11 Dysfunctional Families In Books That (Hopefully) Make Your Parents Look Like A Cakewalk
Sure, every time you go home for Sunday dinner, your parents might bicker, your siblings fight, and there's a chance (OK, maybe a guarantee) that someone will end up in tears, but isn't that part of being in a family? Families are there to support you and love you unconditionally, but they're also there to humiliate you with their oddities and drive you mad with their own personal brand of craziness. All of that quirkiness, all that insanity, all of the embarrassment is what makes your family unique — and like it or not, you're stuck with them.
Everyone's family is a little crazy, but the ones from the pages of literature take it to a whole new level of dysfunction. From King Lear and his daughters to the Family Fang to the Baudelaires children, madness, mayhem, and a whole lot of drama punctuate every holiday dinner and family get together for the brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers of these fictional and real-life clans. These relatives are guilty of murdering one another — that is, if they aren't affairs with each other instead. The parents, riddled with insecurities, self-absorption, and a gaggle of inner demons of their own, act like kids, while their kids are forced to acted like adults and fend for themselves. Generation after generation, these families keep the insanity going, and it makes for great storytelling.
Art may imitate real life, but here are 11 families from literature that are more dysfunctional than yours (I hope):
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
With three children, you would hope that one of them would turn out alright, wouldn't you? Enid Lambert, the matriarch of the Midwestern family from Jonathan Franzen's celebrated The Corrections, is forced to question that when all of her children return home for one last Christmas with their ailing father. One son works for a criminal, another is guilty of an inappropriate affair with a student, and the Lambert's only daughter is caught between her boss and his wife.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
It doesn't get much more dysfunctional than a father kidnapping his own son. Samad, the patriarch of a Muslim family living in London, can't handle his own guilt over his wrongdoings, so he decides to separate his twins and ship one off the Bangladesh in hopes that his son will become a better man than he could ever be. Instead, one son ends up as an atheist and the other son joins a religious extremest group responsible for acts of terrorism.
Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
Beautiful, blonde, and rich — what could possibly be wrong with the Dollanger family? What isn't wrong with them might be the better question. The family from V. C. Anderew's bestselling series features several generations of incest, abuse, neglect, and, of course, hiding away in the attic. I don't think this kind of disturbing behavior is what they had in mind when they coined the phrase "like mother, like daughter".
Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Speaking of incest, have you met the Lannisters? All of the families from the George R. R. Martin series have a laundry list of issues, but the Lannister family's list of flaws are enough to fill a book. Not only do they have inappropriate sexual relationships with one another, but they rape, pillage, and murder for sport. They're power-obsessed and, despite their close family ties, have no problem stabbing one another in the back, both literarily and figuratively.
The Finch Family
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
Plenty of people know what it's like to deal with parents who separate and get divorced, but not a lot people can say they were sent to live with their mother's psychiatrist as a result. I know what you're thinking — a psychiatrist's family can't be that dysfunctional, can it? Well, meet the Finch family; a group of pill-poppers, chain smokers, potheads, and sexual deviants who live together in one cockroach-infested house. There are no rules, there are no consequences, but there is plenty of madness to go around.
The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner
The Compsons are the featured family in several of William Faulkner's works, and each one is filled with heartache, loss, and personal disasters. The Sound and the Fury shows the family's fall from grace as they lose their wealth and reputation. Jason, the father, is an alcoholic; Caroline, the mother, is neurotic and uncaring; Quentin, the oldest son, is tortured over his family's troubled history and current state and eventually commits suicide; Jason, the younger son, struggles with money troubles and his deep-routed racism; Benjy, the youngest child, struggles with his mental disability and is only truly loved by his sister Caddy, who is the epitome of rebellion. Talk about a family with baggage.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Maybe more disturbing than dysfunctional, the five Libson sisters seem doomed from the start. Raised by strict and religious parents who are preoccupied with what their community thinks of them, the five sisters all commit suicide over the course of a single year. Each one tortured, each one tragic, and each one dealing with their own personal demons, the girls from The Virgin Suicides will make you think twice before telling your own siblings you wish they'd disappear.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
It doesn't get more dysfunctional then an entire family of possible murderers, am I right? Completely isolated from the nearby village, the Blackwoods live a solitary life on their estate after several of their family members were murdered by arsenic, most likely by one of the surviving members. Mystery, magic, and villainy are the true heads of this dark clan.
The Danish Royal Family
Hamlet by Shakespeare
Long before the Blackwoods were poisoning each other, the Danish royals from Shakespeare's Hamlet were plotting murder and revenge against one another. After his father dies, Prince Hamlet is instructed by ghosts to exact revenge on his murderous and conniving uncle and new king, Claudius. In the process, he manages to not only get himself killed but also to kill his lover Orphelia's father, which drives her mad enough to take her own life. Others get caught in the crossfire of this family's quarrel, and to top it all off, it seems there's a bit of madness in them all. Sounds like the kind of folks to avoid around the holidays — or any days, for that matter.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Rex And Rosemary Walls shared a lot with their children — courage, a sense of adventure, fearlessness — but they also took a lot away, including a sense of security, protection, and most importantly, a carefree childhood. At the beginning, the nomadic lifestyle the Walls raised their children in seemed fun and exciting, and the affection the entire family felt for one another made it all seem like a fairytale. But when the money runs out and the romantic love between the parents runs thin, selfishness, immaturity, and substance abuse took over, and Jeanette and her three siblings are left to fend for themselves. This one will really make you appreciate your parents.
The Lewis Family
Where It Stops, Nobody Knows by Amy Elrich
Because there is plenty of dysfunction at the YA level, I had to include one on the list; this oldie but goodie has been haunting me ever since I read it 15 years ago. Nina and her mother Joyce have always loved moving around, because as long as they are together, everything seems wonderful. But when Nina finds a place she wants to call home for more than a year and Joyce refuses, she begins to question what she knows about her two-person family. This one will make you grateful that even though you've always felt like the adopted one in the family, at least you weren't the kidnapped one.