What Sam Shepard Taught Me About Families

What Shepard does through his characters is to help us know and understand there are unchanging family elements which influence us our entire lives. What we do with that information is entirely up to us.
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As I continue my journey through retirement (aka, inspirement ) my participation in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) classes available in my community also continues. OLLI programming offers affordable classes in a stimulating learning environment designed to keep members curious and engaged in active acquisition of knowledge.

I will soon complete a six-week course on the plays of Sam Shepard, and little did I know when I signed up for the course, how Shepard's work would authenticate my lifelong work with families. Sam Shepard's characters present themselves with no masks, no defenses and few resources - other than their wits and generally alcohol -- as they struggle with each other to find their purpose for existence. The stories are messy, complicated and in most cases, unresolved.

Since many of us will share family experiences during the upcoming holiday season, here are a few of Shepard's themes which are timely to consider:

1. When a family member act outside of what is considered normal, other family members do not 'recognize' or accept them. In the play, 'Buried Child', a grandson brings his girlfriend home to meet his grandparents and other family members. Throughout most of the play, the grandson is not (symbolically) recognized by the family members because he has left them and gone off to live a life different from the family. It is not until the young man steals money from his grandfather and returns home after a drunken bender they acknowledge he is a relative. Importantly, this recognition brings him acceptance into the family because it is at that point the grandfather uses his last gasp of breath to tell his grandson he will inherit the family house. The grandson is destined (doomed?) to repeat family patterns in spite of his earlier efforts to break away from the dysfunction.

2. Some of the ongoing conflict between family members will never be resolved. Our contemporary world encourages conflict resolution and closure, but Shepard suggests repeatedly that ongoing family conflict may stay unresolved forever. Often that conflict is how each family member finds his/her identity. In truth, the conflict may be necessary for a person's individuality. In the classic 'True West', two very different brothers agonize through nine scenes struggling with their similarities and differences and come to the very clear realization each envies the other for their lifestyle.

There is a classic depiction of this play featuring a young Gary Sinese and John Malkovich as the brothers who nearly kill each other trying to sort this out. (Thanks to instructor, Lily Janiak for exposing our class to this particular production described as epic and unrivaled. Scene 1 is here). The brothers struggle, fight and even switch roles. It is clear they are two parts of one fractured person. As the play ends, the two brothers are left worn down and glaring at one another with absolutely no resolution to their differences. For those of us who experience ongoing family conflict or differences with a family member, acknowledging there may be no resolution eliminates the struggle to find one.

3. No matter what you do, your relatives are always related. As much as we try to move away from our family of origin, the influences of dna and complicated childhoods generally stay with us. As we age, and after struggling a lifetime to be our own person, how many times do we think to ourselves: 'I'm becoming my mother (or father)'. Shepard himself is quoted as saying: "Sometimes in someone's gestures you can notice how a parent is somehow inhabiting that person without there being any awareness of that," Shepard told Rolling Stone. "Sometimes you can look at your hand and see your father." (The New Yorker).

The challenge, of course, is how we let the past influence our adult lives as we select those elements we desire to let in or reject. Like the grandson in 'Buried Child' are we willing to run the risk of being unrecognized by our family, or does our very survival require us to break intergenerational family habits to exist? This question is one which takes most of us a lifetime to answer.

There are additional themes in Shepard's work which provoke, stimulate and even insult our sensibilities. He tackles gender identity (he's no feminist), rock and roll (what DOES happen to fading rockers), incest, macho men, cowboys, relationships, superstitions, and the comfort of food. What Shepard does through his characters is to help us know and understand there are unchanging family elements which influence us our entire lives. What we do with that information is entirely up to us.

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