I remembered P, A, S, F in a wave of forgotten sorrows. I did know them, not as friends but acquaintances. They had decided to depart early from this life.
P called his sister, the only member of the family with whom he could talk to more personally and said to her he wasn’t doing too well. Aggressive behaviour by a few of his family members toward him regarding his addiction had become intolerable. She was flying out of the country and said she’d talk to him as soon as she returned. A few days later P jumped in front of an oncoming truck. It was hard not to like P. And his addiction was news to me. He needed help not admonishment or a lecture about his habit.
At the end of a tough five year law degree course A hung himself. S laid down over the railway-lines one night after dinner with friends and was crushed to death. F died of an overdose in the granny flat he rented from his parents. Non of them had a good relationship with their families.
In our time, it is also easier to kill a family member than a stranger, and it is certainly easier to abuse one. These pathologies, now rampant, indicate that the time of love through the blood is past.
Family ties can become a bondage and needs to be broken somehow keeping what is good and discarding the toxic side of it. But it’s not always easy.
Some of our best memories may be with our families. But how quickly the table can turn! Guilt, accusations, betrayal, abandonment, estrangement, rejection, dissociation…
I became more aware of the destructive role that family members can play in each other’s lives when I visited Eugene O’Neill’s house in California. He was the winner of Noble Prize in Literature (the first American to win it,1936) and four times winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
It was a beautiful, sunny day in spring and I could hardly contain my excitement. I remembered his plays back at university, The Iceman Cometh, Hughie, Long Day’s Journey into Night. I was picked up in Danville township and taken to the house Eugene shared with his wife, Carlotta. There were two guides accompanying us, a middle aged person and a much younger woman in training. After the tour they left us to wander in or outside of the house to look around.
I was not quite sure what I was feeling but unlike my previous visits to other national sites there was an uneasiness somewhere in my gut. The house despite its spaciousness, simple beauty and lush surrounding also had a loneliness about it, reservoir of tears. It was not a place I wanted to stay for very long and preferred to go out and walk around the paddock, the large water pond and follow the dirt road up the hill. I came across the same young woman who was in training in one of the rooms as I was making my way out. I slowed down. I thought either I am projecting my wrong impressions onto this house or I was picking up a scent. I said, “I feel there was no love in this house.’ Immediately after saying it I thought it was an insensitive comment to make to a person in training in a national trust site where they are taught to show their pride for one of their literary greats. I thought she is either going to give me a strange look or politely smirk at my weird comment. She did neither but instead said, “ I don’t think there was any”.
I don’t know what she knew about the O’Neills when he and Carlotta lived from 1937 to 1944 in Tao House, his “final harbour” as he called it. I had to discover that myself.
Eugene suffered from depression and alcoholism all his life. He grew up in a highly dysfunctional family. His mother was addicted to morphine and his father drank.
It was in 1943 that he disowned his daughter Oona for marrying Charlie Chaplin who was 54 and she was 18. They never saw each other again. Oona was the daughter he had abandoned back in 1929 when he left his small family, ( mother, son & daughter) for his third wife, Carlotta Monterey. Oona like her father became an alcoholic and a recluse after Chaplin died.
When Eugene had moved to Tao House with Carlotta he wrote some of his great works. But at the same time he had hardly any relationship with his two other sons. Eugene O’Neill Jr, by his first wife Kathleen Jenkins, was also an alcoholic and committed suicide at 40. Shane, his other son from his second marriage became a heroin addict and committed suicide too.
Today we can see the damage (lesions) in the brains of abused or neglected children on the computer screen.
Tao House for Eugene was a place to find some kind of peace and reconciliation with the demons that had taunted him, and he in turn had let them loss in his family life. In the recommended reading list on Eugene O’Neill National Historic website the book by his second wife, Agnes Boulten, Part of a Long Story is not mentioned. She wrote, “He never, seemed to be what is called drunk, some sudden and rather dreadful outbursts of violence, and others of bitter nastiness and malevolence….he appeared more like a madman than anything else.”
Eugene was a man who carried a lot of pain, grief and self pity and left a trail of damaged people as well as award wining literary works behind. He was a tragic figure who didn’t know how to love his own children. We think of abuse as an act committed against someone. Abuse could also mean not doing something ( especially as parent) when you are supposed to be doing it, like loving your children.
It’s impossible to know what went on in that big house with just him and Carlotta. Perhaps not much outwardly as Eugene, through writing and reflection was preparing the way for his final exit.
From what I understand reading his biography he looked for a mother in the women he married. So he could have easily behaved toward his children as competitors to his wife’s/mother love. His own mother was addicted to morphine therefore not emotionally present in his life. The pattern of emotional neglect, due to addiction in Eugene’s early family life became a similar pattern that he repeated with his own children; also becoming a barrier between them and the love of their mothers.
Yes, such a selfish, cruel and damaged person was also a great literary talent.
Long Day’s Journey into Night, parallels his own life more than his other plays. It was the only play he specifically instructed his publisher to have published 25 years after his death. But Carlotta knew and about the play and managed to overturn that injunction. It is in this play that finally life meets art and he achieves what he could not in his previous attempts.
This play portrays a family in a ferociously negative light as the parents and two sons express accusations, blame, and resentments – qualities which are often paired with pathetic and self-defeating attempts at affection, encouragement, tenderness, and yearnings for things to be otherwise.
Tao House has a strong Chinese design throughout. Outside they had ‘installed a garden in a zigzag pattern which Chinese tradition indicated would keep away evil spirits’. It seems to me the evil spirits had already accomplished their mission.
Would life become more tolerable once we learn that there are actual boundaries between family members that shouldn’t be trespassed, and understand that people do change including our siblings and we should try to understand the new person and not assume they are the last year’s person; do parents realise that they are the custodians of their children and not their owners; would the family gathering at Christmas become something we look forward to rather than an occasion we need to get over and done with?
What would the O’Neills of this world write if pain, grief and abandonment no longer provided the impetus for their writings? If they didn’t have to inflict pain or withhold their love from others in order to be able to cope with their own suffering? Would no Pulitzer or Noble Prizes be given out to writers any more?