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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