baines. And why has Jenny made these choices? Again, Napier and Whitaker clarify behavior such as Jenny's when they write, "Why do some people choose partners who precipitate panic in them, who embody, in fact, some of their worst fears? We have already partially answered this question: the need for a sense of identity is so strong that it overrides issues of pain and pleasure" (222).
Jenny's first marriage is to a man who is remarkably like Pearl. Harley Baines, described as a "scientist/genius," is as obsessively orderly as Pearl was - and perhaps even more of a controller. Jenny laments her marriage to this man:
"It's not as if I hadn't been warned," said Jenny, "but I didn't realize it was a warning. I was too young to read the signals. I thought he was only like me, you know - a careful person; I always was careful, but now compared to Harley I don't seem careful at all. I should have guessed when I went to meet his parents before the wedding, and all the books in his room were arranged by height and blocks of color. Alphabetized I could have understood; or separated by subject matter. But this arbitrary, fixed pattern of things, a foot of red, a foot of black, no hardbacks mingling with the paperbacks . . . it's worse than Mother's bureau drawers. It's out of the frying pan, into the fire!" (113)
Jenny progresses from Harley Baines and the warnings that have come too late to Sam Wiley, a man whom she loves, but who, just as Beck abandoned Pearl, abandons her before their daughter Becky is born. Jenny suffers her nervous breakdown and, strangely enough, Pearl comes to help her, giving up two weeks of vacation time. Although Pearl may have caused some of Jenny's pain, she is also there for Jenny; Pearl takes care of Jenny in a way that attempts to make some amends for the past. Pearl is patient with Becky; Ezra and Cody also come for brief visits, and the next summer Jenny moves back closer to home, back to Baltimore. It is in the revisiting of home, and without the benefit of family therapy, that Jenny first tries to distance herself from the reflexes and responses her family has programmed into her identity. When what some therapists refer to as family of origin "tapes" startle Jenny, she copes by stepping back, almost as an observer:
Sometimes, loud noises made her heart race - her mother speaking her name without warning, or the telephone jangling late at night. Then she would take herself in hand. She would remind herself to draw back, to loosen hold. It seemed to her that the people she admired . . . had this in common: they gazed at the world from a distance. There was something sheeted about them - some obliqueness that made them difficult to grasp. (240)
We are told of Jenny at this point that "she was learning how to make it through life on a slant. She was trying to lose her intensity" (240). Cognitive therapists such as Aaron Beck advise us to distance ourselves from learned responses, to understand why our sometimes intense reactions are really the result of events that happened years before the incidents merely "triggering" these reactions. Pearl recognizes immediately that Jenny has altered her reactions to things. Pearl tells her, "You've changed. . . . You've grown so different, Jenny. I can't quite put my finger on what's wrong, but something is" (240).
Without the assistance of a drug such as Prozac, Jenny begins to anesthetize herself emotionally. After a childhood in which Pearl's terrible domination violated Jenny's boundaries, Jenny attempts to build into herself some sort of defense mechanism to protect her from the dangers of intimacy while allowing her to move back, closer to home (she increases proximity). Knowing that she is unable to cope with real intimacy, Jenny remarries. This time her marriage is to a man - Joe - who has himself been abandoned by his wife and who is attempting to raise his six children alone. Jenny regards the children as a buffer to make any dangerous intimacy impossible. We are told of Jenny:
Then she met Joe with his flanks of children - his padding, his moat, his barricade of children, all in urgent need of her brisk and competent attention. [Jenny is a pediatrician!] No conversation there - she and Joe had hardly found a moment to speak to each other seriously. They were always trying to be heard above the sound of toy trucks and xylophones. She didn't even have time for thinking anymore. (240)
Jenny seeks to avoid the intimacy that might leave her vulnerable to abandonment or to engulfment. She intends to stay with Joe, and quips, "Whoever's the first to mention divorce has to take the children" (211). It is interesting that Jenny has managed to get through life without any real family or individual therapy. Moreover, when she attempts to cope with her stepson Slevin's despair over his abandonment by his biological mother, she dismisses the option of therapy for him. (Such therapy could, perhaps, open up issues which Jenny prefers not to "take to heart" ). Slevin is now an adolescent and has taken to stealing things that remind him of his mother: he steals, for example, Pearl's Hoover vacuum cleaner. He also skips school - "February," for instance. Jenny informs the teacher who suggests "professional counseling" for Slevin,
I don't see the need to blame adjustment, broken homes, bad parents, that sort of thing. We make our own luck, right? You have to overcome your setbacks. You can't take them too much to heart. I'll explain all that to Slevin. I'll tell him this evening. I'm certain his grades will improve. (221)
Jenny takes the attitude that what happened to Slevin six months ago (his move to her blended family) shouldn't be of concern to anyone now. She has learned to "unplug" from her past so much that she shows Slevin a picture of herself taken at age thirteen and tells him that he's "overreacting" to the sadness of the picture. Slevin exclaims that the picture of Jenny is "like a . . . concentration camp person, a victim, Anne Frank! It's terrible! It's so sad!" Jenny's reaction is surprise. She reflects, "True, the picture wasn't particularly happy - it showed a dark little girl with a thin, watchful face - but it wasn't as bad as all that. 'So what?' she asked" (229).
