Image: black and white photo of my brother and me (two white kids) ages 6 and 8. We’re sitting on a fence. I’m on the left, short brown hair, t-shirt and shorts. He’s on the right, short lighter hair, sweater and shorts. My arm is around his shoulders.
Now that we’re here, it’s obvious we were always going to be here.
I come from a family of cutter-offers. Most famously, my great uncles — my grandmother’s brothers — Uncle Bubble and Uncle Nippy. I also come from a family in which grown men are called “Nippy” and “Bubble.” At least on my father’s side. On my mother’s side, my great uncles were Max, Ben, Jerry, Bafe, and Joseph.
The Bubble/Nippy split was legendary: they had summer homes across the street from each other and didn’t speak to each other for the last several decades of Bubble’s life. Since they were born in the 1910s and died in 1970 and 1984, I can’t ask them why. Indeed, due to further cutting off — Bubble would not speak to my father — I likely would not have been successful had I tried to ask.
While Nippy and Bubble provided the template cut-off, my father’s family had other variations. My great-grandfather did not divorce his wife, but installed her in a separate house in the Maine coastal village my family invaded each summer. Later, Bubble’s children would cut off from my father and even later — each for a different reason — from my two uncles. Nippy’s three sons had overlapping and complex cut-offs that I never really understood.
There were also less absolute distancings. When my grandmother married my grandfather — a well-pedigreed fuck-up — they moved from the eastern US to the middle of nowhere Wyoming, so that my grandfather could run a dude ranch, one of his more colorful failures. He left after my father was born, came back, and left again for good when my uncle was born. Not long after, he volunteered — at the age of 30-something — for the Army and managed to get himself sent to Europe toward the end of WWII. Many brave adventures ensued, none of which involved being a father to my father and uncle. Later, after my grandmother remarried, my father — considered the problem child in the new family constellation — was sent to boarding school in the same city in which the family — mother, step-father, brother, half-brother — lived.
So I come from a long paternal line of cutter-offers and distancers. My father and I talked about this. A lot. Constantly. Ad nauseam. After my mother started heading toward divorce in the early 1970s, Dad started getting therapy based on Family Systems Theory. This theory helps you figure yourself out by the patterns of behavior — specifically closeness and distance — in your immediate and extended family. As part of his therapy — whether self-directed self-discovery, or assigned homework I was never clear — he sought out and (re)established connections to dozens of random relatives near and far. We found, among his papers, reams of Family Systems charts from napkin scribbles to wall-size pieces of taped-together butcher paper. Having grabbed ahold of Family Systems Theory like a lifeline — and having been sent away from his family as a young teen — my father viewed cutting off as the ultimate failing. He worked his ass off to build bridges, among others to Uncle Bubble’s family, who would not only not talk to him but would also, as we discovered in his papers, return his letters unopened, having written in thick magic marker “RETURN: REFUSED.”
Not all of his family outreach failed. He built a relationship with the father who had abandoned the family in his childhood, and with whom he had had only sporadic contact for the ensuing 30 years. Granddaddy ultimately moved in with my father for the last 24 years of his life — a very bickery, Odd Couple sort of sitcom. It is my impression that Dad’s relationships with his brother and half-brother also improved over this period. They had never been estranged, but I think he — and they — made an effort to bridge some pretty considerable gaps.
In “Story of Your Life” — the short story on which the movie “Arrival” was based — the hero, a linguistics professor (!!!), is tasked with learning and documenting the language of a species of alien — spaceships orbiting the earth and mirror-like devices permitting communication. The linguist figures out that their written language is not linear — as is most human writing — but rather requires the writer to have the entire sentence composed with the first stroke. She uses the term “semagram” to mean, roughly, “word,” and observes:
Comparing that initial stroke with the completed sentence, I realized that the stroke participated in several different clauses of the message. … Yet this stroke was a single continuous line, and it was the first one that [the alien] wrote. That meant the [alien] had to know how the entire sentence would be laid out before it could write the very first stroke. The other strokes in the sentence also traversed several clauses, making them so interconnected that none could be removed without redesigning the entire sentence. The [aliens] didn’t write a sentence one semagram at a time; they built it out of strokes irrespective of individual semagrams.
