“I wanted to touch them into words:” Examining the Contrasting Roles of Storytelling in Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family and Richard Van Camp’s The Lesser Blessed

August 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

In both Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje and The Lesser Blessed by Richard Van Camp, the male protagonist is deeply affected by a problem-drinking father. In The Lesser Blessed, Larry Sole’s father becomes physically and sexually abusive when he is drunk. As a result, Larry ends up killing his father and lives with graphic and traumatic memories of him. In Running in the Family, Michael Ondaatje’s father’s alcoholism drives his family away and he eventually ends up killing himself in a drunken spell, which prohibits Michael from ever having a relationship with his father. There is a distinct difference in how the men view their fathers: Michael romanticizes the memory of his father while Larry is horribly traumatized by the memory of his father. Their contrasting memories of their fathers influence how they respectively use their storytelling as a coping strategy. Michael uses the act of storytelling in order to bring himself closer to his father and learn more about him through others’ stories, but Larry uses it to externalize his trauma and distance himself from his father. In Running in the Family and The Lesser Blessed, both Van Camp and Ondaatje show how storytelling can be used in contrasting ways to achieve the same goal of closure in order to cope with their problem-drinking fathers.

Both Larry and Michael have problem-drinking fathers who they remember very differently. Larry’s father was in the residential schools and although “he never talked about what had happened there… he always talked French when he drank” (58). Larry’s father refuses to confront the trauma he experienced in the residential schools and uses alcohol to escape the reality of what happened to him. Only when he is drunk is he able to express his trauma by speaking French, and becomes physically and sexually abusive as a result of this release. Larry recalls watching his father sexually abuse both his mother and his aunt and how afterward, Larry would sniff gas with his cousins. Larry discloses that he “wasn’t too crazy about it at first, but after seeing [his] dad to the bad thing to [his] aunt, it took the shakes away” (58). The intergenerational effects of residential schools is clear as Larry must resort to using drugs so that he can escape the trauma he endures because of his father’s alcoholism and subsequent abuse. Larry also suffers from this sexual abuse, and his father “forcing his penis into his son’s mouth… objectifies the child as a vehicle for sexual release, inscribing in Larry a sense of worthlessness in his father’s eyes” (McKegney 212). With this traumatic event Larry describes “[his] hammer, [his] secret tusk; [him] standing over [his] Dad and bringing it down, slamming it down,” because he “wanted to take it away, the sin and dirt and cum and blood in [his] mouth” (Van Camp 78). Larry kills his father because he fears more abuse and feels worthless; he cannot see any other way to save himself and his mother. He recalls the memory of killing his father after being knocked out at the school dance as he “taste[s] blood in [his] mouth where [he’d] bitten [his tongue… [he] could hear [his] father shiver again as [he] brought the hammer down” (77). Tasting the blood again in his mouth brings back the intensely vivid flashback of killing his father as he slips fluidly into this graphic memory. This traumatic occurrence, as well as the memory of his father, is strong in his mind, which is why he is able to so quickly slip back into the scene of the murder in his thoughts.

In Running in the Family, Michael’s experience with his alcoholic father, Mervyn, is different because he was never physically or sexually abused. However, his father’s drinking does have a major effect on his family’s life. “With the first drink, after which he could almost never stop, the wars [between his parents] would begin again,” (Ondaatje 154) and Michael was “too young, and oblivious” to realize what was happening whenever his “father would lapse into one of his alcoholic states” (152). Michael does not remember what his father was like when he was drunk because he was not old enough to understand at the time. As a result, Michael never saw or felt for himself how frustrating having an alcoholic husband and father was for his mother and siblings. Michael feels his life has been “terribly shaped by what went on before him” (161) and as a result of the alcoholism and subsequent divorce, his father was “always separate until he died, away from” Michael and his siblings (154). Michael feels removed from his family life in Ceylon, being the youngest sibling, and regrets not knowing his father better and being closer to him. He realizes that his “loss was that [he] never spoke to [his father] as an adult,” which shows how Michael laments the fact that he missed out on a relationship with his father (161). Mervyn ends up killing himself while drunk one night, leaving Michael only with stories from others to piece together the man his father was and consequently has very few, if any, personal memories of his father. Larry and Michael have very different memories of their problem-drinking fathers. While Larry’s memories are vivid and overwhelming, Michael’s memories are incomplete and mostly made up of what other people tell him. When juxtaposing their memory, it is clear why Larry and Michael have severely contrasting opinions of their fathers.

