Tag Archives: Family Systems Theory

Daimonic Energy, Creativity, & Families

Eugene O’Neill is one of my favorite playwrights. I just read a book review in the New York Review of Books in which his personal foibles were put on the table, letting us see once again that so many men and women of “the arts” are the “toy of some great pain” as Ranier Rilke put it.  O’Neill’s personal life was often tragic and the tragedy was passed on to his children, two of which committed suicide and another drank herself to death.  This review described him as narcissistic and often physically and emotionally abusive of his wives.  It is as if he was living out the script that his father had left him. (The book is, “By Women Possessed: a Life of Eugene O’Neill” by  Arthur Gelb and Barbara Gelb)

Life is painful.  Most of us hide it well, living out our lives in a pedestrian manner, finding solace in the amusements and distractions that our culture affords us.  We have boundaries that keep the pain beneath the surface, boundaries that I like to describe as the “fig leaves” that God gave us to hide us from our nakedness.  Creative people, those who frolic about in “the arts”, do not have boundaries that are solid and thus daimonic energy flows through them and from that primitive source of all good…and bad…the gods communicate with us.

T.S. Eliot was aware of this daimonic energy in families. In his play, “The Family Reunion” he painted the picture of one very conflicted,  even dysfunctional, upper-class family through whom one particular individual seemed destined to carry the load of these dark forces. And, from his own personal life, he clearly was speaking of himself.  In this selection from the play he describes the “sin bearer” of this family, the scape-goat in a sense, who he described as the families “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

What we have written is not a story of detection,

Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation.

It is possible you have not known what sin

You shall expiate, or whose, or why.  It is certain

That the knowledge of it must precede the expiation.

It is possible that sin may strain and struggle

In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness

And so find expurgation.  It is possible

You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,

Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.

Indeed it is possible.  You may learn hereafter,

Moving alone through flames of ice, chosen

To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer


Someone noted, “Always remember when you encounter someone, he is carrying pain.”  The point is to be willing to allow some slack to this individual for you don’t know what is going on with him.  Auden put this eloquently when he noted that all of us, “Wage the war we are.”  Each of us have our ways of handling this duress and most of the times these adaptations are within the pale of social acceptability and everyone is happy.  But people like O’Neill, Eliot, and “the artists” in general, are more open to this pain, this “daimonic” energy, and that is why our culture usually grants them a little more slack.  They bring great beauty and wisdom to us, without which we’d be condemned to live only on the surface of life, missing the breath of fresh air that the gods offer us.


Two other blogs of mine are listed here which I invited you to check out:





the surface of life without these breaths of fresh air from the gods.

Family dysfunction

“There’s something wrong with me.” During my clinical practice, this observation from a client was often a turning point. This often represented a shift in perspective, a realization that the problem was not merely “the world out there” but “the world in here”. This often meant that the client was willing to recognize that he/she had a history of very poor choices and that these choices had created the morass that had led him/her into counseling in the first place. This usually involved contemplating various labels, i.e. diagnoses, clinical contrivances designed to “give shape to our anguish.”

This always involved addressing how harsh the world had been to the individual…dysfunctional family and all…but it entailed quickly realizing that choices one had made on a daily basis had perpetuated the problem. It always involved looking at the “chooser” that one had formulated early in life, a mechanism that continued relentlessly to perpetuate the maladaptive behavior pattern, aka the “shame cycle.”

This usually involved the experience of hell in some fashion. It involved realizing that one was trapped, that there was no escape (“No Exit” as Sartre put it), and the bitter anguish of hopelessness. This was the “bottoming out” phenomena, the reaching of the limit of the ego’s machinations, and subsequently the dawning of the possibility of a turn-about in life.

The client was often brought face to face with a real paradoxical dilemma. The more he/she voiced his/her anguish…particularly to the family of origin…the more he/she remained imprisoned in his/her private hell. R. D. Laing wrote decades ago about the dilemma of the individual who was caught in an “untenable position” in a dysfunctional family. The more this individual protests, the louder and more passionate be his/her protestations, the more “proof” does the family have that the individual is…for lack of a better term…nuts. So the anguish intensifies and so do the screams. And the family will often look on with bewilderment, perhaps asking, “What is wrong with Johnny or Susie…”

Often the client would have to realize that the validation he/she sought would never come from the family of origin. It just was not possible. Some families are trapped in their own pathology and any individual in that family that protests, that deigns to confront the systemic poison that consumes them all, will not find a ready ear within that family. That “ready ear”, that validation, is going to have to be found elsewhere. Note here what Leonardo da Vinci noted on this issue:

O cities of the sea, I behold in you your citizens, women as well as men tightly bound with stout bonds around their arms and legs by folk who will not understand your language; and you will only be able to give vent to your griefs and sense of loss of liberty by making tearful complaints, and sighs, and lamentations one to another; for those who bind you will not understand your language nor will you understand them. (from “Of Children in Swaddling Clothes”.)

Validation is powerful medicine. As Conrad Aiken said, “And this is peace to know our thoughts known.”

Family Dysfunction and Sin

A wit noted years ago, when systems theory was in the vanguard in clinical culture, that “families are to be from.” He was addressing the need of “cutting the cord” from the family of origin which has been an issue from eons past in our history. And I don’t think we ever do it perfectly but most of us accomplish the task to some degree. In my clinical work, however, I often came across gross examples of family dysfunction where the “cutting” of that cord was difficult to impossible and the problem was often multi-generational.

T. S. Eliot wrote a very interesting play that is relevant to this issue, “The Family Reunion.” Eliot’s lead character, Harry, is deeply enmeshed with his family of origin, especially his mother…of course…and the play is about his emotional anguish as he sought to free himself from familial bondage. He also used the concept of sin to describe the emotional baggage that families breed and perpetuate, identifying it as “instinctual energy.”

He declared that “sin may strain and struggle in its dark instinctual birth to come to consciousness and find expurgation.” He noted that one basic prerequisite for this expurgation to take place is for the struggle to be made conscious, to find the light of day. He suggested that often a particular individual in a family will be the “consciousness of your unhappy family” and described it as a “bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire.”

Just as with individuals, no family is perfect. Families are always flawed as they are comprised of flawed individuals. And, as system theory teaches us, the family usually appears quite devoted to perpetuating the “flaw.” It is our task as adults to wrestle with the “demons” that have been dealt us, to seek “expurgation”, and try to not pass our particular allotment of poison on to those around us.