The History, Part 5 – The Last Reunion

So.  My parents got divorced, my dad got custody of the three minor kids, and the house, until I turned 18.

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.

Part 6

The History, Part 4 – The Back Story

Here is what I have been able to learn about the years just before and after I was born.

Some of the following is is admittedly informed speculation, based on my solo research.  At one point I tried to get my mother’s hospital records, only to find out that they are only kept for 40 years by law in Iowa, and I was about 2 years too late.  I have asked the family if anyone has any official records, but if anyone has any documentation, they have kept it from me.  Most of the quotations come from a recorded conversation among my siblings.

The move

Prior to the year before I was born, my dad’s jobs required him to travel most of the time.  He was usually gone during the week.  Then, he got offered a prestigious job in a new city.  It was a sudden move, because the job offer resulted from the death of a colleague.

So the family moved from the place where they had lived the longest (about 10 years or so).  They moved in the late summer of ’67, so the kids could start school in the new city, and at first they lived crowded into an apartment for about 8 months.  My sister (15) started her sophomore year of high school that year, and the next two boys were in 7th and 9th grades (14 and 12).  Brother #3 was 5YO and brother #4 was around 18 months old.

My birth

The following spring, early ’68, they moved into the house I grew up in, and I was born about a year later, in spring of ’69.  My sister was finishing up her junior year.

Mom’s mental illness

In the fall of ’69, at the start of my sister’s senior year, and a few months after I was born, it is agreed that my mother suffered a “nervous breakdown”.  This is the terminology that I have heard all my life.

A couple of years ago, I got a book from the library about post-partum depression, and learned about post-partum psychosis as well.  What they used to call a “nervous breakdown” is now called a psychotic breakdown.  This can involve dangerous delusions and violent behavior.

As part of her treatment, she received electroshock therapy, or what they now call ECT.  This is also undisputed — although it is unilaterally considered by everyone else that it was a “ridiculous” “unbelievable” treatment choice.

Well, here are the reasons they do ECT.

“ECT is often used with informed consent as a last line of intervention for major depressive disorder
ECT is considered one of the least harmful treatment options available for severely depressed pregnant women…
For major depressive disorder, ECT is generally used only when other treatments have failed, or in emergencies, such as imminent suicide.

Hospitalization may be necessary in cases [of major depressive disorder] with associated self-neglect or a significant risk of harm to self or others. A minority are treated with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).”

Mom was indeed hospitalized twice during my first year, for a month each time:  once in the fall, when I was around 6 months old, and then again in the spring, when I was close to a year old.

I tried asking my sister about what happened to cause Dad to hospitalize his wife:  in other words, what was the psychotic break that almost certainly had to happen, to precipitate everything that followed?

And, knowing that she always, ALWAYS defends our mother and will do so to the death — it occurred to me that if she did know anything, there was a good chance that she might decide not to tell me, and just say she didn’t know anything.  So I asked her, if that was the case, to at least tell me that truth, and not lie about it.

Well, that was a mistake.  She got extremely defensive and lashed out, claiming that I had no evidence for anything like this happening.  All she does say is that Dad packed a suitcase for Mom and took her to a doctor, and that she wasn’t sure if Mom knew what was happening or not.

But simple confusion on the part of his wife would not be likely to lead a man to pack a suitcase for a trip to the doctor.  If you don’t think there’s something seriously wrong, you would just take her to the doctor.  Then when the doctor decides to check her into the hospital, that’s when you go home and get the suitcase.  Or possibly you have called the doctor, described what is happening, and the doctor told you what to do.

I say that conjecturing that there was a dangerous and/or violent psychotic break makes far more sense than conjecturing that my father just suddenly decided to up and check his wife into the looney bin for no good reason — especially with a 6 month old baby, and a 3YO and a 7YO, to care for at home.

The family had been limping along for months, if not years, in denial, trying to function as best they could with a mother running the home who was increasingly nonfunctional.  My dad never talked much about it, but he referred a couple of times to things such as, “soiled clothing being put back in drawers,” instead of being washed, and that I “had diaper rash so bad that [my] butt was bleeding”.

