Summer 1966, age 14
We sat in the back of the rattling ambulance on our way back to Cardiff from the hospital—a journey of ten miles. The nurse had hustled us off, dressed in borrowed pajamas, dressing gowns and cheap slippers.
Across from me, Toody clung close to Dad, quiet and subdued. He looked smaller than usual in his drooping pajamas as though shrunk in the wash. Not quite 13, he was still a child: round baby face, big sad green eyes and shrill voice. We shared a bedroom but since the move to Cardiff 18 months ago, we’d grown apart—or maybe I’d stopped caring. His chirpy manner got on my nerves, so I tuned him out, like other things that bothered me. A lot of things bothered me.
Being fourteen and a half was no fun. I was a stranger in an overgrown body with croaking voice, sparse body hair and morning erections. Nothing seemed to fit. I kept tripping over my feet, bumping into things and feeling miserable for no reason. At every opportunity, I lost myself in the worlds of horror and science fiction: Lovecraft, Poe, Wells, Bradbury, Asimov. Books were comfort and companions. Immersed in fantastical worlds, escaping from the monotonous routines of everyday life, I could just about cope with the discomfort of being me.
The jerky progress of the ambulance shook me out of my reverie. I peered out the small back windows, trying to recognize landmarks, but the streets and houses all looked the same.
“Where are we, Dad?” I asked.
He looked up. “We’re close to Gabalfa. We’ll be home in a little while.” He sounded distracted.
Hunched on the bench opposite, his dressing gown gaping at the neck, Dad looked more washed out than usual. On a good day, I could rely on him to make a throat-clearing noise and expand on any given topic, often at length. He liked sharing useful and useless facts, interspersing his speech with bursts of breathy laughter. Now he looked burdened; I should leave him alone.
Dad was Dad—a familiar presence. His face was striking with bright blue eyes and a neat white goatee dominated by an eagle-hooked nose. That nose was infamous—the Bowen Nose. My brother John and eldest sister Veronica had inherited a similar aquiline beak from Granny’s aristocratic line. The nose looked fierce, but Dad was a quiet man, restrained and hesitant—unless cornered or provoked. In our family, any strong feelings prompted a pacifying joke, an uncomfortable hesitation and finally a full-scale retreat to the garden. Dilly, the youngest sister, dubbed him a typical Cancer—a crab withdrawing into his shell at the first sign of threat.
The ambulance jerked to a stop, the driver open the back doors and I looked out at dreary Whitchurch Road. Just seeing it induced a sick Cardiff feeling in the pit of my stomach: a strong case of nameless dread. A year and a half ago, we’d been living in the Lodge at Ffrwdgrech (frude-grech) in the gentle green countryside outside Brecon. Without warning, we’d been wrenched out of our familiar surroundings and plunked down in a city full of noise, grime and prying eyes. I had no idea why.
Our narrow brick house, one of a row of rentals on Whitchurch Road, was squeezed in between the mean butcher on our left and the deaf people on our right. I didn’t know any of them by sight but I could feel their baleful presence—watching and judging behind twitching lace curtains. No doubt, the arrival of this ambulance was ammunition for gossip, further confirmation of the weirdness of the Evans family.
We were not like other people: not respectable, not quite proper. For one thing, we spoke with upper-class English accents—quite different from our working-class Welsh neighbors. We were also poor. To make it worse, our household was raucous with loud voices and slammed doors; odd-looking visitors appeared any time of day or night with faces black, brown and indeterminate. Most shockingly, we had no mother to take care of the home or keep up appearances. Just to be difficult, Dad planted cabbages instead of flowers in our front garden. None of our neighbors spoke to us.
The rest of the family didn’t care what people thought, but it was torture for me. Voiceless disapproval cast a dark shadow, made me shrivel up inside. Our messy house, poverty and eccentricity embarrassed me to the depths of my being. But weirdly, I was proud of being an Evans, of coming from a long line of minor aristocracy—of being different.
