“Dysfunctional” Vs “Functional” Families and Success


I was up in Ashland a few weekends ago for a writer’s conference hosted by Jessica Morrell, with keynote speaker Lidia Yuknavitch, but that’s not what I want to write about. The conference was great, but my conclusion on that weekend is that often the universe is pulling us in certain directions, but not for the reasons we expected. Every adventure plants new seeds.

While I was up there, I decided to knock one off a list of indie music documentaries I’m determined to watch.

Dig! is available streaming for free, so I watched it while trying to decompress from the writing conference, though it ended up making me think even more about topics that had come up in the writing conference. Yuknavitch, author of the books “Chronology of Water” and “Dora: A Headcase,” read an essay she was writing about how being on the ground and not in the limelight is a valid place, how the limelight is great and all but isn’t the end all,  not something that makes us real or not, though the world would have us believe if we aren’t successful in pop culture we are invisible. Morell spoke to us about the business side of writing: How to find the right markets for our book, making sure we keep in mind market trends.

The juxtaposition of limelight versus “the ground,” is the theme of this documentary about the Dandy Warhols and The Brain Jonestown Massacre, two bands that were in their rise in the mid-90s. I happened to miss both of them during that time, so didn’t know much about them or their history.

The lead creators/singers of each band, Courtney Taylor of The Dandy Warhols and Anton Newcombe of The Brain Jonestown Massacre, had a jaded friendship/rivalry for many years. What ends up being played out again and again is the contrast between the family life of the members Taylor’s band and the members of Newcombe’s band, and this, in my opinion, really fucked up idea that because the members of Taylor’s band came from happy, married, American-dream families, they became uber successful.

I call bullshit.

Newcombe, who appears to be the more talented of the two, was extremely dysfunctional and chaotic, came from a broken family, and never “made it big,” but put out 12 albums on his own and continued to tour independently on his own long after no label would touch him again due to his destructive behavior. Seemed every time Newcombe got in the limelight and started to gain wordly success, he sabotaged it.

Newcombe’s opinion on the matter in interviews is that he always stayed true to his art and many musicians were influenced by him, but won’t admit it, i.e. The White Stripes. He credits his core vision as something that will continue to influence musicians for a long time hence, whereas Taylor’s pop music… well.

I don’t know. It reminds me of comparing apples and oranges. Success is kind of arbitrary. Numbers are just numbers and they constantly fluctuate. One of the members of The Dandy Warhols states that you can’t start a revolution if you’re underground. Speaking from a station of worldly success. Seeking success at all costs. It just makes me sick to see so many clips of the Dandy Warhols going on about how they are successful because of their happy families and Newcombe is not because his wasn’t.

It’s just bullshit.

Sure, people from broken homes have that much farther to climb to overcome patterns they’ve learned, nurturing they didn’t get, belief systems that don’t serve them, and yes, this may keep them from getting big in the world’s eyes due to having to go on inner pilgrimages and the like, but isn’t this what art IS for many people? A way to express, vent, go inward, make sense of chaos and confusion and a crazy tumultuous world that makes absolutely no sense at times?

This American dream fallacy is driving people into the ground with false expectations and fantasies of what SHOULD be.

I have never met a perfect person, and often, the artists I am most inspired by were the most incapable of handling their personal shit, but made art that changed the world. Sometimes, we break under the weight of our artistic mission. Look at Picasso, Nietsche, Rilke, Cobain, Morrison, Joplin…

Maybe you can chalk it all off to dysfunctional families in the case of tortured artists, a climb up from treachery and nothing to lose, but those people were SUCCESSFUL. They changed the game.

I don’t know.

It pissed me off and made me think. I can’t really wrap my head around it all right now, all I know is that broken people have always been the people I’ve sought out and been attracted to, because they have the best stories and talents, they are people I can relate to. Maybe always will be. The lie of perfect people–sorry, they don’t exist. Beauty comes from the most twisted places sometimes.


  1. Great post. It’s being broken that makes us whole; and in insanity we just might find sanity. The “ideal” “perfect” family doesn’t exist. The “American Dream” is a form of porn that’s dangled before our eyes as some “ideal”.

    Better to have an “imperfect” yet living life, than some “perfect” and “secure” life that stifles. Peace!

  2. A lot of speakers use circumstantial evidence to “prove” their theory. They can swear up and down that the state of the family and it’s level of social function directly correlates to success or lack thereof, but it’s as you stated, bull.

    Too many variables go into this kind of conclusion, for one, what a functional upbringing is. Get five people in the same neighborhood in the US to agree on that and I will bake you the world’s largest cookie.

    It vexes me to no end when people pull out charts and graphs on subjective abstracts and claim anything like it’s words to live by, a ruler to measure by, etc.

    Functional families are also often families that are better at burying their laundry. We all deviate from the social norms, some just more obviously than others..

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