Lima Al-Azzeh

Dirty Laundry.

In Foreign Affairs on January 25, 2012 at 9:00 am

Photo by simplerich, via Flickr

The subject of today’s post, and what I’m sure is a more-common-than-I-expect writer’s conundrum, is: How much of your family’s dirty laundry can you air  (read: turn into a novel, a book of short stories, or a screenplay) before it is seen as tasteless exploitation and/or potentially damaging to members of your clan and your relationships with them? Are there stories you really can’t tell?

I say this because my family, like most other families, have developed our own strain of functioning dysfunctionality and yet my intuition tells me that there are a lot of bat-shit crazy stories floating around that are sure to make for a really compelling read. The kind of stories that make you doubt how true they actually are because they seem so surreal that every detail invariably sounds like blatant hyperbole – type stories, except for one thing: they’re true.

So far, the more radical stories in my family, the really obscene or embarrassing ones that make us look like caged animals, seem to be kept within a tight knit circle of family and family friends. Anyone new to the family is subjected to a kind of initiation process to see if they can really roll with our crazy. Because there’s a lot of it.

Here’s a for instance of one of our more out there family stories:  My grandparents, aged 80-something and 71 respectively, have had an on-again, off-again marriage for the better half of their seniority. Last year, for the third time in under a decade, my grandparents have undergone a legal trial separation, with my grandfather – a man who’s never independently cared for his own welfare- going so far as to move out to his own bachelor pad which consisted of a twin bed, one recliner, a small TV and a microwave. Despite our best efforts to find him a little day-to-day help,  he’s considered too capable to be eligible for assisted living and yet he’s not capable enough to remember to feed himself three times a day. Laundry is an entirely separate beast.

Inevitably, a month or so later, my grandmother seduces my grandfather with enough home-cooked meals, diabolically: his favourites, that he breaks his lease and moves back in within the month and they re-enter the honeymoon phase. That is, until their next major battle, about a week or so later, in which they threaten divorce all over again.

For two people who consistently claim that they’re old, decrepit and exhausted, they seem to put a lot of energy into their multiple (almost) divorces.

Yet, despite having told you all this, I assure you, there are many, many more details of this story that I have intentionally left out.

Back to this mystical initiation process, it usually goes down a little like this: First, we sit around the dinner table as though we’re about to tell horror stories around the campfire. Then we start talking with one another about the latest batch of utterly insane stories, except we start somewhere in the middle, teasing the uninitiated with the most scintillating scandalous details of the story – like we’re about to reveal this enormous inside joke long held within the family.

And then, someone breaks the rhythm in order to bring in the new person, which is followed by a round of us collectively asking one another, “Should we say?”, “Can we say?” By this point, the new guest has no idea what to expect, save for some thoroughly ludicrous details that were leaked earlier. And then, as if it’s the most momentous occasion of life itself, we mutually all agree to let the person in on the story, and start from the beginning.

The tale is almost always as satisfyingly shocking as the theatrics had promised, in which case, our new guest is unequivocally hooked, both to our family and its drama.

This is how we go about indoctrinating new members into our family insanity. It was never a planned strategy, it somehow just always seemed to manifest like this.

So here’s the rub: I wish to do this on a higher level. With complete strangers. Potentially for a publishing deal and some cash. I don’t wish to slander anyone, merely to share my familial lunacy with others and prove to the world that the old adage is true, every family really is fucked up in its own way.

Is that so wrong?

  1. I have the same predicament. There’s good stories here, but can I share them? I think I’ll wait until the main characters have died. Or until someone offers a really lucrative book deal.

  2. I know exactly what you mean … It is like there is a monster inside you, struggling to be unleashed …

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