Family Pictures is a story that unfolds primarily in dramatic scenes. The scenes are interrelated, however, and each is interpreted by one or another of the family members involved. The effect is like the exhibition of a photograph album to someone outside the family. There is no guarantee of factual accuracy; the only certainty is that the interpreter remembers the events and their emotional implications in a particular way. This point is made in the first chapter of the novel, when Nina Eberhardt describes the fourteenth birthday of her beloved older brother, Macklin (Mack). As she recollects the occasion, everyone was surprised when Randall Eberhardt, the autistic brother, suddenly wished Mack a happy birthday. Nina admits, however, that she must have been wrong: According to her mother, at that time Randall had not spoken for years. Nevertheless, even if the incident took place much earlier, on some other birthday, and was told to Nina, as her sister Lydia (Liddie) insists, it has its own kind of truth. When Randall speaks, his mother, Lainey, has a sudden upsurge of hope; then his father, David, sarcastically minimizes the event, and Lainey is once again plunged into sadness. After Randall’s defect is discovered, after Lainey insists on keeping him at home and organizing the family around him, the parents become frozen into this pattern. Their disagreement about the appropriate response to Randall is what destroys their marriage and cripples the other children in the family.
Ironically, David, who lacks the capability of responding to his wife and to the son who will never be normal, is himself a fine psychiatrist. The very qualities that make him highly successful in his profession doom him in his relations with Randall. David is a healer; he is dedicated to making his patients whole, making them perfect. His very energy in that process derives from his inability to live with imperfection. Therefore, there is no place in his scheme of things for a permanently imperfect son. David is also a scientist; his method of dealing with people is detached and analytical. When he realizes that his third child is not developing like the others, it is natural that David should cope with his own emotions by removing himself from them. Many years later, he shows Nina the journal that he kept when Randall was small, a journal he had thought would help him to diagnose the problem, but which in reality distanced him both from Randall and from his wife, who, as Nina notices, comes to be more and more central in David’s case study.
While David responds by retreating into the intellect, Lainey reacts to Randall’s condition with pure emotion, which is rooted not only in her maternal instincts but also, and even more deeply, in her lifelong uncertainty about her role as a woman. When she was young, she had been accepted in the male world inhabited by her brothers and had tagged along on their adventures, hardly aware that she was different. Eventually, however, their world was forbidden to her. When she spoke of entering the ministry, her father mocked her ambition, which was clearly unsuitable for a mere girl. Firmly, yet with a certain compassion, Lainey’s mother trained her to be a lady. Her career was to be in the home. Unfortunately, Lainey was never adept at homemaking; every project she attempted, hoping to imitate her highly efficient mother, was an abysmal failure. The only female activities in which she could excel, Lainey concluded, were sex and childbearing, and to a great degree the former was merely a means to the latter.
One of the most significant photographs in Miller’s novel-album is that of the successful man and his loving wife who live with their three beautiful children in a pleasant neighborhood with interesting neighbors. At that point, before Randall’s problem has been noticed, Lainey believes that she has become what she was meant to be. Sadly, she has no sense of self other than as a wife and mother. Therefore, when one of her beautiful children proves to be defective, she is overcome by the feeling of having failed in her role. In order to prove that she can succeed at motherhood, she becomes sexually frantic and succeeds in producing three “perfect” little girls in rapid succession. Yet their births do not solve Lainey’s emotional problems; instead, they make family life nearly impossible. Since Lainey refuses to place Randall in an institution, she and David have their hands full in the attempt to take care of him and are unable to do justice to all the new babies. The older children are resentful; the younger ones feel neglected. David has affairs and for a time leaves home, further distressing the children. Lainey feeds her children junk food,...
(The entire section is 1928 words.)