If this kind of thing was able to be rationalized over time, it seems ridiculous to think that Dad just suddenly had a revelation one day.  Something must have happened to make it clear to him that she was mentally ill and needed medical help, and whatever it was, it was bad enough for him to know that he had to remove her from the house.


It at least seems clear that Mom was severely depressed.  Prior to being hospitalized, Mom was “crying all the time”.  She badly missed their previous home, and with the move, any support system she may have had had disappeared.  She didn’t work outside the home and she never learned to drive (a circumstance that was always and forever blamed on my father), so she was isolated at home all day.

She made few, if any, friends in the new town.  This is held to be one of the reasons why she didn’t win custody in The Divorce, because she had no one to testify on her behalf.  (But over the following 12 years, when she was working outside the home and had every opportunity to socialize, I rarely saw her do so.  I never met any friends that she made, other than a few women who would give us a ride to or from somewhere — usually a church function.)

The job change meant my father was home more.  Instead of being gone all week, he was now able to come home every night, and even come home for lunch.

One brother said, “I saw that as more of a threat than anything else.”  (and everyone else laughs.  They have no idea how twisted and unhealthy this sounds in the mouth of a teenager.  It’s called “parental alienation” and it is a serious form of child abuse.  It’s not normal — at least not if a parent is not abusive [in that case it is called realistic alienation], and I have never heard anyone claim that Dad ever raised a hand to them except in earned punishment.  It is learned from the alienating parent, the “aligned” parent.)

It is clear that the man was not welcome in his own home.

Another brother noted that previously, when Dad would leave for the week, for the first 2 or 3 days, they “could do anything” and were able to “screw around” instead of doing chores and so forth.  Dad’s return at the end of the week was seen as an unwelcome end to the fun (more laughter), as they then had to rush to get things taken care of before he came back “because Dad was coming home”.  See who gets blamed for Mom’s inability to run the house properly and their own teenaged lack of discipline?

(This is exactly the situation that Flylady used to call “crisis cleaning”.  It’s a lousy way to run a household.)

They saw him as a “workaholic”, someone who “enjoyed” doing work and chores, and never had any fun.  Well, when the work doesn’t get done as it should, during the week, and then it gets done in a half-assed way because it’s being done in crisis mode — well, someone’s gotta do it, and that someone probably ended up being my dad.

But it is not hard to imagine that when he returned from a week of sales and schmoozing, what he wantedand, according to the social contract of the day, had a right to expect — was to be welcomed home by his wife and children, and have a nice meal in a clean, tidy, and well-maintained home.

He didn’t enjoy working hard all week to come home to a mess, to be required to punish his sons for a week’s worth of misdeeds, and then to reward that by going out to eat, and finally to spend his weekend catching up on chores that should have been already done.

Of course he wasn’t happy, and he wasn’t any fun.  He was being let down by his wife and alienated from his children, week after week after week.  And his was a pretty normal reaction to the situation, as it turns out:

“Rejected parents, generally fathers, tend to lack warmth and empathy… instead, they engage in rigid parenting and critical attitudes.”

Dad was considered unreasonable for things like wanting dinner to be at a certain time.  They complain that he never wanted to go out, he never wanted to have any fun.  (Oddly enough, my experience of my mother in the years that followed The Divorce can be described in exactly the same manner.  Mom rarely took us anywhere or did anything at her home that could be called “fun”.  I remember doing a lot of reading by myself in the living room, or doing her housework.)

The words used to describe living with Mom are: “relaxed”, “flexible”, “not exactly haphazard, there was some structure but it wasn’t to the letter”

The words used to describe what it was like when Dad was home:  “like having someone breathing down your neck”.

One brother referred to seeing Mom at the hospital and thinking that she was so much happier, that maybe being away from Dad for that long (a month or so) was a good thing.

I’ll note that also while she was in the hospital, she wouldn’t have had to lift a finger, and she probably enjoyed being waited on by the staff all day.

