My second letter to my siblings was written after a year of therapy — the therapy that I was oh-so-condescendingly told I needed.
At least three of you told me last year that I needed to go see a therapist, so that I can “get over my problems”.
So, I did go see a therapist. With Tracy’s help, I figured out a few things and I have a much clearer understanding of how and why some events transpired as they did. On what is more-or-less the anniversary of the email that I sent last year after the family reunion, I think that after a year’s worth of work, it is time that I share what I’ve learned. I don’t know if it will be at all helpful to any of you, but I feel it is only fitting that I should share the fruits of your own suggestion with you.
The type of therapist I worked with focuses on exploring patterns of thinking, and the beliefs that direct these thoughts. Brothers and sisters often have shared childhood experiences and memories and beliefs. Some of you have those strong commonalities, especially the Triumvirate of [my sister, brother #1, and brother #2]. While we have the same parents, and we do share some history, we do not have those shared experiences. Birth order, circumstance, and decisions made by others — some of them decisions that were bad for the family — have meant that I am functionally an only child. Most of you grew up in a “strict father” family. (James Dobson is a proponent of this parenting style. Mom loved him.) I grew up in a “nurturing parent” family. My beliefs were formed at different times, under different conditions, and for the most part, my beliefs are not very similar to those of the rest of the family. However, this does not automatically mean that my beliefs are wrong. They are just different from yours.
Foremost in this family, as far as I can tell, is the belief that I call, “Mom was a saint and Dad was a bastard.” My corresponding belief is pretty much the opposite. For me, what is true is that Dad was a dependable, loving parent, and Mom was uncaring towards me and didn’t put much effort into being a mother.
I think this difference in our beliefs creates a tension that underlies almost everything else, and it is probably what sets me up to be treated as a second-class family member. My therapist says it is a common problem in families where siblings had different experiences of the parents, but in this family, it is magnified a thousand-fold, due to a couple of major things: Mom’s illness, and The Divorce.
My belief deserves as much respect as your belief. I have respected your collective belief, insofar as I can without compromising my own, but my belief has never gotten the same respect from you. I have never once insisted that “Mom was a lousy mother” in anyone’s experience but mine. By contrast, [Brother 4] felt perfectly entitled to insist to me last year that “You have to admit Dad was a lousy father”.
The facts that I know, the documentation I have collected, and what I experienced contradict that collective belief. I know what kind of a relationship Mom and I had, and it was far more like the relationships that she had with [my sister]’s kids — distant and unconcerned — rather than anything approaching a motherly one. After The Divorce, when I would go to her apartment, what I remember most is she had me do her dishes, clean her fridge, do her laundry and her vacuuming. I do not remember very many times we went anywhere or did anything fun. The activities I can remember with her were centered around church: things like CCD classes, where I was in a classroom and I didn’t actually spend time with her at all.
For years I used to say I didn’t have a mother, so much as a sort of aunt. I was cognizant of this even at the age of six, when we minor kids were asked by the lawyer to choose which parent we would live with. Reading what the lawyer wrote about the reasons I gave for choosing Dad, it is apparent that I was entirely aware that Mom did not do things for me that mothers normally do. The lawyer’s own observations about Mom, from his interview with her, back this up.
I don’t think the older siblings realize that this is how things were for me/us. They were out of the house by then and not looking back. The ideas expressed during the recorded conversation that Mom’s neglect wasn’t actually bad enough for her to lose custody, or that the legal system had to be compromised somehow for that to happen, indicate that pretty clearly.
But Dad took on the job of a single father when he didn’t have to. He could easily have found another job, moved away, remarried, started over with a new wife and family. Instead, he chose not to abandon the younger kids to Mom’s haphazard parenting, but he gets no credit for this choice.
Within the past few years, I have tried to find out as much as I can about the period of time when I was born, and the years afterwards, and I thank those of you who have contributed to that knowledge. Unfortunately, I will probably never know why Mom checked out, apparently on just me. Apparently she was able to have loving relationships with everyone else, including [brother #4] (whose childhood was in the same timeframe, i.e. both before and after her illness and The Divorce).
