Dysfunctional Parents in Fiction: The Mothers and Fathers We Love to Hate

Why are readers so fascinated by fiction's infamous dysfunctional parents? Mothers and fathers who disappoint, coerce, betray, abuse and, on occasion, murder their own flesh and blood in the pages of our favorite reads.
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Why are readers so fascinated by fiction's infamous dysfunctional parents? Mothers and fathers who disappoint, coerce, betray, abuse and, on occasion, murder their own flesh and blood in the pages of our favorite reads. Readers who are parents themselves may look at the terrible choices these parents make and think, Maybe I'm not such a bad parent after all. Or they may sympathize with the pressure these fictional parents feel to protect their children in a dangerous world, even if that protection arrives in the form of smothering pampering (i.e. Joffrey Baratheon). Perhaps, readers' attraction to familial dysfunction is simply a voyeuristic thrill, that surge of adrenaline you might feel while watching a train wreck, or a tornado twist on the horizon. We have the highest expectations for our parents, especially our mothers. They are the makers and shapers of humanity's future, after all. They are responsible for the children that will grow into rulers, bankers, teachers, parents, and the next generation of civilization. We place parents--real life and fictional--on the highest pedestal, so why are we so surprised (and entertained) by the devastating results of their fall from grace? They have the longest drop, thanks to us.

After a blood-soaked display of literary dysfunctional parenting (in a mountain-side hotel closed for the winter, let's say), a reader might even call his or her mother to tell her, with a spontaneity that fills the old woman with joy, I love you, Mom. Some of our favorite fictional dysfunctional parents destroy their children by doing what they think is best. Some know exactly how devastating their choices will prove. Some give in to their lust, others to envy. Most of the parents below, just like their counterparts in real life, are simply trying to make sense of themselves in the world, all while coping with the extreme shift in their identity that arrived with the birth of their children. Sadly, for their families, Mother and Father do not always know best. Lucky for us readers, the conflict and tension in a carefully characterized dysfunctional family makes for a gripping and dramatic read. Like many readers, I love a page-turner of a dysfunctional family book. Here are a few of my favorites.

cersei lannister
Cersei and Jaime Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin, 1996-present
Where to begin with the brother-sister/mother-father duo of Cersei and Jaime, the golden-haired adult children of Tywin Lannister, one of the most powerful men in Westeros, and a dysfunctional father himself? Incest, treachery, king slaying, fantasies of fratricide, and the pampering of their children so they turn into sadistic sociopaths like torture-happy Prince Joffrey--the Lannisters are dysfunctional with a capital D. The reader cringes as scene after scene, book after book in the series, Cersei enables Joffrey, doing nothing to stop his barbaric actions, even encouraging them. Still, a reader can't help but pity the couple, particularly Cersei, who suffers as any mother would with the loss of her children, and who, just as much as any of the male Lannisters, must play the game. In fact, it is from Cersei's own lips that the reader hears, "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground." Okay, maybe we only pity her for a second.

Mr. & Mrs. Lisbon in The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides, 1993
My heart goes out to Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, parents of the five beautiful Lisbon girls--13-year-old Cecilia, 14-year-old Lux, 15-year-old Bonnie, 16-year-old Mary, and 17-year-old Therese. The Lisbon family dysfunction reads like a tragic fairy tale. I can imagine that, as daughter after daughter slipped through Mom and Dad Lisbon's prayer-clenched fingers, the parents in Eugenides' novel felt certain they were cursed, forsaken by the God they worshipped so obediently and whose image was found throughout the Lisbon house in the form of rosaries and crucifixes and holy water. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Lisbon, whose fatal mistake--imprisoning their ethereal daughters in what they thought was the safety of their home--while borne by good intentions, may have been the very thing that smothered the girls and led them to destruction. The Virgin Suicides offers its readers a melancholy dysfunction, the mood of which lingers long after the last page is read.

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Frank and April Wheeler, Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates, 1961
Frank and April are dreamers. They dream of a more meaningful life outside their dull and confining 1950s suburban reality. One can't help but admire their optimism, and pity their naïve desperation, as they plan for a new life, seemingly regardless of their children. Perhaps, the most damaging dysfunction in Frank and April's marriage is their urgent need to see themselves as special, better than their neighbors. They are the embodiment of the best of the American Dream, and the worst, both of which is the limitlessness of what might be attained--fame, wealth, an identity that is unique from what, in the 1950s, Yates described as "a general lust for conformity all over this country." When The Wheelers fall, they plummet.

