In this special, festive edition of our summer-reading program, Griffith Review returns to 'Post-nuclear', Benjamin Law's brief and moving treatise on Christmas – what it means and how that meaning evolves as family changes – from Griffith Review 34: The Annual Fiction Edition.
Benjamin Law writes books, TV screenplays, columns, essays and features. He’s the author of the memoir The Family Law (Black Inc.), Moral Panic 101 (Quarterly Essay, Black Inc.) and much, much more.
He has also written for over fifty publications in Australia and beyond, has a PhD in creative writing from QUT, co-hosts ABC RN's weekly pop culture show Stop Everything (ABC RN's The Hub) and created the award-winning SBS Australia TV series The Family Law. The third and final season of The Family Law will be on SBS and SBS On Demand in January 2019.
IF FEELINGS WERE expressed in maths, and our sentiments about Christmas were put on a graph, the chart would look like an inverted parabola: a long, U-shaped dip, stretching across the span of our lives. It'd start on a high, representing the hyperactive, dog-dizzy love of Christmas we had as kids. Later we'd see our enthusiasm levels drop when we become too cool, as teenagers. As adults, we reach a trough where we openly loathe Christmas, before experiencing a final upwards swing, where we enjoy Christmas again, but only because we're so old and worn down that any bright colours or bold shapes – A Christmas tree! Spinning! – are enough to keep us stimulated.
I'm in my late twenties now, so my antagonism towards Christmas is supposed to be hitting its peak soon. And sure enough, when mid-December approaches my thoughts start to veer into dark places. All shopping centre Santa Clauses are paedophiles. I'd rather kill myself than do Christmas shopping. Let's take bets on which family member will cry first this year. It's not that I hate Christmas or have an anti-commercial, anti-religious gripe with it. I just think Christmas – supposedly the happiest day of the year – can be difficult. A lot of my friends consider it a minor miracle if they come through the holiday season without some form of emotional scarring.
After the presents have been exchanged, the wrapping's been fist-packed into recycling bins, the prawn heads have been frozen and the carnage of Christmas lunch cleared away, I'll pack up my family's car and speed south on the highway to get back to my apartment and boyfriend as soon as I can. Like soldiers recounting a recent war, my friends and I will catch up to recap our family Christmases. 'Well, it's always a good Christmas when no one cries or tells someone else to shut the fuck up,' someone will say. Everyone will recount variations of the same thing, and we'll all laugh, mainly because we're not actually kidding.
Some of my favourite stories about contemporary families – the first episodes of Six Feet Under, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, David Sedaris's essays – revolve around Christmas. It sets the stakes high. Everyone wants something different from the day and each other, and that's pretty much all you need for good drama: characters with conflicting needs. Everyone comes to Christmas with high expectations of what the day should be, and often this extends to which family members should be there. Why can't I bring my partner? What does it mean if Dad's absent? Christmas might be designed to remind us about the meaning of family, but defining who's a member can be tricky.
It was easier when we were young. My family was a solid, definable unit: two parents, five kids. It was self-contained and fortress-like. I was obsessed with Christmas. In late November, we'd have the annual ritual of taking the plastic Kmart tree from the hallway storage cupboard, the one with grooved branches and scratchy artificial leaves that left marks on your skin if you carried it the wrong way. Most of the year the cupboard was closed – so, when we finally opened it, it had a comfortingly musty smell of old clothes, shoe polish and dead things. From the moment the tree was mounted I'd feel a tight-throated, jittery anticipation about the days ahead. I was the kind of kid who was prone to nosebleeds – mainly because a whale of a kid had accidentally kicked my face open at a young age, but also because I was easily excitable.
On Christmas day, I'd wake up early and go to my brother's and sisters' bedsides to see how long it'd take before they woke up and realised what day it was. I'd plant my chin next to their pillows, waiting for them to sense my presence. Slowly, they'd wake up and find my face centimetres away from theirs, my eyes bulging and unblinking. They'd involuntarily spasm.
'Eww, Ben, don't.'
'GUESS WHAT DAY IT IS.'
They'd turn over, folding the pillow over their head.
After that, I'd gather my Christmas CDs and meticulously make playlists for the day. Top of the list was Mariah Carey's album of Christmas songs, which included the now-classic 'All I Want for Christmas Is You'but also featured my favourite track: a version of 'O Holy Night' where Mariah would hit a note so high – Oo-oo-oh night / di-viiiiiiiiiiiine – it was able to shatter glass, make dogs' ears bleed and cats' heads explode.
At lunch there would be fights, but nothing too serious. They were mainly between me and my brother: epic philosophical battles about who was a dickhead.
'You're the dickhead,' I would say.
'Well,' Andrew would reply, 'I'm not the one with a dick growing out of my head.'
'I don't have a dick growing out of my head!'
'Well what's that thing on your forehead?'
'That's my birth mark, dickhead.'
I'd point to the bump on his ear he'd had since birth.
'What's that thing growing out of your ear? Your dick?'
'That's my thing.'