No longer "connected" to her feelings about her past, Jenny copes as best she can. Slevin objects to Jenny's indifference, and even Pearl asks Jenny, "Do you have to see everything as a joke?" (231). Joseph B. Wagner, who takes a Freudian approach to the text (1990) and attributes the children's problems to "father hunger," writes of Jenny that
She approaches her life with a benign but distancing sense of humor that renders tolerable many burdens but also creates a defensive shell penetrable by no one. As a result of this insularity, Jenny will never accept the central, focal role in someone else's life, nor will she allow another to play such a crucial part in hers. (76)
While Wagner argues that the descriptions of the Tull children "provide us with psychologically credible profiles of children suffering from 'father hunger'" and maintains that "Tyler carefully develops Cody's aggression, Jenny's detachment, and Ezra's passivity as haunting effects of Beck's absence" (75), we (and Pearl) sense that a family systems approach enhances our ability to forgive the characters their flaws; the reader can no longer ascribe the greatest share of "blame" to an individual character.(14) Pearl understands that the children remember the past in their own way and that she is a part of that memory. What she hopes for now is forgiveness. She thinks:
Something was wrong with all of her children. They were so frustrating - attractive, likeable people, the three of them, but closed off from her in some perverse way that she couldn't quite put her finger on. And she sensed a kind of trademark flaw in each of their lives. Cody was prone to unreasonable rages; Jenny was so flippant; Ezra hadn't really lived up to his potential. . . . She wondered if her children blamed her for something. Sitting close at family gatherings (with the spouses and offspring slightly apart, nonmembers forever), they tended to recall only poverty and loneliness - toys she couldn't afford for them, parties where they weren't invited. Cody, in particular, referred continually to Pearl's short temper, displaying it against a background of stunned, childish faces so sad and bewildered that Pearl herself hardly recognized them. Honestly, she thought, wasn't there some statute of limitations here? When was he going to absolve her? He was middle-aged. He had no business holding her responsible any more. (24-25)
It is no mistake that Pearl requests that the hymn played at the closing of her funeral service be "We'll Understand It All By and By" (324). Forgiveness is possible only after understanding. There is a kind of closure in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in our understanding, Beck's and Cody's forgiveness,(15) and in the ritual of dinner. Returning for the funeral, Beck joins his family at the restaurant for another disrupted meal. Beck leaves, but Cody runs after him. As Cody "was searching for something to say," he
happened to look toward Prima Street and see his family rounding the corner, opening like a fan. The children came first, running, and the teenagers loped behind, and the grown-ups - trying to keep pace - were very nearly running themselves, so that they all looked unexpectedly joyful.
"They've found us," he told Beck. "Let's go finish our dinner." (343)
Moreover, Beck and Cody forgive and understand one another in a way when, as Wagner points out, Cody "takes his wayward father's elbow and leads him back 'toward the others' (DHR, 303)" (75).
