Giving thanks for abuse, igorance and Stockholm Syndrome
I love my family just as much as anyone. They’re typically there if I really need them, and it’s not like I was beaten as a child or left in the rain. Yet we have our skeletons in the closet.
Abuse—physical, emotional, or verbal—is just as American as white bread or apple pie. I was reminded so this year when Thanksgiving was an unmitigated disaster.
I’ve found that as I get older and grow into my own opinions and personality that I move closer and closer to the place on the family tree labeled “black sheep”. I shudder to think what would happen if they knew I was bisexual. Which is why I don’t tell them.
While driving to my grandmother’s house tonight, my mother cautioned me to “keep my negativity to myself”. Which means the following topics are off limits:
- My ambition to be a prosecuting attorney. I cannot talk about going to law school in anything but vague promises and ideas. When someone asks me why I want to go, I cannot tell them it’s because I want to give battered, raped, or abused women the opportunity to have someone defend them that actually gives a shit about the reality of their lives. The topic is never broached though, because everyone assumes I’m going to law school because I’m materialistic and like money. I don’t bother to correct them.
- Politics. My anger at how the fat cats responsible for the downturn cannot be expressed. My thoughts on the war are not wanted. My opinion of Obama, Clinton, or Bush are unnecessary. Anything even remotely carrying the stench of civil rights is offensive.
- My father. The times that I spend with my father on vacation or at his house are off-limits. I am not to talk about the “chicken raiser” or Texas in positive terms. Even if my time there was mostly positive.
- My school work. The really interesting legal philosophy I read is boring. Statistics about the composition of jailed populations are “wrong” or “incorrect beliefs”. My university is “brainwashing me with liberalism”.
- Dating and Family. My want of children with or without a male spouse is disgusting. I infer, probably correctly, that my real sexuality would be abhorrent. My exasperation with unwanted chivalry and Nice GuysTM is offensive.
- Myself. “Don’t talk about yourself” was asked of me explicitly. Nobody wants to know about you. Your opinions are offensive. After the above list, this point is inferred, and stating it is all but unnecessary.
Basically, my role at Thanksgiving is that of the mute female. I must help, as the other female family members do (my grandmother, my mother, and my aunt) with the cooking, cleaning, setting the table, and clearing it. I am, however, not allowed to express my opinions or anything about myself because it is distasteful. I cannot tell my brother, my uncle, my grandfather, or my two younger male cousins to get up and get their own damn cranberry sauce.
The rules outlined above are only for me, however. My mother, aunt, uncle, and grandfather may express any and all of their opinions about those “goddamn unions”, “stupid Mexican kids in schools getting free lunches”, and “fucking poor people buying shit at Christmas they don’t deserve because of their inferiority they do not have a lot of money”. They have lovely conversations about how marvelous Israel is too, and no mention is made of the Palestinians. If they are mentioned, they are “terrorists” or “security concerns”. Racist jokes may also be exchanged.
My grandmother usually doesn’t say much about anything other than her business selling insurance or her many cousins and friends. The day she is wrongly judgmental of anyone other than her immediate family is a cold day in hell. She seems content to make dinner and set the table. Everyone gets exasperated when she fusses instead of sitting down and eating. They also get exasperated when she serves Grandpa hand and foot when he demands it. Grandpa is not insulted to his face, but my grandmother is constantly talked down to.
At dinner, my grandmother remarked about how she was dreading making Christmas cards this year for her many clients. Mother told her that she shouldn’t, because most of them wouldn’t care either way. My aunt rolled her eyes at her after grandma told her she didn’t have the time to consolidate her files on her computer (grandma is hopeless when it comes to technology) to have the addresses in one place. They started angrily arguing and talking down to her again. I had to get up and leave the room in disgust.
