I’m finished with my family — but am I free of them?

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, OCT 19, 2005T

Is this resolution or abandonment?


Dear Cary:

Thank you, first off, for being a unique voice in a somewhat crude, unsympathetic age.

Here’s my problem in a nutshell: I’ve abandoned my family, and they’ve let me, and I can’t decide whether to let them let me.

I grew up in a family rife with abuse: physical, emotional, sexual. There was active abuse resulting in bruising and bleeding and sobbing. There was passive abuse (some call that neglect) resulting in alienation, fear and self-loathing. Some of it happened to me. Some of it happened around me, and I was powerless to stop it. Some of it I learned about years after the fact.

I grew up and I got out. For the most part, I didn’t look back. I maintained a few ties, but I kept them stretched thin.

I turned 30, and I still couldn’t trust anyone, and I still wanted to die.

I’m a writer, and in the process of sorting through the chaos of my upbringing, I did what writers often do: I wrote about it. Furthermore, I did so publicly, and as myself. I didn’t name any names but my own; but honestly, I wasn’t interested in protecting anyone.

When the family found out, the reaction was uniform outrage. They were incensed that I would air my dirty laundry in such a fashion — that I would air their dirty laundry without consulting them. My response was that they’d had 30 years to bring it up, and they hadn’t. I thought I’d waited long enough before choosing to deal with my past in my own way, on my own terms.

Most interesting is that nobody denied anything I wrote. Nobody owned up to it, either. They were not interested in what had happened. Either that, or they couldn’t allow themselves to face it.

That was five years ago. Today I don’t speak to a single one of my relations. Some days I feel desolate. Some days I feel free. Most days I realize that my plan worked, whether I would admit that plan to myself or not: I wanted the Bad People of my childhood to go away, and they did. If I never contact any of them again, I truly believe that none of them will contact me.

My question is: Is this resolution? Is this a real and valid way of dealing with a monstrous childhood? I’ve done therapy, I’ve cataloged what happened, I’ve inventoried my feelings about it, I’ve tried to speak to siblings and parents about it without success, I’ve confronted, I’ve publicized, and I’ve paid the price. I know I’m capable of moving forward alone. But should I?

Yours fondly,

On the Brink

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Dear On the Brink,

Yes, I think you should move forward. I think this is resolution. It may not feel like resolution. It may feel hollow. But it sounds like resolution — or the only kind of resolution one can have to events whose faint echoes will continue to be heard the rest of your life. It may be the closest you get to resolution.

It may be helpful to ask, If you could have the perfect resolution, what would that feel like? Would it make everything feel “normal”? For those of us who so rarely feel “normal” anyway, how would we know? It’s possible that even if you could have a perfect resolution it would still not feel like resolution, because you have been formed already by these events; you are, in a sense, already armed against such things, already wary, already tensed forever for the next blow.

Besides, is a resolution even possible? What would it look like? I suppose the ultimate resolution would be a kind of radical undoing: These things would never have happened in the first place. You would get a do-over childhood in which you were protected and loved and allowed to grow in a fairly normal way. That is, of course, outside the boundaries of what is possible in this universe. Even if everyone wanted this, we could not bring it into being.

What would be second best? The second best, I suppose, would be if your family members changed inwardly; if there were a God who could reach down and change their hearts, then perhaps they could step forward as a group, in grave ceremony, and confess their shameful acts. Resolution could take the form of a truth commission, a trial, a complete airing of all the crimes you remember. They might offer to bare their backs to you for whipping, prostrate themselves before you and give you all their worldly goods, become your slaves for life in penance — and you, seeking not vengeance but only closure, could take the high road and tell them no, there’s no need for that, all you wanted was a little truth.

But that is not likely either, is it? You know enough about the people involved to know how unlikely it is. They have had their opportunities. It is probably not even worth considering, except as a healing fantasy, a childlike wish.

So what is left as resolution? This relative peace you have found. This cessation of hostilities. The assurance of no further damage. That seems to be about it. You have attained safety. You are not being attacked or belittled. You are being left alone. That may be, in itself, resolution.

It sounds like resolution because you yourself have done a lot of work, thinking, feeling, remembering and going about your life with the echoes of these events occasionally in your mind. The writing was probably very helpful to you as well. It sounds like it did what it so magically seems to do — it let you get a handle on this thing, get your arms around it, define it, pin it down, contain it in words, and publishing it allowed you to defy those who would have kept you silent. That may have freed you from their influence, assured you that you no longer have to fear them.

So, as I say, it may not feel like resolution to you, but I think it is a kind of resolution — not, perhaps, the dramatic kind, but the slow, painful, subtle kind. I wish you luck as you go forward, as free of your past as any man can be.

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