The family is reunited, however briefly (Beck still insists that he plans "to leave before the dessert wine's poured" ). Although individuals may experience absolute happiness for brief moments,(16) people bond together not only because of the pleasure they share, but also for the pain. And we as readers become a part of what Napier and Whitaker call "the family crucible" in our understanding of the Tull family system. If, physically, they are no longer together, for Pearl is dead now, they are nonetheless spiritually and psychologically part of a larger system that mitigates their intrapsychic solitude and pain. Although Beck has been physically "absent" from the family for many years, he has remained a part of the family system; now it is Pearl's turn to be "absent" physically, but present in the memory of her children and grandchildren. Cody, finally able to bear his memory of the past (343), recalls that Ezra always says, "All we have is each other. . . . We've got to stick together; nobody else has the same past that we have" (338). Having come to know and to understand the characters, their past, and their family system, we discover that their homesickness is, for a moment, our own.
1 John V. Knapp, Striking at the Joints: Contemporary Psychology and Literary Criticism. I am greatly indebted to Knapp for his generous notes, his guidance with this manuscript, and his comprehensive knowledge of family systems therapy.
2 See Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. See also Adolf Greenbaum's Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis and The Foundations of Psychoanalysis. See also Frederick Crews's essay in The New York Review of Books and Knapp, Striking 27, for several references.
3 See Althea J. Horner, Object Relations and the Developing Ego in Therapy.
4 Schneiderman's conclusions about the ability of adult children to overcome dysfunctional childhood relationships are more pessimistic than mine - and, I think, Tyler's.
5 Framo, "Integration" 137. Framo also provides us with an overview of the development of family systems therapy in "A Personal Retrospective of the Family Therapy Field: Then and Now". See also Mary Ellis Gibson, "Family as Fate: The Novels of Anne Tyler."
6 Augustus Napier and Carl Whitaker, The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy. Mary F. Robertson alludes to Napier and Whitaker, writing, "This book [Dinner] might be read only as a dramatization of what one therapist calls the family crucible; Tyler is very good at showing how neurotic traits ricochet off one another in a family and are passed on to the next generation." Robertson adds, though, "If that were all, however, the novel would be nothing special. Its particular virtue lies in the way it places the family's children, Jenny, Ezra, and Cody, in various exogenous relationships which prove as formative and valuable to them as do their family ties" (187). Exogenous relationships do influence the characters in a formative way; however, the novel as an illustration of the "family crucible" is not only "special," but remarkably powerful. See also Evan Imber-Black, Families and Larger Systems, Lynn Hoffman, Foundations of Family Therapy, and E. H. Friedman, From Generation to Generation.
7 See P. Boss, "Family Boundary Ambiguity."
8 Petry quotes Ann Jones: "The overall effect . . . is that 'the reader is schooled in caring for each flawed character. So the effect of those lucid revelatory scenes is to produce, in the reader, the deepest sense so far in Tyler of irony that is both understood and felt'" (Critical Essays 189).
9 See Paoline and McCrady 489; they establish the possibility that an implicit marriage "contract" exists "to support the other's perception of self-in-relation-to-other. See also Kegan 72-113 for a discussion of developmental tasks and the need for approval.
10 Tyler 2. See Nagy Boszormenyi and G. Spark, Invisible Loyalties: Reciprocity in Intergenerational Family Therapy. The process of seeing the child's primary obligation as meeting one's needs is called "parentification."
11 Mara Selvini Palazzoli asserts that in therapy
The family members are made to feel participants in the process that has caused one of them to develop a symptom. Such participation implies co-responsibility but no actual guilt, inasmuch as the contribution of each member, though part of the problem, has been quite involuntary - it is an inherent part of a game (and events) not dependent on the good will of the individual actors. (Selvini 139)
12 Tyler 206. For a discussion of intergenerational "co-evolution," see L. C. Wynne, "Epigenesis of Relational Systems."
13 See Gibson 47, who writes that in the work of Anne Tyler, "Family is seen in the light of cosmic necessity, as the inevitable precondition of human choice." Petry disagrees, and writes, "It is difficult, after all, not to feel that the Tull children are unusually fortunate in their capacity to grow beyond the debilitating effects of their 'homesickness'" (Understanding 206). I side with Petty in this debate; with the sense of closure I feel at the end of the novel, I feel that the children have grown and adapted reasonably well.
14 I argue that the "cycle" of the system completes itself when Pearl leaves (dies) and Beck returns for the funeral dinner. He - at least for a moment - picks up the responsibility that Pearl has laid down.
15 See note 13.
16 John Updike addresses Pearl's moment of absolute happiness recorded in the journal she kept as a gift when Pearl, weeding in the garden, "saw that [she] was kneeling on such a beautiful green little planet" (Tyler 314). See Updike, Hugging the Shore. An excerpt from Updike's "On Such a Beautiful Green Little Planet" is included in Petty, Critical Essays 107-10.