'Yeah. Your dick. Growing out of your head.'
THEN IN 1995, everything went to shit. I was twelve, my parents were splitting up and my dad was moving out. Few other kids at school had separated parents. In the same year all my close friends from primary school were shipped off to expensive boarding schools in the city. It was also the year my eldest sister, Candy, moved out of home – the first sibling to leave. I remember seeing the back of her packed little red car, all of us waving and smiling, and me feeling like I was going to cry or vomit. Candy will never live with us again, I thought. I'd never moved homes or changed schools, so it was the first time I realised that whenever something changed in life it was permanent, and these changes would never stop, they'd just keep coming and coming, constantly changing everything forever until I faced the biggest change of all, death, and then I'd be dead and everyone else would be dead too and everyone would forget us and what was the meaning of life if everyone died? It was one of those thoughts that kept spinning onwards and outwards –into space, and infinity – until you felt you couldn't breathe because it was like seeing through space and time. It was enough to give me a nosebleed.
Christmases became weird. Dad would be allocated a couple of hours on the day. Over the years we'd visit him in the place with his mother, the place above the shops, the place in the gated estate and the place where he lives now. He worked through Christmas Day, so we'd often just visit him at the restaurant while he was doing prep. Sometimes Mum insisted on coming with us, which was always a bad idea. The last time that happened, it finished off with pretty much everyone screaming and crying and wishing they had a gun with which to kill the others or themselves.
In those early years Dad might have been absent, but in his place was my eldest sister's new fiancé. My younger sisters and I loathed his presence at the table. It wasn't so much the fiancé himself – he seemed fine – but that someone foreign had started intruding on something as sacred and private as our Christmas. YOU'RE NOT OUR FAMILY, we'd think. WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE? I didn't talk to him much, and I'm sure he felt uncomfortable, which was my intention.
Years later, I read an essay by Joan Didion about her taking her partner John to see her family and how they always treated him as an outsider, even after they married. 'Marriage is the classic betrayal,' she observed. I still love that line. Mainly because it makes me feel ashamed.
BUT FAMILIES CHANGE and so do definitions. Recently I was asked to speak at a national conference about diversity in Australian families and I noted that, while nuclear families are still the norm, divorce rates had recently peaked. But we'd also found other ways to become families, with the country now racking up the most non-married cohabitation couples in its history, couples with kids from previous partners, as well as same-sex partners raising children. Around a fifth of all adult lesbian relationships involve raising kids. Definitions of families aren't so rigid any more, and I like that. It takes the pressure off.
It has taken a while to address my weirdly possessive control instinct: 'No outsiders for Christmas; they can get fucked.' None of my siblings is married yet – no betrayals – but most of us have long-term partners. Candy's now with Jayson, Andrew has Amy, Michelle has Nat and I've got Scott. We form an extended network. When the floods hit Brisbane Nat's family needed higher ground, and stayed in Michelle and Tammy's place. Jayson mows my mother's lawns when he can and landscapes my father's gardens. Scott and I wave hello to Amy because she works near the space where he rehearses music. Scott once lived with Tammy, and his mother helps us with housework when we get swamped. We share each other.
At our most recent Christmas I still anticipated bloodshed. When I woke up in my old childhood bedroom, still half asleep I sent a message out on Twitter: 'I look forward to you getting drunk throughout the day, and your tweets about family becoming increasingly hostile.' People tweeted back about how they were going to kill their sister if she kept harping on about her work as a lawyer, and how their grandfather greeted them with 'You're growing one gut on you, boy.'
We decided to do something different for the day. Scott and I merged our families, and my siblings brought their partners along too. Some of the relationships were tenuous and new, but by the end of the day there were warm and intimate conversations occurring in unlikely combinations, like Amy (my brother's girlfriend) and Val (my boyfriend's mother), and Jayson (my sister's boyfriend) and Scott (my boyfriend). Trying to label some of those relationship in words is near impossible – Val is Amy's possible-future-brother-in-law's-quasi-mother-in-law – and trying to express it without diagrams makes my brain melt. For a couple of hours, Dad was there as well. These people mightn't have been each other's family yet, but they were all extended members of Scott's and mine, and that was more than good enough.
No one said it, but that Christmas was also binding us together before we all split apart. Tammy was about to head to the border of Thailand and Burma for photographic work, Michelle was preparing to move to Hong Kong and Japan, and I was going to India for a month. My family was about to get even harder to pin down, but at least it was nice to know that membership was at an all-time high.
When people say families are complicated, they often imply that the complications come from the sprawling mess of it – that families would be easier if it they were traditional, nuclear and self-contained. Yet Christmas worked for us this time because everyone extended the invitation. I hadn't made a Christmas playlist in years, but it had become Scott's obsession in the lead-up to the day, and he had lined up Ella Fitzgerald next to Sufjan Stevens, Aimee Mann with Bette Midler. There weren't any arguments this time; not a single person cried. I guess it's difficult to cry when you're talking and laughing so much, and when everyone has brought so much food that all of you eat until you feel like you're going to burst.