“I remember,” I told my little brother on my last visit home, “when I realized that dressing fashionably wasn’t a betrayal of Gershom principles.”

I don’t mean my mother dressed me in flour sacks, growing up, or that there was ever a firm, spoken injunction against trying to look like we fit in anywhere. But aren’t unspoken rules the strongest kind?

When I was about 13, I was driving somewhere with my dad and we passed a Public School Kid,1 shuffling along with a t-shirt too big for him but not big enough to cover the boxers that showed above his sagging pants. He had two or three piercings. To my eyes, this was a scary, badass dude.

My dad let out his standard grunt/sigh of weary disapproval — this kid was everything that was wrong with the world! — and said, “Steve. Thanks for not being like that.”

He had no idea that what I heard was: “Thanks for not fitting in anywhere.”

Not Being Like That was one of the unspoken-but-firmly-established principles of Gershomhood, which included a whole list of things — some (as I now consider them) good, some bad, mostly neutral, but all verboten, under pain of disenfranchisement or at least mockery:

  • Eating conspicuously healthy food
  • Buying brand-name clothing
  • Being too intellectual
  • Being too lowbrow (with exceptions for The Three Stooges and Leslie Nielsen)
  • Hugging
  • Holding hands during the Our Father

Etc., etc. I don’t know whether this list seems consistent to the untrained eye, but to me the indefinable quality of Gershomhood runs through all of it, as unmistakable as a pungent odor, immediately identifiable to anybody with the right habit of mind.

It all had a weird power over me, due to my intense desire to belong. My fear at being caught listening to Celine Dion2 probably approached, in intensity, my fear of being discovered to be gay.

I’m not trying to tell you that my parents ruined my life by not encouraging me to use hair gel.

Yeah, it took me a while to understand — for example — that owning new furniture wasn’t a sin, and that going to therapy wasn’t a sign of weakness. But there’s nothing unusual in a kid unreflectively absorbing his parents’ preferences and turning them into prejudices. Some of it I probably made up myself and later attributed it to them; I wonder what my siblings’ list would include? (Feel free to chime in here, guys.)

After I had been at college for a little bit and had begun seriously to experience Other People, I think I went through a period of being sort of self-righteously un-Gershomly in front of my parents — I bet it really showed ‘em when I pierced my eyebrow3 — but eventually I settled down and just tried to do my own thing, whatever it was; even if it sometimes happened to coincide with the sort of thing my father would approve of.

To this day, though, I get a kind of transgressive thrill when I eat at a vegan restaurant, shake hands during the sign of peace, put on cologne in the morning, or call somebody “dude”.

What about you? What were your family’s unspoken rules? Do you still follow them, or have you forsworn them completely, or have you just plain stopped thinking about them?

1 The Public School Kid was a firmly-established archetype in my childhood. They swore, listened to Metallica, and wore their caps backwards, even when the brim would’ve been useful for keeping the sun out of their eyes. STOOPID.
2 I don’t really listen to Celine Dion. Or maybe I do. Do I even like her? I’m not sure. I’m just worried I don’t hate her as much as I’m supposed to.
3 I bet most passive-aggressive people would be surprised and chagrined at how often their vengeful strategems go — not ignored, not resisted — but completely unnoticed.

27 thoughts on “Like That

  1. Steve's sister

    Well, since you asked…I seem to be raising my own kids with a longer and more absurd list than the one we were raised with.

    The reasons are probably the same: first, we’re naturally odd, and not really in control of our quirks. And as with an in-joke, there’s a lot of bonding that goes on around these sorts of things. They contribute to a strong sense of family identity, which we certainly had and which my kids have, and that is a good thing. When you’re raising kids, you’re competing with all sorts of other influences.

    I’m not defending snobbery, but if you try to pass on high standards to your children–moral, aesthetic, cultural–it’s going to take them some time (as in, the rest of their lives) to learn to hold themselves to those standards without looking down on people whose standards are lower. I think the effect on you that you describe might just be a stage in a child’s natural development.

    Second, we really do want our kids to learn not to assume that just because a thing is considered normal, it should be unthinkingly accepted and imitated. That goes for moral absolutes, but also for matters of taste. Sometimes I think about the kosher laws in the Old Testament in this context. They were (at least partially, right?) arbitrary. One of the main reasons for the laws was to prevent the Israelites from fitting in with the people around them, because fitting in leads to all sorts of temptations.

    That being said: cologne?!? Really?

    Reply
  2. Christine

    Looking back, I don’t really remember many, if any, unspoken rules that went along with being a member of my family. Maybe part of that is because of what your sister said about these rules bringing about a sense of family identity; my family always felt fractured, even years before my parents’ divorce, and I never felt like we had a sense of family identity. We felt like five people who happened to live under the same roof and share DNA.

    I suppose it was an unspoken rule that each of us go to college, and two out of three of us did. I enjoyed college and would have gone anyway. We were expected to dress modestly, but that was a spoken rule. The little, unspoken, family-specific rules just weren’t a part of my growing up, probably because my parents were not united enough in their parenting to agree on any unspoken rules, whether consciously or unconsciously.

