Relationship | Dysfunctional Families

This afternoon my mother and I went to see “August: Osage County” featuring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts and an ensemble cast. In the vein of dark dramas with comedy as a side note this movie ranks right up there with “War of the Roses” and “American Beauty” though “War of the Roses” might actually rank as a dark comedy with a side of drama. (**SPOILER ALERT** Do not read past the fold if you do not wish to know anything about the movie.)

But here is what I came away with… The reason for the dysfunction never fully resolved, children walking out on their parents disrespectfully choosing to ignore the history that created so much pain. The problem will follow them and perpetuate to generation after generation until someone takes a stand and breaks the cycles of emotional and physical abuse and neglect. In the middle of the movie I turned to my mother and said, “These people need Freedom Ministry.”

The story opens with this quote shared in the voice of the family patriarch, Beverly, played by Sam Shepard:

 “Life is very long…” T. S. Eliot

Beverly acknowledges that T. S Eliot was not the first to think on this subject, but he was the first to write it down. And so it starts to unravel, a movie that is ripe with family dysfunction and drama oozing out of seeping and festering wounds generations old.

You see Beverly is interviewing Johnna, a young Native American woman, for a position cooking and cleaning in their family home that he shares with his wife, Violet. Beverly advises Johnna that he and his wife have a paragraph in their marriage contract that says he drinks and she does drugs and it is just the way it is – an agreement between the two of them. As he is explaining, Violet, with her spikey gray hair sticking out everywhere on her head stumbles down the stairs yelling for her husband. When she finds him with Johnna she begins to act out atrociously and the drug use becomes evident. As she rants and raves uncontrollably nearly falling over in her intoxication, Beverly advises her to go back to bed and then is quiet as Violet perpetuates the drama with another brief moment of demeaning behavior before taking her husband’s advise.

Once Vi has left the room, Bev advises Johnna that Vi has cancer. Johnna inquires about the type of cancer and Bev almost laughs, “Oh, I forgot to tell you the punchline. She has cancer of the mouth.”

Shortly afterward, the scene shifts to the home of Bev and Vi’s oldest daughter Barbara whose daughter has to scream at her to get her to wake up. Barb’s aunt is calling from Oklahoma to report that Bev has gone missing – apparently something he has done a few times in this history of his marriage to Vi.

The scene shifts back to the Wescott home in Oklahoma where Ivy, Bev and Vi’s middle child, is assisting her mother getting dressed and talking through all the things going on with her mother’s health and her father. Ivy listens to her mother rave on and on about how women get fat and ugly as they grow older and demeans Ivy for not having a man in her life and never getting one because she doesn’t wear make up, dress up or fix her hair. Ivy also ignores the fact that within a few seconds Vi pops three or four pain pills into her mouth.

The drama continues as Aunt Mattie Fae and Uncle Charles arrive – with food no less, because in the south food just makes every crisis a little more bearable. She does everything from criticize her husband for watching sports and drinking beer while she herself downs a swish of whiskey and calls it a “cocktail.” She also rants and raves about “Little Charley,” her disappointing son. Mattie Fae is played by Margo Martindale and Chris Cooper gives a compelling performance as the tolerant, loving and compassionate man who balances out his wife’s jovial but critical man-hating persona.

Soon after Barb and her family, including her estranged husband, Bill, are on their way to the family home from Colorado.

What develops from there:

  • The father apparently commits suicide after going to stay in a motel where his wife calls him before he actually goes out on the lake to drown himself. The mother is only worried about making sure she gets their money and valuables out of a safety deposit box.
  • The youngest daughter, Karen,  shows up for the funeral (passing the family cars along the way) with her fast driving, 80s music blaring fiance, Steve, in an exotic sports car bragging about how good they have life in Florida, their upcoming wedding in January and the honeymoon of her dreams in Belize.
  • Uncle Charles goes to pick up Charley from the bus station, and has the one of two redeeming moments in the entire movie. It is a powerful scene when the Charles tells his son, “…they love you, they just haven’t been able to see what I see in you yet”  Meanwhile, the family prepares to sit down for the funeral meal in the dining room, and Steve, Bill and Barb’s 14 year old daughter head to town to buy wine for lunch at the liquor store.
  • At dinner, the mother begins to berate the entire family in one form or fashion, but most especially her daughters after requiring a PRAYER – of all things. The revelation breaks that Vi & Mattie Fae were horribly abused as children.
  • The scene goes from bad to worse when Barb begins to go toe to toe with her mom with insults and fowl sarcasm before wrestling her mother to the ground and taking her bottle of pills away. Barb then informs her mother the drugs are gone and she is “in control now”
  • It becomes evident that Ivy is in love with her cousin Charles, and it is later revealed that she is planning to run away with him to New York.
  • Barbara in the meantime unloads on her daughter for wanting to watch Phantom of the Opera on television after the funeral and on her husband for having an affair with a younger woman.
  • Steve ends up trying to seduce his fiancee’s 14 year old niece over a joint and gets way-laid by Johnna with a  shovel, before Barb tries to kill him and he runs off with Karen into the night to their delusional version of happy ever after.
  • Barb and Bill confront their daughter about what happened and the girl makes a snide remark about her dad’s affair and Barb replies with a hearty smack across the face.
  • By morning, Bill leaves with his niece, Mattie Fae interrupts Charles playing a love song he has written for Ivy to demean him, and Uncle Charles comes in and finally– puts his wife in her place by telling her to find some compassion in her heart for her son or he might just end their marriage at 38 years.
  • Barb overhears the exchange between Mattie Fae and Charles and goes to apologize when her Aunt confesses that she is concerned about “Little Charley” and Ivy – then she drops the bomb… Charley is their brother not their cousin. Her aunt had an affair with her father. Mattie Fae then charges Barb with breaking the news to Ivy. OUCH!
  • By the afternoon – Mattie Fae and company have left, Ivy is arriving to a disjointed Barb and lunch is being served up by Johnna.
  • Over lunch, Ivy decides to confess her plans to run off with CHarles to New York only to have her mother play the trump card of exposing the fact that Charles is her brother while Barb throws dishes, and curses her way through trying to stop the entire conversation from going down. Eventually chasing her crushed sister down the street almost begging for forgiveness but not quite.

By the end of the movie you’ve laughed at the incredibly uncomfortable, and perhaps even triggering displays of emotions, and lack of concern for each other, or well you didn’t make it that far because you left. Me, I felt an odd mix of cringe and relief.

I cringe because I realize each of us – within ourselves- has the capacity to be a Vi or a Barb – a Mattie Fae – An Ivy- A woman hating her life, hating her family, hating her husband and suffering from a disease that afflicts the part of her body that she uses to inflict the most pain on those around her. I am relieved to not have to endure the incredible insanity of their life any longer.

We all possess the capacity – some of us the history – and yet we cannot bear to watch it portrayed on the big screen or we laugh at it much the way the chauvinistic racism played in Archie Bunker during the 70s or the way SNL parodies the reality of life in the public in various ways each week on NBC. We laugh because its so exaggerated and because it strikes at realities we’ve all seen, experienced or avoided in our lives.

It is uncomfortable, even unbearable to think families live like this… But they do. After they take the drugs away and see the doctor about his over-prescribing medications for their mother, there comes this really raw and magnificent scene where Vi sits with her daughters and recounts a story where she had her hopes built up and dashed to pieces over a pair of boots she was sure would win her the heart of her school girl crush. As she shares the tragic climax to the story a single tear falls down her face as she says, “My mother was mean – she was so mean.. That must be where I get it from.”

Karen says, “There has to be more to the story than that…” While Barb ruefully snipes, “Please tell us that is not the end of this story…”

Vi smiles, even laughs a bit while chewing on her fingers that hold a burning cigarette. “No that’s all there is”

Karen reaches for her mother’s hand and smiles, assuring her mother she was not mean and telling her how much they love her even though minutes before they were all slamming her behind her back. Barb stares at her mother and expresses so much with her eyes. It reminds me of the saying, “Communicate everything that needs to be said, and, when necessary, use words.”

Barb’s look conveys a moment of sympathy recognizing the depth of her mother’s pain – but all she can do is sit in the stunned silence of revelation. Nothing more

Yet, the previous day at dinner when Ivy asks her mother not to be mean to her, Vi softens just a bit and says, “I am not mean. Bitter, yes, but not… mean.”

I wish I could draw this to an effective close, but all I can do is marvel at the depth of insight expressed by the writers who accurately developed the offensive behavior while telling the story underneath it of the years of pain that went unaddressed by anyone in the family that would lead to such a tragic end.

And, all I can say about that is “THANK YOU JESUS, FOR FREEDOM MINISTRIES.”

In the original play, the story ends with a quote by T.S. Eliot:

“This is the way the world ends, this is the way the world ends.”

Oh, I pray not… But alas the world we live in is fallen and the people we live it with are fallen… But for Jesus. The end.

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