Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: “Sometimes leaving your family is the right thing to do”

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Lucy Mangan
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red vintage phone off the hook.

Motherwell, the memoir by Deborah Orr, has got Lucy thinking: why are we so expected to be forgiving and enduring of toxic family life?

The older I get, the more I realise how lucky I was to have been born into the family I was. Not that mine is perfect – no family is – but it was completely functional. My mother, father, sister and I loved – love – each other, drove – drive – each other nuts, fall out, make up and get on as well as four flawed human beings can hope to do.

And it was luck, of course. No one asks to be born and no one (as a mewling infant) gets to choose their family. It was pure chance that I landed in one in which no one was suffering from any unresolved trauma, no intergenerational inadequacies whose awful effects were still playing out years later. There was no one operating according to some innate and vicious pathology; no one who was violent, abusive or otherwise incapable of sound parenting or relating to other human beings in a reasonable, healthy, human way.

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This kind of luck is rare. The more friends I have gathered over the years, the more I have come to know that many people are living with or trying desperately to undo the damage that comes with dysfunction. 

In Motherwell by Deborah Orr – a completely amazing memoir which came out last week by a completely amazing woman I had the honour of knowing, though not alas well, before she died last year – she talks (with wit and sorrow and insight) about growing up with a narcissistic mother. Orr recalls how her mother set a narrow path for her daughter (best designed to reflect her offspring’s glory back onto herself) and convulsed with fury whenever Orr dared stray. Orr had barely begun to unpick these toxic ideas by the time she died last October.

motherwell deborah orr book cover
Orr's Memoir has given Lucy some insight into homes less happy than hers.

I have several friends who have narcissistic mothers but it took Orr’s densely descriptive, personal and perceptive pages to give me even the smallest true insight into their lives. I remember the first time I tried to offer a friend advice on how to deal with his viciously knotted, miserable home life and him saying – very kindly – that it would be more helpful if I could just listen, because I really couldn’t know what it was like. He was right. Motherwell was a useful reminder, especially when – like everyone – I have found myself, against my better judgment, consumed by the whole Meghan and Harry saga.

No one currently passing public judgment, with special focus on her decision to cut off contact with her father, truly knows Meghan now, let alone during the formative years of her family relationships. And yet she is condemned as selfish, a bad daughter, unforgiving. Little, of course, is said about her husband abandoning the family of his birth, though he too surely has much to gain from a new beginning.

The idea, despite endless evidence to the contrary, that The Family is a good thing to be preserved at all costs endures. And it’s wrong. Families can be terrible things and do terrible things to each other. Sometimes the best thing you can do is leave. To protect yourself. To break a cycle. To start again. (If this is you, do have a look at writer Sali Hughes’ Facebook group Necessary Family Estrangement, which she set up after her complicated upbringing resulted in halting her relationship with her mother.) 

The myth of the perfect family, the opprobrium that greets family estrangements like Meghan and Harry’s only makes this vital option harder to take by those who need to.

Enough. If you haven’t lived through it, keep quiet and count yourself lucky. You don’t know you’re born.

Book Cover: W&N publishers

Photo: Miryam León on Unsplash

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