Response #2 – Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family”

Creative writing faculty member Tony Earley.(John Russell/Vanderbilt University)

Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family” is a memoir essay about his family, growing up in a typical American small town, and the influence (intrusion?) of television on their lives.  I think there is much you might take from this essay as you work to complete your own Memoir Essay this week.

In the first paragraph, Earley gives us a description of himself, and some context regarding his family. (Also note the “July 1969” marker). And then in the next two paragraphs, he adequately maps the neighborhood he lives in. The result is that we are pulled into the story. He has answered for us the questions of “who?” and “where?”. Look at your own essay and consider whether or not you have effectively answered these two questions.

One of the lasting characteristics of this essay for me is the way Earley buries the domestic traumas behind the television viewing. There are longer descriptions about the television shows than the family:, just one line about his sister’s death, and only a couple about his father leaving.

In your response #2 below, discuss that balance between television viewing and family dynamics. What point might Earley being trying to make in burying the family dynamics? Is this effective? How does the final scene with Ann B. Davis lay into this idea? Finally, what do you take from this essay that you might use in your own?

Looking forward to reading your responses. Please feel free to respond to each other, too!

Ann B. Davis
“Buck up, kiddo. Everything’s going to be allright.”

23 Comments for “Response #2 – Tony Earley’s “Somehow Form a Family””

Jennifer Karulski

says:

The beginning of the essay showed a brother and sister and their knowledge of and place in the neighborhood. In the earlier years of the author’s life, the kids were more rooted in the world outside the home. He compared his family to the other neighbors. The arrival of the new TV set changed all that. The focus then went to the shows that were on, starting with the almost reverent experience of seeing Gomer Pyle in color.

Earley gives the reader brief glimpses into family traumas but places more importance on the shows that were being watched at the time they occurred. We can guess from this that as a child, he tried to ignore his problems with the distraction of TV and involving himself in the lives of fictional characters. Earlier in the piece, he gave details of the real people who lived in the neighborhood. Later, he looked at his life in comparison to the people on the shows he watched.

The changing shows were a unique way to show the passage of time. We see the author’s personal struggles increasing as time goes by, and samples of how involved he was in the lives of the TV characters. At the same time, we see glimpses of him understanding the people in his own family, understanding his parents young age when he was a child, and their often changing relationship. He wasn’t unaware of what was going on in his own home, he just related more with the ‘better’ lives on the screen.

The title gives us a clue to his intention with this piece. Earley tried to fill the gaps in his own family with the lives of fictitious characters. His association with the real Alice becoming a specific outlet for his yearning. Everything was perfect on TV. It’s seldom perfect in real life. Everyone back then wanted an Alice in their lives.

Naming the shows gave the piece a timeline to follow and anticipate. This was particularly resonant with me because I grew up watching many of the same shows, so as he moved along chronologically, I associated my own past with his experience. I liked the details of the people in the neighborhood and the little things kids notice. It wasn’t just a list of people, but we got a look at the author’s perception and personality with the details he gave. It made me remember some semi-forgotten details I can add to my own memoir.

Stef

says:

Hi Jennifer, I was just thinking about the effect of this essay on someone who grew up with these same shows. I’m sure you experienced this piece on a much more personal level then me. I only know of a couple of the later shows. I like your observation of how initially he described real people in his neighborhood, and later he mostly talked about TV people. And I agree that his focus on the TV characters seems to make it clear that he tried to escape into this world, away from the less-than-ideal and somewhat traumatizing real world.

dlfarmer

says:

Thanks for this very thorough response, Jennifer. I like especially that the piece sparked your own memories.

I think you’re right that there was a clear line between before TV and after TV for him. Television shows – especially pre-cable, when everyone watched the same shows – are a good way to create nostalgia.

As we continue, think about also examining some of the writer’s choice and techniques. What do you take from your reading that you might apply to your writing? For example, I really like the way that Earley creates a map of the neighborhood. Notice how he uses three versions of “On the side” in three consecutive paragraphs. The result is that he kind of maps out the terrain, grounding us in that space. This helps to put us there, to feel like we know the contours of the neighborhood.

