I’ve been out of therapy for over 20 years but good therapy gives you tools to continue the work yourself and man, did I get a great set of tools! On occasion I will be thinking about something and WHAM! out of nowhere will come this revelation…and often it is something that seems so obvious, I feel stupid for not having seen it before. In the past 24 hours I have had two of them, both relating to my malignant narcissist mother, and both of them shining the light of clarity on things I had not realized before.
When I was in school, my mother never attended any events at the school if she could possibly avoid it. In a time when most mothers stayed at home and were focussed on their children, families and homes, mine had a job. At a time when all mothers joined the PTA…even if they didn’t attend meetings, they at least joined…mine did not. She also didn’t participate in fund raising events (like the March of Dimes, which was seeking a vaccine for polio at that time), school entertainments like plays or concerts, or awards ceremonies. In fact, she didn’t even go to my high school graduation—I got a ride there with my boyfriend and graduated without one person in the audience to applaud me.
Up to yesterday I had attributed it to simply a lack of interest in me on her part. She had, after all, abandoned me when I was two and didn’t take me back until I was four, and with the exception of her brief attempt into making me the next Shirley Temple, she pretty much ignored me. Unless, of course, I courted her attention by doing something that displeased her, in which case I got lots more attention—invariably both unpleasant and painful—than I ever wanted. Out of sight and out of mind was the safest place to be around her.
But this weekend it occurred to me…when she was in high school, she was a wild child—and not in a good way. Headstrong and defiant and thoroughly resentful of her immigrant father’s attempts to control her, she would sneak out of the house at night after the family had gone to bed and run around with a fast crowd. (Her older brother was the source of this information.)
The story of my parents’ courtship and elopement was always rather vague and without much detail. To hear my mother tell it, she met this handsome young sailor, who was home on leave, at a football game for the high school she was attending and from which he had graduated just two years earlier. It was in May, when the school year came to a close in rural Oregon so the kids could help out on the farms (even the town kids, like my mother, worked in the fields picking hops, berries, and beans during the summer months).
According to my mother, her young sailor was about to be shipped overseas for a year and she hit on what she considered to be a brilliant plan: she would marry the sailor and while he was somewhere off the coast of Asia, she would be blissfully alone, living off her Navy allotment check with neither husband nor father to tell her what to do. She would move to the big city and party like her life depended on it.
And so they eloped, then took a motorcycle trip to Iowa (where both of them had family) for a honeymoon, and returned to Oregon only to discover her grandiose plans of living the high life were irretrievably crushed. Her mother-in-law had written to the War Department and secured an early discharge for the sailor: the War had been over for nine months and the government was busy discharging military personnel they no longer needed and when my grandmother’s letter, requesting his discharge because he was the only son and was needed to help out on the farm, fell across an official’s desk, he was only too happy to oblige. And if that wasn’t bad enough news for my mother, she soon discovered she was pregnant, which put paid to any plans her father might have had for securing an annulment because she was only 16 when she eloped, which was under age.
This, then, was the official version. But a little critical thought and counting on fingers gives a fuller picture, a picture that actually shines some light on subsequent events.
First of all, Navy leaves are usually 30 days long. So, in order for the tale to be strictly true, he would have to meet my mother, marry her, motorcycle with her to Iowa and back, all in 30 days. Now, since my father was always quite the stickler for following the rules, whatever they might be, it is unlikely he went AWOL, especially since his early discharge was granted (unlikely if he was in trouble with the Navy for being absent without permission). So, if the tale were strictly true, at age 16 my mother married a man she barely knew in order to emancipate herself.
If my grandmother’s success at getting the discharge occurred during his 30 day leave, the motorcycle trip could have taken place after he was discharged, which would mean that my mother knew the man she married for a maximum of 30 days before tying the knot.
Her birthday was in early June, so she would have been turning 17 shortly after they were married. What grade is a 17 year old in? She had probably just finished 11th grade. I was born in March, which means I was conceived in June…which means she did not finish high school because back in the 1940s, pregnant girls did not go to school.
And there is the revelation: my mother was a high school dropout. She never…not even once…mentioned that she had dropped out of school and I had always just assumed she had graduated, like my father did. This is actually quite significant because it explains something that has puzzled me for years…why she refused to attend my high school graduation.
Well, she was the kind of person who could not stand to be bested by anyone, but most especially by someone she deemed to be her inferior. I was a child and therefore her inferior. When I entered puberty, she ignored it. She bought all of my clothes for me (when I was not with her, so I had no input into selection) and at an age where I was nearly her height and was developing breasts she not only wouldn’t buy me a bra, she wouldn’t buy me clothes appropriate to my age. I was approaching that time in my life that I would be attracting the attention of males and she saw that as competition…and since I was not permitted to best her, she attempted to retard my development the only way open to her: she refused to acknowledge my development and continued to dress me and treat me like a pre-teen.
My sophomore year of high school was spent at my father’s house where my stepmother remedied my mother’s neglect and by the time I returned to my mother’s as I entered 11th grade, I was a young woman and there was nothing my mother could do to turn back the clock. Instead, she began setting impossible goals for me and, when I reached them, she would find fault and set the bar higher. Any positive results were ignored and/or denigrated…in no way could my junior year of high school exceed her own. So, when I won an award for French, I was labelled “pretentious” for taking French in the first place and my mother declined to encourage my pretentiousness by attending the awards ceremony.
I don’t know what she did in high school for classes or even what kind of a student she was, but I was a soloist in the school choir. My high school gave out letters…like the ones football players got and wore on their school jackets…for music. At the end of my junior year, I was awarded a letter for music…not only did my mother refuse to attend the awards dinner and ceremony, she refused to buy me the letter sweater (girls were not allowed to wear letterman’s jackets) for me to sew it on. In my senior year I lettered again in music (for that you get a pin to affix to the original letter) and again, she refused to attend the ceremony.
She didn’t get her driver’s license until after she was married to my father: my mother allowed me to take classroom driver’s ed and get a learner’s permit, but refused to allow me to take behind-the-wheel driver’s ed and further refused to teach me to drive herself.
My senior year was a “loafing” year…I had all of the credits I needed for graduation save two, so my senior year consisted of those two classes, plus art, choir, study hall and gym…no surprise I had straight A report cards that year. I wanted to take those two classes in summer school, graduate early and, while my peers were slogging through nine months of high school, I wanted to be working on my first year at the local junior college. My mother refused permission…heaven forfend that I actually graduate high school at a younger age than when she dropped out!
When graduation finally came around, I sat with my boyfriend and his parents, otherwise I would have sat alone: not one member of my family came to my graduation. And when I expressed a desire to attend the local junior college, my mother refused permission. There were just too many ways I had already topped her own performance at the same age, there was just no way she was going to permit…or fund…more of the same on my part.
Knowing that my mother dropped out of high school after the 11th grade (and possibly even the 10th) puts a new light on much of the way she treated me when I was the same age. I graduated high school only a few months after turning 17, I had a drawer full of awards for music and art (she wouldn’t let me go to an all-city art show in which a sculpture of mine took a prize) and academics, my entire high school career had been oriented towards entering college after graduation and I had succeeded in graduating in the top 10% of my class whereas she had dropped out and, apparently, had had an unremarkable school experience. Because she could harp endlessly on any triumph of her own, especially if it might make someone else look bad, and I can recall not one story of her own high school days in which she excelled in anything, it is unlikely that she did all that well. She couldn’t stop my successes, but she certainly could diminish and denigrate them and refuse to participate in or even observe her “rival” receiving awards she, herself, had not received. A real dog in the manger.
My other epiphany involved my father. My parents had a very rocky relationship. By the time I was two years old they were divorced and I lived with my maternal grandparents until I was almost four. According to my uncle, my maternal grandparents engineered a reconciliation between my parents, sent me back to live with them, and encouraged (and maybe even funded) our move to Southern California.
