Introduction to Meathead Therapy

A modest family event taught a life-changing lesson about relationships.

Posted Sep 04, 2019

My friend, author Jane Paffenbarger Butler, has a lyrical and therapeutic way of capturing loneliness and how a person gets over it. She says she was lost in the woods in her childhood—talking to trees—but found a way to replace the trees with people.

The estate her father managed was the famous Arden, the private estate of E.H. Harriman, Union Pacific railroad magnate, and later his son, Averell Harriman, a U.S. statesman. Its 10,000 acres at the time—heavily wooded—gave Jane a lot of trees to talk to.

Jane was emotionally abandoned as a child. Her dad was a Renaissance man with his hands in everything from managing the estate and milking cows to operating a law practice. Mom was an orphan, born to a 15-year-old high school girl in Tennessee; she struggled to express her love and connect with her children. As young adults, talking about their parents made Jane and her sister have suicidal thoughts. That sister ran away, her older brother joined a cult, while the younger one joined the Ivy League, leaving a third sister struggling with a simmering anger.

After graduate school and an early career in pharmaceutical research, Jane visited a psychotherapist, and discovered she could forge meaningful relationships. Her husband, who supported her all along, didn’t always ease her into new healthy connections, though. At one point, he brought her to Aunt Maureen and Uncle Meathead’s house on Christmas Eve. Jane told me, “I had no idea you could even be called Meathead without it being a deliberate insult. People in my family had names like Thurston Howell, III.”

Her husband’s aunt and uncle lived on Fulton Street in Buffalo in the house where Maureen grew up. Christmas Eve was a no-frills event: a modest gathering with modest food in a modest house. Folks arrived at the door one after another, friends and relatives and neighbors, both unannounced and expected, and each person was welcomed like royalty. They were offered drinks, food, a seat, and all the time in the world. The parade of people who passed through the kitchen on Fulton Street acted like they did it every day. Because they probably did. People crowded onto the attic steps when chairs at the table ran out, all to be part of the jokes and stories. Her education in developing a sense of humor went on late into the night, everyone laughing at one silly thing after another.

Jane was out of her element. No one in her family (trees included) called anyone Meathead. They didn’t even try to be funny.

As long as the stories whipped up laughter, every one was worthy, regardless of what truth it revealed. Each person was accepted no matter how nutty or annoying or goofy or inexplicably anything they were, because, apparently, everyone there felt, “These are our people and we’re keeping them!” Jane was spellbound: Nothing modest about these connections!

Back then, Jane still felt like emotionally hiding sometimes. Having interpersonal relationships, especially face-to-face at a kitchen table where people said what they thought without fear of reprisal, was foreign to her. 

But her husband grabbed her hand and led her to that little kitchen table where relatives, friends, and neighbors of Maureen and Meathead were slinging affectionate insults. 

When Jane was a kid, besides running to the comfort of the woods, her options for getting away were sometimes physically devastating. She disengaged from life by stepping into massive migraine headaches, avoiding things too hard to face, popping out hives all over her body, and not talking. Back then she believed that mental health was the absence of overt mental illness. She coached herself: Don’t make your problems obvious or people will think you suffer from a mental deficiency. That made her own family a model of mental health.

Jane learned to forgive herself and her family. She reconciled with her father and mother as best she could, given the family’s collective handicap of taking life too seriously and rejecting one another for being human.

When Jane and I talked about this memorable Christmas Eve in her life, I asked her to draw some conclusions from the emotional and psychological stimulation of it. Here’s what she said:

     I don’t think Meathead and Maureen’s friends did a lot to earn the love they shared. I think they showed up. I think they showed up over and over at the kitchen table even when it wasn’t Christmas Eve.

     Mental health is a bit more complicated than I realized. It is the presence of healthy attitudes and not just the absence of trouble. Real healthy connections are about sitting around the kitchen table on a snowy night just being. Accepting each other no matter how loony. Together. Not alone in the woods or in a book or on the internet.

     I think the healthy connections we make are born of dedicated showing up.

I offer a “Brava!” to Jane and am glad she has written this all down in a beautiful memoir. Sharing vulnerable moments of discovery is a big part of developing healthy connections with other human beings.