One of the common myths of families is the “happy family” myth. “We are a happy family and as such we are superior to other families,” is the essence of this myth. The parents of such a family may regard themselves as a super couple or power couple, and they designate their children as superior children who belong to a happy, superior family. One or both parents create the myth and designate the roles of each member of the family.
Along with this myth usually comes a prohibition to casting doubt on this myth. Casting doubt on the family myth is akin to a Christian doubting the existence of God. If you want to belong to this family, you need to be patriotic to the family myth. If you cast doubt on the myth, you are regarded as a family traitor.
The British psychologist, R. D. Laing, even went so far as to describe family myth-making as a kind of hypnosis. “The hypnotists (the parents) are already hypnotized (to their parents) and are carrying out their instructions, by bringing their children up to bring their children up…in such a way, which includes not realizing that one is carrying out instructions.” He notes that a child who wakes up from the hypnotic trance and begins to think for herself or himself is viewed as a renegade or as insane by the rest of the family, who are still in a hypnotic spell.
In one case with which I became familiar, the mother was the “CEO” of the family and it was she who created the family myth. In this family mythology, which was developed over a period of years as the family expanded and evolved, she designated each member’s role and personality, almost like a CEO designates the roles that each employee plays in a company. The husband was viewed by her as a failure and weakling because he failed to fulfill her fantasies of what her husband should be. She openly degraded him to her children, going on about his failures as a husband and father; hence, in the family mythology, he was viewed and treated with little respect.
The oldest child, a boy, was similarly viewed by her in negative terms, as someone who was always failing to live up to her expectations. On the other hand, her second son was idealized by her and made to feel that he knew more than the father, the older brother, and everybody else. When they sat at the dinner table, the second oldest son would sit in the seat of honor and would hold court. Nobody could doubt him (according to the family myth) and he could be quite cruel to anybody by whom he felt threatened—all with the mother’s blessing. Everybody, including the father and the seven children, were taught to look up to this second-oldest brother and regard him as the savant of the family. The oldest brother had trouble doing this and was hence on the outs.
Of the four daughters that followed in succession, three of them remained loyal to the family myth. The mother carefully wove a fabric of mythology an they regarded themselves as members of a happy and superior family, despite the fact that they were economically below most families. The mother told them she was a superior mother and they were her superior offspring and they all went with that myth. Only one daughter, the youngest daughter, broke from the myth—that is, woke up from the hypnotic spell.
The youngest daughter seemed to arrive by mistake, or as an afterthought, and the mother regarded this youngest daughter—who was cute, adorable and talented—as an unwanted presence and as a bother. The mother had come from a family in which her younger sister had been more attractive and talented than her, and in which this younger sister was a favorite of both her mother and father. Hence, as a parent she related to her youngest daughter by unconsciously transferring her feelings about her younger sister onto this youngest daughter. She got revenge on her younger sister by displacing her anger onto this younger daughter and almost completely neglecting her.
Hence in the family mythology, this younger sister was viewed by her and the entire family in a negative way. This younger daughter later recalled in therapy that she was forced to walk to school alone at three years of age, and to come home alone—while other kids were picked up by their parents. When she came in the door and tried to talk to her mother and tell her what had happened at school that day her mother would be engrossed in the newspaper and paid no attention to her. She heard her mother complain to her older siblings, “She is an attention addict.” That became her brand. Whatever she said to family members, they saw it as a way to get attention to herself. Because of the complete rejection and the negative casting due to the family myth, she became the family joke. The older brother would at times praise her in defiance of the family myth, since he, like her, was seen as an outcast. Because of the abusive treatment she received by this family, she grew up as a loner, without much confidence and with much confusion about her identity.
However, the fact that she was the most maligned member of the family was both a bad and a good thing. It was good thing because it made her seek therapy and through therapy she was able to wake up from the family myth and to see the truth. When she did, she tried to talk to the other members of the family about how she had been abused, particularly by the mother and by the second-oldest brother, who was the mother’s “narcissistic extension.” However, her siblings repudiated her complaints and treated her like a traitor. “Mother was wonderful. How can you say such a thing?” It was as if she defiled God’s name.
After several years of therapy she realized that it was useless to try to talk to other members of the family about her painful role in the family. They all still subscribed to the family mythology. Gradually she broke from the family mythology and began to forge her own identity, apart from the family. It was a difficult task and required her to cut herself off from her family members one by one. Until the last member had been cut off, she remained hopeful that at least one of them could see her the way she wanted to be seen. But it was not to be.
Eventually, the youngest child established herself as a success by starting her own school in which children were taught “emotional education.” She wrote a couple of books that became noted in her field. The members of her immediate family heard of these books through the grapevine, but never read them, regarding them as further examples their baby sister’s attention-grabbing. The family of origin, living out its myth, has now splintered into members who have developed various mental disorders such as alcoholism and depression and have passed away before their time due to cancer and heart disease. The youngest (the traitor) is thriving, in touch with her feelings, with no major health issues, and living out her dream.