There are large chunks of my childhood missing from my memory. What I do remember, I tend to remember vividly…almost like it was recorded and is playing back in my head…but for some parts I have to rely on the reports of others. I do not remember my parents' separation when I was about eight years old, but I have learned from other family members that my mother initiated the separation but, when she learned my father had found a girlfriend, she offered a reconciliation. My father told his girlfriend that he “had to go back” because of his kids…so he broke up with her and moved back into the family home. I do not remember this at all…I don’t even remember him being gone.
When I was ten, they separated again, my mother telling my father that he could go or stay, but she was going to start seeing other men and might even bring them home. Of course, under such circumstances, my father left again. My mother filed for divorce and it became ugly: this was before California’s community property laws came into effect and my father was penalized financially for “abandoning” his wife and children. He was effectively ordered to pay more in child support and spousal maintenance than he earned: theirs had been a household of 2.5 jobs (she worked and he held down two jobs) in order to fund my mother’s competitive acquisitiveness (she didn’t want to keep up with the Joneses, she wanted to be the person the Joneses wanted to keep up with!).
My father slipped off to Las Vegas and married his girlfriend…the one he had dumped in order to return his children…and, overburdened with debt, moved to Oregon. When I was 12 or 13 he moved back to Southern California and went to court where he negotiated a new support order, paid a lump sum to my mother for back support, and took up housekeeping with his new wife and baby daughter. I was elated…not only was my father back, he had not abandoned me as my mother had so often said.
But this turn of events did not make my mother happy. Not only had my father moved on and remarried, he and his new wife were doing exactly what my mother had said was not possible…which was her rationalization for having a job and for goading my father into two jobs: he and his new wife bought a brand new house and they were living on only one income: his. And, he was managing to pay his child support payments to my mother every month without fail, not to mention buying me and my brother decent clothes which we kept at his house to wear when we were there for weekends. Essentially, he had made a liar out of her by proving that they could own a house and live at a decent standard of living on his wages alone.
Every weekend that we visited my father, he would have some kind of adventure planned…but he was a mechanic, not a banker or stockbroker, so few of the adventures were costly. We would go up to the Laguna mountains and picnic, hunt for pinecones or pretty stones or, in winter, play in the snow. We would go to the beach and picnic, hunt for shells, play in the water. We would go target shooting or to my stepmother’s family’s house for BBQ, we would dig up part of the back yard and plant tomatoes, we would go shopping for groceries or go to the track and watch the cars (owned by people my father knew, so we got into the pits for free) or go to the local municipal airport and watch the planes. There were dozens of activities that we participated in…and sometimes we just stayed home and Dad cooked breakfast while I took care of the babies so my stepmother could get some much needed rest.
And we talked…my mother’s behaviour was very puzzling to me and I could not figure out why she was so angry with my father (I know now it was because he was succeeding even though she had done everything in her power to cause him to fail and to turn his children against him). As his champion during his absence, I particularly bore the brunt of her animosity…and I think I wanted him to confirm my opinion that she was simply a bad person.
But my father was not like that. Despite everything she had done over at least a ten year period to attempt to destroy him, my father would not speak ill of her. Instead, with his typical “every cloud has a silver lining” approach to life, he told me that he was grateful to my mother, that he had learned a great deal from her that he might otherwise not have learned. I found this an interesting…and acceptable…answer. This is one of those events that I remember as clearly as yesterday: we were at the garage where he worked waiting for mother to come pick me and my brother up. I even remember it was a chilly, overcast day and I was standing just inside the open door to the garage to get out of the wind. And I remember my father gently trying to steer me away from the path of hate…because I was developing a real hatred of my mother…and teach me how to look at a situation from more than one angle. Despite all the awful things she had done to him, he had benefitted from his association with her in the lessons that association had given him.
