When Leaving Saves Your Life, But Breaks Your Heart
The Friel’s Goose Allegory
I first came across this allegorical story about self-love, courage and risk 28 years ago when I began my psychotherapy career in Boone, Iowa. The story is a chapter from John and Linda Friel’s 1988 book, “Adult Children Secrets of Dysfunctional Families: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families.” The Friels were one of the early pioneers on ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) and codependency.
The Friel’s goose story typifies the experience of being raised in a family that protects its dysfunction more than the people in the family. It eloquently and powerfully conveys what it is like to experience the double bind of knowing what is wrong with your family, but being afraid of exposing this truth. For many families, such as the one in this story, the risk to tell the truth often requires either leaving the family, or being expelled from it.
As the protagonist of the story, a young adult goose matured and began to realize how sick his family really was and how unwilling they could accept it. In fact, the toxicity of the family’s dysfunction was so severe that everyone’s mental and physical health (safety) were sacrificed to maintain and perpetuate their shared denial-based narrative. The young goose’s courage to face the truth about his family’s toxic dysfunction, set boundaries with them, and follow his intuition about what is healthy or not, is truly inspirational!
Looking back at it now, I am reminded how the brilliant work from people like John and Linda Friel impacted my own codependency recovery and what would become my own clinical and written work. Twenty-eight years later, this story still resonates with my own codependency and dysfunctional family story. It is clear now that ideas such as my “Surgeon General’s Warning,” “Observe Don’t Absorb” technique, and my Codependency Cure treatment method could not have been developed without the knowledge and inspiration from pioneers like the Friels and their compatriots. I hope it impacts you in the same way!
Adult Children Secrets of Dysfunctional Families: The Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John and Linda Friel
From the Goose (Chapter 9, page 93)
Once upon a time in a faraway land called Northern Minnesota, there was a family of geese who lived on a quiet little pond on the outskirts of a small town. Mr. Gander and Mrs. Goose and their three goslings spent a lot of time in the pond, and they enjoyed their neighbors, Mr. Beaver and Mr. and Mrs. Loon. On sunny afternoons after the wind had died down, they would congregate near Mr. Beaver’s house and talk about their families and their plans for the winter. Like all normal Minnesotans, the weather was always at the top of the list for conversation.
“Hot enough for you, Mrs. Goose!” asked Mr. Loon.
“Land sakes, yes!” replied Mrs. Goose, with a mock sigh of consternation in her voice.
“Well, I don’t know,” piped in Mr. Beaver. “I sort of like this weather.”
Mr. Gander listened with only one ear as he gazed out over the pond and thought about what a wonderful life they had all made for themselves. His goslings were growing up faster than he had ever imagined, and he was thinking ahead to the trip south that they’d all be taking in a few months. He was even thinking beyond that, to the rime when they could return to this pond again after the long, cold Minnesota winter was over. He loved this place.
While all this adult conversation was going on, the three goslings were out in the middle of the pond skimming across the top of the water, feet paddling fast as they tried to get themselves airborne for the first time. None of them were to accomplish it today, but they would soon enough. As they stopped to rest, the Littlest Gosling spoke to his brother and sister. “You know, I haven’t been feeling so great the past few days. My stomach has been a little queasy, and my head hurts just a bit.”
“Well,” his sister replied, “you’re probably just anxious about the big trip south this winter. After all, it is a long way from home.”
“Yes,” his brother added, “and you’ve been working awfully hard to learn how to fly. Why don’t you just go over by Mom and Dad and take a breather.”
The Littlest Gosling frowned. “I don’t know. It just feels like something; wrong. I can’t quite put my wingtip on it, but something tells me things aren’t right.”
“You Silly Goose!” his brother and sister echoed in unison.
The Littlest Gosling began swimming toward the spot on the edge of the pond where his parents were. Before he reached them, he veered off to the left into a small cove lined with cattails and water lilies. He noticed a peculiar odor and spotted two dead fish floating bellies up on the surface of the water. He wondered if there was something wrong with his pond; and he wondered if that was why he was feeling a little sick.
He paddled out of the cove and around to his parents, Mr. Beaver, and Mr. and Mrs. Loon.
“Mom, Dad,” he began, “I think there’s something wrong with this pond. I think there’s something in it that’s making me sick.” He gazed up into their eyes, awaiting that glimmer of pride and recognition in their expressions that would say they were interested in his discovery.
Instead, Mrs. Goose snapped, “0h, you Silly Goose! Whatever gave you that idea? Land sakes, son, you come up with the silliest notions sometimes”.
That evening his parents, brother and sister all had a good laugh over the Littlest Gosling’s “discovery”.
“Why, we’ve been coming back to this pond every spring for as long as I can remember,” spouted Mr. Gander. “And no one has ever been sick a day in his life since we’ve been here,” added Mrs. Goose.
“Alright, alright,” shouted the Littlest Gosling, “enough is enough!”
Over the next few days everyone forgot about the incident, and things pretty much went back to normal.
About two weeks Inter the Littlest Gosling began to feel sick again, but he’d learned his lesson the first time, so he didn’t even think about telling anyone in the pond about it.
At first, he didn’t know quite what to do. He went back to the small cove and saw some more dead fish and smelled that smell again. Then he took a tour of the rest of the pond and discovered some of the same things going on. A few dead fish here and there, a funny smell and a slight headache and queasy stomach that wouldn’t seem to go away.
By now he could fly, and although lie was feeling weak, he decided to break the rule that his parents had made for him and his brother and sister, and he flew up and over the edge of the pond and away. After gaining altitude, he noticed a big lake off in the distance with a large population of geese, ducks and loons, and so he headed toward it.
After a few minutes, he landed gracefully on the surface of the lake about 50 yards from a big gaggle of geese who were swimming about, enjoying the late afternoon sun. He was hesitant at first because his parents had told him not to leave his own pond, and because these geese were strangers. But they were very nice, and they invited him to come and join them in their conversation.
Soon after they began to talk, the Littlest Gosling told them what had been happening to him lately. As he talked, the Eldest Gander of the gaggle became very serious. The Littlest Gosling noticed that a frown swept across his face, and then suddenly the Eldest Gander began honking furiously.
“Where exactly do you live, son?” he asked the Littlest Gosling.
“A few minutes from here, as the goose flies,” he answered. “In that pond behind that abandoned farm.” The Eldest Gander honked even louder now.
“You must fly home and warn your family at once! And everyone else who lives there, too. That pond is poison! Believe me. We lived there once, too. His face grew sad. “I lost two of my goslings because of that pond.”
The Littlest Gosling did not hesitate for an instant. He took to the air and flew directly to where his parents were swimming in the pond.
“Dad! Mom!” he shouted. “I know I’m not supposed to leave the pond, but I just had to get away. I was feeling so sick. And I was so curious. Anyway, I talked to some geese in a lake near here, and the Eldest Gander there said that the water in this pond is poison, and that he lost two goslings because of it. We need to get out of here right away!” he said excitedly.
Mr. Gander looked sternly at his son and said, “We told you never to leave this pond until we are all ready to fly south for the winter. You have broken our most important rule. We are very disappointed in you. Now go back to the nest and don’t leave there until we tell you to!”
The Littlest Gosling was heartbroken and terrified. He didn’t know what to do. He loved his family, and he wanted to be a good gosling, but he didn’t want his family to die either. He began to return to the nest. When he was almost there, he suddenly turned, looked up into the sky, recalled the words of the Eldest Gander, and then flew off toward the big lake.
He had decided to live rather than to die but he was so deeply sad that he cried for the better part of four days. Members of the gaggle on the big lake would stop by to comfort him, and to tell him that he had made the right decision, but he still felt a deep pain inside.
On several occasions, he almost got up and new back to the pond, thinking that to die with his family would be better than to live with strangers. But each rime, something deep inside of him told him to stay put.
And then something happened. Almost three weeks after he had left home, he saw a lone goose, or was it a gosling, winging its way toward the lake. His eyes were riveted on the bird. His heart leaped when he realized that it was his brother. His brother had started to feel sick, too. He had got in a huge fight with Mr. Gander but had finally decided to join the Littlest Gosling. Three days later, his sister joined them and a week after that, so did Mrs. Goose. Finally, one-week later Mr. Gander, sick to his stomach and with a headache throbbing in his temples, joined the rest of the family on the big lake.
It took a lot of courage on their part, but once they were settled into their new home, Mr. and Mrs. Gander called a meeting of all the flocks.
As a hush settled over the late, Mr. Gander put his wing around the Littlest Gosling and said, “This is my Littlest Gosling. For a while I thought he was a Bad Little Gosling. I thought he was a Silly Goose. But he wasn’t. We were the Silly Geese. And the Littlest Gosling saved our lives. We are proud of him.”
A tear trickled down the beak of Mrs. Goose. It was a tear of pride and relief and gratitude. The Littlest Gosling’s heart filled with warmth as every duck, loon, goose and gander on the big lake began honking their loudest honks and calling their loudest calls to celebrate his courage, wisdom and strength.
That winter they all flew south together and in the spring, they returned to the big lake. They were pleased now to be a part of all the flocks safe in the knowledge that their water was pure, their friends were true and that their goslings would be able to grow up to be healthy and strong.
Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC, CSAT Psychotherapist, Author & Professional Trainer Author of The Human Magnet Syndrome
Creator of The Codependency Cure: Recovering from Self-Love Deficit Disorder