As she learns this written language, she finds it changing the way she thinks. “As I grew more fluent, semagraphic designs would appear fully formed, articulating even complex ideas all at once.” She realizes that, for the aliens, events are not sequential and causal, but coexisting and teleological. After she learns the alien’s written language, she finds that
new memories fell into place like gigantic blocks, each one measuring years in duration, and though they didn’t arrive in order or land contiguously, they soon composed a period of five decades. It is the period during which I know [the alien’s language] well enough to think in it, starting during my interviews with [the aliens], and ending with my death. … [O]ccasionally I have glimpses when [the alien language] truly reigns, and I experience past and future all at once. … I perceive — during those glimpses — that entire epoch as a simultaneity.
My brother and I got along well until late 2017. To that point, we had weathered our parents’ divorce and my father’s death, supporting each other, and sharing parent-based in-jokes, gossip about the larger family, remedies for nasal allergies, and adoration of and admiration for his kids, my niece and nephew. I always thought one of the reasons we got on so well was the utter lack of sibling rivalry which was based, in turn, on how different we were. Though we are relatively close in age — I’m 21 months older — we are different genders, which I think takes away a quick 80-90% of any sort of rivalry. We are different in most other respects, too: he excelled in science; I enjoyed languages. He was popular and outgoing; I was introverted and nerdy. I liked traveling and spent much of my late teens and early 20s living in Taiwan and traveling in Asia; he spent those years in Philadelphia and Delaware. I got a linguistics degree and then went to law school; he got a couple of chemical engineering degrees (B.S.; Ph.D.) and then went to business school. There was nothing we really competed in, which allowed us to support each other effortlessly in our respective worlds.
We are also politically opposite. Though we were both raised by the same folk-music-loving, Adlai-Stevenson-voting liberals, he started heading rightward in college, and ended up a Trump supporter by 2016. I know this only secondhand as we ceased being able to talk about politics mid-Bush-43, when he suggested lack of support for the Iraq war made one unpatriotic. His political views make me sad, but we ended up with an unspoken understanding that we would just stay off the topic, and trundled on.
Because of my father’s preoccupation with family systems — which started when we were approximately 12 and 10 — we heard a lot about our extended family and a lot about cutting off. We listened and watched and discussed the siblings and cousins who cut off, as well as those who sued each other over use of the common tennis courts, yelled at other people’s kids to stay off their docks, drove over each other’s lawns, and sent angry letters about microscopic differences in the shared use of a gorgeous piece of the Maine coast that at least I never had the patience to understand. And of course we knew The Legend of Bubble and Nippy — the touchstone/template/ur-cutoff.
So well did we know it, and so much a template was it, that when Bruce wrote me, just before our aunt’s funeral in December, 2017, “Not sure if we had our Nippy/Bubble moment or not,” I knew what he was talking about, and he knew I’d know. Then, 10 months later, there it was: he decided to “cut off all contact.”
I’m intentionally omitting the reason he does not want to talk to me. It would require a separate — likely tedious and long-winded — discussion, and honestly, given our family teleology, I’m not sure it matters. I will say that it was recursive or self-referential: a cut-off about a cut-off.
One of my father’s Family Systems mantras was that it takes two sides to cut-off, and that he refused to participate. I’ve expressed the same to my brother — that I do not want to cut-off; that we can resume communication at any time; that I love him — but as the returned letters showed my father, one person can be pretty damned effective at cutting off.
So I sit here, stunned and puzzled that this is where we are, yet feeling like we were always going to be here, the sentence written in our Family System before we were born. In the middle of the story, watching it sequentially, I would never have imagined the events that would get us here. If you had asked either of us in, say, 1985, I think we’d have laughed heartily at the idea that we would ever tread the ridiculous and over-analyzed path of our great uncles.
In the story, the linguist struggles with the meaning of free will in a thought system that understands history as coexisting and teleological rather than sequential and causal. Where, too, is the free will in a Family System? I’ve spent over 45 years thinking about our Family System, certain that I had the free will to escape the patterns. Now that we’re here, though, it feels like the entire sentence — one long run-on sentence from 1962 to 2018, one giant semagram — was always written this way.
Coda: This post focuses on the cut-offs. Many family members are moving away from some of the more destructive patterns, and I treasure my relationships with my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
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