Tag Archives: mothers

when the (white) mothers choose the abuser

Graffiti image of child spray painting the word MOMThis is a hard thing to write.

It’s been a painful few months. For you, too? I’ve been trying to get to the root of the heavy depression–despair, really–that I’ve been stuck in since November. Or even before November, but 11/9 is when it really took hold of all the insides of me, squeezed tight, shuttered me in with its bleak outlook: nothing is ever going to be all right again.

This, of course, is not true. So many of us have made it through impossibly painful times, and we have built up skills and tools for navigating the horrors of our world: governmental ignorance and abuse, a society that treats women and all folks of color like animals to be used and then discarded, that treats the earth like a garden to be plundered and then abandoned. My sweetheart last night reminded me of how scared we all were at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, when no one really knew what was happening–and then, once we did know, the folks in power alternately pretended like nothing was happening and tried to force us to be even more terrified of sex than we were already supposed to be. But we got through it together, with rage and sex and laughter and art and community.

It does seem like life under this Rapist-in-chief (and his so-called administration) will be worse than anything most of us have had to confront in this country, and that we’ll have to build a whole new set of tools for surviving, for helping one another survive. But that’s work we can do, all while resisting and struggling for justice and change.

But knowing this wasn’t getting to the root of my despair. I’ve been isolating mostly, trying to get some writing projects done, but also just wanting to be alone in my house with the blinds closed. Maybe it will all go away. A child’s way of thinking. Maybe when I open the blinds back up, maybe when I wake up tomorrow, everything will be better.

But things kept not being better when I woke up the next morning. I sat on the couch and watched the rains come in over San Francisco bay, and every loud, low plane I heard I was afraid would turn out to be the Rapist’s first bombing raids on too-liberal San Francisco. When would the attacks begin?

This is old fear. I realized my behavior bore a strong resemblance — this despair, this fear, this isolating — to the ways I acted in the first months after I broke away from my family, when I was in my early twenties. I was honestly terrified that my stepfather would make good on his oft-repeated threats to send someone to harm or kill me and those I loved; every noise at night the old New Hampshire farmhouse where I lived with my then-boyfriend was the spy-friend of les’ climbing up the outside wall, about to break through the bedroom window with his weapons: the one attached to his body and the ones clipped to his belt.

So there’s the ache and memory of this terror, arising now because this Rapist now installed in the highest office of the land talks and acts so much like the man who terrorized my sister and I through our adolescence. The demands for loyalty, the gas lighting, the abusive teasing, the Orwellian-Newspeak changes in message or tone, the racism, the elitism, and, of course, the misogyny and sexual violence that he downplays as teasing or helpful or consensual — these were all tactics my stepfather used as well. These are the tactics of the common abuser. So many of us talked about this before the election. We talked about The Rapist’s  abusive behavior toward his opponents during the primary, his horrific language about and threats toward various communities of color, his malignant teasing of a journalist with arthrogryposis, his predatory behavior toward Clinton during the debates. We talked about the difference between “locker-room talk” and bragging about sexual assault.

Folks who supported the Rapist didn’t want to hear it. Folks often prefer to be on the side of power, the side of the abuser. Don’t we who have been through abuse — as children or as adults — know this?

So here’s the other abuser’s tool the Rapist-in-Chief wielded, one my stepfather also brandished, of course: he convinced the mothers that he’s the one in the right. That they shouldn’t listen to their daughters, their children.

That they shouldn’t listen to reality.

A week or so ago, I realized that was the link to this deep grief I was feeling — a grief so big I couldn’t even cry about it. The link had to do with that 53% of white women who voted for this man, this now our Rapist-in-Chief: these women sided with the abuser.

Just like my own mother did.

I remember sitting on the futon in the bedroom of that old New Hampshire farmhouse, just a couple of months, I think, after I first told my stepfather that I wanted to end the “sexual part of our relationship.” He’d moved quickly to get me to agree that what I was really saying was that I wanted to break contact with my whole family; it was his way of further isolating me from my mother and my sister. He threatened to harm me if I contacted them, which I didn’t do for awhile, but then I changed my mind. I thought, it has to be that my mother just doesn’t know. She doesn’t know what he’s been doing to her daughters when she is away at work, or over the phone, or at his office.

(Never mind that there was plenty of awful that she did see, that happened right in front of her– that happened to her — that wasn’t enough to push her through her fear (or whatever else it was that kept her tied to him) and get her to leave.)

So I decided to call and tell her. I was terrified. I brought the phone over to the bed, sat crosslegged at the far end, and dialed her number at work. Their secretary transferred me to her office, but she was about to go into a therapy session with a client; could she call me in an hour?

I spent the hour trying not to throw up from fear. She told my stepfather about the call, and so they spent the hour (I found out later) talking with my sister about how to contain Jen’s most recent “attack” on the family. My mother called me back. I took a deep breath and asked whether she knew what her husband had been doing to us.

She said, Yes.

This took all the air out of my body.

“What do you mean, yes?”

She gave me specific acts, which, I found out later, my stepfather had told her to specify. She said, “He told me about it.” And, “He’s sorry. He knows he crossed a line.”

I didn’t have any words. What could I say to this? Here was my mother, calmly telling me that she knew her husband had been sexually abusing her daughters. She wasn’t raging. She wasn’t telling me that she’d hit him with a paperweight when he told her, then called the police and was leaving him immediately. She just said, “I know.”

I don’t remember now how the call ended. But I remember the enormous blanket of grief that overcame me. What could be done now? Wasn’t that my last possible attack on this man who’d destroyed my childhood and family? Hadn’t it been my belief, all through my adolescence, that if I could just get up the courage to tell my mother what was happening, she would be outraged, she would take our side finally, she would make it stop?

But it wasn’t true. She chose him. She would keep on choosing him for another year or so, until my sister broke contact with them, and even after that — until we called the police and they were both arrested.

She chose him over us.

This is the sorrow that is so big it doesn’t have anywhere to fit in my body. This is  the grief that is too big for tears. This is the heavy lead blanket of despair that has covered me since the release of that fucking tape from 2005 of our-now-Rapist-in-Chief bragging about what he could do to any woman he wanted, and I heard (white) women from around the country excusing him. White men, too, of course — isn’t that to be expected? (Think about what Brock Turner’s father said about his son’s rape; the men so very often stand up for their own.) But here I was, still the abused girl, hoping my mother would step up for me, us, the country, when she heard the truth.

But she didn’t. More than half of the white women in the country, again, chose the abuser over the abused, for reasons I will never quite be able to understand, even though I can articulate some of them: Security? Defiance? Fear? Having spent many years working in domestic violence prevention, I know the dangers of calling out the abused women who stay with abusers — I know how quick we as a society are to blame women for their own abuse. And, too, as an abused child of an abused woman, I know how painful it is to have your mother turn her back on you in favor of the man who has been hurting her as well as you.

So, it’s complicated, this work.

As a white woman who voted against him, who spoke out against him, who joined with others in calling out his abhorrent behavior, what can we say to these women, some of them mothers, to get them to choose their children, and the children of others, over the Rapist?

Of course, women of color, all folks of color, have their own deep, historical (and present!) grief about white women choosing, repeatedly, to side with violent white men.

What will these women tell their own daughters, their sons, their children, about how to behave in the world? What can they say that will ever contradict they message they sent when they explicitly chose this man? It’s likely that their daughters will have to do the work for them.

My mother eventually walked away from her second husband. She eventually got out from under him, when he was sent to prison. But we have never quite reconciled that moment when I told her what he’d done to me, to us, and she said, “I know,” like it was nothing. Even if she was speaking out of her own brainwashing, her own abuse, her own terror (and I do believe now that she was) — that doesn’t undo the wounding to our relationship, the way it unhooked something inside me from what Mother was supposed to mean, from the possibility of having a mother.

