Except in the most self-referential way, this isn't a Good Friday post. I'm saying that up front so you can choose whether to read it.
Sherry, at A Feather Adrift, wrote a thoughtful post yesterday about the moment on the cross when Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" If you are interested in a theological reflection of the day, I recommend the post to you.
On a personal note, I woke up this morning realizing that I am living in fear of experiencing just such a moment.
I am having trouble sleeping lately. Doing the Artist's Way has stirred up some very old issues, and I am quite intentionally and methodically violating some old internal taboos.
I've written before that my mother is narcissistic and that one reason I struggle with my artistic calling is that I expect the world to be as indifferent to whatever I accomplish as she was.
That is only half the story. The other half is so filled with pain and shame that I thought I would never discuss it here. Well, I've decided to do it.
I will never know what happen to damage my mother so badly, but she is a very wounded woman, and she waited 17 years to have a daughter that she could ask to fill her needs. What she didn't expect is that I would turn out to be a strong-willed little person who would have her own sense of what she wanted to do and who she wanted to be. And as I was growing up, whenever I did something that my mother found unbearably wounding or threatening (and these things were not outright rebellion, mind you, but normal kid stuff), she would set out to reel me back in by emotionally annihilating me.
I know how harsh and crazy that sounds, so I'll share a couple of stories to demonstrate what I'm talking about. These are from the story I recently wrote, which is the first time I've ever attempted to tell the emotional truth of living with my mother. Even though they come from a story, they are not fiction. They are the life I lived.
I was six years old, and my first-grade class at school was in a frenzy of excitement because the new movie Mary Poppins, starring Julie Andrews, was about to come to town. The three first-grade teachers had spent weeks reading us the Mary Poppins stories because all three classes were going to go watch the movie during a school day as a field trip. Once I turned in my permission slip, I could think of little else. At the grocery store, Mom bought me one of the Mary Poppins stories, which had been issued by Golden Book, and I spent hours poring over the illustrations because, even though I was an advanced reader for my age, I couldn’t manage the text. Instead I used the pictures to remind myself of the stories I’d heard in school. I loved the character of Mary Poppins and thought her magic, which always set things right, was the most wonderful thing in the world.
The Sunday before the outing, I was lying on the living room floor looking at a page that showed blossoming fruit trees on Cherry Tree Lane. Mom came in and asked me to do some minor chore, and I said, “Can’t I do it later? I don’t want to do it now”
The eruption was instantaneous. In a towering fury, she began to enumerate all the many things she did for me that she didn’t want to do, and she called me a terrible, ungrateful daughter. I stared at her silently with tears running down my face. It was the first time I could ever remember her treating me that way, although I had seen her fury towards my father and older brothers often and been horrified by it. I didn’t know the story of Medusa at that young age, but when I learned it later, I realized how apt the legend was. In a horrifying instant, the face of the mother I loved had turned into a vicious monster who hated me. In the face of such a terrifying transformation, I was paralyzed with fear.
Then she paused in the midst of her tirade as though struck by a thought, and a look of satisfaction crossed her face. “I’ll teach you a lesson. I won’t let you go to the movie.”
At that moment in my six-year-old life, there was nothing she could have taken from me that would hurt half so much. Her announcement shocked me into words at last. I pleaded, I said I was sorry, and I promised to do what she had asked of me. She refused to relent. In fact, the more I begged, the less she looked at me. (As as aside, my mother always hated how easily I cried and did her best to shame me into not crying. I wouldn't let her take that from me.)
The only thing I could think of was to turn to my father. I ran downstairs and found him in the basement, sorting various sized screws into old baby food jars, an activity he did when he was hiding from my mother. Through my sobs, I told him what had happened, and he immediately went upstairs. I never heard what he said to Mom or she to him, but the following day I went to the movie with my classmates. Yet even though I was able to partake of the long-awaited treat, the joy of it was spoiled for me.
After that, an undercurrent of fear always colored our relationship. And yet I loved my mother too and desired desperately to make her happy. I bought her chocolates at Christmas and made her tissue flowers whenever she went to the hospital. When I was 9, I single-handedly cooked Mother's Day dinner for ten people, and at about the same age I started making surprise Easter baskets for everyone in the family. And I worked harder than ever in school. Rarely did I feel that any of my efforts made a difference.
For some reason that I still don’t understand, after the Mary Poppins incident, I never again asked Dad to intervene with Mom, even though similar episodes occurred several times during my childhood. As I grew older and tested my independence, my mother’s attacks on me became at least an annual occurrence.
Even leaving home wasn’t enough to break the pattern. My freshman year of college, my parents drove the 80 miles to visit me one Sunday. Usually, they left for home again not long after we’d had supper because they got up early on workdays. During that particular visit, I casually asked if they knew how long they were going to stay because friends had invited me out for pizza at seven, and I wanted to give them an answer. My mom got quiet, but she said nothing except that she guessed they’d go home about six.
Two days later, the letter arrived. “Obviously, your friends mean more to you than I do,” she had written. “Now I realized where I stand with you. I will always love you, but don’t bother to consider yourself my daughter anymore. You just go ahead and live your own life. Maybe someday you will understand everything we’ve sacrificed for you.”
By then, my role in responding to such an assault was well learned. I called her immediately, and over the phone, I apologized, explained, pleaded, and sobbed. She listened stonily and would not reconcile. I called again the next night and the night after that. I don’t remember exactly how many days she made me grovel, but I do know that she never once said, “I forgive you,” the words I so desperately needed to hear. Instead, one night she answered the phone and just began to talk as though nothing had happened.
These were not two isolated incidents but a pattern of something I experienced again and again from the time I was a very young child to the time I finally confronted her when I was about 25. Just the simple act of telling her calmly that this kind of treatment angered me was enough to activate her own deep-seated terror of abandonment and rejection, and she never did it to me again. But by then the damage was done.
To survive that childhood I kept my wants and my hopes and my plans for my life underground and I pursued them with little discussion. My goal was to stay under the radar so my mother wouldn't detect that I was "betraying her." You see, I could never tell ahead of time what action on my part would trigger one of her attacks on me, so I got straight As in school, acted responsibly around the house, took church seriously, never once fought with my mother, and tucked my dream of living independently and being a writer in the edges of my life that remained.
Now that I'm doing the Artist's Way and I'm being more forthright about my artistic identity and I'm pursuing it more openly, I'm feeling a lot of old fear.
Put simply, I am afraid that if I haven't read God's mind correctly, if I am being too willful, too independent, and too selfish, that he will either turn his face from me as he did from Jesus on the cross or suddenly and arbitrarily turn the face of rage on me as my mother used to do.
The prospect absolutely scares me to death. Now, mostly the adult part of my personality believes that I should be pursuing the course of using my gifts more fully. It is that inner child who lived for so long with the fear of being disowned that is frightened.
I think the only thing I can do is to be patient and loving with her as I doggedly pursue my course.
My other fear is that even if I pursue my art more intentionally, nothing will change and I will still get as many rejections and from that I will conclude that I have displeased God. To counter that, I'm trying to change my mental construct for what I want out of this process. That is another complicated subject that I'm not ready to write about, but I mention it so that no one will think I'm indulging in magical thinking and assuming that once I get past this emotional hurdle, publication and monetary success will fall in my lap. I'm not.
I'm just trying to release myself from a very old fear. I want to believe that I can embrace what I believe to be my right identity and not suffer the horror of God's abandonment. I want to believe that what I will hear instead is, "This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased."