Many years ago my therapist advised me to write a letter to you, telling you what it was like to be your child. She gave me the option of sending it or not and I, always on the trail of truth, decided to mail it. I also wrote a letter to my father, containing much the same information, and I sent it to him as well.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of your death. Twenty years of being released from the prison of your existence and expectations. Twenty years of emotional freedom. Twenty more years of never having had a mother.
When I sent you that letter some 25 or 30 years ago, your immediate response was to play dumb, then go on the attack. I should have seen that coming, I should have anticipated that kind of response from you. Somehow I believed that you, upon learning that I grew up in abject fear of you, would feel bad for that terrified and cowed little girl. I gave you examples of just how frightened I was—so scared that I didn’t tell you when your husband molested me because he said if I told, he would say I started it and we both knew who you would believe. And he was right, because even though I told you more than 20 years after the event, you still went straight to blaming me. Then, bizarrely, you decided that I had misspoken: you decided it couldn’t have been Frank because he was married to you at the time, as if that was some kind of magic talisman against him lusting after your 16 year old daughter. Surprisingly you decided that I wasn’t lying about actually being molested, I was lying about who molested me. And then you decided that the perp was my father (even though I hadn’t seen him for at least a year). The fact that I was so afraid of you and your reaction that I didn’t tell you about it was completely overlooked—you never addressed it at all. You took the whole letter, which was about how I felt growing up as your child (hint: terrified of you), and turned it into an unjust screed against you, wresting the cloak of victimhood from that terrified child and donning it yourself. Somehow, in your mind, I was victimizing you and the countless indignities you visited upon me for the entirety of my life…from my birth until even after your death…were expunged from the fabric of history, this new slant with you as my victim, taking its place.
My intent, in that first letter, was to “wake you up.” I was labouring under the misconception that, if you just knew how much you had hurt me, if you could understand that my fear of you overshadowed every other aspect of my life, you would “realize” what you had done to me and that you would be sorry. You would recognize how hurt I was and that you would empathize with me, that as my mother you would feel that hurt yourself and be sorry for it. Somehow I expected that this would lead to a new understanding between us, that you would stop hurting me because you loved me and we never want those we love to suffer, especially at our own hands. I believed that a mother loves her child and that all these events in my life that led me to live in desperate fear of you were based in you not understanding how deeply, how profoundly, I was hurt because if you knew, if you understood how much pain I was in, you would feel bad for having caused it and, most importantly, you would stop doing things that hurt me.
How wrong I was. If anything, my letter encouraged you by letting you know just how capable you were of affecting my feelings. Not only were you not sorry, you compounded my hurt by mounting a vicious attack on me. Do you remember the card you sent, the card in which you wrote all of that denial and vitriol? I most certainly do—the background was grey and there was a pen-and-ink watercolour of a dejected-looking knight on the back of a bedraggled horse, captioned something like “You can never hurt me again.”
When I opened the envelope I was full of hope that the letter it contained would herald a new era for us—a time in which we worked through our issues, a time in which you explained mitigating factors so I could let some hurts go, and you apologized for behaviour that hurt me so I could accept your apologies and forgive. I held that hope in my hands, in that fragile white paper envelope, and it crashed down around my ears as soon as I saw the cover of that card. I can clearly remember sitting at my desk and pulling it out of the envelope and being overwhelmed with a combination of dread and sadness as I saw the drawing and its caption. I knew what the message inside was going to be, even before I opened it.
Well, I thought I knew. In the moment after I saw the front of that card, I expected rejection and denial. I did not expect for you to seize the victim’s mantle because the whole concept of my childhood being one in which I victimized you was simply beyond the scope of my imagination.
Little could I have imagined, in those dark days of depression and pain, that I might one day be thankful for that card and for the message inside. You spent three pages—in small, crabbed cursive—telling me how my perceptions of my own life were wrong. Each sentence was a slap in the face, a punch in the nose. By the time I finished reading it, I was literally breathless, gasping for air. My brain was overwhelmed—I could not make sense of it at first. It took several readings—slow readings—for me to grasp what you were saying because none of it made sense in the first read.
In the intervening years I have come to be grateful for that awful, awful letter. You finally, without any holding back, showed me who you really were. At first I couldn’t read it in one sitting. Each paragraph was literally like being hit in the diaphragm and it took time to recover from one before reading the next one. I skimmed the whole thing to get the gist of it, then it took me a couple of days to really read and absorb it all. It hurt. It was so painful some parts of it took my breath away. I cried a lot.
