family secrets

The nice thing about having my own newsletter is that I don’t have to worry if anything here is timely or reasonably pegged to current cultural events. So, I’m going to write about The Americans now, because I failed to pitch a story about The Americans in any kind of decent amount of time (or at all) before its series finale, and despite having missed the pitch cut-off, am still left with a lot of feelings about The Americans. I was out of town when the last few episodes of the show aired. I didn’t get back home until almost a month after the final, and because I couldn’t watch it online where I was, I became grouchily obsessed with spoilers, as though I had transformed into the reddit-dwelling men about whom I too frequently and conveniently make jokes, ready to fight the entire internet if it told me what fictional thing happened to a fictional character, played by an actor who does not give a shit about me but whom I care more about than several immediate family members (I refer to basically every actor playing a speaking role on The Americans). I care so goddamn much about The Americans that for the first time in my entire life, I cared about spoilers like some kind of big nerd. Anyway, my point is that, if you haven’t watched The Americans, you can still read this and not get spoiled for anything although, seriously, you should watch The Americans

The basic premise of the show (all of this is revealed in the first fifteen minutes of the first episode) is that Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are, in addition to being my actual real wife (yes both of them), Russian spies working undercover as American travel agents. They live in the suburbs of DC, have two kids and a house with a yard and a garage; in short, they look like the American Dream, like the generic idea of family. The show’s plotlines build out from the tension of maintaining this double life. 

Their two kids, Paige and Henry, are very young when the show starts, and respectively high school and college-aged when the show ends. I’ve always said that I thought that the way to read the show was to think of it as being told from the kids’ perspective. Spy shows and crime shows, television about people with double lives and terrible secrets, are perennially popular in this supposed golden age of television, or era of prestige TV, or whatever other made-up thing you want to call it. Really, this type of television is maybe more than anything else a continuation of a certain strain of American mid-twentieth-century theater. Shows like Mad Men and The Sopranos, so often compared to novels, are more accurately mega-length Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill plays, full of the inescapability of the past and the betrayals of fathers, the heavy secrets of family, the measuring of inadequate personal identity against the false promises of America and the march of its history, all told through slick, male interiors and revelatory monologues around which everything including the light pauses and stills. This sort of television is obsessed with both family and secrets but, in a more cinematic tradition, it loves to cast them into the languages of glamorous crime with which less highbrow movies and television have long been particularly concerned. Television in particular loves to mash these two genres together - the problems of love, family, and community, the death-of-a-salesman stuff with which we all in our small and unnoticed ways struggle, paired with plots out of James Bond and John Le Carré. Killing Eve, which you should also watch exactly right now if you haven’t yet, is another wonderful example of this juxtaposition, casting issues of desire, sexuality, complacency, and vague dissatisfaction with the scope of one’s life into the language of glittering international spy-assassin drama. The trappings of sexy spy stuff are fun on their own, in the same way the trappings of a hedge fund, or a 1960s ad agency, or a mafia empire, are fun, but in each of these cases they serve as a language in which to to ask questions about how we are or are not able to live with, alongside, up against other people, how we might navigate the intimate relationships toward which life pushes us.

I’ve written before, in this letter, about how I’ve always read The Americans as being told from the kids’ point of view, even when it doesn’t make any sense with the show’s plot and clearly is not what the writers intended. But it’s an instructive way to think about how and why we tell stories; imagining your parents to be spies is appealing in the same way that putting these domestic and existential crises into the language of sexy spies and action thrillers is appealing. One thing that occurs for many of us in childhood is a dawning realization that we know almost nothing about our parents (or whichever family raises us, which as often as not is not our parents or even blood relatives). Most of what these adults do, what they care about, what they love, and what has happened to them is privileged information to which we do not have access. What our parents do choose to share with us is watered down, edited and rewritten, full of holes. We have to invent the rest. Imagining The Americans from Paige and Henry’s perspective means imagining that little or none of the spy stuff, the sexy and sometimes outlandish action-thriller sections of the show, really happens. Instead, the show is a story two kids have invented in order to understand their parents.

As kids we have almost no reference for what might actually go on in the life of someone our parents’ age. Our scope is limited to what we learn from things like television and movies and news headlines. When I was a kid for a long time I thought each of my parents was having an affair with any friend they brought over to the house more than twice. I imagined that every fight was about something neat and dramatic as the kind of thing you might read about or see on TV. It is possible to read the spy plots of The Americans as the same kind of thing: Two kids inventing answers to explain the relatively mundane inconsistencies or gaps in what they know about their parents. Because they are living in America at the height of Cold War Russia sensationalist paranoia, they cobble together a plotline from the available messages about the world around them - their parents must of course be Russian spies, killing and seducing and betraying one another, wearing disguises and participating in car chases. We fill in what we don’t know with the tropes available; we build the world out of whatever material we have. Not offered answers, we invent our own, coloring in the picture with fictions and deciding that those fictions are the place where we live, the material from which we were made. 

