Yesterday I watched Henry II re-imprison his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine in the tower. It was Christmas of 1183.

It is interesting, Henry’s decision. You can see it too by watching the movie, The Lion In Winter.

Eleanor, Henry’s queen, played by Katharine Hepburn is brilliant. When Henry II, knife in hand, threatens to kill their three sons, she eloquently rants:

Of course he has a knife, he always has a knife, we all have knives! It’s 1183 and we’re barbarians! How clear we make it. Oh, my piglets, we are the origins of war: not history’s forces, nor the times, nor justice, nor the lack of it, nor causes, nor religions, nor ideas, nor kinds of government, nor any other thing. We are the killers. We breed wars. We carry it like syphilis inside. Dead bodies rot in field and stream because the living ones are rotten. For the love of God, can’t we love one another just a little – that’s how peace begins.

For the love of God, can’t we love each other just a little? Good question for the family?

While it is noble of the queen to take responsibility for the problems, the truth is that she and Henry and their sons were very much products of their times. The succession of power deal was something they inherited, and it mucked with the softer family values of kindness and gentleness. They might have been a nice family, Henry, Eleanor, John, Richard and Geoffrey, like TV’s Addams family, but they had the dilemma of deciding who ruled next. In other words, they had to figure out who to hate, band against, betray,  bash, banish, imprison or kill, and who to crown the next worthy ruler of England. It was the ongoing problem of the English monarchy – who do we love, who do we murder? Think Henry the VIII and his six wives.

The kings of England were only relieved of this complexity when Charles I was beheaded on Tuesday, 30 January 1649, and the English Parliament took over the job of loving and murdering.

It got me to thinking – what creates the rules for a family’s use of knives and of towers?  Power struggles for royal succession don’t help. Favoritism either. Towers not much. Violence not much at all.  I know a girl who grew up with a bigoted mother. This girl is an amazingly open and accepting woman. She overcame the family knife. A family legacy is partially a choice.

I think about my own family.

When we were in grade school, my little brother and I played baseball with a golf ball one day in the field in front of the house, the field with the fire flies and cow paddies. What a cool idea. A golf ball hit with a wooden bat travels fast and far. I remember one of my drives to deep center. “It’s deep, way back, way back – gone. A home run.” I also remember another clothesline drive back to the pitcher’s mound. I swung, the ball sprung off my bat on a straight line, the pitcher, my little brother Lars, was down. I ran towards him. He was holding his mouth. We were in the car. We were back at home. He was lying on the couch with a blanket over him. His face was swollen; his teeth were broken; his jaw was wired closed. It was a moment.

I’ve told this story before. I’ve used it as a prop, an item in a series giving evidence of growing up crazy with my two brothers. It fit into the line, “I grew up tough. I shot my big brother. I clubbed my grandma unconscious in the laundry room, and I broke my little brother’s jaw with golf ball.” It’s gotten a few laughs.

But the golf ball incident isn’t really funny, and it remains for me as somewhat ambiguous. “We all have knives,” remarked Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. The golf ball was one of my knives.  It was an accident, of course. But by it I harmed my brother. It was stupid to play baseball with a golf ball. My brother and I made a decision to play together, but I was older. And yet, I never imagined that he would be struck, and I didn’t want him to get hurt. I loved my little brother then, I still do now.

In the family, we make choices. Stuff happens. People crumple. They hold themselves. We hold them. It doesn’t change what happened. Every family has a history of violence or harm or disruption and every family must travel forward with a legacy both good and bad. But interpretation and re-interpretation is an important in dealing with our narratives.

What if the golf ball had carried a little higher? I have never really thought of this before, but perhaps I didn’t want to. We don’t think much of “what if …”, and we don’t unpack our family stories that often. For many of us, these stories remain largely unexamined, left in the semi-rational closets of our minds, un-actualized and un-interpreted. Could the result have been worse? Yes, it might have been worse if the ball had hit him square between the eyes, or square in one eye?  I am very grateful to God that this didn’t happen.

But the incident doesn’t stand alone in my childhood. We did so many foolish things growing up. We also played baseball with rocks. We jumped off a high bridge into the river, flying down through the air, plunging into the fast brown water. And we did lots of fast driving in cars, over this bridge and around the country, and some drinking and driving.  We could have killed ourselves. A number of young people in my high school did so, destroying themselves and their friends in alcohol related accidents.

