My mother is a very sweet woman. She turns 71 in a few days. I won't be able to see her for her birthday, because of the Covid quarantine, and I feel bad about that. And I didn't see her for Easter, though that one is not such a big deal. So I called her to wish her happy Easter, check up on her and all that.
We talk easily. We both can talk a lot but mostly I leave that up to her these past years. I wouldn't say the roles have exactly reversed... she's still my mother and there's a certain dynamic that will always remain (parent:child, etc.), but as the years go on, and more of mine are in the rear view mirror and I am less emotionally entrenched in the lives and past of my family, I get more and more clarity. And one of these (shall I call it an epiphany?) happened this weekend. I think my mother has a victim mentality. In fact, I'm sure of it.
She is very nice most of the time. We've been close all my life. Many people think I am her favourite person in her life. I give her grief, a fair bit of it, but we have a relationship that has mostly stayed intact, and in contact. I moved out of the country for a decade and a half, and I have not lived in the same town as her in more than 25 years now, but she is a phone talker, loves it, so it has not been so much of a problem. Aside from missing each other and losing track of each other's day to day, preferences, and such, and a ten year period of horrendous friction with her current spouse, it's been a fairly consistent relationship between she and I.
The backstory: She fell in love with my dad young, as a teenager. He was a university student doing room & board in her mother's multi-level run down house. This was love by proximity. He was a blonde and blue eyed Brit. I could see the physical appeal. It didn't take long. Birth control was difficult to get back then, and it was an even bigger deal to get pregnant unwed. Her big line is, "I was as scared to get pregnant, as to not get pregnant." Meaning, she was afraid to have kids, but was a bit more afraid not to have them. It was a different time. She was born in Germany not long after WWII and there was a lot of devastation. Russian soldiers were raping young German girls, food was scarce, money was even scarcer, potatoes really did keep an entire generation alive, and many of the children thought of themselves as orphans on the run. She was not an orphan, but she imagined it as such. Her mother and brother and sister were at one point running for their lives. But they survived. My Great Great Aunt is in fact still alive, almost 95 now. She attributes that to being able to laugh, have fun, sing a song. She and my Oma did this all the time. "Ah, the good ol' days" (during the war.)
So I say all this is because I believe it very much factors in to who she became. My family on that side were poor immigrants to Canada (and the other side were slightly less poor immigrants from England. Interestingly, both my parents came over on a big boat that took weeks to arrive, at the ripe age of 9.) They had next to nothing. My mother, though somewhat gifted with language, only knew "Danka, bitte, sorry, hi" ("Thanks, sorry", for the non-Germans.) My grandfather was about as eccentric a guy as you could get, almost never spoke, mumbling in the basement. Poring over astrology maps, grumpy, nose in a book. He was a mechanic by trade but never formally trained in anything so had only a series of odd jobs like gardening throughout his life. But one thing he probably did get right was his ambition to move for a better life. Canada: a beacon of fresh air, mountains, and lots of potential. If you can get past the snow. (B.C. being all full up, they settled in Alberta. That ain't for sissies.)
His wife was very reluctantly dragged along on this adventure. She never really quite fully recovered from the shock of it. She barely wrote English and her speaking was nominal, even after 60+ years. Her husband was 10 years older. ("Big mistake. Don't do that.") He died 40 years ago. She wasn't so much devastatingly upset at losing him - they were never very compatible (the playful simple one, and the serious cerebral one), and she was eventually a bit relieved to have more freedom to be who she was. But she was always a nervous, timid one. Lots and lots of anxiety. And she had my mother, her oldest, and two boys. The boys got spoiled, got away with murder, almost (there's a story there but it's not for public consumption.) My mother was put into action, as girls always (and maybe still) are. She was Mommy #2. She got her revenge by dressing them up in dresses and pushing them around in strollers with bows and ribbons. She seemed suited enough to motherhood.
But I now believe that all this upheavel, and instability, and struggle, along with a certain genetic makeup and propensity towards nervousness, made her unsure. (She also believes it was puberty around 14 that turned her system upside down and she never recovered. It began a long road grappling with depression as well. This hormone imbalance theory is not an uncommon one.) There were not as many options for girls back then. Teacher, nurse, stay-at-home-mother. (In fact, I've had six, count 'em six, teachers in my family - the career de rigeur after the war.) She never had a career. Probably the biggest achievement, or rather proudest, of her life was working at the university book store when she was a teenager (she was always an avid reader - a great means of escape, for one, and a way to live vicariously through others, as a second great benefit.) So, she settled into motherhood. Had two of us, girls. I couldn't possibly get into even a fraction of the details about all this, but the tl;dr is that she got 'accidentally/on purpose' (as she likes to say) pregnant. (The 'pull-out' method of birth control is not birth control! It should more aptly be called 'Russian roulette.') An abortion was thought of, but too risky (back alley tragedies and all that.) Some girls were sent out of town, they just disappeared for a while. The belly was too disgraceful. But my mother stayed with her family, and as humiliated as all four parents were, a baby was born.
And then 'the event': she was coerced into giving the baby up for adoption. Very, very coerced. Amid all the tears, she finally signed the papers. It was done. But wait. A rare moment of conviction, and f-you, all. I changed my mind. I won't let you do this to me. She's mine. It's my decision. Now bugger off. But my sister heard about this (wicked, uncouth grandparents who initiated all of this were the ones as well to reveal the big secret, strangely, but they blamed it on my mother this time.) She never forgave my mother. Some say she has abandonment issues. She might be over it by now. I know she went into counselling and said it was helpful. But one thing's for sure, their relationship has suffered, and with all the things that happened after (and there were a lot of them), the relationship is barely still standing today. But that's another story (probably not to be told.)
It would not do my mother, nor my family justice to summarize the next multiple decades. And I'm not sure I ever will publicly. But you can see from just the tip here, that the roots of doubt, and insecurity were set. They took hold of her, and wrapped around her in such a way that I now believe nearly strangled her, but maybe at the time it felt like they were holding her up, supporting her in some strangely symbolic way. She is not one of these 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger' people. Neither am I. Maybe it's our constitution, or ideas passed down through the generations. Maybe we'll never know where it originated.
I won't even get into my father's side. They are quite different, though not without their own scars and weaknesses (like everyone has.) I am far less close to them, both in geography and temperament. But add to this two divorces, one estrangement, no career and therefore no financial stability, alcoholism, dependence on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety meds et al, and then came a host of major, debilitating, chronic health problems that only became worse, and worse, and worse. A particular phobia (snakes, but there are others encompassed within generalized anxiety) led to agoraphobia (debilitating fear of public spaces and people) and not leaving the house, which led to complete and total immobility, which only exacerbates one's feelings of co-dependence on others (much to one's chagrin.) My husband calls it a classic case of 'learned helplessness.'
So this is the birth of a human who has no stability, no solid foundation on which to stand. Her second husband was far more volatile than the first. With the first, she and he were extremely incompatible (a product of geography more than ideologies and interests), and with the second, their minds were aligned on more things, but it was also not a match. And because he was a doctor (psychiatrist), with a scripts pad next to the night stand, he passified her, since he couldn't fix her. He would have been the second man content to live in the mountains, but her snake phobia kept her at home, the mountains behind us instead. Now to be fair, he was actually the cause of a lot of her problems for those next 25 years. (Remember Indiana Jones? "He has chosen poorly", melting away once the chalice was drunk.) Oh, and my father ran off to Europe when she was pregnant with his child. How f'd up is that? And when he came back, he decided to drop out of university (majoring in the lucrative field of botany), instead going into carpentry, and eventually was able to buy a very basic, cheap plot of land; and he did mostly live off of it, just like he wanted. Now two children, running around a half-built house, nails and power tools everywhere - ah well, that's life! "Legos? Too expensive! I need some more 2x4s and a Skilsaw.")
As long as you think this is, it's not nearly long enough to explain even one person's life, let alone all the others involved. But perhaps this tip of the iceberg is enough to illustrate that a victim is created by a potent mixture of circumstances (both local and global), genetic makeup, and lack of... fortitude and motivation, perhaps, in getting past one's past, one's demons, and others who may have their own best interests at heart, not yours. She is not a bad person by any means. But she knows only how to glorify a few small accomplishments, and remind others of how difficult it all was, and how her life was driven and led by others, particularly the men of her life. She is right they all did some really, really shit things. Infidelity, physical abuse, financial control and tightwadness (yeah I made that up), no child support, abandoning her in her time(s) of need (of which there were many)... the list goes on. She was truly a victim of their decisions, so many of them. But I am not so naive as to think that she was also not a person with agency. And if she had really, really wanted, or if she was more emotionally equipped, she could have chosen other people, different people more suited to her. Or no one at all. Or she could have left. Or she could have found better ways to communicate what she needed and wanted, and not allowed herself to be dragged along on these caravans to places she never wanted to go. In many ways, it is what women simply did. But I see other women, having made other choices, and I know intellectually and logically that they could have been hers. It just wasn't in the cards, wasn't in her. Are we all fully formed humans, pretty much who we are in childhood? Well to most, the answer is 'no', we have the ability to change, to grow, to become.
My mother's approach to life might have been a bit more akin to Margery Williams and 'The Velveteen Rabbit' (my favourite children's book.) In essence: Once you are loved, really really loved, you are real. I think she thought her salvation, her purpose, was in these men (now three of them, and a sprinkling of a couple of others), and to a much, much lesser degree, raising a couple of kids. But she chose the men more than us, I can say that now without the bitterness I once had as a teenager. She made decisions based on what would work for them, even if it meant serious blowback for us, which it did. I fully recognize the difficulty of her situation... situations. She had more than a handful of the biggest challenges one can ever face. But all the other players are happier in their life. They came out the other ends, less scarred. Whereas her body is now crippled from the weight of it all. I feel so sad for her, how much physical pain she is in. It's heartbreaking for anyone to see. I've asked her many deep and probing questions, but her answers have always been vague, abstract, and her path to get to these answers and kernels of wisdom and insight I was seeking, circuitous. She is the antithesis of shallow, but the epitome of ambiguous and even evasive when it comes to matters of the self.
