Monday, March 25, 2019

The Obligation of a Child

From the poet W. S. Merwin
(September 30, 1927 - March 15, 2019)
writing about his father
in his memoir Summer Doorways:
“He had punished me fiercely for things I had not known were forbidden, when the list of known restrictions was already long and oppressive. I was told regularly that I loved him, as I was told that I loved God and Jesus, and I did not know at the time that the names for much of my feeling about him were really dread and anger.”

From the novelist Delia Ephron (b July 12, 1944)
writing about her mother
in the essay "Why I Can't Write About My Mother"
in her memoir Sister Mother Husband Dog:
". . . I was always wary around my mother. She was unpredictable. She could be mean. . . . I was always trying to read the signs, the looks between them, the jerky movements: Were they angry? What was coming? Would tonight be one of those nights?

. . . These are, I should point out, the things that children of alcoholics are sensitive to. Minutiae. Subtle details. Meanings that might sail over another child's head. I was always decoding. I was hyperalert.

Being hyperalert is a lasting thing. Being a watcher. Noticing emotional shifts, infinitesimally small tremors that flit over another person's face, the jab in a seemingly innocuous word, the quickening in a walk, an abrupt gesture -- the way, say, a jacket is tossed over a chair.
[*See comment below from Shuggie Bain.]

. . . I believe having an alcoholic parent is not only something to write about, but that there is an obligation to do it. Growing up as that child is lonely, isolating, confusing, and damaging. There are lots of us. If I have the power by telling a story to make an isolated person less alone, that is a good thing. Besides, I don't believe in protecting parents who drink -- sympathizing, forgiving, but not protecting. . . . Tell everyone. you might never get past it otherwise. The obligation of a child is not to protect their parents. Obviously. Obviously. A mom is supposed to protect her kids. Which doesn't happen when she drinks.

. . . But even with all the knowledge we have today, children are still keeping the secrets their parents want them to keep. Children are loyal.

. . . She never apologized. . . . My mother had created a version of herself that she sold to the world: She was completely pulled together. . . . Superiority was part of her identity.

. . . I remember having to summon up the nerve -- I must have always been intimidated by my mother, because otherwise why would I remember that this took nerve? . . . She never said or confided; she distilled and proclaimed. I lived my life by the Book of Mom.

. . . This staggering myopia resulted in the lifelong belief (I'm sure shared with other children of alcoholics) that, when I am looking left, something is coming at me from the right. I am always trying to look in two directions at once, which is impossible.

. . . How could I ever understand that? I was a kid. Children of alcoholics are always in over their heads. . . . Have I done something wrong? Have I said something wrong? I'm sorry -- whatever happened must be my fault. Is everyone all right, and if they aren't, how can I step in?

. . . Facts were not easy to come by at our house.

. . . was she simply scattershot mean, or did she just not really like me?"

[Disclaimer: As mentioned previously, I have not experienced alcoholic distress firsthand, but I know all about trying to put a good spin on a bad story. Ephron's essay brought it home to me as no previous description ever has that some families are emotionally poisoned by parental behaviors that uncannily mimic alcoholism even without the alcohol. No surprise then that these children grow up to behave very like adult children of alcoholics.]

From the psychologist Jordan Peterson (b June 12, 1962)
speaking on the topic of
When Is It Right to WALK AWAY From Your FAMILY?
“Take a look at the people that are around you, and if they’re not on the side of what’s good for you, then walk away. Because, well, first of all that’s best for them too. If you put up with that, all you’re doing is enabling it: it’s like [you are saying] 'Well, it’s okay that you mistreat me in a way that’s harmful to me and everyone else.' Well, actually, no that is not okay. It’s not the least bit okay."

Instead, you have to say to the
dysfunctional friend or family member:

You’re aiming down so hard [being so negative, hurtful destructive], I’m not coming along with you, and the reason I’m not is to tell you in no uncertain terms that what you’re doing is so terrible that I will even violate our kinship to oppose it. . . . You tell me the story that you use to justify your own idiocy to yourself, and then . . . you demand that because I’m compassionate I accept it and therefore validate your excuse.'”

More from Ephron, Merwin, Peterson


A bit of bitter humor from
Haiku U: 100 Great Books in 17 Syllables
by David M. Bader

The Social Contract
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

All vote. All consent.
It's like a big family.
Not mine, but someone’s.

~ Toxic Parenting ~





  4. *From the novel SHUGGIE BAIN
    by Douglas Stuart

    "Shuggie had been watching his mother quietly. He was always watching. She had raised three of them in the same mould, every single one of her children was as observant and wary as a prison warden." (p 51)