(Started in January 92, in Writers’ Group. “I’ve been thinking of trying to write a description of myself as though I were an Elizabeth Goudge character. That means with a lot of compassion, but no avoidance of weaknesses, and a large framework that includes understanding of the psychic and spiritual dimension. She writes often of the way in which children are marked by the condition of their parents during the pregnancy, so I begin with my mother.”)
Jean became pregnant in November of 1941. She had hoped that the coming child would exempt her husband from military service, and when he was drafted she was very resentful. She was also frightened of being alone and of the responsibility of a child, but she concealed her fear. But the fear and resentment left their mark on the new baby who had a sensitive nervous system and would be plagued all her life by allergies and mysterious illnesses.
The growing child was very intelligent and creative. Sometimes her mother was pleased and proud, taking her child’s talents as evidence of her own excellence as a mother. Other times little Jenny’s intense energy and desire to know the truth were too much for her young mother, who wasn’t willing to admit that she didn’t know the answers.
When little Jenny was three, her father came home from the war. Their first meeting was a disaster for both of them. He had been in Ireland when she was born. On a transport ship in the Atlantic, in a tank in North Africa, moving up through Italy, he consoled himself with thoughts of his baby daughter, and how much she would love him, and how she would throw her arms around his neck. At home, his daughter was growing up in a world of women. She had been told she had a daddy who was away fighting a war, but the words had no meaning. She had been shown his photograph, and naturally assumed that the square object that stood on her mother’s bedside table was her “daddy”. So when he came in the door, the three year old child was confronted with a strange man, one she had never seen before. She could feel the pressure from the people around her, but didn’t know what she was supposed to do. Someone said “This is your daddy.” But that made no sense to her. “That’s not my daddy, my daddy’s upstairs” she said, meaning the photograph. Her father, unable to understand what the world looked like from her three-year-old perspective, was very hurt, and felt rejected, and so he immediately rejected her. For her part, she had very conflicted feelings about this person with whom she had no organic connection and yet to whom she was supposed to show “love”. Their relationship did not change much down the years, but remained painful, characterized by well-meaning attempts to become closer or to understand each other that were always thwarted by feelings of rejection or fears of rejection.
As the other children came along, and her mother withdrew into the fog of alcoholism, Jenny found herself pressed into service to take care of the younger ones. Not on a physical level, fortunately there were servants, for Jenny was of a dreamy temperament and not very competent in practical matters. But she had a lively intelligence and a strong sense of moral context, she felt that actions ought always to be referred to some larger understanding and not be just what was convenient or expedient. When she turned to her parents for guidance the answers were confusing or contradictory and often she was made to feel that she should already know and not be asking questions. But she still felt obscurely a desperate need for moral guidance, and she could also see that the younger children also needed guidance. Having as role models a perfectionistic father and a mother who chose her moral platitudes to suit what she wanted at the moment, Jenny also learned to be critical and perfectionistic, mostly of herself but also of her younger siblings. Because she deeply distrusted her mother’s platitudes, which sounded noble but hid shallowness and expediency, she turned to intellect and reason, and “figuring it out” from a theoretical viewpoint became her main strategy for dealing with life.
(I’m not really happy with this — but as a beginning it’s not too bad. I want to write about the difficulties of adolescence, and how my parents left me to my own devices. Can I put in something about sexual abuse at age 12? I have no idea how Eliz. Goudge would deal with that one. She barely touches on alcoholism. I also want to put in something about how mother’s brother died when I was what? just over a year? — how she wouldn’t have let herself mourn, how her repression of that grief passed it on to me so I’ve had to deal with depression for most of my life.)