Dad, Toody and I made our way up the brick path to the front door where Dilly, my prickly eighteen-year-old sister, hustled us into the house. From the street, the porch with its Edwardian tiles and stained glass hinted at a kind of faded elegance. Inside, the gloomy passageway told a different story. It smelled musty with discolored blue paint blistered in wandering lines where the damp had risen up inside the wall. To the left, a staircase covered with worn and tatty carpet scraps, rose up beside a narrow passageway. At the end of the passage, a door opened to the central space in the house: the dining room where we ate meals and came together from our separate lives.
The house felt transitory—a corridor between here and there, not a place to settle, not a home. The four of us—Dad, Dilly, Toody and I—camped in the house. A cheap rental, it did not belong to us and we did not belong to it. Besides, we were not a whole family; half of our six siblings were scattered across the globe. My eldest sister, Veronica was in Spain or possibly Morocco; Jeffie, the next sister, lived in New York and John, my older brother was in Dungarvan in Ireland. Of course, Mummy was also in Dungarvan—but we didn’t talk about her.
As soon as we got inside the front door, Dilly laid into Dad: “What the fuck do you think you were doing, Daddy, getting lost at sea. I told you the trip was stupid. You could’ve all been drowned.” Dad cleared his throat and didn’t say anything.
From her ranting, I gathered Dilly was worried about our safety, but mostly she seemed annoyed at having us back. Dilly worked some dead-end job and held the household together, her dreams of being an opera singer fading into fantasy. It wasn’t fun looking after her father and two brothers—three useless males as she described us. To Toody and me, she was a strident voice demanding we stop making a mess and do our chores—but beneath her bossy irritability Dilly’s softer side sometimes peeked out.
“You better go and get dressed. I’m making squigglies; come down when I call.” She gave Toody and me a hard look and then smiled an unexpectedly sweet smile.
I followed Toody up to our shared room, dressed, picked up my most recent book of horror stories and lay on the bed, preparing to disappear. All too soon, from the bottom of the stairs came Dilly’s earsplitting yell, “Moey and Toody—suppertime!” Her operatically trained voice could be heard throughout the house and probably the neighborhood.
Dilly herded us into the kitchen, a frigid, concrete addition at the back of the house. “Serve yourself. The squigglies are on the stove.”
Squigglies was a cheap family favorite: spaghetti with a rich tomato sauce complete with chopped up lamb kidney. I loved the rich meaty smell. As we got our plates, I checked to make sure Toody hadn’t got a bigger serving; that wouldn’t be fair—I was the oldest.
The dining room was the only place we came together, huddled around the gas fire in elegant squalor, as Dad described us. The tiled floor was grimy, the walls a blotchy sky blue from cheap chalky paint. On one wall hung a striking half-size oil portrait of Toody sitting on a sofa, looking rather like a melancholy gnome. Close to it was a smaller portrait of me in a Fidel Castro hat painted in shades of green; I looked grumpy and sick. The pictures, painted by my artist sister Veronica, mirrored the unease that permeated the household.
To one side, pushed up tight to the window looking out at a blank wall six feet away, stood the dining table. Around it crowded an eclectic mix of mismatched chairs, some antique, others simply battered. One alcove was stacked with two sets of the Encyclopedia Britannica, row on row of massive volumes we consulted to resolve questions and disputes. Bookshelves covered another wall overflowing with paperbacks, poetry and classics including a set of Casanova’s sexy memoirs bound in white leather.
We sat down and started eating. Mealtimes were brief affairs; I ate fast. You never knew if the conversation might turn sticky and, with an empty plate, I could ask to be excused, leave the table and get back to my solitary reading.
With four of us around the table, the family was amputated as if missing vital limbs. When we had all been together at the Lodge a few years previously, meals were loud with banter, raucous with teasing comments, everyone talking on top of each other. Even the dining-room table was fascinating. Dad had covered it with a plastic map of the world and we spent our meals discovering new countries and tiny South Sea Islands, exotic places to visit when we grew up. Now half the family was scattered across that map; the rest of us were left behind.