Life isn’t safe, but we who survive into adulthood with our siblings have much to be grateful for. I think the family, even broken, is something to be grateful for. I think the family, even with a negative narrative, has something to be thankful for. My little brother and I survived. But we had so many good moments growing up together. We swam together, road bikes together, played ping pong for hours on end together, ate together, water skied together. How many times did we laugh together? I’m not sure but it was enough that the good thoughts outweigh the bad. My brother called me last week to ask for my advice on what telescope to buy. I enjoyed sharing my expertise with him. Family is precious.

I remember shooting little spring load guns at each other in the hall, firing little round silver balls down the hall into each other. We shot each other, we laughed when we took a hit between the eyes; we fired and laughed again. It’s family, both the hits between the eyes and the laughing.

I re-watched The Godfather again the other night. It’s a superb movie! Scenes stick with you: the famous scene where Michael Corleone is present at his nephew’s baptism juxtaposed with the scenes of his gangsters carrying his orders to murder his rivals. The camera is stationary, coldly objective, with short close ups and mid-shots — the water running down the fragile baby’s soft head, the bullets ripping into the soft bodies of the rivals. Michael renounces Satan as he murders the families of others. Coppola edits for us the holy and unholy in one person. We see that violent cruelty and tender love can exist in the same man at the same moment. It is an interpretive stroke of genius. It is life as we know it in the family.

I spoke with a twelve year old girl last week. She has to make adult-like decisions about her family. Why? Perhaps, she is the most responsible, mature person in her family. I’m not certain. She was wondering something fairly significant for a young girl —  where to live. It was an honor to witness her wise sensibilities concerning her family. But what was this — twelve and parenting herself? This is not unusual. There are an estimated 10 million children in sub-Saharan Africa orphaned by AIDS. They have no biological parents. They remain. And what shall they make of this? And we?

What do we each one do with what has happened to us in our families and in our communities?

I believe that every community has a tower, and every family has a knife. Every family has a sense of succession, an inheritance, even if only social and psychological. Each family is in danger of being put in a tower by other families living nearby them, and they are in danger of  locking some of their own family members in a tower. To understand this, we must choose to see this, and we must think more about this. And we must process the destructive past; we must move away from it and move toward it again. We must go exploring.

I grew up white in the Midwest in the sixties. I was an inheritor of the dominant narrative of America. Succession to the throne was a given. We never questioned our right to go anywhere we wanted, to eat anywhere we chose, to become anything we desired. My parents were actually poor, but I didn’t know it. Their Christian work didn’t pay well, but there were perks, free housing, free food and some vehicles provided for us by the Christian campground my parents ran.  I had as much or more stuff than the farm kids that lived near me, and so I didn’t have much of a sense of class consciousness.

One thing sat in the back of my mind that discriminated. We were from Southern California living in Missouri. My parents had a past with avocadoes and tacos. They had lived in Los Angeles. They were more cosmopolitan than rural, more aware of diversity than uniformity. They were displaced persons. They tried to join the local Southern Baptist Church. They were told that they would have to be re-baptized. Their Presbyterian baptisms wouldn’t work. They decided not to join. We were outsiders. I never forgot that. And I think as a result I have never had much of a stomach for intolerance, for narrow-mindedness, or sectarianism. But I love church. I love the church. I believe that the church is part of how God shows himself to us. It can be made into a tower, to lock people in, and to lock people out, but when it is at its best it is an open family, open to more and more siblings, able to absorb and adopt and love all different kinds of people.

I believe that we were meant to live kind, tolerant lives, accepting  differences in the church and in our families. But we must not get too sappy about this. Jesus said that he came to bring a sword to the family, that family member would rise against family member, in conflict over Jesus. And this has happened. The conservatives should not claim Jesus as the poster boy for family values. Jesus disrupted the family. He said that his family wasn’t simply made up out of his nuclear family but out of anyone who would follow him. But he loved his family too. He made provision for his mother to be taken care of after he died.

It’s something to try to understand. I’m sorting it out. Whatever conflicts and wounds occur in our families, I believe strongly that we must take responsibility for our choices. I am a devotee of Soren Kierkegaard. He believed that, “Wherever there is a crowd there is untruth.” He believed that in the end we are individually responsible for what we chose. We will stand alone in heaven to answer for what we have done. I believe that too. I believe that we are responsible for how we treat family, and how we interpret our families once all is said and done. It can get rough.