But it wasn’t what you said that took my breath away or made me cry. It was the implications of what you were saying meant. I had been in therapy for a few years when that letter came and I had come to a place where I could read those pages and actually see them for what they were: a revelation of truth. Truth about you, truth about our relationship, truth about where we were going. These truths were things I had actually know but had hidden from all of my life but now, thanks to therapy, was now able to start assimilating.
I had known for my entire life—at least from my pre-school years—that you did not love me. And since at least my teens, I was also aware that you knew it as well. I was a means to an end for you, nothing more, and when I ceased to be useful to you, you couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. This is why you could dump me, year after year, on relatives for the summer and I never received so much as a post card from you. “Out of sight, out of mind,” you liked to say, and that was so very true. I fooled myself into believing this was normal, that other kids who went away to camp or to visit family, didn’t hear from their parents for the whole of their visit, even if it lasted 10 weeks.
But until this letter came, I was not in a place to accept that. Even contemplating it brought me a rush of panic because, until then, I had not individuated enough to not feel threatened by the idea that you did not love me, had never loved me. You see, a child small enough to still be dependent on their parents for their very survival recognizes that that survival is jeopardized if the parent does not have an emotional connection—love—for that child. When we mature and individuate and become able to provide for our own survival, we cease feeling threatened at the prospect of losing a parent. We are saddened by it, but for those of us whose emotional dependency needs are not satisfied in childhood, the idea is terrifying—even though we consciously know that your absence makes no difference in our actual lives.
But I had progressed enough in therapy that I was able to see that letter for what it was and while I reacted to it predictably—with shock and hurt and outrage—I was able to detach enough to see what was behind that bubbling cauldron of hateful words, lies, and self-serving misapprehensions. I still didn’t know what narcissism was, I didn’t have the words to label what you were doing but I had a visceral understanding for the first time in my life.
From reading that letter I came to understand things about you that had been closed off from me either through my denial or your own subterfuge. I learned that truth was, to you, something malleable and flexible that could be shaped and moulded to fit what you wanted to portray. As long a kernel of real truth was at the core of your fabrication, you could—and did—call it truth. And so you accepted that I was molested by your husband—there was the kernel of truth—but you reframed and repackaged the event so that it wasn’t Frank, it was a previous husband against whom you still harboured animosity, even more than two decades after you divorced him. You took a tiny bit of the truth and built an egregious lie around it but, because your story contained that wee bit of fact, you sold the whole package as truth, even when you knew it was not what I said, not what I wrote, not what I meant.
I came to understand that your dysfunction was intractable and entrenched. You would never, ever change, never improve, never get better. I learned that you had no conscience whatsoever, because you could take a tragic truth—your teenaged daughter was molested by your husband and she was too afraid of you to tell you about it—and turn it into another story that blamed an innocent person, and suffer no crisis of conscience about it. If you were caught in the lie, you could blame it on me, accuse me of telling you that my father did it, because this was before the days of home computers and copiers so it was a pretty safe bet that no copies of my original letter existed—you could destroy it and then go on to lie with impunity: and you did exactly that. Your letter gave me incontrovertible proof that facts mean nothing to you if they don’t support you or the position you have taken.
The fact that you exploited and victimized me for my entire childhood and even into my adult years was lost in your self-pity party. I was there for you to use and when you had no use for me, you couldn’t be bothered with me. You got angry with me when I cost you money: doctor, dentist, eyeglasses, not to mention food, clothing, and incidental expenses like hairspray or make up. When there was housework to be done, or child support to be collected, I had a purpose in your life. When I moved out on my own, you had no use for me and I was studiously ignored until you needed something you could only get from me.
But, like most children, all I wanted from you was to be loved. In that awful letter you told me that you had always loved me but you didn’t know how to show it. I pondered that for a long, long time—for years, actually. Every time I felt the urge to pardon your lack of demonstrable love, however, something would pull me back and then one day I realized that it was a lie. Just plainly and simply, a lie. You not only knew how to show it, you showed it to my brother every day—every single day. The truth was, you didn’t love me and you didn’t have sufficient empathy or conscience to motivate you to even pretend you did. You so blatantly favoured him that other family members saw it and even remarked upon it. You cornered my stepmother, Patsy, in a supermarket one day and harangued her about how unfairly your mother had treated you as a child, how she favoured the boys over you and how unjust it was—and all the time you were blathering on, Patsy was thinking “Look at yourself! You are doing exactly the same thing! Look at yourself!” I know this because Patsy told me about it around the time you send her that twenty-five page letter warning her about my father and his temper, an absolutely absurd act on your part because, at the very most, you were married to him for a total of eight years and by the time you wrote that letter, you had been divorced from him for more than twenty, and Patsy had been married to him that whole time. By the time you wrote that, the information was more than twenty years out of date and she had much more recent experience with him—and that experience was more than double your own in terms of time spent together. What were you thinking when you wrote that? Were you hoping to sow dissention or make Patsy afraid or suspicious?
It took me years, but I finally learned that the term “projection” was coined for people just like you. I used to be baffled when you would accuse me of reasons and motives that had never crossed my mind. I saw you do it to other people as well, and I could not figure out what made you think that way. When you ran Mrs. McKenzie, the next-door neighbour, out of the neighbourhood with accusations of prostitution, drug addiction, child abuse, being after the neighbourhood husbands, when you claimed that her status as a widow was a lie and her daughters were illegitimate, I wondered where you got your information. It did not occur to me that none of it was true until I went over to their house to play with the girls and saw the house was not as you claimed (filthy and unsanitary) but every bit as clean as our house. There was a framed picture of their father in uniform on top of the TV and those girls looked more like him than their mother. They had more food in the house than we did. She did not beat her daughters every day like you beat me. A little independent fact-finding led me to the conclusion that your source was in error. Years later I realized that you just made it all up, that you projected some of your own faults and wishful thinking onto her and simply invented the rest. And before long I began to realize that was not an isolated incident—you did this all of the time and when contradictory facts cropped up, you just ignored them or explained them away.
Lying was a way of life for you. Not one word out of your mouth could be believed without independent corroboration. Not. One. Word.
And yet, people who had known you since childhood, people who knew you lied as easily as you breathed, still believed you when you trash-talked me. When you painted me with the blackest possible brush, they accepted it as the gospel truth and not one of them bothered to contact me for my side of your story. Even your parents, the grandparents I spent virtually every summer with for nearly a decade, your parents who knew how afraid I was of you, who heard me weep every year as you were en route to collect me for the next school year, who heard my stories of life with you and who saw evidence with their own eyes of your deleterious effect on me, even they believed your spiteful, calculated tales of drug addiction, prostitution and child abuse (sound familiar?). And nobody bothered to ask me. Not. One. Person.
I learn the hard way. I was still dying to find a way to make you take me into your heart. I refused to absorb and assimilate all of the truths that you kept slapping me in the face with. I wanted my mother love me, to be proud of my successes, to sympathize with me in my losses, to offer help when I needed it, to back off when I didn’t. And in my quest for that mother—the mother I wanted and needed and deserved—I allowed you to get way too close to me. I was so focussed on winning your love and approval I didn’t see what you were doing, where you were going, what you were up to with Annie and Jake. It was clear that you had no intention of helping me—you had already told me not to come to you when things got tough, that I had made my bed so now I had to sleep in it—but nothing could have prepared me for you lying not only to the family but to lawyers, court officials and judges and running away with my children. Nothing prepared me for you going out of state and lying to the courts there as well. And nothing prepared me for you giving my children away for adoption, telling Annie that I had abandoned her and Jake when, in fact, you took them out of state without my consent or the court’s permission and lied to the court in order to get a guardianship so that you could give the children to Uncle Pete and Aunt Susan to adopt because they were infertile. That was the motivation of the whole thing and nobody figured it out for ten years.
But when the truth finally came out, both Uncle Pete and Uncle Gary stopped speaking to you. When you died, Uncle Pete said he had more important things to do than go to your funeral: he was building houses for Habitat for Humanity on an Indian reservation. Uncle Pete was always pretty rigid about such things as integrity and he was undoubtedly mortified at the realization that he had been suckered by you, that you had lied to him for all those years and he bought into it. He was already getting the idea himself because he drove by my house one weekend and saw me out in the front garden, digging and planting and creating a landscape out of bare adobe clay soil. Somehow I didn’t look like the drug-addicted prostitute you had convinced the whole family I was.