Beck, Aaron, T. Love is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy. New York: Harper and Row, 1988.
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Boszormenyi, Nagy, and G. Spark, Invisible Loyalties: Reciprocity in Intergenerational Family Therapy. New York: Harper and Row, 1973.
Broderick, Carlfred, and Sandra Schrader. 'The History of Professional Marriage and Family Therapy." Gurman and Kniskern 5-35.
Crews, Frederick. [title] New York Review of Books, (18 Nov. 1993).
Framo, James. "The Integration of Marital Therapy with Sessions with Family of Origin." Gurman and Kniskern 133-58.
----- "A Personal Retrospective of the Family Therapy Field: Then and Now." Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 22.3 (July 1996): 289-315.
Friedman, E. H. From Generation to Generation. New York: Guilford P, 1985.
Gibson, Mary Ellis. "Family as Fate: The Novels of Anne Tyler." Southern Literary Journal 15:3 (1983): 47-58.
Greenbaum, Adolf. The Foundations of Psychoanalysis. Berkeley: U. of California P, 1984.
-----. Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis. Psychological Issues. Monograph 61. Madison, CT: International UP, 1993.
Gurman, Alan S., and David P. Kniskern, eds. Handbook of Family Therapy. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1981.
Hoffman, Lynn. Foundations of Family Therapy. New York: Basic, 1981.
Horner, Althea J. Object Relations and the Developing Ego in Therapy. New York: Jason Aronson, 1979.
Imber-Black, Evan. Families and Larger Systems. New York: Guilford P, 1988.
Jones, Anne G. "Home at Last, and Homesick Again: The Ten Novels of Anne Tyler." The Hollins Critic 23 (April 1986): 1-14.
Kegan, Robert. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.
Knapp, John V. Striking at the Joints: Contemporary Psychology and Literary Criticism. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1996.
Napier, Augustus, and Carl Whitaker. The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy. New York: Harper and Row, 1978.
Paoline, Thomas J., Jr., and Barbara S. McCrady. Marriage and Marital Therapy: Psychoanalytic, Behavioral and Systems Theory Perspectives. New York: Burnner/Mazel, 1978.
Petty, Alice Hall. Understanding Anne Tyler. Columbia, SC: U of. South Carolina P, 1990.
-----, ed. Critical Essays on Anne Tyler. New York: Macmillan, 1992. Phillipson, H. The Object Relations Technique. London: Tavistock, 1955.
Robertson, Mary F. "Anne Tyler: Medusa Points and Contact Points." Petty, Critical Essays 184-204.
Satir, Virginia. Conjoint Family Therapy. 3rd ed. Palo Alto, CA: Science and Behavior Books, 1983.
Schneiderman, Leo. "Anne Tyler: The American Family Fights for its Half-Life." American Journal of Psychoanalysis (March 1996): 65-81.
Selvini, Matteo, ed. Trans. Arnold J. Pomerans. The Work of Mara Selvini Palazzoli. London: Jason Aronson, 1988.
Stephens, C. Ralph, ed. The Fiction of Anne Tyler. Jackson, MS: UP of Mississippi, 1990.
Tamblyn, Greg. The Shootout at the I'm OK, You're OK Corral. Nashville, TN: Tunetown Records, 1992.
Town, Caren J. "Rewriting the Family During Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." Southern Quarterly 31.1 (1992): 14-23.
Tyler, Anne. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. New York: Ballantine, 1982. Updike, John. Hugging the Shore. New York: Knopf, 1983.
Wagner, Joseph B. "Beck Tull: 'The absent presence' in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant." Stephens 73-83.
Wynne, L. C. "Epigenesis of Relational Systems." Family Process 23 (1984): 297-318.
Judith Ann Spector is professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University at Columbus, where she teaches literature and writing courses which foster self-discovery and self-expression. Her articles (in The Midwest Quarterly, Family Dynamics of Addiction Quarterly, University of Hartford Studies in Literature, and others) incorporate psychological approaches to literature and language, and she has edited an anthology entitled Gender Studies.
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|Title Annotation:||Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism|
|Author:||Spector, Judith Ann|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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