Tying the Knots

A series of vignettes strung on a chain, now broken.

My mother just wanted a “normal” girl; maybe it was that entrenched social conformism. By 5th grade she kept stressing this idea, so I observed what girls were interested in, which was horses and romances. Therefore I ordered one each of horse and romance stories from the Weekly Reader book club, and found them to be profoundly disinteresting. I could not fathom either the attraction or the point! When I was a high school freshman, Mom decided that I lacked femininity and grace, so enrolled me in a “charm school” held at Sears & Roebucks, where we were taught the proper way to apply makeup, walk with a book on our heads, kneel to pick up an object from the floor while wearing miniskirts, sit down in a dainty and discreet manner, curtsy and such. Somehow this failed to make me more normal.

Shopping for my clothes invariably provoked more complaints; I was “so picky” about clothes, meaning there are many fabrics I cannot stand to touch or wear, not to mention the collar tags (which I now remove). I remember getting overwhelmed at the department store as a child, one of those seriously old-fashioned places with an elevator operator, glass display cases of merchandise, multiple floors of merchandise, and pneumatic tubes slinging upstairs to the cashier’s cage. One department, or maybe the dressing rooms, had high-contrast vertical striped wallpaper that gave me slithery-jangling-willies. Sometimes the floor seems to ripple; busy surfaces like speckled/tweedy commercial-grade carpeting or color-streaked linoleum or striped wallpaper acquire a quivering aspect, like wavelets upon great bodies of water. I know from repeated experiments (done as a child) that these surfaces do not really ripple or undulate, so I generally ignore the effect, but sometimes it takes me by surprise. I get vertigo and things seem to spin around, or close distances yawn far away from me. Mom hated dragging me with her, because I’d want to hide in the center of the circular coat rack, muffling out the noises and smells and colors in the darkness and comfortingly-heavy pressure of yards of dense fabrics. I was just trying to cope with the sensory overload, but all she could see was that I was being disobedient and an embarrassment to her from by attracting attention to my weird behavior …

Unfortunately, in the long run my mother seemed more concerned with assigning blame than resolving problems, and she decided that my long-standing academic difficulties were due to rebelliousness; I was just “acting out.” One day in high school, after I handed over the dreaded report card, she grounded me with the fierce proclamation that “All children rebel, but you are doing it ALL WRONG!” For her, there was one way things were supposed to be, and I did not fit her expectations: granted I didn’t drink or do drugs, but I also didn’t date, didn’t drive, and didn’t excel in school, sports or social activities.

There I was trying to rationally understand how people thought and interacted, and instead I had someone who was (alcoholic and) inconsistent, inexplicable, and unpredictable. I kept trying to wrap my head around making sense of what she said and did, and kept getting my mind tangled up in Laingian knots. What I needed was access to strategies that would allow me to learn how to meet my own needs. Instead, what I got was a denial that those needs existed. She could not, or would not understand that my needs were different than hers. Her denial, disbelief, or dismissal caused me to doubt my own self-understanding, and thus prevented me from helping myself. Years later I finally understand her actions as being narcissistic, for all she asserted that she was only trying to prove to others how hard she worked to “help” me. It wasn’t just about her “not understanding” that I was different, it was about my not being able to give her what she needed. It was all about what she needed. Repeatedly, the scenarios played out, as she:

  • Told me how I “really” felt emotionally or physically, or told me that I could not possibly be feeling something, that indeed I actually was feeling.
  • Discouraged questions, saying that they were either stupid, or that I didn’t need to know such things, or that everyone knew about ((whatever), and that I was foolish for bothering her to ask about things.
  • Asserted that I must be either crazy, lying or on drugs when I described experiencing colors while listening to music.
  • Said I was being “too picky” because I could not stand to wear some kinds of fabrics, or got sore spots on my neck from collar tags, or could not stand to have my bedroom curtains open on sunny days, or could not stand the noise when some kinds of woodshop machinery were being used.
  • Delivered me curious “compliments” that did not feel like such, “You know, if you just wore a little makeup, you might be kinda pretty.”
  • Denigrated my interests as being stupid because they were not “normal”; I should be buying cute hair ties or makeup instead of a Latin dictionary or an antique volume on structural design & engineering by the National Park Service.
  • Told me, “Don’t listen to what I say, listen to what I mean!” (This to someone who misses out on so much unspoken dialog?)
  • Took to red-inking my personal diary and creative writing efforts for grammatical errors, ridiculed my social concerns as being absurd, and the story plot ideas as being stupid.
  • Periodically would go through my locker, purse, notebook or bedroom contents in an effort to find something incriminating (drugs I did not use, or notes from non-existent boyfriends), and then accused me of being devious because she could not find anything.
  • Would not admit when she was wrong; I was obviously confused, or lying, or making things up.
  • Accused me of stealing clothes when my Spanish teacher gave me one of her used blouses, then changed her story and said I had been lying to the teacher and misrepresenting myself as poor and neglected.
  • Considered my expressing frustration as being “rebellious.”
  • Disbelieved my scholastic problems when I tried to explain them to her, but then turned around and saying that I had been “hiding” problems when teachers or my school counselor told her about bad grades from unfinished tests, missing assignments, jumbled math homework, bad spelling and such.
  • Asserted that my problems from bullies were all because I had “brought it upon myself” and was causing the bullying, and simply being “whiny” and “just trying to get attention” when I told the problems to various teachers and the school principal.
  • Ridiculed my concerns about scholastic problems, and demanded good grade results but would not accept the fact that I needed help to achieve those goals, saying that my lack of results was due to merely being lazy and not trying hard enough.
  • Convinced others that that my problems were burdens that I created intentionally for her out of rebelliousness.
  • Denied my problems or belittled them as being much less important than any of her own problems.
  • Complained about the cost/ shopping effort/ need for basic school items (such as a required style of gym socks or graph paper for geometry class) as though these were unusual demands I had invented just to make her life more difficult.
  • Assigned guilt by association – badmouthing my father (her ex-husband) saying I was just like him.
  • Curtailed contact with others (my teachers or counselor, interest clubs) and discouraged me from doing things on my own, then said I couldn’t do things because I had no experience or skills.
  • Gave me responsibility and consequences of things getting done, without giving me the means to do them effectively.

As ever, she was more concerned with finding faults and assigning blame than with resolving problems, because it was all about “saving face” on her part. It was my fault; she was trying so heroically to help me, but I was just being stupid or stubborn or rebellious. “Damnit Andrea, you know what your problem is? You don’t have any self-confidence! That’s just so pathetic!”

Although I now understand the essential errors in this denial, disbelief, and dismissal, these kinds of statements are still things I run into once in a while, from other people. It is a shame, really. Once I began to make sense of the world, I kept trying to change the family dynamics, to improve things, to help her understand, but she actively resisted change, even on those rare occasions when she would acknowledge that things were not right. But, you cannot make people what you want them to be.

You can’t change the past, but you can change how you react to it.

3 Comments

  1. Anne said,

    26 August 2006 at 23:10

    Thirty years ago my husband and I lived in the flat on the top floor of a building in San Francisco that, except for our flat, was a boarding house for women. There were lots of elderly women living in single rooms there. When I came down the stairs in the morning to go to work, some of these women would come out and comment on my appearance. One would say, “If you would just wear a little makeup, you would look pretty.” The next floor down, another one would say, “You shouldn’t wear so much makeup, you look like a hussy.”

    Oh, well, your piece just reminded me of that!

    You can’t make people what you want them to be. Amen to that.

  2. qw88nb88 said,

    26 August 2006 at 19:20

    Perhaps too long a litany. But it’s hard to describe “in 25 words or less”. As isolated as I was socially, I had no one to discuss things with. At the time I couldn’t untangle the mental knots the whole mess created — I simply knew that something was very, very wrong.

  3. Catana said,

    26 August 2006 at 19:09

    YoW! What a litany of misery. I reached a point where I was really grateful that my relationship with my parents was mostly one of benign neglect. Except for trying to pressure me into getting better grades “because we know you can,” and forcing me to accept a couple of party invitations, I think they were fairly satisfied that a daughter with her nose always in a book wasn’t going to get into trouble. My rebellion was one of passive resitstance. I guess they never figured it out. At least I was never told that I was doing it wrong. :-)


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