August 25, 2009

So Your Family wasn't perfect and neither were you? Welcome to Reality!

Una Familia by Fernando Botero

One fateful Christmas, I wrapped up this masterpiece in Christmas paper and put it under the tree for my husband. It wasn't clear to me why I gave him this picture, but his disdain was plenty clear when he opened it. He looked stricken. As if the red snake in the background had leapt from the canvas and bitten him on his aquiline, no-hump nose.

"It's titled, The Family!" I cried. "Don't you LOVE IT?"

"But they're FAT!" he said. "And they're ugly, too!"

When we divorced a couple years later, this painting was one item he didn't include on the list of stuff he wanted. There was absolutely NO FIGHTING over Fernando Botero's portrait of The Family. ('Lest anyone assume my spouse had been gifted with an original Botero, you can shatter your fantasies right now. It's a print and no, it isn't even signed. Well, other than JCPenny's signature on the back plate.)

This painting now hangs in my family room, reminding me that family is often the center of life's dramas. For many 'seekers' at midlife, we spend the second half of life working through the damage done the first half. Some of that damage was other people's fault because we were vulnerable children and could not protect ourselves. Some of the damage we did to ourselves by viewing life through childish perceptions. Questioning immature perceptions and beliefs is the maturing work of a lifetime encouraging us to know the self and accept human nature as fallible and therefore: lovable.

Maybe this painting tells me that human beings can’t love a perfect anything anyway. All we can do is admire it. Or possess it. Love requires vulnerability and that in itself is an imperfection.

Because the healing process invites us to examine our childhoods for clues about where our perceptions might have been skewed, I’d venture a guess that most folks'll have plenty to do during retirement…if they're so inclined. Midlifers and retirees will never be bored if we accept self-awareness as an adult responsibility, and then trust that our self-examination will be accompanied by sufficient rewards compensating for the pain of breaking through fears, uncertainty and illusions.

So thank you, Botero. I'm sure the family sitting for this portrait, is pleased with themselves. 'Cuz nobody without healthy self-worth would be confident enough to hang a picture like that over their fireplace. Maybe in their kitchen as a reminder to stop eating the cheesecake; but definitely not in the 'gathering room' for guests.

Accepting ourselves for who we are and allowing other people to be who they are, demands conscious restraint from the impulse to pick up a paintbrush and beautify imperfections so we can see what we want (re: NEED) to see.

I was ruminating about this portrait while cleaning my family room today and realized that for me, it signified honesty and humor about the imperious seriousness of The Family as an IDEAL. An ideal to work towards, but a state of being no family achieves. When we’re reviewing our familial relationships, it's all-too-easy to unconsciously leap from one extreme to the other and assume there are faultlessly-functional-families setting the standard and gosh, did ours ever fall short.

If we cannot accept the truth about our family-of-origin or accept the dysfunction in our family-of-creation, we’re subject to airbrushing contradictions by pretending a Perfect Image is less painful than reality. When we do that, when we refuse to see people for who they are, we not only hold them hostage, we hold ourselves hostage to a false idol of our own creation.

I guess the point of my commentary is to remind others and myself that a flawless family is the figment of a wounded, perhaps frightened imagination. To see family as the human organization it is, breaths life into dead images constructed as defenses against the pain of an unexamined and unhealed past.



  1. As always, a joy to read your articles.

    This one reminded me ot 2 things. One, when I got some Christmas cards printed up with a picture of my 2 daughter's on when they were small. I surprised my husband, and he was mortified. He said my younger daughter looked like there was something wrong with her. I didn't see what he saw, and cried later. He wouldn't let me send them out, and I thought they were great pictures. Kids will be kids, and they were both smiling, and dressed in their Christmas out fits.

    On the flip side, I saw a show last night, which are plenty on TV these days, about woman and plastic surgery. Always trying to cover up the flaws and look youthful. One the outside many look beautiful, but on the inside of them, and their home, things aren't always so peachy.

    As for the narcissist, both my husband's wore their masks of kindness and somewhat shyness in the outside world, but always took them off at home.

    Hope I didn't get too off track here.

  2. CZ my friend, you are brilliant. Thank you for these words. As I always remind myself -- I am perfectly human in all my human imperfections. And in my humanness, I am free to be 'real' -- which includes making mistakes. Coming to grips with my 'faulty wiring', easing out the wrinkles in my thinking and opening up my limiting beliefs which I bound myself to as a child has been one of the greatest gifts of my 'mature' years. And recognizing that my family is not a 'perfect' organism has helped me to grow out of the restrictive yoke of our collective angst.

    You my friend are amazing.
    Thanks for this post.



  3. Dear anonymous,

    You saw two children. Your spouse saw two imperfect objects. That's a blunt way to describe the distinction between yourself and a narcissistic spouse. His reaction probably confused you (as it did most of us partnered with narcissists, or raised by narcissistic parents who demanded WE be perfect children FOR THEM).

    Nobody ever measures up to the narcissist's criteria for being lovable. We are 'a reflection of their perfection' which denies our humanity, thus robbing us of soul.

