I Never Sang for My Father – Family Therapy
Tom Garrison was a mayor of a small town in Westchester County and highly respected by the community but most did not know that he was distant, cold and egocentric with his family. He had a negative relationship with his own father and idealized his mother. He drove his daughter away when she decided to marry a Jew, and alienated his son with his egocentricity, ritual storytelling and possessiveness.
Tom has a history of being abusive toward his children, as Alice described to Gene, “he beat you when you were a kid. You’ve hated and feared him all your adult life. ” Even Margaret admits that she suffered neglect from her husband.
Tom’s behavior causes difficulty forming close relationships with his family, and his strained relationship with his son peaks after his wife dies. Neither of them know what to do without her and they start to argue again. He shows two different sides of himself to the world and his family. His history seems to have impacted the way he interacts with his family members. He was distant from his father and is repeating that pattern with his own wife and children. He maintains distance from them and encourages the triangulation between his him, his wife, and his son, because it feels safer for him.
He is also triangulated with the television. While he struggled during his childhood, he had become very successful and well respected as an adult. During the film he stated “early in life I developed a will of iron,” but Tom used that same “will of iron” to raise and control his children, and even drove away his own daughter because he refused to accept her choice of a husband because he was Jewish. The main conflicts within the family are that everyone fears Tom and that he pushes everyone away by ritually telling the same stories, bragging about his success, and showing little to no interest in his wife and children.
His demanding methods and distant emotions prevent him and his grown children from being able to love and communicate with each other. The triangulated relationship begins to become evident when Tom and Gene were in the garage and Tom explained that he received Gene’s letters from California. Gene’s letters triggered Tom’s anxiety about him moving away, so he talks to Gene about his mother, trying to transmit the anxiety onto his mother’s health and Tom not being able to care for her in Gene’s absence. If you were to go out there, I mean to live, it would kill your mother. God, you know you’re her whole life” he said. He makes no statement about what effect it would have on him if Gene moved to California. Tom reinforces Gene as his mother’s emotional lifeline because he is distant from both Tom and Margaret and can only work with the other two members by bringing in a second person. When Gene spoke to his mother about it, she confirmed the triangulation and asked him “why doesn’t your father just admit that it would upset him? ”
If I had this family in therapy, I would start with creating a genogram, because I feel that’s the least intrusive way to get a holistic picture of the family and help me understand multigenerational patterns. I would try to join the family by asking questions to get everyone on board, such as “Do you want to continue to react to him in ways that keep conflict going, or would you rather feel more in charge of your life? ” to help build an environment conducive to movement and change, and ask the family to role play so that I could see and intervene with how they interact with one another.
If the wife was still alive, the goal would be to bring the husband and wife into a closer relationship to prevent the triangulation from continuing. If the wife had already passed then the goal would be to help the remaining three in the family talk about the role of the mother and come up with rules for boundaries so that expectations could be clear and they would have a better understanding of themselves. At the end of the movie Gene and Tom’s relationship was very strained, because they didn’t have the support of the mother anymore and they were left to deal with their relationship with each other as it was, without her help.
When Gene asked Tom to move with him to California, Tom became angry, seeming to feel like “No one cares about me, I’m just the money making machine. ” He refused to go and felt abandoned that Gene had even asked. If Tom had changed his response to Gene’s proposal to move to California then it could have seriously impacted the future of the family because Tom and Gene didn’t speak very much until he died. Tom could have asked Gene to tell him more about it, to invite a conversation, rather than to receive Gene’s suggestion as an attack toward his quality as a father.
Or if Tom saw his son’s invitation as gesture of affection and had considered moving to California, the quality of their relationship would have likely improved. The story “I Never Sang For My Father” was touching and easily-personalized. Most families have difficulties trying to attain or maintain an adult relationship with one’s parents. The relationship parent-child changes when the child grows into an adult and the child feels more empowered. Tom did not entertain the idea of Gene feeling more empowered as an adult, he treated him more like a child because it helped his ego.
I felt angry at the father, seeing him as impossible, ignorant, and stubborn, but it’s important for me to note that it’s imperative that I’m aware that is my opinion based on projection from past experiences, and that some may become angry with the son for not confronting his father sooner. Keeping these biases in mind is helpful so that I remain neutral during family therapy and I look at the family from a systems perspective, not a “he’s right and she’s wrong” perspective. I resonate with this story because I’m an only child and I was triangulated with my parents for a while before my dad passed away.
My dad wanted to be the good guy, so he would always go up to my mom to tell her to scold me for doing something, losing something, or anything. This was because my father didn’t feel secure enough in himself to be able to scold me and know that we would still have a solid relationship. So in order to make up for his handicap of not being able to give me instructions, he had my mom step in, who was willing to be “the bad guy,” and had her scold me for him. In the end, he needed my mom to help him communicate with me because he had depended on her for so much.
This makes me think of how Gene’s mother was the bridge between Gene and his father, and when she died they were stuck with the relationship that they had. Fortunately, in my family center triangulation, my mother and I had a more solid relationship and could talk about things. This makes me think about my future with my spouse. What baggage will I carry with me from my family life? What will I likely triangulate for? I like to say that I have good communication and I don’t see a reason to triangulate, but I don’t believe myself because I think that the issue doesn’t have to be big in order for triangulation to manifest.
After watching this movie, I felt like family therapy looks like an impossible feat. I realized how many eyes are on you all the time when you’re in session with a family. I imagine that those with social anxiety disorders or therapists who tend to be more introverted don’t especially like group therapy or family therapy. If there is one thing that I take away from this class, it’s that everything happens for a reason in a family. Everything manifests for a purpose, to serve some function in the family.