Keeping Family Dysfunction Behind Closed Doors Keeps The Family Dysfunctional

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I likely don’t need to introduce the Toontown Tussle heard ‘round the world, but recently an all-out brawl in the middle of the “Happiest Place on Earth” caught the attention of a multitude of media outlets after being uploaded to a private YouTube account on July 6th, 2019. The video, a very difficult watch, shows every form of family violence you can imagine, from brother to sister, sister to sister-in-law, child to mother, and everything in between. The kicker is it all went down within a four-minute time span.

The video shows what appears to be an argument between a brother and sister which initiated the whole fiasco. When things turned physical, the partners of the siblings approached and a larger brawl ensued between the two sets of in-laws. Surprisingly, the men did very little, if any, damage to one another, likely because, after several missed swings at each other, they shifted focus to the women, the easier targets. And as the matriarch of the bunch approaches the brawl in her motorized scooter, she was knocked to the ground and incapacitated.

When a third sibling approached the fight with a male child, she attempted to console the mother as the young male child began hitting the uncle’s girlfriend. And when that same uncle received word that it was his own girlfriend who had caused his mothers’ fall (it wasn’t), he begins to hit her too, with a closed fist. As the couples’ children scream at the horrendous site, helpless from their stroller seats, outsiders finally step in and stop the brawl. Although police were dispatched to the scene, none of the family members were willing to speak on the matter or identify any of the participants, denying the fight ever even occurred. People familiar with the family chimed in, arguing that the bigger offense was the publicity the fight had received, how it reflected poorly on the Black community as a whole, and how a family business should be kept behind closed doors. But as a community, we have kept our dirt hidden long enough, now it needs to be exposed.

Secrets stunt our healing. I lost my grandmother in the 8th grade and was told she died as a result of her lung condition. So when I overheard my aunts talking about an ongoing police investigation and a potential manhunt for her live-in boyfriend, I was beyond puzzled. I became obsessed with learning the truth about my grandmothers’ death, but the family decided that the truth was too much for the children. As we came of age, still carrying a slight suspicion surrounding my grandmother's death, we struggled with accepting the loss one way or the other, all developing severe anxiety as a result of the day-to-day uncertainty and secrecy. Despite our collective struggle, we refrained from seeking outside help, knowing that an even bigger crime than revealing a family secret within the family, was revealing one outside of the family. So instead, we all suffered in silence.

It took me until the age of 27 to openly discuss this family secret with my therapist. Up until I saw a reflection of my childhood dysfunction in my parenting decisions, I was under the impression that we kept our family business in the family because it was best for the family. No matter how daunting, no matter how painful, no matter how obvious, the family business stayed private. And as I sat in my car weeping uncontrollably outside my therapist’s office, finally acknowledging that I had lost my grandmother to domestic violence, not poor health, I realized that harboring the secret had prevented me from healing from the loss. Ultimately, I couldn’t heal from what we had kept hidden.

Healthy families don’t need secrets. For many of us, that sounds alarming. Just the suggestion that any ole person could potentially access confidential family information is frightening. But the idea is frightening because most of us already live by the code, most of us already live with our buried family secrets and that has become our new normal. What scares us is not the openness, it’s the idea of breaking a vow we’ve been sworn to uphold since childhood. Regardless of our reservations, the clean-cut truth is that healthy families have no need for secrecy, and here’s why. Healthy families create opportunities for open and honest dialogue for all its’ members, regardless of age.

When it’s the culture of a family to restrict open and free speech, to discourage the open discussion of issues, and to use guilt, shame, and punishment to deter members from doing otherwise, it’s typically out of fear of the implications these secrets might have should they become public. And when fear is the motivating factor behind groupthink, it creates a dangerous environment for everyone, especially the vulnerable. We see this in instances of sexual violence within families. Often the victims will be coaxed to secrecy out of fear of the backlash, only to discover later in life that other family members were also victimized and silenced. The code of secrecy empowers the predators, and the secret paralyzes the victims. Protecting the secret becomes more important than protecting the prey, and under this protection, the predators continue to pillage the family.

The Toontown fight revealed a collection of family pathologies, many of which the members likely wished had stayed behind closed doors. But the fact that all of the family members, including those who we witnessed being victimized, felt it their obligation to abide by the code demonstrates just how detrimental this dynamic can be. If seeing a woman, especially a woman with whom you share a mother, being punched repeatedly by a man isn’t grounds for breaking the vow of secrecy, where does the line get drawn or does it? Our community is no stranger to taking our secrets to the grave, but what has it gotten us other than an odd set of bragging rights and some uncomfortable stories to share through our awkward laughter? We’ve already turned the Disney debacle into a meme because far too many of us still live in the reality of what we actually watched and deflection is the only coping tool we possess. We refuse to let any air touch our wounds but healing comes with exposure. We fool ourselves into believing our family secrets seclude us from the people around us when in reality most of our communities are riddled with parallel traumas. We think staying in our seclusion keeps our secrets safe, but this video is evidence that the beach balls we pin at the bottom of the pool have a way of resurfacing whether we like it or not.

Our community has a problem with hiding our hurt in an attempt to avoid the pain that accompanies it. We use humor to mask our abuse and pet names to humanize our abusers. But avoidance solves nothing, in fact, it exacerbates the issue. It fuels the culture that shames victims for coming forward about their abuse. It allows us to deflect from real issues by asking why victims wait so long to speak, knowing fully well the cryptic culture we’ve created around doing just that. It places the burden of secret-keeping on the susceptible and then punishes them for not holding up their end of the bargain. Healing from someone else’s misguided projection of their pain onto you is traumatic enough, having to then safeguard the secret is double the damage.

We cannot sit back and expect a healthy community to form in the same spaces where we encourage and normalize toxicity and secrecy. These expectations are unrealistic and unsympathetic. What we can do is address the elephants in the room, remaining aware that stigmas do exist and that these pockets of social judgment can make revealing our secrets just as emotionally taxing as covering them up. But there’s very little that we go through that no one else can relate to, no matter how alone we feel when we’re going through it. From domestic violence to rape and incest, to divorce and mental illness, there’s nothing new under the sun, no form of dysfunction native to just us alone. The focus shouldn’t be on what other people will think about our decisions to heal, the focus should be on how best to live a life that we don’t need to be healed from.

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