I took a family therapy class this summer and we had to write a paper about where we came from, our families of origin. This is what I wrote. It’s pretty rough but I’m glad I wrote down the basics and the heart of things for me. There was an accompanying document, a “genogram”, which is basically like a family tree with more details, but I didn’t include that in this post.
Cultural and Ethnic Identity in My Family of Origin
Sascha Altman DuBrul
Silberman School of Social Work
The goal is to create a world that we can each call home, a place in which we each have a voice, in which our flowing sense of group identities gives us more a sense of boundaries that include than of divisions that exclude. The notion of culture is almost a mystical sense of connection with all the threads of which our human community is woven. – Monica McGoldrick (2008)
We are a society of people living in a state of post-traumatic shock: amnesiac, dissociated, continually distancing ourselves from the repetitive injuries of widespread collective violence. – Aurora Levin Morales (1998)
In this brief paper, I will develop a rudimentary genogram for my family of origin (McGoldrick, 1985) and use it as a touchstone to explore my cultural and ethnic background, with the hopes of shedding some light on my desire to be a social worker, and what some of my blind spots might be as I enter the field. I will frame my analysis using family therapy texts, with a macro-focus on White Supremacy and how it shapes our personal lives and the political and economic environment around us.
Culture of Origin
I was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City, the only child of a Greek Jew who was raised in the Bronx, and an Irish-Catholic/French Canadian who was raised in Queens. My parents were both raised in working-class White ethnic families in the 1950s, I was raised a middle class/upper middle class White kid in the 1980s with very little sense of my own cultural or ethnic roots. In retrospect, I feel like my culture as a young boy had more to do with the TV shows I was watching, the fast food I was eating, and the pop music I was listening to. I was raised to be an American without obvious ethnic roots. How did this happen?
The Whitening of Ethnicity and the Drawing of the Color Lines
While in many ways both of my parents were considered the “black sheep” of their families for marrying outside of their ethnic communities, their marriage, and my birth, coincided with a larger cultural shift in New York City where the majority of Jews and Catholics, who were historically rivals, became allied by siding politically against Blacks and other people of color (Podair, 2001). Amidst conflicts like the Oceanhill-Brownsville teachers strike and the national rise of the Black Power movement out of the fractured Civil Rights Movement–both of which pitted Jews against Blacks—there was a tension and confusion as cultural lines resettled. (McGoldrick, 2008)
I was born in the aftermath of these huge ethnic shifts where light skinned Jews, on the whole, began to be seen as White, shedding their ethnic status for the privilege of being fully American. My parents, while both involved in fighting for the rights of African-Americans in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, were part of the line that ran down the city, which only became more pronounced as I came of age. It took becoming an adult to realize the extent these historical forces have played on my life and all the people around me.
I grew up in apartment building where there was a lot of fear about playing outside on the street. Even though I went to a very integrated school, most of my friends were White (and Jewish) and I saw more Black characters on television then in my social life. We never talked about race and oppression in my family. This was not unusual, but it is striking considering my family’s supposed left wing politics. I have come to understand that this had a lot to do with my ethnicity and the uncomfortable feelings that many people in my family’s social group had about race.
Family Secrets and Family Additions
My story is also more complicated than two biological parents. I had a step-mother, who was married to my father for five years before he died and she and her family played an important role in my life and identity formation. Also, when I was 24 years old, I learned the family secret that the man who raised me wasn’t my biological father, that my mom was artificially inseminated before they kept records of the sperm donors because my father couldn’t get her pregnant. So all I know about my biological father is that he was a Jewish medical student. This has contributed to my sense of not having clear or stable roots.
Other Major Factor: The Cold War Divorce
When I was three years old my parents had an ugly, drawn out divorce, which put me in a terrible joint custody triangle for ten years (Bowen, 1974). The death of my father when I was thirteen had an enormous impact on me, more than any kind of cultural factors. While their divorce could be seen to have its roots in conflicts of culture, I think the Second Wave of Feminism played a much larger role. My mother was part of the generation of largely White, middle-class women who left their husbands in the midst of a shift in gender dynamics (Baxandall, 2002). My father wanted her to stay home and cook and clean and take care of him and she wasn’t having it. In many ways my life as a child resembled a small island being battled over my two super powers in a Cold War and this had a big effect on the person I grew up to be.