Afterwards, my mother and aunt had a discussion about the bailout for the car industry. I wisely kept my mouth shut. Sure enough, the compliant was for the unions, not the rich executives, high oil prices, and low fuel economy. I made the mistake of pointing out that unskilled workers making $40,000 a year, even with benefits, is still just barely a living wage, especially in areas where property is expensive. This was brushed off as missing the point because “these people are taking our tax dollars and marking the price for cars up!” I didn’t say anything about how the bailout wasn’t going to the factory workers and the high prices are mostly mark-up or going into the pockets of the executives or to pay for billions of dollars of advertising or how a small fraction of that profit, if it existed, went to wages of people that actually assemble the cars. I concentrated, instead, intensely on my potatoes.
Then the conversation turned to Christmas. Hate was expressed around the table for Christmas songs. Finally, something I could talk about without wanting to strangle people or cry from the stupidity! Until, of course, my mother started in on how she once saw a family of Mexicans with 5 children “who obviously couldn’t afford them” walking out of a Walmart with a “cart full of more things they couldn’t afford while their children got free lunches”. Before she finished what she was about to say, I whispered to her—quietly and unobtrusively—that I didn’t want to hear anything that was racist. She ignored me and barreled ahead anyways. Her and my aunt again started in on stupid poor people and minorities, and I pretended that I had to use the bathroom.
All in all, I probably got up from the table three times in disgust. I have become a good actress, because nobody remarked how my “liberal college has brainwashed me” (oh noes, education and facts!), so I obviously didn’t let my distaste show. Either that, or everyone was too wrapped up in their own little bigotries and inanities to care. I didn’t bother to correct them. I never do.
Dinner was delicious, as usual. Over coffee and before dessert, my aunt and uncle kindly asked me how school was going. They don’t really care, so I gave a bullshit answer about how I’m “hanging on” and “waiting for the holiday”. Nothing specific or about me as a person. Mainly because nobody cares. My individuality is offensive.
My aunt asked if I’ve been on any dates. I should have said no. I answered truthfully, however, and said that not for a couple of months, and I didn’t like the guy very much; he wasn’t my type. My grandmother, the most conservative but strangely least offensive or judgmental when she disagreed, asked me why. Without thinking I said, “because he was way too into the chivalry crap and fell all over himself to hold doors open. I felt more like a doll than a person. I was really uncomfortable.”
It was the truth. I could tell he was a decent guy, but I really hate being treated more like a paper cutout of a “proper lady” than a friend and equal. When people open doors for me and pull out chairs and refuse to let me pay half of the check, I am constantly reminded of how it’s a date and Serious Business. I don’t feel comfortable, and I automatically slip into the meek female role that has become instinctive through social training. The role itches though, and I despise finding myself playing that part. I also hate the infantilization. It’s just insulting to me to be waited on. I can deal with one or two reminders of the old sexist eras, but the guy piled it on so thick I expected him to have smelling salts ready if the “delicate little girl” swooned.
But I didn’t say any of that. I only told my grandmother that I was uncomfortable, that I dislike men holding doors for me, and that he wasn’t my type. I didn’t find any of this strange, or odd, or worthy of scorn. My grandmother would disagree, but that’s fine with me. I know she’s the product of a different era. Her opinion of me, however, never seems to be lessened no matter what crazy ideas I express. I guess I forgot that I was sitting at a table with more than my kindly grandmother.
My mother immediately gave me a look to let me know that I’ve crossed the line. My aunt told me, “well, I guess you’re never going to get a man”. Like I give a shit about getting a man, or defining my success in life by my ability to tolerate being treated like either a piece of meat or a delicate flower (never a person). My grandmother added, “well, he was just being nice”.
I was about to tell her that I didn’t doubt that, but it just isn’t for me, but I didn’t have the chance to. My mother immediately starts arguing with my grandmother and demanding that she shut up. She chastises me for bringing up a “negative topic”. My entire life is negative apparently, and so is not wanting to exchange racist quips. Said quips and talking down to her mother, however, are perfectly fine.
My grandmother ignored my aunt and mother and tried to engage me again in the conversation. I can tell that she didn’t want to be shut up. I could agree with that sentiment. My mother escalates the insulting comments, turning to my aunt and saying “she never shuts up” like my grandmother isn’t two feet away. I was mortified. I wanted to say something, but I knew it would only make it worse. Either that, or I’m an enormous coward. Seeing them constantly insulting and talking down to my grandmother was horrifying.
I didn’t feel any better about myself. Firstly, I can’t speak up for her without escalating the argument, having it turn against me, or even having my grandmother telling me the defense is unnecessary. I hardly blame her for that though. My grandmother has been belittled and abused most of her adult life. My grandfather treats her like a slave. She brings in all the money, cooks all the meals, does all the shopping, waits on him, cleans the entire house, and spends hours visiting him when he frequently gets sick and has to live in a nursing home until he recovers. Even when she visits him to collect his dirty laundry or bring him lunches, he tell her to “shut the fuck up” for fussing over him.
He beat her while he was strong enough to. My mother tells me stories of trying to sleep while my grandmother angrily confronted him about spending money they didn’t have on expensive suits to impress his friends or coming home late (it was the badly kept neighborhood secret that grandfather cheated at least five known times). These would usually escalate into screaming rows and end with my grandfather beating her until she couldn’t speak through the tears.
My grandmother has lived a life of abuse. The tendency to abuse runs strong in the male side of our family. My brother already shows absolutely no respect for anyone with two X chromosomes. He idolizes his father, who walked out when he was three and left town when he was fifteen, and screams at my mother who supports him on a working class income by herself. My uncle never lifts a finger to help my aunt. She makes half-hearted hypothetical remarks about leaving him when I talk to her after babysitting my cousins. My youngest cousin, a mere fourth grader, tells his mother to “shut up” and takes things out of her purse without asking. The only male on my mother’s side that doesn’t treat his wife or mother (or both) like shit is my oldest cousin (I’m the oldest, and he’s 7 years younger). He’s autistic.
After dessert was served, I retreated to the guest bedroom and played my Nintendo DS instead of interacting with the family. I didn’t have anything to say to them that wasn’t off limits. I stayed pretty calm throughout it all, only because I was used to it. I felt like shit for not feeling like shit though, because I knew intellectually that the way my mother and aunt and uncle talk to my grandmother was sick.
But nothing compared to the blow-up after dinner. Apparently my youngest cousin grabbed the wrong remote for the television while waiting for his mother to pack up the rest of her dishes and leave. I didn’t catch the rest of what happened, but he did something or touched something he wasn’t supposed to, and suddenly the television was mute and couldn’t be fixed normally. Typical eight year-old stuff, nothing really original or worrisome.
Apparently my level-headedness was not shared by all. My uncle flew into a rage. I could hear him across the house screaming WHAT DID YOU DO?!? and my cousin crying. My aunt joined my uncle in chastising my cousin for touching something he shouldn’t while my uncle angrily tried to fix the television.
Like I said, none of the usual things would work. My uncle started cursing my cousin more, and he cried harder. My grandmother walked into the room, and he asked her how she fixes the television when it breaks. She honestly answered that she had no idea. Like I said, my grandmother is hopeless with anything electronic. His cursing escalated, and my aunt started getting testy with my uncle for his language and generally sound like an abusive dick. I joined them, being the resident IT of the family, and tried to suggest what it do quietly.
My uncle would hear none of it. He turned to my grandmother and said, “how can you not know what to do with your own television? Fuck, you’re stupid!” and then when my aunt expressed that it was out of line to insult my grandmother like that, he screamed WOULD EVERYONE JUST SHUT THE FUCK UP!
I left the room. I didn’t want to see the aftermath. I could hear him hollering from the family room though, remarking to himself how everyone was so fucking stupid and how he needs to fix the television without everyone talking to him. He got it fixed a minute later, and then stormed into the backyard to fume and later avoid helping to clean up.
