Orphan Thyself

Parents, in my opinion, have to be finessed, thought around, even as we love them: They are so colossally wrong about so many important things. And even when they are not, paradoxically, even when they are 100 percent right, the imperative remains the same: To live an “adult” life, a meaningful life, it is necessary, I would argue, to engage in a kind of symbolic self-orphaning. The process will be different for every person. I have my own inspirational cast of characters in this regard, a set of willful, heroic self-orphaners, past and present, whom I continue to revere: Mozart, the musical child prodigy who successfully rebelled against his insanely grasping and narcissistic father (Leopold Moz­art), who for years shopped him around the courts of Europe as a sort of family cash cow; Sigmund Freud, who, by way of unflinching self-analysis, discovered that it was possible to love and hate something or someone at one and the same time (mothers and fathers included) and that such painfully “mixed emotion” was also inescapably human; Virginia Woolf, who in spite of childhood loss, mental illness, and an acute sense of the sex-prejudice she saw everywhere around her, not only forged a life as a great modernist writer, but made her life an incorrigibly honest and vulnerable one.

In a journal entry from 1928 collected in A Writer’s Diary, Woolf wrote the following (long after his death) about her brilliant, troubled, well-meaning, tyrannical, depressive, enormously distinguished father—Sir Leslie Stephen, model for Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse and one of the great English “men of letters” of the 19th century:

Father’s birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today; and could have been 96, like other people one had known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books—inconceivable. …

The sentimental pathology of the American middle-class family—not to mention the mind-warping digitalization of everyday life—usually militates against such ruthless candor. But what the Life of the Orphan teaches—has taught me at least—is that it is indeed the self-conscious abrogation of one’s inheritance, the “making strange” of received ideas, the cultivation of a willingness to defy, debunk, or just plain old disappoint one’s parents, that is the absolute precondition, now more than ever, for intellectual and emotional freedom.

— Terry Castle, “Why kids need to separate from their parents

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