posted by Amy on Aug 21
When I started writing this blog I was thinking I would keep it fairly impersonal. Nobody really needed to know anything about my past, or anything especially revealing about me. When I wrestle with personal issues, I do it in prayer, or in a private journal, or sometimes in conversations with a few close friends.
I’m beginning to see it differently. When people talk to me about things they’ve read here, they most often comment on personal details. A professor mentioned my description of driving to Philadelphia in 2008, when I started crying and couldn’t stop. Someone else commented on my last post, where I gave some personal testimony about child abuse. There has been other feedback in that vein. That shows me that I connect with people most effectively when I am authentic. If I seem too different, too “perfect,” then people will not relate to me, and I will fail in my purpose. But I also have to be careful.
My reluctance to be self-revealing comes from having made a huge mistake in the early years of my awakening. When people start waking up they tend to tell too much, to the wrong people. I permanently damaged a professional friendship that way, and may even have set back my legal career. I didn’t know it until years later, when my former friend said something like, “Well, considering your background, it’s amazing that you’re not a complete basket case.” Then I realized that the distancing that she and some mutual friends had done years before were most likely deliberate, and not just because of some job changes and moves.
Exposing family secrets is critically important, but it must be done carefully and appropriately–at the right time, to the right people, in the right context. In my zeal to help others I didn’t realize how powerful the taboos I had discovered were. I wanted to help others uncover their own hidden wounds so they could also transform. I was trying to throw them a lifeline. My only reason for telling my truth was to help them discover theirs. I was especially anxious to do that for my siblings. One rebuffed me by saying, “That’s all in the past. Why dwell on it?” The answer seemed obvious to me. First you have to understand what happened. You can’t heal without debriding the wound. But I no longer expect people to wake up just because I tell them how well it worked out for me. They can’t see the connection.
We were taught not to understand, or remember, what happened to us as children. Alice Miller’s core message is that Western culture has institutionalized child abuse as “normal.” People raised that way turn around and do it again, blindly, unthinkingly, unfeelingly projecting their own inner rage and pain onto their children, and passing on a legacy of abuse. As a result, they will not think they have anything in common with someone who discovers different language for “normal” child rearing. They will make distinctions that protect their parents and themselves.
We do this automatically. I’ve seen it time and again. There was the woman who told me she had broken several wooden spoons beating her toddler. She also worked as a volunteer counselor in a program for abusive parents, and saw no irony in that. There was my conversation last summer with the three young coworkers who had all been beaten and intimidated as children. The one who appeared to have been treated most cruelly was the one who most stoutly defended her parents. And there was the close friend who reacted heatedly to my fairly mild assertion that the things that make us fly off the handle are usually tied to unresolved childhood issues. He said, “That might be true for you, because you had a really weird childhood, but mine was normal and happy.” I know some of the things that happened to him, and although they were, in a sense, “normal,” he most certainly is not happy. He’s been depressed all his life, and he has generously shared the misery with everyone who has tried to love him. He’s also an alcoholic, and he’s in denial about that.
All the things that have happened to me throughout my life made me the person I am now. I am at peace with it, and I have no resentment or bitterness, but I had to work hard to get there. Cheap forgiveness doesn’t cut it. What’s needed is a very costly, painstaking forgiveness. While I completely disagree with those who say, “Anything that doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” I do think that suffering and hardship can be overcome and there can be growth and transformation in that. Going through the ordeal, and reaching the other side, can be transformational, but not the suffering itself. (Many things that don’t kill will, in fact, make you weaker. Chemotherapy is a great example. It might help you survive cancer–in fact it might be the only thing that saves you from death–but it will permanently damage your immune system, leaving you vulnerable to all sorts of other ills. It can even cause cancer itself. You are “stronger” in the sense of not being dead, but you are weaker in many other ways.)
I just want to plant some seeds. Anything that you defend very stoutly, especially anything that you say almost by rote, such as, “I always knew my parents loved me,” might be a cover-up. If you feel very strongly about it, and feel compelled to prove it, then it might be a “methinks the lady doth protest too much” situation. Remember the movie “The Manchurian Candidate,” where everyone recited, word for word, the same story about what supposedly happened? People had nightmares that belied the official story. My parents said they loved me, but I had nightmares, and I eventually had to come to terms with the dissonance.
They loved me as much as they could, but, to be honest, much of what they did was not loving. I am no longer a helpless child whose survival depends on believing otherwise, and my ability to feel, my ability to lead an honest and authentic life of my own, depended on discovering that truth. I now love, honor, and respect them, and I am grateful that they gave me life, but I couldn’t give them real understanding and forgiveness until I first uncovered the truth. I had to face it, and feel the very justifiable and natural rage, pain, sadness, and grief that came with that, before I could accept them and love them unconditionally. It took decades.
Almost everyone says, “My mother loved me very much.” Shouldn’t a parent’s love be so sure, so steady, so constant, that it’s actually taken for granted? Children have every right to expect their parents to love them. They are entitled to it; it’s not a bargaining chip. It’s not something that any child should ever be in fear of losing. I do love my children, with a fierceness and power that amaze me, and I have felt that way for over thirty years. But when I die I don’t want them saying, as if by rote, “She loved me very much.” I want them to say, “She loved life, and she taught me how to do the same.”