Growing Up in a Family of Dissemblers
My grandmother, my mother’s mother, had a favorite phrase she used to deliver with some urgency to convince me of certain rules of conduct the younger generation needed to adhere to. There were what she called “cardinal rules” that I must always obey. There were some cardinal rules about not interrupting your elders, not leaving the table early, about wearing proper clothes in the evening, not talking about politics, and pretending you were interested in everything your elders said to you. This “decorum” that was so vital to her consisted of these superficial do’s and don’ts, and then there were other cardinal rules, such as never sharing unattractive information about anyone in the family, never admitting that someone was unfaithful, silly, cruel, unscrupulous, or a drunk. What darkness lay under the surface needed to remain there. This last was quite important.
In a family where three generations were certifiable alcoholics, no one ever mentioned the word nor the terrible consequences of the behavior. So, it would seem that a significant “cardinal rule” in this system was that one must conceal truth whenever it was unattractive. I grew up wondering about so many people I sat at the dinner table with, either artist friends of my mother’s with strange behavior or various aunts and cousins who flocked to my grandmother’s dining table. I wondered about why all those people smoked and drank so much, talked about superficial things, and then disappeared… I knew better than to ask about cousin Carlos or “big” Nelson or mom’s artist friend, Phil Roeber. And so, martinis and scotches were drunk to excess before dinner, followed by wine and more wine, and brandies and cigarettes, and the talk danced always on the surface as I watched and listened and watched and waited…
The adults who perfect this dissembling and fabrication never seem to understand that the child in their midst is inherently smart and perceptive and sees a number of things they don’t. They tell the child to “be seen and not heard” and this young person then becomes a voiceless witness to dark and painful truths. This dishonesty is deeply harmful and heartbreaking because it makes a young person invisible and insignificant. And down the road, as this young son or daughter struggles to figure out just who they are and how they can like and care for themselves, another dark fallout from this life emerges: dark anger at the neglect and the selfishness. And with this rage may come some destructive habits and a possible repeating of the pattern. There is no denying that causing harm perpetrates more harm down the road. Call it karma, call it cause and effect… Our actions in this life are enormously important.
I had the great fortune of having a loving grandmother (not the one who invented those “cardinal rules”) who was able to see and cherish who I was and inspire me to learn as much as I could. I was fortified by this love and support throughout those young years of turmoil perpetrated by my mother’s narcissism. When I came out of my thirties (which unfortunately included some seriously misguided choices), I embarked on my travel odyssey that still continues to find human connection in distant places and to discover who I was. Ultimately, I became a citizen of the world and I found compassion and insight through Buddhist practice. I was fortunate indeed.
An eight year old girl faces the dissolution of her family:
“Frozen in that moment of composure and skewed logic, I knew my mother had not told me the truth, and I wanted to believe it was because she just didn’t know how. Nobody every taught her to… Was this all happening because she just didn’t see me, or because speaking the truth was too frightening? Or both? In the end it didn’t really matter, for soon I would simply become the invisible child she was stuck with, the little girl who sat quietly through long dinners waiting for her chance to speak and be heard, trying to decipher the people around her so she could learn how to fit in. From here on, my mother and I would be uncomfortably bound to one another. I was an unavoidable player in her life, and my path as witness of my life and carrier of fragile memory was set.”
That young girl (now woman) looks back at life with her mother:
“From the time I was a little girl, I had watched my mother consume inhuman amounts of alcohol, but it was a long time before I could admit to myself that she was slowly killing herself. As she aged, she consistently ignored all medical warnings that came to her, changing doctors as often as she was given ominous news. A lot of years dragged on – the liver is a mighty and stubborn organ – but as she became paler, her stomach more bloated, her eyes showed me her fear of dying, all wide and nervous and bloodshot. The liver had begun to rot, now beyond rescuing, and soon there would be no more martinis or brandies or cigarettes. No more.”
My book, Bowing to Elephants, may never have been written if it hadn’t been for the desperate need to discover and tell the truth that was born from my childhood loneliness. As sad as the early years were, I had a hero or two in my life, and that coupled with my indomitable will to survive, kept me on the path of seeking what was real and good about people – all of them. I am grateful for this painful and beautiful journey…