It is hard to imagine what a baby could do to “deserve” such indifference from her mother. Thus I assume that whatever the reason was, it had to do with Mom or the circumstances, not with me as such. Presumably it takes an awful lot to break such a naturally strong bond as that between mother and child. I do not believe divorce would change how a mother feels about only one of her children. I have wondered if it was because as an infant, my mother completely disappeared twice during my first year of life, we were separated for a month each time, and that is what damaged our relationship. I have wondered if it had anything to do with the electroshock treatments, which can apparently have that effect, in rare cases. There is some evidence that post-partum depression can cause mothers to ignore their babies, and Dad alluded to some evidence of physical neglect, to the point where I had diaper rash so badly I was bleeding. But, I will never know for sure, unless anyone has any more pertinent information that they have so far withheld.
A second, related belief, is the collective belief that “Mom is never to blame.” What is more truthful is that Mom was excellent at deflecting blame onto other people. This behavior is not uncommon. I have a diagram from my therapist that spells out this, as well as several other unhealthy effects of low self-esteem.
Dad was her main target, of course. Once she and he were no longer together, The Divorce became her favorite excuse. At the time of Joe and Susan’s wedding, when [my husband] had the talk with Mom, calling her on the carpet about the hurtful things she was saying to me, Mom managed to blame even THAT on “You don’t know what their father did to me.” She would not take responsibility for her own hurtful words, spoken to me in conversations between the two of us, twenty years after The Divorce. The things she said to me were Dad’s fault, somehow. How does that even make sense? When looked at factually, the behavior defies logic.
Another blaming example, from when I was in kindergarten: At Open House, we drew life-sized portraits of ourselves, and we had to dictate a few lines about our families to the principal’s secretary, who typed them up on cards. The descriptions were posted next to each of our portraits. Mine said something like, “My parents fight a lot and my mother prays a lot.”
I don’t remember Dad’s reaction, but I remember Mom was horrified and embarrassed, and she placed the blame on me for not knowing that I should not have said those things. That was when I got labeled as a “big mouth”.
I have been ashamed of that incident for most of my life. I believed what I was told: that it was my fault, and I should have known better than to say those things, when asked to talk about my family. Six years old, but it was my fault. I didn’t know I was doing anything wrong just by telling the truth — but from Mom I got the blame, I internalized it, and it caused me shame and guilt for years. However, looking back on it with adult eyes, I can see where the blame should have gone: to the secretary, and maybe the teacher, if she knew what that card said. Certainly there were adults involved who should have had better judgment than to post that for all to see.
Realizing, as an adult, just how screwed up this was and why, made the guilt and shame just vanish, instantly and completely. This example shows exactly how this kind of therapy is supposed to work: revisiting things that happened in the past, but with adult knowledge and empathy, in order to understand what really happened, and possibly what should have happened, and placing responsibility for the outcome where it truly belongs. (HINT: It’s generally not reasonable to shift blame onto a baby, nor a six-year-old.)
Part of the success of the blame-deflecting technique lies in choosing on whom it will be easiest to deflect the blame. If Mom had complained to the principal, or the teacher, she would have had a fight on her hands. But the defenseless little girl was a perfect target. Multiply that shame x 6 years x 365 days and watch a child crumble under that guilt, and I have an inkling as to maybe why Dad came to the decision to divorce Mom.
Another good example is Mom’s words upon seeing the picture of herself that [my sister] mentioned in the recorded conversation: “Look what your father did to me.” I could accept, “Look what happened to me” or even “Look what having that baby, after I was told by the doctors not to have any more children, did to me.” But “Look what your father did to me”? How is that all Dad’s fault, exactly? Mom is the one who decided to not have the recommended hysterectomy. I could more easily accept, “I should never have had that baby,” because at least that would acknowledge that she made a choice that was ultimately destructive to herself and to the family.
The blame-deflection technique is an effective one, and it has worked in this family for decades. But it is very destructive to people and to relationships. Also, as a side effect of this continual blame deflection, there is a very strong habit in this family: when there is a problem, the very first thing everyone does is decide who is to blame, whose fault it is. No one says, “I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” Instead it is, “It was YOUR fault!” or, “YOU MADE ME do it!”
And, conveniently, if one can blame someone else for the problem, one has no responsibility to try to fix it.