But see how Dad is made to be the source of the problem?  Mom may be mentally ill and have severe depression, but that’s only because of the unthinkable circumstance of being forced to actually live with her husband around all the time.  Not because her husband wants and expects reasonable things, that she is too unreasonable to do.

In fact, my siblings believe that the situation was abusive, and that any professional would have told Mom to get the hell out.  (Which begs the question, so why is the divorce such a horrible thing?  but I’m getting ahead of myself.)

But — no abuser willingly lets the target of their abuse go Yet Dad was the one who left the marriage, and Mom was the one who resented The Divorce.

I agree, it was abusive — but not in the direction they believe.

Mom is praised for putting herself through misery and sacrificing her personal life in order to save the marriage.  WHAT MARRIAGE?  She resented the shit out of him for expecting her to do things — normal, everyday, housewife, marriage things, like cooking and laundry and cleaning and sex — and apparently, changing my damned diapers — that she simply didn’t want to do.

And incidentally, this poor decision made everyone else’s lives a fucking misery too — to the point that somewhere in all this mess, my sister tried to kill herself.  That is so far from praiseworthy I can’t even.  That is, in fact, abuse.

I have wondered just what would have made my mother happy at this point in the narrative.  She needed and wanted Dad’s income, and refused to give up being provided for in the manner to which she had become accustomed — but she hated Dad, and living in the same house with him, as his wife, made her miserable, and by extension, everyone else too.

The only thing I can think of that would have “fixed” the situation would have been if Dad had conveniently died, and left her with all “her” kids and a big beautiful house, and a big insurance policy, so she would never have to work.


The other thing that came out of this was the information from the doctors.  The only actual diagnosis I ever heard was “paranoid schizophrenia.”  But Dad related some bits and pieces to the older kids, in sound bites, like “Your mother is crazy, and she doesn’t love you.”  The doctor also famously told Dad, “She hates your guts.”  (To which one brother said, “which I could sort of see that.”)

I think it was during this period that Dad learned about things like blaming, and contempt, and how destructive those things are to a relationship, and began to see how hopeless it was that anything would ever change or get better.

During the first hospitalization, Dad used up his vacation to stay home and take care of the house and the younger kids.  Then the older kids were drafted to stay home from school in a rotation to do the job.  At some point after the initial “episode”, as it is delicately called, a housekeeper was hired, but even that wasn’t enough to prevent the second hospitalization.

The divorce

Things were admittedly dysfunctional even before the move, but the enormous stress load just made everything worse:  the move, the new job, and the changes in the household routine, with the new baby and a bigger house and of course, Dad’s increased and unwelcome presence.

And in the course of Mom’s hospitalizations and having to run the household end of things on top of doing his own job, Dad found out about things that Mom was spending money on behind his back, such as astrologers and horoscopes — and in particular, she spent money on a private investigator to track Dad, and tried to hide it from him.

This was a huge betrayal to Dad, because to him, money was equal to love; it was how a man showed his love for his family, by being a good provider.  Letting his wife handle his money that he worked hard for was a symbol of his trust in her.  To then find that she wasted a lot of his own money by paying someone to spy on him was, to him, the height of dishonesty and treachery.

Of course this is not Mom’s fault – not even really her doing.  The blame for this is placed on the private investigator!  who is held to have manipulated Mom into doing it.

Predictably, they fought about sex (mostly my mother resenting my father and making him out to be a bastard for wanting to have some).  Apparently at some point Mom accused, “This is all about sex, isn’t it?” and Dad either (a) didn’t deny it or (b) agreed, depending on whose memory you rely on.

It would be funny if it weren’t so unhealthy.  The woman who didn’t want to have sex with him got paranoid and mad when she thought he’d found someone else to have sex with.  Sex is generally considered a normal and healthy part of a normal and healthy marriage.  The person who doesn’t believe this is the one who is not normal or healthy.

At some point Dad started spending his weekends somewhere helping someone remodel a house.  (It’s not clear if this was before or after the bit with the PI.)  He would come home on Friday, throw a bunch of tools in the car, and leave.  But this was considered to be “great, because he’d be gone all weekend.”

