You Have Hurt Us, But We Aren't Going to Tell the World: On Family Loyalty in a Revolutionary Age
In the summer of 2014, I met with a cousin of mine in a coffee shop in West Los Angeles. It was the first time I had seen him in over a year, since my spectacular loss of my dignity, my marriage, my job, my health, my reputation.
I was dreading this meeting. We made small talk at first, if talk about the health of our mothers can ever be small. After a few minutes, my cousin asked how I was doing. I gave him an update – I had a little job as a bookkeeper, I was seeing the children several times a week, I was going to lots of 12 step meetings, and I was staying offline. He smiled, and praised my efforts.
I looked him in the eye, and told him – on his own behalf, and in his capacity as the senior man of our generation – that I understood how shocked, angry and disappointed the entire family must be. I told him how sorry I was for the embarrassment and worry I caused for so long.
My cousin shook his head. “Disappointed and angry, yes. Not shocked, Hugo. You’re a grown man, and we’ve… seen a lot of this from you before. Just never to this extent.”
I tried to hold his gaze, and to not hang my head. I felt pinpricks, but no tears came.
“We all read the L.A. Magazine article. All of us. It was very upsetting. Remember, Hugo, we had asked you not to do that interview. We said no good could come from talking to journalists in your condition.”
I told him how right he was. By the summer of 2014, that article had become what it is still is today – the first return on a Google search of my name, a well-written takedown of a man I scarcely recognized. (I’m not going to link to it, but you can find it in two seconds.) It was filled with partial truths, but no lies; I was, at least to some degree, the man the 5,000 brutal words declared I was. (The fact that I was drugged up on Klonopin and Seroquel when I gave the interview didn’t change that I had given it, even if it was journalistic malpractice to speak to an intoxicated man and relate his pronouncements as if they had been made whilst sober.)
My cousin continued. “I didn’t want to have coffee with you to tell you how we feel about what you’ve done. We already know how much you beat yourself up. What I’m here to say is that we hope you do better, and we still all believe in you.”
Now, my tears came.
“And here’s the thing, Hugo. If you don’t make it, our concern is for your children. They are our cousins, and they are part of the future of this family. Our focus is going to come off you a little bit, and we are going to do what we can for Heloise and David. Not because we don’t still love you, but because, if anything happens to you, we want to make sure they know they have a home with us.”
I thanked him.
A few minutes later, we shook hands and said goodbye. My cousins have been as good as promised. There are still some family members who are uneasy with me personally, but they are always kind, if a bit more formal than they once were. These same family members are lovely to my children, and to their mother, and to my fiancée.
I thought about this family meeting as I read about Adam Kinzinger. Kinzinger is the Illinois Republican who has been a staunch anti-Trumper, a voice in the wilderness crying out against the vulgarization of his once dignified party. Kinzinger voted for impeachment, and for that, was not only censured by his local GOP, but was the recipient of a hand-delivered letter signed by 11 of his evangelical cousins.
“Oh my, what a disappointment you are to us and to God!” they wrote. “You have embarrassed the Kinzinger family name!”
This wasn’t a private letter; the Kinzinger relations on the far right contacted the media to make sure that the world knew that they had disowned their cousin for his moderation.
My friends on the left no doubt think Kinzinger is a better man than most of his party, and we perhaps feel empathy for his loneliness. At the same time, we gleefully devoured a book by Donald Trump’s niece, a tell-all about that grotesquely unhappy family. At the same time, we were delighted when six siblings of Arizona Republican Paul Gosar issued a letter (and paid for advertisements) publicly supporting his Democratic opponent. (Gosar won anyway.)
In the modern world, the experts advise one to wear one’s family loyalties lightly. If you come from a background of abuse, be it emotional or sexual, physical or spiritual, no reasonable person in 2021 will tell you to keep it quiet for your family’s sake. Modern psychology rests in no small part on the principle that the greatest traumas of our lives were usually inflicted on us by those who shared our blood or our name, and that part of becoming a healthy adult is successfully differentiating oneself from one’s kin. In 2021, as families tear themselves apart over Donald Trump or COVID, hardly anyone dares suggest that blood ties are particularly important anymore.
The Woke on the Left and the Q on the Right (as represented by the Gosar siblings and the Kinzinger cousins) share the principle that family is less important than ideological correctness. What matters isn’t how we’re related -- it’s the principles you espouse. Your family are those who share your worldview, no matter how extreme or bizarre; your family is not those you grew up playing with every summer.
I wonder how long it will take some people to find out that shared politics is no substitute for a lifetime of memories. Perhaps they never will, or if they do, will never admit it.
I am grateful to have grown up in a clan that knew the difference between private rebuke and public condemnation. My family made it clear to me that they were disappointed and angry and embarrassed, but would not shun me or throw me away. If I couldn’t survive my own self-loathing, they calmly made it clear that they would help take care of my children.
We are in a revolutionary season, in which the social forces around us declare that now is yet another one of those times for choosing. Which side are you on? Light or dark? Social justice or white supremacy? Donald Trump or the wicked pedophilic cabal? We are contemptuous of middle ground of any sort, eager to sort ourselves into one flock or another, even if that sorting means saying goodbye to moms and sisters and beloved uncles.
I remember the exact moment I decided I wasn’t a Christian anymore. I’d had a brief falling in to serious evangelicalism, and attended Assemblies of God and Foursquare Churches. It was in the latter of these one day in 2000 that I heard a pastor preach on Luke 12:51-52. In that passage, Jesus says,
“Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division. For from now on five in one house will be divided: three against two, and two against three.”
This was in the halcyon days of the late Clinton Administration, when peace and prosperity seemed a good deal more abundant than they do now. Yet even in those happier times, the pastor warned that to be a Christian would mean sometimes choosing another family, one’s church family, over one’s own kin. “We are called in the commandments to honor our parents,” he said, “but we worship God first.” If there must be division, the pastor said, to follow Jesus meant sometimes following him out the front door of your family home and never looking back.
Right, I thought. I think I’ll keep the idol of my family, thanks. I never went back to that church.
I write so often about my family because they are, in the end, what has saved me. I don’t have a God, or a particular community. I’ve burned through a lot of women, to put it bluntly, though I hope that my marriage to Victoria will be lasting. I’ve had good friends, but blown through plenty of them too.
My kin are, in the end, the rock on which I stand. (Or sit, or lie in the fetal position, but you get the idea.) The greatest pain in my life has come from knowing I disappointed and worried them. I cannot for a moment imagine throwing anyone of them away, or publicly denouncing them, or even ceasing to embrace them, because of what they said or did.
The reporter for L.A. Magazine tried to get another of my cousins to speak critically of me. This cousin, who was furious with my behavior, hung up on the reporter. I am sorry that Adam Kinzinger’s relations do not share those same loving principles.