Family can be inestimably valuable, certainly. Reading what folks like Ryan Kelly have to say after going through rough times, obviously many people experience having a family as one of the better parts of their lives. Their parents, siblings and extended family provide a foundation, a resource they can draw upon, so that these people never really face the world alone, even in the absence of other friends.
But families that are dysfunctional can become something else entirely. Rather than being a boon, they can become a millstone ’round one’s neck, one which can never be thrown off. These groups of people become like the villagers in Kobo Abe’s book, The Woman in the Dunes, each member constantly digging to keep the walls of their own hole from collapsing in on them, and relying on each other member to do the same. As with these villagers, people with this sort of family can never escape it. The holes are too deep, and when one person leaves, abandoning his hole, it adds to the burden of the rest of those left digging. Occasionally one or two family members do escape and never return, but any who fail to cut their ties entirely find themselves back in a hole eventually, digging all the faster to make up for what was left untended in their absence.
The metaphor is in a way quite lovely, in a dark and twisted way, especially when it is linked back to the beetles Kobo Abe references in his novel. Unfortunately, the experience of being pulled back into a hole is nowhere near as lovely. But how does one escape such a honeyed trap? The siren song of the dunes is all the more powerful too when one hears of all those families that do not spend eternity digging sand. The lure of the happy family mirage, of that feeling of safety and belonging which is rumored to linger around being closer to one’s parents and siblings, this draws the would-be escapee back into the dunes. Just as the man in the novel may not be really in love with the woman, one need not truly love one’s family. The need to love and be loved is string enough that we are drawn in simply by the rotting but sweet scent, the false promise that one’s family exudes in place of real affection.
And just as we are sure we recognize that it is all false, that we are being used, and that there is no way to ever get far enough ahead of the sand to stop digging, just as we are about to make a break, climb the cold wall of the night sands and sprint for freedom, a crisis looms, and we turn away from the sandy wall, once again exchanging freedom for the illusion that is our family.
Perhaps such a family will eventually figure out how to stop digging, but just as with the villagers, I am not sure where this family would go if it stopped digging in the dunes. This is all they have ever known, and thus all they ever seem to expect. All planning or discipline which might lead to abandoning the life of digging sand is carefully avoided, because it would disrupt the status quo. Any semblance of real family is as absent as in Kobo Abe’s village, each member projecting conversation and songs from their respective hole, without any hope of actually gathering in one place, and unlike in many healthy families, the sand diggers never really miss seeing each other. And when the diggers branch out, they take this peculiar way of living with them. They establish friendships with the same distance and dysfunctionality as what they knew growing up, and if they find romantic partners, these poor souls are dragged down into the same sandy holes.
So, how do I stop digging. It is one thing to hear the tales of life away from the dune front, but another thing entirely to free oneself forever from the dunes.