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FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY AS LITERARY ANALYSIS:
THE CASE OF PHILIP ROTH
SARAH EDEN SCHIFF
A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
Sarah Eden Schiff
This paper owes its existence to the continued love and inspiration of my husband,
John Favier. I must also thank Mom, Dad, Hillary, and Ethan for all their love, support,
and good-natured eye rolling at my tendency to leap into literary homilies at the dinner
table. I thank my professors at Georgetown who encouraged me to take this next step in
my career and to those here at UF who have sustained it. In particular, I want to thank
Marsha Bryant for her chronic cheer and for always asking the tough questions. And
finally, I wish to thank Kenneth Kidd for his sincerity, optimism, and willingness to work
with me on this rather peculiar proj ect.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENT S .........__.. ..... .__. .............._ iii..
AB S TRAC T ......_ ................. ............_........v
FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY AS LITERARY ANALYSIS: THE CASE OF PHILIP
RO TH .............. ...............1.....
Introducti on ........._..... .... ......._.__ ...............1....
Skepticism about Family Studies............... .. ..... ... ...... ........3
Murray Bowen and Philip Roth's Concurrent Interest in the Family ................... ........7
Roth' s Discontent with Psychoanalysis ................. ...............10........... ...
Bowen Family Systems Theory: An Overview ................. ................ ......... .15
Triangles ............... .... ...............20..
Differentiation of Self. ............._.. ........_._. ...............23.....
The Nuclear Family Emotional System ........._..._. ....._... ...._._.. ..........2
Family Projection Process .............. ...............42....
Multigenerational Transmission Process ........._..._... ......._._. ......... 45........
Emotional Cutoff ........._..._... ...............48.._.._.. ......
Sibling Position. ........._.._... ...............51.._.._.. ......
Societal Emotional Process............... ...............59
Conclusion ........._.._... ...............63.._.._.. ......
LIST OF REFERENCES ........._..._... ...............65.._.._........
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............68....
Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts
FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY AS LITERARY ANALYSIS:
THE CASE OF PHILIP ROTH
Sarah Eden Schiff
Chair: Kenneth Kidd
Major Department: English
Psychoanalytic theory has been far more influential in literary studies than any
other model of psychological inquiry. However, it is not the only available approach;
Murray Bowen's family systems theory, while relatively new and unfamiliar to
humanities scholars, offers great potential to the Hield of literary studies. The purpose of
this essay is to evaluate the critical effectiveness of systems theory as a literary construct,
using as a test case the early fiction of Philip Roth, which was written concurrently with
the development of Bowen's theory. Given Roth's lifelong personal and professional
interest in Freud's work, his disappointment with the practice of psychoanalysis, and his
exploration of the self within the context of the family, his novels serve as apt and
valuable subjects of study for family systems theory. This essay therefore seeks to
recognize the joint development of systemic thinking as expressed theoretically by
Murray Bowen and Eiguratively by Philip Roth, in the hopes that family systems theory
be recognized as a valuable and compelling means for literary criticism and that Philip
Roth' s early fiction be appreciated for its systemic exploration of the family unit through
language and imagery that (often parodically) depart from the traditional psychoanalytic
FAMILY SYSTEMS THEORY AS LITERARY ANALYSIS:
THE CASE OF PHILIP ROTH
Psychoanalytic theory, whether Freudian, Lacanian, ego psychological, or obj ect
relationist, has been far more influential in literary studies than any other model of
psychological inquiry. While psychoanalysis is by far the most prevalent school of
psychology both theoretical and clinical in the West, there are perhaps additional
reasons as to why it has retained such a monopoly in American departments of English.
As "liberal" thinkers, literature scholars understandably identify with Freud's appeal to
the arts and Lacan's semiotic formulation that the unconscious is structured like a
language. Lacan himself recognized that Freud considered a literary background "the
prime requisite in the training of analysts" (139). Additionally, psychoanalysis, which
Mark Poster deems "a theory of the individual" (34), is expressly more "subj ective" in its
reliance on free association, transference between the analyst and the analysand, and an
implicit understanding of the patient' s victimization by his or her innate desires or lacks;
it is therefore seemingly more akin to the theoretical teachings of postmodernism,
poststructuralism, and postcolonialism. As Deleuze and Guattari put it, "Freud
SUnless otherwise specified, when I discuss psychoanalysis, I am referring to Freud's theory as it has been
applied in the United States. Of course, it is important to realize, as Nathan Hale points out, that Freud may
not have "recognized the current panoply of clinical practices as his own," but "many of today's
psychoanalysts would" (Schnogg 4). As Nancy Schnogg points out, "These theories may no longer be
purely Freudian, but they have descended from the founder of psychoanalysis" (4).
discovered the subj ective nature or abstract essence of desire" (qtd. in Poster 1).
However, psychoanalysis is not the only available psychological approach to literature.
Family systems theory, while relatively new and unfamiliar to most humanities
scholars,2 Offers distinctive potential to literary studies. Its goal is to demonstrate that the
study of the human can be more objective; in other words, it can be a science.3 To
formulate his theoretical claims about the psychological identity of the family, Murray
Bowen, as well as his colleagues and followers, relied on an extensive collection of data
about both human and animal families. Bowen's assertion that the "family is a system in
that a change in one part of the system is followed by compensatory change in other parts
of the system" (155) makes a universal claim that seems "anti-humanities." In our
postmodern age of Foucauldian subj activity and Derridian deconstruction, the
universality of a systemic science of humanity seems suspect. Yet it cannot be denied
that, as humans, we maintain a common experience of existence; what family systems
attempts to do is provide a comprehensive theory that recognizes the common origin of
our species: the mammalian organization of the family. C. Margaret Hall summarizes it
as "a general theory of emotional processes in human relationship systems, with an
emphasis on biological rather than cultural variables" (2). While systems theory may be
2 I Will therefore devote a good portion of this essay to reviewing family systems' fundamental concepts.
3Freud, of course, considered psychoanalysis to be a science, but given his tendency to abstract universal
claims from a limited collection of data, as well as his focus on literature as models for psychoanalytic
thought (i.e. the Oedipus complex), that label is necessarily called into question. Lacan also believed that
psychoanalysis should be a science; however, he recognized a differentiation between exact sciences, such
as biology and physics, and conjectural sciences, within which Lacan located psychoanalysis. Poster raises
a relevant criticism against Lacan's reliance on the supposed "scientific" metaphysic of language by
pointing out, "Language is not totally malleable but shaped by a social and natural system which in good
measure precedes it" (96).
a more conventionally "scientific" understanding of the human psyche, 4 this does not
discount its potential as a theoretical construct for literary analysis. As John V. Knapp
The family system becomes the source of the matrix of identity, rather than only
the individual character. Thus, the "causes" of a given problem in growing up
(and beyond) in Eictional and real families is much less the person construct or
single event, and more the emotional process that links people and events. .. To
understand a members) of a Sictional family, one needs to understand the family
This essay illustrates how family systems theory can function as a critical framework,
using as a test case the early fiction of Philip Roth, which is especially applicable given
his lifelong personal and professional interest in Freud's work, his disappointment with
the practice of psychoanalysis, and his exploration of the self within the context of the
family. Through this case study, then, I suggest that family systems theory's
comprehensive understanding of the family's functioning allows for a nuanced and
rewarding reading of literature that in return demonstrates the insight of the theory.5
Skepticism about Family Studies
Before continuing, I would first like to anticipate some skepticism that could
very appropriately be raised about the study of the family. Along with the advances in
such postmodern criticisms as feminism, queer theory, and Marxism has emerged a
valuable deconstruction of the family, despite its undeniable influence on human culture.
4 While family systems can be viewed as more "scientific" than psychoanalysis in its universalized
understanding of the human experience and its reliance on the thorough collection of data, it should be
emphasized that it does not fall into the category of a solely pharmacological answer for emotional
disturbance. Though it does not deny the necessity in certain cases for medication, it stresses therapy as the
prevailing and most effective treatment.
5 It should be noted that my purpose in applying family systems theory as a form of criticism is not meant
to deny the importance of such vital work as cultural criticism, gender and race studies, or even other
schools of psychological criticism. Rather, I am simply offering another frame of discourse, one that
focuses on the emotional dynamics of human beings, that should provide additional and sometimes more
Poster explains the difficulties involved in studying the family: "Today the family is
being attacked and defended with equal vehemence. It is blamed for oppressing women,
abusing children, spreading neurosis and preventing community" (ix). For example,
feminist Kate Millett argues that the family, because of its engrained patriarchal structure,
is hazardous to the goals of feminism. She writes, "Patriarchy's chief institution is the
family. It is both a mirror of and a connection with the larger society; a patriarchal unity
within a patriarchal whole" (45). Her criticism is, of course, completely accurate. And
yet, she continues, "Serving as an agent of the larger society, the family not only
encourages its own members to adjust and conform, but acts as a unit in the government
of the patriarchal state" (45). What Millett is struggling with, what she challenges about
the family, then, is not necessarily its inherent patriarchy, but rather its systemic
functioning within the larger family of society, which, of course, is patriarchal. In other
words, the family is not patriarchal innately, but, as a cultural product, it conforms to
society's economic, political, and cultural influences.6 While this argument does not
solve the problem, it does leave room for understanding the patriarchal organization of
the family as a relational response to society at large, as opposed to a lost cause not
worthy of evaluation.
Jane Gallop, influenced by feminist theory as well as Lacanian psychoanalysis,
similarly questions psychoanalytic assumptions about gender and the family:
"Psychoanalysis often considers revolutionary conflict along the parent-child model, thus
reassimilating larger social issues into the familiar domain" (xv). However, because
6 As a side note, family systems would interpret society's patriarchal structure as a dysfunctional attempt to
manage the human population's anxieties. I will discuss this process in greater detail in the section,
"Societal Emotional Process."
Gallop reads the family solely as a one-to-one relationship, which is entirely accurate
according to the psychoanalytic model, she fails to take into account the larger system of
the family that is made up of far more complex, interrelated webbings of relationships.
An additional feminist criticism of Lacanian psychoanalysis in particular is raised by
Catherine Baliteau who argues that "Lacanians are always blaming the mother of the
child' s problems, even to the point of insisting that it is the mother' s task to introduce the
father and the principle of the symbolic phallus. But where is the father while the mother
tends the child, seducing it to her desire at the level of the imaginary?" (Poster 95). This
sexist leaning is especially evident in Robert Forrey's Lacanian analysis of Portnoy 's
Complaint, in which he diagnoses Portnoy's problem as a prohibition by his mother to
become a Jewish father (272).7 One could equally wage such a feminist criticism against
many other schools of psychoanalysis, including object relations. What family systems
theory offers that psychoanalysis does not is the belief that each member contributes to
the functioning and dysfunctioning of the family unit. Additionally, unlike
psychoanalysis, family systems does not prescribe specific patterns, tendencies, and/or
neuroses as attributes of one' s gender.
Marxist critics have similarly found fault with the structure of the family, viewing
it as a governmental means to provide the proletariat with leisure time and privacy. And
just as Millett suggests that the family upholds the patriarchal system, so too does it
uphold the ideological, capitalistic structure of the social system (Poster xviii). Engels, in
his The Origin of the Famnily, was one of the first to recognize that the family has a "long
and important history .. which proved that patriarchy and monogamy were limited,
I will provide a systems' reading of Portnoy's Complaint over the course of this paper.
relative social forms connected with fateful developments in the mode of production"
(Poster 43). However, Poster criticizes the Marxist position for viewing the family as a
"dependent variable" that will "change after the revolution" and for overlooking the
oppressions that occur within the family itself (xviii). Yet despite these criticisms,
Marxism does remind those doing psychological inquiry into the family that "one must
be aware of class differences in family structure" (63).
Another appropriate criticism of the psychological study of the family, especially
of psychoanalysis and ego psychology in particular, is its tendency to "normalize" the
family, to assume that there is a standard against which all families are measured. Of
course, the danger is that the theorist doing the normalizing does not realize that his or
her standard is culturally bound and determined. As Millett testifies, "The effect of
Freud's work, that of his followers, and still more that of his popularizers, was to
rationalize the invidious relationship between the sexes, to ratify traditional roles, and to
validate temperamental differences" (252). Poster agrees. Criticizing the ego
psychological work of Erik Erikson in particular, he writes, "Erikson' s lofty spiritual
quest ends in an affirmation of all social orders as providing adequate chances for each
individual to attain these values" (70). Therefore, psychoanalysis often has the tendency
of becoming more of a moralizing force than an obj ective critique of the human psyche.
Of course, this was one of Lacan' s primary complaints against psychoanalysis as it is
often practiced in the United States. What sets family systems apart, however, is that it
does not "normalize" the family or declare, "this is what a healthy family looks like";
instead, the theory does its best to obj ectively examine the universal emotional patterns,
SEgo psychology has been the most prevailing mode of psychoanalysis in America since mid-century.
such as fusing and triangling, by which all families, to some degree, function. Hall adds,
"He [Bowen] is more concerned with possibilities and probabilities than with modes or
norms of behavior" (20). Additionally, Bowen never defines exactly what a family is.
