In his book Family, Drama, and American Dreams, Tom Scanlon observes that the decline of the extended family in modern times and the rise of the smaller nuclear family has made the family the source of intense hope and also of disappointment: ‘‘We demand much of the family, making it the focus of our dreams of harmony and the chief obstacle to their realization, the nightmare to be escaped.’’ Scanlon points out that twentieth-century drama in America has been largely concerned with the problems of family life, and he names dramatists including Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, and others as having made major contributions to this theme. Many of the plays that deal with family life are about failure and destruction. Gilroy’s The Subject Was Roses should be added to the list.
But it is not only dramatists who have been concerned with the modern family. Sociologists and psychologists have also studied the dynamics of families. In the jargon of social science, the Clearys would be labeled a dysfunctional family. One of the most eloquent and practical of writers on this topic has been researcher and lecturer John Bradshaw. His best-selling book Bradshaw On: The Family has many insights into the way dysfunctional families operate, insights that shed much light on The Subject Was Roses.
A dysfunctional family is one that does not function in a psychologically healthy way. The parents are unable to relate constructively to each other, and they get locked into repetitive negative patterns. Their children get sucked into the destructive family system and end up damaged, sometimes seriously and even permanently, by the warped behaviors that have been imposed on them. Bradshaw quotes from Merle A. Fossum and Marilyn J. Mason’s book Facing Shame: Families in Recovery (1989):
These people hold tenaciously and unconsciously to a narrow range of repetitive responses or games that serve to conceal, rather than reveal themselves to each other. After years everyone in the family knows each other’s next line in the relational dialogue, and yet they remain imprisoned by the patterns.
This is a clear description of the dynamics of the Cleary family. John and Nettie have enmeshed themselves in a decades-long pattern of mistrust, blame, and shared resentments. Nothing is ever forgotten. For example, it comes out in Nettie’s conversation with Timmy that she is always disparaging the lake house because her husband did not consult her before he bought it—never mind the fact that the house must have been purchased many, many years ago. This accumulation of petty hurts has built up over the years into an impenetrable wall between them. For his part, John keeps secrets—he does not tell Nettie how much money he has in savings. (When he finally gives Timmy the information, it is with strict instructions not to tell Nettie.) Nettie admits to Timmy that she does not understand her husband and believes she never will. When he goes into one of his moods, as when he berates Timmy for losing his religious faith, there is no possibility of dealing with him.
It is very difficult, as Bradshaw notes of dysfunctional families, to get out of patterns such as this. Act II, for example, which is the crucial act as far as the possibility of meaningful change is concerned, ends exactly as it began, with John complaining about the coffee. This is no coincidence; the dramatist is clearly giving us a clue that John has learned nothing from the turbulent events of the previous two days.
One of the consequences of a breakdown in love and affection between the parents is that one or both parents will lavish love in an inappropriate way on one of the children. As Bradshaw puts it, ‘‘If Dad is a workaholic and never home, one of the children will be Mom’s Emotional Spouse since the system needs a marriage for balance.’’ Bradshaw refers to this as ‘‘emotional sexual abuse’’ that results from what he calls ‘‘cross-generational bonding.’’ The parents use the child to meet their own needs; the son may become ‘‘Mom’s Little Man,’’ for example. Emotional sexual abuse, according to Bradshaw, occurs when the parent’s relationship with the child becomes more important than the relationship with the spouse.
This is exactly what happens in The Subject Was Roses. As a result of her husband’s emotional and physical absence (during the earlier part of the marriage he seems to have spent most of his evenings in a bar drinking), Nettie has transferred her love to her son in a way that has become stifling for Timmy. She looks to Timmy for her emotional fulfillment and is upset when she discovers that he is no longer willing to play the game. The nature of their relationship is revealed in the first scene of the play. She takes hold of his hand in an affectionate gesture and will not release it, even though Timmy is embarrassed and uneasy about the gesture. But when they start dancing the polka, Timmy is no longer embarrassed, and there is something almost sexual about the dance, as mother and son move faster and faster, laughing hysterically and then fall to the floor...
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