As reiterated on this past Sunday's 60 Minutes, actress/producer/director Drew Barrymore had herself emancipated from her parents at the age of 15. But that's a drastic option...right?

If ever there was a convincing case for parental divorce, it was Barrymore, who, after getting clean, legally distanced herself from an exploitative manager-mom who used her to get into clubs, and a dad who only called to ask for money. It seems to have worked out. And when reading about other cases in which parents seem - ahem - more parasitic than protective, the need for distance seems like a necessary means of achieving a healthy and functional adulthood.


But these are the extreme cases - neglect, exploitation, substance or emotional abuse. Likewise, a psychiatrist in today's New York Times discusses a case in which he took the extreme step of urging a patient to cut off contact with his parents after meeting them - they deemed the patient's homosexual "lifestyle" sinful and had told him it would have been better had he died in a car accident rather than his brother. Obviously, his doctor felt - as did the judge handling Barrymore's "divorce" - that this was the only chance, a process he likens to removing a gangrenous limb.

He's right when he says "the assumption that parents are predisposed to love their children unconditionally and protect them from harm is not universally true." This is why, theoretically, we have social workers and judges (who decide whether balloon-hoaxes and Nazi names are grounds for child removal, rather than the well-intentioned mob). The problem is when it's not so clear-cut - and when someone's an adult. The Times encouraged readers to talk about their own experiences with such untenable relationships, and they did flow: stories of abuse and wrenching decisions to cut off family as adults for the sake of emotional well-being. Much as I feel for those who've experienced real horrors - and there are plenty - I also couldn't help the niggling thought that a lot of it comes down to temperament and, yes, what people are willing or able to endure.

When I decided to see a therapist for the first time, I visited someone who'd come highly-recommended by several family friends. I told her about pressures I felt from my dad, fights with my mom, growing pains. After several sessions she looked at me gravely and said, "Your family is toxic. And I really think you need to cut them out of your life." Huh? Maybe we had some dysfunction, but toxic? Really? I was stunned. Even had this been an option - which it wasn't - I didn't want to cut my parents off! Later, I learned that two of the people who'd recommended this same therapist had, indeed, severed their ties with their families and were the happier for it, but I didn't see her again. Most families are somewhat difficult, and dealing with that - to a reasonable extent - is part of being an adult, surely, not an impediment to growth. I have a friend who's cut off her mother because her mom's drug addiction has turned her into someone she doesn't know, and, for that matter, someone who's drained her bank account. She says she hopes they reconcile, but at the end of the day, this wasn't a choice for her. And I guess that's what it comes down to.


Drew Barrymore [CBS]

Divorcing Your Parents [NY Times]
When Parents Are Too Toxic to Tolerate [NY Times]
60 Minutes: Drew Barrymore [CBS News]