[Trigger warnings for sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, shunning, shame.]
Shame is not something that most of us want to hear about. Many of us will listen to stories of any other kind of horror: sexual abuse, physical assault, hate crime, genocide. We consider it an act of courage when people talk about these things, and we give honor to the survivors by bearing witness.
But do we speak and bear witness to the debilitating and destructive nature of shame? Rarely. We fear rejection, judgment, social condemnation, isolation, shunning, so we don’t speak. And when we don’t speak, we can’t get a witness.
Truth be told, we often don’t want to hear about anyone else’s shame because it brings up all of our own. So if you’re still reading, thank you, with all of my heart. I know it isn’t easy to have come even this far.
I’m going to start by going straight into the heart of my deepest shame:
I DON’T LOVE MY MOTHER.
Lest you think my mother was a monster, she was not. I will not shame her in that way. Just to show you how very human she was, here is a picture of us, when I was about two years old. See how utterly ordinary we look? We were. We were just like anyone else. Human. Flawed. Fearful. Full of dreams. Trailed by demons. Capable of fucking things up royally.
But here is what I fear in this conversation: When I say that I don’t love my mother, I am afraid that you will think that I am a wholly unnatural and unloving being. That I am a freak. That I am missing some part of my soul.
Out of my fear and my shame, I will rush to tell you that I am, indeed, quite whole – capable of deep love.
Out of my fear and my shame, I will tell you that I still love my father (despite his many abuses) and that I miss him terribly.
Out of my fear and my shame, I will assure you that I love my husband as though he is the other half of my soul.
Out of my fear and my shame, I will protest that I love my kid with everything I am, and would willingly die to protect that kid against any evil that life can bring.
Out of my fear and my shame, I will let you know that I feed people on the street, and that I lie awake at night crying about the pain of the world, and that I am kind to small children.
And all of it is true. Absolutely, utterly true. But telling you that doesn’t push out the shame. It makes the shame worse, because now I’m justifying myself.
I suppose I must have loved my mother once, before everything happened. In fact, I remember very clearly, at some point in my twenties, feeling a momentary rush of love for her, and it nearly knocked me backwards. For a split second, my heart opened toward her, and then it shut right damned down. Loving her was dangerous. Loving her was foolishness. Loving her was an act of self-destruction. Being vulnerable in any way to my mother was dangerous to my ability to feel worthy of life. My openness to her sent me into spirals of self-hatred that terrified me.
I could do a recitation of all the horrors. The beatings by my father that happened only at the provocation of my mother. The hours that she would torture me by telling me what he’d do to me when he got home. The manufactured wrongs. The drama. The ways I tried to bribe her from my piggy bank to please, please, please, mommy, don’t tell. The sexual abuse she countenanced and then denied. The times I shouted for her and she never came. The years that I learned not to shout for her because it was futile. The ongoing mantra in our household that she was always, always, always right, and that everyone else was always, always, always wrong.
I could talk about my 20s and early 30s — about my rage, my despair, my spirals into suicidal thinking after every phone call. I could talk about the night my mother harassed me by telephone for three solid hours – the night my husband took me driving in Tilden Park while I screamed and raged and kicked the dashboard and then went into full-scale denial that anything bad had ever happened and that everything, everything, everything, EVERYTHING was all my fault. The night that my husband looked at me and said, “Sorry, but you’re screaming and raging and kicking the dashboard, and that’s not normal for you, so I’d say something pretty fucking bad happened.” The night that I still love him for, over 10 years after our divorce.
But that recitation is only more self-justification. Look how bad it was! How could I love this woman? It’s not my fault! It doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.
In this recitation, I’ve left out one thing, and it has little to do with what my mother did and everything to do with what she felt: The woman hated me. I don’t use that word lightly. It wasn’t just dislike, or normal mother-daughter conflict, or not seeing eye to eye. She hated me. She hated who I was. She gave me praise when I erased myself. Otherwise, she treated me with rage, with contempt, with condemnation, with criticism, and with disappointment.
I don’t know why she hated me. I imagine that there was something in her that she needed me to complete and I just didn’t have what it took. (Should I be ashamed of that? No. But I am.)
The hatred in her went very deep. After I told her that I was going to break contact with her for awhile while I did some healing, and that she was not to harass me again without fear of legal repercussions, she took the whole family with her. No one in my family would speak to me again. Not my brother, not my uncles, not my cousins. No one.
She took away my family. An extreme act of hatred. An extreme act of shaming. When I tried to tell my uncle what happened, he shared with me the family message: You had no right to do that to your mother.
Daughters don’t get to tell their mothers to stop. They don’t get to take space to heal. They don’t get to tell them that they will find someone to protect them. They don’t get to be anything other than loving and self-sacrificing.
The loss of my family is so hard to talk about. It feels so shameful. I lost my family. They didn’t want me. Something must be wrong with me.
I began to hate my birthdays. I began to hate myself for being born of my mother. I began to hate myself for trying to survive. And beneath the hatred, there was shame, shame, shame without end.
After 13 years of estrangement had passed, my mother died in June of 2004. I found out in late May of 2005. One day, at my husband’s urging, I went to the computer, scanned the Social Security Death Index, and found that she had died eleven months earlier. That was it.
Did I cry? No. All I felt was relief. For the first time in my life, I felt safe. She couldn’t hurt me anymore. She wasn’t going to pop up when I least expected and tell me that I was unworthy of her love, unworthy of anyone’s love, unworthy of life itself. It was over.
How could I feel that kind of relief? Daughters aren’t supposed to feel relief when their mothers die. They are supposed to wail and keen and miss their mothers and talk with their friends about how hard it is and how nothing will ever be the same.
But I couldn’t do that and I felt ashamed of that. What was wrong with me?
I carry a giant absence inside myself where my mother and her love ought to be. And inside that absence, the shame spills endlessly. How could there be that absence? Why didn’t my mother love me? Why did she take my family away from me? What was wrong with me?
I’m not sure what to do with this shame and this absence. I’m not sure at all. In my rational mind, I know that all of this shame is a crock of shit. I know that my mother’s lack of love was not my fault. I know that she unleashed her demons on me and didn’t care. I know that other people get to fuck up royally every goddamned day of the year, and they’re not punished with condemnation and abuse and the withdrawal of love. I know that I should be allowed to be one of those people, too.
But the shame remains.
Maybe I’m not the only one. Maybe someone is there who, in the silence of their heart says, Yes. This is what I feel too. Maybe this shame will peel off me one day, and I will just be a human being who doesn’t need to protest what a good person I am. Maybe one day, after I’ve written enough and cried enough and spent enough sleepless nights wondering what the hell happened, I will just be a human being who says, I know who I am, and I know that I’m flawed, and I still deserve to be loved and held, no matter what.
This burden of shame is too heavy. I don’t want to carry it anymore.
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg