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What’s wrong with TJ’s family?

As you think about TJ’s family, consider this. The family system includes the people and how they get along with each other. Over time, the people change and the way they get along changes. This means the family system is also changing. Neither the people nor the way they get along with each other is quite the same from one year to the next.

Your ability to understand and help your family depends in large measure on your ability to predict how your family system will change over time. How will the people change? How will the way they get along with each other change? If you can predict the changes, you have an opportunity to influence and shape the outcome. Looking at two excerpts from the vignette will help you better see the point.

Leroy stopped for a breath and to swear more at TJ when TJ got his footing and lunged at Leroy with his hands and feet. “You little bastard, I’ll show you who’s boss around this house. I’m not going to put up with some little bastard like you kicking me. Anytime you think you’re big enough to take me on, you just try me.”


There was a hint of panic as Leroy said, “You keep your hands off me. You just try it and I’ll kick your ass all the way up between your ears. Any day you think you can handle the old man, you just try it.” . . . TJ forced his hands under Leroy’s arms and he lifted him off the floor and slammed him against the door jam. As Leroy fell, he swung at TJ who caught the blow with his arm. With the fury of outrage, TJ’s fist crashed into Leroy’s face once, twice, three times; and Leroy slumped and staggered back. TJ saw what was happening but did not reach to help. Leroy went over backwards and tumbled down the cellar stairs.

Seeing TJ’s family as a system, you could have predicted the second event from the first, even though they were over ten years apart. Although Leroy had not changed much over the years, TJ had. He had gotten bigger, stronger, and had learned very well.

When TJ was six, Leroy taught him several things about their family system:

Our relationship is based on who is bigger and stronger.

We do not communicate by talking about things. Rather, we make our points by hitting and hurting.

We do not work on problem solving. We handle things by force and on the basis of who is afraid of whom.

Decision making is based on the emotion of the moment, especially if someone is angry.

As an adolescent, TJ’s style of getting along with Leroy had not changed much. Relationships, communication, problem solving, and decision making within their family had been well-learned. At the cellar stairs, Leroy and TJ related to each other through rage and without valuing each other. Their communication was angry and threatening. TJ made his decision based on what Leroy had taught him. The right way to solve his problem was to knock Leroy down the steps; and as you will recall, TJ did not try to stop Leroy’s fall. Why do you think he decided not to reach to help?

Thinking about other events from the vignette will reinforce the point. As you read these excerpts, consider how the family system evolves and changes over time.

“TJ, it’s time to put your stuff away and get to bed,” his mother gently reminded. It was time to argue with her a little and delay bedtime as long as he could. TJ pouted a little and did not start to bed. Maybe Mommy would read him a story and maybe sing him his song on his way to sleep. . . . TJ did not go to sleep. He was afraid to go to sleep. He laid in his bed, not moving, not breathing, experiencing terror for the first time. Mommy finally came to him.

“I’m sorry TJ. I never thought anything like this would happen.” She sobbed and held TJ closer as she continued, “You know how it was after your Daddy left us. I never thought anything like this would happen.. . .  I hate this. You know Mommy loves you. Please try to get along with Leroy. Please try not to upset him.”


TJ was in high school the day he heard the arguing from his room but did not think much about it. His mother and Leroy got into it like that a lot. They usually yelled and screamed for a while and then Leroy left. He had to go find his friends and get drunk. “It’s your own fault,” he’d always yell at her as his parting shot. “I suppose you are going to run off and drink with those so called friends of yours,” was her usual reply. The script was always the same, except this time Leroy did not leave. TJ heard his mother yelling and then screaming, except it was not the same. “Please Leroy. Please, don’t, Leroy don’t.”


The sheriff arrived about two hours later. Leroy was going to be alright. He would be on crutches for a few weeks but should be fine. Leroy had told the sheriff about how TJ had attacked him for no reason; and TJ’s mother had corroborated his story.

These excerpts show how the family system changed. When TJ was six, his mother tried to maintain her relationship with TJ and with Leroy by encouraging TJ to try to get along. She did not try to improve relationships, work on communication, become involved in constructive problem solving, or change the way decisions were made. Rather she just tried not to rock the boat and tried to be sure no one else rocked the boat. Knowing how the family system developed over time, does it surprise anyone that TJ’s mother corroborated Leroy’s explanation to the sheriff about what happened? Probably not.

It will aid your developing ability to understand your family system to try your hand at predicting what will happen to TJ and his family. First, how will TJ deal with the situation when he goes to court for assaulting Leroy? Keep this excerpt in mind as you think about your prediction.

TJ raised the bat and swung. Leroy saw the bat just in time to stopped the blow with his arm. His hand came around and caught the weapon and jerked it away. He was off TJ’s mother and had one hand at TJ’s head and the other under his arm forcing TJ against the wall. Leroy did not say anything, could not say anything. Instead, he grasped TJ’s hair and pounded his head into the wall. At the same time, he hit TJ in the stomach and then harder in the face. He slammed TJ’s head against the wall and hit him and kept hitting him. When he finally stopped hitting him and let go, TJ dropped to the floor, remembering nothing until he awoke in the hospital.


TJ’s mother was beside his bed; but he did not see Leroy as he first found awareness and then was more alert. Leroy smiled as he said, “There he is Mother. I told you he was a fighter. He is too tough to let an accident like that slow him down. Hi TJ, how are you boy?”

Notice how Leroy lied about what happened, about how family members felt about each other, and how he played his role. Now see how TJ dealt with his court appearance.

I do not know what came over me. I love my step father and know how much he has done for me and Mother. I respect him and accept any punishment I get. You know my real father ran out on us when I was little; but that is not an excuse. I respect Leroy for turning me in and being sure I get what is coming to me, get a chance to straighten up.

Although you could not have predicted the exact words, it was predictable TJ would lie and try to cover up what really happened. He had learned very well the importance of keeping family secrets. His performance in court was much the same as Leroy’s in the hospital. His approach to problem solving was to put on a good face and lie.

For the next twenty years or so, TJ stayed away from his family and went on with his life. One summer afternoon, though, the little boy in him who missed his mother and the family he might have had returned to his mother’s house to satisfy his curiosity and longing. What do you predict happened when TJ returned home twenty years later? As you read this vignette, think about how it was when TJ was growing up and about how you might have predicted how the visit would go.

TJ’s family twenty years later:

The lane to his mother’s house brought back floods of memories for TJ. The place was different, though. The trees were larger; and the gray exterior was replaced by clean, white aluminum siding. The barn sported a new coat of red paint; and the flowers and shrubs showed obvious signs of personal care. Even the garden was free from weeds, with the fresh vegetables growing in well cultivated rows.

TJ drove around to the back, held the car door for his friend Linda to get out, and took her arm as they walked to the back door. Through the screen, he could see his mother doing something at the sink and could hear the television in the background.

He tapped on the screen; and when his mother turned to check on the sound, he said, “Hi Mom, It’s me, TJ.” For a moment, his mother was disoriented, unable to assimilate the event into her reality. She came to the door, still struggling to give definition to the man at the door. Once the screen was open and she and her son were face to face, though, the tears came and her elation spilled out.

“TJ, is it really you? It is. It’s really you.” She reached for him, returning his hug and holding him in that way only understood by mothers and their sons.

“TJ, it’s so good to see you. It’s been so long. How are you? Are you doing alright?”

“I’m fine Mom. It’s good to see you too.”

“Get yourself in here and tell me everything. What have you been doing?”

His mother escorted him instead of allowing him to follow her to the kitchen table and pulled out a chair for him. “Sit down right here and tell me all about you, about what you’ve been up to.”

TJ sat on the chair as his mother directed and turned to include Linda in the circle. “Mom, this is Linda Ross. She is a friend of mine and came along for the ride.”

“Excuse my manners. I was just so excited to see TJ that I forgot myself. I am very pleased to meet you Linda. You are welcome in my house. Come over here and pull up a chair. Let me get you some coffee, and I know TJ will need a piece of cherry pie.”

“Coffee sounds nice but don’t go to any trouble.”

When his mother turned to the counter to pour the coffee, TJ winked at Linda and turned his thumb up. She returned the wink, acknowledging the gesture.

His mother served the coffee in big mugs and got the pie from the refrigerator, cutting TJ and Linda each a piece twice the size of a normal slice. TJ and his mother talked for almost an hour about the pie, how much TJ used to eat, the weather, how he was getting along in the city, what a fine thing it was that he was there, the new school they built west of town, how dirty he used to get when he worked for the neighbors, and all the other catching up kinds of things. TJ glanced at Linda a couple of times to be sure she was not too bored and was greeted with a smile that said, “I’m fine. It’s fun hearing about you and getting the history lesson.”

Not in any context, his mother changed the mood and direction when she asked, “How are you dealing with what happened with Beth and your babies?” TJ was momentarily confused. The memory of his wife and sons disoriented him. His mother had not gone to their funeral; and TJ was not sure whether she knew they had died or cared, even if she did know.

“That was a long time ago. I didn’t know you knew about that. Anyway, I’m doing fine. It was really hard at the time. I also broke my leg at the same time. Everything together was like losing everything at once. I stayed with Bup for a while; and that helped me get things back together. It was all rough for a while; but I’m fine now. What have you been up to? The place sure looks nice.”

His mother did not use the opening to move on to other things and avoid the real issues between her and TJ. “I need to tell you TJ. Hardly a day goes by I don’t think about you, think about the way it was for you, about what you must think about me. You know how it was with Leroy. Pam told me about your wife and babies and what happened but Leroy forbade me to go to the funeral. I wanted to; but he would not allow it. After that, I was too ashamed to try to get in touch with you. I didn’t blame you for hating me. I had no right.”

Another round of coffee and an offer of more pie helped to reestablish a more positive tone. “Tell me about your friend, TJ.”

“Linda and I both work at the same hospital. She is into computers.” This enabled Linda to talk and become part of the conversation.

“How are things with Leroy these days?” TJ asked, wanting to seem casual.

“He has really changed, TJ. He is a different man. He’s not like he used to be at all.”

“That’s nice for you. What got into him?”

“It was four years ago now. Leroy was Saved. It happened after one of his bad times, you know what I mean.” TJ did know what she meant so did not have to ask.

His mother continued, “He was really bad that time, the worst I ever saw him. I don’t know how the Lord got through to him, but thank God he did. It was a real miracle. He is a new man. I’m not saying he never has a backslide, but they aren’t all that bad and aren’t very often. You saw the place and all. Leroy did all that himself. He almost never drinks and is real nice to me these days. It’s like we got to start all over again. He hates himself about what happened, the way he treated you. He prays to the Lord some day you will understand and forgive him. The Devil had hold of him back then and made him do awful things. He has turned his life over to the Lord and is a new man.”

The joy and contentment she felt was contagious. TJ smiled as he said, “I am happy for you, Mom. After all the rough years, you deserve a nice life. I don’t exactly forgive Leroy; but at least I can understand it all a little better. The place does really look nice. Did you plant the flowers?”

“I did some of them and Leroy helped me with the rest. He mainly takes care of the garden and the yard. He thinks flowers are for women.”

As the conversation lightened, Linda participated more, commenting on the flowers, admiring the cheerfulness of the kitchen, and the stitching on the frilly apron TJ’s mother was wearing. They turned down the offer of supper but did accept a sandwich and chips, not wanting to hurt her feelings.

It was nearly time to go when they heard the car in the drive and the attractive young woman came in, followed by a little girl and a boy who could have been her twin except he was about a foot taller and four or five years older.

“Here’s Pam and her two kids,” TJ’s mother said, getting up to make room for Pam at the table. “Look who is here, Pam.” Pam stopped short, looking at TJ and then at Linda. Pam’s blue eyes squinted, taking up slightly more of her narrow face than was quite in proportion; and her tall, slender body was barely covered by her shorts and halter top. Her brown hair hung loosely beyond her shoulders; and she projected an obvious confidence.

“Hi TJ. It’s really good to see you. You look like life has been good to you.”

“Hi Pam. You look like things have turned out pretty well for you too.”

Once introductions were complete and Pam had her mandatory mug of coffee, the catching up started anew. Linda was less involved but not uncomfortable with her observer status. Her attention was split between the conversation and an unfamiliar jealousy as she watched Pam. Linda finally realized what she was feeling and was amused with herself, although her vaguely negative opinion of Pam stayed.

“That’s enough about me. Tell me about your life, Pam,” TJ said.

“As you can see, I have two kids, Tommy and Michelle. He is ten and is going into the sixth grade. She is six and will be in the second. They are pretty good kids. Their Daddy sells cars; and we do okay. As for me, I went to the community college for two years and got my degree in office science. I help out at the office part-time. We live in Langston; and what else is there to tell?”

Pam swallowed the rest of her coffee, got up, and was back out the door before anyone could say anything. She was in the yard and yelling for her children as TJ’s mother said, “I will never understand that girl. She sure is good to those kids, though. Leroy thinks the world of her now that he got straightened out.”

The visit was at that awkward place between being over and not quite finished. TJ did not want to leave without asking, “Where is Leroy?”

“The truth is he is out in the barn. I guess he saw you pull in and is too embarrassed to look you in the eye. He really feels bad about all that happened. I can’t ask you to talk to him. That’s something you will have to work out for yourself.”

TJ looked at the decorative clock on the kitchen wall and said, “It’s almost 7:30. It’s getting about time for us to go. I’m glad I came though, Mom. It is good to see you. I will be back.”

“Can’t you spend the night?”

“No. We have a room paid for in town and need to get back first thing in the morning.”

“I’m just glad you came. Please come back and see me as soon as you can. I have really missed you.”

Once outside, TJ’s mother gave them the tour of the yard and flowers, giving special attention to the garden. They stood by the car and talked a while longer; and finally there were hugs and kisses and promises to visit more often. There was even a hug and kiss on the cheek for Linda and an open invitation to come along with TJ anytime. Linda was already in the car and TJ was about to get in when Leroy joined them, first on the edge and then more centrally. He did not say anything until TJ was in the car and starting the motor.

“Thank you for coming to see your mother, TJ. Maybe we can talk the next time you come back.” Leroy squatted down so he could see Linda and added, “You are welcome back too, Missy.”

Linda smiled; but neither she nor TJ answered. As they pulled into the lane and were driving away, they could see in the mirror that Leroy and TJ’s mother had walked to the side of the house so they could watch the car disappear down the lane and over the hill.

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