Jan 30 2013 5:30pm

Dysfunctional Family Circus: Dysfunctional Families in Literature

The Lannisters are pretty much as far from functional as you can get!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.

Flowers in the Attic by V.C. AndrewsEmily 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.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley JacksonThe 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?


Tori Benson can be found at Smexybooks and at Twitter.

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1. carolinareader
VC Andrews will always be the queen of dysfunctional families in my eyes. As a teen I devoured the Flowers in the attic series and her Heaven series too. Its been many years since I read them and while they do not hold the fascination they once did I do understand why they drew me at that time. The appeal really was the deep dsyfuntion found in the stories. I mean no matter what my families problems were they always paled when compared to the lifes of VC Andrews characters.
Lege Artis
2. LegeArtis
Great post, Tori.
Well, I think that appeal lies in fact that dysfunctional families are story itself. You can put murder or disappearance or romance in setting with this kind of characters, but disfuncional family dynamic is like a story within the story.
Here are some my favorites: Amy Dunne is great new addition to fiction psycoville, but Gillan Flynn wrote two great novels before Gone Girl with characters from dysfunctional families. Both Sharp Objects and Dark Places are dark and disturbing. I even think that SO is better than GG.
One of my favorite mysteries by fantastic Val McDermid- A Place of Execution. This is (very)close-knit community type of dysfunctional family.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and Carrie by Stephen King- I always think of this two together because of zealot mothers.
3. Jan the Alan Fan
My favourite is the Kennedy-esque Remillard clan in Julian May's Saga of the Exiles / Galactic Milieu series. Betrayal, murder, sibling rivalry and inbreeding. As one of them says, one saint and lots of devils!
4. BeretBrenckman
My favorite disfuctional family is the DeLande family by Gwen Hunter (who is now Faith Hunter.) Boy, oh, boy...those people had it going on so crazy I still remember large chunks of all three books!
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