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Drowned in dysfunction


ONE NIGHT this week, while reading the newsmagazines to the tune of "Inside Edition," I discovered yet another -- ba-boom, ba-boom -- danger of life in the '90s. I'm getting co-dependent on stories about dysfunctional families.

I don't know what that means, but I'm sure it's happening.

That particular night, my eyes were pressed to an item in New York magazine, the one that asked the epoch-defining question: "Which family is more dysfunctional? The Barrs, the Addamses or the Jacksons?"

Before I could process my options, much less make a commitment to one celebrity malfunction over the others, I was distracted by someone on TV announcing that three dancers from "Madonna's dysfunctional 'Truth or Dare' family" are accusing her of being "obnoxious, selfish, loud" and they're suing her for not paying them. After being "depicted as an X-rated Partridge Family" in the documentary, the dancers are doing a sort of "Madonna, Dearest" on her.

Which reminded me, of course, of "The Prince of Tides" -- the mother of all current dysfunctional family movies, which says a lot after this bellringer year for buzzword relationships.

So here's my problem. What's a dysfunctional family and who doesn't have one? Were Archie and Edith Bunker dysfunctional? How about Amanda, Laura and Tom in "The Glass Menagerie"? If so, surely the whole messy business of "A Long Day's Journey into Night" can be easily sorted out now with just one trendy syndrome. And, finally, we can stop pondering Oedipus and his mom.

I don't mean to make light of families suffering with real problems. Nor, however, do I understand the sudden impulse to lump all our painful and distinct situations together in a sanitized generic -- and stick them all on "Entertainment Tonight." The Los Angeles Times recently quoted a psychologist as saying "I think we are all on a continuum of dysfunction, from the slightly dysfunctional to the more severe."

Yes, of course. My dictionary says the word simply means "impaired or abnormal functioning," which means we can have a dysfunctional toaster as well as dysfunctional conversations with fathers.

It was Tolstoy, of course, who said "All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

I wonder how he would have said that today.

Linda Winer is a columnist for Newsday.

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