His theory operates under the premise that any collection of adults and/or children, for
example a single mother, a gay couple, an adopted child and parents, can function as a
family unit. The goal of systems therapy is not to heal by altering "immoral" behavior,
but rather to reduce anxiety by acknowledging the structuring patterns of the family
dynamic for what they are. Of course it cannot be denied that Bowen did rely on
heterosexual, married couples as his initial obj ects of study and most likely developed his
theory under the assumption that heterosexuality is the "norm." However, Michael Kerr,
Bowen's established successor, responds that homosexual relationships and family units
function no differently than do those of heterosexuals ("The Relationship").
Murray Bowen and Philip Roth's Concurrent Interest in the Family
Murray Bowen's development of family systems began in 1957 at the Annual
Meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association, where he presented his paper,
"Treatment of Family Groups with a Schizophrenic Member." Bowen explains the
impetus to convert the traditionally psychoanalytic model into a more systemic paradigm
as inspired by a dissatisfaction with psychoanalysis after a decade of its domination in
postwar America. With World War II and its vastly dismal effects on the world's
population (as well as on the structure of the family itself) came the understandable
acceptance of psychoanalysis as the primary mode of American psychiatry; however, as
many disconcerted practitioners soon came to realize, it did not provide effective
treatment techniques for severe mental illness. Poster adds, "It became clear to these
[family] therapists that earlier theories were deficient in articulating the social nature of
psychic life" (1 10). Therefore, mid-century, "Hundreds of eager psychiatrists began
experimenting with modifications of psychoanalytic treatment for the more difficult
problems" (Bowen 186). Yet this search for a more effective understanding of the human
psyche was not limited to psychiatrists.
When read psychologically, Philip Roth's fiction has been read from the
psychoanalytic perspective. This, of course, is no surprise, given Roth's lifelong personal
and professional interest in Freud's work. However, despite his experience with analysis,
he registers doubt about its efficacy throughout his writing career. Bowen began
formulating his theory in 1957, and Roth's career took off just two years later, with the
publication of Goodbye, Columbus and Five .1htsil t Stories. While in different Hields, both
men express frustration with psychoanalysis as an effective psychological theory. Given
Roth' s disappointment with psychoanalysis as well as his career-long exploration of the
self, his books serve as apt and valuable objects of study for family systems theory. By
reading Roth's novels in the context of family systems, I hope to reveal complementary
meanings that explore the deficiencies of psychoanalysis while presenting a more
systemic functioning of the family unit. This essay therefore seeks to recognize the j oint
development of systemic thinking as expressed theoretically by Murray Bowen and
Eiguratively by Philip Roth, in the hopes that family systems be recognized as a valuable
and compelling means for literary criticism.
I will first devote some time to exploring the discontent that Roth conveys both in
his fiction and nonfiction in order to allow for the possibility of alternate psychological
readings. Because family systems theory is most likely unfamiliar to most literary
scholars, I will then review its basic premise and discuss its eight interlocking concepts.
With each concept, I will look to moments in Roth's novels, specifically Goodbye,
Columbus (1959), Letting Go (1962), When She Was Good (1967), Portnoy 's Complaint
(1969), and M~y Life as a Man (1974), that seem to explore a similar dynamic within the
family system. These books represent Roth' s five earliest novels, excepting a political
satire about Nixon (Our Gang 1971), an equally satiric baseball saga (The Great
American Novel 1973), and a Kafkaesque novella that is more of a literary exercise
than a fully dimensional work of fiction (The Breast 1972). While contemporaneous
with Bowen's development of family systems theory, these early novels tend to share a
common interest in a character' s development of self within the context of the family:
"He writes about individuals in families and marriages; political or social involvement
.. is a secondary subject" (Lee 49). I cannot see that Roth would have any problem
with my pursuit, given that he himself admits that "family and religion as coercive forces
have been a recurrent subject in my fiction" (Reading 8). McDaniel additionally
recognizes Roth's interest in exploring his characters within their familial and communal
circumstances: "Roth believes that the writer should investigate the self as it exists in
society" (51). It is Roth's willingness to situate his characters within his or her cultural
context, specifically the family, that sets him apart from many of his predecessors and
contemporaries, such as Saul Bellow, J.D. Salinger, Bernard Malamud, and Norman
Mailer, who appeal to "the necessity of divorcing oneself from society" (51) and whose
heroes "are not willing to confront the storms of social, familial and religious pressures"
(88). This attribute also makes Roth a valid and worthwhile subj ect of inquiry for family
Roth's Discontent with Psychoanalysis
In order to allow for the possibility of other psychological interpretations, it is
necessary to locate moments in Roth's writing that suggest a discontent with
psychoanalysis. While much of the psychoanalytic imagery and language that commonly
appear in Roth's work have been taken at face value, I believe that moments of
subversion, satire, and spoofing have been regrettably overlooked. Roth's collection of
nonfiction essays, Reading2\~yselfand Others, which was first published a year after M\~y
Life as a 2an, offers considerable insight into Roth' s (supposedly) candid beliefs. In a
1974 interview with the Italian critic Walter Mauro, Roth responds to a question about
the extent of his loyalty to his religious and familial origins:
I am probably right now as devoted to my origins as I ever was .. But this has
come about only after subj ecting these ties and connections to considerable
scrutiny. In fact, the affinities that I continue to feel toward the forces that first
shaped me, having withstood to the degree that they have the assault of
imagination and the test of sustained psychoanalysis (with all the cold-
bloodedness that entails), would seem by now to be here to stay. (Reading 9)
Roth here is very clearly disturbing the conventional critical view that he is an advocate
for psychoanalysis.9 He claims that despite the cold-blooded attempt of psychoanalysis
to detach himself from his family, Roth has remained, after much genuine deliberation,
faithful to his origins. In his autobiography, The Facts, Roth additionally reveals the
profound effects that his family has had on him: "In our lore, the Jewish family was an
inviolate haven against every form of menace, from personal isolation to gentile hostility.
Regardless of internal friction and strife, it was assumed to be an indissoluble
9 See critics such as Jeffrey Berman, Harold Bloom, Stanley Edgar Hyman, Hermione Lee, and Howard
consolidation. Hear, O Israel, the family is God, the family is One"1o (14). Hermione
Lee, alluding to Bloom's psychoanalytic theory that the writer desires to "kill off' the
fatherly writers of the tradition in order to find success as a writer himself, reads Roth' s
fiction also as desirous of extinguishing all familial and literary influences. However, it
is clear from his nonfiction (and his fiction as well), that he has a sincere appreciation for
the intense impact that the family can and continues to have on one's emotional (and
Roth offers an alternate criticism of psychoanalysis in a 1984 interview with Lee
for The Paris Review. To the question, "Then what is the relationship between your
experience of psychoanalysis and the use of psychoanalysis as a literary stratagem?,"
The experience of psychoanalysis was probably more useful to me as a writer
than as a neurotic, although there may be a false distinction there. It's an
experience that I shared with tens of thousands of baffled people, and anything
that powerful in the private domain that j oins a writer to his generation, to his
class, to his moment, is tremendously important for him, providing that afterwards
he can separate himself enough to examine the experience obj ectively,
imaginatively, in the writing clinic. .. So many enlightened contemporaries had
come to accept the view of themselves as patients, and the ideas of psychic
disease, cure, and recovery. (Reading 128)
Therefore Roth' s interest in psychoanalysis and the use of it in his writing is for its social
implications, its ideas about "subj activity," and its intense cultural influence on his
generation. In the last sentence of the above passage, Roth likewise criticizes the
tendency of psychoanalysis to focus on mental illness as a disease, as opposed to
something more organic. Family systems makes this same criticism.
'n Here, Roth is echoing the Shema, the most important of Jewish prayers that attests to the unity of God: it
reads, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!"
Roth additionally registers disapproval with psychoanalysis in his fiction. For
example, in his second novel, Letting Go, Roth narrates a highly impassioned, even
disturbing encounter between Libby, the desolate, desperate young wife of Paul Herz,
and the psychoanalyst, Dr. Lumin. While Berman suggests that Roth actually portrays
his psychoanalysts as "men of good will, expertise, and integrity" (240), on closer
inspection, it seems more accurate that his psychoanalysts are, at the least, misled,
arrogant, and inappropriate. For example, in response to Libby's impassioned
confession, the narration reads, "The doctor rocked in his chair; he placed his hands on
his belly, where it disappeared into his trousers like half a tent. 'I don't know,' he
mumbled" (346). In addition to the doctor' s mumbled, unconstructive response, Roth
additionally goes so far as to imply, through the suggestion that his hands are in his pants,
that Dr. Lumin is sexually aroused by Libby's psychological breakdown. Libby ends up
leaving the office in a mad outburst of disappointment and never returns. While some
critics, such as Berman (243), have blamed this failure on Libby and her "extreme"
temperament, it is perhaps fairer to put the blame on the supposed mental health
professional for this failure, especially given this unattractive portrait of him.
In Portnoy 's Complaint, Roth not only adopts the confessional mode of
psychoanalysis, but also exploits it and turns it against itself. While Roth himself is
obviously very familiar with psychoanalytic terms and discourse, Portnoy's baffled,
fanatical rant undermines the value of psychoanalysis through subversive spoofs and
misreadings. Some critics, such as Bruno Belletheim in his "Portnoy Psychoanalyzed,"
seem to blame Roth for these discrepancies; however, I argue that they are perfectly
deliberate. For example, Portnoy cheers desperately, "LET' S PUT THE ID BACK IN
YID! Liberate this nice Jewish boy's libido, will you please?" (124).11 Here, Roth seems
to be at least questioning, if not challenging, psychoanalysis in its claim that such a thing
could be possible. Similarly, upon making the discovery that "essentially titles women
seem to be [his] destiny," Portnoy sidebars to ask, "by the way-now, why is that? is there
an essay somewhere I can read on that? is it of import? or shall I go on?" (216). It is
necessary to acknowledge the deliberate mocking sting that this aside at least implies, if
not confirms. Additionally, Portnoy candidly challenges the efficacy of psychoanalysis,
which of course, is made even more ironic by the fact that he is sitting on an analyst' s
couch: "Doctor, my psyche, it's about as difficult to understand as a grade-school primer!
Who needs dreams, I ask you? Who needs Freud?" (180). And though Dr. Spielvogel
does get the last line of the novel, it is his only one: "So [said the doctor]. Now vee may
perhaps to begin. Yes?" (Roth's brackets 274). Yet this section of the novel is entitled,
"Punch Line"; therefore, the psychoanalytic authority's only line in the novel is a joke (as
is all of Portnoy's "free association"). The reader does not hear any of the analysis; it
does not concern Roth. The purpose of the novel, its substance, lies in Portnoy's story
itself. Interestingly enough, Millett appreciates Roth's disparagement of the
psychoanalytic discourse: "Portnoy's long kvetch is a hilarious demonstration of how
elaborate cultural penis-worship may produce, in a man of intelligence or sensitivity, a
monumental infantilism whose only satisfactions are a contradictory blend of onanistic
11 It would perhaps be irresponsible not to discuss the constant theme of the Jewish joke running throughout
both Roth's and Freud's careers. Sanford Pinsker has written much of Freud's Jewishness and
psychoanalysis as a "Jewish science." Hermione Lee likewise makes a comment that seems to be hinting at
Roth' s critique of psychoanalysis through his use of Jewish humor: "Portnoy is doubly a self-abusing
humorist: that is, he makes use to the full of the tradition of 'self-abuse' in the Jewish joke, and at the same
time abuses the tradition" (38). For more on Jewish humor, see Pinsker and Lee as well as Stephen J.
self-deprecation and the cheap glory of settling old minority scores in the sexual
exploitation of women" (455). While many critics have read Portnoy 's Complaint as
Roth' s embrace of the psychoanalytic discourse, I rather agree with Millett that it is
psychoanalysis itself, as it has been embraced by the American mythology, that has
contributed to Portnoy's complaint.
In M~y Life as a Man, Roth continues to take issue with psychoanalysis, again
through the figure ofDr. Spielvogel.12 Roth repeatedly and deliberately questions
Spielvogel's authority. For example, Spielvogel can make no other diagnosis, can do
nothing to help Peter, other than to repeatedly call him a "narcissist,"13 eSpecially when
Peter expresses his fears that Susan will kill herself if he leaves her. We readers, though,
know that Susan does indeed attempt to commit suicide, as Roth includes this
information near the beginning of his narration. Therefore, Spielvogel's hasty dismissal
of Peter' s fears as "in his head" cannot be taken seriously; we know that Peter' s fears are
indeed legitimate, yet remain unacknowledged by the psychoanalyst. Peter pleads,
"Look, what if after the affair is no more, she cannot accept the fact and commits
suicide?" To which Spielvogel answers, "You think every woman in the world is going
to kill herself over you? .. What a narcissistic melodrama you are writing here, Mr.
Tarnopol. If I may offer a literary opinion" (166). Roth here casts Spielvogel as
extending beyond his proper position as an analyst and into that of a literary critic
(Peter's/Roth's own territory) that is how far he has strayed.
12 Dr. Spielvogel is most likely modeled after Roth's own analyst, who, like Spielvogel, published an article
about the narcissistic artist, whose subject was a very loosely disguised Roth.