So, they fought about money.  They fought about sex.  But so what?  These are the two of the most common things married couples fight about.  What they were apparently unable to do is communicate effectively (without blaming!) and resolve the problems.  This was absolutely, positively, not all on Dad.  Yet the excuses are all made for Mom.

Mom was “under an awful lot of stress”.

Mom was “trying to keep the marriage together”.

Wasn’t Dad?  Wasn’t it stressful to find out that no one wanted him around?  That his wife was spying on him?  When Mom was sick, wasn’t he using all his spare time to do as much of both jobs as he could?  And this was while his day job was brand-new to him.  Oh, no, that’s not stressful.

But Mom is the one that they “feel so bad for”.

Guess what?  That is the hallmark of a manipulator.

My BIL — a man whom I believe everyone in the family respects greatly —  once said something to this effect:

A man wants three things out of a marriage:  to feel important in his own home, to have a good meal, and to have a roll in the hay every once in a while.

My dad got none of the three out of that marriage.

So at some point over the next 4 or 5 years, he decided there was nothing left for him, and probably nothing positive for his younger kids, in keeping this relationship going.  He had nothing, in the way of family, to lose.  So he decided to divorce her.  He really had no other choice worth making.  And alone of his kids, I’ve never blamed him for making that choice.

Because I’m in the same position:  a family that doesn’t want me around, that refuses to even consider that they could be part of the problem.  And just like it was to Dad, it’s been made clear to me that nothing is ever going to change, and there is nothing left for me to do but leave.  I too have nothing, in the way of family, to lose.

It’s still painful.  Rejection always is.  But it’s a pattern that I can at least recognize now, and get away from.

Part 5

The History, Part 6 – The Start of the Healing

My second letter to my siblings was written after a year of therapy — the therapy that I was oh-so-condescendingly told I needed.


 

Dear siblings:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. I tried to talk to Joe about that refusal the next day, in the kitchen, just between us.
  3. 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.

Attachment_Theory_Attachment_Avoidance

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.

The History, Part 3 – The Reunions

So, a few years after the deaths of our parents, my sister’s oldest daughter gets married. We attended the wedding, at which the idea of a yearly reunion was floated.  Of course, the hostess would be my sister.  ALWAYS.  I tried bringing up the suggestion that we could rotate the hosting duties so everyone would have a chance to host, but — like almost any other suggestion I have ever made to this group of people — that idea was completely ignored.

We started going to these reunions in August every year.  And year after year, I came home feeling left out.  Wrong-footed.  Like a second-class citizen or a weird, ill-defined relative.  Maybe a cousin or something.  But definitely not a part of the group.  (Everyone else gravitates to the phrase, “like a red-headed stepchild” to describe this.  I won’t even comment.)

I now know I was there just to “complete the set”, to prove my sister’s control over the whole family.  (And, I suspect that my absence from the reunions now is probably pleasing to her and to Susan.  Especially since it is “all my fault” that I’ve decided not to show up every year just to be treated like garbage.  But I’m getting ahead of my story.)

At first I put that not-belonging feeling down to the simple fact that everyone else had a different opinion of my dad than I did.  That was an open secret:  everyone knew that Dad and I had been close, closer than anyone else.  And I knew that I had better keep my mouth shut about it.  It was my role to just sit and listen when the others started talking about how awful Dad had been.  (Looking back, I have wondered if this was supposed to punish me in some way, or if I was a stand-in for my dad as they expressed the hurt they had been unable to express when he was alive.  Who the hell knows?  It’s not like anyone will actually discuss it rationally, so there’s no hope of finding out.)

After a couple of years, I was able to add “religion” and “politics” and “race” to the list of things that my siblings had very different ideas about than I did.  I will never forget the moment during 2012 when the Olympics were on TV and my youngest brother casually referred to an Olympic athlete with the n-word.

It was becoming apparent, too, that to voice any dissenting opinions on these or any other topics would result not in a debate, not in an exchange of ideas, nor even in an agreement to disagree — it would start a fight.  And you can just guess who would be blamed for starting that fight and, probably, ruining the whole reunion for everybody.