“So, everything was lost,” Dilly said abruptly. I guessed she was referring to money rather than belongings.
Dad tensed. He hated talking about money—it was a non-subject like Mummy.
“Our bags floated away when we capsized. There’s a small chance they’ll get washed up on a beach but it’s unlikely we’ll see them again.”
He relayed the facts in a calm voice without looking up and took a forkful of red spaghetti worms and sauce. As he chewed, his jaw made a loud clicking noise as it moved side to side. He’d broken his jaw and lost a bunch of teeth in a horse racing accident as a young man.
Dilly took the hint and changed the subject. “So who rescued you?”
Toody interrupted, “Dilly, we’re going to be in the newspaper! They took photos of us sitting on my hospital bed.”
“Which newspaper? Can we get a copy?” I asked. This was a safe subject. I’d learned to navigate conversational whirlpools by staying quiet or steering the subject toward less dangerous waters.
Dad ignored the interruption and answered Dilly’s question, helping fill in the missing bits of my memory.
“We got picked up by a German cargo ship. I chatted with the Captain. He saw our smoke signal but because of the tides and the shipping lanes, he couldn’t get to us directly. He had to go all the way in and back out again. It’s a miracle he found us.”
“How long did it take?” Toody asked in a small voice. “I don’t remember.”
“About two or three hours. We were lucky—a little longer and we might not have made it.”
Toody’s face turned pale. Dad didn’t seem to notice and continued, “Nice chap, the Captain. His English was quite good, and we talked about the War and the places I’d bombed.” He gave a dry laugh. Dad had piloted bombing raids on most of the big German cities during the War.
A question nagged at me but I hesitated to speak. Toody put it into words, “What about the Magog? Is it all right? Can we take it out again?”
Dad looked down at his plate. He paused for a few moments. “No, I’m afraid not. When the coastguard towed it into Barry, the canvas got ripped off.”
Toody crumpled as silent tears slid down his cheeks. Dad made ineffectual soothing noises and Dilly was quiet.
My stomach dropped. “Can’t we get some canvas and fix it up? That wouldn’t be a big job, would it?”
“No, it’s not possible, the spars are broken—and there’s no way to get it back from Barry.”
Dad had given up. Leaden with disappointment, angry thoughts rattled around my brain: There must be something he can do. He made the damned thing; he can fix it!
Just as quickly, the angry thoughts slipped away. I couldn’t be upset with Dad for long, especially when he looked defeated. It was useless to say anything; he’d only retreat. Better to let it go. There’d be no more boating trips, no more adventures, nothing to look forward to. It was all gone, lost.
The squigglies were tasteless as we ate in silence. I didn’t even want seconds. Before it got unbearable, Dilly broke the spell. Almost as if talking to herself, she said: “That’s that then. What are the boys going to do for the rest of the summer? I’m working; I can’t look after them.” She examined Toody and me as if we were awkward baggage. “We could ask Aunty Peggy to take them. What do you think Daddy?”
Dad made an affirmative noise.
Dilly continued, “Well that’s settled. I’ll contact Aunty Peggy and you two can take a bus to Abergavenny. Whose turn is it to clean up? Moey, you do the washing up. Toody you can dry.”
“I did it last time,” I blurted. We had a roster for chores, but I hated dishwashing in the cramped kitchen with its narrow porcelain sink. It felt like being abandoned on some icy planet.
Sleep did not come easily. Lying in bed listening to Toody’s quiet breathing, my thoughts went round and round. Memory fragments invaded my mind: peeing into the hospital bottle, Toody crying, Dad looking lost, the girls around our graves. At the fringe of awareness came slippery thoughts, hard to pin down: We nearly died. Why didn’t we die?
One thing was certain: dying was not like I’d thought it would be. The other place was welcoming, comforting—not scary at all.
