“Lots of stuff that doesn’t kill you makes you weaker,” said the character Manny in an early episode of ABC’s sitcom Modern Family. That was the episode—“Truth Be Told”—that hooked me on what has become my favorite show on television. Manny’s fictional character spoke the real-life truth about a worn-out platitude.
The “truth” of the episode is much more complicated: Manny’s stepfather Jay, who is constantly trying to get him to “man-up,” has attempted to hang a poster in Manny’s room that says, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” Manny is quick to give an example that debunks Jay’s simple view of life—that his grandfather had a heart attack and now he has to use a machine to help him breathe. When the poster frame falls and kills Manny’s pet turtle, Shel Turtlestein, we belly-laugh at the absurdity of Jay’s cover-up story, which is so ridiculous that Gloria, Jay’s wife, tells him, “I’m Columbian. I know a fake crime scene when I see one.” And as it always does in comedic fiction, the truth comes out.
The show plays on almost every stereotype we hold of what it means to be family, and we can laugh in a way that we cannot when we think of our own painful experiences. So this week when news outlets reported that Ariel Winter, the real-life 14-year-old who plays the nerdy and intelligent Alex, had been removed from her mother’s custody, my heart ached for the girl who plays the character most like the childhood version of me.
Unlike Alex, Ariel and I both live with the real-world complexities of the parent-child relationship. According to news reports, Ariel’s older sister had been permanently removed from her mother’s custody 20 years prior to this incident. And while the courts are still sorting out what is the “truth be told” of this situation, it remains to be seen whether what hasn’t killed her will make her stronger.
For me, being abused as a child has done both. I spent half a lifetime revering my mother and love-hating my father, who drank his way through weekends and beat my siblings and me with a belt that he pulled from his waistline with a snap at the slightest provocation. But when my first marriage fell apart and I told a therapist that my mom was my hero and my father was “a total shit,” the therapist asked a simple question that changed my life: “Estelene, has it ever occurred to you that by today’s standards, your mom would be an accessory to child abuse?”
That one question challenged me to reconsider the simple beliefs I had held true for my parents. I had always thought that my mother, who quit school in ninth grade and married my dad when she was 17 and pregnant with my sister, had stayed with my father because she had no other options. But while I still love my mother for her unconditional love of her children and her strength in the face of adversity, I no longer idolize her, and I know that we all make choices. And while I still can’t excuse my father’s abuse, I can now understand that the hard life of a coal miner with a fifth grade education put him at a life-long disadvantage in supporting a family long before he was ready emotionally or financially.
I can also think rationally about the paradoxes that led me to be the person I am. My father recognized what his own choices had done to his life, and he said to me nearly every day of my childhood that I would get the education he didn’t have so that I could have a better life. So, in a striking irony, I became the Alex Dunfee of my real-life family and grew up to be a teacher, like my parents’ teacher for whom I am named. So my father is largely responsible for my education and my vocation.
I know I’m lucky that my father stopped drinking when I was about the age that Ariel Winter is now. I actually got to know the better side of a sober father who mellowed later in life. And perhaps that fact and the certainty of our mother’s love are why all five of my parents’ children were able to break the cycle of abuse that sometimes perpetuates itself through generations of families. Like Ariel, whose sister was removed from her mother’s custody 20 years ago, there was ample evidence in my family of a history of abuse. My father’s sisters laughingly told the story of how my grandmother threw my father into the yard when he was a toddler “like he was a sack of potatoes.” And one of my aunts, who saw the welts on my sister’s arms, told my dad she would report him to the police if she ever saw such wounds again. We had teachers who averted their eyes from the welts and bruises our mom made us cover up when we went to school. We had neighbors who called in their children and closed their doors when my father beat my brothers in our front yard.
So truth be told? I’m still figuring that out, as I guess I will until my last breath. For my siblings and me, the truth is that one of us indeed was killed rather than made stronger—my brother who died of a drug overdose in his 40s, leaving behind two children who adored him in spite of his flaws. Our truth is that the remaining four of us have struggled mightily with both the strengths and the weaknesses of what hasn’t killed us.
So this week my heart and my prayers go out to Ariel and other victims of their parents’ inner demons. May it be so that the truth really does make them stronger. Amen.