We argued over the weekend again. I feel bad. We ended up going down memory lane, and I was regaled with stories of her being abandoned while pregnant, her hard earned money used to pay the bills while her boyfriend went galavanting in Europe, and how the food prepared for her these days is usually burnt (which it is - the current man doesn't care for cooking much. He has philosophical fish to fry instead.) And I noticed, once again, how her stories are missing her own accountability, the responsibility of her decisions. She has told the stories to me all my life, of what has been done to her, of how these eccentric men (and yes, they truly are all very eccentric) have impacted her life. She and I can get past our differences and conflict eventually. I drive her absolutely insane with my requirement for details - names and dates and oh, you know, facts. "Oh, I don't remember!" Well I don't know if she ever did. I think she has selective memory. I think they don't enhance or buoy her narrative. So she tells the stories that she does remember, that make sense to her, that fit, like tidy, sharply cut, well-formed puzzle pieces. The mind wants to sort and organize everything. It doesn't like mental detritus. If it was an OS it would be filing files each and every night, into the circuitry attached to H.A.L. in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (A modern day yet simpler example would be Wall-e.) So I theoretically understand her desire - no, her need - to organize all of it as such. But now that I'm at roughly the half-way point in my life (or maybe a lot further, whatever) I see it as also some mental laziness. Emotional laziness. Ego laziness.
Is there a difference between being a victim of circumstance and a victim of another person, when no weapon is used to threaten (well in her case, at times it was), no binding agents used? There is a very legitimate syndrome known as 'Stockholm.' But I believe probably before she was trapped by circumstance - limited options, and the preferences of these men - she was trapped by her own mind. There is also the concept of the self-imposed prison. One cannot examine who they are without deeply exploring the distinction between the real world limitations of the external, and those that are actually internal (not that I am in any way discounting the heft of the internal.)
It takes no time at all in getting to know me to understand that I find matters of the mind quite fascinating. They can be, and have been, crippling, but once out of darkness they become, once again, a curiosity. I can look at artists' visual products of their own struggles with this, and I am impressed and fortunately not irreversibly disturbed by them. I've seen many things. I've experienced many as well. I am cynical, skeptical, glass half-full, but also maybe surprisingly in a state of resolute acceptance about it all. I can't watch certain movies about loss (either through paths diverged, or death) without a fairly complete and uncontrollable outpouring of empathy - no, sympathy, and a box of tissues, but as much as I have previously not seen a light at the end of the tunnel... in fact I couldn't even get off the floor to get into the tunnel... I haven't lived through the same difficulties my mother has. Maybe that impacted me. I'm really not sure. Perhaps we all have our own journey to live, and we should not compare our suffering to others, no matter how unlucky or fortunate we are.
But all I can say in conclusion, because this has to end at some point without even close to the entire story being told, is that I wish for everyone else to find the clarity they need to see the forest through the trees. Don't take only what people say at face value. Look beneath. Get a shovel, if you need to. Read. Read about people - individuals, society, biographies, autobiographies, history. Look at the interconnectedness of it all. Have compassion. But also keep in mind the adage about a grain of salt. We can still have compassion and empathy for others' experience, while not swallowing it whole, hook, line, and sinker. Even if some people want to delude themselves into thinking it was the actions of others that led their life astray, it is up to each of us to be discerning, with a hint of skepticism, and maybe a little dash of Detective Pikachu. There are moral hazards everywhere. And no one should have to throw their coat down in a puddle for you. Chivalry is beautiful, and I hope it is never completely eradicated, but a foundation is much stronger standing on your own two feet, than riding on the coat tails of others. To be a victim, in any other context besides a judicial one, to label yourself as such is a dangerous and detrimental thing indeed. Sympathy is short-lived. In reality, it only holds you back, it limits you in ways that are so far-reaching, one might just float off and be too far away to ever come back down to earth. I wouldn't wish that on anybody. But I'm not them, I'm not you. I'm just someone who has always had a propensity towards analyzing the world, I guess. It started small, in a very, very rural town that took two ferries to arrive at (thanks, Dad), and so maybe it's not so surprising that it took me quite a few years to stop laughing and shaking my head about the fact that I eventually spontaneously made my way to the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles, and lived there for so many years. No one is tying your feet. You might have children, or family who needs you, or be indebted to a job that you are entrenched in, but apart from these practical and very real scenarios, if you are still young, you are relatively unbounded, chances are. And even if you never see the world, never travel, never set foot on any hallowed ground, your mind is where the real freedom lies. You can be a bird uncaged. The door is open. Fly. If you want to.
Real isn't how you are made. It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become Real. It doesn't happen all at once. You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes dropped off, and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real, you cannot be ugly, except for people who don't understand."
- Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit
Out Beyond Ideas
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other, doesn’t make any sense.
- Mewlana Jalaluddin Rumi