If these ideas make you angry, let me point out that we do not get angry when someone makes an obviously invalid challenge to our beliefs. We don’t get angry when someone says something absurd. We get angry when we are afraid the challenge might be valid.
“If someone pointed at your hair, claimed it was green, and then started to laugh out loud at how silly you looked would you feel hurt? Probably not. (I’m assuming that your hair is a more natural color than green.) When you know your hair is not green you would know this person is just being silly, on drugs, or having problems with their vision. You know the issue is with their perception… It only hurts if we believe… ”
I have always been a little puzzled as to why [my sister] was devastated (her word) to be told that “Your mother doesn’t love you.” Even at the same age, if someone had tried to tell me that “Your father doesn’t love you,” I would have laughed at the very idea. I might have been angry at them for trying to lie to me, but the statement itself wouldn’t have had the power to hurt me. In a similar vein, [brother #1] considered Mom’s psychologists to be quacks, and did not want to believe what they were saying. But he couldn’t just completely discredit them because Mom was manifestly sick and hospitalized. So his reaction was to be angry at them.
A third belief in this family seems to be, “We all have to agree on everything, or else there is a problem, and the problem lies with the one who disagrees.” At one point, Tracy asked me, “So, you aren’t allowed to have your own opinions?” What immediately came out of my mouth was, “Oh, I can HAVE them, I just can’t say them out loud.”
Case in point: my “discussion” with [brother #4] last year about sexual harassment in the workplace. Looking back, I realize now that the question he asked, “Why is something as innocuous as that in a book of things you can’t say at work?” was not really a serious question. What it was, was an invitation to agree with him. He was not open to viewpoints other than his own. So when I tried to explain my own, personal experiences to him — experiences that were painful and difficult for me — my story was not met with concern and empathy for my experiences, or a willingness to listen to or consider another point of view. Instead I was literally told by [brother #4] that I should not have said what I said, or done what I did — presumably because it did not conform to his own beliefs. Even later on, in emails, he suggested that the real problem was not that sexual harassment exists, and affects women negatively, but instead that I had “given up too easily”.
This mentality is actually a hallmark of the conservative worldview, in which the “other” is the enemy. Anything different is bad, suspicious, and met with criticism and ridicule. (As I suspect this letter will be.) But this crab-bucket mentality basically guarantees that things will never change (i.e. will remain “safe”, at least for some people). I’ve actually had people in this family tell me, “Well, I agree with you, but don’t tell (X) or (Y) I said that.” How screwed up is that? To be seen to agree with me openly is some sort of controversial stance? Apparently so.
All this leads me to a fourth family belief. With the first three beliefs operating, the only way to reconcile them with a person who has different beliefs is to conclude that the other person must be “wrong”. The word “wrong” here could mean stupid, untrustworthy, ignorant, or a host of other negative interpretations. I think the most accurate one in this case is “[She] is not one of us.”
The Susan Incident is the icing on top of that cake, but the cake was definitely already there. However, it takes one more belief to turn The Susan Incident into the issue it has become. The additional belief is that Susan is never wrong. It has been easily accepted and incorporated into this family because it has exactly the same form, and works on exactly the same blame-deflecting principles, as Mom is never to blame. And it means that I am not going to be allowed to be right about this, even though I am.
Once again, let’s look at the facts: I did exactly three things that night and day when Dad died.
- I politely asked Susan to take her cheerful conversation into another room, so I wouldn’t be hearing her laughter as I sat beside my dead father. She refused to do as I asked.
- I tried to talk to Joe about that refusal the next day, in the kitchen, just between us.
- When Susan burst into the kitchen and the two of them stood there yelling right in my face, I fled the house in shock and bewilderment.
No one can honestly say that any of my actions were wrong, or unreasonable, or overreacting. Except that they did. To take just one example, Joe has used loaded words like “emotional over-reaction” to describe my simple request of Susan to leave the room.
Everything else that happened, happened because of Joe and Susan’s actions, not mine. Once I was gone, those events, which were witnessed by no one else, were deliberately presented to the rest of the family in such a way as to put me wholly in the wrong, by people who have a vested interest in making sure it is seen that way. Joe and Susan’s explanation was accepted by everyone else, without anyone ever once talking to me about what happened, or even being willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. Of course, if “[She] is not one of us”, no one will bother to defend an outsider against a person who shifts blame onto her.
