Dear Drama Observers,
I have a friend who was raised in a family with an alcoholic father who took center stage in most family dramas… More on that in a moment.
In the small town where they lived, Dad was a revered figure. He’d fought in a war, returned home to build a thriving business from scratch, and employed many of the local citizens. He also built a great reputation and was highly regarded throughout the county.
If he’d been a movie star, he’d have been billed as the “strong, silent type.” While saying very little, he commanded respect from co-workers and distant admirers. He kept social interactions to a minimum, but despite his cool aloofness, he was lavished with praise. He had some sort of “it factor” that caused folks to adore him though he did little to reach out and build connections. Most of us have to work at such things, but he didn’t for some reason. He was hoisted atop a pedestal he never climbed, but people looked up to him, nonetheless.
That’s who Dad was in public; let me tell you who he was in private. At home, he was drunk more often than sober. He’d start drinking by late afternoon and wouldn’t stop until the wee hours of the morning. As quiet as he was when sober, he was verbose and animated when drunk. In fact, that’s how Mom and the kids could tell he’d been drinking… he talked. But more than that, he was abusive and mean. My friend remembers more than one occasion when Dad would fly into a rage and break most of the dishes.
By the next morning, however, Dad would’ve slept it off and sobered up. He’d come into the kitchen dressed for work, eat a nice breakfast, and kiss everyone goodbye… as if all the turmoil of the previous evening had never occurred.
There was another aspect of Dad’s pathology that can’t be left unmentioned. He cheated. In fact, he was a serial cheater. My friend knew it, her siblings knew it, members of the extended family knew it, the community knew it, and, most importantly, his wife knew it. But there was this unspoken understanding that it couldn’t be mentioned—an open secret that no one dared discuss.
This is where the drama comes in. As my friend got older, she had to wrestle with two competing realities.
First, there was Public Dad, the one on the pedestal whom everyone admired. The one to whom credit was given where no credit was earned.
Second, there was Private Dad whose negatives were on full display for his family to see. It was an ugly picture of drunkenness and infidelity.
Though obviously never stated directly, Dad’s obligatory drama terms were these: If you’ll accept the public me and pretend the private me doesn’t exist (even though you’ve seen and heard it with you own eyes and ears), life will go better for you. My friend was being coerced to accept a version of reality she knew didn’t exist. But if she refused to do so, she was scorned and made to feel crazy by Dad’s willfully blind sycophants.
For example, one morning she mustered up the nerve to confront Dad about the previous night’s drunken rampage. He looked at her and with all apparent sincerity replied, “What are you talking about? That didn’t happen. Why would you say something like that about me?” And then the subject was dropped. She later mentioned what had happened to her aunt (Dad’s sister) who replied, “Honey, I don’t know why you would make that up. Your daddy hasn’t been drunk in years. He just loves you so much, and you need to apologize to him.”
With the benefit of hindsight, my friend made this observation: “My dad had this amazing ability to revise history as he went along and believe his own revisions. But worse yet, other people believed them, too.”
My friend was never able to do what those around her had so willingly done—to lay aside truth and accept an altered, more convenient version of reality. Life would’ve been easier in the short run had she done so. But over the long haul, accepting the history revision would’ve come at the expense of her commitment to truth, her self-respect, her integrity—things she was simply not willing to forfeit.
Bowing to conformance pressures is sometimes called “the path of least resistance.” “Going along to get along” is another way to put it. Refusing drama participation—what author Scott Peck once called taking “the road less traveled”—like my friend did isn’t easy, but the long-term payoff is worth it.
Till next week.