The “Colonial Dames Incident.”

Not quite sure when this happened.  I think the late 80’s because it was after my father had died.  I was down at the family summer house on the coast of Maine.  We were on the front porch, my mother, me, my sister Jo, and her friend Weezie.  Weezie was a member of the Colonial Dames, one of those status organizations, and so was my mother.  They were talking about it with some enthusiasm.  I was glad for Mom that she had something that interested her.  Suddenly she turned to me and said, in a nasty tone of voice, “Of course you wouldn’t care about the Colonial Dames.”  I felt like she had launched a dagger right into my open heart.  I was happy for her and this was her response.  I tried to rewrite it as happening because I had a patronizing look on my face, to take some of the blame on myself.

Later I thought I could have said “It’s true I don’t care about the Colonial Dames, but I am glad that you have something that interests you.”  But I knew that wouldn’t have satisfied her.  Later, I found out why.  Mother believed, and taught me, that you didn’t care about a person if you didn’t care about what they cared about.  I bought this and continued to doubt my own caring for people, in fact even now I still doubt it, having deeply internalized  from Mother that I am not a caring person.  It wasn’t until I got into a quarrel with my husband about this same issue and he said “I do so care about you, but I don’t want to plant daffodils right now.”  I realized that he was correct.

Later still, on the porch in Maine (again) the grandchildren had left towels draped over the porch furniture.  Mother complained to me that they didn’t clean up after themselves.  (They were under the age of 10.)  I said “They just got back from the beach, of course they don’t care about the towels.”  Mother said, angrily, “They don’t care about me.”

But the most important part of the story about the Colonial Dames was that I wrote about it right away in my journal.  The next morning I read what I had written and had trouble believing it.  I asked my sister if that had really happened, and she said yes.  I was stunned.  I immediately saw that I had been systematically disappearing all the cruel things Mother said to me from the earliest possible time.  That was why they always seemed to come out of left field.  I decided that I would never give her a target again.  And I didn’t.  This is a beautiful example of how “gaslighting” works.

From Ariel Leve’s TED talk:
She was told that someone who had known her as a child said: “I always wondered how that little girl would survive.  I thought her only chances were suicide or murder.”   “One of the most insidious things about gaslighting is the denial of reality. … being denied an experience you have had and you know is real.”   “I needed certainty in an uncertain world.”    “If the only options were suicide or murder, how did I survive?  “There is a third option: writing it down.”   “Telling my story was, and is, an act of redemption.”


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