My therapist asked, “So you can’t have your own opinions?”  Immediately what came out of my mouth was, “Oh, I can HAVE them, I just can’t say them out loud.”

After a few years of this, listening to other siblings reminisce about events that happened before I was even born, I started wondering more and more about just what DID happen when I was born.  I realized that this was a period of the family history that NO ONE ever talked about.  At all.

You know how most people have stories that get told about silly things that they did when they were 2, or whatever?  I realized that for me that period was just a big blank.  About all I knew was that Dad had gotten a new job and the family had moved to a new city just before I was born, and then about 6 years later, our parents got divorced.  Oh, and it was all Dad’s fault, of course.

So, I started asking questions and requesting official records.  I have the county documents from the divorce, as well as my father’s military records.  I have a recording of an hour’s conversation among my siblings, that they made at the 2011 reunion, at my request.  (I had to deliberately phrase the request so that it sounded like it came from a therapist or other outside authority, though, or they never would have done it.)

I was a few years too late to get my mother’s hospital records, dammit, because the state of Iowa only requires them to be kept for 40 years, and I called at some point in my early 40’s.

And finally, I worked with not one but two therapists, professionals who have confirmed the work I did on my own, and guided the painful conclusions I came to.

That history is detailed in the next post, but what it all adds up to is a broken family.  Broken because of a mother who didn’t want to do the job she signed up for, but who also convinced most of her children that she was completely innocent of any blame or responsibility for what happened at least partly as a result.  A mother who didn’t actually say she wanted custody of the children in the divorce.  A mother who would say hurtful things to her own daughter because she wasn’t being nice enough to her.  Who liked to be taken care of, waited on, and wouldn’t get her own fucking glass of orange juice if there was someone around she could convince to do it for her.

But wait!  Mom can’t be part of the problem!  The possibility can’t even be raised.  It’s a lot like the Catholic Church, where you just believe and do what you are told, and questioning anything only gets you disapproval and eternal punishment.  Such a convenient tactic, used by dictators the world over.  They dress it up and call it “faith” and make out like it’s some noble thing to not question things that obviously don’t make sense.  And if you do ask questions, you get yelled at, shut down, ignored.

On to part 4 – the back story.

The History, Part 2 – Mom’s Death

So, after all this shit happened — believe it or not, 3 months later, my mother dies.

So we travel back to my home town, and are staying at my dad’s house, which hasn’t been sold yet.

I spent most of the the time clearing out my mom’s assisted living quarters by myself, and I avoided everyone else as much as I could.

But two important things happened during that time.

One was that right after Mom died, as we were walking along the hospital halls, I apparently said something about our mom that my youngest brother considered insensitive, and all hell broke loose.  While no one can remember what it actually was that I said, Joe later wrote that it was “disparaging and disrespectful” and “completely disregarding the feelings of others that had a better relationship.”

I have apologized to my youngest brother for whatever it was I said multiple times, and specifically for hurting his feelings with this mystery comment.

As far as I know, he still insists on believing that my motivation for making that remark was to “get back at everyone” for what happened at Dad’s death.

(Which is interesting, because it shows that on some level he recognizes that the two situations are in fact parallels.  But it simply isn’t true that I made my remark with intention for revenge — although ascribing such a nasty motive to me without any evidence is a completely normal thing to do to a scapegoat.  Scapegoats are guilty, even if they are proven innocent.  I also think that even if I had done it out of revenge, I’d think I might have some justification, after that horrible experience.)

Anyway, just to recap:

  • Susan had a jolly, laughing conversation with a hospice nurse shortly after Dad’s death (laughing while standing in the room with his body!).  I found that upsetting, and politely asked them to take it elsewhere. That is me overreacting, and I am the one at fault for that.
  • I said something shortly after Mom’s death, while walking down the hallway away from the hospital room.  My brother finds it upsetting.  But he is not overreacting. His angry, upset reaction is perfectly acceptable. I am at fault for that conflict, too.