Once my father was asked which of his sons was better at public speaking. He quickly indicated that it was my older brother. I will never forget this. I was standing within hearing distance when he said it, but he didn’t know I was there. It stabbed me, unexpectedly and hard. I make my living by writing, teaching and speaking. It is my identity. The same is true for my older brother. The same for my dad too, at one time. “And the award goes to, the older brother!” For me it was, in part, a kind of succession. It felt a bit like the law of primogenitor or the divine right of kings. The older recieved the nod, the blessing, the oratorical crown. It was competition, and it was preference. It was Henry II and it was Eleanor. It was a knife, and it was none of these things but merely a poorly thought out response on the part of my dad.

I spoke to my dad about this later. He too was wounded by what he had done. He apologized to me. It was a very painful moment for both of us. I forgave him. I still think of it sometimes. It still wounds me a little. But I am largely over it. I forgive him, as he must forgive me for the mistakes I made growing up. We are good, different not prefect in unity, but good. I choose to love my father. He is a good man, and he was a good dad to me.

My daughter Laurel is very smart; my daughter Rosalind is smart too, but in  a different way. Rosalind has brain damage, and she can’t read very well, but she is smart with her heart. Rosalind has a good life, but it is painful, her limits, and yet it is beautiful, her uniqueness.  Our family has space for the differences. As a father, I have made a conscious choice, along with my wife and my daughter Laurel to do no violence to the close juxtaposition of contrasts in our family. A family is a place where significant difference should be able to exist without judgment. A family is, I believe, a place where certain comparisons simply should not be made.

My daughter Laurel is studying in London this semester. She visited the holocaust museum there. This week she sent me a poem that she had written.  It’s a poem about her sister.

The Unforgotten Crime

Honey Nut Cheerios

tumble into my older sister’s bowl,

twinkling round O’s matching her big blue eyes.

We laugh loud and I pour her milk,

insurance against the chance of an embarrassing spill.


I am her prevention policy against frustration;

I spoon her sour cream, set minutes on the microwave,

and towel- dry the glass dishes;

a dropped plate

often results in crystal shards and tears.


My own eyes well up as I trudge through the breathing rooms,

still with their secrets.

I pass Hitler,

and the smell of burning books wafts to my mind as

faded yellow Stars of David on blue breast pockets droop

behind smudgy glass panes.


I glance to my right, and a gleaming white table

rests haughtily on its haunches,

taunting me, sinister

and slick,

clean white metal hiding dirty black deeds.


The dark room propels me forward,

betraying me,

forcing me to stumble unwillingly towards my foe.

I stand before this thing, and –

I read it.


“Mental retardation…genocide rehearsal…unfit for society…sterilization…experiment… T-4…



The words blur together and I turn

to the table,

its dead red eyes reflecting

children’s screams and their naked

exposure to white-coated probing,


flashing cameras and sharp instruments,

scientists taking detached notes and

emotionlessly practicing their

cruel sciences under the guise of research and –

I see my sister’s face in the scared eyes of the littlest ones.


Sobbing, I sit on a bench in the darkness and grieve,

while those sterile and sightless scientists

sit next door, still and silent in their frames,

the horror of their actions forever frozen.


Would you have thought differently, I ask them,

if you poured her cheerios every morning?

Laurel read me this poem the other day as we were talking with each other on Skype. At the last line the eye wiping began and didn’t stop for a few minutes. I couldn’t really say anything for a short time. Hitler was so messed up. He knew not a thing about my daughter Rosalind.

They wouldn’t have done what they did, the murderers, they wouldn’t have done those experiments on our family members, they wouln’t  have laid precious ones onto cold tables and into unmarked graves, they wouldn’t have done any horrible thing they did if the differently abled ones had  been their sons and daughters and they had poured their Cherrios and they had had the courage to even begin to understand what being a human family really means.

What is a family? I am still trying to figure that out myself.  I confess and grieve that my family and all of our families are places where the sacred and the profane exist side-by-side. In me and my kin, the holy and the unholy co-exist. The character of Michael Corleone is not an abberation, although he is an extreme. There is a bit of Henry II and Eleanor in all of us.

But I am beginning to believe that the family can choose to be a place that moves away from violence in every one of its twisted and damaging forms. And I believe that it can be a place that allows for differences to exist side-by-side without judgment. And I believe that it is wisdom to chose to forgive what should never have happened. Think Rwanda and Burundi — some families there have forgiven the unthinkable in their neighbors.

“For the love of God,” cries Eleanor with anguish over her family,  “can’t we love each other just a little?”

I believe that we can.

  1. Sue says:

    Tears are in my eyes right now after reading Laurel’s poem. It is so profound–personal and yet speaking to all of us.
    She definitely has inherited the heart and ability to express herself with clarity from both of her parents. Her love and protectiveness of Rosalind was obviously nurtured and lived out well at home.

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