Joe has written that “my problem” is that I think I am completely innocent of blame in this conflict. Of course, that happens to be exactly the position that he and Susan have taken for themselves. In their case it is not “their problem” but simply the way things manifestly are, as though Susan has a god-given monopoly on being right in any conflict — even the ones she manufactures, as this one. There was no criticism of Susan in my request that she converse in another room, but she decided to see it that way.
I would like someone to explain to me how it is logical or fair that if I think I am right, that is a problem — but if they think they are right, that is just because they are right. It is an intriguing set-up that makes it impossible for me to even make a start on telling my side of the story.
Joe discredited the hospice nurse’s empathetic apology to me by saying “as for the hospice nurse, there are all kinds of reasons her apology might appear more “heartfelt” – for one, she could lose her job if you complained to her organization, and she doesn’t have any history of the family and personalities involved, either.”
Sooo… one has to have knowledge of the family history and personalities before one can come to the “right” conclusion? Interesting. No more evidence is needed to see that this whole issue has been entirely biased by beliefs, as opposed to being thoughtfully judged on what actually happened. This is unfair, because those beliefs amount to a set-up.
If I have a problem with The Susan Incident, it is that this family is perfectly fine with heaping all the blame on me without hearing my side of the story, no one wants to “get involved” with what is obviously “my problem”, and I am supposed to “just get over it”. I am certain this is why I was told to go to therapy, because everyone assumed the professional would be on their side and would also tell me to “just get over it”.
Well, the therapist didn’t tell me that. She told me that I am absolutely right. I did nothing unreasonable. Susan’s behavior at Dad’s deathbed was disrespectful to me. She and Joe treated me horribly, with no justification for it. And the rest of the family has let them do it. These are simply facts.
I am certain that the next move will be to try to discredit my therapist. I am equally certain that if I had reported that my therapist had told me to “just get over it”, there would be no such argument and she would be considered to be extremely creditable. So I think we can skip that obvious ploy, yes?
My behavior at Mom’s death has been brought up as an additional example of my supposed wrongdoing. A remark I made to [brother #4] at that time was taken to be extremely insensitive. Joe considers that it was “disparaging and disrespectful” and “completely disregarding the feelings of others that had a better relationship.”
Well, in terms of what Susan did when Dad died, I couldn’t have put it better myself. She ignored what I clearly and politely asked her to do. If that isn’t “complete disregard of the feelings of others that had a better relationship” with Dad, then I don’t know what is.
But when Susan did it, she “did nothing wrong”. And when I did it, it was completely wrong.
Susan had a conversation at Dad’s death, I found the content upsetting, and asked her to take it elsewhere. That is me overreacting, and I am the one at fault for that. When I say something at Mom’s death, and [brother #4] finds that upsetting, he is not overreacting. His angry, upset reaction is perfectly acceptable. I am at fault for that conflict, too.
The two events are equivalent, yet somehow people manage to believe I am at fault in BOTH of these situations. How does this happen? By letting beliefs take precedence over the actual facts. One side of the story is left out, the facts are manipulated to suit the other side’s views, the logical contradiction is simply ignored.
It is obvious to me that the outcome is predetermined. In some minds, I am going to be wrong, no matter what, no matter how the facts have to be distorted in order to make that happen. No matter if I have a professional therapist backing me up, even. Some excuse will be cooked up to explain why I STILL can’t possibly be right about this. If that is not true, then tell me what I would have to do — no, wait, that’s what I did. Forget it. I am done with jumping through the hoops. [I am] clearly in the wrong, because Susan can’t be.
Tracy pointed out, “You aren’t even allowed to defend yourself.” If I try, I get shouted down — literally, as by Joe and Susan — and I will not forget Susan actually bending down in order to shout more directly into my face that horrible day — or as by [brother #4] on the walk to the lake last year — or figuratively, as in the various hateful emails that were sent. All of these things were done to try to shut me up, to silence my attempts at self-defense.
Or, I am just ignored. I am supposed to sit here and “get over it”.
