I’ve been reading The Dance of Intimacy by Harriet Goldhor Learner, which is about family systems theory. One observation that I’ve come to from reading is that many people I know, myself included, have had the dubious honor of being our family’s Anne de Bourgh. Anne de Bourgh is a very minor character in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice, so small that she hasn’t a single dialog line of her own. Her mother is the larger than life Lady Catherine de Bourgh. Lady Catherine is the sort of mother who knows best for everyone around her, whether they are her child or not.
Miss Anne is a retiring character who suffers from chronic ill health. Her mother insists, however, that Anne could have been a brilliant prodigy, if only she had been healthy. That stifled potential seems to be a common toxic and addictive drug for both child and parent. Having or being “coulda been a contender” is in some ways better than having an active prodigy. Everyone can enjoy the fantasy of the prodigy without ever putting the talent to the test.
I think most every parent has fantasies of things that they wish, hope or imagine their child to be. Also, most parents with children with chronic illnesses develop some level of over protectiveness (see Francis Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden for another literary example). The head on collision of these two utterly natural parental instincts can produce grown ups who are terrified of their own potential and unaware of their own desires.
Perhaps we did have a great potential in childhood that went untapped because of our chronic illness. Perhaps we didn’t and we totally would have failed at being a pianist (Anne de Bourgh’s supposed prodigy skill) or soccer star or whatever. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we manage our own desires and actual talents against the backdrop of past family expectations. I realize that everyone has some version of this struggle. The unique issue of being Anne de Bourgh is that your loved ones may expect you to remain forever delicate and forever unhatched. Learner speaks a great deal about how the emotional needs of a family system can trap individuals in under functioning roles. Miss Anne de Bourgh could have been a proficient, if her health had allowed, or had she worked out a way to be herself and not just a shadow role in her family.
May we all find our way off the fainting couch and into our own preferred patch of sun.