Lee Kravitz

Lee Kravitz

Unfinished Business

Windows Into Our Psyche?

The meaning of family pictures.

Posted Sep 30, 2010

As I was going through albums and shoe boxes filled with family photographs, I came across eight black-and-white snapshots of me and my younger brother Randy between the ages of three and seven (him) and five and nine (me). This is the entire record I have of our relationship between 1958 and 1962 when we shared a bedroom in our parents' modest, white-clapboard house in a middle-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio.

In two of the photographs we are flanking our 27-year-old mother, a raven-haired beauty with a movie-star smile; in another we are sitting on opposite sides of Willamina, our Jamaican babysitter, who lived for a very short period of time in a room my father built for her in our basement. There are five other photos, all of me and Randy together. None of these images is extraordinary; they are banal and seem indifferently composed.

Or are they? 

When I found these photos nearly 50 years after they were taken, I was shocked at what they revealed about me and my childhood relationship with my brother. They seemed to validate everything he used to tell me about how I treated him when we were kids: that I ignored and berated him and did whatever I could to knock down his confidence and steal his glory -- accusations I always denied. 

I remember that some of Randy's teachers compared him unfavorably to me and that he struggled with his weight and felt compelled to transfer to a different school (one where I was not) in ninth grade. In high school Randy thrived in sports, school and with girls. But, from childhood until my discovery of these photographs, I took no responsibility for his early troubles. I attributed them to my talents and his shortcomings -- not to anything I ever said or did.

The photos on this page challenge my innocence. Note how I look down on my brother -- on his mere existence -- as our beaming mother holds us. See how I tower surreally above him, clutching my toy Army helmet to my heart. Look how my nose juts into the air -- "I can't stand you!" -- as he grasps my hand. And how that eerie shadow cutting diagonally across the frame punctuates my futile attempt to strangle him.

Was the photographer, my father, privy to my malicious intent? Did he deliberately choose angles that exaggerated my height and prowess? To create that disturbing shadow, did he somehow crinkle the negative at the perfect instant? In two of the photos we are situated in front of a white picket fence. Did my father position us there in homage to every middle-class parent's 1950s American dream? It would have been my dream too, had my brother not been in the picture.

You may be one of many readers who will look at these images and dismiss my interpretation as either overblown ('Name one older brother in history who didn't want to strangle his younger brother") or silly ('That white picket fence is a. . . white picket fence"). But I am a firm believer in my friend Michael Lesy's theory that family snapshots are more than just snapshots: they provide a window into our psyches. 

Lesy, a professor at Hampshire College, has looked at hundreds of thousands if not millions of family snapshots over the years. In his book TIME FRAMES: The Meaning of Family Pictures, he described them as "psychic tableaux, in which the flow of profane time has been stopped and in which a sacred interval of self-conscious revelation has been imposed by the cutting edge of the frame, the glare of the sun, or the flash of a strobe." He also called them "frozen dreams whose manifest content may be understood at a glance but whose latent content is enmeshed in unconscious associations, cultural norms, art historical cliches, and transcendental motifs." 

The photos on this page enact the most archetypal sibling-rivalry story of them all -- Cain and Abel. Here, the disputatious sons of Adam and Eve have been transported to my parents' version of Eden -- a perfectly-coiffed backyard in green suburbia, framed by a white picket fence. In this glorious setting the oldest son (me) seeks to obliterate his only rival for his parents' affection. I don't succeed in killing my younger brother but I stifle his spirit, giving him ample reason to hate me. 

 I came across these photos when I was 55 and trying to take care of my unfinished emotional business. By then, my 53-year-old brother had risen far above his early struggles and carved out his own proud place in the world. Time, for the most part, had healed our childhood rift. But occasionally an off-hand remark by me would bring out an old resentment in him and I could see, in his eyes, a look that said "You're still a pompous, self-satisfied jerk."  I used to feel a need to defend myself against his accusatory stares. But now I didn't. The pictures helped me own up to the fact that Randy was right. He'd always been right: I was a horrible, hateful brother. 

Again, some readers (including my wife and probably my brother) will think I'm crazy for ascribing so much power and meaning to a set of family pictures. But for people like me and my friend Michael who tend to see the miraculous in the ordinary and the poetic in the banal, family pictures can reveal hidden truths and keep older brothers from reenacting the crimes of Cain. They can also be a source for healing.

Will our children have the same resources at their disposal that we did when they seek to address their unfinished emotional business? In the pre-digital age -- with the expense and effort it took to print images from film --  our parents kept pictures that today''s parents would discard in a digital second -- no, less. Remember those inexplicable shadows and light leaks and other odd accidents of man and nature that marred family pictures in the pre-digital era? Somehow they gave those pictures extra psychological depth and significance. It was as if the photographer had been directed by the subject's subconscious.

It's unlikely that you'd find many accidents of this sort in today's family pictures. Parents take more photographs of their kids than ever before, but it's easy to delete all but the best from their digital photo card or computer. My 13-year-old daughter takes at least 100 photographs in a typical weekend, but before she posts her favorite 30 on Facebook, she will have edited out the ones that don't fit her idealized picture of herself. And she will have photo-shopped herself and her friends into an Eden that most closely resembles the ones she sees on Hannah Montana and MTV. 

Our children are growing up in an era that gives them unprecedented control over the way they tell their life stories in a variety of media. That's wonderfully empowering. But 50 years from now, will they have the equivalent of what our fading family pictures offer us --  a window into our psyches, grist for personal growth and healing?

Lee Kravitz is the author of UNFINISHED BUSINESS: One Man's Extraordinary Year of Trying to Do the Right Things (Bloomsbury). For more Unfinished Business stories and tips, visit www.MyUnfinishedBusiness.com.

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