My aunt had also left the family room, and was helping my mother and I clear the table. She remarked, “I hate when he gets like this, and he wonders why I’m unhappy?” My grandmother made some asinine remark that synced nicely with her view that abuse and those things don’t exist (very old fashioned) and my aunt toyed with the idea of kicking him out. I didn’t say anything, because I knew it would never happen, and every Thanksgiving would be worse than the one before. I mentally made a note to make sure that I always had my cell with me for the next years, in case police intervention was needed.
I just wanted to leave at that point. I cleaned quietly while my uncle simmered outside (“she never shuts up” was said, an echo of my mother’s earlier remark), and my aunt, mother, and grandmother assisted. My brother helped for a while, then lost interest and then roughhoused with my cousins.
After the big mess was cleaned and I was just getting underfoot of people that actually knew where everything went, I again retreated to the guest bedroom and waited for my mother to tell us that we were leaving. I was tired, and I had a doctor’s appointment early the next day. Plus, the flowering bush outside was giving me a wicked allergy headache.
But it wasn’t over. As we got into the car and loaded the empty dishes, my mother seethed at me for opening my mouth earlier that evening. I could tell because her answers were clipped and her mouth was pursed in a thin line. I was too tired to care, and stuck close to my brother who shared the sentiment that my uncle was fucking crazy, my aunt was obnoxious, and my mother treated her mother like shit. I told him when my mother ran back inside to collect her purse that if I ever caught him talking to his wife like that, I would disown him… no questions asked. For now, he shares the opinion that what he saw was abuse. I hope that that feeling never fades. Even his general misogynies and tendency to reduce women to tits and ass are tolerable next to the horrors of my grandfather’s past and my uncle’s current behaviors.
As we pulled away, my grandmother gestured wildly from the garage. My mother exclaimed “oh shit”, and left the car. Apparently she had rifled through the boxes in the garage earlier that evening (we have no storage space in the tiny house we live in on her small salary) and forgot to clean up. As she got out, my grandmother continued to exclaim what the problem was. My mother answered, “I know, now you can shut up”. Her bad mood was translated into more verbal abuse for her mother.
She returned to the car second later, and again expressed the motto for the evening “she never shuts up!”. I was tired of it. The family was gone, and it was only me, my brother, and my mother. I was horrified, embarrassed, and generally disgusted.
So after three hours of watching them abuse my grandmother, I turned to my mother and told her that her behavior, and my aunt’s, were horrible. They treated my grandmother like shit. I also said if my uncle had gone on for any longer, I was going to call the police.
The car ride became a battle. As we drove back to the suburbs where we live, my mother continued to express her disgust for everything that her mother was. Her abuse at the hands of her husband and son were because “she couldn’t shut up”. My mother’s anger and talking down to her was justified with memories of trying to sleep while my grandfather beat her because “she couldn’t shut up”. It was her fault she was hit, it was her fault for confronting at night after he came home from spending time with another woman. It was her fault for not leaving him, and it was her fault for not knowing how to use the computer.
The theme of my mother’s ire was that my grandfather’s physical abuse and infidelity and my uncle’s verbal abuse where my grandmother’s fault. It was especially unforgivable because she didn’t leave him. When I asked her about the racist and classist comments she made, and she knows that I hate, she expressed her hatred of people that make bad choices. Like women that don’t shut up and stay with their abusers, Mexicans with too many (in her opinion) children, and people making enough to live on through unions although they were unskilled.
The argument strayed toward the earlier automobile bailout. I told her about how the money isn’t going to the poorer workers, and that not half as many existed anyway as in earlier years because of outsourcing. Even if it did, who cared? They weren’t making money on bad business choices and severance packages padded with lay-offs. And forty thousand a year is nothing compared to what the executives make.
These “opinions” were “wrong beliefs”. She disagreed, because she stated that my sentiments were not true. She was angry that I “thought I knew better” than “adults that had lived 20 years in the real world with college educations”. I told her I wasn’t talking rocket science. I was talking about facts gleaned from five minutes with a connection to the internet or tuned into NPR. They were “facts” because they made a hell of a lot more sense than blaming poor people for the economic downturn. Poor people and the middle class don’t run the government and big companies. Rich people do. That’s a fact.
