The families who are described in Fragmented Families are alive and real. The relationships and family process are depicted accurately, as family members described them to me. To ensure confidentiality, all of the stories have been modified and the names, places, and other details have been altered. If you recognize certain family patterns, you are probably correct, since many of the elements are universal and familiar. If you think you can identify an individual person or a specific family, you are probably wrong. It's all made up, except for the parts that are true.

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Fragmented Families: Patterns of Estrangement and Reconciliation


Stories of Real Families
Family Story #2   Family Story #1     Family Story #3

Suicide and Its Fallout

The family: Penina, her first husband Saul (deceased), their adult children Fern and David, and Penina's second husband Ben.

An adult daughter accuses her mother: "My father's suicide is your fault!"

The story begins with a joyful wedding. Penina and Saul married when they were both in their 20s. Penina's parents had survived the Holocaust and created a new home in America. The wedding of their only daughter signified a re-birth of the family after so much suffering. Both Penina and Saul had strong religious and Zionist convictions, and when their two children were young, the family moved to Israel. Three years later, they returned to the States to help care for Penina's ailing mother.

Fern and David grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, attended public school, and studied religious subjects at the Conservative synagogue where their parents were active members. While Fern was attending the local university, she met and later married Edward, a non-Jewish man from England. At first, Penina and Saul opposed her choice of a Gentile husband, but eventually, they became very fond of him. A few years later, David married Aviva, a young woman whose family belonged to the same synagogue as his parents. The two couples moved to distant locations, created their separate homes, and began to raise families of their own. There were family gatherings on special occasions and frequent communication between parents and children, with no apparent conflict.

Several years passed, during which Saul suffered recurring bouts of depression. After a devastating business failure at the time of his sixtieth birthday, Saul died from an overdose of sleeping pills. Since Jewish precepts explicitly prohibit the taking of one's own life, Saul's act seemed to contradict the values that had been so important to him. Fern, living in England, reacted to the news of her father's death with mixed feelings. Initially, she seemed to be genuinely grief-stricken, but soon afterward, her sadness transposed to bitter anger. She blamed Penina for her father's suicide and severed all contact with her. Penina was completely bewildered by her daughter's reaction. Struggling to cope with her husband's death and her daughter's rage, she felt devastated, abandoned by two of the most important people in her life.

Three years later, Penina married Ben, a widower who was an old friend of the family. David attended the wedding. Fern accused her brother of "betrayal," resented his loyalty to their mother, and threatened to cut off all communication with him. Fern's three children, approaching adulthood, chose to sustain a warm, affectionate relationship with their grandmother and her new husband, thus provoking additional inter-generational turmoil. To this day, Fern has steadfastly rejected all of Penina's offers to meet, talk, or try to find a solution. She refuses to speak with her brother as long as he is in touch with Penina. The estrangements in this family have persisted for many years, with no end in sight.

Comments:

I asked Penina how she copes with the turbulent cross-currents in her family. She is candid in her appraisal of the situation. Although she remains open to new developments, she acknowledges that the conflict may never be resolved. Despite all the bitterness, she continues to express love for her daughter. She is enormously grateful that her grandchildren did not participate in their mother's rejection of her. Apparently, she has come to terms with the estrangement without allowing it to sour her life.

The conflicts in this family raise many questions: Is Fern's rage a projection of her own guilt at failing to prevent her father's death? Is she reacting to her own unconscious fears that she was not a good enough daughter? What was lurking in their previous relationship that compelled Fern to turn against her mother? How is David implicated in this sequence of events? How have other members of the family dealt with the emotional upheavals?

We see this family through Penina's lens. We listen to her version of these events, knowing it is only one piece of the family puzzle. If we could hear Fern's version, perhaps we could come closer to the "whole story," but there would still be missing pieces, fragments that remain hidden. There is no one "correct" version. Rather, we can discern relative truths, or relatives' truths. The estrangements will be experienced differently by each of the protagonists and by the observers in the extended family.

What can we learn from this story? We can only listen to their voices and ask, "What would I do… in Penina's place? If I were Fern? Or David? Or a bystander in the family? Perhaps their experience can inspire other estranged families to discover new insights, cross a barrier, and ultimately move beyond the constraints of anger and alienation.

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Fragmented Families: Patterns of Estrangement and Reconciliation by Ellen B. Sucov, PhD