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Family trauma and silence

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March 21, 2008

The following is a slightly edited version of an e-mail I sent my mother on May 29, 2007, when I felt I had made a breakthrough in my psychotherapy in relation to my relationship with and anger towards my father (who died in 2003).   For the umpteenth time over 35 years of therapy, I’d been revisiting that history, and recently I had been re-reading his memoirs with a new eye.

I have always felt that Dad wanted me to redeem his own life by how I lived mine.  I think that his lifelong guilt that he killed his mother (as I discussed with you when I first read the memoirs, and you validated), probably combined with some kind of guilt about the deaths of two brothers in the months before (and, I expect, the drama of his sister, Sylvia, ending up in a sanatorium because her care at home was overwhelming), and who knows what other imagined guilt before and after the deaths, drove this need for redemption.  (Whenever I talk about all this now, I get tears in my eyes—frustration and anger for Dad because he didn’t deserve this, should not have had his life driven by these events.  I don’t forget the abusive, unjustifiable consequences to me, but now they don’t haunt me.  I had a right to be angry, maybe for a long time, but I spent far too many years at it.)  As I re-read his memoirs, I see, for example, that he refers a number of times to “hurting” his mother, as in anecdotes about how he brought fauna home from Van Cortlandt Park.  The deprivation of tenement poverty all around him in his childhood comes through especially starkly to me on this reading.

I always felt that Dad wanted me to be an MD, and I remember how touchy he was about my childhood fantasies of what I’d be when I grew up.  I vividly remember, for example, how he blew up when I, about 13, said at the dinner table that I wanted to become a baseball announcer.

I don’t, however, have a memory that Dad nagged or extensively lobbied me about what he wanted me to be.  But I wonder if I didn’t pick up from him (from you, too?) a sense of what I shouldn't become, what wasn’t good enough for me, which ended up leaving few options.  I’ve never regretted the option I took by getting a Ph.D. (though I’m sorry I didn’t put it to better use), but while he expressed pride at my having done so, I always felt he was disappointed that I wasn’t a “real” doctor.

Then in a therapy session a few weeks back, reflecting on Dad’s giving me Paul de Kruif’s Microbe Hunters (in my teens, I think), I had one of those therapeutic flashes that come every once in awhile.  I had always thought the book was to encourage me to be an MD; but I suddenly realized that it wasn’t specifically about the great work of doctors but about dramatic, largely life-saving innovations in medical care. 

I think Dad needed me to do something that involved saving people, that ideally I would have a medical career that enabled me to discover how to save numerous lives, and that by doing so I would somehow make up for his having been unable to save his family members (and that probably includes Sylvia).  [Added March 21, 2008: This desire of his probably also had something to do with the kinds of volunteering and political activity I’ve undertaken in my life.]

I have always had the feeling that I must do something important in life, that I should be “famous”—a misguided sense of what my therapist, calls my “grandiosity”; and this sense has driven much of my feeling of failure in my life.  I have felt key successes in the most important areas of my life—raising my son largely on my own; getting a Ph.D.; and forging a happy relationship with Maxine—and lesser satisfying achievements like my acting (which I’m sure I would never have undertaken without Dad’s example).  But something important has felt lacking.

This concern has had a political dimension: I have often felt despair over my inability to change the world, over unforgivable injustices everywhere, everyday, that contrast starkly with my own (and others’) fortunate position in life.  This frustration feels exactly parallel to how I experience Dad’s loss of his mother and brothers when I read the memoirs.

I also think that, for many different reasons, a significant number of people, probably a majority, have parallel issues to mine that cause easy resentment and anger and self-doubt and— sometimes, especially for many minorities, with justification—feelings of victimization.  My need is not to set myself apart, or continue as I’ve been just because others are in the same boat, but to gain understanding that helps heal me, to make the most of whatever years I (and Maxine) still have.

Of course, it doesn’t matter whether my “understanding” is right but that, even if mistaken, it (so far) is having a profound healing effect on me.

As we were discussing these matters, my therapist (to whom I read some of the memoirs) told me about a psychoanalytic theory that traumas can be passed from one generation to another by silence.  In my case, I take this to mean that what I interpret as Dad‘s guilts got passed on to me with little or no discussion, that largely or wholly unconsciously he exuded them in a way that I unconsciously internalized.

(In this context, I should note that I have understood for some time that much of what happened to me as a child has had a schizoid effect on who I am: it left painful marks which I have struggled to heal as an adult, but it also guided me in strengthening directions, like supportive sensitivity to people and a radical political analysis of the world.  Similarly, and more obviously, I think parents pass along positive silent messages about how children should behave in life.)

Mother’s Day weekend was a couple of days after the first therapy session addressing these ideas.  That Saturday in Manhattan I suddenly starting noticing the high frequency with which I feel affronted by others’ behavior—how someone mis-drives or mis-parks, how people get in my way on the sidewalk or cut ahead of me at a subway turnstile, how petty injustices to me (and sometimes others) proliferate around me.  I realized I was feeling bombarded almost every moment by one affront or another caused by some other person’s not following “the rules” as I have them in my head.  (They're not necessarily even bad rules, but their quantity and pervasiveness are debilitating—and exhausting.)  Each time I started to get annoyed now, this awareness led me to respond within several seconds by reminding myself that here was another example of my need to transform the world (it also reflects needs like always having to be right and my resentment at perceived interference with my autonomy, but these are older truths and for the moment less important).  No sooner, it seemed that day, had I defused one affront than I experienced a new one, defused it, and so on over and over.  That is, the understanding did not stop the visceral reaction, but it was now giving me a tool to manage that reaction. 

I marveled at how I could have lived my life that way—especially before I went on an anti-depressant, which greatly relieved that sense of steady assault (which had mostly taken the form of a racing mind constantly passing judgment on the world and myself).  Yet I also started to feel liberated.  Even though I couldn't stop the seemingly constant affronts, the sense of control in response was…thrilling.  For the first time in many, many years I started to feel that I can actually enjoy NY City (because I can manage what has made it so infuriating to me).

This same dynamic, with much slower resolution, was happening the next day when I got angry with the maitre d’ at the Brooklyn restaurant where we ate for Mother's Day.  My behavior then, I think, was exacerbated by being with family members (soon including Alan, who shares this family trait) who reacted similarly, and by the unconscious feeling that I had to take care of you and Judi (why, I don’t know exactly—but it surely has origins in Dad’s messages, sometimes explicit but always prevalent, that I should take care of you in particular and women in general).  When I finally realized what I was doing, I first stepped back; and then, when Alan, Judi, you and the maitre d’ were all talking at once, without thinking I shouted, “Everybody stop!”  Somewhat to my wonder, everybody did.

Though superstitiously fearful that I will let slip the benefit of these recent insights, in the days since then I have continued to build on them, and if anything the affronts, though still easy to feel, are less powerful, and the speed with which I defuse them gets faster.  Throughout this time I have been far more at peace, much less besieged with (often amorphous) anxiety.  [Added March 21, 2008: I have not (yet) lost those benefits, and am much better now than I was last May--without needing to review the memories of what I learned.]

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