13 A diagnosis that critics often make of Roth himself. It should be noted that a family systems therapist
would not only avoid labeling a client with any "diagnosis," but would also absolutely avoid declaring this
label to his or her client. Instead, the systems therapist would ask why Peter began dating such a dependent
woman in the first place.
Similarly, Peter repeatedly gets frustrated with Spielvogel who will not believe
that he could have had a happy childhood. While a family systems therapist would admit
that all families are anxious and therefore experience times of unhappiness and
dysfunction, Spielvogel instead insists that Peter was conveniently forgetting "the
threatening aspect of [his] mother's competence and vigor and attentiveness, and the
'castration anxiety'" (214). Peter, and no doubt Roth, cannot buy this rewriting of Peter's
family history, nor its suggested misogyny. Later in the novel, desperate to be better,
Peter attempts to adopt the psychoanalytic course of action. He tells himself that his
mother was a "phallic threatening figure" and so goes "up to Yonkers to have Passover
dinner" where he describes his behavior as "crudely abrupt and cold with my mother,
[putting up] a performance about as bewildering afterward to me as to this woman who
so looked forward to each infrequent visit that I made to her dinner table" (218). Not
only does psychoanalysis not help Peter figure out more about himself, but it also makes
him act against his own nature.
Given this short chronicle of moments in Roth's writing when he seems skeptical
of the psychoanalytic mission, or "talking cure," it appears more possible that he would
be curious about other available ways of thinking about the psychological nature of
human beings. After a brief introduction to Bowen family systems theory, I will locate
moments in Roth's writing that echo its innovative psychological concepts.
Bowen Family Systems Theory: An Overview
During the 1950s, Murray Bowen, along with other American psychotherapists,
began exploring the significance of the family on a person' s emotional development.
When Bowen refers to "emotions," it is important to note that he is not referring to such
"feelings" as happiness and fear, but rather to expressions more instinctual and even
animalistic. Defining emotions in the Bowenian context, Gilbert writes:
Emotions are the intense reactivities, both physiological and mental, including the
instincts, that are generated in the part of the brain humans share, anatomically
and functionally, with the rest of the animal kingdom. They are highly complex
behavior patterns that are so necessary to the survival of both the individual and
the species that nature has given them an insistent quality and hard-wired them
into the nervous system. (38)
Feelings, in contrast, are simply "emotions that have come into awareness" (39). With
this recognition of the "natural" development of individuals within their instinctually
emotional settings, Bowen soon came to realize that making a "family diagnosis," as
opposed to an individual one, is essential to the psychological pursuit. By focusing on an
individual' functioning (as opposed to his or her illness), Murray Bowen formulated the
most comprehensive theory of family systems of the time and remains so to this day.
Bowen family systems not only views the family as an organic unit, but also recognizes
universal patterns that govern a family's management of anxiety. Literary scholar Denis
In contrast to psychoanalytic approaches which assign predetermined, essentially
static "roles" to parental figures (with which the child must identify or disidentify
if independence and maturity are to be attained), family systems therapy regards
all family members as equal participants within a fluid, dynamic system, which
may take either growth-promoting or pathogenic forms. (277- 278)
Bowen determined that the "emotionally disturbed" individual is not only a product of
the family's dynamic constitution, but also a predictable component of the family's
operating system a billion-year-old emotional system that functions to maintain a
family's survival (Kerr "One Family's" 1). Detailing the properties of such a system,
Bowen and Kerr explain:
The emotionally determined functioning of the family members generates a
family emotional "atmosphere" or "Hield"; that, in turn, influences the emotional
functioning of each person. It is analogous to the gravitational field of the solar
system, where each planet and the sun, by virtue of their mass, contribute gravity
to the field and are, in turn, regulated by the field they help create. One cannot
"see" gravity, nor can one "see" the emotional field. The presence of gravity and
the emotional field can be inferred, however, by the predictable ways planets and
people behave in reaction to one another. (Family Evaluation 54-55)
Bowen's distinctive theory, then, recognizes the family as an emotional unit whose
functioning is rigorously determined by its patterned method of anxiety management.
While a mature and psychologically healthy individual develops a differentiated
sense of self, most family members instead formulate identity through their family's
emotional characteristics. Consequences of this sacrifice of self can range from
experiencing minimal levels of anxiety to severe emotional and/or physical illness.
Therefore family therapy's primary goal "is to help the involved family members to
differentiate clearly defined 'selfs' from the undifferentiated ego mass" (Bowen 114). It
is important to realize, though, that differentiating a self from the family unit does not
entail cutting off from one' s family; it rather requires recognizing one' s unique position
within the family system in relation to the other members.
Bowen's family systems entails more than applying traditional concepts of
individual psychotherapy to the family unit as a whole. A family systems therapist must
adopt an intricate, systemic approach in order to grasp the inner workings of the family as
an emotional unit. Bowen admits, "the concept is subtle and complex, with far-reaching
implications that involve a maj or shift in the way man thinks about himself and illness"
(73). The difficulty with family systems is that it proposes a new theoretical framework
that is alien to our (Western) individualistic, cause-and-effect mindset. It is perhaps for
this reason that Bowen systems is practiced so infrequently to our detriment. And
maybe it also explains why family systems theory has yet to be embraced by the literary
community. As Knapp contends in the introduction to Reading the Famnily Dance:
Recent clinical and historical work .. suggests that the twin needs of most
human beings-the need for agency and self-direction and the need for affiliation
and connectedness-are not mutually exclusive by any means, in spite of Western
(read American) cultural tradition that often forces its heroes and heroines to
conclude that they are. (21)
While literary scholars have embraced much of the work of postmodern theory that
considers authors and their characters as products of their backgrounds, conceivably,
family systems offers a psychological viewpoint, while "scientific," that is
complementary to that position as well.
Perhaps the most amenable way by which to perceive the subtleties of Bowen
family systems is via its eight interlocking concepts.14 Each of these concepts,
"triangles," "differentiation of self," "nuclear family emotional system," "family
projection process," "emotional cutoff," "sibling position," and "societal emotional
process," operates, at least to some degree, in every family. Using his knowledge of
families as they function according to their biological and evolutionary makeup (Bowen
claimed to be more interested in Darwin than Freud), Bowen developed these concepts as
products of the universal emotional system that guides all of our maturation within the
family unit. By realizing how we all are determined by these eight concepts in our own
development and in our relationships with others, Bowen purports that we can recognize
our patterns and thereby function as healthier, more complete selves. What is
challenging about family systems is that it requires individuals to move beyond the
14 It is important to remember that each of these concepts is intricately related to the others, so that when
discussing one, it is impossible not to refer to another. It is the fabric of these concepts, woven together,
that comprises systems theory.
position of a victim of mental illness (as often prescribed by psychoanalysis), toward an
acceptance that each of us is an anxious contributor to a problem. Poster explains the
difference in outlook between Freud's work and that of family systems:
Freud proposes a being with "needs" and a mechanism through which the
satisfaction of the needs leaves as a residue an attachment not to the satisfaction
of the needs but to the beings who made the satisfaction possible. Thus the
"people who have a share" in the satisfaction of the child' s "needs" are simple
mediators for Freud. They are not active in shaping the needs or the manner in
which the needs are satisfied. The fact that children become attached to their
parents is simply a by-product of their individual quest to satisfy needs. (5)
Therefore, Freud does not recognize the powerful influence that family members can
have on the shaping of a child's emotional make-up. Instead, they are victims to their
basic desires. Poster explains that this is why Freud fails to recognize the parents' role in
the case of Little Hans and why he "consistently misinterpreted the defensive
communications of the parents as the inevitable psycho-sexual development of the child"
(7). It cannot be denied that many of Freud' s initial blind spots to the influence of the
family linger in today's practice of psychoanalysis; however, much progress continues to
As I work through each of family systems' eight concepts, I will provide
examples of similar dynamics occurring in Roth's early fiction; in so doing, it should
become apparent that even though Roth may not have conceived of the family's
functioning in such theoretically rigorous terms as Bowen did, nonetheless, he does
express in language more figurative, more ironic, and perhaps more entertaining, a
similar recognition of the systemic functioning of human beings in relationships.
The first concept, "triangles," or "interdependent triads," explains the tendency of
individuals to relate to each other in systems of three.l5 Triangles occur because a dyad,
or two-person relationship, is unable to contain, or manage, much anxiety before a third
member or thing is needed to absorb the excess anxiety. Kerr explains that a triangle "is
considered the building block or 'molecule' of larger emotional systems because a
triangle is the smallest stable relationship system. A two-person system is unstable
because it tolerates little tension before involving a third person" ("One Family's" 3).
"Paradoxically," he adds, "a triangle is more stable than a dyad, but a triangle creates an
odd man out, which is a very difficult position for individuals to tolerate. Anxiety
generated by anticipating being or by being the odd man out is a potent force in triangles"
(3). Because dyads are so delicate, couples often will involve a third party in order to
avoid the original relationship problem. While the most frequent form of triangling is
between parents and one or more children, the third party can be filled by anyone from a
grandparent to a lover and anything from work to drugs and alcohol. While the
psychoanalytic community often views men who talk daily to their mothers as entangled
in the Oedipus complex, interpret adultery as the action of an uncontrolled (by the ego)
id, and view alcoholism as a genetic disease, Bowen instead proposes that each of these
(and other) behaviors is actually a form of triangling that is only a natural course when
unable to cope with the anxiety of a two-person relationship. This is not to say that
Bowen condones such acts; it is only that he is able to put them in a more "human"
15 Bowen' s concept of triangles as outlets through which people in relationships manage anxiety should not
be confused with Rend Girard's theory of triangular desire, in which subjects seek an object through an
imitation of an ideal(ized) model, or mediator: "The effects of triangular desire are .. from the moment
the mediator's influence is felt, the sense of reality is lost and judgment paralyzed" (4).
context so that we can understand them as products of an underlying and more difficult
problem. The object in family systems theory is not to replace one addiction for another
(for example the twelve steps for drinking or workaholism for a wandering eye), but
rather to determine the emotional process involved in triggering symptoms.
In Portnoy 's Complaint, Roth depicts a clear illustration of the Bowen triangle
and how it can lead to emotional disturbance. For example, Sophie Portnoy is usually
seen clinging, or fused, to her son, Alex. When he is quite young, she confesses that she
could have married rich, but instead married his father. While this confidence effectively
rallies the two of them against Jack Portnoy, Sophie does not hesitate to shift that alliance
when anxieties are raised. When Alex has been bad (or at least bad according to her
principles), she shifts her adulation to Jack and/or Alex's sister, Hannah (who is usually
neglected), in order to make Alex feel like the "odd man out," as Kerr expresses it in a
different context. When Alex will not take the bagged lunch that his mother packed for
him, he recalls her threat, "I don't love you any more, not a little boy who behaves like
you do. I'll live alone here with Daddy and Hannah, says my mother (a master really at
phrasing things just the right way to kill you). .. We won't be needing you any more"
(15). In another scene, Roth again portrays the transfer of Sophie' s affections within the
triangle. Believing that Alex has been eating french fries, she deserts him and realigns
herself with Jack. She wails to her husband, "He goes after school with Melvin Weiner
and stuffs himself with French-fried potatoes. Jack, you tell him, I'm only his mother.
Tell him what the end is going to be" (32). To which, Alex observes, "Who in the history
of the world has been least able to deal with a woman's tears? My father. I am second.
He says to me, 'You heard your mother'" (32-33). Whereas usually Jack would have
little say in what Alex eats, at this moment, Sophie must side with him in the triangle in
order to deal with her anxiety that Alex is moving away from, or rej ecting, her.
In a similar scene, when Alex has done an unnamed "terrible thing," he recounts
that his mother "lifts Hannah (of all people, Hannah!), who until that moment I had never
really taken seriously as a genuine obj ect of anybody's love, takes her up into her arms
and starts kissing her all over her sad and unloved face, saying that her little girl is the
only one in the whole wide world she can really trust" (88). While Hannah is usually on
the outside of the triangle, at this particular moment when Alex has roused his mother' s
anxieties, she assumes the more privileged position. While many critics, such as Sarah
Blacher Cohen, Mary Allen, and Alix Kates, have interpreted Roth' s description of the
manipulative mother as the unconscionable fuming of a misogynist, he is actually rather
faithfully depicting a common occurrence in anxious families. While it is definitely
severe compared to the average family's triangling, it is an accurate portrayal of how a
triangle works in a more disturbed family one that would produce such an emotionally
dysfunctional individual as Alexander Portnoy.
Yet Sophie is not the only character to shift alliances in the triangle, though she is
undoubtedly the most controlling as the family's overfunctioner.16 When Sophie is in the
hospital on Rosh Hashanah, Jack is feeling particularly lonely and ineffectual due to his
low differentiation of self." Alex reveals that the reason "my father is crying in the
kitchen .. without protection of the newspaper, and with such pitiful fury-is because my
mother is in a hospital bed recovering from surgery: this indeed accounts for his
16 See the third concept, "the nuclear family emotional system."
'7 See the next (second) concept, "differentiation of self."
excruciating loneliness on this Rosh Hashanah, and his particular need of my attention
and obedience" (63-64). Therefore because he is lonely, Jack attempts to fill the void of
his wife with the presence of his son, an impossible position for Alex. This shift in
attention portrays the continuous fluidity of the triangle.
