Grey Gardens : An Otherworld

Grey Gardens

by Daniel R. Hirtler on 02/04/11

We watched the Documentary, Grey Gardens, a couple of days ago, and the relationship of the occupants to the house struck me in that the rooms of the house no longer held any functional names for the two women. All functions were presented as happening together, wherever the two women were. As dramatic as the images in the documentary are, I think that many people experience the collapse and overlay of the functions of their life as they age. In the case of Mother and Daughter Beale, both ended up sleeping in one room of the 28 rooms in the house; and in their sleeping room they lived and ate.

The documentary only went so far, never once showing the location or condition of the bathroom(s?). There were allusions to running water in that a washing machine had been brought into the house, with the indication that it was supposed to function. It would have been interesting to see the location and condition of the bathroom to understand exactly how much their use of the house had changed from the norm. How much privacy did they require from each other to live in the relationship they had.

Part of the fascination of Grey Gardens for me is the planning of houses for old age. In the case of the Beales, it appears that there was a rotten family dynamic that caused the physical destruction of the house and the family because of withholding money, approval, and simple kindness. Edith Beale had a career kept from her, she withheld kindness and attention from her husband who left and starved the house of resources, and both parents withheld approval of their daughter to the point of frailty and life paralysis. This dynamic led to a house which was uninhabitable, and human relationships that were limiting.

Working on developing nurturing relationships in one's family should be one's goal, and although they will always be odd, consciousness and empathy for one's family will lead in a healthy direction. What I am writing here, though, concerns the physical home.

When one thinks of a dwelling, one tends to group one complete set of features that are necessary for a group of related individuals to live independently from other groups of people. If one limits one's view to a single person, all the necessary the components could be placed in a single open room, since privacy is, at this core state, not an issue. As that individual manifests cultural conceptions, the desire for the separation of parts of life from other parts becomes felt, and the room might not want to be so open, and if the individual is social, and wants to permit guests into their space, the desire for privacy is layed over the desire for separation of functions.

It is when one adds additional dwellers into the habitation that the need for distinct rooms presents itself. A separate place to sleep, a room to separate oneself from the others, a common eating a sitting space to permit those other privacies, a private place to bathe are all desirable cohabitation features.

As people in our culture, which is based on individuality, age, often it is not desirable to dwell with others again. Those people are often established in homes which are family size. as time passes, their life patterns change from what was familiar when other people were around them, to a set of patterns that would suit a person who lives alone. The differentiated functional spaces of the whole house lose their function over time, and all the functions of life start to move together into smaller and smaller areas of the original house. From the point of view of the original family, life has degenerated, and this condition is a disease. I would suggest that the disease that is manifested is that the process is subconscious only, and issues of hygiene and order are left unaddressed in this spacial collapse.

In the larger scheme, if were understood that one retreats to a single room some time after one becomes alone, and "Grandma's Room" is the natural order of things rather than the inevitable conclusion of the elderly begrudgingly coming to live with their children, then one could see the opposite happen. Grandma could retreat into smaller and smaller areas of her home, while establishing parts of her family in the home to move her family and herself to the next generation.

The alteration to spacial thinking that would need to be considered would be the diffusion of the features necessary to living into the individual rooms of the house. Each bedroom would be seen as a a dwelling, grouped around a set of common rooms which would permit the individual to be self sufficient, while living safely around other people.

Thinking in this way of nurturing both individual and family, I wonder how many families of individuals would benefit.

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