Top Ten Dysfunctional Families

In the words of Leo Tolstoy, all happy families are the same, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way.  I would argue that there is a great deal of variety in the ways in which happy families can manage their happiness but this topic has been dancing in the corner of my mind for a while and I decided that since this week is a Freebie with the Broke and Bookish, it would be a good opportunity to give things a whirl.  I am thinking here about the families of fiction where all rules of family loyalty have been cast by the wayside and the knives – often literally – have come out.  You definitely don’t want to go round for dinner with any of these families – here be dragons.


The Pevensies, The Chronicles of Narnia


Does this seem like an inappropriate choice?  Think that the Pevensies are actually a nice family?  Think again.  Within the first few chapters, Edmund turns on Lucy for a couple of sweeties and that’s just the beginning.  Then you have the fact that the parents decide to send Edmund and Lucy to stay with Uncle Harold and Aunt Alberta because Susan is the only one who could possibly benefit from a trip to America.  Worst of all is the way that all three siblings are quite happy to let Susan be locked out of Narnia just for using make-up – family solidarity is non-existent between the Pevensie siblings.  You don’t want to trust those guys an inch.

Greek Mythology


It’s hard to even know where to start with the dysfunction in Greek legends.  Given that Rhea’s husband tried to kill all her children and then they had to kill him to become chief deities, it should have been clear that this was going to be a rather messy mythology.  There’s the story where Zeus eats Athena’s mother and then has to have a weird kind of trepanning thing so that Athena can climb out of his head later on.  Then there’s the one where Pluto comes out of Hades to kidnap his niece and force her to be his wife.  Zeus himself refuses to keep it in his pants, his wife-who-is-also-his-sister Hera goes around zapping all of his children, incest happens left, right and centre and wars break out in the middle of weddings.  There is a reason that the Oedipus and Electra complexes are named after characters from Greek mythology – some pretty messed-up stuff went down.

The Noble and Most Ancient House of Black, The Harry Potter Saga

house of black

Any family that resorts to literally burning offending relatives from the family tree has clearly got some issues.  There’s the mad Bellatrix, the not-quite-mad-but-still-got-some-definite-issues Narcissa, then Mrs Black herself and if she was anything like her portrait then she really must have been quite delightful.  I suppose one would have a hard time growing up normal when everyday one walks past the severed heads of past family house-elves, not to mention that all that inter-breeding really isn’t good for the health.  Still, although Regulus seems to have had a change of heart, the best the family had to show was Sirius Black and even he had more than a few personality problems of his own.

The House of Lannister, A Game of Thrones


The Lannisters could very probably give the Greeks a run for their money in terms of dysfunction.  From the incestuous twins and their putrid progeny (Tommen and Myrcella may seem all right but Joffrey has to be the ghastliest character in Westeros, even out-puking Ramsay Bolton), then there is the ice-blooded Tywin and the only one worth talking to, Tyrion – but then look at how they all treat him!  To add to the fun, there is Lancel who gets chatty at the wrong moments.  I’m turning my eyes away from the television series at the moment (too much mega-violence) but I am curious for what The Winds of Winter will bring the family – with Jaime lost in the wilderness, Cersei alone in King’s Landing post-penance-walk and Tyrion in slavery, my prediction is nothing good.

The Earnshaw-Linton-Heathcliff Triumvirate, Wuthering Heights


Beware of strange orphans who you pick up in Liverpool – they may grow up to send your natural children crazy, take your property and then further wreak their ghastly revenge on the next generation.  Brontë takes Heathcliff and Cathy as close to incest as would have been possible in Victorian fiction.  Still, while history may put the blame on Heathcliff, the true danger may indeed have been in the Heights all along – Mr Earnshaw adopted Nellie Dean as servant years before taking on Heathcliff and her poison sowed the seeds of discord from which all the spite grew.

The Plaskett-Khatchadourian Family, We Need To Talk About Kevin


The dysfunction at the core of We Need To Talk is perhaps the most taboo of all – the mother who does not love her child.  Unto Eva a son was born and she felt nothing – the question comes of whether Kevin’s evil is innate or if it originated with his mother’s coldness.  The publication of this book sparked mass debate about the mother-child bond, yet just as important in the novel is Franklin’s bland acceptance of his son.  The title itself states the problem – Eva and Franklin should have talked more about Kevin and the fact that they did not leads to the book’s terrible denouement.

King Lear and Daughters, King Lear

lear and daughters

It’s like a strange kind of Cinderella story – in his vanity, King Lear demands that his daughters tell him how much they love him, but while two expound excessively on the subject, Cordelia refuses and so is cast out.  The father is punished for his arrogance though by the callousness of his elder daughters and so the one unfavoured becomes the only person he can turn to.  The modernised version A Thousand Acres suggests a darker theory for the girls’ betrayal – were Regan and Goneril just evil?  What did Lear do that inspired such hatred?  Had a life of privilege simply made them all selfish beyond measure?  Shakespeare’s story is taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of England but whatever the truth of the matter, this was definitely a family that needed some serious counselling.