Interestingly enough, Roth seems to have been inspired by his own family's
triangling when portraying that of the Portnoy's. In The Facts, he confesses: "Needless
to say, the link to my father was never so voluptuously tangible as the colossal bond to
my mother' s flesh" (18). It is telling that he chooses the word "tangible" to discuss the
bond between him and his mother. He is not saying that the bond to his father was not
there or not as influential simply that it was less noticeable. Just because his
relationship with his father was not so obvious does not therefore mean that it was any
less fused. And to account for this, he ends this chapter of his autobiography with, "To
be at all is to be her [his mother' s] Philip, but in the embroilment with the buffeting
world, my history still takes its spin from beginning as his [his father's] Roth" (19).
Differentiation of Self
Bowen defines the second concept, differentiation of self, as "the degree to which
one self fuses or merges into another self in close emotional relationships" (200). By
"self," Bowen is referring to that which cannot be traded or lost when with others. It is
not the divided psyche that Freud characterizes with the id, ego, and superego. Also
called the "basic self," it is the ability to adhere to one's own principles and stay goal
driven no matter the degree of emotional pressure or anxiety. In his research, Bowen
soon came to realize that not many of us have much self because it necessitates the use of
the cerebral cortex over the more innate emotional system that we share with animals.l
Basically, differentiation of self is the level of one' s emotional maturity and individuality.
However, Bowen was not the first to use the term "differentiation." For example,
eminent ego psychologist Heinz Hartmann "characterized the immature psyche as
internally 'undifferentiated,' to suggest that at birth, the ego, superego, and even the basic
drives of libido and aggression are not yet articulated and distinguishable from one
another" (Mitchell 40). Therefore his understanding of differentiation is quite different
from that of Bowen, who believed that "the less developed a person' s 'self,' the more
impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control, actively or
passively, the functioning of others" (Kerr One FamFFFFFFFF~~~~~~~~~ily 's 7). If an individual does not
have enough self to accomplish his or her goals, he or she will then attempt to manipulate
others through such mechanisms as bullying, rebellion, and/or guilt. In contrast, "A
person with a well-differentiated 'self' recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but
he can stay calm and clear-headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rej section
to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded
by emotionality" (Kerr 7). Bowen realized that those individuals with less differentiation
of self often suffer from mental illness and/or physical maladies, and those with higher
levels of self-differentiation function more efficiently both in society and within the
family environment. He additionally found that a person's level of differentiation greatly
affects his or her maj or life choices; for example, people almost always marry people
with the same level of self-differentiation. And after leaving one's family of origin
(around the age of eighteen), one's level of differentiation changes little. But this is not
1s I will return to a discussion of the characteristics of the cerebral cortex under the "societal emotional
to say that one cannot improve one's level of functioning. Even individuals with low
levels of self-differentiation can work with a "coach" in therapy to gain a better
understanding of his or her family system and thereby function on a healthier and more
productive basis. The purpose of therapy, then, is to encourage the clientl9 to develop his
or her functional, or "pseudo," self. This self, however, which can be trained to function
at higher levels of differentiation, is not solid and can yield to the basic self in states of
great anxiety. The challenge of becoming a functional individual, then, is to develop a
self that is able to hold to one' s goals, beliefs, and values while respecting those of
others, and without being emotionally determined by the pressures of the family system.
To be a mature self, one must be able to remain in the familial context, but, at the same
time, be emotionally defined. The model is not wholly personal or social, but rather a
delicate cooperation between the two. And if a person can find a way to hold on to his or
her unique self within the emotional framework of the family, then he or she can continue
that mature mode of functioning anywhere.
Bowen's concept of differentiation of self allows for a more profound assessment
of Paul Herz' s character in Letting Go than other critics have allowed for. For example,
while McDaniel reads him as "a victim of false ideals" (1 18), family systems theory
allows the reader to appreciate Paul as someone more deeply embedded within a familial
environment that has restricted his self differentiation. In an eloquent portrayal of the
frame of mind of a lowly differentiated individual, Roth describes Paul's thoughts:
He had only to .. get a little room somewhere, get a job in some government
office, and disappear. Start making a life not on the basis of what he dreamed he
was, or thought he was supposed to be, or what literature, philosophy, friends,
19 Family systems therapists do not refer to their clients as parents"~i~ and like to think of themselves as
enemies, wife, parents told him he must be, but simply in terms of his own
Roth clearly delineates exactly what Paul's (and Libby's) problem is. Paul even admits it
to himself, but does not recognize it as the problem: he makes life decisions based on
what others tell him, not what he wants for himself. With such a low differentiation of
self, it is no wonder that he has spent his entire life doing for others, but ignoring his own
principles. Ultimately, it has left him a depressed, lost, and deeply anxious man who is
never able to just "let go."
In When She Wa~s Good, Roth considers a low differentiation of self as a cause for
mental illness. Though it is unclear whether or not Willard's sister, Ginny, is mentally
disabled due to scarlet fever, a genetic disease, or a product of her family's dysfunction,
Roth nevertheless accurately depicts the function of low self-differentiation and
understands its outcomes. The reason that Willard must take Ginny to a "state home" is,
ultimately, because she has no self. Willard clearly articulates the extreme level of fusion
that Ginny has with Lucy:
In Ginny's brain so many things were melted together that in real life are separate
and distinct. She seemed always to think that Lucy was somehow herself-that is,
more Ginny, or the rest of Ginny, or the Ginny people called Lucy. When Lucy
ate an icecream, Ginny's eyes would get all happy and content, as though she
were eating it herself. Or if as a punishment Lucy was put to bed early, Ginny,
too, would sob and go off to sleep like one doomed. (10)
This description Roth provides of sharing emotions and experiences with another is very
accurate to extreme cases of mental illness, especially schizophrenia. In Bowen's early
studies on schizophrenia, he realized that parents (usually mothers) of schizophrenics
were often so fused to their children that they could even share the same thoughts. Such
is the case with Ginny. Willard asks himself why he must put Ginny away and realizes it
is because she cannot "understand the most basic fact of human life, the fact that I am me
and you are you" (11). It is this concept, of an individual's intricately fused identity, that
leads to all levels of emotional disturbance.
The Nuclear Family Emotional System
The third concept, nuclear family emotional system, is comprised of four basic
relationship patterns by which all families to some degree function. Some families
only operate according to one model while others exhibit characteristics of them all. The
degree to which families adhere to these patterns in order to assuage anxiety determines
their ability to function. In the first family pattern, "marital conflict," the couple, during
periods of high tension, externalize their anxiety into the marital relationship (Kerr One
FamFFFFFFFF~~~~~~~~~ily 's 13). Usually marital partners in a conflictual relationship have experienced
conflict in their families of origin and blame the other member for all of their problems,
become critical, proj ect their problems onto others, and/or behave abusively (Gilbert 47).
Conflicted couples are severely aware of the pain they are in and, for this reason, they are
most likely to seek therapy.
In the second emotional pattern, "dysfunction in one spouse," or
"overfunctioning-underfunctioning reciprocity," both members of the couple depend on
the dysfunction of the other in order to manage the family's anxiety. As Kerr explains,
"One spouse pressures the other to think and act in certain ways and the other yields to
the pressure. .. The anxiety fuels, if other necessary factors are present, the
development of psychiatric, medical, or social dysfunction [in the underfunctioning
member]" (13). While the underfunctioning member is more easily viewed as
dysfunctional for his or her inability to work, passiveness, depression, alcoholism, etc, in
fact, the entire system is dysfunctional; the overfunctioner contributes equally to the
relationship problem. Characteristics of an overfunctioner include giving advice when it
is not needed, accomplishing tasks for others that would not normally require help,
constantly worrying about others, feeling responsible for others, talking more often than
listening, and experiencing sudden burnoutss" from the inability to manage the burdens
of two individuals' concerns (Gilbert 67). Underfunctioners tend to ask for advice when
it is not necessarily needed, get others' help when it is not needed, act irresponsibly,
listen more than talk, lack goals, become mentally or physically ill, and become addicted
to drugs and/or alcohol (68). Neither gender is more likely to be an overfunctioner or an
underfunctioner; it solely depends on the emotional dynamic of the individual's family of
origin. Additionally, some people may be underfunctioners in their family situation, but
overfunctioners at work.
The third emotional pattern, "impairment of one or more children," is mostly a
product of severe triangling. In this pattern, "the spouses focus their anxieties on one or
more of their children" and "the more the parents focus on the child the more the child
focuses on them" (Kerr 14). Therefore the child develops less self and is less able to
differentiate a self. Impairment of a child for the sake of managing the parents' anxiety
can lead to learning disabilities, delinquency, drug addiction, and/or critical mental
illnesses, such as schizophrenia.
The fourth and final emotional pattern, that of "emotional distance," develops
when a couple cuts all intimate connection with each other in order to minimize tension:
"People distance from each other to reduce relationship intensity, but at the risk of
becoming too isolated" (Kerr 14). Individuals who distance from their partners, thereby
forming an "emotional divorce," usually have experienced emotional distance in their
family of origin and/or extended family. While a distant relationship may seem healthy
from the outside, it is actually bitter and empty within. It is difficult to make couples
aware of the dangers of emotional distance, due to the tendency to interpret it as
"independence." And distancing is so common, it is often not even seen as a problem
(Gilbert 54). Members of a couple who distance from each other tend to go through long
periods of no communication, become workaholics, abuse alcohol and/or drugs, become
quiet and withdrawn when anxiety rises, and talk only about trivial matters (55).
Each of these four emotional patterns provides a useful understanding of how
families attempt to manage their anxiety and avoid difficult issues. While focusing one's
attention on a problem-child instead of dealing with the underlying family anxiety might
seem the most direct course of action, it only eases the tension for the short term while
further embedding the nuclear family emotional system in the long term. And the long-
term effects are far more critical. Kerr reveals, "the more anxiety one person or one
relationship absorbs, the less other people must absorb. This means that some family
members maintain their functioning at the expense of others" (14). Therefore in order for
families to avoid emotional patterns that cause dysfunction in one or more members for
the sake of "keeping the peace," they must become consciously aware of their everyday
patterns of behavior and work to act as independent selves instead of as passive cogs in a
system. For example, if a husband constantly finds himself asking his wife to accomplish
small tasks or make decisions that he could do on his own, then he should realize that he
is contributing to her overfunctioning as well as his own underfunctioning.
It is significant that Bowen focuses his attention on the "nuclear" family that
structure that, in the 1950s and 60s, was being so highly esteemed over the more common
organization of the extended family (especially amongst immigrants). Interestingly
enough, Bowen considered the nuclear family less healthy than the extended family;
while the latter offers a wider emotional support system, the former's limited
relationships tend to promote intense triangling. It should be noted that just because
Bowen theorizes about these family patterns within the nuclear setting does not therefore
imply that they only apply to nuclear families. The nuclear family is simply the smallest
representative unit by which to understand the complex emotional dynamic of the family
or of any collection of people. Under the section "societal emotional process," I will
discuss the implications of family systems as they apply to larger social groupings, but,
for now, suffice it to say that the emotional processes that these four patterns illustrate
occur not only in extended families, but also amongst colleagues and countries. When
people come together, sharing the same space, the emotional process that encourages
reciprocal relationships takes effect in order to assure survival. While in the beehive,
certain bees may play the role of drones, and others the workers, in the office, certain
individuals may take on the role of the overfunctioner, always getting assignments turned
in early and reminding the underfunctioners when their assignments are due. Because the
concept of the nuclear family emotional system is actually more like four concepts in
one, I will spend a good amount of time Einding examples of each of them in Roth' s
Roth' s comprehensive portrayals of families in his early novels strikingly
correspond with variations of Bowen's four models. For example, in Goodbye,
Columbus, Roth accurately portrays the interaction (or lack thereof) of an emotionally
distant relationship (the fourth nuclear family emotional pattern). Roth goes to great
lengths to expose how limited the communication is between Mr. and Mrs. Patimkin, so
much so that throughout the whole novel, they do not speak more than a couple of
sentences to each other. The most apparent illustration of the Patimkin distancing is
during the first dinner that Neil eats with them. Lee reads this scene as an illustration of
the Patimkin's glut and "wasteful materialism" (15). However, when read from a family
systems point of view, the reader can additionally appreciate the psychological
dysfunction of the Patimkin family. Roth writes, "There was not much dinner
conversation; eating was heavy and methodical and serious, and it would be just as well
to record all that was said in one swoop, rather than indicate the sentences lost in the
passing of food" (22). He then proceeds to list, in sparse narration, the superficial
dialogue amongst the Patimkin family20 at dinner:
Mrs. P.: Carlota, give Ronald more.
Carlota (calling): More what?
Mr. P.: Me too.
Mrs. P.: They'll have to roll you on the links.
