Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 20, 2005
I didn’t want to start a fight, so I told her it wasn’t so bad. But I hate what she’s doing. What should I do?
I hope you’ll remember what this is about. I wrote last year about falling in love with the wrong person at college, an atheist Jew, the polar opposite of what my conservative Muslim family has always wanted for me. I wrote about worrying about telling my parents, and how’d they react and whether my relationship with my partner would succeed.
I told my parents last year and they reacted surprisingly well. No anger, no yelling, certainly none of the violence some commenters thought I’d see. They were surprised, and asked for some time to consider it. Eventually, they refused ‘permission’ for me to marry him, or at least said that they couldn’t give me their blessings because even though he has converted to Islam, he only did so for me and would probably not be a real Muslim. More than that, I think my dad worries about what people are going to say, and that they’re going to gossip about us and my family. I spent 6 or 7 months trying to get my parents on board at least agree to come to my wedding, and my dad took some strides towards coming around in that he talked to some people who have been in similar situations, but seemed reluctant to go further than that. His response when I asked him seemed to be ‘I’ll deal with it soon’. One day, after a few months of this, I kind of snapped and sent an emotional message about how I felt stuck, and I wanted to move on with his blessings, and would he please consider that this is what is right for me. He responded by calling my mom and relented: I could marry him, but it would have to be after my older sister got married so it wouldn’t affect her prospects. There will be a small ceremony in the U.S. at some Islamic center, but only my mother and one of my siblings will come, and my father won’t participate.
My sister sent me some texts about this, saying that I couldn’t have both my family’s support and this marriage, and I’m heart broken because that’s what I came home from college to get. I wanted to spend my time here to show them that I am still committed to my heritage and beliefs, and that I wanted to include them in the process as much as possible, that this isn’t an attack on them but a decision for myself that I am sure is right for me. I can’t imagine a wedding without my family, but I don’t know how to get them on board beyond keeping the dialogue going for the next six months or so that will inevitably pass before I can begin to plan for my wedding (my sister is about to get engaged to be married). I’m heartbroken because my parents are mad at me, and I feel a little guilty because I feel like a terrible daughter.
Thanks for listening.
Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy Right Now
Dear Love’s Got me Looking So Crazy,
I’m sorry to hear that your father is being intransigent. I answered your original letter on Sept. 13, 2013, a few weeks before I left Salon.
As this commenter says (there were 135 comments to the original), I really didn’t give you an answer, in the sense of concrete instructions on how to proceed.
I didn’t know what you should do. I still don’t. That’s not unusual. It’s just honest.
In your 2013 letter it sounded as though he was going to pretend to convert. It now appears that he has indeed converted to your faith. You are going to go ahead with the wedding. You are going to live in the United States.
Well, congratulations. I hope you will keep us informed. What interested me in 2013 still interests me: How we Americans perceive your situation, and the story we tell ourselves about what you say. I still think I said some interesting meta-things:
This is the kind of story that Americans love. But underneath the happy American myth of blending cultures is the dark fact of sacrifice and loss. … Yours would be an unusual marriage but such marriages fit the American mythos. Consequently, you would have many people on your side — people who believe in the virtue of blending cultures. We are charmed by the idea of Muslims at bar mitzvahs and so forth. We think it’s cute. In other words, we don’t get the dark side of our own mythology.
The dark side of our mythology of self-reinvention is the charge of unseriousness. I mean, all the real cultural and psychic differences we overlook. Our silly millennial hope. Our political and economic evangelism. Our brittle, anxious faith. All that stuff. All that stuff that if you know what I’m talking about you know what I’m talking about.
I can say this, though: Here in America you can be married and forge your own life. Psychologically, you can’t escape your past or your families. You can’t escape who you are. But you can arrange the material conditions of your life together. You can choose what religious services to attend, and what to tell your children about what you believe. You can choose the schools your children go to. You can choose what to wear on your head.
Good luck. Please keep us informed!–Cary T.
Now I feel like my dad. My dad grew up in a time way before mine, as dads tend to do. He would make allusions and we kids wouldn’t get them. “What? Who was Gracie Allen?”
“Why,” my father would say, “she was George Burns’ partner!” Good old Burns and Allen. These days you can’t really know who knows what. A noted novelist of my aquaintance posted on Facebook the other day that her son, who is in his twenties, didn’t know who Robert Redford was. So, my friends, especially my friends who are in my generation, the generation that hoped it would die before it got old, the generation that didn’t trust anyone under 30, well, now people under 40 look like children to us and we don’t trust anyone, period full stop.
Even the phrase full stop: Telegraph terminology: Will its origins soon be hopelessly obscure? What about the phrase “off the hook”: will its origins in the physical Western Electric telephone one day be lost? Telephones haven’t had hooks for a while, though the cradle of a desk telephone came to be called the hook informally, as in, “hang up.” We are placed on hold but we could just as easily be placed on standby if it weren’t for the physical origins of the phone. My, how I miss the warm analog phone.
Anyway, this came up because when I use the headline, “I went home again,” I’m hoping that you’ll pick up the allusion to Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again, which my dad was always quoting from, and understand that this column is about the sad and complicated business of revisiting the deeply emotional scene of the family.
“Who is Robert Redford again?”
“Oh, dear, he’s some old actor.”
Hey. One other thing. So I went to the Poets and Writers Live event at San Francisco’s Brava Theater on Saturday Jan. 10, 2015*** and had lots of emotional responses and I posted a couple of pieces in response to the event, mainly around the notion that when writers gather there ought to always be some formal acknowledgement of events in the world, whether they affect us materially or not, because we are in a spiritual union with writers everywhere. Solidarity and all that.
Anyway, here’s today’s column, after which I need to put the newsletter together — which is trying to be a weekly thing. Once a week. You can handle that, right?
***Lately I use dates in body text now because the physical containers of text are unreliable and unpredictable; unlike newspapers that would have dates on every page … WordPress has date stamps, yes, but text can be extracted from its containers and then it’s just out there floating, unattributed, dateless, byline-less! I see journalistic posts whose dates are not attached and it drives me crazy! Because writing is history! And if dates are lost then … anyway, right, I’m writing this on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, and I’ve paid the mortgage, and property tax isn’t due again until April.
About 3 years ago, my husband, our toddler daughter, and I left San Francisco (I’d been out there 15 years) and moved back to the small Louisiana city where I grew up. This was all my idea. Much to my surprise, I had grown profoundly homesick after our daughter was born (I had sworn I’d never go back – the standard cliché, right?).
Well, my husband was incredibly flexible and accommodating, and circumstances have worked out. We were able to make our oddball techie careers work in Louisiana (amazing!) and now we are close to my parents, my brother and his family, and my lifelong best friend. We’re also able to live more comfortably and peacefully since the cost of living here is so much less than in SF.
Now to the difficult bit. There is an old relationship here, or actually a web of relationships, that nags at me. I know, I know. I can’t be the jerk who leaves home for 15 years (well, if you count college, it was actually closer to 20) and then returns like the prodigal daughter, and expects everyone to throw confetti and for everything to be “normal.” But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?
So at the heart of this is my high school ex-boyfriend. This was a very serious first love relationship for both of us. We learned all our early lessons from each other – we were both lovely and heartbreakingly awful to each other – and didn’t really get out of each others’ business until college ended and I moved to California. After that, we were what I’d call “Christmas Card Friends” – you know? We wished each other well, and had forgiven each other everything, and would be in touch from time to time with big news, but that was about it – and this all took place from a safe long distance. Kind of typical adult management of a special, much-loved person from the past.