The two events are basically equivalent.  But I am at fault in BOTH of these situations. Susan “did nothing wrong”.  I, on the other hand, was completely wrong.

This set of events is what led me down the road of wondering how this is possible.  From there I learned about narcissism and scapegoating.  Voilà.  It explains many things that are otherwise inexplicable.


The other thing that happened was bullying.  While my husband and I were staying in my Dad’s room, at one point my youngest brother decided he needed to shout at me for something (I am not sure if it was the above-mentioned remark, or what).

He came into our room to yell at me, he stood in my way so I couldn’t escape, and he refused to get out after I clearly and repeatedly told him to. Once again, no one came to my aid, other than my husband. No one told my brother that he was out of line to physically corner me in that room, and shout at me, and refuse to get out or let me leave.

No one found it unacceptable to let him bully me like that.

When I told my therapist about all this, she said, mystified, “You aren’t even allowed to defend yourself.”

This led me to the concept of healthy personal boundaries, as well as figuring out that I probably don’t have very good ones.

Boundaries are learned. If yours weren’t valued as a child, you didn’t learn you had them. Any kind of abuse violates personal boundaries… You may not believe you have any rights if yours weren’t respected growing up.

And guess who else doesn’t have healthy boundaries?  Probably just about everyone in this family, because the immediate reaction to conflict in this group is not to empathize, communicate, and resolve — but to shirk responsibility (my sister and my eldest brother) and to blame (Joe and Susan and my youngest brother).

… since you’re accountable for your feelings and actions, you don’t blame others.

Another article on boundaries has this to say:

…an enmeshed relationship between a parent and child may look like this… Mom is a narcissist, while the [child] is codependent, “the person who lives to give.” Mom knows that her [child] is the only one who will listen to her and help her. The [child] is afraid of standing up to Mom, and she exploits his caregiving.

I am instantly reminded of my sister’s words about testifying for our mother in the divorce hearing:  “… She had no one else.  NO ONE.”

Odd, that my sister could find it in her heart to stick up for my mother in those difficult circumstances, yet refuses to get involved with the current conflict.

Well, not so odd.  My sister was parentified by our mother worse than anyone else in the family, probably because she was a girl.

…parentification, where the parent leads the child to believe that they have to take care of their parents at all costs, be it financial, physical or emotional care. The child may have to be the parent’s therapist, or take one parent’s side against the other, lots of housework, paying the bills and so on.

And of course, if boundaries are learned, and our mother had lousy ones, then how would anyone else have learned anything healthy from her?

(click here for Part 3)

The History, Part 1 – Dad’s Death

And boy, is there a lot of it.

But it starts with the night my father died.

He had died maybe a half-hour ago.  I was sitting next to his body as we waited for the ambulance to come and take him away, because I didn’t want to leave him alone, in the corner of the living room where my brothers had shoved the hospital bed almost as soon as he was gone, before most of them scattered to various other rooms.

I was listening to my sister-in-law having a jolly conversation with the hospice nurse, not 10 feet away.  Susan is also a nurse, and they were merrily talking shop, and laughing, as though nothing of any significance had just happened.

I had already left the room once, and gone down to the basement, tacitly accepting that their sociable small talk and laughter — LAUGHTER! — took precedence over my wishes at my father’s deathbed.  With the help of my husband, who followed me, I decided that I would regret not having stayed by my father if I didn’t go back.  So I went back, and listened to some more laughter and happy chatter.

I finally got up the courage to say, “Excuse me.”  They were so loud, I had to say it twice before I could get their attention.

I asked, “Could you take this… this chat into another room?”

I don’t remember which one of them said it, but the response I got was, “Oh, we’ll just keep it quiet.”  Of course, within minutes they were laughing and talking as loudly as before.

I said nothing more to Susan then.  The ambulance finally came and took my father away, wrapping blankets even over his face, which bothered me.  I remember one of the ambulance attendants saying something about, “He’s a long one.”  I muttered so only my husband could hear, “TALL.  He was TALL.”  He had been six feet even.  Now he was “long”.