Mr. P. (pulling his shirt up and slapping his black, curved belly): What are you
talking about? Look at that? (22-23)
Mrs. Patimkin ignores her husband and the two parents focus their attention on their
children for the remainder of the meal. It is telling that Roth chooses to portray this
particular scene as if it were a script or screenplay as opposed to a novel, to stress the
choppy, even trivial interaction between the Patimkins. Raban, believing that Roth subtly
20 Carlota is the Patimkins' maid and cook, and Ron is the son.
forces the reader into preferring Aunt Gladys' neurotic mealtime talk over the Patimkins'
emotionally barren conversations, comments:
The script form prevents Neil from making any interpretative comments. The
banality of the conversation has to stand on its own, and we are immersed among
a family of strangers making j okes that we don't altogether understand. No one
bothers to make Neil feel at home: all the Patimkins sound complacently wrapped
up in themselves. (23)
While Raban's commentary is cogent and discerning, the only psychological reasoning
he can provide for the Patimkins' lack of conversation is that they are tritely "wrapped up
in themselves." Through the concept of emotional distance, family systems theory
provides a more psychologically accurate portrait; it also accounts for Neil's discontent
with and ultimate rej section of the family.
In Letting Go, the relationship between Libby and Paul Herz is a compelling
example of the second pattern, dysfunction in one spouse. While Howard Eiland and
others read her as hysterical, Libby, the sickly, indecisive, idle wife, is actually an
emblematic underfunctioner. Therefore, in addition to appreciating Roth's character as a
member of a complex emotional dynamic instead of as a confining "label," family
systems provides a psychological framework and language that allow for an
understanding of women that is not limited to seemingly sexist pathologizing. Paul, the
workaholic, take-charge, over-concerned husband, is also not necessarily the tragic hero
that many make him out to be, but actually a representative overfunctioner. Lilly herself
seems to have a perceptive awareness of what the problem is with their relationship: "She
was the nut in the family, and he was the one with his hands full" (327). Later, she
attempts to convey this awareness to Paul. Though she is not wholly articulate in the
following dialogue, she seems to comprehend that it is their relationship that is
contributing to her illness:
"There's something wrong with me, Paul."
"You've been sick-"
"What makes me sick?"
"Germs! Bugs! Viruses!"
"You!" she cried. (438)
Paul cannot grasp the systemic nature of their problem. He does feel, however, its
pressure weighing on him, as previously described in terms of his level of self-
differentiation. When he has left Libby, ostensibly to visit his dying father in the
hospital, the narration reveals his anxious mindset, "This morning he had awakened ..
without first having to feel, accidentally or on purpose, anybody's hands, feet, or hair,
without having to worry first thing in the morning about somebody else's feelings" (412).
Paul here realizes his penchant for putting others before him, and completely neglecting
himself, yet cannot identify it as the problem and as a symptom of his anxiety. Whereas
Irving Feldman cannot account for Paul's failures other than to say that he is a product of
the reductive era of the 1950s (33), family systems allows for a more psychologically
grounded interpretation, one that, ultimately, inspires more sympathy for Paul (and for
In When She Wa~s Good, the Carroll family is a characteristic example of the
pattern of dysfunction in one spouse, yet it is moderated by the manifestation of the third
pattern, impairment of a child. Willard is undoubtedly the overfunctioner of the family,
who, like Paul, feels responsible for every one else before himself. He has spent his
entire life providing a home for his grown daughter and her erratic husband, and finally,
in his 80s and nearing the end of his life, Willard, experiencing an inevitable burnout,
Einally realizes, "Oh hell, the fellow [Whitey] is nearly fifty-what else can I even do? .
I am not God in heaven! I did not make the world! I cannot predict the future!" (39). It
is significant that Roth begins with this present-day frame before the flashback that
encompasses the bulk of the novel. Before the reader bears witness to the reason why
Willard is so tired, so overburdened, we first realize that he is a person who has long
played the role of the tireless overfunctioner, but can no longer. Through this plagued
narration, Roth reveals the hardship of the overfunctioner, despite his seeming good
intentions. Family systems theory allows the reader to realize that Willard, though
apparently the stable member of the family, is also part of the problem.
In addition to his overfunctioning and Berta's corresponding underfunctioning,
the Carroll family is also plagued by its reliance on the third pattern, child impairment.
Willard is undoubtedly fused to his daughter Myra and has infantilized her throughout
her life. Berta, playing into this triangle, as the underfunctioner, has gone along with it.
Neither has forced their daughter to leave their house and be on her own. Contributing to
their daughter' s dependence, they take in her alcoholic, abusive husband, as well. It is
understandable, then, that Willard would feel the strain of such overboard fathering. Yet
it is the only way that he knows to manage his anxiety. Rather than deal with the
unhappiness in his life (as the disregarded schoolteacher) and in his marriage, he takes on
the role of the steadfast caretaker. His protective role additionally allows him to
(over)compensate for the dissatisfaction he feels toward his daughter and son-in-law, his
guilt for putting his sister away, and his anger with his parents, whom he describes on the
first page of the novel in patent overfuncti oning-underfuncti oning terminology: "Hi s
father was a Hierce and ignorant man. .. His mother was a hard-working woman with a
slavish nature who could never conceive of wanting anything other than what she had"
(3). Unfortunately, the consequence of Willard' s focus on Myra is that his fear of losing
her to Whitey pushes him to keep her close by and restrict her growth and differentiation.
Yet Berta, in one of her rare articulate moments, understands that their daughter' s
problem is not that she is married to an alcoholic, but that they have treated her (and
Whitey) as a child. Because Myra and Whitey have been considered, and continue to be
considered, incompetent, they remain incompetent. Berta insists, "He [Whitey] goes, and
if she [Myra] wants to, she goes with him. I believe she is now thirty-nine years old." To
which Willard answers, "Age isn't the question, Berta, and you know it." But she
counters, "Not to you it isn't. You baby her. You watch over her like she was solid
gold." Willard denies it, however: "I am not babying anybody. I am trying to use my
head. It is complicated, Berta." But Berta simply responds, "It is simple, Willard" (34).
And she is right. When viewed systemically, the problem is simple. Yet she is too much
the underfunctioner to put her ideas into action.
Despite their cultural differences, the Portnoy's express a similar family dynamic
as that of the Carroll's. They too form a triangle among Sophie, the overfunctioner, Jack,
the underfunctioner, and Alex, the "favored" son. Most critics when reading Portnoy 's
Complaint focus overly on Sophie Portnoy as the problem parent, thereby pathologizing
the female character, and brand her as the cause of Alex' s masturbatory addiction, as well
as Jack' s constipation. For example, Robert M. Greenberg interprets Alex' s masturbation
as a rebellion to his "melodramatic" mother: "With adolescence, masturbation becomes
the spearhead of Alex' s rebellion" (489). This misled application, then, leads to a
seemingly logical accusation of misogyny. For example, Martha Ravits condemns
Portnoy 's Complaint: "the Jewish mother became the favorite target of the Jewish son,
the parent who could be blamed for his own sense of vulnerability" (10). Because Ravits
reads Roth' s novel psychoanalytically, she misses the systemic functioning of the family
that indicts Jack Portnoy and his underfunctioning just as much as it does Sophie and her
overfunctioning. What becomes critically clear here is that family systems provides an
alternative to Freud's and many other major psychoanalytic thinkers' undeniable
targeting of women as the source of their children' s problems. As so much attention has
been paid to this family, I will dedicate most of my discussion in this section to it.
Since so few critics have discussed Jack Portnoy, I will begin with my analysis of
him and his role as the underfunctioner. Despite his seeming obsessional, narcissistic
mindset, Alex, at times, can be extremely insightful into the systemic functioning of his
family. After recounting his mother' s fused connection with him, he humorously
explains: "And how did my father take all this? He drank-of course, not whiskey like a
goy, but mineral oil and milk of magnesia; and chewed on Ex-Lax, and ate All-Bran
morning and night. .. He suffered-did he suffer!-from constipation" (4-5). Instead of
being addicted to alcohol (or to any number of other "traditional" triangles), Jack is
addicted to his constipation medication. His constipation, in itself, is a reasonable
symptom of his underfunctioning status, as underfunctioners often express their anxiety
through physical malady. Roth clearly makes the association between his father' s
anxiety and his physical illness when he explains that the reason he is constipated is
"because ownership of his intestinal tract is in the hands of the firm of Worry, Fear &
In another instance when his mother is using her intense, overfunctioning strategy
to get her son to eat his vegetables, most critics again put the blame on Sophie. However,
Alex, thinking more systemically, does not fall into such a one-dimensional line of
thinking. He explains: "So my mother sits down in a chair beside me with a long bread
knife in her hand. It is made of stainless steel, and has little sawlike teeth. Which do I
want to be, weak or strong, a man or a mouse?" (16). While it is easy to read his mother
as conniving and manipulative and driven to castration, Alex then insightfully asks: "And
why doesn't my father stop her?" (17). It is this notion, that his father could very well
stop her, stand up for himself (if he had a high enough level of differentiation of self), but
that he doesn't, that allows Roth to present a family that does not function according to
the Oedipal myth, but rather as one deeply embedded within the constructs of the nuclear
family emotional system. However, by employing an obvious image of castration, Roth
is additionally able to mock the psychoanalytic diagnosis.
In another scene, Alex again questions his father's ability to function "like a
man."21 In a hilarious, yet somewhat disturbing moment of Freudian satire, when Alex,
as a young boy, is watching his mother put on her stockings, he confesses:
I look away not for me but for the sake of that poor man, my father! Yet what
preference does Father really have? If there in the living room their grown-up
little boy were to tumble all at once onto the rug with his mommy, what would
Daddy do? Pour a bucket of boiling water on the raging, maddened couple?
Would he draw his knife-or would he go off to the other room and watch
television until they were finished? (46)
The reader is left to assume the latter. Roth, unlike his critics, is willing to understand the
more complex functioning of the family system and realize that one' s problems are never
21 By "man," I do not think that Roth is necessarily connoting the traditionally "masculine" qualities of the
male sex, but rather or additionally, something more like "adult." Alex is here frustrated with his father's
inability to stand up for himself the way a grown, mature, differentiated person should.
attributable to just one member or to cross-gendered attraction within the family. It is
also important to realize that Roth's purpose here is not necessarily to criticize the family
for its dysfunction, but rather to illustrate the actually very common ways that families
behave to manage anxiety, yet end in dysfunction.
But of course, Jack is not the only dysfunctional member of the family. His
underfunctioning is a reciprocal response to Sophie's overfunctioning, which is closely
related to her fusion with her son. By overly focusing on Alex, she sacrifices everything
for him, while feeling sanctified in so doing. When she senses that Alex is rejecting her,
she feels exploited (of course, it is she who puts herself in the position vulnerable for
exploitation). As Alex points out, "It was my mother who could accomplish anything,
who herself had to admit that it might even be that she was actually too good" (11). Both
Rodgers (92) and Berman (245) cleverly point out the irony presented when Alex
complains about his mother while using language very similar to her own; however,
family systems provides an additional psychological explanation for such a linguistic
feat. In attempting to explain Roth's technique, Berman writes:
Portnoy becomes his own Jewish mother. The irony is crucial. Portnoy criticizes
his seductive overprotective mother for overwhelming her docile son; but the son,
now a grown man, has internalized his mother' s values to the extent that even
while rebelling against her, he cannot prevent himself from similarly
overwhelming the analyst-father. (245)
Berman here chooses to blame Portnoy for the failure of his analysis. However, if
anything, I believe it is more the failure of the analyst who remains quiet for so long. In
any case, Berman's skewed Oedipal reading does not provide as satisfactory an
explanation for Portnoy's complaint as does a family systems reading. That Alex's
narration is often presented as united with his mother's voice additionally illustrates their
intense level of fusion. For example, in the following passage, Alex presents his
mother' s claimed belief that she, much like Willard, surrendered her own self for the sake
of her son' s. However, the point of view turns from his third person, to her first person:
"Wouldn't she give me the food out of her own mouth, don't I know that by now?" (16).
In a tour de force of ventriloquistic fusion, he adds, "Please! a child with my potential
my accomplishments! my future!-all the gifts God as lavished upon me, of beauty, of
brains, am I to be allowed to think I can just starve myself to death for no good reason in
the world?" (16). Here, Alex reveals the incredible strain and pressure put on him by his
mother (and father through his unstated acquiescence), who, from her own point of view,
believes by focusing all of her attention on her son she is raising him well. However, as
my discussion of "differentiation of self" reveals, it is by focusing on one' s self, not
another, that one reaches emotional maturity. And it is only by being emotionally
developed in one's self that one can truly be of help to others. Roth reveals that Sophie' s
supposed sacrifice of herself for her son is actually her way of avoiding her own fears and
Sophie wraps herself up so adamantly with her son that she (unwittingly, of
course, and with the aid of her husband) prevents him from forming a highly
differentiated sense of self. The very first sentence of the books reads: "She was so
deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have
believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise" (3). Later, in a rather
grotesque Freudian parody, Alex recounts a supposedly oft-performed exchange between
him and his mother, "Who is going to stay with Mommy forever for ever? M~e. Who is it
who goes with Mommy wherever in the whole wide world Mommy goes? Why me, of
course. What a silly question-but don 't get me vi 11g~. I 'll play the game!i" (46). Roth' s
point here, is not that Alex is dysfunctional because his mother overly plays into the
Oedipus complex, which is used more effectively as a target of parody, but because she
has focused her attention on him, instead of on herself.