Well … ok, so now my past tends to walk into my mother’s house from time to time, when I’m there visiting with my children! He lives on my parents’ block now (Why did he have to buy a house so close to my old home?! And why are my parents closer to him now than they were when we dated?), he and his family are very close friends with my brother’s family (Why did he and my brother have to become friends?! Again, they weren’t when we dated.) – and I see them at my niece’s and nephew’s birthday parties, etc. Not to mention random run-ins at the grocery store.
We are both very polite, friendly adults about all this. We make pleasant conversation and admire each others’ children and go on our ways. I know we both wish each other nothing but the best.
Why then, does it STING, and bother me for days when he randomly shows up at my mother’s house when I am visiting?
I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I know that I am over him. I’m not carrying a torch, and I can completely understand why I ended up with my husband instead of him, and why he ended up with his wife instead of me. No harm, no foul. Good choices by nice people all around.
I think it’s his closeness to my family that bothers me. Rightly or wrongly, I feel angry at him for not staying “on his side of the fence,” and also angry at my parents and brother for being so close to him, for allowing him access to what feels like it should be my private, intimate space with them. At times, it even feels like I am watching my old life through a pane of glass – and he is still in it, and I should be in it, except there is another woman (his wife) playing my part. And here I am on the other side, shut out of the cozy circle.
It’s SUPER WEIRD. The sullen, teenager part of me that still exists wants to throw a shoe at him and say, “You, go away! Get out of my family! I didn’t choose you! You are no longer invited in!” But then I have this lingering, weird feeling that my family chose him instead of me.
This raises the question of my relationships with my family members. Perhaps I am scapegoating my ex for emotional difficulty with them? I’ve thought about that, too.
Well, with my parents, it just isn’t the case. I’ve got good, humanly flawed, but good relationships with both my mother and father. It took some time to re-establish these relationships as “close distance” once we moved back, but after some initial awkwardness as we learned how to relate again while living nearby, everything feels solid and real now. My mother, also, will admit from time-to-time that it’s “odd” to have my ex in such close proximity, but then she’ll say what is she supposed to do about it? She can’t ask him to move. So she just carries on with a smile on her face and ignores it. Dad doesn’t really talk about these sorts of things. Old school Dad.
My brother, on the other hand…my brother has given me the cold shoulder ever since I moved back, to an extent that’s palpable to everyone, and surprising and hurtful. We have a complex history, but were close as children. I left home when he was still in early high school. We’ve never been able to reconnect. He’s also a war veteran now and has experiences I’ll never understand, and that I tacitly know I should not ask about. I wish he’d let me love him anyway. I keep trying to take the high road, and invite him and his family to things, and he just quietly doesn’t show up most of the time, without ever making a scene or explaining why. He freezes me out, and hangs out with my ex-boyfriend instead. Literally. If I have an Easter egg hunt, he takes his kids (my children’s cousins) to my ex-boyfriend’s egg hunt instead. This has happened twice. Then again, they were probably going to egg hunts over there before I moved back, so…how can I blame him? And yet…if the shoe were on the other foot…I’d at least drop by.
I know my brother didn’t develop this relationship to spite me, and I try to keep breathing and just sit with it. But gosh it hurts.
I guess my question is: How to BE with all of this and not feel hurt-y and distracted like a teenager? I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.
Gone Home Again
Dear Gone Home Again,
You have returned to the scene of unresolved emotional attachments. Those attachments are still quite strong. They are not as strong as they were when you left but they are still strong and they are still unresolved. Leaving didn’t resolve them.
You would like them to be resolved but it’s a better bet to learn to accept them, navigate around them. Why?
Because that’s something you can do!
You can’t change the behavior of other people. You say, “I just want everyone to be able to love each other and be happy and be okay.”
Sure. Me too. But all we can do is live with people as they are. I still wish my parents would get together after the divorce but they’re both dead now. Even when they were alive: Fat chance.
But we wish, fervently and without ceasing, don’t we? We wish like children with birthdays coming. We wish like crazy. We pray. We hope. We think maybe … We don’t even notice when we’re doing it. When you see your ex-boyfriend and it takes you a while to figure out why it upset you, it’s happening before you even notice it: You’re wishing things were different. You’re thinking about the past and how it might have been or how it’s supposed to be now but the crystalline amazingness of the present absolutely present totally right this instant now has escaped you. The beauty of the air, your children, your own hands, the doorway where you stand being suddenly irritated that he’s visiting your mom, the amazing history you and he had together, the tenderness, the blooming of love, the learning adult lessons, the passion, the enduring regard: All that escapes you and you’re just irritated because he’s in your family space and you think it’s your family space and not his.
Just pay attention to that. Notice it. Notice it and then turn to how you can be of service in the present moment. How can you bring some joy into the present moment?
Let the child wish. But be aware that you are the adult and you know that these things are not going to happen. When you catch yourself wishing things were different, try asking, How can I bring joy to this situation? How can I contribute?
The payoff is not in everybody thanking you and saying what a great sister/daughter/wife/mom you are. The payoff is private. It’s your own sense of well-being. It’s the relief of not thinking about that annoying ex-boyfriend.
Give. Offer of yourself. This will distract the hungry child within. It will redirect your emotional sense of purpose. It may also have a positive effect on those around you but they won’t necessarily tell you.
It will be healing, though. After another year or so, you may notice that things seem more normal. It won’t be other people changing. It will be you. You will have created a kind of normal for yourself.
There’s more to say. I don’t seem to be able to stop today:
You say you swore you’d never go back. Why? What was it about your small Louisiana city that made you swear you’d never go back? Are those attributes still there? What were you running from? Did you feel too big for the town? Hemmed in? Do you still feel that way? Was it partly a pride thing, i.e. I’m the one who made it out of that stinking town and if I go back I’m admitting defeat?
Give it some thought. For, while you can’t make these emotions go away, you can examine them. For instance: What is the competition about? Is it a competition for place in the family? Was competitiveness a feature of your relationship when you were together? What were you competing for? Did you, perhaps, imagine a whole future life together with him, and now that future life, that totally imagined thing, has come into conflict with the real thing? In this imagined future, were you his wife?
Consciously, rationally, you of course know that you are not his wife. But see if you can dig a little deeper; maybe a part of you still clings to that fantasy. Get your knife under this fantasy that is stuck to the floor and pry it up. Pry it up and fling it off. It’s a bit of stuck programming. It’s something that never happened. It never happened so you never lost it. It was never real to lose. We do that with the future, don’t we? We imagine things in such detail that when we confront their absence we feel loss, even though it never happened
Also, let’s be clear: You’re the one who left.
When somebody leaves, other people are hurt. They miss you and they wish you were still around. After a while they make other arrangements. They get on with life. If there were things they used to do with you, they do them with other people. They set up routines. And they may have to more or less consciously let go of you, because it hurts too much and it’s too much work to keep missing you every day.
You say you’re not asking for confetti to be thrown, “But gosh, you know, that would be nice, right?” The child in you, the purely emotional part of you, really does want the confetti.
Your secret wish, I suspect, is to be, indeed, the prodigal daughter returning. Of course you would not ask for such treatment. And yet that irrational part of you, that child that you were when you left, that child still wants these things.
