Family has an ancient connotation, a biblical interpretation, and a literal application. The word itself is from the Latin familia, meaning household, which itself came from famulus, meaning ‘servant.’ There is also the historical biblical interpretation, which says that marriage is the lynchpin of the family unit. From Genesis 2:24, which is, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh," we get the modern social construct. The personal family is today best described as Marilynn Robinson puts it in her book The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought: a collection of people with shared “habits, tastes, stories, customs, [and] memories.” Well more than a framework for boring and technical scientific definitions of relationships between members of a species, family is also a way humans identify themselves -- by blood or by choice. Emotionally defined, family is perhaps the yearning in every person to belong to a strong and protective group one feels an obligation or loyalty to, a unit that can provide strength in numbers and shelter or comfort from a sometimes cruel world. Of course, families have their own brand of cruelty, and no family is exempt from this rule.
With the ancient definition, the overtone is clear: family is something owned (an object), or someone possessed by the House – these would be the women and their children, seized in conquest and forced into familial relationships for the sake of a nobler lineage or a wealthier family’s profit. Where family was once an identity given to someone when they were purchased by nobility or born into a specific bloodline, family in today’s more inclusive society is as much about association as it is about blood. This hidden history of the word is not often brought up or discussed, and of course not. It would decimate the moral judgment of those who hold the literal biblical belief described next.
Many believe America is a Christian Nation, but the Bible can be a confusing mess when defining family for those who attempt to literally follow the book. If family is the producer of morals and values, and marriage is the foundation of family, honest accounting means admitting that the definition of marriage has changed numerous times throughout the Bible. From polygamy as the standard in Deuteronomy 21:15 to God sanctioned-rape in Judges 21:10-24---. Expansion of family is the way of accounting for the history of man. Family is hard to characterize with consistency when using the biblical framework. The definition as according to civil law must, to be consistent with history, continue to expand.
Another incongruous example, relating more to my literal experience, is where the Bible, in Romans 8:15, tells me to “Be not afraid, for it is a spirit of adoption [I] have received.” In my life this bell rang more like a warning than an invitation – in hindsight – because a verse from Deuteronomy 23:2 which I also read, says “A bastard shall not be entered into heaven even until the tenth generation.” I am confused. How can I or my children and their children ever receive salvation? If America is a Christian Nation, and if the Constitution is truly Biblically based and therefore written and maintained in accordance with the accepted Christian familial structure, then there can be no true belief -- just a coerced ‘faith’ – and no real place within society for me and every other bastard-child.
Another misconception is that there was ever a perfect time for families. To use a typical white American’s view of the 1950’s, that decade was the idyllic time. But, says researcher, author and Professor Stephanie Coontz, “…rates of unwed childbearing tripled between 1940 and 1958, but most Americans didn't notice because unwed mothers generally left town, gave their babies up for adoption and returned home as if nothing had happened.” There is no ‘moral best’ available in the family structure; there has never been a generation where the family was the exclusive generator of proper values.
My personal story about family is not easy to digest, and most of it does not fit here. However, a brief overview is necessary to understand my perspective on the subject. At first, my only family was my fifteen year old mother. Having run away from home at twelve to escape a sexually aggressive father, her life quickly degraded into hard drugs and prostitution. This was how she met my ‘father,’ and became pregnant at fourteen. I never have known this person whose DNA is carried on in my body. I have no clue who or what he is. Family, for me, is incomplete.
Until I was three years old, this teenage girl was all I really understood as family. Yet she was the family who sexually abused me, who zipped me up in her backpack and left me on the bed in her hotel room while she went in search of tricks and/or drugs for hours or days at a time. She threw me at walls, sold my companionship for extra cash. Not long after that age, I ended up entirely dependent on the State and the generous taxpayers of California for my survival. Child Protective Services did finally step in, and my family for a time was the State-run orphanage. Not to burrow into hyperbole, but if there had been no state interference I likely would have died before age five.
I was adopted by an affluent family at three and a half. By this family I was consistently portrayed and treated as an angry and argumentative child looking for confrontation, a feral kid with no control over his emotions, rather than as the confused and inquisitive bright child with adult sensitivities about sexual activities that I was. Since the separation in my teenage years, when I was again returned to the custody of the state, there has been no contact. Well, that’s not exactly true.
I called my mom once when I was almost twenty-one. She asked who I was. I said “Jason.” She said, “Jason who?” “Your son.” “I don’t have a son.” I probably should have hung up then, but I stayed on the phone hoping she would acknowledge the eternal bond. I still sting every time a memory pops up (a lot) or a conversation with friends turns towards family affairs. When U2’s One is on at the supermarket or some other innocuous place, I get all weepy, because the last portion of lyric reminds me that we are all family. I include this last chunk because in its entirety we see described the tension between unconditional and conditional love in a family setting:
Did I ask too much?/More than a lot./You gave me nothing/ Now it's all I got./We're one/but we're not the same/Well we/Hurt each other then we do it again/You say/Love is a temple/Love a higher law/Love is a temple/Love the higher law/You ask me to enter/then you make me crawl/And I can't be holding on/To what you got/When all you got is hurt./One love/One blood/One life/You got to do what you should./One life/With each other/Sisters/Brothers/One life, but we're not the same/We get to carry each other/Carry each other…
It really is a privilege, I have learned, both to be carried and to have someone to carry when they need it.
Family is something I have now that, even as a young man, I never thought I could have again. I think often about the fortunate life I have led, how happy I am to love and be loved. How set apart I am from others who have been through similar horrific abuse, to have survived all of this. I thrive and feel grateful for my life despite what I’ve been through. I’m lucky, I know, and not just to live to tell the tale, but to be encircled by inexhaustibly amazing people. I belong to a family now, having surrounded myself with those who can stand my decline, those who do not pity me or take advantage of my vulnerabilities. These are people who know my sweet and gentle nature and believe it still exists though all they hear, night and day, is my bitching. This is the family that will mourn my passing, that will monitor my attitudes, and remind me that I appreciate a good debate but loathe a faulty argument, calling me on my bullshit when I try to sell it. This family will see the joy I take from parenting my not-yet-three year old girl. This is an amazing, smart, beautiful, and hope-filled child who will never have to know the horror or betrayal of my own childhood.
I know I have blood brothers somewhere, maybe sisters too. I know my birth mother is still alive. She lives somewhere near me, even. I have struggled, holding her address in my hands, with whether or not to attempt contact. I doubt it would be a good idea. Any reward of reconciliation must be balanced with the knowledge that my entire family – my family as we have chosen each other -- would also reap the consequences of my illogical inner need to somehow outwardly forgive the unforgivable.
Family for me has never been what it is for the people around me, the not so close and the close friends. I have watched their moms and dads die, their brothers get married, their sisters divorced, I have lost contact with countless caring women and as many generous men that I counted as my close friends. That has always been my family, until I found my wife. Now, there are two lives to intertwine, and a third to lead. We may not live up to someone else’s definition—we surely are not slaves to one another—but we are happy to have each other.
From slave to marriage and children, to units sharing emotional bonds, the word family has evolved and expanded in definition. Humans don’t need to bind themselves for profit or to please He Who Judges—but we are connected, connected by identity and common longing to trust and unconditionally love without fear of betrayal. This is impossible to expect from the family of man. We all want our Pops to have been perfect or our family history to not include the pedophile uncle. But families do, and keeping these secrets is unhealthy. Slave. Family meant slave.