SVMG Book Club: Intervention, control, and “Who By Fire”

I don’t really think of myself as an interventionist. I might not always agree with what you do, and I might question you about it. I might express that disagreement to you, and chances are that I may talk about it with mutual friends as well. But unless it’s something truly dangerous to your well-being, I’m probably not going to get in your way of doing it. Despite my misgivings, I will generally give you credit for knowing yourself better than I do, and for being able to make your own decisions.

I might think your decision is irresponsible, or maybe just plain stupid, but that doesn’t give me the right to prevent you from acting on it. I don’t think it’s my job to take charge of your life – or maybe I just don’t think so highly of myself that I believe I should take charge of it. Maybe I’m too passive, or maybe I think I have enough responsibility in being responsible for myself, and not you too.

Of course, all of those disclaimers assume that you’re an adult. If you’re a child, particularly if you’re my child, there will be times when I do know better than you do, and it’s part of my job to intervene. But here’s where it gets sticky – my child will always be “my child,” but eventually my child will be an adult. (Actually, my child is an adult – he’ll be 25 in July.) How do we learn to step back and see our children as adults –  let them choose their own path, even if it’s not one we’d want them to choose?

In Diana Spechler‘s novel Who By Fire (reviewed here), this is something that mother Ellie Kellerman has a lot of trouble with. It’s complicated for her by the fact that one of her children never got the chance to become an adult – her youngest, Alena, was kidnapped when she was six years old, and no trace of has ever been found – and Ellie has been wrapped up in that loss for almost twenty years. Meanwhile, her two older children, daughter Bits and son Ash, have grown up at loose ends, and Ellie disagrees with what both of them are doing with their lives. Ash chooses to seek answers and comfort in religion, and when he comes to believe the best place for him to find them is an Orthodox yeshiva in Jerusalem, he leaves – and gradually cuts off contact with his mother and sister. Ellie and Bits both have major objections to Ash’s choice, which is one reason he retreats from them; Ellie feels that he has joined a cult. Joining a cult is one of those choices that could indeed be construed as dangerous to one’s well-being; as Ash’s mother, Ellie uses that sense of danger to justify the belief that he needs to be pulled out if he won’t leave on his own, and she sees her daughters as the instruments to make it happen.

I understand the need to feel in control of a situation, but I don’t believe that when that situation is someone else’s life, it’s my place to be in control of it. My disagreement with your choice doesn’t mean that your choice is automatically wrong – if it is, you’ll figure it out on your own eventually, and maybe you’ll learn something along the way. That’s the “adult” part.

I wouldn’t intervene in the lives of my adult children the way Ellie Kellerman does – would you? I wouldn’t want to be on the receiving end of such intervention either. Again, would you? Is it ever OK to try to change another person? Personally, I say no…we can only change ourselves. Then again, I’m non-interventionist.

We’re discussing Who By Fire and the questions it raises about family, connection, boundaries, and mutual responsibility across the blogs of Silicon Valley Moms Group members today. If you’ve read the book, please share your thoughts in comments – here, in the discussion being hosted on the LA Moms Blog, or in both places!

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  1. It’s hard to say what I’d do when the kids are adults. Though, I think I would intervene if they were in danger of some sort; like drugs, or possibly a cult. Of course, it’s these situations that are the hardest to actually get someone to change. Both can have quite a grip on one’s life.

  2. Great topic. I don’t think I would interfere with my kids (when they’re adults) unless I knew for sure they were in physical danger or knew they were being forced into a situation (if they were mentally incapable of making a choice).

    As long as they were safe, I would only offer my thoughts to them. We are an open family and use constructive criticism to understand one another. At this point, both my boys are teens, and we allow them to make decisions on minor issues even when we know their choices are probably not that great – it seems to have given them a more thoughtful, responsible outlook. Learning from mistakes is ultimately better than being led through life (imo).

  3. Mike – Interesting that you mention cults, since that was the mother’s motivation for intervening in this novel – even though her son really HADN’T joined one, which makes her actions much harder to justify.

    It does become less clear-cut when your kids get older, though, and as you note, when they don’t see that they’ve made dangerous choices, do we assume they’re really NOT responsible adults after all and treat them like kids?

    Joanne – My approach is pretty much like yours. Then again, it’s always hard to say whether your kids really have the good sense to stay out of trouble or whether you’ve just been lucky. But I agree – as they get older, we should be giving our kids the opportunity to make their own decisions, even if they turn out to be mistakes, so they can learn from them. As you mention, though, this probably works best when a family has pretty open communication to begin with.