However, it is limiting to solely view Sophie as fused with her son, for Jack is as
well; just because he is an underfunctioner does not mean he does not play into the
triangle and fuse with his son to the same degree; he simply fuses in a different, though
perhaps inconspicuous, way. I have already discussed Jack' s dependence on Alex when
his mother is in the hospital; Alex also realizes that he intimately shares experiences with
his father, much in the same way he shares his mother's, and much in the same way that a
severely emotionally disturbed child shares thoughts, feelings, and experiences with his
or her parentss. Alex confesses to Spielvogel, "To this day our [his and his father' s]
destinies remain scrambled together in my imagination" (9). And it is because of this
severe triangling that Portnoy is unable to develop his own self, why he is addicted to
masturbation, and why he cannot establish a healthy relationship with another.
Portnoy 's Complaint offers one other example of the close-knit operation of the
family system, that of the Nimkin's, whose son kills himself. This family offers an
indicative example of the "impairment of one child" model through the acute triangling
of parents with their child. While the Nimkin's and Alex's parents themselves cannot
comprehend the reason why a young Jewish boy would commit suicide, Alex can more
perceptively grasp the systemic functioning of a disturbed family. He understands that an
individual is not "sick" because of his genes, or because he is "disturbed," but rather
because the members of a family, in an attempt to manage anxiety, often will overly
focus on one individual in order to displace their own worries, thereby contributing to the
dysfunction of that individual. Alex describes Mrs. Nimkin weeping in their kitchen.
She asks, "Why? Why? Why did he do this to us?" To which he responds, "Hear? Not
what might we have done to him, oh no, never that-why did he do this to us? To us!
Who would have given our arms and legs to make him happy and a famous concert
pianist into the bargain!" (97). Again, while family members may claim to have the
child's best interest at heart, they are more likely contributing to the child's anxiety to
the point of addiction, schizophrenia, or even suicide.
In M~y Life as a Man, the relationship between Peter and Maureen is most
evidently the first emotional pattern: marital conflict. Because they do not have any
children, they do not have direct access to a third person with whom to triangle. (This
does not mean, however, that they do not triangle with other people and/or things.)
Through angry and violent interaction, both Peter and Maureen consistently put the
blame of their relationship's failures on the other. When Peter narrates, Roth often
capitalizes or italicizes his letters, uses many exclamation points, and includes excessive
amounts of obscenities. Shortly before Maureen tricks Peter into thinking she is pregnant
and they marry, he tries to kick her out of the apartment, telling her she should sleep at
her own place, when the following exchange ensues:
"My own place isn't a 'place,' as you so blithely put it! You wouldn't sleep there
for half an hour."
"Where's the typewriter?" [She had stolen his typewriter and pawned it.]
"The typewriter is a thing, damn it, an inanimate obj ect! What about me?" and
leaping from the chair, she charged, swinging her pocketbook like a shillelagh.
"CLIP ME WITH THAT, MAUREEN, AND I'LL KILL YOU!"
"Do it!" was her reply. (184)
While many critics have again read Roth' s ugly depiction of Maureen as more evidence
of his misogyny, they fail to realize that he does not portray the male character, one who
greatly resembles Roth himself, in the most honorable of lights either. In this one
example, he is seen threatening his girlfriend, and soon to be wife, with murder. And
later in the novel, he nearly follows through by beating her, and then, finally, rej oices in
her accidental death. While it is clear that Peter and Roth himself do not look highly on
women like Maureen, his criticism against men and men like himself points to a deeper
understanding of the systemic functioning of people in relationships that cannot be
resolved by making just one person responsible. Perhaps part of the reason why critics
have overlooked Roth' s equally critical treatment of men in his fiction is because his
male protagonists possess so many similarities to Roth himself. While Roth has
adamantly denied that his male protagonists are perfectly analogous counterparts to
himself, and while much of his later fiction, such as Operation Shylock (1993), works
enthusiastically to disallow such readings, critics often seem reluctant to admit that just
because Roth's characters seem to resemble Roth himself does not mean that they are
always the heroes.
Family Projection Process
"Family Proj section Process," the fourth interlocking concept of Bowen family
systems theory, borrows the term "proj section" from Freud, who used it in order to
"designate the fantasied expulsion of unwanted impulses: that which could not be
experienced as in the self was experienced as located in others, external to the self"
(Mitchell 101). However, Bowen' s conception of projection is more contextual than
Freud's. For Bowen, projection occurs when individuals cannot accept their fears,
regrets, and anxieties, which they then transmit to a willing other. For example, by
triangling within the third emotional pattern of impairment in a child, parents project their
anxieties about, let' s say, being failures onto their child, but under the guise of protection.
If a father feels as if he has not succeeded in life in the way that he was meant to, then he
may focus all of his attention on his daughter, constantly pressing to make sure she does
not fail, and thereby putting an enormous amount of pressure on her. Kerr defines
projection as "the primary way parents transmit their emotional problems to a child. ..
The parents' fears and perceptions so shape the child's development and behavior that he
grows to embody their fears and perceptions" (19). In another example, if parents feel
that their son has low self-esteem (most likely because they themselves are lacking in
self), they then repeatedly praise and compliment him. Ultimately, then, instead of the
child gaining self-confidence, he only develops a self that is wholly dependent on his
parents' esteem. To complicate the process of proj section, parents will often contradict
their words with their actions, telling their child to be independent, but still treating him
or her like a baby. Identifying the parents' paradoxical, and therefore harmful,
communication with their child, Bowen determines that, "the child's life course is one in
which he tries the best he can to remain the [parent' s] baby and at the very same time to
become a mature adult" (61) ultimately, an impossible feat.
In When She Wa~s Good, Whitey, of all people, reveals an apparent understanding
of the systemic functioning of proj section one that clearly accounts for his alcoholism.
He explains, "Somehow you start thinking you're a failure, and that there's nothing to do
about it, and so the next thing you know there is nothing you are doing about it, except
failing some more. Drinking, and losing jobs, and getting jobs, and drinking, and losing
them. .. It' s a vicious cycle" (28). While he does not come out and say it, Whitey does
realize that he has learned from somewhere, i.e. from his parents, that he is bound to be a
failure. And though he does not necessarily realize it, the cycle that he is describing also
accounts for why his own parents most likely made him feel like a failure: because they
did as well.
In Portnoy 's Complaint, Roth clearly illustrates the proj section from Alex' s
parents that is evidently contributing to his masturbatory addiction. Very early on,
Sophie boasts of Alex, "He doesn't even have to open a book-'A' in everything. Albert
Einstein the Second!" (4). Obviously, the expectations for her young son are nearly
impossible, yet they suggest that Sophie, as an evidently intelligent housewife who has
not had a career, is struggling with her own sense of failure. And it is not only Sophie
who has impossible expectations for her son. Jack also greatly desires that Alex be well-
learned and brilliant; however, when he begins formulating ideas of his own, ones that
contradict Jack' s, his own sense of insignificance is inflamed, not having had the
opportunity to go to high school or college. When Alex is wearing Levis on Rosh
Hashanah, they get into a heated debate over the existence of God. In response to Alex's
claim that there is no God, Jack scoffs, "That's brilliant. I'm glad I didn't get to high
school if that' s how brilliant it makes you" (62). Later, he adds, "A' s in school, but in
life he' s as ignorant as the day he was born" (63). Though he' s arguing with just a
fourteen-year-old boy, Jack cannot take the idea of his son having ideas divergent from
his own. At the end of the scene, he cries and "carries himself to the kitchen table, his
head sunk forward and his body doubled over, as though he has just taken a hand grenade
in his stomach" (63). Instead of allowing his son to think for himself, maybe even to
engage in thoughtful discussion, Jack is obviously triggered by his son's "intellectual"
thoughts, and, through his enraged, pitiful response, proj ects his feelings of insecurity at
not having been educated. In turn, Alex embodies his parents' own insecurities; while he
may be brilliant in school, he is a failure in life.
In 2y Life as a 2an, specifically in the Tarnopol story, "Salad Days," Mr.
Zuckerman has a similar triggered response to his son's "superior" ideas. It is clear from
this scene, when the narrator recalls Nathan' s decision to drop out of the Jewish
fraternity, that Mr. Zuckerman, the storeowner, is proj ecting his feelings of inferiority
onto his son: "Tell me, Nathan, how do you quit something you don't even belong to yet?
How can you be so god-damn superior to something when you don't even know what it' s
like to belong to something yet?" (13). The stress on "belonging" implies that Mr.
Zuckerman is hypersensitive about never belonging to anything himself. In response to
Nathan' s views, he seethes, "you are right, if I'm getting the idea, and the rest of the
world is wrong. Is that it, Nathan, you are the new god around here, and the rest of the
world can just go to hell!" (13). Neither Mr. Zuckerman nor Mr. Portnoy can accept the
fact that their young sons may have attitudes different from theirs, not necessarily
because what they are doing is "wrong," but because it challenges their (deficient)
Multigenerational Transmission Process
The fifth interlocking concept, the multigenerational transmission process, allows
for a systemic reading that extends beyond the nuclear family and into the extended
family. Referring back to differentiation of self, Kerr explains, "small differences in the
levels of differentiation between parents and their offspring and between the members of
a sibling group lead over many generations to marked differences in differentiation
among the members of a multigenerational family" (27). Basically, it functions as a
domino effect. Due to the nuclear family emotional patterns by which each family
operates, one child will probably develop a little more "self' than the other, on whom the
parents overly focus: "Therefore, if one sibling' s level of 'self is higher and another
sibling' s level of self is lower than that of the parents, one sibling' s marriage is more
differentiated and the other sibling' s marriage is less differentiated than the parents'
marriage" (27). A natural biological balance ensues, and, over time, one line of the
family becomes "progressively less differentiated" (28) and one progressively more. The
less differentiated family line, once it j oins with that of another (recalling that individuals
marry those with equal levels of self-differentiation), becomes progressively emotionally
dy sfuncti onal. Therefore, "the roots of the most severe human problems as well as of the
highest levels of human adaptation are generations deep" (28). Hall similarly explains:
Family interaction tends to crystallize in particular patterns through time, and
these patterns are frequently repeated in several subsequent generations. When
sufficient intergenerational data about a family are available, the degree of
persistence in certain patterns of behavior or the intensity of system reactions to a
disruption of established patterns of behavior and dependency can be estimated
fairly accurately. (16)
This infinitely layered process accounts for the incredible intricacy that goes into
discovering a family's emotional patterns and, in so doing, making an effort to change
them. Additionally, it makes it impossible to ascribe blame for dysfunctional behavior.
Because Roth usually focuses on just one nuclear family at a given time in his
novels, it is more difficult to identify moments when he seems to be expressing a similar
notion about the generational process of anxiety transmission. In Letting Go, however,
he does seem to be expressing the complexity of one' s emotional development, or as
Tony Tanner describes it "the psychologically crippling effects of being brought up in the
family net, or trap" (311). Describing the formation of his personality, Gabe comments,
"I am, for good or bad, in a few ways like my father, and so have never been the same
person alone that I am with people. .. If I am my father's child, I am my mother's too. I
cannot trace out exactly the influences, nor deal in any scientific way with the
chromosomes passed on to me" (5). While the language is a bit elusive, it does seem that
Gabe recognizes the complicated effects that contribute to one's emotional and
psychological makeup. He finally realizes, after reading his mother's posthumous letter,
that his relationship with his parents was not as unambiguous as he once thought. He
I had never even been willing to believe that my mother had treated my father
badly, until she had gone ahead and told me so [in her posthumous letter]. Much
as I loved him, he had seemed to me, while she still lived, unworthy of him. And
that is a strange thing to have happen to you-to feel yourself, after death, turning
on a person you have always cherished. (11)
During his mother' s lifetime, Gabe always considered his mother to be the perfect parent
(the overfunctioner) and his father the imperfect, needy parent (the underfunctioner).
Describing his relationship with his parents, he writes, "I was pulled and tugged between
these two somewhat terrorized people-a woman who gripped at life with taste and reason
and a powerful self-control, and a man who preferred the strange forces to grip him" (45).
Yet it takes not only his mother' s death, but also a barefaced confession to expose him to
the reality that his mother contributed just as readily to the downfalls of her marriage as
did his father. As Gabe puts it, "Death upset everything" (45).
I have already discussed how the Carroll family in When She Wa~s Good effects
the development of their daughter, Myra; however, over the course of the generations, it
also contributes to Lucy's psychological identity, as well as to her death. While Willard
and Berta do have a reasonably healthy relationship, they rely on the nuclear family
emotional patterns of overfunctioning-underfunctioning reciprocity and impairment of a
child (Myra) through triangling to contain their anxiety. Especially due to the latter,
Myra' s differentiation of self becomes substantially lower than her parents. And with the
lowly differentiated Whitey, Myra gives birth to Lucy, whose differentiation of self is so
low that she finally ends her own life. Bowen likewise recognized that family lines with
low differentiations of self do tend to eventually die out, whether because of their
members' suicidal tendencies, addictions, and/or physical illnesses.