What do we do when the mothers seem not to care about the abuse of the fathers? Here’s how I got through those early years of grief — well, I drank a lot then, which I’m not doing anymore. Bad tv helped, and movies that made me laugh, and then movies that made me cry hard. Long walks helped. And speaking out helped: telling the truth to people who could hear me, receive my words, who helped me to understand that I was not crazy — that yes, in spite of how my mother had reacted, what my stepfather did was not ok. Not even a little bit at all ever.

And so my work is to join with all the voices around the country, around the world, committed to speaking up over and over and over: no matter what the (white) mothers and fathers are telling you, this Rapist-in-Chief’s behavior is not ok. We are not crazy to be terrified and furious. We are right to be outraged and to work for change.

Take 10 minutes if you have the chance today and write what you want to tell the women, tell the mothers, who keep on choosing abusers over their children’s or even their own well-being. This might be a letter to your own mother, a character’s mother, or mothers in general. We need all the words of all the people now. Please keep writing and speaking, and be so easy with you–which, I don’t know about you, but has been hard work for me recently, this being easy with myself, but I keep trying, returning to center. Gentle course correction is the name of the game these days, I think. And hot tea. And chocolate. 

Thank you, always and every time, for your words.

 

 

*I think I’ve mentioned in the blog that I refuse to use this man’s name, and intend to refer to him as The Rapist or Rapist-in-chief (I preferred Rapist-elect) for the next four years

the past is never not with us

This morning I wake up at the seaside. Although my Oakland block looks the same as it always does — early traffic rushing toward the 880, neighbors being walked by small dogs, trees leafed out bright green against the brick and concrete apartment buildings — the sky is clouded like a Parish painting and the air smells like the shore. It seems as though I could wander with the pup just another block or two and we’d be there in front of the biggest mother of all, pounded by surf and sunrise. Did San Francisco fall into the sea overnight? Did Oakland finally pull up a chair at the table of the Pacific?

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This Saturday, it’s time to gather again for Writing the Flood — we only have a few spaces left. This is our monthly, half-day writing group, a space to write in a room full of other fun, creative folks. Bring ideas for a new project, or the voices of those characters who’ve been rattling around in your head for a month — or just bring a notebook and let the prompts take you somewhere surprising. Join us!

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Are you still in the aftermath of mother’s day? I don’t know anyone who finds the second Sunday in May to be a day of pure celebration — well, that’s not true. But I know many more people for whom the day has some tinges (tinges?) of sorrow in it: for mothers gone, disconnected, passed away; for difficult relationships; for mothers who were neglectful or abusive; for mothers unknown or unknowable; for the mothers who never should have been mothers (and for ourselves, grateful to be alive nonetheless)–

I meet the day with trepidation because I think I will never have an unfraught relationship with my mother. I love her, we spoke on Sunday, and the conversation was good. She shows up. She asks how I’m doing. She wants to be of use. She tells me about her life with the family back there. So why would I feel verklempt when I hang up the phone? Isn’t this what I wanted? The chance to talk with her about what was going on in our lives now, without always having to fall back into talk of the past? But, of course, the fact is, the past is never not there with us, in any conversation we’ll ever have.

Last night, at Write Whole, I offered a prompt that consisted of quotes about mothers and mothering, and I ended up writing about my mother and I locked forever in the embrace of apology and accusation:

I lay claim to my mother’s story as if it were mine to tell — I have no home, no place to return to, but I put my popsicle-sticky hands on my mother’s story like I deserve to do so. I open her like a pantry, like a kitchen cabinet, i hang all her laundry out to dry. This is my compensation, in return for the years I spent being her husband’s amuse bouche. I cannot say who was the main course. This is a thin ice skating over the deep ocean of our sorrow. When we are in the same room, all she is ever saying is I’m Sorry; all I am ever saying is, Why did you let me go — why did you let me go? Sometimes I think other people can’t see that we are still that forty year-old woman with her arms wrapped tight around a wailing, en-stiffened twelve year-old girl. Sometimes even we forget that we are clutched that way, and have for so long that we do not know how to be anything else to one another.

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If mother’s day brings joy for you, take ten or so minutes today and write into that joy. If mother’s day brings sorrow or anger or disappointment or, more likely, some combination of all of the above (joy or celebration or honoring included!), give yourself some time to write into those feelings. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go.

Thank you for naming and recognizing the mothering that you desire and deserve. Thank you for the words you find for all of it.

her garden is my best hope

Good morning, you gorgeousness out there. It’s all sun and cool breeze and spring open outside the window, almost warm enough to take the notebook out write directly into morning. My mother writes a couple of days ago to tell me that it snowed back home in Nebraska — in May. It’s just not right. I look out at my garden while we’re texting back and forth, I think of the lettuces, the spinach and broccoli and herbs that we’re already harvesting; I think of the tiny green tomato taking shape on the vine. I remember how devastating it used to be, when I was living in Maine, when the crocus were well blooming and the redbuds had taken firm hold on the maples and I’d begun to trust that finally, finally, spring had arrived — my bones could relax. And then, boom, more snow.

I don’t tell my mom that I spent her snow day out in the sun. She has only just begun to set out her garden — has the potatoes in, is turning over the wintered soil to prepare the space for her many tomato plants, the okra and eggplant, all the annual flowers. Her garden is my best hope. It’s from my mother’s gardening that I learned about the longevity of faith, about persistence of effort, about doing it anyway. She kept a garden all the way through until the very end of the time with her abusive second partner; through all his control and rabid mania, through his sobbing manipulations, through the spending that forced her to work more and more hours trying to reconcile the books and accounts that he refused to be responsible for, through the hostility and hatefulness that he forced her to refer to as love, through all the behind-closed-doors horror that she has never described to me,  she found time to hold on to her connection to the earth, to find solace in a thumb so green she could lift life from a toxic wasteland (which, it turned out, she would have to learn to do).

I don’t know how late into that marriage she kept her garden. I don’t know if her tomatoes were putting out fruit when he was arrested for incest and child sexual abuse, and she was arrested alongside him as an accessory after the fact. I don’t remember, just now, what time of year it was, and I’d been away from home for a few years: he may have driven her away from her garden, the way he’d driven her from cooking and baking and writing, the deep loam of her creative life.

I don’t know what it meant to her that he was not arrested or charged or held to any account for what he did to her.

What I know is that my mother gardens now. After many years rebuilding herself — sharing home with others, cocooning in an old Omaha red-brick apartment building, over a Czech restaurant — she offers her words into the world again, she bakes bread for every family gathering, and she has her own home with a garden she can shape any way she wishes. No one can tell her what to plant or not to plant, or where, or how. At any hour, during the spring and summer and fall, her neighbors find her there, in her sunhat and shorts, pulling weeds, tending to the herbs, talking to the skunk under the porch or the squirrels that want into her birdfeeder or the butterflies that find their way to her flowers — she has shaped her whole wide yard into garden.

And for all my disappointment and loss, for all that we struggle still to find a way to each other as honest and open mother and daughter in the aftermath of the betrayal that that man demanded of both of us, still when I go out into the gardens now I am following in her footsteps. I am listening her tell my much younger self how to set out the plants, how to water, how to tend. I am listening to her example: how she fingered the leaves, whispered to each new seedling, welcomed all the life that found its way into the soil she’d taken responsibility for. Later today, I’ll bake bread for a friend — and I will remember watching my young mother at the counter in a new house in the farmlands of Nebraska, how she put her whole body into her kneading and how, now that I am years older than she was then, and in spite of all that came between, I am still learning from her examples.

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I didn’t imagine I’d write about this when I set my timer for twenty minutes today. Do you have something surprising rising in you to write today? Give yourself fifteen minutes at least, take a coffee break and a notebook, head out to the breakroom or the back of your building, and drop into the words. Follow your writing wherever it seems to want you to go.

I’m grateful, today, for the way you make room for what’s complicated about what and who you love.  I’m grateful for your spaciousness, and I’m grateful for your words.

an impossible intimacy

graffiti of blue bandaids, one crossed over the other to make an x, on a brick wallgood morning good morning. I am in the aftermath of mom time. I am in my small room and trying to make sense of this life I am just now choosing for myself. In the dream last night someone was mugged, a woman had been hurt and we were doing a fundraiser for her maybe. I woke up and told the story of the dream to myself so that I would remember but all I have now is the word mugged, some sense of aftermath, people taking care of her, a sense of threat, we weren’t safe, it could happen again.