All of these television shows in which the mundanity of marriage and family, desire and stasis, are told through the languages of glamorous crime genres, are performing that same leap. The difference between life and narrative art is the availability of answers - this is why endings are so hard to write. What a relief to have the secret turn out to be something so dramatic and legible, what a relief to find out that all of the gaps were because the people we loved were spies, assassins, con artists, in the mafia, because there was some big visible skeleton hanging in the actual back of the actual closet. These shows are comforting even when awful things happen because the answers are so very real - Phillip and Elizabeth are actually spies, Don Draper is actually a con artist, the people on Billions all are actually doing money crimes (I’m only six episodes into Billions and I get that a big reveal is coming that would probably make a better point in this essay, but please don’t tell me what it is, apparently I once again care about spoilers now). Simply the fact of having such tangible answers, no matter how horrible they are, is what more than anything else turns these shows into fantasy. Our experiences of family in our real lives carry the same sort of big questions but rarely provide concrete answers; in truth most things stay unknown, and the reasons your parents are fighting or your closest friend is suddenly distant either has no answer or has one that you don’t ever really get to know. 

We all have the kinds of gaps in our lives that shows like The Americans dramatize into car chases and wigs. Just because we are close to someone does not mean we are able to be transparent with them, or ever ask them for full transparency. The fact that our parents’ lives existed before we were born makes our parents essentially unknowable. This mystery is the entry point to realizing that anyone we love is to some degree unknowable - their lives before us are a story of which they can offer us only pieces. Anyone we love is more a construct than a reality. I used to tell friends ghosted by people they were dating or going through other difficult similar experiences to “just choose the explanation that makes you most able to move on with your life.” This is iffy advice at best but sometimes it’s the only option, the only forward progress. Most of us do this about our families without even realizing we are doing it; we write the stories, fill in the details, make up an origin myth that makes sense to us from the perspective of who we become, backsolving the equation as best we can.

My friends have started to have kids; in particular the men I was close to in a sort of dirtbag Calvin-and-Hobbes way in my twenties are suddenly becoming dads. One’s son was born in January, another has a child due in August. It’s different and it’s not different, at least not yet. Two friends brought their son to a party a couple weeks ago, and every time someone made a dirty joke or said a bad word we would look guiltily at the baby. “Don’t worry,” his dad said, “he’s not forming conscious memories yet.” We laughed. How much of our lives, though, the memories through which we construct ourselves, the kind of stories we might post as part of a circulating twitter meme to try to prove a coherent self, are inventions curated by our parents or some equivalent adult, offering some anecdotes and keeping back others, painting in walls where walls are convenient until a blank space defines into rooms? Sometimes in conversation, now years removed, one of my parents will reveal some story about things that were going on in their lives, technically in all three of our lives, when I was a kid, casually, assuming I already knew, while for me this new piece of information totally rewrites my understanding of years of events, of causal equations that spread their results all the way up until today. I tell a friend about this later and he says “well yeah, that’s what family is.” So much happens to us without our even knowing it’s happening; so much of the story that creates who we are is a story we do not even get to read. Much of narrative art is the attempt to reconstruct this story, to put something in place that might brick up these gaps, stop the holes where the wind of these un-asked-for revelations gets through. 

Thomas and I watch a lot of this type of television, maybe too much, but no matter how much pain the characters undergo, even shows like The Americans, heart-wrenching as each episode is, feel like a soft place to land. Part of this is the ease and clarity of the answers, that there is no gap between the fictions and what turns out to be true. The other comforting thing about all of these shows, though, is that no one on them, even with the awful drama of spy betrayals and assassinations, infidelity and lies and losses, has any real problems, not really. Everyone has a place to sleep at night, has someone worried about them, has someone waiting to meet them when they fail, has a place to go, enough money to eat, people whom they love alive another day in order to still do unconscionable things and fight about them. Part of the addiction of televised narrative is that it offers a softer and sleeker version of the world - there are real answers to the things we don’t know and the barrier is secrecy, not a fundamental unknowingness. Even when people hurt us our houses are beautiful, there’s always somewhere to go home after things go wrong. There’s always another chance, another act, another episode, More than answers to the secrets, this is the comfort we hope for in stories about family - that the story continues, that there is more of it, waiting to be told and waiting to be known, that there is no eventual emptiness or stoppage point, and that by investigating our parents’ pasts and overturning their secrets, we might go backward and sideways in time, rather than only relentlessly and tragically forward. 

hi friends. this is the subscriber-only version of griefbacon, but please feel free to screenshot, post, or forward this letter, and to recommend it anyone and everyone. If you want to read other stuff I’ve written recently, I have a couple new pieces up here, here, and here.