You’ve been back three years already, but here is a suggestion: Imagine that you are the new person in town and see what friendships and alliances you can make that work for you today.
Look around for people you didn’t used to be so close. See who is available.
Your brother may seem cold but he has made other arrangements and is dealing with his own life. It may be too painful for him to revisit the site of his old attachment to his older sister. Things have happened. You left him. Then he went to war. things happened. He has his own life. So he happened to become good friends with your ex-boyfriend. That may make you feel a pang of regret but it is quite natural. For him, it may have been like keeping a lock of your hair. He may have been far more attached to you than you realized at the time, or realize now. Your boyfriend may have been in a sense a replacement for you, a reminder of what it was like when everybody was cozy and young.
To go to your Easter egg hunt now, he would have to disappoint somebody else. These are the people who have stayed and made lives for themselves. If you look at it from their perspective, it might make sense that they will not change their routines just because you have returned. I think your best bet is to find new routines that do not conflict with theirs. Find routines that add to the mix rather than create difficult choices. Can you go to your ex-boyfriend’s Easter egg hunt?
There is a lot for you to deal with here. To sum up, here are my suggestions:
Wow, that was a lot. I sure wrote a lot this time. Well, I’ve always gone long. Hope you’re not too bored with this!–ct
I turn 31 in a couple of weeks, and I feel like I’m unable to get my life together. I thought I would’ve had things sorted out by now, but I don’t. I don’t feel a whole lot more on top of things than I did 10 years ago.
I was a professional musician for five years after college but gave that up because I couldn’t perform without drugs and alcohol to loosen me up. After giving up music I became a school teacher, but I burned out after three years of teaching in a very rough urban school. Then, I moved into a supervisory position with an educational not-for-profit. The commute to this job is awful, and I’ve decided I need to move on. However, with each successive career change I feel like I’m moving sideways at best, and I’m having a very hard time getting excited about any new career path.
I would like to follow a dream, but having failed at my greatest dream, I’ve lost the confidence to entertain another one. Part of the problem is I have a tremendous ego — I was a gifted first-born who never learned how to handle not being the best — and am terrified of failure. Music, writing, chess, teaching — these have been my great loves, but not being guaranteed recognition spoils the enjoyment I get from them. I know this is irrational and childish, but it’s a barrier I can’t seem to overcome. I’m going to therapy, I do yoga, I’ve tried meditation … but none of these get me past the terror I feel at doing something and not being wonderful at it. My pattern these days is to halfheartedly take up some new creative pursuit every few months and squeeze it into my off-time, then abandon it as soon as it gets difficult.
It seems like striving doesn’t suit me. Sometimes I think I should give up striving altogether, to give up wanting anything in the way of achievement. Sounds Zen, in a depressive sort of way. But who would I be without this perpetual struggle to balance my creative impulses with time spent at work? Who would I be if I didn’t care about being smart or creative? My therapist suggests I not give up my creative pursuits, but resolve what is blocking me from experiencing joy through them (how I’m supposed to do this is unclear); my girlfriend suggests I find something different to strive for (she recommends love and intimacy).
Meanwhile, I can’t stop thinking about the ways in which I’ve failed at life, and my dignity is foundering. I’m starting to feel like a loser and a coward, am depressed a lot of the time, and am slowly turning into a pothead and alcoholic. My siblings, who look up to me, are worried about my behavior and have suggested I try antidepressant medication. (My entire family, with the exception of myself, have been on medication at some point in their lives, my parents consistently since the ’80s. I’ve resisted it because I’m scared of what it might do to me, and because I fear I’ll miss out on a “deeper” life lesson if I’m doped up and not in touch with the pain I’m feeling. Meanwhile, I get slightly drunk or high almost every day. I know, I know.) My friends and family are confused about why I don’t seem to have done much with my life, and I am tired of feeling like I’ve wasted my potential by remaining embroiled in a childhood drama I seem powerless to escape. The drama is: Mom and Dad will only love you if you’re the best, and so the only way you can prove to them that you’re not subject to their approval is by being mediocre. I seem to approach almost everything I do with expectations so high that there’s no chance I could ever fulfill them.
One thing that’s going right in my life is my relationship with my girlfriend. She knows what I’m struggling with and takes the good with the bad. Long-term romantic intimacy has been difficult for me, and so I feel blessed to have found someone who is smart, attractive and not on a mission to change me. That said, I know my depression is taxing for her.
Any suggestions? Should I try medication? Is there another way of looking at this I haven’t thought about?
Slowly Driving Myself Nuts
Dear Slowly Driving Myself Nuts,
You and I are a lot alike, actually. So I have to say this: I don’t believe that you can’t play music without alcohol and drugs. Listen: You were a professional musician for five years after college. You did it for five years. Five years!
I’m sure drugs and alcohol helped you in some ways. You probably felt less anxiety before performing when you used them. Perhaps you felt freer and less self-conscious while performing. But drugs and alcohol probably also interfered with your musical accuracy, your stamina and intonation, your ability to remember tunes, your ability to hear and balance your sound and to craft your performance.
I just don’t believe that you can’t perform without alcohol and drugs. I think it’s one of those untrue beliefs that gets in your head and screws you up. If being a working musician is your dream, then that’s the thing you need to get back to. Otherwise it will haunt you the rest of your life and you will go on trying cures without success — because you will be working against your authentic self.
I have also been a performing musician, although I was never able to make a living at it. My brother, however, is a professional musician and has been for most of his years. We both used to drink. We both had to quit drinking. I am no longer a performing musician but my brother makes a good living at it.
You can play music and not drink is what I’m saying. There are ways to do it. If it’s your dream, you have to find a way to do it. It requires sacrifices.
What my brother does is live a simple life. He gets enough rest and exercise. He takes care of his voice. And on the job he pays attention to the audience and to the club personnel. He can do that because he isn’t drinking.
He’s made sacrifices to be a working musician. He would like to raise a family but a musician’s life did not allow for that. It could still happen. But he’s dedicated himself to his music and that has meant living frugally and carefully. The life of a musician isn’t for everybody. But it’s not about being a genius so much as it is about getting control over your routine and learning to manage professional relationships.
As for me, at 31 I chose beer over music. We were called the Repeat Offenders and we practiced in a Turk Street basement rehearsal space in San Francisco’s Tenderloin across from a punk club called the Sound of Music. I remember coming to rehearsal with a six-pack of tall Budweisers. Here I had a group of brilliant musicians who loved me and whom I loved. I looked at the band, looked at the six-pack, and chose the six-pack. That’s how bad I had gotten. I couldn’t tell the difference between human genius and a six-pack of beer.
I was drinking for two reasons. One, I had alcoholic tendencies. I responded to alcohol abnormally. But two, I had not developed the artistic skill required to contain my feelings and direct them into expressive form. My feelings frightened me. I had a narrow emotional range — I could do rage and I could do joy. That was it. I could not handle the middle feelings.
Damn. So how did I end up back in my own past? What’s going on here? I do not want to remember this even now. Well, OK, so it is painful. That’s the key right there: knowing it’s painful and looking at it anyway. It’s this or drinking. It’s this or failure.
So what happened with me? Well, boring as it is to retell, I became a full-blown alcoholic and got sober at 35.
In getting sober I decided that pain was better than failure. Living with anxiety was better than dying in the gutter.