Prospect Park West by Amy Sohn, 2009, and the sequel, Motherland, 2012
The novel that had Park Slope mommies up way past their bedtimes, Prospect Park West, is the queen of dysfunctional mom fiction. Those same mothers who stayed up late turning pages might have gone along with the herd the next day at the playground, dismissing the four mother characters, not wanting to lose face in front of the sancti-mommies in their playgroup. But in secret, with the bedroom door closed (and maybe the child-proof lock latched), mom readers devoured chapter after chapter of Amy Sohn's urban parenting tale, making it a bestseller. As much as readers, particularly mothers, criticized Prospect Park West's four protagonists--Melora Leigh, Rebecca Rose, Karen Bryan Shapiro, Lizzie O'Donnell--I'm willing to bet Amy Sohn's dysfunctional mama drama, as well as its sequel, Motherland, held a mirror up to many readers' faces, daring them to recognize their own flaws, or look away.

little children
Todd and Sarah in Little Children by Tom Perrotta, 2004
Little Children, with its suburban setting and storyline of parents behaving badly, is a classic American family dysfunction tale. Perrotta's two parent protagonists, Todd and Sarah, while belonging to two separate dysfunctional families (Sarah's husband is addicted to online porn and Todd is lying to his wife), are linked through the paralyzing dissatisfaction they feel for the monotony of their suburban lives. Now that they've reached mid-life, checking off the appropriate boxes along the way (marriage, check; children, check; career, check), they've stopped to wonder Is this it? Is this all there is? Their midlife crises, and search for meaning in what they feel are stagnant lives, propels them together, making them accomplices in dangerous choices that put both their families at risk.

The Williamses and The Hoods, The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, 1994
Rick Moody's novel, set in swinging 70s suburbia, raises the question: Who's acting more childish--the parents or the children? The Ice Storm, a sharp and tension-filled drama, delivers double the dysfunction since it follows two sets of parents: The Williamses, and their neighbors, The Hoods. Both couples are lost in their search for identity through sexual experimentation. They neglect their children, who, like their parents, are skirting danger through sex and drugs, all of which invites a tragic conclusion. One even has a sense, as you watch the adults make bad choice, one after another, that Moody himself, through the sardonic tone, is judging the parents' actions, even condemning them. Suburban secrets, lies, adultery, drugs and depression--The Ice Storm is a literary smorgasbord of every flavor of family dysfunction. Feast on it, reader.

we need to talk about kevin
Eva Khatchadourian and Franklin Plaskett in We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, 2003
Eva. Eva. What do we readers do with Eva once we arrive at the tragic conclusion of We Need To Talk About Kevin? How do we make sense of the conflicting emotions we feel toward Eva, mother of a monster, enabler of a monster? Is she a monster herself? Do we forgive her? Blame her? The literary miracle that is Lionel Shriver's controversial novel is that these questions are difficult to answer, even after you've finished the book. Even after you've had time to think of all that took place in Shriver's devastating story. For a moment, here and there, throughout the book, the reader, particularly mothers, might be able to look past Eva's narcissism (perhaps, sociopathy is genetic in this particular dysfunctional family?) and catch a glimpse of something familiar in Eva's struggle to negotiate her identity as a woman before motherhood with her identity as a woman after motherhood. As for Franklin, Eva's husband and Kevin's father, in the end, one can't help wondering if he was too passive, too much of an enabler to Kevin and Eva. Could Franklin have done something, anything, to stop this family's story from spiraling toward its tragic end?

Aloysius and "Crystal" Lil Binewski, Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, 1989
I often pause mid-summary when I'm urging a reader to check out Geek Love, one of my favorite novels. It's hard to find the words to accurately explain the novel's patriarch and his wife, Aloysius "Al" Binewski and "Crystal" Lil, without the reader shaking their head in disgust and refusing to read. You see, Al and Crystal run a traveling carnival, and their most lucrative exhibits are their children, the so-called "freaks" Al and Crystal created in utero through the use of chemicals, drugs and radioactive materials. There's Arty, a boy with flippers; Elly and Iphy, Siamese twins; Oly, a hunchbacked albino dwarf; and Chick, who has telekinetic powers. Horrifying, yes. Dysfunctional, hell yes. But this family is also filled with love and the kind of authentic and complex dynamics you'll find in any family. Geek Love's family dysfunction pulls you closer to the heart of the novel instead of pushing you away.

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The Torrances in The Shining by Stephen King, 1977 (and the sequel, Doctor Sleep, 2013)
Has fictional family dysfunction ever reached such high stakes? Sure, it is tough to write a literary masterpiece with a five-year-old running around the echo-filled hallways of an empty hotel. Yes, winter doldrums can make even the most disciplined writer itchy with cabin fever. But attacking your family with a croquet mallet while under the possession of evil spirits? We readers want to forgive Wendy Torrance for not grabbing little Danny as soon as the redrum chanting began, for not running away days before the dysfunction hit the fan (we could see that mess coming from chapters away). And she and poor troubled Danny did survive, but, as we learn in Stephen King's most recent novel, Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, the traumatic experience at the Overlook Hotel would haunt Danny for the rest of his life. Wendy should have run. As much as we want to damn Jack Torrance, there is a moment of redemption for this famously dysfunctional dad near the end of the novel--omitted from Kubrick's film adaptation--where Jack Torrance frees himself from the dark influences of the hotel and urges his son to run away. The Torrance family has my vote for the Most Dysfunctional Fictional Family Award.

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