People have nit-picked to death what I said and did, in an effort to judge whether I actually had any right to be upset, and decided I didn’t. I could point out several logical fallacies in the emails that have gone around, but there isn’t any point because apparently, the facts are not what matter here. The message is loud and clear: Mom was worth grieving over. Mom was worth getting upset over. Dad wasn’t. Because, of course, Dad was a bastard.
Except that he was my father, and he loved me, and I loved him. I miss him and I have no one to share in my grief for him. I’m sorry that the rest of you didn’t have as good a relationship with him as I did, but that is not my fault. I didn’t have as good a relationship with Mom as you all did, but I don’t hold that against any of you. I put the responsibility for that on Mom, where it belongs.
So where does this leave us? On this diagram, replace the word “partner” with the word “family”. The triggering condition was of course Dad’s death. I was expecting support from my family at this horrible, stressful time and everywhere I turned, I got a very negative response. It was traumatic for me. Most of this was a direct result of Joe and Susan’s actions. I had no one willing and able to defend and protect me from those hurtful actions. Certainly over the years it has become clear to me that I can give up on getting a positive response of any kind from at least half of the family. So, we are at “Distancing.”
If you believe that my role ought to be to put up and shut up for the sake of the family, then I can only ask why on earth should I do that? I am not the one who created this conflict. It is obvious that what most of the family has been willing to do for me in all this is a big fat nothing.
Certainly that option would be MUCH more comfortable for a big chunk of the family, but it sucks for me. I’ve tried it.
I have had to come to terms with the fact that the family I wish I had, is not the family I have. [Brother #4] has commented to the effect that this is my fault for being distant — note, this is blaming me again. (It is AMAZING how well that crutch works!)
At rock bottom, I think it has been a mistake to pretend to include me as part of a family that I do not think I have ever really been considered a part of. [My husband] and I are simply not in the club, and I think I never have been, other than to be expected to attend certain family events to complete the set. This distance goes back decades, far beyond our parents’ deaths and The Susan Incident. I can remember in my twenties and thirties, every single year I made resolutions about making regular phone calls and writing more letters, to try to bridge the gap that has simply always been there. The ties we have are not of affection, just genealogy. It was obvious to [my husband] from the first reunions that I am treated oddly, especially by my sister. [My sister] acts as though the family ends with [brother #4] and treats him as the baby of the family. No one calls or emails us just to say “hi” and see how we are doing. I don’t expect anyone will ever get on a plane for one of my milestone birthdays, as I have done several times for others. In the thirteen years we have lived here, we have had three visits from my family. And two of those were from [brother #2 and his wife], who had additional reasons to make those trips besides seeing us.
It is not me who needs to reach out to try to get back in everyone’s good graces, as a penalty for something that I didn’t even do. I have seen the therapist that I was told I needed to see, and came away with my knowledge reinforced that none of this is my fault, or of my doing. I am writing this letter to communicate that knowledge to you, and as part of the process of making peace with the whole situation for myself. Any effort to repair any relationships worth saving will have to come from someone besides me. This is not just my opinion, but also that of other people who actually care about me and my well-being: my husband, my true friends, and a professional, to boot.
I hoped that the Chicago reunions were going to provide the opportunity for me to finally be an accepted part of this family. I should have known better at the very first one, when I reached out to Joe and Susan beforehand, sending more than one email, with the suggestion that we do the meal planning together, and 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. That wasn’t an accident, and it wasn’t nice. That’s not my idea of a family. Last year I accidentally found out, from [my sister]’s Xmas card letter, that we were deliberately not invited to another get-together, i.e. [my nephew]’s graduation. That is not my idea of a family either. I will echo [my sister]’s sentiment that it is too bad that things are the way they are. I wish they were different, but try as I have done, they are not. If no one else makes an effort, this is how things will stay. I think for the most part that you all are pretty happy with the status quo: so be it. I am happier not being ignored or yelled at or simply feeling like a second class citizen.
I will return the favor, and would highly recommend that several of you go to some therapy yourselves, although part of the problem with the blaming thing is that the people who do it don’t think they are the problem. (Of course not! they are never to blame!)
I am open to thoughtful, honest, polite responses and discussion. Arguments, angry diatribes, attempts at invalidation, or further attempts to turn the facts on their heads will be disregarded.