My Mom’s Ashkanazi and Greek Jewish Roots
My grandmother’s parents on my mother’s side were both from the town of Ioninna, Greece when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire. They were Romaniote Jews. (Fleming , 2010). They left in 1906 and there is a story that the ship sunk mid-journey and they were rescued and brought to Sao Paulo, Brazil for a year before they made it to Ellis Island. My great-grandfather Zadick was escaping service in the Ottoman army. They met in the small Greek Jewish community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and were married on Rivington when she was 14 years old. All the men in the family worked in the fruit vending business. Their community synagogue is now a museum on Broome Street. Like many Jews of the time (Howe, 1976) they moved from the Lower East Side up to Harlem, and from Harlem to the South Bronx, then their children and grandchildren to the Grand Concourse, and finally to Co-op City in the North Bronx. My grandmother Sarah was supposedly very intelligent and incredibly frustrated. She had a bad heart and was raised in poverty and many unfulfilled dreams.
My grandfather Jack Altman’s family is more of a mystery. His family were from Shetl’s “somewhere in the Austro-Hungarian Empire” and his father had a hardware store where they lived on 112th and 2nd avenue. My grandpa came of age during the Great Depression, became a plumber, and worked in the union for 50 years. He was a pretty simple man who worked very hard his whole life and had a hard time adjusting to retirement.
My mother grew up on a block with her entire Greek Jewish family until she was 12 years old. The family observed the Jewish holidays but the girls weren’t allowed to learn Hebrew. Because her father was an Ashkanazi Jew, she and her brother were always treated differently. The Greek family called them “Ziggyzuksas” which was the word for “half-breed” – it was the sound the Greeks heard when Askanazi Jews spoke Yiddish. This separated their experience of being part of a tribe, and both paved their ways for being more economically successful and themselves “marrying out” of their tribes. My mother and her brother were the first in the family to go to college, when tuition was free. My mother had a long and fulfilling career as a city planner and social entrepreneur.
My Father’s Irish-Catholic and French Canadian Roots
My dad’s family is somewhat mysterious to me because he died when I was young and my grandparents died when I was even younger. I have to speculate more about my father’s family. I know that for centuries Ireland was an extremely poor country that was treated as a colony by the British and that there was a massive Irish immigration in the 1840s that led to a million Irish peasants immigrating to the US in less than two decades (McGoldrick, 2005). The genocide and emigration of millions of Irish peasants of that generation clearly left its imprint in Irish families for generations. (Hayden, 1998). I know that my grandparents had a lot of shame about their Irish heritage and poverty. My grandpa Tony, who was half French Canadian (which is where I get my last name), had a lot of frustration about class issues. One thing I do know is that some of my grandfather’s relatives were wealthy feather bed merchants who lost their fortune during the Great Depression and burned their factory in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to collect insurance money. My understanding is that my grandpa Tony, who worked all his life for Con Edison, resented their lack of upward mobility.
My father was the only child of Mary and Tony DuBrul, and had a disease called Cystic Fibrosis which made his childhood very hard, he spent a lot of it in hospitals and went through being in lots of pain and being disabled. Because of this he had a strong sense of being an underdog and being in solidarity with the underdogs of the world. My dad was beaten by nuns in Catholic school and it converted him into a lifelong atheist. He was involved in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, and gravitated towards Socialist politics in college. Like my mother, he took advantage of the free college tuition in New York City, and felt indebted to the system that allowed him to rise above his poverty. He was a writer and political strategist in the Democratic Party and he wrote books about economics and corruption in New York City politics.