After I drop my mother off at the airport, I go to a coffee shop in a shopping mall, I order tea and sit outside in the breezy afternoon sun, I think I’m going to pour myself into writing but I can barely breathe. Next to me, a small family, a man and a woman and a very tall girl child. She looks like a great dane puppy, all muscles and flop, surely an athlete; she drapes herself over her mother, wraps her arms around her mother’s smaller shoulders. I wonder, what is it like to be the one trying for mother’s affection, to want your body in such proximity to the body that formed you, the body that drew you up, the body that let you go. What is it like to have that feel ok, to have such closeness be a welcome thing, to not have to shutter myself off inside, away from the vulnerability that opens in me just by being in her presence? Continue reading

after mother’s day

watercolor of a smiling woman holding a baby up to her face

(check out more of Will Kasso's gorgeous artwork by clicking on the image!)

Good morning, all — good Monday to you!

Yesterday was mother’s day, which can be a straightforward celebration for some people, and quite complicated for others. Yesterday, I was thinking about those of us who can’t find cards at the Walgreen’s or at Hallmark that say what we really want to say to our mothers, who can’t take those flowery cards that say, “Thanks for always being there for me, Mom. Thanks for being my rock and my constant support. I know it was a struggle to deal with me sometimes, but you had faith in me even when I didn’t have faith in myself…” Those of us who are looking for the cards that say, “You were a disaster and yet I still find myself aching for a relationship with you” or “I wish I hadn’t had to be your rock and your constant support” or “I missed you for a lot of my childhood, but I’m glad that we can have a relationship now” or — what would your Mother’s Day card say? I always just go for blank cards these days, when at the store shopping for Mother’s or Father’s Day — the regular, pre-printed cards with that Hollywood-Mother message just won’t work for me, and my mom and I have a pretty good relationship these days. It’s just that we don’t have one based on revisionist history; we have one based on the facts of our lives, which are too painful for Hallmark to make pithy and flowered-pink.

A day devoted to celebrating mothers and all of their hard and unhonored work is deeply important in a culture that devalues women, devalues mothering, devalues childcare. In America, this holiday began as a day calling for peace — in 1870, Julia Ward Howe wrote a Mother’s Day Proclamation, after the death and destruction that she witnessed during the Civil War:

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another
country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From
the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own.
It says “Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance
of justice.”

Interesting, isn’t it, that our national celebration has strayed so far from these civilly-disobedient roots? This wasn’t meant to be a day to reify the supposed perfection of mothers (which is in and of itself a further violence), but rather a day on which mothers’ demand for peace and the security of their children would be witnessed and attended to.

For those of us who are survivors of any sort of abuse or family trauma, for those of us from families where we didn’t have peace or safety, these family holidays can be a triggering time. Please be gentle with you. If you found yourself short or angry or snappish yesterday, maybe take some time for you today. Take a walk, get a massage (look for sliding scale offerings, or schools), try some yoga (the women’s building in SF has low cost classes), make room for yourself to cry or rage or laugh — or all of the above and more.

Want to write some, too? A place to begin might be with those cards. What if you or your character sent a Mother’s Day card that said everything you/they wanted to say? You might start with  the phrase, On Mother’s Day, I want to say–

Or, too, you might write about a Mother’s Day Celebration that stayed true to Julia Ward Howe’s original vision: what if Mother’s Day was a day to listen to and honor mothers’ demands that their children, that all mothers’ children, be kept safe and secure? What if all mothers believed this was their right and responsibility, and they kept it well? What would our world look like?

Or, let your prompt be the image at the top of this post. What does that image bring up for you? Let that be your starting place…

As always, follow your writing wherever it seems to want to go!

Thank you for all the mothering you have done, for yourself, for your friends, for your family, even and especially all that work that has gone unrecognized. Thank you for the creative ways you show up for others, and for yourself! Thank you for all of your words.