Unconscious Cruelty

from my journal for July 8, 1992
written the day after 
writers group with Lynn & her mother V

Gosh what a cannibal V is, what a horrid woman.  And in some ways just like my mother.  So nice on the surface, so “sweet.”  And god knows what unacknowledged bitterness seething away in the depths, that poisons the sweetness, so that after I’ve been with her I feel like I’ve been in some loathesome place of slime and sleaze.  I wonder if I would ever have seen it if it hadn’t been for her unconsciously cruel remarks at the time of Fiona’s death, because the surface she presents is so nice, so reasonable and charming.  There’s that hint of theatricality, but that’s not where the sleaze and slime are, it’s something much deeper. 

“Her unconsciously cruel remarks after Fiona’s death.”  Fiona was our first dog.  We got an electric fence to keep her from going out to the road, but Dana wasn’t able to train her by subjecting her to the shocks delivered by the collar.  She was hit on the road, after we had had her for less than a year.  V knew nothing about this, but this writing group was fairly soon after it happened, and she just started talking about someone who had put in an electric fence.  She couldn’t possibly have known how much it would hurt, she must have just picked up on the issue intuitively.

How did it go last night?  She complained about not understanding the instructions, in such a way that if I had been ready to accept the guilt, I would have thought it was my fault for not being clear enough.  She wanted to hear what I had written so she would know how it was supposed to be done, she made a great show of folding away her own writing (but then read it anyway after saying she didn’t want to.)  Then when we were done insisted on reading some of her own pieces from a little booklet of her reminiscences that her daughters had printed up.  I smiled and nodded tactfully but didn’t say anything.  It made me think of mother wanting me to admire her.  And I couldn’t admire V’s writing, it’s superficial, shallow, and trite.  She can tell that my writing has something hers doesn’t have, it has power and depth, and she wants that for herself, but she doesn’t realize that in order to write with power and depth you need to be willing to face the truth and that means engaging with painful difficult sad boring and scary material, and not just writing sugary reminiscences about the good stuff.  Even when she wrote of her son’s death, she didn’t enter into the pain.  But she wanted me to read what I had written — I felt some sense of discomfort, not wanting to expose private material — and I could feel in her a greed, for what? a kind of voyeuristic sleazy greed, like she wants to nourish herself on my transformed pain — but I’m so sorry, V, it doesn’t work like that.  And I know that part of my reluctance to read is the same reluctance I have to sharing my real self with my mother: OK, I’m going to turn on my bright light here, and you’re going to be shown up in your shabbiness and you won’t like that, and you’ll try to make me wrong.  But they can’t make me wrong any more, I’m too strong in my truth.  I felt enormous pressure from V (or in myself?) to say something nice, tell her her writing was good, say she could quickly learn to write like I do, fix it for her somehow, contradict her self-deprecating remarks, but I couldn’t do it without lying.  So there you old bat!

I’m amazed now at the confidence with which I wrote.  I like the person who is doing this writing, and I agree with what she said.  Perhaps I’m even surprised at her ability to not be “nice” in her writing, even though she was as kind as she could be without lying to the actual person.

The other thing that made me really angry was V started off by asking about Eleanor, how was she, was she “coming round.”  I said I wouldn’t use those words of Eleanor, that I admired her strength, that she was struggling with really traumatic material, and it was amazing that she wasn’t dead or hospitalized, that sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better, and that she was an inspiration.  Lynn echoed what I was saying.  I didn’t like telling V even as much as that, but I was so angry at her patronizing attitude.

Eleanor is my dear friend who was horribly traumatized as a child.  Unlike me, she was born to working class parents, so she is dependent on welfare.  She has to spend enormous amounts of energy jumping through the hoops of the bureaucracy, and she was never able to find a therapist who could really help her because the really good ones don’t have to take insurance.  My therapist Karen took insurance when she first started working, but then it started to involve too much paperwork, and she stopped.  One time when she had supper at Lynn’s and V was there, Eleanor had two helpings of salad and V commented on how much she was eating.  Given that Eleanor has all kinds of fear around getting fat, it was a cruel remark, even though V couldn’t have known.

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