Amber and I are at my parent’s house in supposedly idyllic Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for the weekend. While drinking my morning coffee, I scanned today’s headline in the local morning paper: “Police accuse man, 33, of killing his girlfriend.” The subhead says, “3 children in house at the time.” It’s not clear if any of the children are related to the boyfriend, but we do know that the 12-year old girl who ran screaming hysterically to the next door neighbors for help is the now-dead girlfriend’s daughter. Before killing his girlfriend, the boyfriend, who the police believe was drunk, punched the 12-year old girl and kicked her in the mouth. The couple lived in southern Lancaster County, which is known as a heavily working class area.
Then on the back page I found the headline, “Ohio teen played major role in high school drug ring.” The story, by the AP, says that the 17-year old boy from an affluent suburb outside of Cincinnati, was “one of the biggest drug dealers in the Cincinnati area.” He had been dealing drugs since at least 15, but managed to stay under the radar for a long time by selling pot out of his house. Where were the parents? The story doesn’t tell us if anyone else in his family knew about it, but we do learn that he was living with his single mother. Apparently, he had no dad around to look out for him.
Then, I opened the paper to the front page of the local section, where I read about a 36-year old area man who pleaded guilty to the shooting death of his then-estranged wife’s boyfriend. His 28-year old ex-wife said that “It was almost like if he couldn’t have me, nobody could.”
After telling my mother about the story of the boyfriend who killed his girlfriend, she told me that Ron, the biological father of my younger brother and sister — my parents adopted them last year — has been on a drinking binge since getting out of prison. His wife, Gloria — who is also the mother of my adopted brother – called my mom last night to tell her about it; she is worried about her husband. Gloria doesn’t live together with Ron all the time, because she has a one-year old daughter, Madison, by another man, and she is not allowed to be with Ron when she has Madison (which is every other week). But Gloria sees her husband as often she can. And of course, there’s no way to know whether Gloria is acutally obeying the state’s orders by not living with Ron when she has Madison. You can imagine that Madison’s grandma (the father’s mother, and incidentally, a long-time friend of my mother) must be worried sick for the safety of her grandchild, knowing that her grandchild could be in contact with an unrelated boyfriend who just got out of prison for drug possesssion and theft, lost his kids, and is drinking heavily.
Then, as I was getting ready to go downstairs to the basement and begin work, my adopted brother, Justin (Ron and Gloria’s biological son), pulled me aside, saying that he needed to warn me about something. He said that Ron has threatened to kill Gloria, and to stalk my brother and kidnap him. (My brother wasn’t being dramatic; the police actually found a letter from him saying just that). “I just wanted to let you know in case you see him,” he said.
That was my morning. All sobering reminders of the worst that can happen, and often does happen, when families break down. And the interesting thing to me is that, for all the debates about the “good divorce” and “evolving family structures,” or the reminders about the majority of children who turn out just fine, that I hear about from elite sociologists and journalists, I rarely (if ever) hear family breakdown talked about in those terms among the ordinary people that I know in Lancaster. Instead, they talk about it in terms of … well, family breakdown. They tend to see it as a tragedy that calls for healing, not a new family structure that requires normalization. And, of course, we shouldn’t pretend that all instances of family breakdown lead to an egregious problem like murder, violence, etc. — but we would be naive to pretend that these things are unrelated in way too many instances.
*All names in my family’s story have been changed to protect their identity.