When I was growing up, my family had two regular Sunday activities. The first was going to church. The second was the weekly ritual of family council, a meeting which all family members were expected to attend. (It helped that there were usually treats at the end.)
Family council could go on for hours and hours. The length of the meeting was at least partly due to the fact that so many of the members of my family (including myself) find it rather difficult to stay on-topic for even five minutes at a stretch. One regular feature of the meeting was scheduling, which involved going through each day of the week and having everyone report what s/he had going on, so that my mother could ensure that it was all on her calendar and transportation and such could be worked out. Yet after forty-five minutes of lively discussion we could easily still be on Monday, because the conversation kept getting sidetracked by stories, silly comments, and arguments.
Making off-topic comments in this manner was referred to in family lingo as “flakking.” One week my sister Eve, who kept advocating the radical idea of shorter and more efficient meetings, decided to give people “flak points” whenever they engaged in the behavior. She dutifully took notes throughout the meeting. I don’t think anyone was surprised, however, when the number one flakker turned out to be not one of the children, but my mother.
If you wanted to contribute to the family discussion in these meetings, you generally had to forego any pretense of politeness or waiting for others to have their turn. You couldn’t wait for a break in the conversation because there weren’t any; your choices were to remain silent, or to interrupt. You then had to talk very fast before someone else interrupted you, and you also had to talk very loud, in order to drown out the person whom you were interrupting. To this day, I notice that when I’m around my family I talk with greater volume and speed than I do in any other context.
For a while we had a list on the refrigerator where people could write down issues that came up during the week which they’d like to have addressed at family council. After my sister Amalthea made extensive use of the list (understandably, given her position as the youngest child), a rule was added that each family member could only bring up two issues per week. People were encouraged to speak in terms of general problems, instead of recounting past detailed stories which illustrated just how evil a particular sibling wasâ€” in other words, to say, “can we discuss the problem of people taking things without permission” instead of indignantly relating what happened last Tuesday. However, this usually played out along the lines of someone saying, “I don’t think that people should be allowed to get away with not helping with the dishes” or “people need to stop saying ‘shut up'”–at which point one of her sisters would correctly deduce that by “people” the speaker meant specifically her, and would respond that perhaps people shouldn’t act in such obnoxious ways that one had no choice but to tell them to shut up.
Family council introduced me at a young age to the difficulties involved in establishing an accurate historical record of an event, as the accounts of participants sometimes differed drastically. While one person would remember an altercation with a sibling as involving a smack hard enough to nearly put her in the hospital, the other would only have a vague memory of being in the same room and perhaps “lightly touching” the first person.
These meetings also honed my debating skills, as we tackled a wide range of issues: at what hours and in what rooms it was acceptable to play musical instruments; at what times watching television was allowed, and who got to control the remote; whether chores were being distributed equitably; and one of my personal favorites: whether it would be safe for me to own pet hamsters, given the possibility that they might escape and chew up my brother Ziff’s baseball cards.
In a psychology class I once took as an undergrad, we read about different family styles: permissive, authoritarian, democratic, etc. I temember trying to figure out into which group my family of origin might fit. But I really wasn’t sure. They didn’t have a category for anarchy.