magical thinking

This entry is part 2 of 19 in the series Memoir

When I first started writing this weblog I didn’t think it would last long. I’d put down what advice I had for people trying to get started, and when that petered out, I’d stop. Things evolved, as they tend to do, and now this weblog in all its glorious messiness is the way I keep in touch with my readers. Or at least, the readers who are comfortable in front of a computer.

I’ve reviewed books and movies, written about pov and plot and dialog and editors and a hundred other things. I’ve answered questions. To promote my own stuff I’ve given away piles and piles o’ books, not all of them mine. I’ve commented about subjects raised on other weblogs. There have been a couple kerfuffles, but in the greater scheme of things, none of them have been of any real importance. I have made a lot of friends, and a couple non-friends, in the internet sense of such things.

Sometimes I have used this space to tell the family stories that I wanted to record for posterity. If you come here with any regularity you know about the Mathematician and the Girlchild, the puppyboys and the cats. You have heard some of my best stories about my father. I have written a little about my career as an academic, about linguistics, about teaching. Almost everything personal I’ve written about has been positive, upbeat, funny, with the clear exception of the topic of depression and anxiety disorders. Those I would categorize as public service announcements.

I have never written here — I have never written anywhere — about my childhood, and an observant reader will have noticed that I never mention my mother, who died when I was fourteen. There are a lot of reasons for that. The biggest reason is just habit. For the first ten years after my mother died, the idea of talking about her was impossible. Eventually, after a lot of time and therapy, I got to the point where I could recite a short-short narrative: My mother was an alcoholic, and she was abusive, and she committed suicide when I was fourteen.

Those three facts are the cornerstones of a much larger, more complex story. The mathematician knows most of it, but I’m not sure how much; there’s an odd thing that goes on when it comes to sharing this kind of information. It has to do with a bit of childhood magical thinking. Kids believe that their thoughts can be contagious, in a way. As a kid I was sure everybody around me, teachers, other kids, the clerk at the bakery, knew about what was going on in my house and about my mother. I just assumed they all knew and judged, and when she died and I found out that 98% of people had not known. Except then, of course, they all did.

For a long time my thinking went like this: no reason to mention my mother or my childhood. No reason to draw attention to myself. It will sound like a ploy for sympathy, or worse, it will come across as some kind of excuse for mistakes or failures. So I rarely told anyone, unless I was compelled to. All this was, as you may have guessed, pre-therapy.

When my father was dying I finally did go to therapy, and I was lucky to get a really good therapist. That’s where I started to unpack the fourteen years of luggage I was dragging around with me, and I began to see some patterns and underlying issues. I still wasn’t ready to talk to people about my mother except in the three-pronged way I mentioned above, and then only rarely. Then, at some point in my thirties I realized I had completely fallen back into the magical thinking. I assumed a good friend, somebody I had known for a couple years, did know about my early history. But the fact was, I had never told her, and she didn’t know. I was actually shocked to realize that this was true for quite a few people in my life.

A person who has a lot of facial scarring from a car accident knows what people see when they look at her. The fact that they never raise the subject doesn’t mean anything; of course they see the scars. Some part of my mind simply cannot absorb the idea that when people look at me or talk to me, there are no external scars for them to see. There is no outward physical sign of the years I spent with my mother.  I keep forgetting that something so elementally important and formative can be invisible.

I got past this stage in my forties after a lot more therapy. Since then I do talk about my mother sometimes, mostly to close friends, especially ones who had similar childhoods.

A final word: this isn’t earth shattering stuff. Worse happens every day all across the country and the world. Some of it may be upsetting, but for the most part you’ll have heard it all before. Just not my version, which is all this is meant to be.


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12 Replies to “magical thinking”

  1. I like your use of the term ‘magical thinking’. I think a lot of that goes on when we tell stories about our pasts. You say you assumed everyone around you already knew the circumstances of your life, and I think there’s also a ‘magical’ kind of thinking that goes on when we assume that if don’t talk about something, it’s as if it never happened at all. A kind of suspended game of pretend that we play with ourselves.

  2. Thank you for sharing a piece of your history with us. I know you aren’t looking for sympathetic expressions, and I understand that because for me it was my father who was the abusive alcoholic and he died when I was 18. I’ve also been blessed with an amazing therapist. But I do have a writing question for you or anyone else who may have had similar experiences and also consider themselves a writer: Do you feel like you started writing as a way to cope with your home life? I’m simply curious as I know writing for me was a safe place to retreat to during my childhood and I’ve never been able to say for sure that I would have been a writer if my father hadn’t been the way that he was. I’d like to think I’d still write, but if I hadn’t had all those demons egging me on, I wonder if I would have.


