Study Guide

Freedom Family

By Jonathan Franzen


And Patty was undeniably very into her son. Thought Jessica was the more obvious credit to her parents – smitten with books, devoted to wildlife, not so pretty as to be morally deformed by it, admired even by Merrie Paulsen – Joey was the child Patty could not shut up about. In her chuckling, confiding, self-deprecating way, she spilled out barrel after barrel of unfiltered detail about her and Walter's difficulties with him. Most of her stories took the form of complaints, and yet nobody doubted that she adored the boy. She was like a woman bemoaning her gorgeous boyfriend. As if she were proud of having her heart trampled by him: as if her openness to this trampling were the main thing, maybe the only thing, she cared to have the world know about. (1.1.10)

Wow guys, doesn't Jessica sound awesome? We'd really like to hang out with her. In fact, we'd like to call the Berglund house, and Patty would pick up the phone, and she'd be like, "Oh, would you like to talk to Joey?" And we'd say, "No, actually, we're calling for Jessica." And she's say, "Wait, Jessica, really?" Then we'd say, "Yes, Jessica." And she'd say, "Oh, I'm sorry, Jessica's not here; she's out saving orphans. Can I take a message?" We'd say, "Yes, please tell her that she's much cooler than Joey, and that Joey is lame for being so mean to his mother just for loving him too much. Oh, also ask her if she did the biology homework, and if she can help us with question five. Thanks! Bye."

"[...] and all he's asking is that Joey come to dinner and sleep in his own bed and be a part of the family. And Joey's like, 'I'm still part of the family,' which, by the way, he never said he wasn't. But Walter's stomping around the kitchen, for a couple of seconds I think he's actually going to hit him, but he's just totally lost it, he's yelling, GET OUT, GET OUT, I'M SICK OF IT, GET OUT, and then he's gone and you can hear him upstairs in Joey's room, opening up Joey's drawers or whatever, and Patty runs upstairs and they start screaming at each other, and Connie and I are hugging Joey, because he's the one reasonable person in the family and we feel so sorry for him, and that's when I know for sure it's the right thing for him to move in which us. Walter comes stomping downstairs again and we can hear Patty screaming like a maniac – she's totally lost it – Walter starts telling again, DO YOU SEE WHAT YOU'RE DOING TO YOUR MOTHER? Because it's all about Patty, see, she's always got to be the victim. And Joey's just standing there shaking his head, because it's so obvious. Why would he want to live in a place like this?" (1.1.123)

In relaying these events to the neighbors, Carol can't hide her obvious satisfaction in helping to destroy the Berglunds' supposedly perfect family unit (not to mention being there to watch it unfold). If she weren't already so emotionally attached to Joey, surely she'd be wondering what kind of kid could put his parents through such misery without even an ounce of remorse. But she'll eventually learn about that herself. One more thing: of course no one even mentions Jessica as being a part of this family, since here the word "family" seems to necessarily include heavy drama and conflict.

Sort of by default, because her mother was so relentless in promoting impressive careers for her daughters, and also because her mother had been, in Patty's opinion, a substandard parent, Patty was inclined to want to be a homemaker and an outstanding mother. "I want to live in a beautiful old house and have two children," she told Walter. "I want to be a really, really great mom." (2.2.541)

Does it seem healthy for Patty to base her life around making her mother look bad? (No, you don't actually have to answer that one.) Or does it poison her desire to be a "really, really great" mom by wrapping it up in competition and revenge? As for her own career, her mom wanted her to do everything, so Patty chose to do nothing. Somewhere in the middle seems a better option.

Important fact: Richard had no relationship with his mom. [...] After four raucous years of drinking and serial infidelity, she stuck Mr. Katz with the job of raising their son (first in the Village, later in Yonkers) while she went off to California and found Jesus and brought forth four more kids. Mr. Katz quit playing music but not, alas, drinking. He ended up working for the postal service and never remarrying, and it's safe to say that his various young girlfriends, in the years before drink finally ruined him, did little to provide the stabilizing maternal presence that Richard needed. (2.3.117)

It's not difficult to connect this passage to Richard's difficulties with commitment and fidelity. The "various young girlfriends" in his father's life are certainly echoed in Richard's own promiscuity. But he may take after his mother more, whose "drinking and serial infidelity" is accompanied by a wandering instinct (similar to the one Katz finds after his success) and a spiritual relationship (hers in Jesus, his in music).

For the prosecution: Walter was appropriately wary. Patty was the one who tracked him down in Hibbing and threw herself at him.

For the defense: But she was trying to be good and make a good life! And then she forsook all others and worked hard to be a great mom and homemaker.

For the prosecution: Her motives were bad. She was competing with her mom and sisters. She wanted her kids to be a reproach to them. (2.3.181-183)

Patty brings this up a few times: that she's actually <em>not</em> a very good person, and that at least part of why she marries Walter is she hopes some of his goodness will magically rub off on her. (Unsurprisingly, since she goes in with such questionable motives, this method doesn't seem to be working.)

"Never mind Connie even," Carol said. "Leave Connie out of it for a minute. You and I lived together like a family for almost two years. I never thought I'd hear myself saying this, but I'm starting to get an idea of what you put your mom through. Seriously. I never understood how cold you are until this fall. (3.2.47)

A few examples in the novel suggest that the word "family" is not necessarily limited to blood relatives. Walter and Richard's friendship comes to mind.  Patty's relationship with her estranged brother offers a counter-example – a family member who's basically a stranger. This conversation between Carol and Joey is perhaps the best example, and her uncomfortably close relationship with Joey helps her empathize with a woman she had long hated, Patty.

His [Walter's] father and older brother, who together had been the bane of his youth, were alcoholics, and his wife, who was fast becoming the bane of his middle age, had alcoholic proclivities. He's always understood his own strict sobriety in terms of opposition to them – first, of wanting to be as unlike his dad and brother as possible, and then later of wanting to be as unfailingly kind to Patty as she, drunk, could be unkind to him. (3.3.16)

Once again we see how family, marriage, and love are inextricably linked to one another. They're also deeply dependent on personal history and the history of those around you.

Dorothy had been the only grandparent in his life, and she'd impressed him, when he was still very young, by inviting him to handle her crippled hand and see that it was still a person's hand and nothing to be scared of. After that, he'd never objected to the kindnesses his parents had asked him to do for her when she was visiting. She was a person, maybe the only person, to whom he's been one-hundred-percent good. And now suddenly she was dead. (3.2.164)

This is sort of a strange anecdote, isn't it? What's important about the crippled hand? Maybe it serves as a lesson to Joey that not everyone's life is quite as blessed as his own. Very interesting how powerfully affected he is by this. What effect can we expect her death to have had on him? That is, here's the only person he's ever been totally good to, and now she's dead. Do you think that will make Joey more or less likely to be good in the future?

It wasn't clear that [Gene] would have married Dorothy if he hadn't made her pregnant, but once they were married he set about loving her with all the tenderness he believed his father had denied his mother.

That Dorothy ended up working life a dog for him anyway, and that his own son Walter ended up hating him for this, was just one those twists of family fate. (3.6.5-6)

These two sentences pretty well summarize Franzen's views of familial generations in <em>Freedom</em>. Step One: Parents behave in a way their children hate. Step Two: Their children grow up and vow to not repeat one or more parent's mistakes. Step Three: They are either successful or (more commonly) unsuccessful.

As much as possible, though, Patty sat with her father, held his hand, and allowed herself to love him. She could almost physically feel her emotional organs rearranging themselves, bringing her self-pity plainly into view at last, in its full obscenity, like a hideous purple-red growth on her that needed to be cut out. Spending so much time listening to her father make fun of everything, albeit a little more feebly each day, she was disturbed to see how much like him she was, and why her own children weren't more amused by her capacity for amusement, and why it would have been better to have forced herself to see more of her parents in the critical years of her own parenthood, so as to better understand her kids' response to her. Her dream of creating a fresh life, entirely from scratch, entirely independent, had been just that: a dream. She was her father's daughter. (2.4.32)

This passage is pretty much self-explanatory, and it follows on the heels of the passage we just discussed above. We also want to point out, though, how closely linked it is to a line in the fifth paragraph of the book, where Franzen writes, "One strange thing about Patty, given her strong family orientation, was that she had no discernible connection to her roots" (2.1.5). When we first read that line, we knew very little about Patty. Now that we know her very well, how does it change our understanding of that initial introduction? (Also, as a side note, why is it that these fence-mending reunions often seem only possible at the end of a parent's life? Can't we decide to make amends in good health?) 

"Oh, Abigail!" Patty burst out. "We're never going to get along, are we."

Perhaps catching a hint of pity in her voice, Abigail pulled a stupid-face, a mean face. "I'm not the one who ran away," she said. "I'm not the one who turned her nose up, and could never take a joke, and married Mr. Superhuman Good Guy Minnesotan Righteous Weirdo Naturelover, and didn't even pretend not to hate us. You think you're doing so well, you think you're so superior, and now Mr. Superhuman Good Guy's dumped you for some inexplicable reason that obviously has nothing to do with your sterling personal qualities, and you think you can come back and be Miss Lovable-Congenial Goodwill Ambassador Florence Nightingale. It's all verrrry interesting."

Patty made sure to take several breaths before replying to this. "Like I said," she said, "I don't think you and I are ever going to get along." (2.4.56)

For most of Patty's life, she seems terrified of and overmatched by her sisters. Having gone through the crucible, as it were, of her own family's struggles, she's now risen above her sisters' pettiness, and Abigail's barbs no longer bother her.

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