Good response!

Stef

says:

This was an incredibly powerful piece about the life of someone growing up in the 60s and 70s in a small town in North Carolina — or anywhere! The essay consists primarily of character descriptions, most of which are TV characters. The piece centers on the author’s connection with these TV characters that occasionally spill into his non-TV life. We learn about the setting of his neighborhood, which centers on the initial black and white TV, and then on a color TV. We learn about his family life, which also centers on TV shows and characters. And we learn about his memory of the moon landing, also though his TV lens. We even learn through the author’s perception of his social status — through the existence of a black and white TV — and of his suicidal thoughts in relation to a TV character! It seems that every ‘worldly’ experience was perceived through the eyes of a TV show or character and given meaning accordingly.

I was initially taken aback by the very short mention of his sister’s deadly accident, his father’s moving in and out of the home, and the brief mention of the suicidal thoughts. But after re-reading the essay I noticed how powerful these brief insertions of ‘real life’ were: these intense experiences jolted the narration out of the somewhat predictable and ideal world of TV shows and characters, in which the author had deeply embedded himself and which seemed to create his sense of identity.

The meeting with Ann B. Davis appears to bring both his internal world of TV shows and his external, worldly reality together: here is a TV character who was influential in his life. This line really brought the two worlds together for me: ‘I had heard that she didn’t like talking about The Brady Bunch, and I could not think of anything to say to her about the world in which we actually lived.’ The author clearly idolized her and the show and replaced some of his real-life experiences with the fictional characters’ lives to an extent that he was unable to relate to her real-life persona. He wanted her to be Alice, and he wanted to be part of her life.

I don’t know most of the shows or characters, and am sure that someone who grew up with these shows gets a more personal understanding from reading the essay. But I really enjoyed how the author used setting here so expertly, grounding his adolescence experience in a small-town American scene. I also was fascinated by the author’s ability to center everything in his narrative on a single object — the TV. Incorporating more of these two aspects would greatly improve my essay.

dlfarmer

says:

Great response, Stef. I agree that those two moments – his father’s leaving, and his sister’s stand out perhaps in part because they are mentioned so briefly. The TV becomes kind of a way of anesthetizing Tony from the bad things happening around him, and that effect is transferred to us.

I’m glad you are noticing specific things to apply to your own work!

Logan McGinnis

says:

To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting into when I began reading this essay but by the end, I absolutely loved it. So many tragic things happened in Earley’s life and yet he writes about them in a way in which they just seem so nonchalant. The way in which he does it, weaving in the tragedies between television series somehow dilutes the shock factor and yet revs it up all the same. I was truly shocked when he talked of his sister’s death. I definitely hadn’t expected it and things were just so mellow that I had to read it twice to see if I had read it correctly. I’m not sure how to approach the ending. It seems Earley focused so much on television growing up that it became a huge part of who he was and when he finally saw Ann B. Davis it wasn’t as exciting as he’d dreamt about. Something I’d like to take from this is just the emotion he creates throughout the whole piece. It almost seems poetic the way in which this piece flows which I really like. It makes the reader want to keep reading, not necessarily because they enjoy the story but because their hooked, they need to know the ending.

dlfarmer

says:

Good response, Logan. I think you’re right, that the essay does have a kind of poetic lyricism. And I love how you articulate the seemingly contradiction of “diluting shock factor” and “revving it up.” Writing can have its best power emotionally, I think, when contradictory things happen simultaneously. So I’m glad you picked up on that.

I would be interested to hear more about the connection between emotion and poetics that you refer to toward the end of your response. What is that emotion? And how specifically does the language work in creating it?

Hunter

says:

This essay was really powerful to me. I found it so incredibly moving and really relatable. I think as kids, we all spent more time outside and explored that world and then eventually our leisure time turned to indoors. For Earley, it was because his family got the new TV, but for me and I think a lot of people my age, this act of turning inwards to the house comes from a sudden loss of imagination. It’s interesting to see someone relate TV shows and characters to moments of their life. I think a lot of times we connect music and books to points in our life. I’ve rarely seen TV used in that same sort of bookmark on life. He mentions the moon landing, which I think is a moment a lot of people remember on TV, but I think now the most “memorable” moments on TV that bookmark a time in our lives have been tragedies–I still remember where I was when I first saw the 9/11 footage even though I was so young, and my grandma says she vividly remembers the day JFK died.

