Thursday, December 2, 2010

My Name is Sue! How Do You Do?!!

In my post of June 17 about the movie Thirteen, I wrote about how screenwriters for motion pictures occasionally nail a psychological phenomenon.  Many of them are way off base, but on these rare occasions one seems to be more knowing than many psychotherapists.

Today I would like to highlight some song lyrics that are similarly knowing, and concern a phenomenon that very few therapists even think about - hidden altruism in what seems to be, for all intents and purposes, a very cruel act by a family member.  The song also illustrates how learning more about what makes other family members do what they do can change your entire perspective on your own life.

The song in question is "A Boy Named Sue," which was sung by Johnny Cash and written by the multi-talented Shel Silverstein.  The song was meant to be just a humerous story, and what happens in the story itself is probably unlikely to ever take place, but the general idea is a wonderful illustration of the phenomenon I am highlighting.

The song was originally released in a live version in front of inmates at the infamous San Quentin prison in California.  You can hear from the audience reaction to the lyrics that some of prisoners were quite possibly identifying with them.

The song tells a story about a man whose father abandoned the family when the man was three years old.  Just before leaving, the father named his son "Sue."  Of course, from then on he is relentlessly teased and ridiculed for having a girl's name, and is constantly getting into fights because of it:

         Some gal would giggle and I'd get red
         And some guy'd laugh and I'd bust his head,
         I tell ya, life ain't easy for a boy named "Sue."

The protagonist's anger that his life has been so difficult leads him to resolve to track down and kill his father for doing this to him.  He finally finds his Dad at a bar in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and announces his presence:
        And I said: "My name is 'Sue!' How do you do! 
        Now you're gonna die!!"

What follows is a graphic descripiton of the fight they get into "kicking and a' gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer."  Finally, the protagonist gets the upper hand and pulls a gun on his father.  He is about to kill him when the father explains that, although he understands his son's anger and would not blame him for shooting, he had give the son the name because he knew he wasn't going to be around to protect the boy and that the name would force the son to "get tough or die:"

       But ya ought to thank me, before I die,
       For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
       Cause I'm the son-of-a-bitch that named you "Sue."

Of course, the protagonist then gets all choked up and they reconcile near the end of the song.  The last line is "And if I ever have a son, I think I'm gonna name him  -----   Bill or George! Anything but Sue!"

The father's explanation puts the Dad's behavior in a completely different light that helps the son "come away with a different point of view" about his own experiences.  Of course, it still doesn't excuse the father from abandoning the family in the first place, but maybe there's some sort of understandable explanation - not an excuse - for that as well.

The phenomenon of distancing described in my post Distancing: Early Warning of July 6 often stems from a parent's feeling that his or her children are much better off if they are not in the parent's presence.  In other words, the parents' guilt and low self esteem dictate that they are doing their children a favor by driving them off.  They see themselves as toxic.  If they had been abusive, they know that they have been the cause of a lot of grief for their kids, they may therefore be somewhat more comfortable if their children hate them. 

It is similar in some ways to the famous old Groucho Marx line, “I wouldn’t join any club that would have me as a member.”

If they really want to be helpful to their kids, however, they need to bite the bullet and 'fess up to what happened, apologize as best they can, and try to understand the family dynamics that led to the awful situation in the first place.   I'll provide some guidance in how to go about that in future posts.

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