There was no guarantee that if I stopped drinking I would find success and happiness. But there was a chance I would not die puking. If I kept drinking, I had no chance. It was no chance vs. slim chance. I took the slim chance. I’m glad it got as bad as it did, because otherwise I might have trudged along in a fog of maintenance drinking and moderate delusion. As it was I hit bottom and rearranged my whole deal.
But you don’t need to hit bottom completely to change.
Here is what you could do: You could stop drinking and stop smoking pot today. You could just stop and live with whatever comes up.
So why not do that? Why not just give up and admit it’s not working. You know it’s not working. The truth is that you are a musician. That is the truth of your life. As long as you are fighting against that essential truth, of course you’re going to have to medicate. But you could just quit drinking and using and be a musician.
All kinds of feelings will come up, of course. But they won’t kill you.
There are things you can do to get by. Instead of trying to medicate the fear, try just walking around with the fear. Try going to the store with the fear. Just bring it with you, like a puppy or a small child. Going around sober is like that. It’s a little more trouble, because you bring all this stuff with you. But … how can I put this? Well, it’s like it’s your stuff. Like you see parents trying to ignore their kids in the store. That’s your kid. That’s your stuff. It slows you down but it’s yours. You have to take care of it.
You can do it, though. Like you, I had some support. I didn’t “white-knuckle it” exactly. I got plenty of support. But all that support did not magically remove my anxiety and fear. Basically I allowed myself to feel the anxiety and fear, to be a little bit nuts, a little out of control, not such a high achiever, not so perfect, a little uncharming and uncool. I made a bet that in the long term it would even out and things would stabilize.
And I had to find some love for myself, dude. So the bit about your relationship with your parents, I relate to that. Somehow you have to give yourself what they didn’t give you. You step in as the adult and say, OK, man, I know you are suffering here, and I give you permission to be only yourself! You move that relationship out of the past, which you can’t change, and into your present, your inner life, your symbolic life so you can change it.
Try that. Just step in there as the adult figure and give yourself what you need. You are the only one who can provide that now. Your parents are not ever going to do it. You have to move that whole struggle into your own sphere of influence.
For instance, in my own case, I now have to parent my dad — literally but also figuratively. I have to help the actual dad. But internally, I also have to create for myself the decisive, clearheaded man I once needed him to be. He is never going to give me that. I have to create a decisive, clearheaded persona to guide me in the present so that, in a sense, I become my own father.
We have to become for ourselves the parents we need. In your case, you need to become for yourself a parent who says, “My son, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.”
So maybe you say that to yourself when you’re getting a little iffy. Maybe you go into the bathroom and look at yourself in the mirror and you say this. You say OK, boy, even if you didn’t have an ounce of talent or brilliance you would still be my boy, and I’d still love you without reservation till the end of my days.
Hi! It’s me, Cary! How ya doin?
I’m out of the pool eating toast and thinking about the novel. I’m committed to finishing by the end of May. I have it all planned out. It’s practically done! Finally.
Plus yesterday I finished my application to Yaddo, thanks to my Finishing School commitment. It was a long day but I got it done before my 6pm writing coaching appointment (I’m doing that too now, acting as a coach for writers who have projects that are promising but resisting ; I get on the side of the writer and together we push to dislodge invisible impediments).
Finishing School starts next week, Tuesday, January 6, 2015, at 7:30 p.m. at the house. If you have a project you’re trying to finish, let me know.
Me, personally, I used Finishing School in December to finish fiction and send it out and do my Yaddo application (I sure would love to have some uninterrupted time to write the next novel!) and I have dedicated the next five months of Finishing School, my own personal goal, to finishing the current novel. I’m dividing it up into five sections, one a month to finish up (they’re mostly written anyway). If you have a project you want to write and would like to dedicate one month or the next five months to it, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe we can work something out. Dive in the deep end with me! I want company making art in the 21st century.
Now let’s answer a letter:
I have read and admired your advice for many years. I have always loved your well-considered and thoughtful advice about really difficult problems. I have started this letter to you hundreds of times but never finished it, but today is that day.
When I was a teenager (early ’90s, before the Internet – you might remember these distant times!!) I wrote something called a zine. It was a magazine about music and art that I wrote and laid out with a glue stick and photocopied and distributed at record shops where I lived. It was pretty well received – and if I do say so, looking back at old issues, well designed – and making it was the first baby steps in what would be my professional career. I learned to write well, to finish things, to find interesting stuff, to produce something that looked great that people would care about, all with absolutely no money.
As everyone did in those days I included an address to write to (again, no internet), and a few people did, sending contributing material and what I guess was fan mail. One guy in particular sent a long letter and some contributions, and I used them and wrote back and said thanks. He wrote again, became a regular contributor, and we corresponded over several years. I considered this person a good friend, though I didn’t know who he was. Later on we kept in touch and, thanks to Hotmail, this included keeping in touch when I moved overseas when I was 19.
A year or two later I found out that it had been my brother’s girlfriend – 6 years older than me – who had created and orchestrated this personality, written all these letters, corresponded with me for so many years. She was a horrible bitch to my face, often telling me I was worthless, selfish, ruining my family, didn’t deserve anything, she told me that my mother called her to complain about me (not true), her nickname for me was “charming little princess”, etc. etc., and in the meantime running this charade of a person who was my friend and someone I trusted.
The shock and fallout was unbelievable. Unbearable. A year later, my brother married her. That was the last time I spoke to my brother, in 2001.
It has been 16 years since I found out what she was up to, and the intervening years have been so fucking hard. I felt like a fool, I felt stupid, I was angry, I was humiliated, I was confused. I told my parents, who told me in no uncertain terms that they would “choose” between me and my brother, and would not exclude her from the family. Family anything became psychological torture as she paraded around as if she had a right to be there, and I felt like a pariah in my own family.
The campaign of emotional abuse and manipulation was bad enough, but the fallout has been another circle of hell altogether. My immediate family – parents and one other brother – simply do not believe that what she did was that bad, no one has advocated for me, no one has demanded that she apologise, and I have been told such things as “if it was sexual abuse it would be different” or “you just need to get over it” or “she had a hard life, it’s not her fault”. Every time I tried to talk about it, the subject was changed.
Cary, this made my 20s hell. I trusted no one. My self-esteem was nonexistent. I wanted to die. I didn’t trust my own experiences and was angry at myself for not “getting over it” and so very angry at my family for just abandoning me to my own misery. My parents refused to talk about it with me. I went to years of therapy, I was on medication, and I did all the things that are indicative of extreme and prolonged emotional distress. Eventually I moved 4000 miles away from home and started a new life.
Three years ago my remaining brother – who I had tried to have a relationship with – told me that my abuser and the brother who married her (who I think was implicit in the abuse, but have no proof) babysit his baby twins. I asked him why he would allow a woman who he damn well knew was an abuser of children to act as a person of authority in their lives and I was told “Oh we watch them really carefully” and “that just won’t happen.”
The subtext there is one of two things: either he doesn’t believe that the abuse happened the way I said it did, or he doesn’t think it was a big deal. Both of those things are absolutely unacceptable. I told him this, and told him that if those children are describing their relationship with those people to a therapist in ten years I will be the only one in the family not directly responsible for knowing what the situation was and letting it happen. We have not spoken since.