The Lennox Family, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

esme lennox

This was one of Maggie O’Farrell’s more upsetting novels – Iris is called to collect her great-aunt from the institution she has been in for over sixty years.  The tale of how Esme Lennox disappeared from the world, the heartbreaking betrayal by her family, is all the more distressing because it is mirrored by O’Farrell’s obvious research into the subject – that it was far too easy to put an embarrassing relative away.

The Cauldhames – The Wasp Factory

frank cauldhame

Given that the book opens with the news that Eric has ‘escaped’, you are given some advance warning that all is not well with the Cauldhame family.  Broken free from the psychiatric institute, it is very possible that Eric is the sanest one in the entire family.  His brother Frank spends his time with bizarre rituals and casually mentions to the reader that he was responsible for the deaths of three family members – it was just a phase though.  Yet it is the further antics of the father of both boys which sheds light on exactly what went wrong – always blame the parents.

The Weird Family, Born Weird

born weird

I read this book in late 2013 and never did get round to reviewing it.  The Weird children were cursed with various ‘gifts’ at birth and their grandmother has belatedly decided to retract them, seeing the harm that they do.  Richard always stays safe, Abba always has hope. Lucy is never lost and Kent can beat anyone in a fight.  Worst of all is Angie who has to forgive anyone instantly – for anything.   With a father who repeatedly fakes his own death and various self-destructive behaviours in-built, the adult Weird children find it difficult to get on with each other or indeed anyone else.  The book charts their fight to come to accept each other and themselves.  It’s beautiful – and very, very weird.

The McNultys, The Secret Scripture, The Temporary Gentleman

secret scripturetemporary gentleman

The McNultys are a strange bunch – I still have The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty to go.  Jack McNulty is but a temporary gentleman and he betrays his wife in every conceivable fashion and the sorrow between the two of them is handed on to their daughters.  Rosemary McNulty loved her husband and the betrayal broke her heart.  The McNultys are a metaphor for the Irish nation as a whole and Sebastian Barry chronicles their downfall with heartbreaking beauty.

The Bennets, Pride and Prejudice


If divorce had been easily available, Mrs Bennet would have just been Mr Bennet’s Starter Wife.  That being said, Mrs Bennet continued to hope for the birth of a son ‘long after the birth of Lydia’, suggesting that the bedroom department continued to work for them even though Mr B had little or no respect for his wife.  The 2005 adaptation was more sympathetic but even so, there are two camps within the Bennet family and one is either Team Mum or Team Dad.  Lizzie is Team Dad while Kitty and Lydia are Team Mum.  With Lizzie learning to mock and willing to take up prejudices, and then Kitty and Lydia learning to flirt, neither are exactly healthy for long-term personal development.

The Lisbons, The Virgin Suicides


Probably the most tragic of all – the five lovely Lisbon girls were adored by the neighbourhood boys, visions of blonde loveliness with their whole lives ahead.  Over the course of a year, they take their own lives.  The novel never quite establishes why – there are suggestions of parental oppression, grief at the death of the first sister, lemming syndrome – the final death of Mary most tragic of all as the rest of the community waited for her to give up and follow her sisters’ examples.  The deaths of the Lisbon girls put the world around them to shame.


The Pinballs – The Pinballs


There are so many examples in fiction of how re-constituted does not have to mean broken but my personal favourite is The Pinballs and I didn’t want to write a list like this and finish on a depressing note.  Although all three of the main characters are in foster care, The Moment of Truth comes they finally realise that although their immediate situation is perhaps beyond their control, as long as they are trying their best, they are not mere pinballs but do indeed have a mastery over their own destiny.  It doesn’t matter how dysfunctional your family is – you can still carve out your own path.

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17 thoughts on “Top Ten Dysfunctional Families

  1. Haha, this is a fantastic list! Greek mythology is absolutely nuts, isn’t it? And I agree about the Pevensies – I’m always going to hate the way Susan was treated, and as much as Edmund is one of my favourites of the siblings (next to Lucy, who I’ve always had a soft spot for) he does betray his family for turkish delight. Awkward.

    I would argue that probably the best person to come out of the Black family is Andromeda. Don’t get me wrong, I love Sirius – he’s probably my favourite character – but Andromeda’s one of the few who manages to get out of that family and actually have a normal, happy life until the second war rolls around.

    1. I know – I love the Greek myths, super glad none of those guys are relatives though. Have you read The Problem of Susan by Neil Gaiman? Interesting story from Susan’s perspective! I love Lion, Witch and Wardrobe but reading it all as an adult is so different, isn’t it?

      You’re probably right about Andromeda – it would have been good to hear more from her, like what her secret was to not turning out crazy like Narcissa or Bellatrix!

      Thank you for commenting, interesting thoughts 🙂 Have a great week!

    1. Thank you for commenting – very true about the Borgias but they weren’t fictional … although I have had Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty waiting to be read for over a year – maybe I should take a look!

      I like your list – I read The Beautifull Cassandra when I read Love and Freindship – lots of good stuff in there! Hope you enjoy your week 🙂

  2. It’s so long since I read The Wasp Factory, but I do remember the ending was totally unexpected. It never occured to me they were dysfunctional (clearly they were!)
    Isn’t there a line by Tolstoy (or another Russian author) about such families?

    1. How embarrassing! The quote I wanted is in your opening paragraph, no wonder I had it in mind! NOTE TO SELF – read more slowly!

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