He succeeded. I thought it was very cool that my mother had been able to teach him something. I admired teachers and I loved learning and if somebody had told me that they had learned something valuable due to an association with me, I would have been tickled pink. And, like most children, I was still narcissistic enough to believe that other people felt the same way…including my mother.
As usual, she was grim and disgruntled when she picked us up from visiting him and I always felt threatened by her bad moods. In an attempt to lighten the mood, to make her feel happy that she had helped someone, I told her what my father had said about having learned some valuable lessons from her. Instead of being pleased, however, she went absolutely ballistic!
This was not good news to my mother, it was outrageous. From her point of view, she had spent more than a decade with him, teaching him things, and now some other woman was getting the benefit of all of her hard work! Livid, she ranted and screamed about the unfairness of it all the way home, and then berated me for thinking that such news would please her.
Looking back on this event I now realize that she (and I) had taken my father’s words literally. She saw herself as a victim in this…that she had made sacrifices and ultimately received no benefit from doing so, the benefit going to someone who had not earned it and did not deserve it…my stepmother, who she referred to as a “cheap chippie.” (Truth is, my stepmother went to college and had worked in teaching before meeting my father…if anyone was a “cheap chippie” it was my mother who was a regular barfly when my father was at his evening job.)
Due to my youth and lack of sophistication, I had missed the subtext of my father’s answer and due to her self-absorption, so had my mother. Indeed, my father learned a great deal from my mother…and, ultimately, so did I. But they were not the kinds of lessons we want to learn in life. My father learned that my mother was not to be trusted, that she was self-centred, opportunistic, grasping, and completely without ethics or compassion. Ultimately I learned much the same. We learned that she was manipulative and controlling and lacked scruples of any kind. And we learned that, in her world, there were only two kinds of people: those who were with her and those who were against her, and we fell into the latter category.
Until just recently I had thought his comment that he has learned much from my mother was meant literally: my mother was a very intelligent woman and, as a bookkeeper, a pretty fair hand with money. But that wasn’t what he meant: my father was at least as intelligent as she was, better educated and, considering that he managed to raise five children on his income alone whereas my mother couldn’t seem to make ends meet on 2.5 salaries with only two kids, he was probably a better money manager than she was. His words to me were to turn me gently away from the path of hate, but because he was honest to a fault, he couldn’t lie to me and tell me how wonderful my mother was when, in fact, she was a first-class shit.
With his words he gave me a different way to look at the situation, to see that there was more than one angle from which to view something. And while I took that lesson to heart and have used it for many, many years, it was only this week that I realized where I had learned it and exactly what he meant, all those years ago, when he told me he had learned much from my mother.
Epiphanies have more value than simply a realization that you have been hard done by. They give depth and context to experiences we have had, they may offer reasoning and realizations with regard to motives that we may never have considered before. Epiphanies are those “AHA!!” moments we have that often lead us to further anger or dismay but can also lead us to enlightenment. Sometimes epiphanies give us insights into ourselves…and not necessarily things we want to acknowledge and accept. Some years ago my adult daughter was railing at me for the ways I disciplined her as a teen and I replied “So, if what I did was wrong, what should I have done? You tell me what I could have done to stop you from sneaking out at night, cutting school for weeks at a time, and running away every time I told you ‘no.’” It was she who had the epiphany that time, realizing that there was nothing I could have done differently because she was determined to do what she wanted at any cost.
Epiphanies are not things that can be conjured up by force of will, they are gifts from your subconscious, granted to you when you have reached a level of emotional readiness to handle them. You may not like some of them…like my daughter who had to stop believing she was the innocent victim of an unreasonable control-freak mother and acknowledge her part in the dynamics. And you can choose denial, as she ultimately did, and simply refuse to accept the truth that you, too, are not perfect. But epiphanies, like all truths, do not require your buy-in. Truth remains truth, whether you choose to believe or deny, and epiphanies can be a valuable source of truth for you, if you will but let them.