Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe and the Family Romance

Academic journal article Thomas Wolfe Review

Thomas Wolfe and the Family Romance

Article excerpt

As Oscar Wilde quipped, "Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes, they forgive them." According to Freud's theory of the family romance, children become disenchanted with their parents much earlier than one might think, but their imagination compensates for these disappointments.

In "The Family Romance of Neurotics" (1909), Sigmund Freud identified a widespread, formative fantasy. (1) As early as the age of two, children may judge their parents and find them wanting. In a clumsy fashion they spin a romantic tale about themselves and their families, imagining that they were adopted or kidnapped, and that their "real" parents were richer, more powerful, or more loving than the poor substitutes they now live with. Children adapt this series of ego-boosting fantasies as they grow older, to explain or make up for further disillusions and humiliations. After learning the facts of life, a child may dream up a past affair between his or her mother and a prestigious and wealthy man, who cannot acknowledge the illegitimate child (the daydreamer) as his own. Freud points out that, heartless as they may seem, these daydreams are fundamentally tender, for the parents that children dream up are as wonderful as they felt their actual parents to be in their early infancy. These fantasies satisfy children because, paradoxically, they are a return to the harmonious, intensely close relationship with the beloved, all-powerful parental figures of early childhood. Children save their affection for the mother and father of their earliest years, redirecting their anger and vengeful feelings toward "substitutes."

Freud believed that these universal fantasies are eventually "forgotten," i.e., not consciously remembered. When the fantasies in which children debase their parents have served their purpose and have been outgrown, one can, presumably, mete out the adult forgiveness Oscar Wilde had in mind, and function in society as an individual who is assured of his own worth. Freud's theory was based on certain recurrent motifs he discerned in the narratives of his neurotic patients. Because today's case studies suggest that there is not one single type of family romance fantasy, but several, and because their continuing impact has been identified among people who are not obviously neurotic, the stages that Freud outlined in 1909 have been redefined as far as therapeutic purposes are concerned. Many analysts now believe that every individual is motivated by a personal family romance, which is the body of memories one has of one's family, and the idea of one's role in that environment. Even in these ordinary recollections, actual experience is partly distorted (due to a fallible memory, insufficient knowledge, and past childish imagination), making everyone's life story one part invention. The family romance is, moreover, a life script: these inventions, or fantasies, are held to be a directive force in the lives of all adults; even grown-ups continue at some level to cast themselves as their employer's right-hand man, for instance, or as the ideal spouse to an ideal partner, as psychotherapists' studies have shown. (2) Psychoanalysts believe that this core fantasy explains some forms of repetitive behavior. A person's habits, for instance, or the sort of relationships that events seem to conspire to create for him or her in later years, are some byproducts of the fantasies of childhood. It is thought that carrying such remnants of the past into the present stems from an unconscious belief that one will attain the total satisfaction that one's early daydreams made possible. Questioning a patient's family romance in order to determine whether it is a suitable and sustainable version of his or her experience is one of the aims of psychoanalytical exchanges.

The family romance theory was linked to culture in The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1909), when Otto Rank identified traits in myths and legends that supported one basic aspect of Freud's pattern: among other feats, the typical mythic hero confirms and legitimizes his exceptional nature by restoring the greatness of parents who have fallen from a high state into unjust disgrace or poverty. …

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