In terms of how the essay is crafted, Earley does a really great job of focusing the timeline and the reader on the TV and what programs he is watching. We, as the readers, experience his life as he did–ultimately using the TV as a distraction to deal with the harsh realities of life. The Brady Bunch has always been this idealized version of a family, and Earley used the show to feel like he was a part of this perfect family. He used this perfect family–and other TV programs–to check out of his harsh moments. His father leaving and his sister’s death are little reference points for him to remember TV–he immediately starts talking about the Pope’s Christmas mass–not the other way around. I think this shows a really realistic portrayal of grief and the arts.

It is very common for writers or anyone who has the access to create characters to create those characters in order to fill some kind of void and to express and explore ideas related to that person. I’ve read that authors will oftentimes create pseudo mothers and fathers that have died in order to explore the grief of losing them and getting to say what was left unsaid to them in real life. In Earley’s piece, he uses these characters on TV to fill voids of sadness in his own life. When he meets Ann B. Davis (who weirdly looks exactly like my own grandma, so I was thoroughly convinced as a kid that my grandma was on the Brady Bunch) he feels a disconnect. There is a strange moment where Earley has always recognized that the character is fictitious and is played by an actress but didn’t realize that the character is not a real person. In that moment he sees Davis, he just wants her to be the housekeeper he has known all his life because that has been the person who has protected him his whole life.

This is a small detail, but something that really stood out to me, is throughout the essay he calls his parents “Mama” and “Daddy” instead of saying “my mother” or “my father.” I think I might try this. My instinct is to always write “my mother” and “my father” because so many people call their parents Mom and Dad. It really brought the whole piece within Earley’s frame of reference, making everything seem more honest.

dlfarmer

says:

Great response, Hunter. It struck me as sad that the indelible moments that mark time have been tragedies. It’s true, I think. It strikes me how your (I’m assuming) generation scarcely knows a time before TSA checkpoints, before the fear of terrorism, climate change. The news has always covered tragedies, wars, famines, etc., of course. But it’s hard to think of moments in more recent history that compare to the pride and hope that accompanied the moon landing.

You make a great point about using terms like “Mama” and “Daddy.” It not only gives us a sense of the child, but also shows a kind of intimacy that wouldn’t be the same with just mom and dad.

Good!

Jennifer Karulski

says:

Good eye, Hunter! I didn’t even notice the ‘Mama, Daddy’ part. A reader really can draw conclusions from an adult using those terms.

Ana

says:

As a child, I lived in the south and using the terms ‘Mama ‘ and ‘Daddy’ to refer to your parents was the norm. As I got older and we moved farther north, I quit using these terms and went with the more common ‘mom’ and ‘dad’, as this is what others my age were saying. As an adult, I have a friend who spent her whole life in the south and she still uses the terms ‘mama’ and ‘daddy’. When she talks about her parents and says ‘mam’ and’ daddy’ I’m taken aback as I do think it’s a level of intimacy that not everyone is comfortable with. It’s interesting how much our culture influences our lives.

Aubri Stogsdill

says:

Reading response #2
Somehow Build a Family is an incredible essay written by Tony Earley. In this essay, Earley discusses the events of his childhood and adolescence while highlighting the impact that television had on his upbringing and worldview. It is evident that Earley is unimpressed with his family and their way of life. As he describes his home in the first paragraph, he concludes the location with the statement, “But it could have been anywhere.” This sort of disregard for exact location shows how mundane and stereotypical he feels his childhood was in the grand scheme of things.

I found the way that Earley uses his experiences as a timeline interesting. While describing the neighbors dog, he says, “It did not die until well after I had my drivers license,” which is more engaging than saying, “It did not die until well after my 16th birthday.” He uses these sort of timeline markers to keep the story moving through time and all the events that are taking place. I really enjoyed reading this and it helped me to feel more connected to the events of his life.

The fact that Early uses more of his essay to describe the television shows he watched than the traumatizing and difficult events that are taking place around him is intended to be unsettling and it is supposed to make the events feel somewhat “out of the blue”. Obviously, Earley would have been impacted greatly by the death of his sister and the coming and going of his father, but he doesn’t actually let us into that emotion. We are forced to make assumptions about what he is feeling. What he tells us is actually not as important as what he isn’t telling us. In my opinion, Earley abuses television much like some individuals abuse alcohol.

At the end of the essay, Earley verbalizes what the reader has been gathering about his life all along. He says, “Even a bad television show could keep me from hearing the silence of my own heart.” As a reader, it was satisfying for the author to call it how it was after avoiding issues and the ugly parts of life throughout the essay. Another impactful sentences from the close of the essay was, “I could not think of anything to say to her about the world we actually live in.” This really made my heart hurt for the author. Since he was young, he’d been taught to value television over real life experiences and connection. He mentions that he and his sister fought often, but no one would yell over the television. He recounts that at dinner time, the TV was loud, and no one talked during the news. This, he says, was the law. The fact that there was so much value placed on the TV, but a clear divide within the family, shows the dysfunction in his home.

While it was great to read Earley coming to realizations about his situation, the essay didn’t end on a light hearted or positive note. The author has not come to terms with his childhood. He is still a broken man. This reality is unsettling and disappointing but extremely impactful and interesting to read.

dlfarmer

says:

Good, Aubri. I think the time markers you mention are very important. One of the most important things that we often forget as writers is to maintain tracking of these, so that reader is clear of the where and when. This is a great observation, and one I’m glad you’re noticing.

I agree that the essay doesn’t end on a happy note, though I would characterize it more as thoughtful than sad. I’d caution about assuming too much about an author, ie. whether or not he’s “broken.” It’s possible he’s writing more toward a structure that makes sense to him as a writer, a form that fits the essay.

Great response, though!

Liz

says:

The temptation in reading Earley’s essay is to think that television destroyed his family life: that it’s the reason his mama stopped taking the family to church, the reason his father kept leaving and returning, the reason Earley himself had narcolepsy. But Earley does a nice job of not “commenting” on the events. He presents them in the order in which they happened and lets the reader decide. So if I’m reading the piece with a spirit of generosity, if I don’t judge his parents for the remarkable amount of TV he was allowed to watch and how much television seemed to affect the rhythms of their family life – read that way, the piece actually presents the case for television as a balm to trauma, depression, and bad luck. After all, television isn’t the reason Shelly died–but it is the thing Earley turned to the night she did. What I like about him burying the actual events of his life among the 1970s TV show references is that it creates a rhythm to the piece which seems to match the march of time. Characters leave, spinoffs are created, shows get cancelled. These facts are easier to handle than the fact that fathers leave, neighbors split up, sisters die. And we are presented with a timeline that helps situate Earley in the world, and might remind us of our own experiences: what was I watching in high school that might have affected my hair choices, as Shelly was affected by Farrah’s? (I will tell you, Reader: “Friends.” Rachel’s haircut was not, it turned out, a good choice for me.) Seeing Ann B. Davis in person, Earley realizes (of course he does) that the actress is not actually a wise-cracking housekeeper, that television cannot save him from himself. This is what I took from the story, too: that even if you retreat from life and befriend fictional soldiers and private eyes and ER doctors, life still finds a way of creeping in around the edges and flattening you–or, alternately, bringing redemption. This may sound fairly basic, but what I got from the essay that I can use for mine is the idea of the through line or theme. Once I read this I realized that there was a theme in mine but I hadn’t identified it as such. Once I did, I was able to go back through and weave the threads around the theme and I discovered some places where this was very easy to do, but I hadn’t noticed them originally. Reading good writers always makes my writing better!

dlfarmer

says:

This is so very well said, Liz. And I’m glad you’re noticing the thematics, and the way Earley weaves it through the essay. One of the most difficult things for writers is to maintain a cohesion throughout an essay. Along with tracking of time and place, thematic is one of the best ways to do this.

Great response!

Ana

says:

Tony Early shares stories from his childhood overlapped with descriptions and summaries of the television shows he and his family watched during this time. These television shows created a timeline for the essay, connecting Early’s personal experiences to the television characters and shows.

The essay begins with a clear description of his town and neighborhood which creates relatability and connection as a reader. This could be a place we’ve lived before. As the essay progresses, you see a clear distinction between life for Early when they had the black and white television (simple, tragic-free events and limited television watching) to life after when they got a color television with antenna. Early describes tragic events happening, overlapped with an increase in TV watching. As a reader, I felt there was a connection between this shift and Early’s personal struggles (loneliness, isolation, emptiness, feeling unloved). He captures these feelings with subtle statements, his dad moving out and back in several times, his dad getting better, his sister’s death, his suicidal thoughts.

I was also intrigued by some statements that were left unresolved. What did his mom mean that his dad was getting better? What did he suffer from? What was the diagnosis following Early’s visit to the doctor? Was he falling asleep because he spent his time watching TV for hours? While Early addresses difficult events, he doesn’t provide detail. How were these events dealt with? As a reader, I felt the feelings that come from living through traumatic events like these are what added to Early’s pain. This pain is why he wanted Ann B. Davis, real life Alice, to tell him everything was going to be okay.

Early states split-level ranch-style house meant rich to him and he says split-level ranch-style house several times throughout the essay which seems significant. Rich in what — money, love, personal connection, belonging? Is it because while he thought it meant rich, he actually had the exact opposite…none of these things?

Erika Goddard

says:

It’s easy for people to try and find a way to bury the grief of losing a loved one, whether it’s through alcohol and what not, so it becomes understandable as to why Earley would try and find some means of escaping reality. Using TV and all the various programs was an easy way for him to accomplish just that. With his father leaving and the loss of his sister, it would be simple enough to imagine being part of a perfect family like the Brady Bunch and a perfect life of sitcom while avoiding the grief in his own life. This portrayal was easy to follow and understand as it was brilliantly executed what he was trying to get at.
When Ann B Davis showed up, it became clear that things weren’t as perfect as he dreamed it would be but he doesn’t want to give up the illusion. He eventually accepts the reality, even when he hasn’t accepted his own childhood yet. Even when the essay doesn’t end on a happy note, there is still hope that things will get better.
I really how well the timeline helped map out to essay and give a clear linear path of events. I haven’t read many memoirs that use specific pieces of history, such as television programs, to help pinpoint the date during the time of a certain part in the author’s history. Usually, I would just say how old I was during a certain memory, but this way helps build the world up more and make it more realistic.

Erik Grazulis

says:

In this piece by Earley, family dynamics are downplayed in order to highlight the central role that the television played in the formation of his identity. A persons identity is formed from a variety of factors. People identify with the culture they belong to, the place where they live, and the people whom they associate with. Family plays a large role in forming a person’s identity, because people inherently associate with their family. The television, in this piece, acts as the medium through which Earley and his family form their identity. The television orients the geographic location of Earley’s family through the association of channels with the directions of nearby towns. The television is also the device that the family uses to connect with their national identity, when they attempt to watch the American moon landing. The television is also a symbol of their identification with a more prosperous social class. Nearly every aspect of the family’s identity is represented through some aspect of the TV. Family dynamics take a back seat because the text does not directly focus on the members of Earley’s family in the same way that the family members cannot focus on one another.
The final sequence is poignant because it illustrates the pitfalls of forming identity through the television. Earley’s psychological process has been essentially hijacked by the TV and projected onto a fictional character, instead of onto his real family. When he approaches the actress in the final scene, he is confronted with the tragic fact that he can’t make a personal connection because the thing that he feels connected to is not real.

Diana Ramstad

says:

Erick, I agree the final scene is poignant as you are right he cant make a real connection with the actress, because he has nothing to talk to her about that is real. He can only focus on her words and actions from playing a fictional Television show. I really enjoyed reading your point of view and you make some great points.

dlfarmer

says:

Ha. No worries – I assumed you were responding to him. If you like, you can just copy and paste this as a reply to him. Then I can delete this one. But only if you want to.

Lucie Anderson

says:

I really loved this story. By using the television as a symbol for how disconnected the author’s family is, we get learn just as much as if he had simply plotted out the events of his childhood. The characters in the shows he watched fill in the gaps of his own familial relationships and reveal what he was missing in his life the whole time. While his family was able to convene around a tv show, they didn’t actually have healthy relationships. Earley reveals that when they were watching tv was the only time they never yelled at each other. This shows a very interesting dynamic. On the one hand, the family could not connect because of their excessive television viewing. On the other, it was the one time they all bonded over something and got along. It is hard to tell if the tv made their relationships worse or was the single thread holding them together. By placing such importance on this one object, the writer is able to tell a surprising and effective story that breaks from the linear style of autobiography. I would love to try something like this in my memoir. When I write non-fiction (in my limited experience), I tend to write a very linear plot. I would like to identify something integral to my relationships like the television to serve as a symbol for connecting with people.

Diana Ramstad

says:

Diana Ramstad Assignment #2
“Buck up kiddo, your going to make it” His refusal to speak to Ann B. Davis is an example of his family dynamics about being ignoring things. His family chose to spend more time watching Television then actually communicating with each other. His Father moving in and out of the house seemed to increase the Television time as it was used to hide his parents not living together anymore.
With only one line about his Sister’s death it feels as if the author is trying to communicate that his family simply buries things like that. When change happens, he and his family simply bottle things up and move on. Gifts such as a new Television, Golf clubs while not given when his died are a way to ignore the pain. The moment the author was able to afford a new Television for himself and then his parents he did so. He in some strange way communicated love to his parents through buying them a Television.
The idea I took from reading this story and then having to write my own story, is to think about some way’s things have been expressed in my family. Then write about those things in a way that is interesting but still gets the point across. Communicating through one key element or theme like the Television for this story maybe one way to write my story in a way other could relate to.

Katherine Keith

says:

Earley masterfully portrays the emotional experience of his childhood through the shared experience of television. This relatable extended metaphor enables the reader to be carried along with his story from start to finish. He selects and describes specific TV shows that revolve around family drama as a à propos comparison. The increased escapism towards television parallels the rise in family difficulties. As Earley ages, he projects more of his life experience into fantasy relationships with TV characters.
To be honest, I absolutely despise television. One of my favorite books is Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television and this essay is a good reminder of why. This isn’t coming from a place of judgement on the family or author, only sad at the devastating loss of quality life that TV shows have engendered.
I appreciated this ending in a twisted fashion. Earley says the idea of her family allowed him to survive. That television kept loneliness at bay and was the only glue keeping them together. It is interesting how Earley included Ann B. Davis in the ending. I believe it is from a sense of repressed resentment. The Brady Bunch, show absorbed Early’s childhood, occupied his fantasy world, and initiated of decades of escapism behavior. Ann shows in his up years later after he wants to commit suicide and then she prays (maybe) for him as if asking for forgiveness. Her line is, “Buck up Kiddo, everything’s going to be all right.” Earley finishes the essay saying he would have believed her. He wanted to when he was young, things didn’t work out so well, he almost killed himself, and here she is again. I think Ann is included to tell the reader, that Earley has finally realized that his emotional strength has been built on a foundation of television and now he needs to build it for himself.

I am impressed by the power of using metaphor to communicate a part of your story and highlight peak messages or moments. I feel it turns the reader away from the ‘self-revolved’ universe of the memoir perspective and into a shared perspective. Instead of telling you about my experience being bullied as a child-specifically when I jumped over my backyard fence escaping my neighborhood bully, I could use metaphor. The reader can consider the life of prey forever running from predators until the day when prey bands together and doesn’t back done. A simplistic example, but used over an essay could impart tension, emotion, and highlight the experience.

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