I grew up, mostly alone. My siblings were two older brothers, 7 and 3 years older, who weren’t much interested in a little sister, except on my youngest brother’s part as a target. (I remember once complaining to him, about the “games” we played, “How come I’m the one who always gets beat up?”)
I went to college. I noticed that most of my family communication went through my parents, and wasn’t sibling-to-sibling. Pre-internet, I spent a lot of New Year’s making resolutions to write monthly letters, make monthly phone calls. I set up schedules for myself and so on. They always fizzled out pretty quickly, I now know because I always started with my sister, and of course got nowhere.
I graduated, moved to Texas, met my husband, got married. In the years that I lived there, I (and eventually my husband) got to spend more time with Joe and Susan than I had ever spent with an older sibling before. We thought we had a decent relationship with them, although I think now that certain incidents over the years added up to Susan not liking me much, because I didn’t play her game very well.
I remember one specific event, involving a Christmas present, that showed me how manipulative she was. I also remember feeling that there had to be something wrong with me because I didn’t like Susan much, even though she was SO NICE.
In mid-2000 my husband and I decided to move to Oregon and immediately after that decision, my dad was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him less than a year later.
In early 2001, both my parents died and this shit happened.
In 2006, we started having the August reunions. And I started feeling worse and worse about them every year. I would talk about having to buy the plane tickets starting in January, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to buy them until June.
Susan continued her usual games. The really shitty one that she pulled was when I reached out to her and Joe prior to the first reunion, and suggested that we do the meal planning together. Of course, my suggestion was ignored. We showed up, only to find that Susan had planned the meals on her own, and deliberately excluded me from my own idea. She continues to be in complete charge of the meals every year — which of course snubs me, every year.
By the 4th reunion, in 2009, I was fed up. I made up an excuse not to go, but wrote my sister a letter in which I told her the truth, at least as far as I understood it then. My husband didn’t understand why we couldn’t just say we weren’t going, but after the histrionic response we got back which included a line about “what are we supposed to do about weddings and funerals?” he understood.
This started to make sense to me, though, in that there were certain events I was expected to be at in order to “complete the set”, but I wasn’t really wanted there. My sister’s weird insistence on my presence, yet the way she all but ignored me while we were there (which was noticed by my husband), started to make a little sense.
There was a wedding instead of reunion #5, and we skipped the 6th one again. That was the one at which the recording was made about my earliest years.
Then came reunion #7.
It was the second worst weekend of my life, the first being the one where my dad died.
We arrived late on a Friday night. My sister didn’t stay up to greet us.
Saturday morning, the guys all went out golfing. I got up maybe around 9:00 and walked out towards the kitchen in my pajamas, only to see my sister, SIL, and one of my nieces coming out of the other half of the house.
My sister looked at me and said, “We’re going to the Farmer’s Market,” and they all three walked out the front door.
She wouldn’t even say anything welcoming, like “hello, it’s good to see you,” let alone cross the room to give me a hug. There was no chance I was going to hear, “Hey, why don’t you throw on some clothes and come with us? We’ll wait.”
So I spent the morning alone in the house, got cleaned up, and got in touch with one of my online friends, Janet, who lives in the same town, and with whom I had already planned to have lunch.
With it being obvious that everyone else was having fun spending the day with others, that I wasn’t actually welcome at my sister’s house, and probably wasn’t going to be missed, I ended up spending the whole day with my friend, until dinnertime, and we actually had a very fun afternoon.
It turns out that people were upset about this: this was interpreted as me rejecting the family, by choosing to spend the day with someone else. Someone who was actually happy to see me. How dare I. And probably, how dare I find people like that. People whose genuine, kind, loving behavior make their behavior look bad.
This bit here is actually pretty key. See, this has to be my fault — it can’t be framed as that I actually had a good reason to go hang with Janet; it can’t be justified due to the fact that I was left alone, and felt unwelcomed by my family. Because that would mean that my sister and Susan and others were thoughtless and unwelcoming — at fault, or at least partly responsible.
And of course, this is a miniature version of the big problem, and it is treated the same way: it has to be my fault that I have rejected the whole family. It can’t possibly be true that I have plenty of good reasons to leave, because that would in turn mean others have at least a share of the responsibility.
Being shouted at, snubbed, ignored, bullied, deliberately disrespected — and having no one stand up for me against that kind of treatment, and getting more of it when I stand up for myself — those are my good reasons for leaving.
I can name at least two different people who have done each of those things to me, over the course of several years. So it’s a systemic problem, not isolated to one or two people.
If it is acknowledged that I have good reasons for my no-contact choice, then it also has to be acknowledged that those are things that people in this family have done to me, and that they are bad things. And then — GASP — they would have done something wrong! It would be their fault!
That can’t be allowed.
One option to get around this is to acknowledge that these things have happened, but they aren’t really that bad and I should “just get over it”.
Another is scapegoating. They start by figuring out who to throw the blame on — “it’s YOUR fault” — so they don’t have to deal with their own guilt, shame, embarrassment, whatever. And then come up with any kind of bullshit reason to justify it — “for bringing it all up again the next day.”
That was the excuse created by Joe and Susan to explain why they were “forced” to yell at me the day after my dad died. “I made them do it” — I’m not clear on how the reasoning works, but it is a simple, convenient, and total abdication of any personal responsibility for their actions.
I can see that the “reason” is indeed something they were pissed about — I sure as hell wasn’t supposed to bring Susan’s disgraceful behavior back up the next day. Maybe it is a way of communicating what it was I did that they were unhappy about, and a subtle way of explaining what I had better not do again. Maybe this is how narcissists train their prey.
But, back to the reunion story. So, when Janet brought me back to the house, everyone was there getting things ready for dinner, and my youngest brother invited me to go “for a walk to the lake”. I was surprised but accepted. Thankfully, my husband decided to go along too.