    It's painful to hear stories like yours and yet, you have educated yourself about narcissism (this is so important!). Once we understand pathological narcissism, we can end the obsessive confusion and stop blaming ourselves for being imperfect---or for raising imperfect children---or for having grown up in an imperfect family.

    The more imperfect the family, the more healthy it probably is. (j'est kiddin', but maybe not too much).

    These days, I detest those happy, beautiful, kids-in-a-row commercials we're inundated with on TV and billboards and magazine ads. It's all image and no substance. Just the way the narcissist likes it. The problem is that otherwise normal people are misled into seeing themselves as flawed because they aren't replicas of what our media-inspired standards have created.

    You've touched on another topic that irks me no end: plastic surgery. Once again, our culture reveres image over reality. And then, surprise of surprises, people wonder why they feel empty, anxious and insecure.

    Your X is a Schmuck and your children are so lucky to have a sensitive mom like you.


  4. "And recognizing that my family is not a 'perfect' organism has helped me to grow out of the restrictive yoke of our collective angst." ~Louise

    When MY perfect family fell apart, it was agonizingly painful and it was refreshingly liberating at the same time. I began deconstructing what the idea of family had meant to me as a child, as a young mother, as an older woman, as a dumpee.

    My current family (we call ourselves The Motley Crew) is replete with peculiarities sure to get a REJECT stamp of disapproval from any narcissist inspecting our organization. Nobody is perfect and we like it that way.

    Maybe other people will notice the same thing but once the narcissist is no longer playing on people’s fears about being ‘defective goods’, we are able to accept others in a way we might not have been able to love them before. I’ve noticed that being freed from the narcissist enhances my relationships with extended family who are now free to be as imperfect and fallible as I’ve allowed myself to be.

    The narcissist depends on our fears of imperfection.

    The criticism and overly harsh judgments cease when we accept ourselves as being good enough---in fact, WoNderful Women of Worth. Or as you often write on your blog, Louise: “Miracles.”


  5. I've always been pretty up front about what's going on with my life exactly because my mother was obsessed with presenting an image of the "perfect family" to others.

    I subscribe to the credo that "everyone's normal until you get to know them."

    My friend who's a 12-stepper always likes to remind me that we're only as sick as our secrets. It's very freeing to be honest. "Normal" is highly over rated!

  6. Hi CZ

    I am totally, utterly completely unfamiliar with any professional interpretations of Botero's art... take that disclaimer at face value, because I could be totally off base in what I perceive.

    But something really jumps out at me from this painting.

    These people do NOT look happy.

    Never mind their exaggerated size, that's the artist's idiom; but they do not look happy at all.

    And they all look exactly alike.

    Now the dog, he looks happy, even though he's got humanoid facial features that resemble everyone else's [and no ears at all, poor thing]. But he's the only one who does look happy, and the contrast is marked.

    Amusing to see that he and the kids are all dressed up in the same color, and his hairstyle matches the Missus'.

    So there they sit, all dressed up and looking exactly alike, and all of them except the dog also looking various degrees of miserable.

    And in the right upper quadrant the artist refers to Magritte, repeatedly ;-). And of course Eden as well, with that snake in the Tree in the left upper quadrant...

    What I see in this painting is an extremely sly commentary on appearance vs. reality, on 'putting the package together' vs. what's inside the box, on the 'picture perfect' family posing for their portrait vs. the real live people who can't quite manage to conceal how unhappy they truly are.

    I wonder if your ex looked at this painting and realized that it meant you were On To Him, at least subconsciously - or soon would be. To me, it sends a powerful message: "there are snakes in our paradise, and we ain't the happy little band we've been pretending to be. That is nothing but an illusion, and at this point, only the dog hasn't yet caught on."

    I could be totally off base, and probably am. But wow, these people look unhappy to me.

    It's an incredibly powerful commentary.

    Greetings from way out in left field,


  7. Hi Stormchild!

    That was an awesome interpretation. Botero appeals to the ‘masses’, or so critics fume because of his commercial success. The first time I saw one of his paintings in JCPenney’s Homestore, it made me stop and think about what he might be saying along with my reactions to his family portrait.

    I felt he was referring to the human angst of fitting into roles that were bigger than life. Or maybe I felt that way because wearing “Mothering” shoes was frightening on a conscious level and instinctive on another. You overcome your FEAR and step up to the task and do your best, but the role can squeeze the life outta ya if you aren’t respectful and in awe of the responsibility.

    The past few months have encouraged me to examine childhood issues that might have been precedents to my longterm relationship with a narcissistic partner. Art can be useful in facilitating introspection whether or not the artist intended for people to derive the ‘meanings’ they discover in a particular artist’s work. In a rear view reflection of family-of-origin dynamics, Botero’s paintings should come with a warning:

    “Objects appear larger than they really are.”

    I keep this in mind when contemplating how-on-earth a woman like myself ended up with someone who could not grow with me---no pun intended. ;-)

    Thanks for commenting about the portrait, Stormchild. I love hearing about people’s reactions to art.


  8. "Maybe in their kitchen as a reminder to stop eating the cheesecake; but definitely not in the 'gathering room' for guests."

    Haha. Thanks for your grace. πŸŒΎπŸ™


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