    Reply
  3. Chris

    My dad was obsessed with people’s weight. He (still to this day) will talk about how “in shape” somebody is, or comment on how fat someone else is. There have been some points in my life where I’ve been on the heavy side, and I always felt embarrassed to be around my family. He would also make fun of my mom whenever she got emotional about something, like tearing up at a movie, getting misty-eyed over saying goodbye, or anything else. He would say she was being “corny.” That translated to me that those kind of expressions of emotion, heck, the emotions themselves were a bad thing.

    It’s amazing how we, as children, interpret the words and deeds of our parents oftentimes vastly different than they were originally intended, and then get hung up on it for many years into our adult lives. I have four kids of my own, and sometimes I get terrified that I am unwittingly messing up some aspect of their adult lives in one way or another. I seem to more deeply discover how inadequate I am at parenting on a daily basis. Yikes!

    Reply
  4. Sky

    You’ve owned NEW furniture?!?

    Funny you bring this up, though. I got a lot of flak over Thanksgiving (Canadian) this year for my gluten-free, low-carb diet, and I had a hard time convincing my grandpa that no, just because you inject lard into your arteries and have done so for years does not mean the doctors are all d*ckwads.

    I think all these rules are just part of our Catholic, counter-cultural sensibilities. Meh. I try not to think about it too much, one way or the other. I just want to be holy.

    Reply
  5. Joe K.

    Clapping at sporting events. Or caring, at all, about anything (especially things like politics) too much. You can like a candidate. To like go to rallies or cheer though? Come on. Or talking about anything in non-philosophical, personal terms. You keep personal stuff personal. Unless it’s like…really one of those once in a lifetime moments.

    I must say, I’ve pretty much kept these standards going pretty well. Probably moreso than my siblings. I mean, not like they’d be at a political rally or anything, but I’ve seen them drink a beer and cheer at a football game on tv. When they do, I immediately look at them confused. Heh. To be entirely honest, though, I think they force themselves to do those things. None of us are actually like that. So low class.

    Also, your sister seems awesome. In addition, I’m with her. Cologne? Really? Finally, I too don’t dislike Celine Dion as much as I should. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I don’t like Celine Dion. But I will wait for one of her songs to play all the way through before making fun of it. I’m so gay. :(

    Reply
  6. J.B. Toner

    Oh. Are we–are we not supposed to like her? Apart from that admittedly cloying number from Titanic, I only know the one song: “That’s the Way It Is.” And–yeah, you know, I’m not even gonna try and pretend it’s not super awesome. I remember one of the guys using “Enya” as an insult during Mario Kart once and going, “Hey, I LIKE Enya!” and getting some funny looks, but then–we were freaking listening to PAUL MCCARTNEY at the time, not exactly Zeppelin or anything. These things are all pretty arbitrary, aren’t they? I wonder if a lot of it isn’t so much the intrinsic quality of the music as what “sort of people” like that “sort of thing.”

    Reply
    1. Inspired

      Baahaahaa!! I had a ‘cranking up the Enya’ day today whilst making up all the lines…. what the hell is “onocco flow”…?

      Reply
  7. Melissa

    Unspoken rule #1: we do not ever discuss in any detail with anyone outside the family (even your boyfriend, if you should be so unfamilial as to have one), how your autistic brother acts when he’s out of control.

    We also had the Public School Kid Villain. Piercing ANYTHING was suspect; tattoos, out of the question (I still hold onto that last one, mostly because I find them gross rather than immoral, though). Sleeveless attire on girls; in fact, anything fashionable on girls was suspect. Somehow I also got the idea that falling in love was not okay, especially for young people. And any sign of physical affection for your boyfriend is an immediate step towards Evil Sex.

    And most importantly, do whatever you have to do behind the scenes, including not meeting your own needs, in order to keep the Important Family Hierarchical Figure happy/oblivious.

    Then again, we had good unwritten rules; don’t eat a lot of junk food, but occasional is ok; modesty is a good thing; family is important; hard work and efficiency get things done.

    Reply
    1. Rivka

      Yeah, I was definitely left with the one that said falling in love was not okay. Even after I became adult, reached mid(turning into late) twenties, and did fall, everyone-I don’t just mean my family, guys-Nor religious people-everyone told me it was still not okay. I tried to convince everyone that that was not what had happened :(

      Reply
  8. JenF

    My family did have unwritten rules…but over time I think nearly all of them have been broken- partly because my parents came from 2 completely different backgrounds with opposite unwritten rules (e.g., Dad’s side: You do not talk to someone while they are in the bathroom. You do not yell, even in an argument; Mom’s side: One bathroom in the house- if you need to use it while someones in the shower, you use it. As for yelling- you say what you feel! Come on, let it out!) As you can imagine, their first few years of marriage was a transition to say the least! Makes me think tho: Isn’t that how Christ works? Coming in, breaking little unwritten rules to show you what is really important?

