â€˜All happy families resemble one another,
but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.â€™
After dealing with the guilt issues of Sam and Dean in another article, I felt compelled to take a closer look at the relationships of the Winchester men. Johnâ€™s role remains a crucial one, even though we havenâ€™t seen him for a long time now. Who was John Winchester? How did he influence his sons and why? What kind of father was he?
John Winchester was, as Dean once stated, â€˜many thingsâ€™: a vietnam survivor, a corporal, a mechanic, a loving husband to a lovely woman, a father to exceptional, intelligent and courageous sons, an obsessed hunter of the supernatural. Although John died in episode one of the second season, he remained a part of this show â€“ appearing every once in a while in conversations, in memories, sometimes in fights and heated discussions. He made it out of hell, as far as we know, after decades of agony that didnâ€™t manage to turn him into a torturer. And only Heaven (and Kripke, I suppose) knows what has and will become of him.
Neglect, invalidation and a missing mother
John was probably one of the most ambivalent figures in the young Winchestersâ€™ lives, and his ability â€“ albeit being dead and somewhat gone â€“ to create an impact on his sons hasnâ€™t changed.
John, while providing the skills imperative for survival, comfort to an extent he considered necessary (while at the same time loading his sons, and Dean in particular), and love as much as he could muster after his own traumatic shock of finding his beloved wife pinned to the ceilingâ€¦ trained his kids to serve his purpose: execute revenge and find the demon responsible. In part he taught them the essential abilities to deal with whatever might lunge at them, in part he moulded them into handy tools to help him hunt down the yellow-eyed demon Azazel. His actions were fuelled by despair, loneliness and confusion after being violently thrown into a paranormal world he had no idea existed.
I wonder if his approach had taken a different colour, had Mary informed him about her past and her deal with the demon to save John (Season 4, Episode 3, In The Beginning). In all likelihood Mary tried to protect him (after all, keeping your mouth shut deliberately is one Winchester way). Her silence concerning her previous life as a huntress left John altogether unprepared. He did not even see what hit him.
After going through this personal hell without any kind of warning or needed equipment John wanted his children to be ready no matter what. It was an act of love, yes, but it backfired, and hit his sons with the kind of harshness that causes wounds that never entirely heal.
In order to find out more about what happened to his wife, John was forced to get on the road and seek answers â€“ in the course of which frequently leaving his sons alone for days or weeks at a time (e.g. S1, Ep.18, Something Wicked, S3, Ep.8, A Very Supernatural Christmas).
Dean was instructed to take care of Sam, as he had the night that changed their lives for ever, but he was in fact too young to grasp the enormity of it all. He did not question his task, â€˜I always tried to protect you. Keep you safe. Dad didnâ€™t even have to tell me. It was just always my responsibility, you know.â€™ (S2, Ep.22, All Hell Breaks Loose, part II), which is a clear sign of at how early an age Dean internalized his fatherâ€™s orders and the job transferred to him, thereby becoming often the primary caregiver, a role usually occupied by a mother.
Within psychological theories and research of attachment we find one universal thesis: secure mother-infant attachment provides the psychological foundation to prosper and thrive. With more children entering day care, primary caregiver attachment is considered almost as important as mother-infant attachment. It is most likely that Dean â€“ being Samâ€™s primary role model (and often mother) â€“ took a huge part in providing Sam with the confidence necessary to pursue another life.
I believe it was above all Deanâ€™s caring, loving and protective nature (most likely visible only to Sam, to most others he was the Han-Soloesque cool guy, see S4, Ep.13, After School Special) that enabled Sam to eventually leave the family business, additionally supported by something his teacher said to him (same episode).
I also think â€“ though we did not actually see it â€“ that Dean might have even encouraged Sam to do that, reassuring him that dad and he were going be okay. But that is merely my hypothesis. Only Kripke knows for sure. Iâ€™d like to ask him that.
We know that Dean admired Samâ€™s determination to go after his desires: â€˜Sam, you were right. You gotta do your own thing. You gotta live your own life. Youâ€™ve always known what you want, and you go after it. You stand up to Dad, and you always have. â€¦ Anyway, I admire that about you. Iâ€™m proud of you, Sammy.â€™ (S1, Ep.11, Scarecrow).
We began to realize â€“ perhaps along with Dean â€“ that he should not have met his fatherâ€™s expectations unquestioningly. He needed about another year to actually work it though.
Where John was strict, Dean was tender and loving. We met him in Season 1, Ep.18 Something Wicked, as a caring boy, about ten years old, whoâ€™d go without the last bowl of Lucky Charms in favour of Sam (who offered him the prize in turn), and his annoyance over missing out on his perhaps fave cereal did little to hide the fact that he adored his baby brother. In that same episode, however, Dean suffered a blow from his father after an understandable childlike need to playâ€¦ which endangered Sam.
John did not let it go. Even after sixteen years, and even being God knows where he sent Dean to finish the shtriga that almost killed Sam, settling an old score that clearly bore the signs of I-havenâ€™t-forgotten-what-you-did all over.
In favour of John, however, one could also assume another possible reason for sending his eldest son to kill the creature: what if John knew how much guilt Dean carried with him (especially concerning the shtriga-incident), and tried to help him get it off his shoulders by pointing him in the according direction?
But, nevertheless, back then Dean would have needed some comforting word, an indication of forgiveness, which he didnâ€™t get. The ten-year-old boy never received that, leaving him vulnerable for good.
Dean instinctively and immediately consoled the young boy Michael who blamed himself, thereby protecting him from the same kind of pain Dean still carried with him, as he later admitted to Sam: â€˜Iâ€™m the one that screwed up. Itâ€™s my fault. Thereâ€™s no telling how many kids have gotten hurt because of me. (â€¦) You know, Dad never spoke about it again. I didnâ€™t ask. But heâ€¦ He looked at me different, you know? Which was worse. Not that I blamed him. He gave me an order, and I didnâ€™t listen. I almost got you killed.â€™ Deans conviction of having been utterly responsible for the situation had been internalized to an extent that he couldnâ€™t even accept Samâ€™s offer â€˜You were just a kid.â€™- â€˜Donâ€™t. Donâ€™t. Dad knew this was unfinished business for me. He sent me here to finish it.â€™ And the adult Dean somewhat turned into a ten year old lad, confused, reactivating the profound sense of guilt he never was relieved of.
With certainty that incident was not the first of its kind, but it might have been the most traumatic for little Dean, which might be the reason we are told about it. It cut through his young, already stressed psyche and left a deep wound, only barely closing.
When a child lives through a horrific experience the kid will often store it in a sort-of â€˜woundedâ€™ state of mind, and the emotion behind it will easily surface even as an adult â€“ when reminded of the incident. Dean felt like the child he was back then, profoundly remembering how unreliable and insufficient he must have been in his fatherâ€™s eyes. But, nevertheless, he kept defending John whenever necessary, especially when confronted with Samâ€™s difficulties with dad.
He needed to do that. With dadâ€™s standards so deeply rooted in his psyche Dean had to defend him, because else he would have violated everything he believed to be true, and would have gotten in breach with the person he thought his father wanted him to be.
Try taking away someoneâ€™s religion. Furthermore, Dean was in desperate need of dadâ€™s approval, as his self-esteem was low and defined by his ability to be a good son and protective brother.
Sam carried other issues. He was under the misimpression that John saw the perfect son in Dean and was disappointed in everything that was Sam:
S.: â€˜Dad never treated you like that. You were perfect. He was all over my case.â€™
D.: â€˜Maybe he had to raise his voice, but sometimes you were out of line.â€™
S: â€˜Dean, you think I didnâ€™t respect Dad. Thatâ€™s what this is about. (â€¦) I respected him. But no matter what I did, it was never good enoughâ€™
D: â€˜So, what, Dad was disappointed in you?â€™
S: â€˜ â€œwasâ€? Is. Always has been.â€™
D: â€˜And why would you think that?â€™
S: â€˜Because I didnâ€™t wanna bowhunt. Or hustle pool. Because I wanted to go to school and live my life. Which, in our whacked-out family, made me the freak. (â€¦) Dean, you know what most dads are when their kids score a full ride? Proud. Most dads donâ€™t toss their kids out of the house.â€™ (â€¦) â€˜You know, truth is, when we finally do find Dad I donâ€™t know if heâ€™s even gonna wanna see me.â€™
D: â€˜Sam, Dad was never disappointed in you. Never. He was scared. (â€¦) He was afraid of what couldâ€™ve happened to you if he wasnâ€™t around. But even when you two werenâ€™t talking he used to swing by Stanford whenever he could. Keep an eye on you. Make sure you were safe.â€™
S: â€˜Why didnâ€™t he tell me any of that?â€™
D: â€˜Well, itâ€™s a two-way street, dude. You could have picked up the phone.â€™
(S1, Ep 8, Bugs)
Dean had a point.
Yet, John should have told Sam about how much he cared about him as much as he could have told Dean that he was okay just the way he was. I wonder what it did to Dean to see his father driving out to Stanford every once in a while. We know that it bugged him to hear that John took brother number three, Adam, to a baseball game (S4, Ep.19, Jump The Shark). Had Dean been a lesser person he in all likelihood could have been maliciously jealous. But he loved his little brother. Unconditionally. Which was important for Sam to be able to develop and establish a more independent streak that Dean did not dare to even consider.
John failed to provide his elder son with the comfort any kid needs â€“ a sense of being forgiven and the notion to be alright. Within the every day struggle to find Azazel, John neglected the emotional needs of Dean. Donâ€™t get me wrong â€“ John surely loved Dean. And he loved Sam. He had difficulties expressing what he felt, though. Tenderness was a weakness he probably was too afraid to afford to often.
Now, we have been told that John and Sam were more at each otherâ€™s throats than engaged in a calm conversation. With Sam John Winchester showed immense passion (being expressed in anger), thereby indicating that he was bothered by many a thing Sam did or said, whereas with Dean Johnâ€™s tone was more that of a commanding officer, which is a somewhat distant position.
It is evident that John in his fights with his younger son dealt with Samâ€™s personality, that Sam actually was being seen by his father. A painful fact Azazel shoved into helpless Deanâ€™s face: â€˜You fight and you fight for this family, but the truth is: they donâ€™t need you. Not like you need them. Sam, heâ€™s clearly Johnâ€™s favourite. Even when they fight, itâ€™s more concern than heâ€™s ever shown you.â€™ (S1, Ep.22, Devilâ€™s Trap)
Sam, by opposing his father, forced dad to deal with him. Dean, on the other hand, was never in a position to know for sure that his dad actually saw him â€“ or merely the well-trained, young soldier he had raised so meticulously. Dean hardly ever raised an opinion different from dadâ€™s, in all likelihood hoping that if he did what was expected of him, he would be accepted and loved â€“ surely fuelled by the shtriga incident and Johnâ€™s withdrawal of paternal love.
It took his father about sixteen years and a deal with the demon resulting in Johnâ€™s imminent death to tell his oldest son that he actually was proud of him, and to offer apologies for many a thing he did wrong: â€˜You know, when you were a kid, Iâ€™d come home from a hunt. And after what Iâ€™d seen, Iâ€™d be wrecked. And you, youâ€™d come up to me, and youâ€™d put your hand on my shoulder, and youâ€™d look me in the eye, and youâ€™d say â€œitâ€™s okay, Dad.â€ Dean. Iâ€™m sorry. â€¦ You shouldnâ€™t have had to say that to me. I shouldâ€™ve been saying that to you. You know, I put too much on your shoulders. I made you grow up too fast. You took care of Sam, and you took care of me. You did that. And you didnâ€™t complain, not once. I just want you to know that I am so proud of you.â€™ (S2, Ep 1, In My Time Of Dying)
Dean was hardly able to believe his fatherâ€™s words, words he had been longing to hear probably all his life. And because of the events following there was no time for Johnâ€™s words to sink in. His sons had to cope with losing their father, and Dean was confronted with the fact of being alive because dad made a deal â€“ and the weight John had, again, put on his shoulders: â€˜I want you to watch out for Sammy.â€™ (S2, Ep1, In My Time Of Dying).
Dean needed about another year of feeling guilty and a deal of his own to realize that â€˜my father was an obsessed bastardâ€¦â€™ (S3, Ep.10, Dream A Little Dream of Me).
They fuck you up, your mum and dad,
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
English poet Larkin expresses a rather cynical view. Did John actually â€˜fuck upâ€™ his kids? Should we call John an abusive father? He surely never intended to harm his sons. Neither physically nor emotionally. But he displayed behaviour designed to control his sons, foremost for the reason of protecting them. Tending to their emotional needs was not on top of Johnâ€™s to-do-list.
There was a lot of criticism to be heard, especially for Dean. Sam on the other hand was pushed away. John was not willing to reach out to him, as Bobby brilliantly analyzed (S4, Ep. 22, Lucifer Rising).
John transferred his own guilt about not being able to protect his family onto Dean, giving him the order to look after his younger sibling, and only if he did well, then Dean would be accepted. If not, invalidation would be another means of control for John â€“ which left Dean in particular feeling inadequate and unsure of his own worth, which surfaced painfully after Samâ€™s death, watching his brotherâ€™s dead body and later, as Bobby confronted Dean about his deal:
D: â€˜Dad brought me back, Bobby, Iâ€™m not even supposed to be here. At least this way, something good can come out of it, you know. Itâ€™s like my life can mean something.â€™
B: â€˜What? And it didnâ€™t before? Have you got that low an opinion of yourself? Are you that screwed in the head?â€™
D: â€˜I couldnâ€™t let him die, Bobby. I couldnâ€™t. Heâ€™s my brother. â€˜
B: â€˜Howâ€™s your brother gonna feel when he knows youâ€™re going to hell? Howâ€™d you feel when you knew your dad went for you?â€™
D: â€˜You canâ€™t tell him. You take a shot at me, whatever you gotta do, but please donâ€™t tell him.â€™ (S2, Ep. 22, All Hell Breaks Loose, Part II)
Dean, now an adult and absolutely capable of taking care of himself and his brother, was still, when his Dad was concerned a kid - no more than perhaps ten or twelve years old. And yes, at this point he was indeed that screwed in the head. He defined his own worth via his capability to save his family, namely Sam. Itâ€™s what he had done since he was a child.
(It is wonderfully played out by Jensen Ackles, who actually in those scenes when he is confronted with Daddy-Issues shows the insecure glances, the tense body language and sometimes a look in his eyes as if he was searching for a means to escape, just like a kid would when confronted with the notion that he did something terribly wrong. And apart from that he conveys the unconditional love for a father who no one would depict as a poster boy for parental success.)
John did succeed in many ways, though â€“ he trained his boys to be warriors, something he knew they would need to survive. Furthermore, he passed on his moral standards to them: to put the life and safety of others above their own, which became an integral part of their own identities (whether the ethos of self-sacrifice was a huge success still requires debate, though).
The price for that was more than any human being should be forced to pay, and it did not always sit well with the brothers. Sam eventually chose another life. Dean stayed. Much later, though, he allowed doubts to surface: â€˜I know what you would say: your happiness for all those peopleâ€™s lives, no contest, right? But why? Why is it my job to save these people? Why do I have to be some kind of hero? What about us? Why do we have to sacrifice everything, Dad?â€™ (S2, Ep.20, What Is and What Should Never Be)
They may have earned the skills of highly alert soldiers, with a fit and strong body that might endure beatings and wounds like hardly any regular personâ€™s, but the climate they grew up in left them both deeply vulnerable in their souls. And yet, they emerged as essentially good people. We can assume that John did a lot to help his sons become men of integrity, kindness and compassion.
The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
- Edmund Burke
This is not what they do â€“ do nothing. It is part of their moral code to do something. No matter what. They will do whatever might be necessary to save others, and especially their own family (expanding, after Johnâ€™s death, to Bobby as their surrogate father, as well as Ellen and Jo, and to some extent Pamela and even Castiel).
Family, to quote Bobby â€˜donâ€™t end with bloodâ€™ (S3,. Ep.16, No Rest For The Wicked).
John, basically, provided his boys with the strong need to do whatever they could to prevent evil from damaging their universe even more. It had become their credo and purpose in life. Even though Sam had tried to pull away, he was forced to join Dean after losing Jessica.
The Family Grows
In season fourâ€™s 19th episode â€˜Jump The Sharkâ€™ a new member of the tribe surfaced: Adam, brother number three.
The news hit the brothers at a most vulnerable and conflicted moment. Pamela had died helping them, Dean had been informed by Alistair about his role in the apocalypse, and they had learned about Chuck and the â€˜Winchester Gospelâ€™. Apart from that, a siren had confronted them with issues they had not been able to bury just yet.
Adam was a pre-med student, a polite, honest young man (considering he was impersonated by the ghoul who took on his traits and characteristics), who had not seen much of his father but felt comfortable enough with him to call him the instant his mother was missing.
The shock hit Dean with unexpected ferocity. Adam just couldnâ€™t be real. He had to be some kind of evil creature (and it is tragic that he was right, although in a slightly different manner than he assumed) â€“ for Dean (realizing that John might have led another life unbeknownst to his sons that sacrificed so much for him) the situation was without doubt a shattering, treason-like moment, as his father whom he had worshipped had not been entirely honest with him. Or Sam. On the other hand, it was also a typical behavior of John â€“ not letting out too much.
John had been there for some birthdays of Adam, providing his youngest son with happy memories of baseball games and harmless adventures, while, we are told, he sometimes didnâ€™t make it home to his â€˜legitimateâ€™ sons for Christmas.
Dean was disappointed, initially not ready to accept the truth, while Sam proved to be open and welcoming â€“ suddenly Sam was the older brother, able to teach Adam a thing or two, slipping out of his role as the baby brother (after all, he told Dean in season 5, one reason why he got together with Ruby was his impulse to get away from his brother who wouldnâ€™t let him grow up). He was able to relate to Adam who wanted revenge, and he wanted to protect the boy by training him, thereby becoming an echo of John: â€˜we could train Adam, get him ready. Even if we kill this, there are tons of other freaks that want revenge. On dad. On us. What if they find the kid instead and heâ€™s not ready?â€™ (same episode)
Children begin by loving their parents, after a time they judge them;- Oscar Wilde
He gave Adam the speech John had given Sam shortly before he went to Stanford: â€˜Being a hunter isnâ€™t a job, Adam. Itâ€™s life. Youâ€™re premed. You got a girlfriend? Friends? â€¦ Not anymore you donâ€™t. If youâ€™re really gonna do this, you canâ€™t have those kind of connections, everâ€¦ Youâ€™ll just put those people in danger, get them killedâ€¦â€™
It is sad to observe the significant changes in the Winchester family. Sam had heard this speech by this father, later again by Dean in a paraphrased version (S1, Ep. 6, Skin), and now he was the one to hold on to its meaning. Dean, having idolized and worshipped his father in the beginning, had become a more critical son, aware of the importance of John, but also noticing his weak points and obsessions â€“ the rose colored glasses of his childhood and adolescence finally gone. This time it was Sam who defended their father: â€˜Dad did right by us. He taught us how to protect ourselvesâ€™ (S 4, Ep 19, Jump the Shark).
D: â€˜Adam, heâ€™s still got a chance, man. He can got to school, be a doctor!â€™
S: â€˜What makes Adam so special?â€™
D: â€˜What, are you jealous of the kid?â€™
S: â€˜Are you?â€™
In a way, Adam represented the kind of unspectacular, normal life they could have had, if fate had not chosen to destroy their family. It wouldnâ€™t be surprising to anyone, if Sam and Dean felt jealous â€“ Adam was going to study medicine, perhaps marry his girlfriendâ€¦ and he had a mother and, occasionally, a father.
Sam almost would have led a life like that. Dean had never seen the opportunity, although â€˜Dream a Little Dream of Meâ€™ (S3, Ep. 10) and, â€˜What Is and What Should Never Beâ€™ (S2, Ep.20) tragically showed that he had the same dream, on a less ambitious scale.
Adam served as a mirror, painfully pointing at the fatal course their lives had taken, at a point when both were disillusioned and metamorphosed young men.
â€˜You know, I finally get it why you and dad butted heads so much. You two are practically the same person. I mean, I worshipped the guy, you know, I dressed like him, acted like him, I listen to the same music. But you are more like him than I will ever be' (S4, Ep.19, Jump the Shark). In the past, realizing that Dean was very much unlike John would have hurt him profoundly. Now he almost seemed relieved.
After all, he had switched into older-brother-and-protector mode instinctively, this time to protect Adam, like he had done with Sam in the past. This behavior was so much part of his being that it surfaced the moment he realized that John had not wanted a hunterâ€™s life for his youngest son. Even though he tried to â€˜respect dadâ€™s wishesâ€™ and keep Adam save, it was not only John legacy he was following.
All those years of being a hunter by his fatherâ€™s side stepped back. Dean had become his own person. He had experienced his own traumatic life events that had altered his blind acceptance of John. This was important, as he made the kind of decision Sam had found by going to Stanford â€“ relying on a mind of his own, taking responsibility for himself and letting go of an over-demanding father who loved his sons, undoubtedly, but who had seen no other choices than the ones he made.
For both Winchesters it became crucial to base their decisions on their own conclusions now, their own experiences. The childhood wounds of invalidation and the notion of not-being-good-enough that still burned in their souls, needed to heal at least to some extend. From what we know and judging from their confusion still arising when the memory of dad comes up, as well as their continuing guilt issues â€“ those wounds have not yet healed, but seem to be closing.
Parents fail. They make mistakes, sometimes horrific ones. But let us assume that most parents strive to do whatâ€™s best for their children, and they base their decisions on what they consider to be right in the moment they need to make any decision.
No one is able (unless they are, of course, psychic) to see in advance how their choices will turn out. Creating options for the ones closest to you might well be the most difficult task there is.
John tried his best. He relied on his skills as a commanding officer (a corporal) and the training that had helped him to survive one of the most dreadful wars ever fought. He thought what he did was right to prepare his sons for any kind of fight that might await them. He helped them develop morality, a conscience and compassion. But he also provided them, and especially his oldest son, with blows to their self-esteem that will need many years, maybe even a life-time, of work.
In the end, when all is said and done, I believe, it is more important how we remember our parents.