Shame and privilege

The usual disclaimer — all my current writing is unedited stream of consciousness, with some effort to tell a story. This is because I need to get a lot out before I can try to make more sense of it and edit down.

A few things are on my mind from telling the story so far. One is privilege. Another is the discomfort at painting a potential picture of my parents as terrible people, which they were not. Parenting was not their forté perhaps. Another is the varying dimensions of shame that come up for me in remembering. I’ll try to write about these here.

I’ve met people who have experienced really heinous childhood dynamics. Some, like me, experienced a lot of neglect and toxic shaming. I’ve met people who were sexually and physically abused within their immediate family or otherwise. Met a few people who were raised in a cult — the most extreme and heartbreaking story I ever heard was a woman who had been raised in a “Christian” cult where she was raped by both parents, their parents friends, forced to do sexual things with her infant sibling, and forced to kill dogs and cats. I have known a few people who were molested by their upstanding Catholic parents and/or priests in the church. I’ve known lots of people who experienced lots of things that I myself did not. (My mother did tell me around age 30 that she suspected I had been sexually abused by a babysitter before I was six, which I can’t confirm or deny, and she didn’t elaborate.) In some cases I’ve related to people whose traumas seemed more severe, as the commonality of carrying tons of shame and feeling broken or lesser than other people seems universal to childhood trauma. In some cases I’ve felt lucky to have avoided worse things than I experienced. However I’ve sometimes been annoyed by people telling me my suffering was lesser, or citing my “white privilege” or “male privilege”. Such messages feel dismissive, and notable have come from people who clearly had more family support than I did (and for some reason, always come from people who are also white).

I also am aware that I had advantages, relative to a lot of the population. I grew up in suburbs (9 of them by time I graduated high school). I was able to go to a private school to finish high school, and later was able to have help paying for college. My mother loved to cook and made lots of healthy meals and kept a clean house, and she was there for me, intermittently, trying to console me and explain life lessons.

So I guess I had privileges. I almost never meet anyone who had such an impossible time forming secure bonds though. Even the couple people who come to mind who grew up with single mothers, no siblings, and emotional instability, managed to grow up in the same town until they left the nest and form lasting friendships as a result. I simply never knew that. As a universal rule, *everyone* I met would disappear and be replaced with new people, except my mother. It was like being in a cult, cut off from the outside world. And being given messages constantly, amidst a lot of crying and yelling and fighting, that I was some bad seed, a burden, the reason nothing could be stable.

Another aspect of my experience was that I was surrounded, always, by *also* white, fairly affluent, 50% male people who a) seemed to have so many things I did not, from families and BBQs and toys, mentors, nepotism opportunities, big houses… and b) as a class, seemed to taunt and bully me with absolutely no conscience. I was made to feel, in particular from grade 7 on, in Needham, like I didn’t matter and was just a horrible loser. Hell I remember when I expanded my social circles greatly with the discovering of drinking and drugging that even though my new friends often had experienced bullying and family dysfunction similar to my own, that they had often known each other for a decade or more and so had that sphere of support at least. I never did not feel like the outsider.

Meanwhile I had mixed feelings about the people I came from as well.

Both my parents, as well as my stepmother who was apparently a grad student taught my my father around the time I was born, had PhDs in English. Dad and Anne both became college professors — Anne would eventually head the English department for a number of years — while my mother became a professional writer for a series of companies. All three of them surrounded themselves with intellectual trappings and friends. Very progressive liberals, they all exhibited the value that one should be outspoken on politics rather than hide behind social etiquette. They loved classical music and the arts. My father had a collection of some 4000 records on vinyl, and played the piano amazingly well. By the time I was in my 20s he and Anne lived in a large house on the wooded outskirts of Athens where they had a grand piano in the living room and a full-sized harp on the split level crosswalk. They threw dinner parties with other professors and graduate students in English, Music, and other humanities at UGA. They loved to hang with their closest friends, David and Christie, and watch the works of David Lynch over beer and wine.

My father was the cliché absent-minded professor, and almost certainly would have been diagnosed as having Aspberger’s if he were born in a later generation. He could be astoundingly obtuse about human relations and was known for making awkward faux pass..es. However he was very affable and always joking — so many puns and spoonerisms — and though he could be shaking with anxiety sometimes, I can barely remember him ever becoming angry. He liked to take really long walks listening to a Walkman, and to hang out at coffee houses where students congregated. When I spent time with him on weekend or summer visits, he would talk to me about classical music, movies, literature, and art. He took me to swimming lessons when I was 10 or 11. I really liked chances to see him. He taught me to drive, completely illegally, when I was 13, on a stick shift no less.

