My mother comes from a long line of smart, frustrated women who write venomous letters to their daughters. When I was a child, the arrival of my grandmother's letters to my mother always meant trouble for my siblings and me, who would take the brunt of her anger and hurt. My mother never confronted her mother, aside from not replying. She did, however, swear she would never follow the family tradition of writing poison-pen letters.
Now I am in my 40s, divorced and the mother of a college-age son who is in the midst of a late-adolescent rebellion that consists of not being in college or doing anything much at all. He has argued with his grandparents and, after a physical fight started by my father, no longer speaks to them. My elderly parents, in addition to denying that my father ever punched my son, blame me for the way he has turned out and insist that I have encouraged his behavior, when in fact I have done the opposite. And my mother has just written me a vicious letter -- not the first -- that puts all the blame for our family's ills on my shoulders.
She demands that I apologize for everything she accuses me of, including my son's behavior; I am not allowed to defend myself. And despite the fact that she verbally abused me all through my childhood, abandoned me at critical times and told me she wished I'd never been born, I'd be willing to do it, if not for the fact that it would solve nothing. My mother is a champion grudge holder, never forgiving anyone for their transgressions, so why would she change now? And having gotten away from my role as the family scapegoat and found real happiness, I am afraid that caving in to her demands would erase all I have achieved.
Through all of this, I have tried to maintain relations with my father, who I sense is more sympathetic, though ultimately he is on her side. I have maintained communication with both of them, calling them despite the frostiness of their reception. I have invited them to visit and gotten no response. My siblings are at best detached; at worst they side with my parents completely and don't speak to me.
I want to resolve this without betraying myself or my son, but how?
Yours is the story of the unjustly accused who will never get a trial, whose crimes are vague. Like all unjustly accused you are thrust out of society, forced to wander seeking justice. Unlike that wandering Fugitive played by David Janssen, however, whose crime was subject to laws of evidence, your crime is an existential one for which there is no standard of proof and no evidentiary defense. Hence you are simultaneously accused and condemned, denied a trial or even the opportunity to speak in your own behalf. And to be put through this ordeal not by a government from which one can dissociate oneself, but by one's own parents whom one cannot condemn because that is like condemning oneself ... what an inescapable trap!
Such an unjust accusation is not a charge but a curse; the source of its power is magical; it cannot be lifted by science; it cannot be satisfied by the payment of a fine or the doing of time or, as you rightly note, by apology.
Since it is a curse, beyond the realm of evidence, its cure can only be magical. Some curses can be reversed by being spoken backward. So tell the story backward: Write the letters that should have been written from mother to daughter. Write the letter, full of pain, that your mother ought to have written to you. In it, writing as your own mother, take responsibility for what she has done to you. And then write the letter her mother should have written to her, taking responsibility for her own crimes against her daughter. Then write the letter her mother should have written to her, taking responsibility, revealing the secrets, exposing the wounds repeated through the generations. Write these letters, going back and back and back until you are out of time and out of this world, until you have gone beyond the farthest grandmother and her travail, until you reach that crime of which no one can speak but which is the foul primordial fountain out of which all this hatred spills.
And what is that crime? Who knows. Perhaps it was something as simple as some spilled milk or a pilfered cow, or something as foul as incest or matricide or some whole family murdered in their sleep, or robbed by their children or set ablaze or burned at the stake or turned in to the state for their beliefs.
That is one kind of journey -- back into time -- that you must undertake to reverse this curse.
In struggling to reverse this curse you will have to wander, as you will not be accepted in your own home. But your son is your ally. That is why he fought your father. So take him with you as you wander. Do not condemn him for fighting on your behalf. While it may appear that he is doing nothing, he is struggling, like you, with this curse. Until it is lifted he will be stuck; he will not be able to act until this predicament is resolved, until he can see that his mother is safe. Through your magical backward telling of the primordial story, you will free your son from bondage. When he sees that his mother is safe, then he will be able to move on, go to college, do whatever he needs to do for himself.
The other journey you need to take is forward, writing through future generations, a letter to your son, a letter to his children, a letter to their children, explaining to them this awful curse and what to do should they encounter it. Tell them what you have learned about this curse, about its terrible danger, about how it can crop up when they least expect it; tell them how you fought it and felt that you had killed it but one never knows, really, about such things as curses.
When you have done these things, look around you and see if the curse is not lifted. Your mother and father may still act as they acted before, but their power over you should be lessened. That is the substance of the curse: Not their behavior, but its power over you.
Then look at your son. Tell him you are free. Tell him you will be OK, and let him go.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
What? You want more?