Thursday, January 28, 2016

We Aren't Family

“Where your biological family has failed you, you always have me, your surrogate family … If it’s any consolation, I’m not happy about it either.”
-- Sheldon Cooper, Big Bang Theory

One of the most heartbreaking things to ever happen on Mad Men took place in the series finale. Don Draper shows up on the doorstep of his surrogate niece, Stephanie, supposedly to return the engagement ring her aunt Anna, his closest friend (and one-time legal wife; it’s a long story) had given him. Realizing he’s in bad shape, she takes him along to a California spiritual retreat, and then, stripped emotionally bare in a therapy session, she lashes out at him: “You’re not my family.”

It’s so painful because it’s nothing but the literal truth. Whatever she is in his mind, he isn’t her family. It’s not just (entirely) a rejection of the screwed-up Don, who has no family of his own, and barely ever did. It’s a slap to the whole romantic notion that we can create our own families apart from the pre-existing structure of spouses, children, and nuclear families of origin. Of course, we've all seen cases where it works, sometimes, for some people. But, as in this case, it can happen that the severing of one tie can reveal the whole idea as illusory.

Even if your relationships are strained, for example, your sister's children will still be your nieces or nephews. Your mother's siblings are still your aunts or uncles. Even if you're not close, even if you've barely met, the bond is still recognized as one that exists. But even the closest relations of your closest friends are connected to you only through the voluntary relationship that exists between you and those specific people. It may, if you're lucky, end up extending. But voluntary relationships are still not seen in the same light as as involuntary ones. As the saying goes, you can pick your friends, but not your relatives, and the fact that you can choose to pick them or not means the connections isn't seen as objective and unchangeable -- just something that's there, whether you want it or not.

Despite all the changes in society, blood is still, often, blood.

So I wanted to yell at Stephanie: "You are too family!" Where there's been a bond of love and friendship, it shouldn't just unravel. Of course, we'd seen this charaacter be an idealist and a hippie, so maybe she'd just seen how, so often, it doesn't work. Me, though: I still believe in the possibilities of the surrogate family. We live in a fractured time, and most of us need all the support we can get.