Cary’s classic column from Friday, May 23, 2008
I would like to help them celebrate their 50th anniversary, but I dread being in the same room with that man.
When I was a teenager, I was sexually abused by my older brother. I’ve been through three different therapists trying to work this out. Three must be a charm because through talking to the third one I found a way to confront my brother and come to peace with this issue by forgiving him. Forgiveness in the C.S. Lewis sense of wishing him well in the rest of his life but not feeling that pursuing a relationship with him is part of the deal. Consequently we haven’t spoken or had any contact for years. I don’t wish to see him or have him anywhere near my children. I don’t want to be near him. He lives on the other side of the country so it has been pretty easy to avoid him.
Here’s the catch. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary is coming up. We were discussing what kind of a celebration my parents would like over dinner the other night with my parents and my other brother and his wife. My mom said that her wish would be for the whole family to be together and, in fact, if this couldn’t happen, that she would not want any sort of celebration at all. She knows what has happened between my brother and me and knows that I have no contact with him.
It really bothers me that she is trying manipulate me into spending time with him by threatening not to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary unless we all get together. She has never handled this issue sensitively and wonders why I can’t just get over it so we can all be one happy family again. I feel that she is being selfish and inconsiderate by forcing the situation. I feel pulled in two directions. I want her and my dad to have a happy celebration. Getting to 50 years is no small feat in our world today. But I also want her to understand that it is important to me to not be expected to spend time with my brother. I know that it hurts her that her family is torn apart, but having us all show up together in the same room for a party isn’t going to magically create the perfect family that she so desires.
The biggest downer in all of this is that the responsibility for the family celebration and whether it will happen or not rests on my shoulders. I didn’t ask to be abused. It was no picnic coming to terms with the abuse and I don’t see why I should be the one who has to make the decision to make or break the party. I’m not the bad guy here. But if I don’t concede to spend time with my brother, it will look like I am. It won’t just be the two of us in the same room for the first time in eight years; it will be family pictures and forced hugs and conversations and … UGH!
So, do I stay true to what I want to do for my own sanity and personal emotional safety? Or do I give in and spend my parents’ 50th having one of the most hellish days of my life? How much does one need to sacrifice to honor and love one’s parents, or mother anyway?
Forgave but Did Not Forget
I cannot resist the idea that you might, by seeing your brother once more, finally extinguish the remaining embers of power he holds over you. For to know finally, with deep unshakable certainty, that the person who hurt you can never hurt you again — that would be a good thing, no? To know that you can be in his presence safely in any place, at any time of the day or night? And to know that you had a safe place to go and a way to extricate yourself should the trauma of contact prove too uncomfortable, this might make any such contact more bearable, might it not?
That he still renders pieces of the earth’s territory uninhabitable for you: Isn’t that a circumstance that should be finally laid to rest? Would you not like to be able to walk anywhere with impunity, even into his own house — not that you would want to, but simply that no place on earth ought to be walled off from you, since you have done nothing wrong?
You need to know in your very bones that he can never hurt you again. I may be wrong; it may be too much of a magic trick; but I am thinking that seeing him in the midst of the family, in a setting from which you have a pre-planned exit, having prepared adequately, might finally extinguish his hold on you forever.
When we still feel a person holds the power to hurt us, we live with residual fear, and our movements are restricted — through our own choice, we say to ourselves; we’d simply rather not see him. But a choice made in fear is not really a choice but coercion. If in fact this person can no longer hurt us, and yet we continue to live in fear of contact with him, then simply knowing is not enough; we need to experience, firsthand, that he has no power over us. We need to feel it vividly. In such a case, we may need to have contact with him even though the prospect fills us with cold fear.
I can see how it would bother you that by participating in this party you are fostering an illusion — that he never did what he did, or that it didn’t matter as much as it mattered. But this is not about the perceptions of others. It is about reinforcing a truth for you.
This must be said also: You do not have to do this. It is your choice. You are not living for other people. They can celebrate if they want to. They do not have to include you. It is not your fault if your mother persists in being rigid. She is trying to control you. You do not have to let her.
But if you can see it as a test of your own capacity for remaining in the flame and not flinching, if you can see it as a test of your humility and your distance, then perhaps you can take this event like a trophy. You can set it on your mantel. You can say quietly to yourself, I did this just to see if I could do it. And I could. So he no longer has any power over me. So if I can do this, what else can I do? How I must have expanded! I am so much stronger than I thought!
My reasoning is that the risk is worth it. If you find you can be in the same room with this person you will have acquired a new power. It won’t mean that you have a relationship. It will only mean that your sphere of free movement has expanded. It will mean that you need not fear this person any longer. It will mean that you can gaze upon him as upon a stranger.
Of course, this is a magic trick and there is no guarantee that you would perform it flawlessly. Dragons may sprout from his head and threaten to attack. Spirits, stinking, vile spirits may surround him. There may be a force field of evil around him such that you find yourself propelled out of the room into the yard. You may have to go to a hotel. But you will have tried it. You will have made an approach to the physical manifestation of this awful evil, this monster of the past. And for that you may count yourself the hero in this drama.
The choice is yours, but as I look at it, I feel you have more to gain by approaching the fire than by staying away. Just be sure that you have someplace safe to go, a hotel room that you control, and that you have someone to report to at a specified time. Make appointments to call, and to limit your exposure. If you will be there with a partner, have a signal with the partner so that you can excuse yourself if you want. Have that choice.
Because choice is what this is about, in a way. In being abused, you were deprived of choice. You were deprived of choice and personhood. It may be that in some small way you could now retrieve some of that choice and that personhood by standing in the fire and seeing it can no longer singe you.
That is what it is: It is a test of fire. But you will have a net. You will have a watch you can look at and say, I’m sorry but I must leave for an appointment. You will have a rental car to get in. You will have a hotel room to go to. You will have a plane to catch.