Family feuds

Ellen B. Sucov's book presents case histories to show that blood is not always thicker than water.

sucov book 88 298 (photo credit: )
sucov book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Fragmented Families By Ellen B. Sucov Southern Hills Press 332 pages; $19.95 As the product of a stereotypical feuding Polish-Jewish family, I was naturally fascinated by the title of Ellen B. Sucov's book Fragmented Families which was augmented by an old-fashioned cover photograph featuring a mother, a father and their offspring with an obviously wide age gap between the oldest and the youngest. There is an unspoken suggestion in the photograph that once the siblings have flown the nest, they will go their separate ways, and what appears to be a very united family will eventually fragment for any number of reasons. My own family was initially fragmented by the inherent migratory tendencies of the Jewish people - the wandering Jews - then by the Holocaust and subsequently by rotating feuds. I can hardly remember a time when everyone was on speaking terms with everyone else. It was against this backdrop that I was curious to read about the fragmentations of other families - and of course what followed after the breakup. Sucov, a psychologist, writes well, in an almost lyrical style, but the book veers backward and forward from being an academic text to telling a series of stories that would hold the reader in thrall, if they were all complete. The "case histories" she presents span from the biblical era to the present day. Sucov wastes too much space on describing families in the Bible, with whom many readers are already familiar. The result is that one has to read more than half the book before being presented with its central theme. Sucov also devotes too much space to the Jewish perspective on both bygone and contemporary situations. The fragmentation of families is a universal malaise, not an exclusively Jewish domain. The case histories Sucov presents leave the reader somewhat frustrated because each of the stories is one-sided, and the stories from the perspective of the family members who have chosen to alienate themselves are not told, because Sucov has not spoken to them. On the other hand, Sucov's personal story of how she overcame the rift with her half-siblings is extremely interesting, and would have been even more so if it had been told simply as a story and not interlaced with her professional observations. In fact she has two personal stories of alienation - one with her half-siblings and the other with her daughter. To her great credit, she was able to resolve both, and in both cases she initiated the reconciliation. The alienation with her daughter came much later, and it is a matter of curiosity that, with all her professional skills and experience and having earned the grudging affection of her half-sisters, Sucov was in a sense the cause of the break-up with her daughter, because of a breakdown in communication. Sucov was the product of her father's second marriage following the death of his first wife. The three children of his first marriage - or at least the daughters - resented the fact that he had remarried. They saw it as a betrayal of their mother's memory, and worse still the new wife was using household items that had belonged to their mother. The two daughters of the first marriage were already grown, and even under ideal circumstances it is doubtful, given the age gap, that Sucov would have had much to do with them when she was a child. In fact she grew up as an only child, and it was only after she was married and both her parents had died that she began to seek out her sisters. Her efforts were painstaking and sometimes painful, but in the final analysis yielded results. She learned things she had not known - as for instance their resentment at her mother's use of their mother's dishes. Sucov had never known that the dishes belonged to anyone else. They had been in the house when she was born, and she had no reason to believe that they did not belong to her mother. However when the matter came up in conversation with her sisters, she went home, divided the dishes into two lots, wrapped them carefully, packed them and sent them to each sister. That simple act of sensitivity broke down the barriers and paved the way to what became a rewarding relationship. Sucov also managed to get together with her half brother, but only briefly, albeit amicably. He had been alienated from his sisters for a long time, and when he died they did not go to his funeral. While many family estrangements can be traced to some careless remark or some verbal abuse hurled in the heat of anger and blown up out of all proportion, there are just as many that are based on jealousy, money or property. In Sucov's personal history the first alienation was in part over a small matter of property, but one that festered over the years, and would have gone on festering had she not decided to do something about it. The second alienation - the one with her daughter - was caused by words spoken or not spoken, depending on whether one sees the story from Sucov's initial perspective or that of her daughter. The underlying message that comes through here is that too often we are so busy with what occupies our minds at any given time that we are simply not listening to what anyone has to say, nor are we saying what the other person wants or needs to hear. Perhaps families might be less fragmented if we listened more not only with our ears but with our hearts.