But why did I scream when the boat came? I could feel the part of me that wanted to stay quietly in that other place; then there was that bit of me desperate to stay alive. My sisters around the graves—that was sad. What did it mean? I hadn’t thought about Mummy or John at all; they never crossed my mind. It was better Mummy stayed away. What about John? Maybe he’d come back this summer.
I tossed and turned, the thoughts swirling like leaves in the wind. Trickier questions snuck in against my will: What about God? I hadn’t prayed! Should I have prayed?
I was meant to be a sort of Catholic, but I hadn’t thought about God or Jesus or any of that religious stuff. Do I really believe in God? The whole Catholic business twisted my stomach into knots. I had to make a decision soon. Best not to think about it.
Eventually sleep dragged me down into the darkness, colonized my dreams with disjointed images of waves and graves, unintelligible words and broken stories. I awoke late in the morning, brain muddled and muddy. All I wanted was to forget.
Family is a blessing—family is a curse. But what is family? It’s not blood relationship—many non-related people consider themselves kin. If I sense the individuals who are most deeply embedded in my psyche, I know them as family. Each person is a node in a powerful feeling web that binds me into a kind of loosely unified entity.
Rather than a bunch of people, think of family as a force like gravity. Gravity holds us down whether we like it or not; it keeps us grounded and stops us floating away. In the same way, family holds us to this earth in a field of relationships. We cannot see it, have only the haziest sense of what it is, but its power affects every aspect of our being.
No matter whether we have contact with its members, we cannot escape family. My dead parents, my scattered siblings, all pop up in the corners of my dreams. Woven into the fabric of my identity, I see my family mirrored in the words I speak, the jokes I make, and particularly in how I feel about myself. The Evans family was the emotional soil in which I germinated and grew. It gave me certain strengths and resilience but parts of my being were sadly malnourished and stunted. Whether we like it or not, our families live inside us; they are part of us.
The Family Unconscious
G. Jung tells us, we are born into the unconscious atmosphere of our families. Like fish swimming in an unseen ocean, we cannot speak of the powerful psychic current swirling around and through us. The family unconscious is vast, more powerful than individual members, and it’s primarily through parents that the unconscious energy is channeled to the child.
It all begins with conception. Luckily, unlike others of my siblings, I was conceived during a relatively benign period in my parent’s marriage. My mother did not actively try to abort me as she did with Toody. She liked being pregnant, so I did not experience that uneasy dread of being unwelcome in the world.
However, within two years, the chaotic and hostile energies spiraling around my parents became the oxygen I breathed. When parents fight, when tension crackles in the air, a child knows their lives are in danger. Imminent threat demands a response and my instinctual reaction was a kind of physical dread. Soon anxiety and tension became a normal part of my self-experience; I could not conceive of any other way of being.
With the newborn’s cry, we breathe in the unconscious atmosphere of our family. It fills our lungs and quickly permeates our being. The language we speak, the thoughts we thinks, the emotions we feel—these are the offerings of our family. We cannot refuse those gifts; to refuse invites rejection and to be rejected means death. We have no choice but to keep breathing, even as the toxic fumes threaten to choke us.
The Family Emotional System
Families evoke powerful and dangerous emotions. Relationship and feelings are two sides of the same coin; we feel most about those we are entwined with. The bonds of family create extraordinary love and extreme abuse. Its gravitational field, its unseen atmosphere binds us together but also serves to keep dangerous urges and emotions in check. Like a seesaw, emotional balance is unsteady, particularly when secrets and trauma are buried in the family’s history.
I was an Evans male and our way was to push disturbing thoughts and feelings down into the dark repository of the undealt-with, the mislaid and forgotten. By age 14, I was adept at repression. The familial atmosphere encouraged me to avoid and forget, just like my father.
