“Forgiveness in Families”
by Alice Munro
from Something I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You


For some time, Munro has avoided spelling out her character’s principal dilemmas, which fits nicely since often the character doesn’t want to address it head on. With “Forgiveness in Families,” however, the narrator, Val, seems highly aware of her weaknesses and hypocrisies. When wondering what would happen if she went to a psychiatrist, she thinks:

I would have to start telling him about my brother, and he wouldn’t even wait till I was finished, would he, the psychiatrist, he’d commit me.

Val’s problem is that she doesn’t know how to change — and she’s not sure she wants to anyway.

Val and Cam are siblings who are now in their mid to late thirties. Val is married and responsible and does a lot to take care of their mother. Cam, on the other hand, is Val’s perpetual embarrassment. He was born on Val’s first day of school, so there Val was alone when all the other children had their moms with them. Cam even threw up at her wedding. You can see, it’s been going on for years.

Their mother listens to Val complain about Cam, but she usually tries to deflect any of Val’s anger:

“You’re hard on that boy, Val.”

“Boy,” I said. “Man.”

She laughed, she admitted it. “But remember,” she said, “the Lord loves a lunatic.”

Val establishes very well that Cam really is a kind of lunatic. He will not hold down jobs. He constantly takes advantage of their mother. It causes a lot of heartache, but, in the end, he is always allowed to come home, the prodigal son who never redeems himself.

Well, I guess it’s a matter of perspective or belief.

The truth is, their mother does think that Cam, crazy Cam, has performed a miracle. After years of going nowhere, Cam has settled into a kind of religious group — some would call them fanatics (understandably). He goes around the house in a shaggy robe (Val wonders if it is the sackcloth referred to in the Bible) and sandals. He won’t eat meat or root vegetables (calling his sister a murderer for cutting up a beet. He gets together with other “priests” to do who-knows-what. He’s always been spacey, and now it is even worse.

And one night when he is supposed to be caring for their mother she falls — he is gone with his friends. When he comes home to find her, he doesn’t call an ambulance. He calls Val. She is indignant. Cam knows nothing. And when she calls from the hospital later that day to tell Cam that their mother is dying, Cam doesn’t even answer the phone. Figures.

Yet, later, he arrives with his fellow priests. They’ve been working all day, he says, to save their mother. They’ve now come to perform some kind of song and dance at the hospital. The sounds are supposed to drive out the negative elements, healing those who listen. Val cannot take it and goes home. Here is her brother, making a spectacle of himself, using their mother to get all the attention.

But she lives. The doctors are quite astounded the next day when they find her recovering.

Suddenly, Val finds herself using her mother as a pawn. Why couldn’t she die! Now Cam gets off scot free — again. He is not punished for his neglect or for showing up and acting like a lunatic. If anything, people are going to think he helped.

As I said above, Val understands this. She articulates it; she’s harsh, even vulgar in her bitterness. And through this, the reader is given most of the stuff that normally remains below the surface in Munro’s work. Sure, it seems justifiable because Val’s main problem is not wanting to change, to forgive her brother, even though she knows she should. But this is not really dealt with that well either.

There are other currents going through the story, not the least of which is the mother’s love for her lousy son. The mother is hurt by the son, and yet she forgives. Val is actually rarely hurt directly, but she cannot forgive. Still, this one for me is rather weak.

Or perhaps it’s not that Munro failed with her iteration of the prodigal son story, it’s just that it’s been done incredibly well by others. I’m thinking mainly here of Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (my review here), a brilliant, subtle interrogation into forgiveness in families. This one kind of feels like a starting point. Nevertheless, it is one of her more famous early pieces.


Val is completely impatient with Cam, her brother, in “Forgiveness in Families.” He hardly ever went to school, he quit his job as an usher in the movie house, he worked briefly for some cousins on their farm (the cousins being too religious), he went out east and sent home for money, he thought of starting a turkey farm. He wrings money out of his mother on a regular basis and with no return. He got engaged and then told the girl he had a “hereditary fatal kidney disease.” Val’s mother said, “If you read it in a book you wouldn’t believe it . . . . It’s so terrible it’s funny.”

At thirty-four, he’s living at home, and has become a hippie priest for a sect and he “collects welfare.”

Their mother has an attack of some kind, ends up near death in the hospital, and Cam’s reaction is to bring in a “tribe of co-priests” to perform a special ritual. Val is outraged because it seems such a scam, and also offensive, given that their mother “had lost her religion when she was thirteen.”

But, of all things, their mother was better the next day. Val said:

I was so glad, really grateful, but underneath I was thinking, so Cam didn’t kill her after all, with his carelessness and craziness and going out and neglecting her he didn’t kill her, and I was yes, I was, sorry in some part of me to find out it was true. ….That was the real shock to me, why I kept shaking. Not whether Mother lived or died. It was what was so plain about myself.

What was so plain about her was that she was disappointed (if only privately and momentarily) that her mother had not died, since it would make Cam the hero, not the villain.

This is a very short story, but it has in it so many quotable lines that apply not just to Val, the narrator but to all of us. Here are two:

I read a book called The Art of Loving. A lot of things seem clear while I was reading it but afterwards I went back to being more or less the same.


And I thought, all these things don’t seems that much like life, when you’re doing them, they’re just what you do, how you fill up your days, and you think all the time something is going to crack open, and you’ll find yourself, then you’ll find yourself, in life.

“Forgiveness in Families” covers a lot of territory in a short distance; it sums up the conundrums of family life. One sibling is a ne’er-do-well who still delights his mother no matter what. The other one, driven to it by her brother’s antics, is preoccupied with jealousy to the extent that she even, momentarily, would prefer her mother dead! Munro is deft at not letting anyone off easy.

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