I have tried really hard to maintain a relationship with my parents, though they are clearly of the opinion – and have told me – that this really isn’t a big deal and the problem in the family is my failure to get over something minor. They’re in their 70s (I am 35) and I try to have compassion for the difficult position they’re in. I think I deserved better from them; they should have advocated for me, they should have protected me from this fallout by holding her accountable, but my abuser did so much to torpedo any trust relationship I had with my parents by telling me misinformation and manipulating the way I felt about them that I figure I have lost too many years with them to cut them out completely.
In recent years, after cutting my second brother out of my life, I have felt for the first time like I can breathe. I now realise that having a relationship with someone who invalidated the biggest trauma of my adult life was retraumatising me over and over, and that when I cut off ties with both of them I was validating myself, I was believing my own experiences, I was advocating for me – all things my family never did for me.
My problem is this: I visit my parents annually and spend the entire time sobbing. I am there right now, surrounded by family portraits of my parents, my brothers and their wives … I’m not in any of them, it’s as if I just don’t exist, like there’s two families. My mother said something tonight about all this being not as big a deal as I thought it was and it just set me off again; how can all this pain, all this therapy, all this hell of 16 years not convince them that what happened to me really happened? Why is the status quo more important than their own daughter? Why was I sacrificed on the altar of not making waves? I have had so many years of feeling desperately alone because of abuse where I was the victim, and have gone through so much shame, so much turmoil, so much loneliness and felt so bereft of love and worth. Everything about this situation sent the message that I am worthless – she perpetrated this, my brother married her, no one held her responsible, everyone pretends it didn’t happen. But it did, because I have been wading through the pain for 16 years. I don’t think that’s nothing.
My question is this: How the fuck can I finally feel okay about any of this? I am more functional than I used to be, but if I pause long enough to think about this whole system of abuse I just can’t stop shaking with sobs that last days, that shake me to my core. I fantasize about revenge sometimes – starting a website with her name dot com and outlining my story for employers and others to see, or other things that make her a victim instead of a person that can cruelly abuse and manipulate without consequences, but I know that won’t work and will only result in me poisoning my own psyche. I know it is not the spoon that bends, but me, but I have spent 16 years bending and I just can’t bend far enough. I have wished things were different, tried to make things different, been to years of therapy, drank, raged, did drugs, found a fulfilling relationship, made a good career, but nothing has ever been able to touch this pain of being disregarded by my family and my abuser winning. When I start to get better I am jolted back by the realisation that I am just disposable.
Thank you for reading. Please, if by some miracle you have read this diatribe and decide to respond, sign me off as
So, I have to say, intuitively, I like you. You are a fine person. It hurts me to see you keep putting your hand in the flame.
You were the victim of a sociopath. You continue to be victimized by your family.
I suggest that you cut off all contact with your family for two years.
You are locked in an impossible struggle with them. You want them to be something they are not. This struggle is futile. It is hopeless. It is full of pain. But you have a choice. You are free to walk away from this futile struggle. You do not have to justify yourself or explain. They don’t own you. Walk away. Cut off all contact.
You are free to make this choice. It is the right choice for you. You are a free and independent person and must make this choice for your own survival and happiness.
Cut off all contact. Cut off all contact for two years. Do not call or write. Do not read emails from them.
If certain communications are necessary, make communications with them through a third party. There must be someone you can trust to do this. You say you have built a pretty good life for yourself, 4,000 miles away. That is great. It makes it easier to cut off contact because you will not be running into family members on the street.
Imagine how it would feel to go a day, a week, a month, enjoying your life and not thinking of this event even once. Imagine how that would be! To be pretty much like other people, going about your life, enjoying the things you enjoy, being a master of your craft, being a part of a community, a worker among workers, liked and loved for who you are, sleeping well at night, enjoying life.
That is possible.
Do this, please. Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop opening the wound. Give yourself a chance to forget.
Maybe you won’t forget. That’s OK. I am not saying you should forget it or there’s something wrong with you if you don’t forget, or if it comes to mind frequently.
You’ve been injured. That’s not your fault.
But you have some choice in the matter. You have it within your power to change your habits and your circumstances. So give yourself a chance. Give your wound a chance to heal.
It won’t heal fast. It will heal slowly. That’s why the two years. Two years is doable. See what happens. After two years you might want to resume contact. Or maybe not. Give yourself two years and see how it goes.
Find a narrative. A narrative is like a box to put the story in and close the lid. The narrative is that you were the victim of a sociopath. Not just a sociopath but a sociopathic family system. This was unusual in its extent but its general pattern is familiar: When terrible things happen in a family system, the family system works to deny it. All these individuals are part of that system. They are doing what they think they need to do to survive in that system. They are afraid the system will destroy them if they oppose it. And they might be right. Look what the system did to you. This system is being run by a sociopath. It will try to destroy any member who to opposes it.
You are already the enemy of this system. You are a truth teller and so it had to crush you. You continue to be a threat because you continue to say what is actually happening. So it attacks you when you appear. So don’t appear. Disappear. Live your own life.
You can do this. You can cut off all contact with your family. There is no law against it.
There will be difficulties. A part of you will resist making this change. It will feel weird like you just can’t do that. But you can. You can and I think you should.
Give yourself a chance to heal. Stop putting your hand in the fire.
I am a 24-year-old young man who lives with his parents in a wealthy suburb of a major American city. I graduated from college three years ago. I spent a year abroad teaching English and came back to the United States at the end of 2003. I have had trouble getting full-time employment since then. I have had some internships and occasional temp work that gives me enough money to slowly pay off a small and interest-free debt (owed to my parents) and also have some spending money. My temp work does not give me enough money to afford rent. I wanted to move out of my parents house ASAP, so I did what most suburban kids in my situation do: I applied to grad school.
The problem is that the only grad school I got into was in the nearby city. I have a small trust that pays for tuition and books (legally it can only be used for education expenses until I turn 35). I still can not afford an apartment. My parents think I am overweight and told me that they would not start looking for an apartment for me until I weighed 145 pounds. My height is 5 feet, 6 inches. I lost six pounds very quickly, but my weight has been hovering at the 155-156 level for the past few weeks and nothing I do seems to make it go down. I go to the gym five to seven times a week. I eat less. It looks like I will not make 145 by the time school begins unless I starve myself and go on a water-only diet.
I have been a late bloomer my entire life but it is beginning to drive me insane and throw me into mood swings. I am the only person I know who lives at home. My social life really suffers for it as well. I know lots of people who live in the city and I feel like I do not get included in a lot of activities because it would require too much planning. They can just call or e-mail each other and say be at place X in a half-hour or 40 minutes. Including me would require giving me enough notice to let me catch a commuter train in, get on a subway, etc. If I end up commuting to grad school my social life will continue to suffer. I will not be able to go out to dinner after late-night classes and such because I will worry about getting home at a reasonable hour to study and get enough sleep.
I see my problem as being the sum of three things: my constantly being a late bloomer in all social situations, being too economically dependent on my parents, and that my parents believe it is acceptable to treat a 24-year-old with carrot-and-stick deals and punishments. I want to be free. I want to experience what it is like to be a 20-something living in a city and be able to do things at a moment’s notice. I feel like by the time I am independent of my parents it is going to be too late for all these things. Everyone else will have grown up and be on to the serious stuff like career advancement, settling down, buying houses, starting families, and worrying about 401K plans.
