We’ve become a nation of dysfunctional families. But Kenny Porpora survived being raised in one and explains how you can, too.
We have become a nation of dysfunctional families.
When I was seven-years-old, my Regis Philbin obsessed mother and my heroin-addict uncle absconded with my brother and me and our little pup, Wozels, on a chaotic, outlaw road trip through a dystopian American underworld in search of a better life. It was the beginning of a dysfunctional ride that lead me losing almost my entire family, meeting Roger Ebert, and somehow, making it to the Ivy League. It may have been fate, or luck, but I escaped a life I knew I didn’t want: I survived a dysfunctional family.
The five tips I’ve listed below helped me survive, and now you can play at home by making your own list! (Feel free to steal from me).
Accept the Facts that Your Odds Suck
People are quick to tell you what your odds are, and the odds are usually against you. I grew up in a family of alcoholics and addicts, where almost nobody lived long enough to celebrate their 40th birthday. And from an early age, I live with this fear that I would also die before I reached age forty, that this disease was in my blood, this kind of inherited failure I couldn’t outrun. As I grew older, into adulthood, I kept my dreams to myself. I don’t think I know why I believed I could make it to the other side. On some level, I suppose I had some intuition that there was a better life out there. And even if I was the only person who could see it, that was enough because it had to be. My story, which I’ve chronicled in “The Autumn Balloon,” is about accepting your crappy odds and throwing your hat into the ring anyway.
On an otherwise forgettable mid-week morning, when I was around eight years old, my uncle, stoned and dressed, as he usually was, in his karate gi, stood before me in our kitchen and practiced his newly learned spin kicks on me. When he missed a jumping roundhouse, he stumbled backwards, tripped, and fell into our open dishwasher. “Mom,” I said, walking into the living room where she was watching a rerun of Home Improvement. “I think Uncle Carter is dead.” She got up to check, “Goddamn it,” she said, and then she called for my brother. “Stephen! Come help me get your uncle out of the dishwasher!” He wasn’t dead (he may have fucked up the rinse cycle a bit), but it was events like this that made me laugh that I think got me through those harder times.
Humor needs dysfunction to exist. If you live with a crazy mother or a racist grandmother, a drunk uncle or a gambling dad, you’ve heard them at their worst, stumbling down hallways and ruining Thanksgiving dinners with their prejudiced epithets, and if you’re lucky you’ll look back, years from now, and laugh. And in a strange way, you’ll be grateful you came from such a fucked up place.
Rebuilding and Redefining Family
For me, a family is a thing you earn. I can’t discount the importance of blood, and those irreplaceable bonds I have with my mother, but I wanted to build a family of people whose love I’ve earned with time and patience and respect, which can sometimes be stronger than a blood bond. I lost nearly every member of my family before I was eighteen years old and was forced to rebuild it, and so I did, with writers and poets, teachers and mentors, people who enjoyed being alive and worked hard at having a happy life. They say you can choose your own family, just be careful who you choose.
Count on a Pet: My Little White Fluffy Doggy Named Wozels
Wozels was a fluffy white dog with a teddy bear and I got her when I was seven years old. Her first name was Joy, named after Regis Philbin’s wife. My mother hated Joy Philbin with an Olympic-level passion, and so we called her Wozels. There is an innocence to animals, an unconditional love, and I think we all need that in some form. Often, our animals will love us more than we might deserve. Even if we’re in the wrong, they’re always there. I experienced a lot of loneliness growing up, and animals can be a respite from that. Their love is stable, something you can count on, which is almost non-existent in a dysfunctional house. Pets can save you (though I’d recommend avoiding domesticated pigs named Rick or Kevin. Just trust me on this one…)
Writing is a sort of salvation. I often say writing is the only thing I have, and in a way, that’s not true. I have what little of my family is still alive, I have good friends, I have a significant other, and I have a career. But if all of that went away one day, I would still have my writing. And before I had my writing, I had other people’s writing. I had poems and essays and stories from men and women who had lost their fathers long before I did, and who had fallen in love, and then, out of it. I had the words of people who had suffered and struggled, who felt small and invisible, who felt ugly, who admitted strange and taboo things in book pages and stood bravely behind their humanness and managed to keep going. Writing is the ultimate escape from dysfunction. For me, it was that little window I could crawl out of, where I could run anywhere I wanted. It became my way of proving to myself I wouldn’t end up dead in the bed I grew up in as child, the way so many members of my family had. It helped me make sense of my loss and trauma, that clarity of thought that can close doors and bring peace.
You need a strategy to survive dysfunction, and the hope is that we can help each other with small tips like these, otherwise you might just go crazy and find yourself facedown in a dishwasher wearing a headband and karate gi. So get started on that list!
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Photo: shamaasa / Flickr