So, you remember back in early March, when my mother and brother had a total blow-out of an argument? And that I sort of got sucked in unwillingly and wound up sending my mom that email (in response to her request) about my characterization of my brother's and my childhood? And how I decided to be all honest and stuff?
Yeah, I'm trying not to regret that whole honesty decision.
My mom had emailed me a few days after I sent the email, to say that she was devastated but loved me, and then she and I had talked on the phone a couple of days after that, right before I headed off to South Africa. And it was a slightly guilt-trippy email and phone conversation, but we got through it.
And then, ridiculously, foolishly, I somehow made up my mind that that was the end of that and that I wouldn't have to deal with any of this anymore. Stupid, stupid me -- how could I have lived in the bosom of my family for so many years and made that erroneous assumption?
My brother emailed me a couple of weeks ago to say that he really wants to talk on the phone about the fight between him and Mother, because it's been really hard on him emotionally. And I have to confess that I've totally been ducking that conversation; we played phone tag a couple of times, but I really haven't been trying very hard to contact him. And I feel bad about that -- he reached out to me, which we don't do very often, and I should have responded more openly -- but I also know him and his emotional/rhetorical limitations in which things are mostly black and white, and I just haven't had the energy to deal with it.
And then last Friday my mom sent this email to the two of us -- an email that felt totally out of the blue, since I was working so hard to convince myself that I wasn't going to have to deal with any fallout from any of this (silly, silly me), but that I'm sure she thought of as continuing the conversation and working through things.
Except that her "working through things" was to "apologize" in the guise of blaming all faults in our childhood on the fact that my dad "left us" -- always the way she phrases the fact of their marital separation. In fact, she has been telling the story of their separation and divorce so regularly for so long that she always uses the same phrasing, tells it in exactly the same way -- it's become a rote narrative for her, one that she uses to explain anything unhappy in her life and simultaneously to avoid all responsibility. In this story, she is the victim of an ungrateful husband, one who "fired me from a job I was really good at" -- again, a stock phrase that appears in every single re-telling of this story. So her "apology" was that she perhaps wasn't as "empathetic" as she could have been toward us in the midst of the emotional devastation my father wreaked when he abandoned us all.
Only, in this particular email retelling of the same old story, she added a coda, one in which she is now also victimized by her ungrateful children. Here's the end of her email: "I am sad that you can only remember the bad things that happened. My hope is that eventually you will be able to recall some good times as well. All I can say now is that I am sorry and that I did the best I could in a really difficult situation."
I don't often think "Fuck you!" toward my mom, but I certainly did last Friday night. Not only did she completely ignore everything I'd said about the ways that she was out of control toward us physically and emotionally -- no recognition that I'd even mentioned the hitting, the slapping, the yelling, etc. -- but she also completely ignored the ways I'd been so careful to make clear that this was a pattern that began years before the divorce and continued years after, a point I'd been careful about because I know that the divorce is her go-to excuse for everything. And then to end by painting herself as unappreciated by her children after being unappreciated by her husband -- I was so spitting mad that I couldn't even speak about it to D. for an hour after I got the email.
So I didn't respond for a full week -- no phone call, no email, no nothing -- because (a) I was legitimately busy and didn't have the emotional wherewithall to deal with her, and (b) I was so pissed that I didn't think it would be a consructive conversation anyway. And I needed to decide how to handle the whole thing: Was I going to just let this be the end of it, which I assume is what she was hoping for, or was I going to keep going with the whole "speaking the truth" approach, even though it's not working out spectacularly thus far.
But last night it had been an entire week since her email, and I thought I needed to respond one way or the other and not put it off any longer. So I sent her an email and opted for the honesty approach. In a way I think it's weird to be conducting all of this by email, but writing things down lets me work out my phrasing carefully and at an emotional distance so that I don't get swept up in an argument and say things in a way I'll regret. And I think there's some advantage, when expressing difficult things, to having a written text that both parties can return to and reread. Maybe this is just the language person in me and isn't a feeling shared by my family, but I find it helpful. And the whole "emotional distance" thing is not to be underestimated here; I really am resenting that I've gotten pulled into this and am trying very hard to keep my feelings as disengaged as possible, which may or may not be healthy but is the approach I'm striving for nonetheless.
So in my email I said that, as I'd noted before, I really wasn't interested in rehashing with her issues from my childhood, but that I did have three points I wanted to make in response to her email. (And I actually enumerated them -- again with the "retreat into emotional distance.") The first was that she had not addressed at all the issue of physically hurting us, which was important not because we needed to work through it about our childhood but because those patterns seem to be happening again in the way she treats her nieces -- a point that both my brother and I have been explicit with her about and that she has, as far as I can tell, been ignoring. The second was that I resented her statement that we remembered only the bad things from our childhood, which was patently not true. (Clearly the emotional/rhetorical "everything is black or white" approach that my brother takes is one that he came by honestly.) So you'll notice thus far that there was more of an edge to this email than to my last one; I did strive for a calm, understanding tone throughout, but I wanted her to know that her email had deflected all of the major issues from my previous email and had then taken refuge in counter-attack.
And then, in my third point, I tried to return to the compassionate, firm-but-loving tone of my earlier correspondence with her, although there's still much more of an edge to it than before. Here's the end of my email:
Third -- and this last point is entirely about my hopes for your well-being -- I think it would be worth your rereading your email to notice the ways in which you depict yourself throughout as victimized -- first by your ungrateful husband and then by your ungrateful children. The story of your marital separation and divorce (and of that Christmas in particular) is one that you have told and retold so regularly that I could practically recite it word for word; you have told it so many times that by now you use the same phrasing every time you tell it -- it's become rote memory for you. And here's why I think that is a problem:
I am afraid that story has become your foundational story, the one to which you turn to make sense of most things in your life. What strikes me as so dangerous about this is that, in this story, you are a victim abused by others -- a victim who survives, certainly, but a victim nonetheless. Emphasizing that story as so central in your life is sometimes a way to evade other troubling matters (which is my assessment of what happened in your email of last Friday) and at other times a way to explain why other things have gone wrong for you in your life. It's almost become a mantra for you -- and what kind of mantra is it? Not a positive or life-affirming one, certainly. I am not at all trying to minimize what must have been the terrible pain of your separation and divorce; what I am worried about is that you continue to dwell on that terrible pain more than two decades later, such that this is still the story you immediately turn to to make sense of things in your life. And I'm not actually convinced that you still *feel* that terrible pain (I certainly hope not); rather, you just keep telling the story of it.
All of this is perhaps none of my business, but I love you and want you to be happy, and I think that your ongoing rehearsal of this story gets in the way of that happiness. And I do understand that impulse; I have recognized for several years now that my story of the horrible times at [St. Martyr's] could, if I let it, easily become such a foundational tale, one that I told and retold and used to explain all kinds of things in my life. I've had to deliberately steer myself away from it at times, not let myself tell that story, or re-create the story so that it's not all about my victimization (although, again, I survived and, like you, now have a much better life than would have been imaginable when that story was actually taking place). So my suggestion -- which of course you should take only for what it's worth -- is that you reconsider the stories that you tell yourself about your life and decide to retire some of them and to rewrite others of them. You've done so many fabulous things in your life -- surely they are worth a story or two!
So we'll see what happens. I'm really resenting this whole experience, especially the fact that I started out not being angry and now have gotten angry in response to her response; I don't want to be spending this emotional energy on my mom, mostly because I don't actually think anything is going to change or come out of it at all, and so it's silly of me to be honest like this but I can't quite bring myself to smooth over it all. So it feels like all of the emotional turmoil of an intervention with none of the potential good arising from it. And I'm annoyed at my brother for starting the whole thing by blowing up at her and yelling for an hour way back several weeks ago, even though I do understand why he did it. But why couldn't he just write a thoughtful, well-worded email to her instead? Why can't they both just be more like me? A joke, obviously, but this is totally a season in which I'm feeling very glad to be living 500 miles away from both of them.