Orphaned as group, the four Welch siblings - Amanda, Liz, Dan, and Diana - endured sometimes gruesome mistreatment by adults to reform their family as a nurturing, therapeutic unit.
The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 28, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.
Family as Therapy, Rather than Family Therapy
In a remarkable book, The Kids are All Right, Liz Welch describes how she and her three siblings reconstituted their family after the deaths of both their parents.
Although all four children - two older sisters (Liz was second in seniority to Amanda), a brother (Dan), and a much younger sister (Diana) - displayed a variety of psychological and addictive issues even while their parents were alive, the four pulled together over time in a way that was intensely therapeutic for all of them.
The Welches, all of whom contribute their perspectives to the book, don't speak of their experiences in psychological terms, None of them sought therapy, even under extreme psychological duress. Yet all of them developed emotionally through their relationships with one another.
Their father died in a car accident, possibly related to drinking, and he left the family badly in debt due to business misjudgments - or worse. Their mother, a TV soap opera actress who succumbed to cancer, had a tendency to fall apart under stress and to rely on her children to take over essential family functions.
Liz was the greatest beneficiary - as well as worst victim - of this premature adulthood. She early on took over managing the household and caretaking for her siblings. She showed some psychological dysfunctions: for instance, she had sex as a teen to overcome her sense of inadequacy and to please boys. She also had a few excess drug and alcohol episodes.
But her older sister, Amanada, and her younger brother, Dan, had serious substance abuse problems. Dan was often in trouble at school, where he dealt drugs. He once described to Liz having taken 5½ acid tabs - saying that he understood taking six was the equivalent of creating a psychosis. Typically, Liz - who was dealing with adjusting to college herself - jumped up and hugged her brother, communicating passionately how much she cared about him.
Amanda also frequently devoted herself to intoxication - except when she either had to host or visit her younger sister, Diana. When their mother died when she was eight, Diana (Di) was sent to live with a stern religious family. Her foster mother regularly abused and belittled her by calling her ugly and forcing her - among other things - to eat from a dirty dog bowl.
But her spirit was never broken, and the mother (years later) bitterly turned Di back to Amanda - who had by then settled down on a farm in Virginia with her boyfriend and eventual husband. Amanda was thus in part rescued by her motherly duties towards her sister - as she also provided a home base for the entire clan.
Liz was an achiever and an explorer. As soon as she turned 18, she left her own somewhat problematic family placement (the father assumed an inappropriate - although not overtly sexual - intimacy with her) to become an au pair in France. Although this and other situations didn't work out as she hoped, Liz was always game and always coped.
Adults in upper-middle class Connecticut and environs do not emerge looking good in this portrait. One classmate of their father's from Johns Hopkins agreed to take on Dan - then simply bowed out with a present of a tennis racket. The substitute mother Dan was placed with - a colleague of their mother's - was too busy with her own bachelorette lifestyle to do much mothering of the needy boy.
Their joint memoir is a tribute to how the family survived through playing interlocking caretaking and care-giving roles. Dan and Amanda did not join AA and announce that they were in recovery. Instead, Dan's reaction when confronted with a favorite uncle and aunt's cutting up their own sister, another aunt, expresses what the Welches' love and support for one another was like:
"I would never talk that way about one of my sisters. I worshipped them and the time we spent together. . . Liz's self-confidence made me feel human, and Amanda always made me feel safe."
The boy's all right. In fact, they're all okay.