Compared to some fathers, mine was great, for all of the above reasons. The downside however was that he left my mom and me as soon as I was born. He never called to talk to me when I wasn’t visiting him. So all my years in school, he was not a presence. When I did spend time with him, he never asked me about me. He was not interested it seemed in my experiences in school, or dating, or what was happening with my mother and me. Never asked, never came up. I didn’t see his nice house and lifestyle as part of my own life. It was more like getting to stay in a guesthouse.

Anne really didn’t want me in the picture. I was told from a young age that she had put constant pressure on my father to cut my mother and me completely out of his life. In the end she would get her wish, though I haven’t gotten that far in my story’s chronology. She and my father never had kids, never wanted them. Anne’s focus in academia was the gothic, including Mary Shelley and Bronte and, in her private reading time, all sorts of pulp fiction monsters and murder and such. She played the harp and liked to cook and garden. She rarely spoke to me when I was there. In fact most of my memories of being with them in summers was of staying up all night by myself watching TV, as I had no local friends and both Anne and my father were most often found sitting in silence reading, or listening to classical music. Anne collected Himalayan cats, which are Siamese/Persian blends.

My mother read a ton, had subscriptions to The Atlantic and the New Yorker and Harper’s and the like. She went to Unitarian Universalist churches through much of my life, singing in the choir. She was always working and would tell me on occasion that the reason she never found another partner after my dad was because it was so hard raising a kid. That much, I concede was maybe true. I don’t know much about the traumas she carried from her own childhood. She had grown up poor and an only child (whereas my father grew up affluent, son of a newspaper editor and nationally syndicated Op-Ed columnist; his sister became a children’s book illustrator).

Her father had served in the Army in WWII — I would only discover in 2015 while trying to piece together my family history on ancestry.com that he had served in the top secret Ghost Army, which was declassified in 1998. Her mother had worked for a period during the war as a Rosie Riveter of some sort, moving to NYC while her dad was overseas. Mom once recounted to me while I was breaking down as an adult, myself experiencing acute trauma, how one time her dad had held a knife to her throat… I never heard more about this. Her dad died when I was a toddler, as did my father’s father. Though I met my father’s mother a couple of times at Christmas visits as a small child — no one seemed to like her and she was a real crabby bitch of a person — my only grandparent I ever knew was my mother’s mother, Marge. She would write me long birthday and holiday cards and send me clippings from Christian readings or Reader’s Digest about the Power of Whatever. I felt like she was a source of spiritual wisdom, though I was never raised religious nor accepted any religion. Because she lived in Minnesota, 1000 miles away, I only really saw her some Christmases as we’d travel out West, and then maybe once or twice in my 20s. She died in 2008.

So what I know of my mother is that she had a childhood that was not great. She had apparently followed my father to college and then to graduate school, where they got married, and then in the span of 2-3 years, had me, lost this man she’d known 20 years, and her father died. I would learn in my 30s that at the time she began threatening suicide to me when I was 6-7, my father was marrying Anne.

So I had these parents who on the one hand were very erudite and upstanding members of their own communities, who had legitimately good values that I still align with myself, and who both had what I would consider successful careers, but who also seemed to have incredibly little interest in being parents. I guess with my mother, she tried and tried and wanted to be a good mother, but could never face her own demons enough to do the one thing I always asked of her, which was to get some therapy and apologize to me for the actions that so traumatized me. Instead, she made it a lifelong part of her identity that she was the poor long-suffering parent to a child with mental illness. She broadcast this to her church community and close friends. I could never get her to consider that maybe the reason her son struggled so much with depression and anxiety was because of how he grew up, including her abusive behavior, including being moved around constantly.

If I ever asked either parent about the other, or about why they separated, I would hear vague explanations about how “difficult” the other parent was. (Mom would often add that I was a very finicky baby…) I stopped asking, because one wants to think positively about their parents. And since I was in denial well into my late 20s that there might be anything wrong with my parents… The whole question of what had happened to my childhood I avoided. Instead I internalized that I was bad and wrong.

And so when I had to leave home completely at age 19, I felt pervasive shame as a human being, and a strong aversion to letting anyone get close enough to me that they might learn about where I came from, or what nebulous, undefined, yet completely real feeling thing was so wrong with me that my own parents seemed to not want me. Also I had a nice detour between finishing high school with high honors and starting college of being told in a mental asylum that I had no future in the world, would never have peers, was profoundly emotionally broken.

Choosing as I did, for whatever reason, to attend Brandeis University was maybe a bad choice. That’s for a next chapter.