My therapist and I realized the other day that although I’ve been in therapy with her off and on since 2014, we’ve never discussed my childhood. “Well,” she said, “I’m sure you’ve discussed it with the other therapists you’ve seen in the past.” “No,” I replied, “I haven’t. Never.” She asked. if I thought we should and I paused and took a deep breath and said, yes. My life has been a series of fires to put out for so long, this is the first time we’ve had time to get into it. She is clearly not a Freudian. And I have clearly been avoiding this. (My mother’s voice ringing loud in my head “someday you’ll grow up and go to therapy and talk about what a terrible mother I was,” making a pit in my stomach big enough to swallow me whole. The guilt. The shame. You don’t talk about the family to anyone outside the family.
Soon after this, someone tweeted about writing about your childhood and your parents’ reaction. It was a lighthearted tweet but some jackass replied that if one is going to write something negative about one’s parents, they should discuss it with their parents first as he had had an experience counter to this and was not okay with it. Here’s my response:
He has since deleted his comment as you can see.
I mean what I said and yet, I have held back on discussing certain things here. But I’m reminded of the quote:
So, fuck it.
I was reading my fave Viktor Frankl a couple of weeks ago. There’s a book newly translated to English of some talks he gave in 1946, shortly after leaving the camps. He writes about getting out and choosing to stay in Austria and the experience of having so many people there say, oh we had no idea what was going on in the camps. He calls it a deliberate not knowing and says it’s essential to the success of authoritarian regimes. Ordinary people must deliberately turn away from what is happening so that they don’t have to accept responsibility for it, don’t have the moral imperative to do something about it.
And as I was reading it, I thought of my mother. I thought of how much energy she and my father have put into not knowing for my entire life. You see, my greatest fear has always been that my children will turn out like me. They most definitely got some crap genes from me (nature) so I have to know that I am raising them differently than I was raised (nurture). And so, I have to remember what it was like and all the glaring red flags and cries for help and all that that they purposely ignored. Because I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t ignore my kids’ cries for help and red flags and all that.
I used to make excuses for them. It was the 1980s, it was rural Appalachia, not a place mental health was talked about. We didn’t have health insurance a lot of the time. But it’s just excuses. I had a lot of friends, of all classes and varieties, whose parents got them help (tried to anyway). The truth of it is, she didn’t want to be embarrassed and she didn’t want to be bothered. It’s messy, ya know? I remember writing a story in college about a girl who kills herself by slitting her wrists but makes sure to put newspapers down so it won’t make a mess for her mother to clean up. I had no idea the story was about me. I truly didn’t.
When you cut yourself everyday with razor blades, arms and ankles and shoulders and thighs, it is bloody. It wasn’t a thing back then. They still called it “self mutilation.” A friend of mine turned me and my boyfriend onto it and I loved it. I loved it for a lot of reasons, conscious and subconscious. I tried to hide it but apparently something happened that made it impossible to ignore. So they told me to stop. And she said, “You don’t need to see someone do you? You’re all right aren’t you?” And there was only one acceptable answer. “I’m fine.” Because we were always fine.
But my cuts were a reminder we weren’t actually fine. An intrusion into the beautiful little house where she kept her china dolls, four daughters, four dolls. And so my sisters would say that I needed to stop upsetting mom. And they would check me for cuts. And I would find new places to cut that they weren’t willing to look. And in time it blew over. She honestly probably completely forgot about it pretty quickly. They do that, ya know? People like her. They just dissociate out the bad memories that don’t fit their picture of the perfect little life. Just put the cut up doll in a new long sleeved dress and back in her place and everything’s fine again.
Fine. We’re fine. Everything’s fine.
We came home drunk, came home high, came home tripping balls. And they didn’t notice. I thought I was really good at faking them out. My other friends’ parents kept catching them but not me and my sister. We were so much better than them! Of course, we weren’t. Of course, if my kids came home like that I would know instantly. And have to deal with it. And admit things are not fine. And I would. But not her. Not them.
And if my four year old came to me asking for protection because her older sister was bullying her, I wouldn’t say “Toughen up. Life is hard,” and go about my day. If they locked her in a room with a static-y TV meant to terrify her at age 5 because she’d seen Poltergeist, if she was so scared she literally ripped the door off the hinges trying to escape, I would do something about that shit. For her sake and for theirs. I prefer not to raise any of my kids to be dickheads. But she loved her flying monkeys because they did the work for her.
I have to think about these things to remind myself I am a different mother than she was and that my kids won’t turn out like me. They’re already turning out differently. They don’t pretend everything is fine (not at my house anyway). They get mad and sad and worried and frustrated and bored. And they notice when I’m unhappy and ask me if I’m okay and what’s wrong and they try to cheer me up. These things happen daily, generally multiple times a day. And it occurs to me how many millions of time I have stuffed down sadness and anger and guilt and confusion and shame and just generally not being fine. And how many times I have stuffed down the urge to say, what’s wrong, Mommy? Because no matter what I said or how I acted, I knew things weren’t fine. I just didn’t know how to say it. For decades.
I look at my daughter and think, wow, she’s so perceptive. She spots manipulation or insincerity a mile away and she calls you on it. And it’s taken me a year and a half to realize I was that perceptive too. I just didn’t allow myself to admit it. Because I had to survive. Because children die without adults to take care of them.
I think about that study where they replaced infant monkey’s mothers with these cloth monkey dolls and the monkeys bonded to them, clung to them. Those infants turned out much better than the monkeys without one, or with the ones made of wire instead of cloth. And I wonder, did those monkeys grow up and go out in the world and eventually realize their mothers were just dolls, and not real mothers at all? Did the monkeys marry monkeys or dolls? If you’re used to a doll, I’d imagine marrying a real actual monkey wouldn’t feel right. Until you eventually realized being married to a doll isn’t normal at all, and really not a good idea.
WILL YOU MARRY ME? I THOUGHT YOU’D NEVER ASK!
I am 42 years old. And up until a few weeks ago, I would have told you I’m not an emotional person. A lot of statements like this “That movie had me crying and I’m not an emotional person.” “I’m not a crier but when she said that, I ended up bawling.” And so on and so forth. I didn’t think I was an emotional person because that’s what they told me. I remember being at the Pittsburgh International Airport and my mom was either leaving for her prolonged trip abroad or returning from it. I was 16 or 17. And my mom was crying and my sister was crying and so on and so forth. And I wasn’t. And it was, oh what’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she crying? And so when I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 22, it all made sense as to why she never seemed to express the appropriate emotions. And what it took me all these decades to realize, is that I knew it was all fake. The tears, the words they spoke, the situationally appropriate feelings they acted out. All a performance. A play we put on everyday for ourselves, for the world. I just couldn’t play along. Actual sadness, actual crying, I knew to keep hidden. Like a rabbit crouching down in the field, pressing its soft underbelly to the cool grass, hoping the wolf won’t rip its intestines out. Hoping it will pass by. Never, I mean never, expose your soft underbelly to them. Keep it locked away. Even from yourself.
It turns out, I’m actually really fucking emotional. I cried in front of patients in residency. That is not done. I cry on my way home from a hard shift with my addiction patients. I cry every time my son Max plays piano. I cry at movies, on almost every major holiday, thinking about the future, the past. I’m a crier. It’s taken me my entire life to 1) realize this and 2) let go of the shame around it. You’re not allowed to apologize for crying at my office. Humans are supposed to cry. And if someone feels safe enough to cry with me, I’m honored. Crying, real crying, not performance tears, it’s truly amazing. Every cry is a good cry.
Lena knows the difference between real tears and fake ones. She knows there’s a certain look he gives her that’s meant to make her feel bad for him and manipulate her into acting like she’ll miss him when he goes even though she won’t. And she knows how she’s supposed to act to make people happy. I think she knows she doesn’t need to do that with me. I hope. I’m actively working on it. Working on accepting emotions of all kinds from them and from me. On being honest with them when I’m sad or angry. On letting them know I’m there if they’re sad and that they won’t feel sad forever. Listening. Watching. Noticing. Remembering.
I will never understand how you can see your child’s body bloody and gashed and not want to do everything you can to help her. How you turn away from a four year old asking you for protection. How you tell your daughter she’s a crazy slut and a horrible mother and you’re giving her ex-husband money to get a lawyer and take her kids away. How you mention to her that her uncle googled “Elizabeth Fleming slut” and all kinds of things came up. Show her the tiny little AP wire article in the hometown paper about her turning in the pedophile and mentioning, accurate or not, details about her sex life, and talk about how humiliating it is and remind her how embarrassed her sisters are. And will never understand a man jealous of a ten year old. A man who belittles and degrades his children and his wife, plays them against one another, gaslights and lies. And do you know why?
Because they aren’t real people. They’re just cloth dolls pretending at being human. They’re badly behaved little sock monkeys and I merely, dear reader, relate the facts. Because everything was not fine. And every feeling and word and question and desire and lament and exaltation that I’ve swallowed down, that my children have swallowed down, that so many of us have swallowed down, deserves to come out whatever way we see fit. Y’all sock monkeys can go on deliberately not knowing, just work a little harder at it. The rest of us, we’re gonna be just fine.