Annie believed that I abandoned her, even after the truth of your subterfuge and deceit was out. “Why would a mother lie about her own daughter like that?” she asked, excusing your lies with specious logic. But it is a good question, Mother, and now, nearly 40 years after she asked it, I think I have an answer:
Because you are a malignant narcissist.
Because you have no empathy or compassion or love for anyone but yourself.
Because you don’t care about fairness or justice or even entitlements, except for yourself.
Because lying about me got you what you wanted from others, primarily sympathy.
Because you have always seen yourself as the poor little victim—you saw yourself as Nana’s victim because you perceived that she favoured her sons over you (despite the fact that gender-based roles were fairly rigid when you were growing up and your parents were no different from the parents of your school-mates and friends), and a victim must have an abuser. When you left Nana’s house, my father inherited the role; when my father left the house, the dubious honour devolved onto me.
By lying about me from my earliest days, you created yourself my victim. And you saw yourself as a Heroic Victim, someone who valiantly overcame the evil abusers and triumphed. You became really good at setting up situations and selling others on them. First, you had to identify a persecutor and then demonize him/her. Mrs. McKenzie comes immediately to mind, but you also had each of your parents identified as persecutors. Then it was my turn…I deprived you of sleep, then I had the temerity to be allergic to cow’s milk and Grandma Violet—another persecutor to add to your list—had the absolute gall to expect you to milk goats for their milk for my bottles. Oh…and I persecuted you from before my first breath—I refused to be born so you had to have a caesarean section. By the time I gave my first cry, I had already ruined your figure, caused you to have mastitis, and a painful surgery in which you had to have a transfusion. Then to add insult to injury, I was fretful, couldn’t tolerate cow’s milk, had colic, and developed eczema.
Then I got teeth and began biting my nails. I didn’t like to be around you, I preferred my father and grandmothers. When I was two and Petey was a baby, you abandoned me, the problem child, and kept the cooing baby boy with the thick blond curls. You literally abandoned me and Nana had to collect me from a foster home and bring me home to stay with her and Grandpa for almost two years.
And yet, even after having me with them for two years and being very clear on what a problem child I was not, after hosting me every summer and knowing that I was obsessively obedient (because I was afraid of what you would do to me if I wasn’t), still, they believed your lies and never even bothered to ask me for my side of the story.
And so I was ostracized from the family and you, who abandoned your child, you who your husband caught in flagrante delicto with another man—and me in the room!—you who they all knew lied as easily as you breathed, they believed you when you told them horrible things about me because “why would a mother say such things about her child if they weren’t true?” To garner sympathy, that’s why. To be the victim and get sympathy from everybody who heard your tale of woe. To be seen as heroic, a devoted mother to an incorrigible child—how good a person must you be to put up with my intractable behaviour. And, for the people who only saw us infrequently, it worked. Even my grandparents allowed that maybe I behaved differently when I was with them. Did you tell them the same thing you told me…that living with them full time would be very different than just spending a summer, that they were on their best behaviour during the summer—it was easy to pretend for a few months. Is that how you explained that I never got into trouble during the summers?
It was projection: for you, pretending to be innocent and saintly, put-upon and persecuted, bravely soldiering on in the face of an incorrigible and wilful child. It was projection for you, pretending to be the perfect mother to observers while, behind closed doors, you could have given Mommy Dearest lessons. (Fitting, isn’t it, that Joan Crawford was one of your favourite actresses?) And because you knew you could pretend to be someone or something you were not for a summer, you simply assumed that not only could your parents and I do the same, you assumed we were doing the same when, in fact, we were not.
Why would a mother say such things about her child if they were not true? If that is a valid question, if the implication that such an accusation on the part of a presumably loving mother is, ipso facto, in indication that the words were, in fact, true, then why is the inverse not the truth? Why would a daughter say such things about her mother if, in fact, they were not true? Why is my word in doubt yet yours is not?
Because you have shaped the family’s perception of me, since my earliest years, as an incorrigible child. You did it for so long and in so many ways and with such conviction on your part that even those who spent considerable time with me doubted the evidence of their own eyes. And when I did fuck up, as all children do, it was perceived as deliberate wrongdoing on my part—evidence supporting your contention that “butter wouldn’t melt” in my mouth, that wrong-doing was as inherent in me as my blue eyes.
