I’m proud to share another article from another new guest. Mae sent me a great piece called “Supernatural’s Family Dynamics.” She’s a psych student, so it comes with citations. This can also be found on her livejournal, http://maebandy.livejournal.com/. As usual with guest posters, if you feel like sharing, do not repost. Share the link to here or to Mae’s livejournal.
In a nation in which the individual’s work week is ever increasing in hours, it is hardly surprising that incidences of workaholism seem to have risen and have become a normal and sometimes even praised employee characteristic. However, when examining the effects of workaholism on a family system, the phenomenon has been closely related to that of the effects of alcoholism on family systems by John Bradshaw. He suggests that abandonment by a parent, whether physical or emotional, is enough to influence family dynamics and states that workaholism can have the same effects as alcoholism on the roles each family member plays within the family system (Bradshaw, 1988). An excellent example of parental workaholism’s effect on a family system is demonstrated on the television show Supernatural. On the show, Dean and Sam, the sons of a workaholic father, are flashed back to during their youth, but are mostly depicted during their struggle to mature from young adulthood, in which they are defined by dysfunctional family roles, into adulthood.
In previous research, workaholism has been identified as “a progressive, fatal disorder in which a person is addicted to the process of working, the result of which leads to family disintegration and increased unmanageableness of work habits and all other areas of life” (Robinson, 1996, p. 447). This definition appears to completely embody the character of John Winchester, the patriarch of the Winchester family. Though John’s work is somewhat different than the average citizens in that his job is hunting malevolent supernatural beings, he does share the average citizen’s common aspect of dedicating too much of himself to his work. Such dedication however, comes at price of emotionally abandoning his children, sometimes physically leaving the Dean and Sam on their own for such long stretches of time that it could almost be considered neglect.
Like many parents who suffer from workaholism, John loves his children but finds himself compelled to spend all his waking moments either working or thinking about work, leaving little time to nurture and raise his children. Prior research by Pietropinto has found that in a workaholic family, “children become [an] extension of work and career and the workaholic’s ego, molding their lives around interests and values of workaholics” (as cited in Robinson, 2001). In order to find a balance between his need to work and his wish to raise his children, John compromises by bringing his children on Hunts when he feels they are old enough. This compromise allows him to nurture his children by teaching them the skills they will need to be Hunters as well as modeling the more negative skills of hustling pool, credit card scams and impersonating various persons of the law.
Though he has found a method by which to nurture and give attention to his children, John’s military background and workaholic tendencies bleed into the lessons and he interacts with the boys by barking orders at them and expecting perfection in every task. It appears that, though he might have been physically present during the boys’ childhood, he was mostly emotionally absent, which Bradshaw describes as a shared characteristic of families afflicted with alcoholism or workaholism (Bradshaw, 1988). Bradshaw also explains how, when addiction is introduced into the family unit, the natural role for each family member becomes more of a ball and chain and has more negative effects on the individual’s developmental growth.
However, in order to more fully understand the concept of roles for each family member, one must examine Alfred Adler’s (Adler, 1928) theory of family constellation. Alder suggested that birth order was important to the formation of a child’s personality and that being the first born would have a different affect on an individual than being a second born as the second born would need to assume a different role than the first born had already embodied. Examining the relationship between birth order and individuals in a family with addiction, Bradshaw takes the family constellation concept one step further and describes how addiction in a parent can negatively influence children to embrace the role as a static trait defining the child’s personality rather than a dynamic trait of the child’s persona.
As the first born of the Winchester family, prior to the loss of his mother, Dean would conceivably have fit the role of the family hero; however, any speculation as to how Dean’s personality would have developed had his mother lived and his father not become a workaholic can only be indulged by watching second season’s What Is and What Should Never Be. In this episode Dean is shown what life would have been like had his mother not died. In this altered reality, he would have become owner of his father’s car repair business, thereby still living up to his father’s expectations by taking over the family business.
However, in Supernatural’s reality, Mary died in such a manner that made John Winchester both a workaholic in the pursuit of his wife’s murderer and a single father attempting to raise his two young children. As the oldest, Dean fulfilled the role of the family hero by vainly attempting to be the perfect son to an inattentive father and successfully shouldered the responsibilities of the family caretaker by essentially raising his younger brother, Sam, and providing unwavering support for his father.
In order to have a relationship with his workaholic father, Dean found that he had to follow all orders to the letter or risk becoming a disappointment. This phenomenon was actually demonstrated in Season 1’s Something Wicked This Way Comes when, after being caught disobeying John’s order to babysit Sam while John went out Hunting. Dean states that, “[Dad] looked at me differently after that.” It appears that this single act of disappointing his father was enough to spur Dean on to never deviate from his father’s orders for the next ten years. Many oldest children of workaholic and alcoholic families find themselves taking on parental roles for their younger siblings (Bradshaw, 1988). During his father’s absence, Dean is expected to supply Sam with his basic needs for food and shelter, albeit monetarily provided for by their father, as well as fulfilling Sam’s need for love and belonging by being both his brother and surrogate father. In order to gain any attention or possible affection from his father, Dean must act as “a good little soldier,” follow orders and not ask questions.
Because Dean’s role required him to live his life based on orders, he has difficulty being an independent thinker even well into adulthood. When John goes missing and Dean is suddenly left without orders, his first impulse is to find his younger brother. By recruiting his brother’s help to find their father, Dean hopes to, not only gain direction, but also regain the familiar role of caretaker for his brother. When John begins doling out orders via texts and phone calls to his sons, Dean immediately reverts back to following his father’s orders while still being mindful of his brother’s safety. Though the brothers no longer solely search for their father, Dean is content to live a life in which he can follow his father’s orders and act as guardian to his younger brother as this is role in which he was raised.
According to Bradshaw, second children typically embody and display the underlying emotions of the family unit. A more accurate depiction of Sam’s role within this dysfunctional family could only be created by adding that, because the first born has already taken the role of family hero, the second child is then left with being both the rebel and scapegoat.
While, by following his father’s example, it appears to Dean that Hunting is the only important thing in life, Sam, even from a young age, intuits that something is missing in the Winchesters’ lives and that Hunting cannot be life encompassing. Growing up, Sam learns to hide the majority of his own emotions as they conflict with his father’s (and, in copycat fashion, his brother’s) insistence that there is nothing more important than the Hunt. Though this bottling of emotions serves him well as a child, as a young adult, it morphs into keeping secrets from loved ones (such as not telling his now deceased fiancée about being a Hunter) and withholding information which might be self-incriminating (such as not telling Dean about his demon blood addiction).
Unsure of how to relate to his father without treading on or competing with Dean’s role as family hero, Sam naturally becomes the family rebel in order to gain that coveted attention from his father. In the majority of families, this role is usually accompanied by poor marks in school, trouble with authority, difficulty relating emotionally to peers and running away; however, as the Winchester family strays somewhat from the norm, Dean, the family hero actually displays the first three characteristics which are either ignored (poor marks) or endorsed (trouble with authority) by his father. Sam displays rebellion within the Winchester family by being intelligent in aspects other than Hunting, questioning whether his father is all-knowing and eventually “running away” to go to college rather than remaining a Hunter.
Though both Sam and Dean have begun to shed their familial roles and are maturing into being independent adults, they have only managed to do so by confronting these roles head on. By continually examining their initial impulses to action, they can determine whether those impulses are born out of simple role reaction or derived from logical deduction. And hey, maybe they’ll save the world while they’re at it.