As a result of having different experiences and memories, Ondaatje and Larry have contrasting feelings towards their fathers. Ondaatje is able to romanticize who his father was because his memories are vague and took place a long time ago. His memories of the alcoholism starkly contrast the graphic and horrifying images Larry recalls in The Lesser Blessed. Larry does not romanticize his father whatsoever, and “scratch[es] with a knife the word NO a hundred million times on the back of all the mirrors in [his] house, so [his] mother sees that [he] says NO to her, so [his] mother sees that [he] says NO to [his] father… and to the acts unforgivable” (Van Camp 1). Larry cannot forgive his father and incessantly relives the abuse he experienced throughout the novel; he is still so immersed in the trauma that his hatred for his father is very present. Contrastingly, Michael idealizes his father and remembers him for “the invented games with his children… the relearning of old song from the past to delight them…the silliness of lyrics from the thirties which had always moved him… [his] courtesy, [his] modesty… the decent gestures among a small circle of family and friends” (Ondaatje 182-183). These are “stray actions [Michael is] told about by those who loved [his father],” who paint a romanticized picture of Mervyn that Michael adopts as his own (182). As a result, Michael’s view of his father is idealized and he longs to have a relationship with him. According to a scientific study in the Family Science journal, there are four types of relationships that a son can have with his problem-drinking father: “fondness, irritation, melancholy, and hatred” (Pirskanen 396). Michael is representative of the “Narrative of Fondness,” in which “the sons [are] loyal to their fathers, refuse to see them negatively, and defend them against possible criticism” (397). This type of relationship is most common when “after a long period of being distant” from one another, the son feels “in a way in control of the relationship,” which reflects Michael’s relationship with his father (397). Michael does not clearly remember his father’s problem-drinking, therefore he is able to distance himself from that part of Mervyn and have only fond feelings towards him. Larry’s relationship with his father is representative of “Narrative of Hatred.” This narrative is unique because in this case the child’s “earliest memories of the father were already negative, because the father had been physically violent toward the mother, son, siblings, or all of these” (398). Larry’s memories of his father’s problem-drinking and abuse stem from when he was a young child. The psychological, physical, and sexual violence Larry experienced “made it impossible for [him] to feel… positive emotional elements” (398). The “Narrative of Hatred” accurately depicts Larry’s relationship with his father. This study illustrates how sons with problem-drinking fathers can have very different feelings towards them, which is clear in the difference between how Michael and Larry feel about their fathers. The way these two men remember their fathers is extremely different and as a result they both use storytelling in contrasting ways for their healing process.

In both novels, Larry and Michael both use the act of storytelling as a coping mechanism to deal with their relationships with their fathers. Larry’s storytelling is a combination between Western and Indigenous values because he retells Indigenous stories and uses them as a vehicle for healing, which represents a very Westernized idea of therapy and talking out one’s feelings. The first story he tells to another character in the novel is the Indigenous creation story. After Larry finishes the story Johnny says, “You’re a storyteller, man. Your voice even changed when you talked” (Van Camp 52). Larry is “proud of the moment and the revelation. That was the first time [he] had told the story and [he] liked how it felt,” which shows how storytelling provides him with feelings of pride, release, and happiness (52). When Larry recalls the fire he set with his cousins, he remembers how “[they] wept because [they] knew [they] had no one. No one to remember [their] names, no one to cry [them] out… to mourn [them] in death]… [they] wept because [they] did not belong to anyone” (79). Larry does not feel connected to anyone in the world, which is why he lights the fire to kill himself and his cousins. He is made to feel worthless by his father who uses him as a vehicle for sexual release and as a result does not feel like he belongs to anyone or anywhere in the world and tries to kill himself. Storytelling is a way for “people [to] put events in order and comprehend reality… thus creating links between the world, themselves and others” (Bosticco 3). Retelling the Indigenous creation story to Johnny makes Larry feel good because he is using the act of storytelling to connect himself to someone else, and to the larger Indigenous community.

One of Larry’s most difficult insecurities is that he does not belong anywhere, so storytelling is an imperative part of his healing process because it is connecting him to someone and giving him the sense of belonging he needs. As Larry develops his artistry of storytelling throughout the course of the novel, he connects with more and more people. Juliet, the girl he longs for, calls him one night and asks him to tell her a story. Before he begins, Larry thinks to himself “that this [is his] chance to completely give Juliet something that was [his] so much that [he] would be nothing else” (Van Camp 99). He knows that by telling her this story he is giving a part of himself to her and creating a space of belonging for himself in the world. Larry does not just tell stories to feel connected to others, but also as a cathartic release to heal from his trauma because “each time [one] tell[s] [his or her] story it occupies less space and grief in [one’s] soul” (Bosticco 5). Throughout the novel Larry incessantly returns to his moment of trauma and relives it in horrifying detail. At the beginning of the novel, he is unable to tell his therapist about what happened or express to them what he is going through. However, after his development throughout the novel and as he steps into his role as a storyteller he is able to begin to open up to Juliet about what happened to him. Whereas initially after he gets burned he “[doesn’t] want [anyone] to see what [he’s] become” and screams at the sight of “raw hamburger on a human face” (81), at the end of the novel while he is having sex with Juliet he says “Look at me… Look into me, just look at me” (110). Larry invites Juliet to stare at the effects of his trauma in the physical form of his burns. As he experiences his first sexual release, he simultaneously experiences this emotional and cathartic release of his trauma. Juliet looks at him and Larry thinks: “I wasn’t alone I wasn’t forgotten I wasn’t dead There was no small town There was no killing I wasn’t bad I was clean” (110). He completely changes the way he felt before he tried to commit suicide because he feels connected to someone else and is releasing this memory and sharing it with her by allowing her to look at his scars.

In Running in the Family, Michael also uses storytelling in order to cope with the fact that he never really had a relationship with his father. The entire act of writing this novel is an attempt to get to know his father better from the stories people told him to help him write this fictional memoir. Michael’s brother tells him that “[he] must get this book right” because “[he] can only write it once” (183). Michael’s brother is concerned with accuracy and piecing together all of the stories, but this is not Michael’s primary goal. In the Acknowledgments section at the end of the novel, Michael admits that “the book is not a history but a portrait of ‘gesture’… [because] a well-told lie is worth a thousand facts” (Ondaatje 189). Michael is concerned with the process of writing this novel and making sense of all the stories and memories he is told about his father. People often reconstruct or elaborate stories of grief or bereavement, and as a result “stories do not always accurately reflect what actually happened… [therefore] ’to some extent, our stories . . . are all fictions’” (Bosticco 8). This technique of “sensemaking” is exactly what Michael is doing in his novel Running in the Family (4). “This ‘redramatization’ of family stories can give the family members access to the bereavement scripts they carry” and help them cope with their loss in a healthy way (13). Between pages 174 and 180, Michael recounts several different perspectives of Mervyn’s death, but despite all the information and memories he hears Michael acknowledges that “the book again is incomplete. In the end all [of Mervyn’s] children move among the scattered acts and memories with no more clues” (Ondaatje 183). Michael knows that he is using this book and these stories to cope with the fact that he will never actually know his father. While this is something he laments, the best way he can deal with it is by attempting to create a narrative about his father that he can live with and turn to. Both Larry and Michael use the act of storytelling as a cathartic release of their emotions and as a way of connecting with others. By verbalizing their thoughts and memories, as well as the thoughts and memories of others, they are facing their trauma and loss and are able to cope with their feelings.

While both Larry and Michael use storytelling as their coping mechanism, they use it in very different ways because of their contrasting memories of and feelings towards their fathers. Larry uses the act of storytelling to externalize and distance himself from the trauma and his father, whereas Michael uses it to bring himself closer to the memory of his father. Larry’s externalization of his story and distance from his trauma is illustrated through his clothing. Even though Larry “usually [sleeps] buck to let [his] skin breathe…if [he takes] off [his] clothes, Johnny might see [the] scars, and [Larry] didn’t want that” (Van Camp 86). When Larry is first questioned by Johnny about his burns, Larry “defensively” answers that he was “kissed by the fuckin’ devil” (87). At this point in the novel Larry is clearly very uncomfortable with anyone seeing his scars and refuses to tell anyone how he got them. He uses his clothing as a shield from others that keeps his memories bottled up inside of him. Similarly to how he needs to take off his clothes and lie naked in order to let his burns breathe at night, Larry needs to verbalize his trauma, share it with someone, and be vulnerable in order to heal his mental state, as well. This metaphor is extended after he opens up to Juliet about his trauma. Instead of getting defensive about why he is burned like he does with Johnny, he responds by saying he “was sewn into the belly of an animal” (111). Although it is not the full story, it is the closest he comes to expressing his trauma and sharing it with another person. Just after he tells Juliet this small part of his memory, he stands “naked and free” before her, completely vulnerable (114). After Larry verbalizes and externalizes his story and shows Juliet his burns, he distances himself from the trauma. His story is no longer shielded by his clothing, but is placed outside himself, available to someone else. In this way, Larry is distancing himself from his trauma and his father. Contrastingly, Michael uses storytelling to bring himself closer to his father. Michael returns to Ceylon, Sri Lanka, in an attempt to connect all the memories and stories he hears about his father. He realizes that he “slipped past a childhood [he] had ignored and not understood…[he] would be travelling back to the family [he] had grown from — those relations who [stand] in [his] memory like frozen opera…[he] wanted to touch them into words” (Ondaatje 4). Michael’s goal for this return journey and in writing this novel is to bring the memories he pieces together closer to him. By writing this novel, he is validating and eternalizing all of the stories that strengthen the relationship between him and his father. Running in the Family and The Lesser Blessed show how storytelling is used for healing, yet both do so in contrasting ways. This comparison demonstrates how the same strategy can be used very differently and still result in coping with a problem-drinking father.

Larry Sole and Michael Ondaatje both are trying to find a way to cope with their problem-drinking fathers. While Larry struggles to talk about his trauma and his horrifying experiences, Michael laments the fact that he never had a relationship with his father and feels the loss tremendously. Larry constantly and unwillingly returns to traumatic memories of his father, which breeds feelings of hatred and the desire to distance himself from his past. Contrastingly, Michael seeks out memories of his father and longs to piece together stories so he can learn more about who his father was. Both characters use the same coping mechanism to deal with their contrasting problems and are able to heal through the act of storytelling. As a result of their different memories and subsequent feelings towards their fathers, Larry uses storytelling to distance himself from his father and Michael uses storytelling to bring himself closer to his father. Both Ondaatje and Van Camp show how storytelling is an effective coping mechanism and can be used in contrasting ways to accomplish the same goal of healing from loss or trauma.

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