What can I do to make myself free, Cary? How can I convince my parents that they are being insane about the apartment-weight deal? (BTW, they got my brother an apartment no questions asked when he started grad school. They claim he was not overweight.) The few friends I told about my apartment situation think my parents are insane but can’t give any advice. Am I just being another spoiled rich kid from the suburbs who is learning harsh lessons about reality? How can I keep my sanity and stop from being depressed about my situation — and the fact that it never seems to improve?
Late Bloomer With the Carrot in Front of His Face
Dear Late Bloomer,
You ask, “What can I do to make myself free?” What you can do to make yourself free is move out of the house and get a job.
You may hesitate to leave home because your parents are offering you a lot of help. But the “help” they are offering is not helping.
There are two kinds of “help” that parents typically offer. One is helpful help. Helpful help sometimes doesn’t seem like help at all. Being thrown out of the house, for instance, can be helpful, though it may not seem so at the time. Being made to wash dishes, pay rent and mow the lawn can also seem unhelpful, but can actually teach a young, indolent wastrel certain laws of economics and human behavior that govern an astonishingly large part of adult society, from competition for mates to distribution of resources to the balance of give and take required to maintain love and friendship. Real help sometimes does not look like help at all. Likewise, what looks like real help is sometimes nothing more than sinister manipulation that is confusing and undermines the spirit.
In your case, the “help” you are getting from your parents seems profoundly unhelpful. I would guess that’s because it’s not age-appropriate. When you were a weak little kid, the carrot-and-stick approach might have made a certain amount of sense: You were biologically dependent and in need of operant conditioning. You needed to learn rules of behavior by repetition and practice, and the reward system gave you incentive to keep practicing the same behaviors over and over until they became rote. The object of such a system is to prepare the weak, helpless child to become strong and self-sufficient. Once the child has reached that point, however, it’s time to abandon the carrot-and-stick approach. Otherwise, it becomes a system of control. It makes you crazy. It torments you. It undermines your more or less natural instinct, which is to leave the parental compound, forage for food, dig a shelter and mate.
(Frankly — as one who has no kids and so probably shouldn’t talk — I’m a little troubled by the carrot-and-stick system of child-rearing: How can it possibly prepare one for the real-world reward system, whose rules are strange and random and require problem-solving ability of a whole ‘nother order? How does a kid, raised in such a way, interpret situations where participants don’t spell out their reward programs quite so explicitly? “If I lose five pounds, then can I have the job?” “What?”)
It’s not that your parents are monsters, necessarily. Parents get used to dealing with you in a certain way. And at times, in my opinion, parents don’t really want you to leave; they would prefer to have you helpless. That doesn’t reflect well on the parents; but it’s not like they’re out consciously to screw you over. Nevertheless, they hamstring you with their systems of control and manipulation. They mess with your head.
You have to get away from it, for your own good.
So it’s time for you to leave. Don’t wait for your parents to kick you out. They’re not going to do that. Leave. Get a job. Learn to cook and clean for yourself. Work full-time until grad school starts. Keep a part-time job while you’re in grad school. If you need living expenses, take out a student loan. Take it out in your name. Don’t ask your parents to co-sign.
Remember: As the right-wing jingoists like to say, Freedom isn’t free.
Write for Advice
I know this is a trivial problem but I’m fretting about it. I am single and I usually see my sister and her family at Christmas. There are eight to 12 adults (depending on who comes from out of town) and one baby in her family and they all give each other multiple presents, then spend about three hours on Christmas morning unwrapping them. They have plenty of money so the presents are pretty extravagant.
When I used to join them on Christmas morning, they always had one present for me. I brought one present for each of them, usually something not so expensive, like a book or a pair of gloves — but those things added up to a substantial sum for me, because there are so many of them. Nobody particularly noticed what I brought — I couldn’t buy anything that would stand out amid the glitter.
I found myself simultaneously sneering at them (secretly) for their materialism and excess, and feeling hurt and envious because I only got one present and they each got a whole wagon load. So I stopped visiting on Christmas morning for the big unwrapping extravaganza, and I stop by on Christmas Eve. I give a big check to someone who helps poor families, or sometimes I just give a bundle of money to a struggling family, instead of buying all those scarves and socks for people who have way more than they need.
This works pretty well. But as the season comes round again, I find I’m still feeling some umbrage about their way of celebrating the holiday. I just want to stop feeling so out of joint about it, to relax and enjoy the visit when I go, and celebrate the joy of giving in my own way.
Do you have any cool ways for me to change my attitude?
Dear Reluctant Scroogette,
There was this wonderful thing you used to do when you were a kid. You woke up and got presents.
It was magic.
Later you grow up and these people join your family and do this big exchange of gifts and it’s not at all like it used to be and it just feels hollow and stupid and I wouldn’t blame you if it made you feel left out and disappointed and even a little angry because it’s almost as though these people are trampling on something that was really wonderful and sweet and they’re sucking all the majesty out of it and completely missing the message of charity and love and really pretty much destroying the innocence and the magic of it with their big-wallet showoffiness.
But you have come up with a solution. You have changed your routine and found a way to make it mean something to you without disrupting the pleasure of everybody else. It must be a great relief to visit your sister on Christmas Eve and not have to do all that other stuff. It’s quite a victory!
And maybe it doesn’t have to be all sad. Sure, you can write checks to charities but Christmas is also supposed to be fun. Maybe there is a way for you to feed that part of yourself that really misses the childhood Christmas. See what you can do to regain some of that sacred feeling. That innocent feeling. Go have some fun. Get in the snow.
Have some happiness.
That’s really what it’s about. Have some happiness.
If nothing else, this is the one time in the year that Americans can act goofy and have fun. We don’t really know exactly what to do with this holiday anymore, but at least we know how to buy big shiny things at stores and act goofy. So let’s do that. Let’s have some happiness. Let’s buy big shiny things and act goofy.
We can all say to ourselves, OK, for once in the year, it’s my right to try to have some happiness. Let’s go out and find some, wherever we find it. Maybe it means sitting on a hill, or firing a gun, or blowing a horn, or rowing a boat.
Go find some happiness. It’s the season.
I am a 33-year-old married mother of one. While the discussion of having more children was always sort of tabled for my husband and me, after hearing about the painful process of having a baby after 35 from some of our friends, my clock went into overdrive. While we are not in the best financial position to have another child, we were not any better off five years ago when we had the first one — and she has all the love, support and stuff a kid could want.
So we had it out: time vs. money, money vs. time. I explained that he would still be able to make babies long after it would be safe for me to carry to term, that getting pregnant now might be harder than it was the first time, that it still takes 40 weeks to cook the baby and I’d expect our lives would change between now and then.
Time passed, but when he told me he was ready to try, I believed him. Now that we are expecting, he is sullen and withdrawn, moody and distant. When I gave him what I thought would be happy news, he said, “Congratulations! Shit!” Which left me feeling hurt and it’s been downhill since then.
So where do we go? Stay married and have two kids, one of which he secretly never wanted? Get divorced because he doesn’t feel like being responsible? Something else? I wish I could just talk to him, but he just sits there and then I find that I am only angrier and more confused than before.
Just the Two of Us
Dear Just the Two of Us,
It will feel stupid at first. You’ll sit there with him and he’ll be all sullen and you’ll ask him something and he’ll murmur something and you’ll want to throw something at him but this is where you make your spiritual breakthrough.
