I finally watched 51 Birch Street last night. I had been waiting for the DVD since I missed it in the theater. I knew I was going to love the film because I’m a psychotherapist and I knew it was going to be interesting from a psychological perspective. I’ve enjoyed just about every documentary I’ve seen about families (Capturing the Friedmans and Tarnation come to mind) but this one I could actually relate to on a very personal level.
I come from a Jewish family about the same vintage as the Blocks (my parents married in ‘42--my brother was born in 1947 and I was born in 1950). My parents were both born and raised in the Bronx and our family moved to Westchester in 1957. Like the Blocks, we were a very typical suburban family on the outside but troubled on the inside. My dad was probably a little more communicative than Mike Block but he was still pretty emotionally distant. My mom was warmer and more maternal than Mina Block but she was probably just as unhappy. I grew up feeling loved in what seemed like a happy household, but I was a fairly anxious and insecure kid, even though there was no apparent reason for me to feel that way. My parents were very warm and easy-going and my brother and I could tell them pretty much anything. Unlike many kids our age we had very few restrictions placed on us and our parents were very tolerant of the changes that the Sixties brought. Growing up I had a lot of friends and seemed to get on fairly well in the world of social interactions. But there was an underlying tension in our household that was unidentifiable but very palpable.
I was struck by how Doug (or maybe it was one of his sisters) described their father as never actually getting angry but there was fear that he could. That was my dad, too. I was pretty intimidated by him well into adulthood, although I never actually saw him lose his temper in a scary way. HIs weapon was his intelligence and his articulateness--you couldn’t win an argument with him and he had a subtle way of putting you down even as he invited you to express your opinion about something. anyhow, when I turned 20 I had an epiphany where I realized that our Father Knows Best family was not what it seemed. I went into therapy and began the long process of learning how the effect of my intimidating and rejecting father and my loving but passive mother had on my own psyche. It was tough going because it was hard to identify where the wounding actually occurred...it was more about what my parents *didn’t* do rather than what they did do.
And then, when I was 28, my parents suddenly announced they were getting divorced after 36 years of marriage. I had moved from the East Coast to the West Coast after college, and only saw them once or twice a year at that point. I was completely surprised to hear the news, although I think I was secretly kind of glad because it seemed like whenever I visited my parents they were always bickering. Through conversations on the phone with each of them as the divorce progressed, I learned that my dad had been unfaithful to my mom throughout a good portion of their marriage, especially the earlier years. my mom would always find out, there was a tearful scene, and then it was over. She would always take him back, but they never addressed the problems in their marriage. According to my mom, my dad would always be apologetic but would refuse to discuss the affair or his motivations for it because he felt it would be more hurtful to my mom. and in fact, when our family moved to Florida when I was 12, my dad almost left my mom for his secretary but ultimately decided against it. My mom started working again so she could pay for her own psychotherapy to deal with this insult.
Finding this all out made many of the pieces of my own psychological puzzle fall into place. no wonder I grew up feeling insecure and anxious! There was a big problem in our house that no one was talking about, and in fact it was so well hidden that the only manifestation of it from my perspective was my anxiety. My mom must’ve been depressed but I never saw it. She was usually cheerful and had a good sense of humor. My parents were affectionate with each other and with us. Whatever fights they had were behind closed doors, or when I was out of the house or asleep. I never heard or saw anything that made me think my parents were unhappy, until I was an adult and noticed their bickering. maybe they felt the didn’t have to hide so much anymore.
AFter the divorce, my mom never remarried or even dated. Of course all their friends “sided” with her, seeing my dad as the “Bad Guy.” I knew better, though, and knew that my mom had played a role in their relational dynamic too. She was passive and didn’t stand up for herself in the face of my dad’s intimidation. She died when I was 38. My dad dated a few women and eventually married someone 20 years his junior, who ultimately left him when he was in his late 70’s. He was broke and in debt, and moved in with my brother. My dad died two years later, at 80, from cancer. My brother took good care of him during his illness, and for that I am forever grateful.
I had opportunities to talk with my parents directly about their dysfunctional relationship during their lifetimes, but ultimately it was through my own therapy that I was able to really resolve my ambivalence, anger, and disappointment with them. I had problems with relationships all my life, and didn’t get married myself until I was 46. I don’t blame my parents for my problems but I understand how they contributed to them. I sometimes wonder what our lives would have been like had they gotten divorced when I was young. But, I think they loved each other and maybe that’s why they waited so long. They just didn’t know how to deal with their problems. Couples therapy as we know it today just didn’t exist in the 50s and maybe even in the 60s. There was certainly a major stigma attached to getting help for emotional problems during that time.
when the film was over I wished that my parents were alive so we could have watched the film together and talked about it. That might be a grandiose fantasy--I don’t know if either of them could have tolerated it emotionally. But it’s an interesting thing to ponder.