Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How much I mean to them

I want to talk more about my conversation with Florence. She starts talking about Sylvia and Tina and Barry, but I don't know who they are. Sylvia sounds familiar -- oh, she's my grandmother's sister. But Tina and Barry I've never heard of, apparently they’re Sylvia's kids and they all live in Gloucester, Massachusetts right by the ocean and it's beautiful. Tina doesn't usually live there -- she's been in the Peace Corps for years so she travels all over the world, most recently she was living in Darfur but then she got sick.

Then Florence is talking about helping Kim to find a house, Kim is her brother's daughter -- I used to see her once a year for Passover dinner, she's maybe five or 10 years older than me -- I can't remember. She was the smart and quiet one, that's how it seemed at least. Apparently Florence, who's a realtor, is helping Kim to find a townhouse, but Kim is really hard to please -- they've looked at 35 different places and Kim just made an offer, but Florence doesn't think the owner is going to make the repairs that Kim wants, so the deal probably won't go through. I ask where the townhouse is, apparently it's right by her parents’ house and she’s living alone, she used to do hospital management but now she's in computers. All of these relatives living right near their parents -- strange.

I'm kind of curious about all these relatives -- growing up, my parents didn't like any of them really -- they didn't even want us near their parents. Of course this is common for abusive families, but at the time they said they didn't want Florence, the 1980s high roller with a stockbroker husband, to influence us to become too materialistic, and they didn't want us around Rose, the artist, because she might encourage us to be too impractical. We had two choices: doctor or lawyer. At least those were my choices, as the overachiever child. I chose lawyer, because I liked to talk and I was good with logic, my skills developed from arguing with my father. When it became clear sometime in high school that there was no way I was going to become a doctor or lawyer, my parents presented another option, for the renegade: college professor. As long as I received an advanced graduate degree, they would allow me to go in a direction they saw as intellectually stimulating yet financially unrewarding.

It's true that Florence wanted me to be a stockbroker -- she encouraged me to look at Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, starting around fourth grade. And Rose did want me to be an artist when I was a kid, but later, when I decided to leave college after a year and this was the big family crisis -- how to keep me from wasting my life -- Rose said to me that she wished that she had finished her university degree instead of pursuing a career as an artist. Here was a woman who'd spent more than 50 years making a life and living as an artist, and she was throwing away that entire history in order to convince me to do something that disgusted me. When I was growing up, Rose was the only person I looked to as having any integrity, but her willingness to renounce her entire life story to satisfy the conventional narrative of upper middle class attainment made me sick, I mean it made me realize how she was just as caught up in status and respectability as the rest. It's true that she told my father, who wanted to be a writer, that then she would cut him off and he’d have to support himself -- she was proud of this anecdote, proud of succeeding in getting my father to do something he didn't want -- he chose the doctor option, I'm not sure if that was his only choice or if lawyer was on the table too. Maybe that same white table Rose has in her kitchen now, a round white table with center platform Jetsons-style, designed by the architect Mies van der Rohe is what my she says.

But back to Florence, she’s the one I'm talking to right now -- I'm interested in this information about relatives, because I've never really known them. I asked Rose to send me a family history scrapbook, so I could ask her questions, but I'm not sure whether she knows where it is. I told her where I thought it would be -- in the basement by the laundry machines, I remember seeing it there -- but she’s in a lot of pain so I'm not sure if she looked. When she's not in pain, she wants to paint -- it's why she's still alive -- I can understand that, sometimes I feel that way about writing.

So Florence is telling me about relatives, and she says something about how my parents never wanted us to visit her and why do I think that was? This is kind of like when my sister asks me why she doesn't remember her childhood. I say that's the way abusive families work, they want to keep everything secret. This is around when I'm talking about Nobody Passes, about the introduction where I talk about how kids used to call me sissy and Florence interrupts me before I can tell her what I say about her: it hurts me, is what she says. It hurts me to hear about things I can't change.

The truth is that you can change, you can always change -- maybe not what already happened, but the way that it's happening now. Florence was the one who came closest to acknowledging that I was sexually abused, when I confronted my father 12 years ago; I sent everyone in my birth family the same documentation, what I'd written about how and what I remembered, how it all impacted me, how I was healing. And saying that I would never speak to my father again unless acknowledged sexually abusing me, raping me, molesting me. I sent this to my mother, my four grandparents, and my sister, Express Mail so that it would arrive exactly at the time I was planning on confronting my father, so that he couldn't twist my words around -- it would all be there on paper.

So Florence came the closest to acknowledging it, she said is there any possibility that it didn't happen? I said no. She said then it had to be him, because there was never anyone else around.

But then she cultivated a relationship with him -- they'd never been friends before, but now she met him for dinner on a regular basis -- she spent more time with him than with my mother, who didn't like to see her. And she encouraged me to make things up with him, not because she didn't believe that he sexually abused me, but because it would be better for appearances. She would say: your life could be so easy if you made up with him. She meant financially, that's what mattered. Later, she would say: what if he was sick? What if he doesn't remember?

Keep in mind that this man who was my father, who still is my father I guess, bones in the ground under a stone, this man who maybe was sick, who maybe didn't remember -- as a well-respected psychiatrist with a career that continued to flourish, he had every possible access to coming to terms with sexually abusing me -- everything was open to him -- help, he could have said to any number of experts -- help me come to terms with what I've done! He chose never to even try. He tried calling a false memory syndrome specialist -- you know, the ones that assure the abusers that it's not their fault, that their children are to blame -- my mother even tried to get me to meet with this guy, before I knew he was a false memory syndrome specialist. She said he's so nice, you like him. They all got together -- my mother, the three grandparents because my father’s father had died, my sister -- to try to figure out what could be done about me. How they could get me back.

At one point my sister tried to defend me, the therapist shut her up right away: don’t you believe your father? Oh, right -- there was an emergency -- I was a hooker and I might get AIDS -- if I wasn't already dying, they had to save me. Maybe even if I was dying -- they'd bring me back, chain me to the hospital bed and pump AZT into my acne.

For a long time I talked about creating a chosen family to replace the horrible one given to me at birth, but now I'm not so sure about the word family. Is it worth reclaiming?

Everyone always said I was the most important thing to my father. The most important thing. I meant the most to him, the thing I could be: his. Florence says: it hurts me. Not: I'm sorry this happened. Not: I'm sorry I couldn't help. Not: what can I do now? Not: I want to understand. Just: this hurts me, I don't want to read it.

I gave them all an opportunity, an opportunity to support me and they didn’t. Eleven years went by -- never mind telling me they believed me, never mind telling him they remembered or that they wanted him to deal -- they couldn't even ask him what was true.

No comments: