To tell or not to tell? That's the questions of the week. At CoDA meetings, after sharing in Story Circle at church, at the ACOA meeting, from friends in my writer’s group with whom I’ve confided, and here in loving comments left on my blog, I have heard the repeated and ever incredulous, “you haven’t told your mother?”
The short answer is, “No.”
This is sometimes followed by dubious looks and the ‘why not’ hangs in the air whether or not it is asked aloud.
At this time, I am strong in my conviction that telling my mother, or any member of my family-of-origin, is the wrong choice for me. I do understand that exposing the abuser has been a big part of healing for many. I would not condemn others for their choice to tell, to shine a light on the demons of their past in order to bring their own truth clearly into the light of day. I see the value of it – for others.
However, it does not feel right for me and I’m going to try to explain my perspective, here, for once and for all. But first, a little history....
For those of you who are not very familiar with American History, the year 1929 may not have a lot of meaning. However, if you lived in the U.S. at that time, this year would flash like a neon sign in your mind the way 9-11 stands out to us, today. It was the year the stock market crashed, the beginning of the great depression.
I can remember my step-grandfather telling me about his life during the depression. One thing he said that stood out to me, as a child was, “You could buy a loaf of bread for a penny. Of course, nobody had a penny.”
My mother’s parents grew up in a small farm community. In 1929, they were fourteen and seventeen years old. The great depression began, nobody had money to buy farm produce, farmers had to sell at a loss and suddenly could no longer support their families. My mother's parents found themselves in a dying community. They eloped and moved to “the city”, which for them was Chicago, to find work.
My mother was born less than a year later. Her parents were teenagers suddenly thrown into a new life, and they struggled as anyone might in that situation. They partied like rock-stars, from what I’ve learned from other ancient relatives, who have mostly passed on, now. They smoked and drank and gambled and left my mother and her brother, who was born when my mother was two, with neighbors and relatives for days and sometimes weeks at a time.
Regardless, my mother had a special relationship with her father. She was daddy’s little girl. To this day, her face lights up when she remembers her childhood times with her father.
Looking at it from the outside, it's easy to see why two children who eloped at such a young age might not be able to make their marriage work. Looking at it from my mother's perspective, it was quite different. When her father left my grandmother for a younger woman, my mother was sixteen years old, and she was devastated.
Then, at seventeen, she met my father. My father was an “older man” of twenty-three, divorced, with two small children of his own. Just in those facts alone, you can see how he was like the father she was replacing. My father can be charming when he wants to be, and he swept her off her feet and filled that need she had for a man in her life in the wake of her father’s abandonment.
This background story may help you understand why my mother has spent her life as she has. She grew up in a dysfunctional home and then was abandoned by her father. Her father went on to have another daughter, whom he cherished, and my mother had no contact with him for decades. Her fear of being abandoned by my father has always been intense, and she learned about denial at a very young age as she accepted her life in a dysfunctional, alcoholic home.
My mother was eighteen when my older brother was born, nineteen when she had my sister. I believe things went along in a fairy-tale way – for a while. They were the perfect family, on the outside, my father teaching school and writing books and even getting published a couple of times, back in the fifties. My mother staying home with her babies. I think they were happy... in their own way.
I’m not sure when the storybook façade began to crack. My father is not stable. He is narcissistic and lacks empathy, and he is a master manipulator. He actually did his thesis on Dale Carnegie, the author of, “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” He brags about moments when he is able to coerce, manipulate and control others. He thinks it's a good thing.
If there is something my father wants, he is ruthless in his efforts to attain it. When there is something he can’t get, he is vicious in his retaliation. I doubt there is any member of my family who would refute these truths, despite the intense state of denial that is still prevalent in my family-of-origin. The usual party line is, “well, his mother was like that.” I don’t understand how this makes it acceptable. Using that logic, my siblings and I should all be that way, as well. Thank God, we are not.
Yes, there was neglect and mistreatment in my childhood. Yes, it was wrong, and it was not my fault. My father was abusive in any way you can imagine, taking out his own repressed feelings on his children and any other defenseless people (or pets) who crossed his path. He used people and still does, if they let him. He was most abusive with me, possibly because he was gone for the first year of my life and therefore never bonded with me the way in a paternal way.
And, yes, my mother is also to blame for what went on in our house. She existed within her fairy-tale view of the world, living in complete denial for her own self-preservation. Her intense fear of abandonment pushed her into putting her relationship with my father above the needs of her children. All of those things were harmful to me and enabled the dysfunction in our house. I know that and I’m angry about it and I intend to take steps to heal and protect myself with whatever boundaries I need to put in place for the future.
Here’s the thing:
My mother is an eighty-year-old woman who has been married to the same man for sixty-three years. Bringing her out of her denial now, would be forcing her to realize that her entire life has been based on a lie. And quite simply - it's not mine to do. Her life, her rules. I'm an adult and can move on in ways that were not open to her decades ago.