My Step-Mother’s Communist Roots — Both Ashkanazi and Coal Mining Scottish
My step-mother was raised by Communists who met in New York amidst the Peekskills Riots in 1949 (Walwik, 2002). My grandpa’s family were Communist Jews who lived in Jackson Heights, Queens and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His father’s family escaped the Kishkenev Pogroms in Poland and they had a strong secular Jewish Internationalist identity. My grandmother was raised in Altoona, Pennsylvania, the daughter of Scottish immigrant coal-miners. She ran away from home in the early years of WWII when she was 15, moved to New York City, became a secretary and joined the Communist Party. My grandparents were both blacklisted actors before my grandpa joined the plumbers union, and then they relocated as a family to San Jose, California in the 1960s with three young children.
Their Communist affiliations are significant because they raised my step-mother with a sense of being part of an international movement – rather than seeing themselves as Jewish or Scottish or American, they saw themselves as part of the International Working Class.
My step-mother grew up working in the United Farm Workers union and in many ways was raised culturally Mexican – baptized Catholic as a child, she was the union leader Ceasar Chavez’s right hand aid when she was a young teenager, groomed by the union leadership to be the lawyer for the UFW. By the time she graduated from law school in the early 1970s there were political shifts in the union and she was purged. She married my father when I was eight years old and she was in her early 20s.
Personal Family Dynamics I Carry With Me
Bowen conceptualized the family as an emotional unit, a network of interlocking relationships best understood when analyzed within a multigenerational or historical framework (1974). Reflecting on where I come from, I am struck by the emotional role of sickness in my family life: through my grandma Sarah on my mom’s side, to my father, to me. My mom, who was raised to me a caretaker to her mother, left home early (it was unthinkable to leave home before marriage in her culture) and ended up taking care of a sick man (my father) before deciding she didn’t want to do it anymore and divorced him. In my life I’ve struggled with a complicated “psychiatric illness” labeled as bipolar disorder that has some biological origins, but also is clearly the result of my complicated upbringing. It is also very powerful for me to see how in one generation my mother’s family went from all living on the same block to being scattered all over the country. I’ve become more conscious that living in a small apartment with my mom I always had the sense of being lonely and alienated but I didn’t fully grasp.
My father’s sickness had a huge effect on me: he always thought he was going to die so he really appreciated his life. I inherited both of those qualities and lived a wild life when I was younger and never thought I was going to live this long. Even though I was raised with traditional middle class values I dropped out of school and traveled and lived a lot more free and wild than anyone in my family ever had.
Movement Identities and Unconscious Replays
It is striking to see how all three of my parent figures stepped out of their ethnic family backgrounds and embraced larger political and social movements. My mom, who was greatly affected in the early 1960s by the John F. Kennedy campaign for president, came to embrace her identity as a public servant working for the “public good.” My father, who found his identity in the labor movement and Civil Rights Movements, embraced Democratic Socialism as an ideal and an intellectual community. My step-mother, who came of age in the United Farm Workers union fighting for “La Causa” stayed involved in labor politics and fighting for the rights of workers as a union lawyer.
As a teenager I rebelled from what I saw as hypocritical politics divorced from real life and found a community with the squatters and anarchists and punks on the Lower East Side, which at the time was a thriving subcultural center. Because I felt like where I came from was soulless and alienating, I unconsciously replicated many traits of my cultural heritage by finding a subculture to belong to which felt like home. I gravitated towards people who felt like they were different than everyone else. The core identity of our community was of outsiderness and being oppressed by the larger world. We put obscure insignias on our clothes that were just for each other. We had a special diet that separated us from others. We had traditions that led back to Europe that were veiled in mystery. We listened to hard-to-penetrate music and read obscure publications that stayed within our scene. On Friday and Saturday nights, we’d go to these buildings on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and get together and sing and dance and eat food. And there was even, I dare say, some sense of being chosen, of being better than others because we were closer to a set of truths than the mainstream population. I clearly was longing for having a culture of my own that was special and different, so I sought it out and found it with the punks. Imagine my surprise as an adult when I realized how Jewish I was acting! I was rebelling from my White culture and creating an imagined sense of ethnicity with the scraps of the culture around me (Hebdige, 1995).
Class Identity and Confusion
All three of my parent figures were raised working class and all rose to the middle or upper middle class. My mom frequently refrains “not bad for a plumbers daughter from the Bronx” when she talks about things like the pool in her country house in the Catskills. My dad had a lot of class rage, partially inherited from his own father who felt cheated out of an inheritance lost during the Great Depression. My father also spent his money like he was dying and was bankrupt by the time he actually died.
I was raised with very mixed messages about class and money. While I grew up in a middle class neighborhood, both my parents maintained aspects of their working class identities that rubbed off on me, there were many things I didn’t take for granted. At the same time, there were a lot of things I did take for granted as a kid: I was the only child and I got a lot of attention and a lot of presents on holidays. But discovering the squatter community when I was 14 changed my perspectives really fast. Suddenly I was meeting people from all walks of low life: folks who grew up in the foster care system, runaways from abusive homes, drug addicts and prostitutes, “crazy” homeless people. I felt much more comfortable around the “fucked up” people I was hanging out with than the people from my own middle class life and school. Due to a mix of my bohemian lifestyle and my periodic psychotic breaks that landed me in mental hospitals, I rarely had a traditional work life and I’ve had to carve my own path that has not looked like the success that was expected of me.
My relationship to class has been, and continues to be confusing. I remember my dad telling me to never trust rich people but he had expectations that I go to Harvard. I remember being a teenager, so ashamed of living with my mom in a doorman building that I wouldn’t tell any of my squatter friends where I lived. I remember as a young teenager the nervous breakdown my grandpa Jack had when he retired because he didn’t know what to do with himself. He could barely walk because he’d worked on his knees for 50 years. I remember swearing to myself that I’d never work a regular job. I remember my Communist grandparents disgustedly telling me I was a middle class kid, i.e. “not part of the family.” I think the crux of my class issues are that for so many years my identity was wrapped up in being part of being oppressed, and it was hard to sit with all the privileges I have. I still haven’t found my power in leading with my privileges, I still catch myself hiding them sometimes and it’s a blindspot. But sometimes I’m ashamed that I’m 40 years old and still struggling to support myself, that my mom is paying for my education when so many people all around me are racking up so much debt. I wonder when I’m going to give up beating myself up about it.
My discovery of political and cultural movements as a teenager was my way of building a chosen family, and most of the people in my chosen family have really hard relationships with their blood families. I think being an only child leaves me with a lot of room to grow as I learn to work with families with siblings. I also think I have a lot of experience working with a lot of intense people. I think my White identity leaves me with room to grow when working with people of color, but I also think I’m a lot more aware of it than a lot of White people. I’ve spent a lot of time in recent years thinking about how oppression both has the potential to sensitize us to other’s suffering, and how it creates blind spots that make us act out the role of the oppressor all over again on someone else. I’m still figuring out what it means to be a Jew, or a White person, or a White, Jewish Social Worker.
Two years ago I moved back to New York City after 20 years of living away from it. My decision to return had much to do with finding my roots and making peace with where I come from. I’m still in the midst of that process. The New York City I’ve returned to feels way more brutal and stark than the one I left as a young man. The gentrification taking place in Manhattan and the outer boroughs–the enormous influx of upwardly mobile mostly light skinned people displacing local residents of color–is not only ugly and obviously getting worse, but I can’t find an affordable place to live and it’s looking like I’m going to have to ask my mom for money and I’m so pissed about it.
My decision to go back to social work school is very wrapped up in a commitment to not only helping individuals and families, but it really is about building a strong, healthy social justice movement to fight for changes in the system and a better world. This is obviously partially a legacy from my upbringing, but it’s also the result of a lifetime of watching people have such a hard time working together because of all of our traumas and misunderstandings. I have come to see how issues of identity: race, class, gender, and sexuality, can tear movements apart the same way my mom’s family all ended up going separate ways. I can see how doing this kind of genogram work can help to clarify where we come from and share it with others. It has been personally useful to do all this hard thinking.
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