This invitation turned out to be nothing more than an excuse to yell at me privately, so no one else in the family would see it.
His opening line wasn’t “How have you guys been this past year” or any kind of small talk. He started right off with, “You have to admit that Dad was a lousy father.”
(Later I realized that this is actually true, in the sense that HE NEEDS me to admit it, because that is his excuse for being a lousy father. I’ve never told him he can’t think Dad was a lousy father to him, but apparently even he can see this is a shitty excuse, so he needs this idea to be universal.)
He went on to say a lot of other shit, including accusing me of “trying to tear the family apart” and “digging up the past”.
(I now am pretty sure this was about was him being mad at me for getting them all to talk about the family history (for a grand total of one whole hour) THE YEAR BEFORE. He had been saving up this shitty lecture for A YEAR.)
The part when I finally got mad enough to speak my mind was when he magnanimously said, “No one holds it against you the way you acted at Dad’s funeral.”
(Nothing happened at the funeral that I am aware of. This is code for “when Dad died,” apparently because those words are too difficult to utter. If you think this makes for very bad communication, you are right, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.)
That was when I said, “No one holds it against me how *I* ACTED? Maybe I still hold it against all of you the way YOU acted.” When he expressed surprise I said, “I know none of you stuck up for me.”
It went downhill from there. At one point he actually threatened me, saying, “We’re all you have.”
There was one very comical moment, when he was on me about “there’s no point in digging up the past like this” and why I was doing it. I said something like, “I’m just trying to figure out who I am and where I come from.”
He looked right at me, with my husband not 5 feet away, and told me what my name was. Except that he used my maiden name.
I looked at him in astonishment and said, “I haven’t used that name in 15 years.” It was now clear that the “conversation”, if such it could be called, was being held with someone who didn’t quite have both feet in reality.
But it was still upsetting and painful to have all that thrown right in my face, when every year I tried so hard to put it all aside for the sake of the family and the reunion.
Of course, he bears no blame for doing this to me, for “digging up the past” on his terms. None at all. (As far as I am aware, no one else has told him that he was out of line for doing this. The same people who have no issue telling me what I’m doing wrong in terms of family relationships can’t bring themselves to hold one of the club responsible for doing something out of line.)
We all went back to the house and had dinner, and got through the evening. That night I was horribly upset, couldn’t sleep, and spent most of the night crying, because of course my brother’s yelling at me had brought the whole Susan Incident back up, and I dimly realized the truth of how I was seen by my own family.
The next morning I got up early, just after 6:00, grabbed our laptop, went out on the front porch by myself, and tried to see if I could catch the train back to Chicago and go home. I thought maybe I could call Janet to take me to the station. By the time I got the wifi password right, I had missed the one train there was on Sunday, so I was unable to do so.
With that idea scuppered, I went back in the house to get a portable scanner that I had borrowed from a friend to take on the trip, and a pile of old photographs. (My sister has uncontested custody of ALL family photographs, even the ones she isn’t in, or that are from places and times she can’t stand. All I had been allowed to have were copies, so I had brought the scanner in order to copy ones I wanted.)
My sister and Susan were sitting in the living room talking, one on a chair, the other on the pulled-out sofa bed, practically knees touching, so that there was no other way to walk through the room but between them. I said “excuse me” and did so, got the scanner and the photos, and then walked back out to the porch, doing the same thing.
When I came back in an hour later, looking for more batteries for the scanner, my sister looked at me in great surprise. She exclaimed, in a tone that suggested she was completely taken aback, “When did you go out there??”
I mean, I had literally passed between them — inches from them. They had to move apart so I could pass. TWICE. And she had not even noticed I was there.
She sure noticed that I didn’t ask her about being a grandmother, though. That was thrown in my face later. In fact, I was told that, “It was interesting that the universal post-reunion comment last year was that [you] did not ask anybody anything about what they were doing.”
In fact, people talked far more to my husband than they did to me. They talked to him ABOUT me. They wondered at the apparent irresponsibility of me going off with an online friend (who was a 75YO woman). And more than one person talked to him about how “tolerant” he was of me not having a “real job” and bringing home a paycheck.
It’s clear now that this was an attempt at training him to see me in the “right” way, the way that everyone else saw me. An invitation to complain about me, perhaps, and get some more fodder from my own husband that they could use to bolster their negative opinions of me.
So it also became obvious that I was talked about behind my back, and criticized, to my own husband no less. My behavior was examined and found to be unacceptable — and of course this would be because I am unacceptable, and not at all because I had any reasonable reasons for my behavior.
Not at all because I had by turns been snubbed, yelled at, left out, and even my actual physical presence had been ignored.
Yet everyone was apparently universally aware that I hadn’t been interested enough in THEM.
There also was a misunderstanding about photo albums, which started with me asking my sister to bring my dad’s WWII photo albums to the reunion, so she did — along with a couple of albums in which she had zero personal interest, that included photos from my childhood years, so I’m not sure why she even had them. The night before we left, she told me I could take “the photo albums” as she didn’t think anyone else was interested in them.
So I did. Only I took the wrong ones. I took Dad’s WWII albums — the ones that, as it turned out, my sister had had for a dozen years and yet her children had never seen them. Huh.
The sister who couldn’t notice me while I was there noticed the missing photo albums within a half hour of our departure. We got a hysterical phone call on the way back to Chicago. I am still surprised that she did not demand I unpack them and leave them with her husband.
So anyway. A few days after returning home, I decided I was never going back, and wrote the first “fuck you” email. As you may guess, it didn’t go over well.
I was told I needed therapy, among many other things. So I got some. And I found out I was right. I found out about narcissism, and how that kind of person behaves, and what it does to relationships, and things all started to make sense.