In Portnoy 's Complaint, Alex is able to understand that his parents did not
develop their anxieties in a vacuum, nor is he solely a victim of a "Jewish joke." Rather,
he asks, "Who filled these parents of mine with such a fearful sense of life?" (35). He
recognizes that mental illness does not emerge from within a "sick" psyche, but rather
from without, as a product of the complex emotional system of generations of anxious
Emotional cutoff, the sixth interlocking concept, is the driving force of the fourth
nuclear family emotional pattern, emotional distance. Kerr defines it as "people
managing their unresolved emotional issues with parents, siblings, and other family
members by reducing or totally cutting off emotional contact with them" (33). In order to
deter their anxiety, many individuals will choose to cutoff from a significant person in
their relational field. While they may claim that such issues as money, divorce, or
religion are the source of the cutoff, the underlying push comes from the low
differentiation of the family (or societal) members (Gilbert 62). People who cutoff in
their families of origin are more prone to doing so within the workplace, friendships, and
intimate relationships. Additionally, because people who cutoff tend to be involved in
smaller systems of people, the few relationships they do retain are extremely intense, and
therefore volatile (62). Interestingly enough, America has sometimes been referred to as
a "nation of cutoffs" because it was "settled largely by immigrants" (61). Much research
has been done to prove that those who have distanced themselves from significant
relationships tend to suffer from depression, alcoholism, and/or other serious mental or
physical illnesses. People who then work to restore those relationships often show much
improvement in their health. In order to remedy cutoff, Gilbert advises:
The pattern must be recognized. Often a cutoff person indulges in lesser forms of
cutoff on a regular basis. Distancing maneuvers may be repeated many times in a
given day. When people become familiar with their own patterns, they are in a
position to recognize the anxiety that lies beneath the patterned behavior. (64)
It is imperative that individuals pay close attention to their daily functioning in order to
come to terms with the overriding system that may be working to assuage anxiety in the
short-run, but seriously injure one's mental and/or physical health in the long-run.
In Letting Go, Roth seems very eager to explore the frequency and depth of
emotional cutoff. Because of supposedly religious differences, both the Herz and the
DeWitt family have cutoff from their children. However, as Bowen asserts, emotional
cutoff often occurs because of problems more deeply rooted than those of religious
difference. In the rare glimpses we get of Paul's parents, we hear of his youth as one of
great intensity; his parents had far-reaching hopes for their brilliant son, much like the
Portnoys and Tarnopols, and when he "lets them down" by marrying a Gentile, their
projected expectations are crushed. The only way they can even conceive to deal with
their anxieties is to cutoff. And though Paul pretends as if he does not care that his
parents had emotionally abandoned him, and even seems not to be bothered by the
impending death of his father, it is clear that the scar runs deep, driving him even to be
violent with Libby. When she confronts him about going to see his dying father, he
smacks her and "roars," "I've got feelings! .. I've got feelings that tell me he could live
without me, so he can die without me too!" (410). It is one of the rare emotional
outbursts that Paul experiences over the course of the novel because it is a pain that is
kept so very deeply buried most of the time.
In When She Wa~s Good, the only way that Lucy can deal with her guilt for
having called the police on her father is by emotional cutoff. And Whitey, because of his
extreme shame, can only do the same. Readers witness the devastating effects of their
failed relationship through the endless troubles Lucy experiences as a young adult.
Because he reads When She Wa~s Good from a psychoanalytic point of view, Robert Alter
overlooks the devastating emotional dynamics by which the Carroll family lives.
Criticizing Roth's characters as flat and evil, he writes:
A novelist should be at least capable of seeing all around his characters, even to
their attractive sides; to put this another way, he has to imagine at least the
possibility of change and development in his personages. The characters of When
She Wa~s Good, on the other hand, are fixed in one anguished posture which we
are made to see again and again-the men forever set in weak-need knavery
around the central figure of the woman who, palpably victimized by them,
unpityingly makes them her victims. (45)
What Alter misses in this rather misogynistic critique is Roth's actually very accurate
portrayal of a family caught in an emotionally distraught system of anxiety management:
emotional cutoff. And it is also quite unfair of him to claim that there is no change or
development in Roth's characters when the entire novel plots Lucy's slowly spiraling
psychological decline from a young, forlorn child to a grown, suicidal woman. Roth
gives a lucid and sad description of the mindset of one having cutoff emotionally from a
Lucy herself never gave her father a moment' s thought, not if she could help it;
when his name was mentioned, she simply tuned out. His welfare was of no more
concern to her than hers had been to him; where he was now, what he was now,
that was his business-and his doing too. She might have been the one to lock that
door, but what had sent him running was his own shame and cowardice. (221)
Unfortunately, Lucy cannot see the part she played in her father' s abandonment not that
she did anything wrong, only that her actions led to very specific, and very unfortunate
reactions on the part of her father, who, likewise, cannot grasp his own contributions to
his child's emotional dysfunction.
Sibling position, the seventh interlocking concept, differs from the others in that
the bulk of its material comes not from Bowen' s research but from that of psychologist
Walter Toman. While Bowen did observe the impact of sibling position on behavior, he
found "Toman's work so thorough and consistent with his ideas that he incorporated it
into his theory" (Kerr 37). Of Bowen theory, Toman himself writes that it is one of the
"earliest practical and teachable forms of psychotherapeutic treatment of families in need
and distress" (xiv). Toman's prevailing thesis is that an individual's sibling position
within his or her family and the mix of genders in that configuration predictably impart
identifying characteristics onto his or her emotional and mental development (all other
things being equal) (Gilbert 86). However, Bowen complicated Toman's work by
pointing out that at higher levels of self-differentiation, "sibling position becomes less
and less relevant to forming and maintaining successful relationships" (87). In other
words, the more differentiated one's self, the less "typical" one's personality as an
"oldest son" or "youngest daughter."
Roth explores a similar development of personality type in Goodbye, Columbus.
Brenda is the typical middle child, influenced both by her position as a younger sister of a
brother (Ron) and as an older sister of a sister (Julie). The more influential position is
that of younger sister of a brother, because it is the one that Brenda occupied for ten or so
years before Julie was born. Therefore, much of her personality as a youngest was
already established by the time Julie came along. Brenda exhibits such characteristic
"younger sister of a brother" traits as being "a bit spoiled [and] extravagant" (Gilbert
204), which the reader learns with the first sentence of the novel; Brenda asks a person
she does not know (Neil) to hold her glasses while she dives into the pool. The reader
also learns that Brenda is spoiled from her mother, who is emotionally triggered by the
attention she gets from other men, especially Mr. Patimkin. Seemingly out of nowhere,
Mrs. Patimkin yells at her daughter, "You ought to learn what a day's work means," to
which Brenda asks, "Why?" Her mother answers, "Why? Because you're lazy .. and
you think the world owes you a living" (64-65). The typical younger sister of a brother
is also "attractive and charming to men and they instinctively seek her company" (Gilbert
204). The reader learns of these qualities in Brenda very early on; Neil calls to ask her
out on a date just after obeying her request to hold her glasses. (She does not even know
However, as the middle child, Brenda is also an older sister of a sister, displaying
such typical qualities as a "caretaker and order-giver" (Gilbert 202). She often calls Julie
"sweetheart" and looks after her. A couple times over the course of the novel, Brenda
supports Julie and wants to hear her ideas. When Julie wants to talk about how much
birds eat at the dinner table (in response to Mr. Patimkin's accusation that Neil eats like a
bird), Brenda asks to hear more. Mrs. Patimkin, however, threatened by this other
"mother," responds, "Brenda, why do you encourage her?" (23) and the conversation is
ended. Another common attribute of the older sister of a sister is that she is devoted to a
male authority figure, usually her father (Gilbert 202), from whom she gains her own
sense of authority over other men (in this case, Neil). Mr. Patimkin and Brenda' s close
relationship is therefore one typical of an older sister of a sister, and explains much of the
reason for why her mother (supposedly) hates her.
In Letting Go, Gabe insightfully comments on the two personalities of Martha' s
children. He repeatedly realizes that Cynthia, the older one, imitates her mother in her
"overfunctioning" mode. According to Toman, an older sister of a brother "is
independent and strong. She enj oys taking care of men and does not ask for much in
return" (Gilbert 204). Gabe recognizes these qualities in Cynthia, for instance, when he
is looking after the children. Even though he is the babysitter, Cynthia takes on the
mothering role. Gabe recounts, "She [Cynthia] turned to face Mark. 'I think you had
better go to sleep too.' With her hands on her hips, she was, in both posture and tone, as
much like Martha as she could manage to be" (276). In another scene, when Cynthia is
setting the dinner table, Roth makes great effort to convey her overfunctioning, even
With a painstaking concern for symmetry, the child was aligning and realigning
the dinner plates between their appropriately squadroned knives, forks, and
spoons. She might just as well have been defusing a bomb, for the expression on
her face. As she circled the table, she smoothed out the tiniest wrinkles in the
white cloth. (306)
Mark, on the other hand, as the younger sibling, is constantly underfunctioning and
needing to be taken care of. According to Toman, the younger brother of a sister
"without trying, attracts solicitation, care, and services. .. He [is] valued and privileged
by his parents" (Gilbert 201). Characters repeatedly point out that Mark seems younger
than he actually is (and that Cynthia seems older). While Cynthia is precocious, Mark is
evidently slow to develop because someone is always taking care of him. When Cynthia
is showing Mark a picture of one of their father' s paintings, Martha' s commentary
illustrates the positioning dynamic of the Reagenhart children:
"Where's Daddy's picture?" [Mark asks.]
"Here, dope. Can't you see?" .
"Who?-" Markie was asking.
"This-" Cynthia said. "It's Daddy's picture!"
Mark didn't get it; his jaw only hung lower and lower. Would he ever learn to
read? Lately she had begun to wonder if he might not be retarded. Should she
take him in for tests? (204)
As the younger brother of a sister, and within an obviously high-tension familial
environment, Mark takes on the position of the extremely spoiled son whose character
cannot fully develop, and who therefore will function (or had he lived, would have
functioned) all his life as an underfunctioner.
The concept of sibling position additionally allows for a more nuanced and
satisfying understanding of Lucy's character in When She Wa~s Good. From a
psychoanalytic point of view, Jonathan Baumbach comes close to understanding the
complex dynamics going on in the Carroll family, but is unable to understand the reasons
why. He first writes, "She [Lucy] is provoked-her mother too attached to her own father
to be wife to her husband-to act in her mother' s place, to become a kind of surrogate
wife to her father" (47). This reading, obviously influenced by the concept of Oedipal
desire, falls a bit short in its claim that Lucy's mother is too attached to her father. In
reality, Willard plays into this fusion just as readily as Myra does. Additionally, nowhere
is there evidence that Lucy is functioning as a surrogate wife to her father. If anything,
she acts as a surrogate mother to both her parents when she "calls the police when her
father, in a drunken rage, hurts her mother" and when she "bolts the door against her
father, locking him out of the house" (47). The only explanation Baumbach can give for
Lucy's apparently "wifely" position is that the other characters "refuse to act on their
feelings. She acts for her mother, for her grandfather, confusing their desires with her
own" (47). While I do agree that Lucy acts for others, I do not believe it is because she
confuses their desires with her own. Instead, it is to contain the high level of anxiety in
Lucy, the only child, is forced to act as an oldest, since her parents are both
underfunctioners.22 She therefore feels overly responsible for saving her mother from the
abusive Whitey. While her own mother is the typical female only child, one who tends to
"believe that [her] parents owe [her] help and support long into [her] adult years" (Gilbert
205), Lucy does not have the "luxury" of occupying her assigned family position. Her
adopted position is one that eventually puts great strain on such a young woman and
hinders her development. It also explains why she turns to the Catholic Church early in
her life. Though she is critical of Roth's portrayal of Lucy, Mary Allen is nonetheless
seemingly aware of the systemic dynamic that urges Lucy to find an "overfunctioner" to
take care of her: "Lucy turns to Catholicism, but not for solace or spiritual guidance,23
instead for the authoritarianism which her parents do not provide, the one thing she
equates with parenthood" (144). I would add here that authoritarianism is not the one
22See my discussion of When She Was Good under "Nuclear Family Emotional System."
23This is probably a bit of an overstatement.
thing that she equates with parenthood, but rather the primary quality that her parents
have lacked throughout her life. When Willard, the only overfunctioner besides Lucy,
tries to tell her that she should respect and love Myra and Whitey because they are her
parents, she angrily remarks, "Then why don't they act like parents!" (23). Her
complaint is perfectly justified, and I believe that Roth here wants his reader to
sympathize with Lucy's position as one of almost complete isolation and unwarranted
In M~y Life as a Man, Peter Tarnopol, as the youngest son, obviously feels spoiled
and needs the reassurance of another: hence his relationships with women "below him"
who depend on him and respect him for his mind. Because he has both an older brother
and an older sister, Peter occupies the position of "younger brother of a sister" and
"younger brother of a brother." As a younger brother of a sister, Peter assumes such
customary traits as one who, like Mark, "without trying, attracts solicitation, care, and
services from women around him" (Gilbert 200). It is also clear that "he was valued and
privileged by his parents," and has retained "that position as he goes through life in his
relationships at work and in the family" (201). Peter himself reveals an awareness of the
reverent treatment he received as a child:
I certainly did expect deferential treatment of a kind, and from my mother I got it.
