Hi, my name is Tori, and I come from a dysfunctional family. Growing up was a painful lesson, and one I learned very well. An absent father and an overwhelmed mother left me dealing with many of life’s problems on my own. Sarcasm became my armor and reading my escape. In fiction, I have encountered many dysfunctional families that left me thinking maybe my family wasn’t all that bad.
What makes a dysfunctional family appealing in literature? What draws us into their pain and suffering as a light draws in a moth? It’s human nature to be curious in the face of another family’s tragedies. Sometimes you can’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when you find that someone has it worse than you. Not a necessarily nice trait to have but it’s prevalent, nonetheless. For me, it’s the realism of the problems the characters face.
I enjoy storylines and characters I can relate to on some level, especially those who are able to rise above the dysfunction in their lives. A bit of humor and wit also goes a long way to cementing my relationship with these people.
I think we can all agree that the Lannister family, in the popular Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin, is a primer for dysfunctional families—their history is ripe with incest, murder, and betrayal. The Lannisters are not a family I’d like living next door to me.
Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights gives us gothic historical dysfunction at its best. A study in love and revenge, the book follows the life of the mysterious Heathcliff and his childhood love, Cathy from childhood to death. Violence, jealousy, greed, and betrayal all contribute to the explosive emotions these star-crossed lovers face.
In my opinion, no one does dysfunctional families quite like V.C. Andrews. We first met the Dollanganger siblings in Flowers in the Attic. Greed, lust, incest, betrayal, and murder are the main themes in this epic five book saga that begins with four siblings who are hidden from the world, completely
at the mercy of an insane grandmother and a unloving mother. It’s the family reunion from hell. What made it even more appealing was the rumors it was based on a real family. (No evidence was found to support this).
Forbidden by Tabitha Suzuma is a disturbing YA book that tells the story of a brother and sister who struggle to hold their family together after their irresponsible parents leave. Incest, alcoholism, depression, and suicide are all firmly presented in a non apologetic manner and nothing is hidden or glossed over. Be forewarned. This may be a trigger for some.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is a dark and disturbing thriller that will either put you completely off marriage or leave you feeling more satisfied about your own marriage. Jealousy, deception, and obsession all take center stage around the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne and the events that lead up to Amy’s disappearance.
The creepy dysfunctional family award goes to the Blackwood family in Shirley Jackson’s gothic We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Jackson takes us through a twisting labyrinth of lies, perversions, isolation, and murder as told through the rambling thoughts of Merricat Blackwood. Sharp wit and bits of horror pave the way as we learn more about the Blackwood family and what led to their eventual demise.
If you ever wondered about the failings of the American Family, you only need to look to Sam Sheppard’s award-winning play, Buried Child. Vivid imagery and masterful dialogue outlines this tale of loss, hope, failure, and redemption as three generations come together to and are forced to acknowledge and deal with a devastating secret that has been buried long enough.
Who are your favorite dysfunctional families in literature?