You don’t throw something. That’s a spiritual breakthrough. You realize that in a way this isn’t about you and how angry you are with him, and it’s not about him and what a stupid thing he said.
It’s about living on earth in the child’s time.
You’re going to have a second kid and it’s a stupid time to get a divorce so you have to learn to sit there while he goes through all his gears. I’m not saying it won’t drive you crazy. But it’s worth doing because the alternative is to keep stomping around the house because he’s imitating a statue in a wax museum.
The thing about listening to somebody is it doesn’t have any preconditions or time limits. If you’re going to sit there and demand that he talk right now, you might as well not do it. You have to sit there long enough that he notices you’re there and then you have to sit there a long time after that, pretending that you’re just kind of hanging out.
It’s like with dogs.
Getting him to talk, I mean.
Some dogs if they’re well trained will respond to direct commands. But a lot of time what you’re doing is indirect and sneaky. If I want to hang out with the dog I have to pretend I’m not really hanging out with the dog. They don’t like needy humans. It seems undignified to them. So you have to sidle up but you’re really doing something else, like reading a magazine. And then the dog is like, OK, if you must, sit here with me and read.
Some people think this standoffishness is more like cat behavior. Maybe some cats. But the poodles are like that. And sullen guys are like that, too.
Now, maybe it hurts your pride to have to do anything but yell at him. And, OK, yes, he did say the stupidest thing possible for a man to say when his wife tells him she’s pregnant.
In fact, what he said was so stupid you want to crawl inside his skull and play back the tape and see what exactly he was thinking.
Was he thinking, Oh, boy, here’s a clever way to let her know that I’m glad the baby’s coming but I’m also scared? Or maybe, here’s a great way to let her know that I’ve been angry at her since this whole thing started, but I haven’t said anything, but now that she’s actually pregnant here’s the perfect time to get back at her? Or maybe he was thinking, Uh, I think I’ll just say something really stupid now. And maybe she’ll love me more because I’m really stupid.
Whatever. It was the stupidest thing he could say. But it’s a little late for you to be wanting the perfect man. This is the one you got. Divorce is a dumb idea while you’re pregnant and worried about money. So you have to somehow get closer to him and that might mean having a little humility. So do it. Sit quietly and let him talk. Wait until he tells you what’s going on. Ask him if he’s clinically depressed. Get some help from a marriage counselor. Put aside your pride but reward yourself later somehow. It’s for the greater good.
I know this is pretty early, but I’m already freaking out about hanging out with my family during Christmas. My family consists of my mother, my father, my brother and me, the daughter/sister. My brother isn’t married, but I am; I have a husband and two kids. My husband and the kids get along fine with my family; actually, my parents love my husband to pieces. The problem is with me.
Whenever I get together with my parents, which is only once a year or so, I get the feeling that they don’t really want to be with me. I mean, we drive six hours, they fly for four hours and my brother flies for four hours (don’t ask why we are all traveling…that is another long story) and then we spend the weekend together by doing a lot of nothing. My parents go to sleep at 7 or 8 p.m. and get up at 5 a.m., and by the time I get up at 7:30 a.m. or so, they have already left to go to doctors appointments, to fix the roof on a rental house, to go to the DMV. They don’t show up until noon or so. My brother stays in bed until 2 p.m. and parties with his friends until late. Our “quality time” together consists of eating from the same takeout places over and over again.
Now that I have toddlers, there is something to entertain us, but without the kids, there is nothing to say to each other. My parents are very private people; if you asked me what their biggest worry was, I would have no idea. When I ask about their work, I just get vague answers and sort of sarcastic replies. I know this is just par for the course because I have the same problem getting all defensive about choices I made and things that I do; when they ask me questions, I hedge as well. I’ve made some career choices that bother them and they let me know that they don’t like it, so I shut up about the details. My mother also recently told me that she would like to divorce my dad because he’s kind of a control freak and generally a rude man, except that she takes her wedding vows seriously and that she’s used to him and, heck, what else would she do? This was a shock to me (even though I think I could never live with my dad) as I thought that their marriage was fine, even stellar.
I just have this feeling that we are at an impasse, that all of us want to be closer but we don’t know how to be. Right now, I feel that hanging out with my parents is an obligation rather than something I enjoy. Is it to be that way always? If it is, I just want to know that and that I shouldn’t expect any more closeness from my family and I should look elsewhere. I’ve been reading a lot of Zen stuff recently and I’ve been trying to let go of my “attachment” to having a close family and have no expectations of ever having one, but I have to say, sometimes I read stories of people’s relationships with their parents changing on their deathbeds and their wishing it had happened earlier. My relationship with my parents isn’t terrible—it’s just not very much fun. What should I do?
Out of Sorts
Dear Out of Sorts,
You can change your eye color. You can change your sex. You can change the temperature of the planet. But you can’t change your family.
What you can do is introduce small variations in the activities you engage in while visiting with your family. These activities may have the effect of changing how you feel while you’re around them. One of the things you might try is just to be a positive, supportive witness. See if there are ways you can be helpful, without getting in the way. You might offer to drive your parents around on their early-morning errands, or to accompany them in their car to expedite the parking and waiting as they go in and out of places. As you accompany them, perhaps riding in the back seat, observe them. Look at them closely. Think about who they are. Consider them as individuals. Let your mind wander. Be Zen-like about it.
There will probably be a lot of stupid and boring stuff coming out of their mouths. Try not to get any on you. Let it pass. Be a supportive witness to their experience. Hold a place in line at the DMV. Hand your mother a magazine. Hold her purse while she looks for her other glasses. Be unobtrusively helpful, and observe. Observe your mother and observe yourself. What are you doing as you stand there, holding her purse for her? Are you resenting her for being so befuddled? Are you mad at her for telling you she’d like to divorce your dad but probably never will? Does it give you a sinking feeling? A feeling of rage? Are you wishing you were somewhere else, anywhere other than here? Where is it exactly that you would like to be? Make a mental note to go there, later, after Christmas. Then get back to what you are doing, holding your mother’s purse, glancing at the magazines in the waiting room.
The idea is to get your bearings. Get comfortable being around your parents. Lower your expectations until they touch reality.
You may wish to make some breakthrough by talking about the things that are on your mind—why doesn’t the family come together like a family, dammit?! But you must be careful. A family is a delicate thing, wrathful and sensitive to disturbance. If there are certain things that you feel need to be discussed, it might be best to approach them not as emotional or spiritual questions, but as tasks that need performing. It sounds like your parents are practical people who value getting things done in a timely manner. So if, for instance, there are questions of health, or life and death, that you feel your parents and your brother avoid talking about, you might approach them by attempting to square away financial concerns, powers of attorney, investments, the will.
For certain kinds of people, a troubling spiritual question is best addressed in its physical embodiment. For such people, the proper disposition of such an embodiment can, in itself, constitute a spiritual or emotional experience. I know that sounds rather arid to those of us who breathe deeply of the bracing air in the world of ideas, but in my experience it is often the case.
You must go slowly, respecting the depth and complexity of the family as an organism. To be realistic, in this first year of trying to make it better, you might only accomplish small variations in your own activities.
Because of your dissatisfaction with how the family performs, which you probably have not successfully hidden (we can hide little from our family), other family members may already fear that you are going to try to “bring the family together.” They may not want to be brought together. In fact, such enforced togetherness can be so excruciating for its victims that they find some pretext never to return.
Anything that smacks of trying to bring the family together may have the undesired effect of tearing it apart. It is, as I said, a fragile thing.
So I suggest you make such changes as you can in your own activities, quietly, meditatively, without attachment to result. Try to be a reliable, supportive witness to those around you. Hope for gradual improvement.
Boy, did I screw up.
About 13 years ago, I fell for a friend of my sister’s and got her pregnant. I was at this point in my life a loser. I had no job, no home (I was living with my father), no car, no license (never had it), no complete education, and absolutely no prospects. Her family, predictably, hated me.
After a couple months of unremitting and conflicting pressure from our families, she “realized” that I was a loser and she cut me loose. No contact, no nothing.
The last night that we ever discussed the baby was the night she gave birth. I got raving drunk and never discussed it again. My very WASP-y and remarkably repressed family followed suit (or was it I that was following suit?) Either way, the topic was off limits, that part of my brain and my heart was blocked off with yellow tape, and everyone moved on.
She married and her husband adopted the baby. I turned my life around materially and spiritually (education, wonderful wife, good job, house, etc.). I never tried to contact her or the baby. I told myself that I was only a “donor” and that I would only screw things up for her and the baby. Eventually, my wife and I bought a home not too far from my daughter and her family.
I dealt with the issue alone, fighting the late-night demons and doing everything I could to hold the situation at bay.
Years passed. A mutual friend of the family ran into the woman and told my sister that my daughter is 12 now and asking a number of questions. The resemblance is unmistakable and her parents have done a wonderful job (I am thrilled for them and her ). Faced with this, and only because I was faced with this, I decided to tell my wife about the situation.
Predictably, my wife is furious and feels (rightly) that I have violated her trust. We are just about to start a family of our own, and now everything in my life has been thrown into play. I don’t know if I would have been able to reveal this if not forced. Now that it is out in the open, the events are painful and crushing.
I’m scared, I’m confused, and I suddenly feel every bit as worthless as I felt all those years ago. I don’t think that my wife is going to leave me (we are looking into starting some kind of couples therapy), but I feel like I am still paying for not being good enough all those years ago. I am starting to get angry at those folks who are angry at me.
I have written a letter to my daughter’s mother and adoptive father, explaining where I am in my life and that we are very open to contact and a relationship, once rules and boundaries have been established; but my primary concern is my wife. I do not want to lose her (or her respect) over this.
Three days ago I had a normal life, and I feel like I am never going to have that again…
What a tangled web we weave…
I do not think you will lose your wife over this, or that your life will fall apart. You will get into counseling and learn about family systems and the keeping of secrets. You will work out some arrangement with the family of your daughter, and your wife will look at you with unfathomable anger for an indefinite period, and if you are good and do not completely freak out, eventually the normal life you had three days ago will return. But I hope out of this comes some thinking about how you have been living and where the secrets come from and who this person was who so many years ago fathered a daughter and kept it secret from his wife. I detect in your letter perhaps a lack of empathy for your earlier incarnation, and I would like to share a little about how I, who was also a bit of a loser and somewhat out of control, have come in middle age to regard my earlier self.
It has been helpful for me to see that I did some of the things I did because I was trying to do the right thing, strange as it appeared. It has been of great help to me to realize that I have often been an innocent actor, naive and lazy and deluded but not malicious. Like you I was trying to survive. I was doing what I had to do at the time. It has been helpful in considering why certain episodes went wrong to consider what I was running from and why I kept so many secrets and why the truth seemed unsurvivable. Was there some knowledge so corrosive that the silence in our household was a kind of insulation, a balm to naked skin?
What truth was so terrible at the time that it could not be uttered in the house? That you had sex without love? Is love a pair of handcuffs that must be worn every time? Is it a sin to do something simply because you really, really want to and it feels really, really good? Was it a sin to make love to your sister’s friend? Was there no one else around who could take you by the hand and show you what you then had to do? Was this all up to you? Are you the sole perpetrator of some crime? Must you punish yourself now for rest of your life?
It has been of great help to me from time to time to conjure up this innocent being, this young boy who was simply trying to express love and wonder, and later this young man who seemed to be in trouble but was not robbing houses or hitting people on the head. I suggest you do not hate this younger man, this fuck-up, this version of yourself. I suggest, instead, that you learn to love this nasty little fuck-up that you had to leave behind. I suggest that you offer a hand of forgiveness to this nasty little fuck-up. He was a guy trying to figure it out. He was a guy trying to get along. He was a guy trying to live with whatever it was that hurt. What was it that hurt? Who ever knows what it is with a young guy that hurts so much? We don’t talk about it among ourselves, although always there will be a stoned glance or a touch between young men, high on this or that, that says I know the crazy hurting thing too, it’s a motherfucker. So you followed the trajectory of your hurting and you got drunk the night your daughter was born.
Fathers have been getting drunk and leaving town for centuries when their babies are born: In spite of our storied propensity for engendering life, we do not always welcome it when it arrives, we kind of wish it would go away, we want to be left to our tools and our greasy hands and our shade trees, our violent metal and brief explosions, our gray primer and rust, our certainty of objects. The birth of a child means more life, more crying, more questions, more hunger, more lying and walking away, more required courses, more questions we cannot answer, more tests, more tedium, more teachers, more classroom sitting, more desolate afternoons, more diapers and howling, more unbridgeable gulf, more rules, more discipline, more silence. We do not like life in a lot of ways. For some of us men we like a few books, we like a little racquetball, we like maybe a sauna and some swimming, we like a long drive down a leafy road in a good truck, but we did not sign on for the entire program and it tires us out, frankly, and after the truck is parked we just want to lie down and go to sleep, and it is like this day after day for many of us men, which is why we father kids and go off into the woods, never to speak of it again until it comes up by a careless word or two in the supermarket, and there we are again, saddled with ourselves, bending under the incomprehensible load of what we have done — given life to a child who now looks out at the world and says, I don’t know, man, what you’re all so fucked up about, this looks pretty good to me. Just wait, we say. Just wait.
What I mean is, you need to conjure up some compassion for the teenager you once were, this wayward loser without a home or a job. You need to do this in order to stop hanging your head in shame for having been simply young and confused and unsure what to do. My sense of it is that your keeping of secrets arises out of intense shame. You need to replace that shame with some compassion and respect. To do that you need to go back down some of those same old roads and find out what you were really looking for back then.
I can’t do that for you. But my guess is that you were looking for a way out of WASPish silence, the long tradition of family secrets, the code your family lived by. You were looking for a more authentic way of feeling and being. Making love and getting drunk seemed like ways to get to something real. But at the crucial moment, when your waywardness truly bore fruit, it was a forbidden fruit it bore, so you turned away in fear. You turned back to what you knew best: the keeping of secrets, the silent bearing of shame.
Now, as an adult man, it’s time to pick up where you left off. It’s time to finish what you started — not with teenage acting-out but with a sober acknowledgment that wild, untamable passions are as important to your life as oatmeal for breakfast and plenty of life insurance.
You’re married now. You’ve got a house and a job. You’re safe. It’s time to hold your head up and acknowledge who you were then and who you are now and make the best of a pretty good situation.
I hope you get a chance to tell everything. Sometimes, after a life of secrets, telling everything helps.