  3. Rosina, I think writing these memoirs could be a powerful thing — not only for your readers but for also for you. My mother is 83 and grew up without a mother (she died when my mother was 2) and an alcoholic father who was, at the very least, verbally abusive. She only talks about him peripherally (he died before I was born) though she has said more as she has gotten older. I believe, with my whole heart, had she had therapy (she’s from that generation which believes therapy means you’re crazy) or had been willing to let more of this out, she (and the people around her) would have benefited greatly. I commented to someone recently that my mother has always been miserable and that’s really a sad commentary. I, for one, will gladly read about your past because it may offer insights about my mother and, in turn, about my own life dealing with the fallout from hers.

  4. Hi Rosina. I would love to read your memoir:) My father is an alcoholic, and although he’s still alive, he used to call me when I was a teenager, and he would be drunk and crying, threatening suicide. I’ve been in therapy for a few weeks now, since I separated from my husband, and I’m learning so many things about me, just by talking about my childhood. It sounds cliche, but your childhood explains a lot about the choices you make later on. Anyways, thanks for sharing. And I also know that there are people out there living tragedies far greater than my own, but pain is pain, and to us it always feels earth shattering in the moment.

  5. Rosina, I’m looking forward to hearing more about you. I also had an abusive mother (not alcoholic but a crazy artist) who lived until I was just into my 40’s and left me with emotional scars so deep they should be visible and also artistic insights that I’m finally starting to use. Yesterday was the twelfth anniversary of her death and I was wondering if I wanted to blog about it. I think your post here has helped decide me to do so, although I’m not sure when.

  6. Memoirs. Hm. I’ve never really been interested in memoirs as a genre, though I’m sure there are plenty of good ones out there. I would read yours, of course, because I’m one of those “friends… in the internet sense” (or you’re one of mine at least). I think your memoirs would feed the beast of wanting to know ever more about an online friend, would be an introduction for me to the memoir genre, and might give me insight into my own life. (I have a different breed of secrets from my own past that I rarely talk about.) I’ll be reading.

  7. Well, whew. No rotten apples thrown. In fact, I’ve had some really nice notes — here and by email — all of which makes me think this may be the right time and place to explore this possibility.

    And Jan: of course you are welcome to stop by any time. Whether you agree or disagree. I know how it is to have a quick temper, and I appreciate the effort it must have required to reach out after the Caption Commotion.

  8. ..ok. Always figured memoirs were the hardest kind of writing, and..ultimately the only writing I’d ever get around to actaully doing hehe. Should be interesting, can memoirs be just random memories up and down the timeline or do they have to be in chronoligical order? Sorry, bad habit, I’m sure you’ll explain, hopefully.

  9. And can I just add, that photo speaks more than a thousand words. But you were one cute skinny baby. :)

  10. Your writing always interests me, Rosina. It will be good to see how you take on the memoir format. I am fond of the memoirs I’ve read, but I haven’t read many. I think it must get close to autobiography, and will be watching to see if you decide you’d rather go that route. Would that be bad, and would it be different, really?

    You mentioned the child’s thought that “everyone knows what’s going on in my house so I won’t brag/boast/sob about it” and I was considering how that figured in my life. I wonder if everyone has an element of that. But I also wonder how much of that is nurtured by the adults around us, as children. When my father died, I was astounded to find out how many people had no idea he’d had a heart condition from birth. When I’d say something like “sure 59 is young, but he always knew he was lucky to have lived as long as that” – I found myself explaining his health problems. Turns out he would never refer to it with co-workers particularly. I don’t recall being told it was a secret, but clearly he’d never acted like a sick person either. Since I started cognitive therapy, I’m getting better at recognizing I’m not the sole cause of the suppression of memories/feelings. I can see the behaviour was nurtured by the way the adults around me chose to not talk about certain elephants in the room.

  11. Rosina ~
    I’m new here. Discovered your books recently and am enthralled.

    Memoirs…While my childhood would be easy to do – in fact I have a book started based on my childhood – I wouldn’t touch my years of marriage. Hubby was an alcoholic. My children and I lived two lives – the one in the house with the elephant in the living room and the one on the “outside.” Maybe when I’m in my eighties or nineties there might be enough distance from the actual events to make it possible, but that’s hard to imagine yet.

    Oh, and I was born and raised in Chicago in the same era as you. Though I was a southwest-sider – St. Denis parish. (Was there really a north side back then?) I will read your memoirs with great interest and likely a feeling of deja-vu-all-over-again regarding 1950s-60s Chicago.

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