Decades ago a student of mine in a high school sociology class quipped this wisdom after a discussion of dysfunctional families. She clearly “got it” that day in class, understanding that families are a matrix from which we must escape at some point and begin to make our way in life as she was preparing to do at that time. If we do not “cut the cord,” not only from “momma” but from the family itself we will be hampered in establishing our own roots in the world and carving out our own identity. My clinical practice of 20 years consisted to some degree in helping adolescents wrestle with their struggles in dysfunctional families as they sought to prepare to “fly the nest” in a few years. And this “flight” from the nest is not merely geographical. It is possible to move to the far corners of the world and still not have cut the deep-seated ties with family which bind us to crippling emotional patterns. Furthermore, it is possible to find oneself in old age and still enthralled by parental and familial dictates that should have been discarded years ago.
The bondage to families is often maintained under the ruse of love, as in, “Oh, how could you say that” or, “How could you do that” if you loved your family. I have a friend who shares an anecdote of not cutting the cord with his mother until he was age 50 when he brazenly and emphatically, and rudely told her emphatically at the end of a visit one day, “F…k you mother” when she was repeating an intrusive end-of-visit ritual that he was not going to put up with any more. She was devastated, as was he, but as the dust settled down she plaintively noted a fear that, “You will never visit me again.” Unconsciously she knew he was cutting the cord.
There are times when a mythical hero will have the herculean task of escaping the toxic family system, the “family system” sometimes being an entire culture. This hero will often be a scapegoat of some type who will carry the unacknowledged pain of the family and his life will be an illustration of the struggles of Jungian individuation. T. S. Eliot wrote a play about this adventure entitled, “The Family Reunion” in which the hero is told that his task is to apprehend the knowledge of the family’s darkness, i.e. “sin” so that “expurgation” might be achieved:
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.