There are many attorneys who not only put on their business cards that they are attorneys, but that they are counselors as well. You may be intrigued to find out that counseling, while a fundamental aspect of our profession, is not taught in law school. Yet we as attorneys are expected to do just that, provide counsel. In some areas of practice, counseling is perhaps more valuable than actual legal acumen.
As many of you know, a large portion of my practice is in the area of probate and trust litigation and typically involves siblings fighting with each other. While the rules of the battle require that the remedy be monetary, in many circumstances the fight is over affection. You certainly see people at their absolute worst when they couple the fight over love with demands for money—as if money will fill the hole left vacant by a lack of affection.
It is because of my daily involvement in these types of matters that my scholarship has turned to matters affecting dysfunctional families. Though my scholarship has not resulted in the purchase of lofty tomes on family dynamics and psychology—that would be too simple. Instead, I have turned to the fictional word of dysfunction and have done a fair amount of reading lately about turmoil and the disintegration of the family unit. Two books in particular lately have been fairly informative on the topic. And would you believe that I have solved the problem of the dysfunctional family? Ok, maybe not.
The first book is entitled “This Beautiful Life” and it deal with a family decomposing in the face of a social trauma. When their 14 year old son forwards a sexually suggestive video sent to him by a female classmate to a friend of his which within hours goes viral, the family, under the pressure of social stigma and the uncertainty of the son’s educational future the family completely shatters to the point of irreparability.
The second book is called “The Last Child” and deals with the destruction of a family when one of the children (the 13-year old protagonist’s twin sister) is kidnapped. The events of the story take place a year after the incident, with the protagonist still searching for his sister in the hopes that she is somehow still alive.
When I was younger, I would watch television shows like St. Elsewhere and ER and wonder why people enjoyed watching television shows which were steeped so heavily in death, sadness, and depression. Sure, the doctors would sometimes succeed in saving the patient, but the real drama, the real attraction to the show was the ability to be a fly on the wall as we witnessed another person’s torment and misery. And I was confounded as to why people would invest themselves emotionally in the plights of others and would internalize the pain of these characters.
So you can imagine my surprise when I search out these same scenarios—except I call it academia. Cute, huh?
You see, I am convinced that a large cross-section of the dysfunction in families can be attributed to one factor—a lack of communication. People are afraid to bear their souls, to get treatment to help them with their demons, and to seek out their own family for help, the very people on whom they should be able to rely. In the first book I mentioned, the story was told from the perspective of each of the three family members, mom, dad and son. Each one of them bore their strife alone, refusing to seek help or even discuss their struggles with each other. And because of this, the family unit frayed to irreparability.
In the second book, the family unit was torn asunder because of the guilt a father placed on himself for his little girl’s abduction and a mother’s inability to release him from such pain. The result? A father who left and never returned, a mother who turned to drugs, and a son who tried to keep it together, while never giving up the search.
Obviously the scenarios dramatized in the books were sensationalistic for the purpose of deriving readership, but I maintain that just as much can be learned from them as can be learned from the academic treatises and textbooks. Pain, distress, and misery cannot be borne alone. It is when these matters are not discussed, are not addressed as a unit, and are ignored by those who are trusted do they fester and lead to disrepair.
Don’t believe me? I heard this story from an opposing counsel who had heard it from a retired judge: a daughter was so happy her mother was dead, that at the funeral she brought her CD player and played the song “Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead” at its highest volume and then dumped a vial of her own urine into the burial plot. Think that family could have communicated better?
I can honestly say that the story seemed too impossible to be true… except for the fact that I represented the daughter.
If I am expected to counsel clients as well as give legal advice, I need to understand what leads to the dysfunction. A failure to communicate is as good a start as any.