But these were “opinions” according to her. They were offensive because they were contrary to hers, and no amount of appeal to her age and experience would convince me otherwise. They were also offensive because they compelled me to not agree with her bigoted comments, and find offense in them. Her plainly expressed bigotry and racism is fine dinner-table conversation. My offense at such blatant falsehoods and prejudices was not.
I was called a bitch, again, by my own mother. I should just “move out”, because I found her bigotries and verbal abuse towards her mother disgusting. My “irrational hatred” of the rich, she exclaimed, was just as offensive as racism. Saying that rich corporate fat cats made this mess and are greedy shitheads was just as bad as her racism.
I couldn’t help myself, I laughed. This seemed to really piss her off, but it was too damned stupid not to laugh at. “How is fact bigotry?”, I asked her. You can’t prove that Mexicans with too many children are responsible for everything, and my aunt certainly can’t prove that unions are the root of all evil. But I can prove that irresponsible and immoral CEOs and government assholes are responsible for this mess, and anyone that wishes to hear my sources would only have to wait five minutes once I had my laptop in front of me. I offered to turn the radio to NPR and prove it too. The markets burst because of over-speculation that was mostly greedy idiots lying about how well business was going so as to rob investors blind and pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. The speculation bubble on the housing market burst first, and caused a lot of other bubbles around it to pop too. This isn’t opinion, or belief, it’s fact. I laughed again to myself, amused at the sort of pathetic Stockholm Syndrome of defending the wealthy and lambasting the poor. It was eerie how much it mirrored the situation with my grandmother: she was to blame, she was the bad one, not her abuser.
Dare I mention how my mother repeatedly told me that she did hold my uncle and grandfather responsible? I had to choke down another traitorous bark of incredulous mirth. “Yeah,” I reponded, “that’s why I never ever&mdashnot even once—saw anyone talk down to my grandfather or uncle or call them stupid to their faces”.
I had stepped into opposite world. Nothing made sense. My mother’s willingness to blame the victim of any situation was hideous in its sudden clarity. Her comments about her fat coworker who claimed she was dieting and than “ordered regular sodas” and a disgust with another that complained of her low wages while expressing want of more children fell into the pattern I had just identified. My mother was a victim-blamer and a vulture. She could not stand perceived weakness or stupidity in anyone, and hated them for it. This outwards aggression was shared with my aunt and many of her friends. The psychosis would remain undiagnosed. I knew it as “socialization”. Doctors would know it as normal.
Why do I air such disgusting family secrets on the internet? I name no names. Even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t regret if it got back to them. I have the same psychosis they have, albeit to a lesser degree. I compare it to disease. It festers and grows exponentially. Except it’s contagious as a cold, and untreatable as cancer. It is a disease of the mind, and virtually undetectable. It replaces brain cells at a devastating pace, and leaves nothing but bigotry and irrationality in the place of healthy thoughts. It eventually grows into a full-fledged parasite, and mobilizes its host to destroy those that have not succumbed to the same disease.
Read the rest of the comments I had to control myself from commenting on: Captain Kirk’s “coolness” because he has sex with every attractive female alien they come across; the “P.C. Police” up in arms over kindergarteners dressing up like Indians; women who wear clothes that make their fat ass look fatter and offend the general sensibility. I probably missed others when I was either pissing or pretending I didn’t exist in the guest room.
This is a glimpse into the abyss of our culture. It is not unique, or rare. My family is normal, and probably not much different than anyone else’s. The only difference is that they managed to spawn someone that knew of their collective illness, who was not impressed with the social demand to keep it silent and secret.
And so today on Thanksgiving I give thanks for the malady of society. I give thanks for the generations of abuse and hate. I give thanks for the sexism I face among blood relatives and the inability to express my awareness of this bigotry lest I offend. I give thanks for the lack of opportunity to drop my guard.
Actually, I lied. The only thing I give thanks for is my ability to recognize the sickness and battle it to my dying day.