No. 4: Family

"Now, we'll start this band of robbers and call it Tom Sawyer's Gang. Everybody that wants to join has got to take an oath, and write his name in blood." Everybody was willing. So Tom got out a sheet of paper that he had wrote the oath on, and read it. It swore every boy to stick to the band, and never tell any of the secrets; and if anybody done anything to any boy in the band, whichever boy was ordered to kill that person and his family must do it, and he mustn't eat and he mustn't sleep till he had killed them and hacked a cross in their breasts, which was the sign of the band. And nobody that didn't belong to the band could use that mark, and if he did he must be sued; and if he done it again he must be killed. And if anybody that belonged to the band told the secrets, he must have his throat cut, and then have his carcass burnt up and the ashes scattered all around, and his name blotted off the list with blood and never mentioned again by the gang, but have a curse put on it and be forgot forever.

Everybody said it was a real beautiful oath, and asked Tom if he got it out of his own head. He said some of it, but the rest was out of pirate-books and robber-books, and every gang that was high-toned had it.

Some thought it would be good to kill the families of boys that told the secrets. Tom said it was a good idea, so he took a pencil and wrote it in. Then Ben Rogers says:

"Here's Huck Finn, he hain't got no family; what you going
to do 'bout him?"

"Well, hain't he got a father?" says Tom Sawyer.

"Yes, he's got a father, but you can't never find him these days. He used to lay drunk with the hogs in the tanyard, but he hain't been seen in these parts for a year or more."

They talked it over, and they was going to rule me out, because they said every boy must have a family or somebody to kill, or else it wouldn't be fair and square for the others. Well, nobody could think of anything to do—everybody was stumped, and set still. I was most ready to cry; but all at once I thought of a way, and so I offered them Miss Watson—they could kill her. Everybody said:

"Oh, she'll do. That's all right. Huck can come in."

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Family is a loaded word. Family can be loving, loyal, caring. Family can be cruel, distant, apathetic. Family can define us. Family can confuse us. For better or worse, our families are inescapable.

Who’s in Your Family?

It was a good thing for Huck and his wish to join Sawyer’s gang that his friends defined family broadly enough to include Miss Watson, a woman not related to him by blood who, along with her sister, took him under their care. Huck and his friends are just one example of how deciding who is family isn’t always easy. Family definitions vary from person to person and from culture to culture.

Family of Origin

All of us have a family of origin. We all come from somewhere and are shaped in part by the genes we inherited and the people who raised us. We don’t choose our family of origin; it is thrust upon us through blood, marriage, and our environment.

The experiences we have with our family of origin span the emotional gamut. Our happiest moments and most hurtful memories often involve the same cast of family members.

The ties that bind us to our family of origin are immeasurable. They span time, borders, language, religion, and culture. The connection we have with our family of origin stays with us from conception to the grave and its degree of influence affects each individual differently and profoundly.

Family of Choice

As we grow older, our family tends to evolve. Instead of our family being limited to the members of our family of origin, it is reshaped by the addition of a spouse, in-laws, and friends. Family systems, like fingerprints, are as unique as the individuals within them.

Understanding Your Family

It is important for us to understand the role family has played in shaping who we are and how we live. If we grew up in a loving, healthy, stable family, we need to know what made it that way so we can continue to nurture our family system as we take on new roles such as spouse, parent, and grandparent. If we grew up in a family defined by conflict and chaos, it is critical that we make sense of where things went wrong before we can break the negative cycle and do our part to make our family stronger.

It is not easy to move past a painful family history; yet, with help, we can learn from our family’s mistakes instead of repeating them. Memories of difficult family experiences will never completely go away but we can change the meaning we ascribe to them (see Martinson et al., 2010). This requires us to grieve the loss of what could have been and open ourselves up for a different future. We need to act in ways that disrupt family patterns of destructive behavior. When we do this by responding to difficult family experiences with forgiveness instead of vengeance, we take away an opportunity for misery to take hold of our life. When we set boundaries by removing ourselves from hostile situations, we refuse to contribute to the crippling effects of family aggression. When we commit to being more loving, kind, peaceful, and self-controlled, we are being a much needed spark in the darkness that is a dysfunctional family system.