Our emotional restrictions were not culturally abnormal. Dad, a child of the upper class, was brought up by a nanny and only saw his mother and father during a set time each day. At age of seven, he was sent off to boarding school at the far end of the country. Sobbing alone in bed night after night, he had to learn how to stop feeling. Like others of his class, he was molded to have the emotionally detached stiff upper lip necessary for founders of the British Empire.
Like my father, I was a semi-motherless child. I yearned for affection but only Jeffie (the second sister) enjoyed physical contact; most evenings when I was young, we’d cuddle up listening to Radio Luxembourg, the first pop music station. As a result, I got teased for being ‘sloppy’, too physically demonstrative, as if affection was a slippery, slimy mess. I soon learned softer feelings should not be expressed; vulnerability could be made fun of; banter was safe. Speaking the word “love” was far too intimate—almost shameful. It just wasn’t done.
Every family has to come to some sort of resolution and adaptation around feeling and expressing emotions. Like the Evanses, many stuff feelings down. Unfortunately, like a buoyant ball held under water, repressed feelings tend to bob up to the surface as anxiety, shame and disturbed dreams. We pay an expensive price for not feeling and not sharing our feelings.
All our forebears were survivors. They lived long enough to pass on their genes and add another eddy to the family unconscious. Family is not only those we know; it is a vast branching prehumen and human tree with roots tunneling deep into the darkest past. We are the latest leaves on the human tree, nourished by the same sap, connected to a fragile twig, partaking of the trees vitality and its sickness.
We were Evanses and that meant something. We could trace 500 years of ancestry. On the walls of Ffrwdgrech House hung the gold engraved family tree stretching back to the 15th century—English Royalty in the top left-hand corner, my grandfather, Major J.D.D. Evans in the top right. In a tiny village church outside Brecon was the ancient Evans moss-covered burial plot. My Grandmother was daughter of Sir George Bevan Bowen, High Sheriff of Pembrokeshire.
In contrast, the Jollys on my mother’s side were upper-middle class, business owners and professionals. My maternal grandfather, Arnold Jolly, was a London barrister. My grandmother’s line, the Learoyds, owned “satanic woolen mills’, employing starving women and children for a pittance. They embodied the dark side of capitalist greed and exploitation.
I carry my portion of ancestral forces. Evanses have a kind of self-effacing superiority; we simply do not belong in the same category as other people. We see ourselves as distinct, different and special—not to be bothered with mundane particulars, such as money. On the positive side, we are physically sturdy and have a deep connection with the land and soil. From my maternal grandfather, Arnold Jolly, I inherited a good mind and spiritual aspirations. The dark side is inherited mainly from the Learoyds: a tendency towards addiction and a need for control.
Do you know your ancestors, their strengths and weaknesses? Can you feel the tug of their dysfunction, their clinging anxieties and sullen depression? Do you appreciate the resilience and talents they have left you? How can we truly understand ourselves, if we do not know our forebears and our heritage?
When we get stuck, unable to move forward psychologically, most likely ancestral forces have trapped us in a strangling embrace. My ambivalence around money and success has deep roots; I had to learn to be vigilant around alcohol and drugs. Knowing I am not guilty for all my flaws is a relief. It allows me to distinguish what are my faults as opposed to those handed down to me.
That does not absolve me of responsibility. I am saddled with ancient psychic forces and my job is to do something about them. If I don’t illuminate the shadow of my ancestors, my children will have to. They’ll struggle with the same burdens, be subjected to the same dark forces. The psychological work we do slows down and even halts the massive snowball of dysfunction rolling down through the generations.
We cannot disown our ancestors—just like can we cannot reject our bones. To remain ignorant of our family and its ancestral patterns is dangerous. Our task is to bring light to our ancestral inheritance and not repeat age-old destructive patterns.
 If You Met My Family, You’d Understand: A Family Systems Primer (2020), Jack Shitama
 Recent research shows that we can directly inherit traits form our ancestors that are related to their experience rather than their genes. Epigenetics is an exciting new lens that focuses the impact of ancestors on our being.