You alienated the entire family from me, not just my father and grandparents and aunts, uncles and cousins, but my own children as well. When you stole my children and inveigled the rest of the family to maintain a solid silence as to their whereabouts and condition, you did so by painting me even blacker and not one of you—no one person among you—gave a single shit about what that would do to me because, by the time you did this, you had successfully turned my attempts at survival into a lurid tale of depravity to which I was exposing those innocent babies. My son’s medication for his meningitis-caused brain injury was evidence that I was “drugging that baby.” My reaction to your betrayal—a betrayal I should have anticipated based on your history of abandoning and abusing me—was to have what amounted to a psychotic break. It was very wise of you to have left your house and sneaked away to another state because I can tell you today—after your elaborately constructed palace of lies succeeded in the court giving you a temporary guardianship of my children, a court order you promptly violated by taking them out of state and denying me the court-ordered visitation, I came looking for you with a gun. You had just laid upon me that last proverbial straw.
I went crazy. Literally, dangerously crazy. I stopped caring if I lived or died. I stopped caring if somebody else lived or died. All of my humanity was stripped from me. I could have dispassionately killed you in those days—in cold blood and in front of witnesses. I rigidly reigned in a rage so big it threatened to consume me. I existed in one of two states: pure, cold, murderous rage or an amorphous blob of pulsating pain—and each one fed the other.
But you don’t care about that, do you? The pain you visited on me was worth it to you because 1) you didn’t have to feel it; 2) you didn’t care about me anyway (if you did you would have offered me help, not created an elaborate ruse to get my kids away from me) and 3) it got you exactly what you wanted. What was it you wanted? To be a hero to Uncle Pete who could not pass his state’s home study in order to adopt. Knowing the law didn’t require a home study for the adoption of blood relatives, you set about to get Uncle Pete an Aunt Susan some kids to adopt and you just happened to know where there was a couple that you could take…and that is exactly what you did.
Why I would think, years after I got them back from their eight year sojourn into the black hole of silence you create, that you might have some concern for my feelings, some remorse for the terror I felt as your child, I cannot explain. You never apologized for stealing my children (which is exactly what you did: you ran a long con on the authorities and used them as accomplices to steal my kids from me), you never showed any remorse for any of the pain you caused me—not even an insipid attempt at an apology—because you weren’t sorry. And you weren’t sorry because you didn’t care. And you didn’t care not because I had done something to cause you to feel animosity towards me, you didn’t care because you never wanted a child in the first place. I was a burden and an obstacle to your goals from the moment you knew I was en route—I was an encumbrance whose only redeeming features were those of free maid work and the source of income in the form of child support. And once I no longer cleaned up your messes or brought in money, you couldn’t get me out of your life and your thoughts fast enough.
And so today, as the 20th anniversary of your death approaches, I write again to tell you that you warped my childhood and as a result I made some really bad choices as a young adult. I had my first child because I wanted someone who would love me unconditionally—I am very conscious of the fact that you queered that, as well. But what you don’t know is this: I don’t need another person to love me unconditionally anymore because I love me that way. I was never the incorrigible child you pretended I was, I was a child in pain and fear. I feared for my safety every day and lived in a world in which my own mother was my worst enemy and tormentor. And it warped me. It gave me a totally false view of the world and of myself. It damn near killed me.
But I survived and I recovered and I live a better, calmer, more peaceful existence. Your poisonous legacy still infects other members of the family but I have finally broken the chains that bound me to your destructive, self-serving point of view. Today I know that you were wrong—wrong about me, about life, about everything. My therapist, back in about 1987 or 88 said you were a psychopath, but in hindsight, I suspect you were a narcissist who delighted in her power to control and hurt others, particularly those weaker than you. That is the definition of evil, you know, and you revelled in it.
And so today, the 54th anniversary of my high school graduation that you could not be bothered to attend (because I had accomplished something you failed at?), I revisit the letter I wrote that broke open the sordid, despicable mess that was my mother and the deliberately destructive path she trod in raising me. Thank you for being so arrogant that you, who dropped out of high school in the 1940s, substituted for your opinion for the orders of your late 20th century cardiologist—what did you call him? “That young pup”?—and precipitating your early exit from my life—the only favour you ever did me save abjuring an abortion when you found out you were pregnant. The last twenty years have been magnitudes better than the fifty that went before.