    Reply
  9. JenF

    Also- Celine Dion is awesome. I guess I’m one of “those” people…:)

    And a Catholic school unwritten rule: if you are missing a pencil, (or anything else was out of place in the classroom) it was always the public school CCD kids. They definitely stole things. Every time…

    Reply
  10. just a girl

    OHH, you homeschool and Catholic school kids… you clearly deserved all the mocking and disdain we public schoolers had for you! :P

    My family was (and is) just as weird and repressed, although evangelicals and not Catholics. I think it’s a middle class or (possibly) lower-middle class version of good old northern-European WASPism. Don’t be pretentious, don’t be artsy, don’t talk about your feelings, don’t be loose or slutty… although as evangelicals many of us were allowed to be enthusiastic about God/worship/what Jesus means to me, and in my family we theoretically affirmed the necessity and importance of this enthusiasm… in reality it was just as embarrassing and wrong as the rest. You were supposed to affirm what was important to you sort of by defending it against sneering challengers or by sitting back and reflecting together on our superiority compared to everyone else…

    My siblings and I are trying to overcome this, to some degree! We also use our last name like an adjective, however! Our cousins do it, too. After I converted, I found it SO difficult to talk to my family about the real, good reasons for my conversion, because they couldn’t discuss things on that level… it had to be defensive or we had to just clamp down and refuse to discuss it.

    I think that fostering a sense of identity and my-family-against-the-world has done great things for me in my life. Chiefly, it’s kept me from making a lot of mistakes. But it’s also kept me from a feeling that I am a legitimate, “normal” member of society. To this day (I’m 24) I feel afraid, when I meet new people, that if they really find out about me, if they knew I was one of the bad Christian people, or if they knew I had this fundamental disjunct, they wouldn’t be able to stand it. How do I know how awful and permanent and searing their judgment would be? … Because I have make that same judgment of them, the ‘outsiders,’ my whole life. So I don’t look on that positively at all. I am getting over it, though.

    Reply
  11. Gabriel

    I laughed aloud at least twice while reading this. Smartly done sar.

    As for unwritten Blanchard rules, well, I’ve actually been grateful for an awful lot of them: I am weird by nature as well as by upbringing, so the coincidence of the two makes each one easier. Our qualities: love of black comedies, wordplay, and sarcasm; an incorrigible tendency to quote (though I am the worst of the bunch); an insatiable appetite for books; and Anglophilia, more understated in the rest of the family than in myself, I think. Self-conscious, ironic participation in social conventions is another — a sort of loving mockery of normalcy.

    Negative qualities would certainly include snobbery, especially intellectual snobbery, but I think we recognize that as a fault in ourselves, so I don’t get much in the way of a transgressive thrill when I deliberately counteract it. Converting to Catholicism wasn’t much good in that respect either, since both my sisters did too and my father, though not practicing, was raised Catholic. The closest thing to a transgressive thrill I can think of is being a leftist radical — but even that, though it isn’t a Blanchardy thing to do, I’ve done in such a Blanchardy way; and my parents are conservatives, but we’re from California, so, you know.

    Reply
  12. Steve's other sister

    Yes, my kids are probably even more confused than we were, because I married someone very unlike me with very strong opinions about just about everything, so our kids get it from both sides. It’s really inherently tricky: you want kids to have enough confidence to buck conventional wisdom and pop culture, but you want them to know that pop culture and conventional wisdom aren’t always and everywhere evil, but you don’t want them to have contempt for people who opine differently on the gazillion opinable things out there. I would like to think our kids will turn out perfectly balanced, since on the one hand they’re growing up with those Gershom ideas that I have deemed worth keeping and on the other, the very different ones they’ve picked up from their father. It’s probably just good for them to see that two people they love have two very different sets of taste, instincts, temperaments, and all that, but share all the rock-bottom kind of stuff.

    Reply
  13. current lector

    Hmmm…

    We were not supposed to read Reader’s Digest (it was too lowbrow and aimed at a grade 4 reading level), though I could not resist the morbid fascination of all those “Drama in Real Life” articles about brain surgery, cliff-hanger accidents, etc.

    Pop culture was generally suspect, as was both lefty political correctness AND right-wing populism. I have to say, the last point still kinda makes sense to me.

    On the other hand, Asterix and Tintin books were very much “in” with us.

    Cologne and other fashions were to some extent considered “vanity”… I remember having fragrance wars with my brother using my sisters’ perfumes. We’d play “skunk” so to speak, and try to spray each other. The fragrance was called, I believe “Love’s Fresh Lemon”.

    Reply
    1. Inspired

      HILARIOUS!!!!

      Asterix and Tintin were very much ‘in’ in our family too! So much so that for her 6th birthday my little sister unknowingly shocked my mother by asking for and ‘Orgy’ themed party. After some prying, mum realised her innocent 6yo was still innocent and thought orgies were parties where you lay around on couches eating melted cheese as depicted in Asterix and Obelix!

      Oh and we had Asterix and Obelix themed bathroom tiles courtesy of Villeroy and Boch. My mum is a hoot!!

      Reply
  14. Brianne

    Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thanks, However I am
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    Reply

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