Although a family can be dysfunctional in several ways there are some characteristics that occur more often than others. Drugs, alcoholism, death, abandonment, starvation and anxiety are some examples of dysfunctional characteristics that can be found in both Angela’s Ashes and The Color of Water. Just because a family is dysfunctional does not mean it’s members do not love each other. Dysfunction usually results from a large amount of problems in the lives of the parents. Parents usually do the best that they can with their children but the truth is that they’re human too and can’t always manage the difficult task of parenting if they are overwhelmed by their own troubles. It could be that their parenting skills have been impaired by mental or physical illness or simply by ignorance.
Also, many parents of dysfunctional families grew up in unhealthy or abusive families themselves and don’t know how to break the mold. It may be hard for a person in a dysfunctional family to believe or understand it, but the truth is that poor parenting is rarely intentional.
The result of dysfunction vary from the type of dysfunction the family endures. I’ve heard of people becoming abusive, alcoholics, drug abusers, or runaways. Some people are too weak to cope with the situations in their home, so they flee and start new lives which usually end up becoming dysfunctional again. Dysfunction rubs off on children. Because children are so vulnerable they look at their parents as role models.
Children usually end up having no sense of their own reality; therefor no sense of self. The cannot deal properly with their own feelings because they have been taught to deny those feelings. they can’t value their needs realistically because their needs have always come second to the needs of the family, which were to stop anything from changing in order to ward off abandonment.
In The Color of Water the stepfather dies creating an unhealthy and new environment for the family. As the mother is now forced to raise her twelve children alone, she is forced to take on even more responsibility. Rachel Shilsky never before had a job. She was struggling to make ends meet. Playing games with her children to determine who was going to eat dinner and breakfast that day. The winners would eat and the losers would suffer because the family was living in poverty, not to say that poverty is a dysfunction, but the dysfunction develops as a reaction to the consequences that the family has to face.
Many wealthy people can become dysfunctional. Rachel places five children in two beds. Most of the time the kids were so uncomfortable that they chose to rather sleep on the cold cement floor of their Red Hook, Brooklyn housing project. The kids never realized that they were living a different life than other kids until they are sent to school and James, the youngest of twelve children asks his mother why she doesn’t look like the other children’s mom’s. Not only are they living in different atmospheres enduring situations that most kids didn’t have to endure, but their mother was white, the kids were mixed and the people in their neighborhood were all black.
Their family were outcasts. James and his siblings learned to deal with the color of their skin, the death of loved ones, the poverty and the fact that they didn’t know where they came from. The children often thought about where their mother was from. ” We traded information on Mommy the way people traded baseball cards at trade shows, offering bits and pieces of information fraught with gossip, nonsense, wisdom and sometimes just plain foolishness”. “What does it matter to you anyway?” my older brother Richie scoffed when I asked him if we had any grandparents, “You’re adopted anyway.” This shows how the children dealt with realities that they had no control over.
Another time the kids would joke around with James telling him that Rachel wasn’t his real mom, but his real mom was in jail. They would tease him until he seriously began to think about it.
The only good thing that comes out of dysfunction is strength. Sometimes it takes years of therapy to find the strength and self-individuality but most of the time people find it. Other times people become empty and hopeless and look to substances, people or behaviors to fill themselves up because they have not learned to fulfill themselves from their own resources.
People who have lived in dysfunction often need help in finding out who they are, separating from their families and learning how to love their lives, as themselves in mature healthy and functional ways. This is a more positive outlook into leaving dysfunctional ways.
Angela’s Ashes and The Color of Water are alike in many ways. Both stories contain mothers who are loving, caring and would do close to anything for their children . Angela goes as far as to begging for food and going to the St.Vincent DePaul Society for boots for the children. Both families have to cope with the absence of paternal figures when Malechy is constantly out to the pubs wasting the dole money that is supposed to be used for food and rent to satisfy his own habits while Angela is at home struggling to make ends meet without him. Malechy is not a proper father figure for his children. Rachel Shilsky’s first husband and second husband die leaving her to struggle to keep food on the table. She even manages to send her children to summer camp. Rachel got her strength from turning to god.
She was a dedicated church goer. Both families deal with criticism about their marriages. Frank’s mother Angela was criticized by her two cousins, Philomena and Delia the big breasted one for marrying Malechy who they didn’t approve of because he was a Orangeman, someone from the North and to add to that he had Presbyterian in him. Rachel was constantly critiqued by her old family friends for marrying a black man twice and raising her children Christian. In both books the children were one time embarrassed by their mother’s actions, in The Color of Water when Rachel would ride her little red bicycle around the neighborhood being the only white person in miles, she was bound to be a victim of robbery or possibly worse. In Angela’s Ashes Frank becomes upset when his mother has no choice but to beg for food, to him that is worse than his father wasting the dole money.
Not all the people in the books are survivors of dysfunction. Being raised in Limerick, Ireland is considered quite a”dysfunction” If we look back on it today. With the rainy weather and the lack of medication and care, people died. Among those were Angela’s children, Margaret the little baby, the twins Eugene and Oliver. Frank prospered and lives on today to tell his heartwrenching story of his hard times growing up in Limerick. James McBride lives on today to speak of his new found identity and his emotional journey through confusion. Both books help the reader to celebrate life and never take it for granted. I highly recommend both books.