What else? I didn’t want to make it hugely long, perhaps should check the Mary Montague chapter in The Dean’s Watch, since that’s what I want it to be most like. How my temperament naturally went toward fantasy, play with animals, Oz books, how I was dragged away from that, how my lack of competence in practical matters, and my parents’ willingness to rely on my intelligence and sense of responsibility combined with their inability to give me guidance and support — how this left me curiously bereft, unable to see my strengths and painfully conscious of my weaknesses. Oh and then I get furious again, to see how my strengths were exploited and my weaknesses mocked so I was left with nothing on which to build a sense of self-esteem. Well, my strengths that they could exploit — intelligence, sense of responsibility, wish to help — they used and my strengths that threatened them or were painful reminders of their own suppressed vitality — my creativity and my passionate desire to know the truth — were sneered at and mocked: I was “showing off”, thought I was “so great”, thought I “knew it all.” And so, since intelligence and responsibility can to some extent be commanded and directed by will, but creativity, in order to come to flower, must be allowed and nurtured in some kind of safety, the balance of my life shifted to intellect, and creativity got left on the fringes, like bulbs in a dark room trying to grow. Well, I’ve said all this before. Boring boring. Once again blaming my parents for my own failure. Actually, I’m trying not to, but even this examination of how I internalized the early conditions of my life, looks like blaming to people who’ve been conditioned to think that way. Just as I’ve been conditioned to think of my efforts to express myself and share my discoveries as “showing off.”)
Jenny was singing and dancing and her mother yelled at her to stop showing off. Perhaps there was some other person in the room for whom it was necessary for the mother to appear good. “Haven’t you taught her any manners?” The child learned that expressing her vitality by singing and dancing was not acceptable. This was not an isolated incident; there were many such. Disapproving looks and scornful comments occasionally gave way to overblown praise which did not make her feel encouraged or supported, but only like she wanted to hide. Being an intelligent child, she learned very quickly not to do those things which brought forth scorn or confusing praise, she learned to shut down, she internalized the scornful voices and yelled at herself much more harshly and often than anyone yelled at her. Her standards were very high so she could see many more things to criticize, and she was desperately trying to figure out how to “do it right”, assuming that it was because she always “did it wrong” that she was not treated with any respect or consideration.
What she did not know, until it was too late to prevent the damage, was that her parents’ lives were in bondage to alcohol, that they had both the grandiosity and the perfectionism associated with alcoholism. She perceived that her parents were reluctant to pay attention to her, unwilling to put any effort into trying to understand her or help her with her little troubles. But she interpreted their neglect as a consequence of her being unattractive and uninteresting instead of a result of their dependence on a drug. She tried very hard to be ‘helpful’, since this seemed to be what they wanted, but she never got any inner satisfaction from being helpful because her natural tendency was to want to share the beautiful and magical things she discovered in herself and in the world of nature. But she learned to be ashamed of this desire by the time she went to college. She had also decided that she was not talented because it was less painful to think that she was untalented than to understand that she was talented and had been thoroughly inhibited and crushed in her effort to express it.
But in spite of this her talent and creativity kept breaking out, like bulbs kept in a dark room, like a piece of firewood that suddenly sprouts leaves. She began a journal when she was seventeen, and continued all her life because the privacy of a journal gave her both an outlet for her expression and a means to conceal it at the same time. She had the lead in the Senior Class play in high school; but she never understood why she had been chosen. In College she turned to science, hoping that understanding the basic laws of the universe would give her some grounding truth out of which she could live her life, believing that teaching science was the best way she could be helpful. She was accepted for dance group, again surprised that she qualified, but happy to have this means of expression open to her. She continued her interest in theater, but retreated from the stage into doing lighting because that way she would not be exposed to an audience. In her Junior Year, feeling tired and bored with all her science classes, she fought to be allowed to take a studio art course, even though she hadn’t yet taken any history of art courses that would win for her this privilege. (The Ivy League women’s college she attended saw the arts of painting, dancing, sculpture, theater as peripheral to their purpose which was the education of the intellect.)
I guess that this was as far as I got in 1992. At that time I had learned a lot about how alcoholism of a parent affect a child, but I didn’t know that I had also been traumatized. For an example of Mom & Dad’s behavior, see the 4th of July Monologue for a directly written transcript of a weekend at home with them.