Among all the deprivations of my childhood, real and imagined, I never lacked for books. My earliest addiction was to the written word and my parents, especially my mother, would share books with me like unashamed junkies: I remember one year when The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr’s memoir of her mostly miserable Texas childhood, was in heavy rotation. There was also Anywhere but Here, Mona Simpson’s novel about a saturnine mother and her benighted daughter. We were suckers for pain; connoisseurs of childhoods gone wrong.
My mother and I identified with the victims of these stories; we both knew what it felt like to suffer at the hands of a parent. The stories we read were always juxtaposed against the stories we’d lived. Even if it went unspoken, we were always bound to the characters in our books. My mom called me right after seeing John Wells’s uninspired but emotionally throttling film adaptation of Tracy Letts’s 2007 play August: Osage County to commiserate; we had both seen the movie and couldn’t get over how powerfully it spoke to—practically yelled at—us. Pain, Letts reminds us, pain is what’s left.
* * *
Do you think I’m pretty?
Set in rural Oklahoma, August: Osage County opens with Beverly Weston’s only scene: he is hiring a young Native American woman named Johnna to help around the house. Beverly could have made something of his life, but after Skylark, his widely praised 1965 book of poetry, he has done little more than drink himself to the present day. His wife, Violet, is in a similar condition of suspended animation but her drug of choice is prescription opiates: “My wife takes pills and I drink,” Beverly tells Johnna. “That’s the bargain we’ve struck… I don’t drink because she takes pills. As to whether she takes pills because I drink… I learned long ago not to speak for my wife. The reasons why we partake anymore are inconsequential.” Beverly and Violet’s relationship is built on the erosion of self-confidence and regard for one’s quality of life. Their existence is one of predictable decay, one of resignation to the only pleasures left for them: mood-altering agents.
Like many addicts, Violet is hermetic; she lives within herself. Even her house is boarded up from the inside. Inebriated, she descends the stairs and enters Beverly’s study, turns to Johnna and asks about her. “You’re very pretty,” Violet tells Johnna, who thanks her politely. Violet then asks, in a tone of thinly veiled desperation, “Do you think I’m pretty?” Yes, Johnna replies, Violet is pretty.
This exchange is the first indicator of Violet’s personality, her inheritance. When she asks Johnna “Do you think I’m pretty?” it isn’t a matter of complimenting the girl–it is a test of reciprocity. Beyond that foggy yet keen desire to be recognized is a learned behavior; in order for Violet to be fed, she must first feed others. Violet, whose childhood was nothing but inconstancy, incessantly needs emotional reinforcement; trauma and abuse have devastated her ability to attach to others.
Trauma is a continuum of sorrow that ripples through generations of the Weston family. Like Violet, the other characters in August: Osage County are disturbed, angry, and aggressively self-medicated; their psychological disunity demonstrates the toll child abuse extracts from its victims, and the consequences for their children.
Later we learn more about the physical and emotional abuse that Violet and her sister, Mattie Fae, suffered. Aside from being the hereditary “gift that keeps on giving,” child abuse can produce markedly different reactions in its victims. Those like Violet, who suffer from consequences of abuse like borderline personality disorder, are dangerously unpredictable. The term “emotional instability” does not sufficiently describe the lability of her moods and behavior. Violet is constantly seeking ways to soothe herself—either through self-medicating or through the emotional support of others. This severe instability Violet endures can be as terrifying for her as it can be for the people around her. “Borderlines” see things as along a knife’s edge; something or someone can change from being an integral part of oneself to a hated tormentor and back in a matter of minutes.
* * *
Are you paying attention to me?
Violet’s fraught relationship to her daughters is the most telling indicator of her personality disorganization. When Beverly goes missing—but before he is found dead, having drowned in the lake—Ivy is the first to arrive. Sitting together on the stairs, Violet coos to Ivy: “You’re the prettiest of my three girls, but you always look like such a schlub. Why don’t you wear any makeup?” From Violet, no compliment comes without a cost.
During this cozy mother-daughter pow-wow, as Violet reaches into a bottle of pills, we learn from their conversation that she suffers from oral cancer. This hasn’t stopped her from smoking, however, and has only revitalized her substance abuse. As Violet takes another pill, she asks, “How many was that?” and when Ivy says, “I wasn’t counting,” her mother simply takes another. Violet, who often uses in front of her daughters, wasn’t asking, “Have I taken too many pills?” but rather, “Are you paying attention to me?”
* * *
Attachment and reaction
On entering her mother’s house, Violet’s eldest daughter Barbara–who has arrived with her husband, Bill, and their 14-year-old daughter Jean–is immediately struck by the heat of her childhood. Save cold-blooded Violet, the characters have been complaining about the stifling temperature in the stillborn cocoon of the family home throughout. Oppressive and uninviting, this heat enables Violet to seal herself off from the world. Like her drug use, it’s a form of strict control over the few things in life she is able to master.
Barbara is her mother’s favorite. Unlike Ivy, a supporting player who Violet reprimands for being single, Barbara comes bearing a family–albeit one with an already self-medicating daughter (found smoking outside), and a disintegrating marriage. Of course Violet finds a way to alienate Barbara, as she chastises her for not visiting enough, and tells her that although she was her father’s favorite, Beverly was “disappointed in her.”
The after-effects of childhood trauma are never confined to the victim’s mind alone. People like Barbara are continuously tormented not just by their own childhood, but by the enduring consequences of their parents’ own childhood abuse. Childhood trauma and the resulting attachment disorder are the products of inconstancy. John Bowlby, a psychoanalyst and the creator of Attachment Theory, determined that there is an instinctive and fundamental bond between children and their caregivers. He writes of the necessity of a child having a “secure base” and demonstrated the dire results for those who do not have such a base. Children who aren’t given a secure base often grow up unable to attach to or trust others; their relationships are mostly tenuous and contingent.
In Attachment and Human Survival (2004), the psychotherapist Joan Woodward expounds the range of reactions exhibited in the Weston family. While abusive experiences are usually denied, “Some children, alternatively, will make desperate attempts to appease their parents,” she writes. “Others may be very aggressive; having felt themselves uncared for they will, in turn, care for no one. Still others may fall back into believing that if they are ‘helpless’ or ‘ill’ enough, perhaps they will get the care they long for.”
Dutiful in her quest for appeasement, Barbara does everything a good daughter should. But what she really wants is to escape her mother. Escape is impossible, however, because she’s always being roped into Violet’s latest crisis. And Violet can bring Beverly into the conversation without his consent now that his bloated corpse has been discovered in the lake. She can increase her influence twofold by attributing her cruel opinions to a dead man. In the climactic dinner scene, Violet dramatically doffs her wig to reveal her bald head, gleaming with a few stray hairs still clinging to it. She has played the trump card, the get-out-of-rehab card. “At least I have a reason now,” she says with grim satisfaction. Her illness has given her license both to behave as she would normally and provided a new fount of the emotional support she so desperately needs.
* * *
My mother and I have been bickering for as long as I’ve been able to talk. Part of it is her temper; a flash grenade that flares up violently before vanishing without a trace. While her rages were relatively brief, their frequency only increased as our years of vagabondage began, around 1997. Most of my recent past has been concentrated on “working through” that time. Therapy has the unique ability to help you relive massive emotional trauma as a way of coming to understand it. But it has been my experience that the closer I get to building a coherent timeline the farther away any sort of healing becomes. By clawing ever deeper into the tangled roots of my past, I’ve found that the pain just gets more vivid, more so perhaps than when I was experiencing it. But the alternative—hiding at the bottom of a bottle—is more terrifying still.
My first memory of her drinking is of my pouring a 750ml bottle of Absolut vodka down the drain in our new apartment. I would have been about 10 years old; we had just lost our house and were suffering tremendously from it. I guess if I’d thought to dispose of the liquor I had some earlier memories of her self-medicating too. Things ebbed and flowed; her drinking would slow down and then ramp up but we always ended up lower than we had started. I say “we” because our relationship was that of a dyad, inseparably bound. I had no choice in this matter; she was my “secure base,” such as it was. She used to remind me that I had said we were a “team,” and I didn’t realize until much later how toxic that dynamic could become.
Her drinking intensified around the time I started high school. I had gone to live with my dad after being kicked out of a private school in Seattle. He lived half an hour north of the city and she decided to rent a brand new house in nearby Mill Creek, where there was a better high school to which I would later transfer. As with many of her well-intentioned endeavors—always trying to give me what I would have had if they hadn’t divorced—the house proved to be more than we needed or could afford. It was an immense product of the early 2000s real estate explosion with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a two-car garage. She was a psychiatric nurse practitioner in a devastatingly apposite case of “the wounded healer,” and she had one of her former patients move in with us to help out with rent and other things. The arrangement couldn’t have lasted more than six months. The woman, Michelle, was problematic. She called Michelle “borderline” but at that time my mother was my greatest concern.
In those days she would drive thirty miles home from the Canterbury tavern in Capital Hill—near our old house in Seattle—and come home incomprehensible, with vomit on her blouse. Sometimes I would scream frantically looking for her—her car was in the driveway, the dogs were here, so where was she? And then there she would appear, a bloated whale, beached on her ash-wood sleigh bed, seemingly about to explode from the pressure of her own accumulating carbon dioxide.
Since my parents’ divorce—an endless contest of cutting off noses to spite faces—things had taken a turn for the dysphoric as one crisis after another led my mother to shuttle us from rental house to rental apartment and so on. This permanent state of emergency made my default reaction one of defensiveness; I would attack fellow students and teachers with a saber of precocious invective to defend myself from the agony of being depressed, socially stunted, fat, among so much else that made me feel alien at that place I was so familiar with. I had been a student at Bush from Kindergarten through eighth grade and, despite my anxiety about the place, I hadn’t known anywhere else and quickly found that public schools were a lot less tolerant of my inveterate sass.
As a child, neither my mother nor my father could model normal interpersonal relationships for me. My mother was in the habit of “splitting” people and, thus, so was I. When you split someone you are making a black and white judgment about them; either cutting that person out of your life or exalting them on high. When relationships like this are modeled for a child—my mother was constantly making and ditching best friends—then he naturally sees personal connections as in a state of constant flux.
* * *
I’m running things now
Back in Oklahoma, the stage directions indicate that the house has been spruced up a little, but onstage the emotional climate has only risen. At the dinner table, Violet tells stories about what a pathetic alcoholic Beverly was, and interrogates Barbara about the younger woman Bill must be seeing.
Barbara: Three days ago… I had to identify my father’s corpse. And now I sit here and listen to you viciously attack each and every member of this family — (Violet rises, her voice booming.)
Violet: “Attack my family”?! You ever been attacked in your sweet spoiled life?! Tell her ‘bout attacks, Mattie Fae, tell her what an attack looks like!
Mattie Fae: Vi, please —
Ivy: Settle down, Mom —
Violet: (Points to Mattie Fae.) This woman came to my rescue when one of my dear mother’s many gentleman friends was attacking me, with a claw hammer! This woman has dents in her skull from hammer blows! You think you been attacked?! What do you know about life on these Plains? What do you know about hard times?
The eruption continues as Violet recounts still more horrors, including Beverly living in a car (“a Pontiac sedan”) when he was a child. Violet admits that her drug addiction has resurfaced but she warns Barbara that if she tries to take her pills away, she’ll “eat [her] alive.” Barbara is up to the challenge, and the scene ends, following a fracas to get Violet’s pills, with a moment of ur-parental engagement:
Violet: You can’t do this! This is my house! This is my house!
Barbara: You don’t get it, do you? (With a burst of adrenaline, she strides to Violet, towers over her.) I’M RUNNING THINGS NOW! (Blackout.)
* * *
In The Drama of the Gifted Child (1981), Alice Miller identifies the gifted, or even narcissistic, child as having a particular experience apart from other children. Drama is the key word of this text, given that the emotional effluvia of a distressed child is most immediately recognized as theater. “You’re being dramatic!” a well-meaning friend or parent might say to the child in crisis.
Theater is uniquely suited to representing the exogenous reality of mental illness. The caprice and unpredictability of mood and attachment disorders are easily represented onstage where one is constantly aware of the fact that, no matter how skilled the actors, everything is live and there’s no telling what might go wrong. When a person is in extremis, he is performing by transcending acceptable, “normal” behavior.
Whereas with a brilliant memoir like The Liar’s Club, in which one can identify with the pain and beauty of a childhood gone to hell, theater enables the actors to present the viewer with a living mirror. To experience the emotional fury of a great actor onstage (and, to some degree, on film; Meryl Streep’s Violet is superb) gives us so much more than words. Characters whose emotional lives are harrowingly intense and unpredictable do well in the declarative environment of the stage. One lightning-quick mood swing or a darting, panicked eye can immediately tell you more about yourself than any number of brilliant memoirs.
* * *
A good enough parent
What does the traumatized child want from his mother? What does it mean to lack a secure base? August: Osage County is a meditation on the idea of families rent asunder as a condition of their very existence. Abuse and deprivation produce people who lack the surety and constancy that are required for them to be “good enough” parents, to use the formulation of another eminent post-Freudian, Donald Winnicott.