As I remember it, I could sweet-talk that lady into just about anything during my
high-school years, without too much effort get her to agree to the fundamental
soundness of my position on just about every issue arising out of my blooming
sense of prerogatives; in fact, it was with demonstrable delight (as I recalled it)
that she acquiesced to the young prince whom she had been leading all these years
toward the throne. (214)
When discussing his relationship with Susan, Peter, perhaps unconsciously, closely
associates it with that of his relationship with his mother through the repeated image of
the throne: "at Susan's I needed no more defense than a king upon his throne. Where else
could I go to be so revered?" (164). Here, Roth makes the keen systemic insight that
individuals (especially with a lower level of self-differentiation) often will seek
relationships with others that match the relationships they had with one of their parents.
However, Roth also recognizes the dangers of such a relationship. Peter admits that the
more he plays the authoritarian role of "father" toward Susan in order to gain her respect
and deference, the more dysfunctional the relationship becomes: "the more paternal or
patriarchal my influence upon Susan, the more remote the prospect of the orgasm" (165).
In this case, Roth associates emotional happiness with physical happiness an accurate
observation when one considers that if one is anxious within one's relationship, the
chance for successful intimacy is equally remote.
Through Peter, Roth understands the patterned dynamic of a youngest son seeking
intimate relationships with women who treat him as his mother did. While the following
passage is a bit lengthy, I include it here due to its striking revelation of the emotional
system that drives one kind of person to seek a relationship with another kind of person:
Outwardly, of course, Maureen and Susan couldn't have been more dissimilar,
nor could either have had a stronger antipathy for the "type" she took the other to
be. However, what drew them together as women-which is to say, what drew me
to them, for that is the subj ect here-was that in her own extreme and vivid way,
each of these antipathetic originals demonstrated that sense of defenselessness and
vulnerability [as exhibited by his mother] that has come to be a mark of their sex
and is often at the core of their relations to men. That I came to be bound to
Maureen by my helplessness does not mean that either of us ever really stopped
envisioning her as the helpless victim and myself as the victimizer who had only
to desist in his brutishness for everything to be put right and sexual justice to be
done. .. Right down to the end, I still saw Maureen, and she saw herself, as the
damsel in distress. .. Maureen was actually more of a Susan than Susan was,
and to herself no less than to me. (172)
That Peter recognizes that he is just as caught up in the web of "helplessness" as both
Maureen and Susan are confirms that Roth is unwilling to view problems in relationships
as the fault of one party, but instead as understandable derivatives of a dysfunctional
emotional system. Interestingly, Roth, a younger son, likewise recognizes such a pattern
in his own life. When discussing the disastrous marriage to his first wife, whom he calls
Josie in The Facts, he explains the dynamic of the relationship in much similar terms as
he uses to describe that of Peter and Maureen. He admits that he was attracted to her
because "she was that world's victim, a dispossessed refugee. .. She was adrift" (82).
Even in his nonfiction, then, Roth is again willing to identify the systemic interaction of
As a "younger brother of a brother," Peter Tarnopol is also "obstinate, daring,
bold, and complaining" (Gilbert 200). Throughout the novel, Roth portrays Peter in such
a light, especially in his often violent, yet also plaintive, association with Maureen. It is
not surprising that he goes to his oldest brother' s house to have his mental breakdown.
Whereas Peter cannot handle Maureen' s impudent treatment of him, Morris can defend
his brother against Maureen and is "not intimidated"(123) by her. Peter narrates, "At the
end of two days of hiding behind his bulk, I told Moe I was 'myself' again" (123).
Therefore, though Peter at times appears to be audacious and overly confident, when a
woman does not treat him with the deference he feels he deserves (having been treated
that way by his parents), he deteriorates into a whimpering child in need of nurturing.
One more quality of the younger brother of a brother is that he is "not goal- or
content-oriented, but if not tied to routine work, he may accomplish great and unusual
things, especially in scientific, technical, or artistic fields" (Gilbert 200). That Roth
characterizes Peter as a younger brother of a brother (and that Roth himself is a younger
brother of a brother), can possibly account for his creative abilities as a Hoction writer.
Societal Emotional Process
Bowen died in the midst of discovering all of the implications of the eighth and
Einal interlocking concept, societal emotional process. This concept extends beyond the
locale of the family and applies to the greater family of society-at-large. Explaining the
sociological contributions of Bowen systems, Hall writes, "As any group can be
considered an emotional system, Bowen's family theory can be applied to behavior in
other social settings" (19). Somewhat surprisingly, Hermione Lee (perhaps influenced by
Roth?) makes a similar recognition: "Political coercion and obstruction are public
versions of family, marital and psychological struggles" (62). Kerr further explains:
Societal emotional process describes how the emotional system governs behavior
on a societal level, promoting both progressive and regressive periods in a society.
Cultural forces are important in how a society functions but are insufficient for
explaining the ebb and flow in how well societies adapt to the challenges that face
them. (One FFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFFamily 's 41)
Therefore Bowen family systems reveals that society actually functions in a predictable,
patterned way in response to its levels of anxiety. When the global community is
severely stressed by such pressures as overpopulation, war, economic depression, and
environmental catastrophe, it can fall into a regression. Rather than acting on principle
with the long-term view in mind, people in a regression (much like an anxious family)
only work to relieve the anxiety of the moment, thereby sacrificing their values and use
of reason (Kerr 42). Bowen believes that our society fell into a regression shortly after
World War II as it struggled with its moral and physical havoc and the "sweeping
advances in technology" (Bowen 271) of the mid-20th-century. Bowen adds, "man's
increasing anxiety is a product of population explosion, the disappearing of new habitable
land to colonize" (272). He continues,
Man has always used 'getting away from the crowd' as a way of allaying anxiety
and stabilizing his adjustment. The thesis here is that man became increasingly
aware of the disappearance of frontiers, more through his 'instinctual radar' than
by logical thinking. Man has become increasingly aware that his world is limited
in size through rapid communication and television, and rapid travel. (272)
Paradoxically, as technology continues to enhance our world, we suffer from more and
more claustrophobia (which perhaps spurred our journeying into outer space). What is
additionally ironic is that despite the apparent security following the victory of World
War II with our advanced technology, longer lifespan, and stable economic growth -
Western culture still fell into a regression (Bowen 272). While science had matured
beyond "cause and effect thinking" and profited greatly from its more systematic
understanding, our own behaviors were and still are lagging behind, governed by emotion
and fear. Bowen contends that human beings' intellectual system is a function of our
"newly added cerebral cortex, which was developed last in his [human's] evolution and
which is the main difference between man and the lower forms of life" (198). Perhaps
because it is our newest, and therefore most advanced, tool for making decisions, we are
not yet fully adept at using it. However, the more we exercise it by becoming aware of
the influential and animalistic emotional system that governs us all, the more healthy and
functional we will become.
The symptoms of a societal regression include: "a growth of crime and violence,
an increasing divorce rate, a more litigious attitude, a greater polarization between racial
groups, less principled decision-making by leaders, the drug abuse epidemic, an increase
in bankruptcy, and a focus on rights over responsibilities" (Kerr 42). While our society is
aware of these symptoms, we have not made successful efforts toward lifting them.
Instead of examining our own individual selves and determining how each of us is
contributing to the regression, our culture has instead chosen to focus on the next
generation and its problems: "Using the child's problems as justification for increasing
the focus on them is precisely what the child-focused parents have been doing all along.
An increase in the problems young people are having is part of an emotional process in
society as a whole" (Kerr 43). Again, we are more eager to look outside the system than
within to make a difference. Because Bowen died in the midst of his work on this
concept, many of his followers have continued his research. At the Georgetown Family
Center, scholars and clinicians are currently exploring the wide-ranging possibilities for
employing family systems theory as a sociological paradigm in addition to a
psychological one. So far, the findings have been promising, revealing strong evidence
that even such large social groupings as countries tend to relate to others reciprocally.
In Goodbye, Cohembus, Roth seems to be aware of the human need to "spread its
wings" in order to deal with anxiety and "prosper." He describes the evolving migration
of immigrant families from the inner-city toward the suburbs:
Years ago, at the time of the great immigration, it [inner-city Newark] had been
the Jewish section, and still one could see the little fish stores, the kosher
delicatessens, the Turkish baths, where my grandparents had shopped and bathed
at the beginning of the century. .. [Now] on the streets, instead of Yiddish, one
heard the shots of Negro children playing at Willie Mays with a broom handle and
half a rubber ball. The neighborhood had changed: the old Jews like my
grandparents had struggled and died, and their offspring had struggled and
prospered, and moved further and further west, towards the edge of Newark, then
out of it, and up the slope of the Orange Mountains, until they had reached the
crest and started down the other side, pouring into Gentile territory as the Scotch-
Irish had poured through the Cumberland Gap. Now, in fact, the Negroes were
making the same migration, following the steps of the Jews, and those who
remained in the Third Ward lived the most squalid of lives and dreamed in their
fetid mattresses of the piny smell of Georgia nights. (90)
This is just one example of the many "side-bar" commentaries on the state of society that
parallels the emotional state of the story's characters. Roth thus illustrates his shared
notion with Bowen that the same processes that affect the functioning of the family
correspondingly affect those of society as a whole.
Similarly, in When She Was Good, Roth metonymizes the turmoil of the family to
represent those of society as a whole. He employs many elements of the melodrama to
depict the harrowing psychological deterioration of Lucy and the Carroll family in
general. However, he is additionally depicting the deterioration of the Mid-Western
American culture of the 1950s one that is so cold and bitter, it can drive an entire
family to ruin. Rodgers points out, "Roth's story is not just a case study of one aberrant
member of American society; it is also a fable designed to show a fundamental weakness
in the character of the larger society of which Lucy is a part" (69). And Roth agrees:
It has always seemed to me that though we are, to be sure, not a nation of Lucy
Nelson's, there is a strong American inclination to respond to life like Lucy
Nelson-an inclination to reduce the complexities and mysteries of living to the
most simple-minded and childish issues of right and wrong. (qtd. in Rodgers 69)
Therefore Roth recognizes the correlations between what emotional disturbance in a
family can drive an individual to do, and what emotional disturbance in a society can
drive its people to do.
Because my study has focused on those novels in which Roth has dedicated his
literary pursuit to the familial environment, it becomes more difficult to locate many
obvious examples of what Bowen termed the societal emotional process in his fiction,
although Our Gang and The Great American Novel as satires would be more appropriate
obj ects of analysis. In any case, perhaps the best example of Roth' s awareness of the
societal emotional process is one that he experienced in real life. Ever since the 1959
publication of "The Defender of the Faith" in The New Yorker, Roth has been accused of
anti-Semitism, Jewish self-hatred, and "airing the Jews' dirty laundry." On the Jewish
reaction to Portnoy 's Complaint, Roth responds:
Informing. There was the charge so many of the correspondents had made, even
when they did not want to make it openly to me, or to themselves. I had informed
on the Jews. I had told the Gentiles what apparently it would otherwise have been
possible to keep secret from them; that the perils of human nature afflict the
members of our minority. (Reading 204)
Because of the precarious social place that Jews occupy as history's perpetual scapegoat
(especially in the decades following the Holocaust), Roth acknowledges that writing
about a Jew can be read as writing about all Jews, which only motivates further
persecution. Roth therefore experienced first-hand the intense level of anxiety that the
American Jewish population was suffering after World War II, and still to this day. Yet
Roth remained true to his beliefs and values and did not recant his fictional purpose.
Family systems theory, while a relatively new development in the psychological
field, offers much potential for doing literary criticism beyond the psychoanalytic
framework, if not in conjunction with it. By simply applying this alternate theory to the
work of a writer who has long been misunderstood (by some) as an anti-Semite, a
misogynist, a writer of the ego, or even a bad writer, I hope that I have made it clear that
Roth's early novels, while undoubtedly imperfect, should not be as flagrantly dismissed
as they often have been. His purpose, in many cases, is to explore the psychological
functioning of the family unit in language and imagery that (often parodically) depart
from the traditional psychoanalytic model. Therefore Murray Bowen's theory and Philip
Roth' s fiction, if interpreted carefully, allow us readers to understand both ourselves and
the literary characters we read as members of a family, not necessarily suffering from
penis envy, or the name of the father, or a weak ego, but from living within the strained
patterns of an anxious family and societal system. And because of the attention family
systems pays to individuals as both unique selves as well as products of their
environment, it provides an awareness that is more akin to cultural criticism and race and
gender studies than might initially be believed. There is obviously much more work to be
done in this field, more genres and eras of literature to be studied, and I hope that this
essay is just the beginning of a greater proliferation of the benefits of family systems
theory not only for the psychological field, but also the literary.
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New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 125-147.
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Sarah was born in Mobile, Alabama to two Canadian parents. No wonder she's
been confused ever since. At a young age, though, she realized that books gave her the
ability to understand the world if only a little in ways that also made her laugh, cry,
tremble with fear (she's been known to throw scary books across the room), and fall in
love. In fourth grade, she decided that her career would have something to do with
books, though exactly what has yet to be determined. In high school, she was known as
that nerd who always had a book in front of her face. At Georgetown, she came to realize
her passion for 20th-century literature and also acquired a new one: religion. She
suspected that the world's religions were somehow doing something very similar to its
great authors. At the University of Florida, she picked up one more interest: psychology.
In her future studies, she hopes to discover how the study of the mind and the study of the
soul might cooperatively function as paradoxical, yet enlightening paradigms for literary