I waited until the next morning, when Susan’s husband, my brother Joe, was alone in the kitchen.  Almost everyone else was out of the house, either at church or their own homes.

I said to him something like, “I wasn’t happy with the way Susan acted yesterday.”

Immediately, Susan came running into the room — she must have been eavesdropping, and immediately seized the chance to be the “third man in” — and the two of them began yelling at me, shouting in my face things I thankfully couldn’t make out between the two of them.  I must have started looking down at the floor in an effort to shut them out, because I remember Susan actually bending down, the better to shout right into my face.

[ETA:  another brother was still in the house.  He recently told me he came up the basement stairs and saw me sitting in a kitchen chair.  I have no recollection of sitting, but he said he saw Susan bend down to shout into my face.  He also said he thought she was going to grab my shoulders and shake me, she was so enraged.]

any challenge, disagreement or even mildly negative remark from another person is considered criticism, rejection or mockery. Narcissists perceive these as an all-out assault or total betrayal, and go to war with the person who dares to do that to them. A mere slight is apt to result in shouting, screaming, and making absurd accusations against the victim for having such atrocious intentions and actions.

I now know this is called a “narcissistic rage attack“, but that day I had no idea what was happening.  I was just completely shocked.  My husband had come into the room, and I looked to him for help, but he was just as shocked as I was.

I fled the house, only to find later (years later) that this gave Susan and Joe the opportunity to spin the whole thing as being my fault:  to say that I had started the fight, that I had “criticized” her and her job when I had asked her to go talk in another room, that I had been emotional and over-reactive.  This threw me for another loop.  I had no idea that anyone I knew, let alone a beloved brother, could lie so deliberately and viciously.  I now know this is called “character assassination” and it is a favorite tool of narcissists.

Unfortunately, due to other circumstances in my family, it worked perfectly.  Everyone else was only too happy to accept their explanation of what had happened.  Not one person, out of five older siblings and their three spouses, asked me about what had happened — although I did get told by one brother that I “should have approached Joe alone first.”  This is what should have started giving me the clue that what everyone was told, and what everyone perceived, was not the truth.

The therapist I eventually went to never did understand why no one defended me — why no one told Susan, “Hey, lay off her.  She is our sister, and she is grieving.  Cut her some slack.”  My therapist once said, mystified, “You’re not even allowed to defend yourself.”

Even weirder — in the 3 days leading up to my father’s death, absolutely everyone in the house agreed on two things (or said they did, at any rate):

  1. I was going to take Dad’s death the hardest.
  2. We all need to cut each other some slack during this difficult time.

As my husband said in the sole group meeting we had after all the shit hit the fan (which Susan did not attend) —

You were all saying that you knew she would take it the hardest, so why were you so surprised when she did?”

Over the years I have found out some of the reasons why it all happened the way it did.  Some of it is just a “Perfect Storm”.  Susan is a toxic narcissist, and I am the family scapegoat who allows Susan (and everyone else) to pretend there is nothing wrong with her and her toxic behavior.  In much the same way, my mom was able to blame my dad for everything her whole life, and thus pretend there was nothing wrong with her.

You see, while from my point of view, this is a hugely complicated mess of a family problem that will probably never be resolved due to certain people’s issues and their resistance to working on them — from their point of view, it’s really, really simple.  This sad, tragic family rift exists entirely because I “refuse to let bygones be bygones”.

In reality, I just refuse to quietly accept the blame for the results of Susan’s vicious behavior, and the pain that behavior caused me — which is what created the “bygones” in the first place.  And I seem to bear a lot of other blame for the results of a lot of other peoples’ actions and choices, as it turns out.

The Susan Incident is what started this journey.  This website is part of the journey, and its purpose is to help me break the bonds that still hold me to the people I have known the longest:  the people from whom I first learned about love and trust and what “family” means, the people who ought to have protected and taken care of me, especially as the baby of that family — and who have chosen not to protect me now, nor allow me to defend myself.

They refuse to listen.  I have a right to be heard.

The next part of the story.