Children of abuse and trauma experience a profoundly unusual and distressing form of parenting. A parent will talk out of both sides of his mouth, for instance, telling his child one day that he is immensely proud of his achievement back east and in the same breath berate him for not staying closer to home.
Having to monitor and regulate their parents’ substance abuse parentifies Barbara and her sisters; something changes inside you forever when your secure base comes home with vomit on her shirt, stupefied. This search for any sort of narcotic—anything that will numb the most acute pain and set the past aside however briefly—is so necessary to the parent, even if he wants nothing but to be good to his children. This search for escape pays its toll on the child not only because of the trauma of having an unavailable and neglectful parent, but from the realization that one of the things your parent is trying to escape is you. The parent searches constantly for an escape and it becomes the child’s job to hold him close.
* * *
Violet and Beverly showered much less abuse upon their children than they had suffered themselves while growing up, but trauma is no less severe for not involving a claw hammer, and it is no less real when it comes in the form of misguided deeds. Violet uses opiates as a way to escape, yes, but she also uses her opiate abuse as a way to reel Barbara back into the tumult of the family home.
When parents are incapable of caring for themselves psychologically, their children’s emotional needs go wanting. The problem with attachment disorder is that it doesn’t phase out over generations. We do not become our parents; we become something far more sinister. In her 1987 book, Intimate Partners, Maggie Scarf describes patterns that recur in intimate relationships, and finds that people’s reactions to their parents are strong enough to produce unconscious behaviors generations later. A son might fear his abusive, alcoholic father and live the life of a teetotaler only to see his own child react by developing an addiction of his own. Reacting to trauma in this binary manner is little better than repeating your parents’ mistakes: you run away from the past at breakneck speed only to discover you’ve been running in the wrong direction.
* * *
The tolerable and the terrifying
Violet might be Letts’s perfectly voiced incarnation of the detached person. She cannot interact with her children in a secure way; there is always something else going on behind the scenes. Compelled to express her displeasure at Barbara’s decisions, she resorts to using Beverly as a cudgel to enhance her own anger. Her daughters have been raised to expect this combination of helplessness and aggression: a real borderline between the tolerable and the terrifying. Barbara in particular highlights this need to constantly give her mother the nurturance she never received while fruitlessly seeking it for herself. Radioactive rage was never the norm at their house, but neither was competent parenting, nor recognition of one’s inherent worth as a child—it is precisely this confusion that demands constant vigilance on the part of the child and dissolves attachment.
Violet is forever seeking attachment and comfort, and yet this search is hugely volatile. The slightest misstep—real or imagined—on the part of a friend can turn them immediately into a mortal enemy. The point is not that the unattached person is unable to make a decision, but that the concept of “decisions” and “conclusions” is very different to her; everything is portable when you have no emotional home.
* * *
Someday all this pain will be useful to you
When I read The Liar’s Club, or Bastard Out of Carolina, or anything from the “monstrous parenting” section of Bailey/Coy Books in Seattle, I knew that wasn’t my life entirely. But it wasn’t comfortably far away, either. Sometimes we need flamboyant representations of pain in order to understand what we’re really experiencing. It was not a hammer or a belt that I feared in those years; it was a moving van, or an empty bottle of sauvignon blanc or three. Not being in imminent physical danger is far less comforting when the next emotional backdraft or financial setback is right around the corner, taunting you, waiting for you to leave yourself undefended.
Ill-will, anger, resentment—these are emotions I feel from time to time but those days seem so long ago now. Even the severe pain of reliving the worst moments feels like looking at someone else’s life, watching someone else’s play. Could it have really hurt that much? I wonder, were things that unpredictable? At this point the answer seems irrelevant.
But pretending that the past doesn’t—like an old sports injury—spark unbearable pain at the most unexpected and incongruous moments would be disingenuous. It is easy to feel like you can rewrite the past, recreate the narrative in a way that is digestible, when you’re on the therapist’s couch, or writing an essay about what so much senseless pain can do to others. But the truth is that the bad things follow you around waiting to grimly point out the deliriously happy families in Prospect Park, or the Instagram pictures of your friends’ sprawling family homes and their parents’ intact marriages.
I would like to say that there is a way out, but I haven’t found it. The truth is that to survive without feeling like an open wound your whole life requires a combination of cognitive vigilance—cruel irony that happy families can be a trigger warning—and constant reminders that history is not doomed to repeat itself.
 Now would be a good time to state that I claim neither the education nor the expertise to diagnose characters, real or fictional. The present work is based on my own research and personal experience.