How much do our parents shape us?

By Caitlin Kelly

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Two recent films have me thinking, long and hard, about the effects our parents, and their behaviors and values, exert on us, whether we’re young or adult — American Pastoral, from the book by Philip Roth, and Captain Fantastic, starring Viggo Mortensen.

One reviewer says Captain Fantastic is “the best movie about parenting I’ve ever seen.”

This Guardian reviewer calls it “strange and wonderful.”

The reviews of American Pastoral aren’t terrific, but I found much in it to think about — a solid citizen, owner of a Newark, NJ glove factory inherited from his father, ends up losing his rebellious daughter to an underground movement devoted to blowing up buildings and sowing social unrest.

It encapsulates the schism of the 1960s between the “squares” and the hippies, between those committed to the way things were and those determined to rend the social fabric edge to edge.

Dakota Fanning plays the daughter, moving from a stuttering teen simmering with suburban rage to a mentally fragile adult. Her father never gives up his search for her, a heart-rending theme for me, who has had many estrangements from my own.

The father in Captain Fantastic is a divisive figure, an authoritarian raising his six children in a teepee in the woods of Oregon, home schooling them and subjecting them to intense physical training. The breathtaking beauty of their surroundings is in contrast to their total social and cultural isolation — I thought, the whole way through it, of Cea Person, whose searing memoir of a similar childhood in the woods of Canada, North of Normal, is unforgettable.

Here’s my blog post about it, including an interview with Cea.

I’m fascinated by these two films for the questions they raise about how much we want to become our parents — or rush to flee their influence.

I never had children, but am always intrigued by how people choose to raise them and to impart their values, whether social, intellectual, creative or religious. I’ve seen a few adults I know work hard to break free of their family, often with painful consequences, and others still in thrall to patterns that make them unhappy but can’t find a way out.

I’m always in awe (yes, and envious) of happy, emotionally close families, the kind where an adult daughter and her mother remain best friends, and Sunday dinners en famille go on for decades.

Not us.

Both of my parents are free spirits, both of whom — not surprisingly — came from wealthy but emotionally difficult families. Neither of them ever talks about their childhood.

My father was raised in Vancouver, his father, (an Irish immigrant from a small town in Co. Donegal), founded and ran a successful trucking company there; my mother, born in New York City, was raised by a wealthy mother from Chicago who had multiple husbands, divorcing the ones who annoyed her most.

Headstrong ‘r us.

My mother, who never attended college but married at 17, lived life on her own terms, whether wearing a sari, (her best friend for decades was East Indian), a different wig for every day of the week or moving us to Mexico when I was 14. That ended badly when she had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Eve, stranding me and a friend on our own for a few weeks there.

My father, a successful and multiple award-winning filmmaker of features and documentaries, never met a cage he didn’t want to rattle, hard. Both are still alive, long divorced.

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My mother and I have no relationship at this point.

Even this late in life, I’m still their child in some ways — stubborn, creative, a world traveler, intellectually curious, with friends ranging in age from the 20s to 80s.

My tastes in art and music and food are both developed and wildly catholic, as theirs are, a gift I appreciate.

Both are smart as hell and super-competitive — family Scrabble games can get a little feral!

My father is ferociously agnostic, my mother for years a devoted Catholic; I occasionally attend Episcopal services. (My husband, a devoted Buddhist, was raised by a strict Baptist minister.)

In other ways, I’m quite different.

My mother has lived in such disparate spots as Lima, Peru, Bath, Roswell, New Mexico and B.C.’s Sunshine Coast; I’ve now lived in the same apartment for more than 20 years, am much less successful professionally and financially than my father was and, in some ways, more disciplined in my choices than either have been.

I’m also a product of my times, my adolescence in the hippie-ish late 1960s and 1970s and my native country, Canada, which remains socially liberal.

Which parent do you most resemble?

Or have you chosen to reject their values?

How much do you wish your children will be (are they?) like you?