March 8th, 2009

woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

Duty, Guilting, and Revolution

In my early years, a lot of people wanted me to be other than I am...I was too loud, too tall, too smart, too athletic for many teachers, for instance, who persisted in trying to make me into the appropriate 1950s girl: soft-spoken, shorter than any of the boys, "sweet," domestic, not smarter than the boys, and certainly not tomboyish.   Other complaints were related to the family situation I could not help ("child of divorce,"  "latchkey child," working mother), my inability to grab and remember faces easily (girls were supposed to be able to), my need for glasses, my clumsiness (I was strong and fast, but clumsy, result probably of the encephalitis that nearly killed me--certainly my left side was weak for a long time and my left leg sometimes just gave way.  My knees were always skinned up.)    I developed acne in adolescence ("Can't you do something about your face?") and had (post encephalitis) a type of hair not described in the fashion magazines: fine and curly.   My nose was too long (said the magazines) and instead of the lush hourglass figure most praised, I grew into a beanpole.  My mother's friends were always after her to "do something" about my hair, my skin, my very insufficient fashion sense.   Since her friends came from several different cultural groups, their idea of what a proper young girl should wear did not match--there was no way I could dress, or stand, or be that satisfied even five of them, let alone all.  

I grew up along the Texas-Mexico border, where my coloring (dark hair and eyes and tanned easily as did most of us)  confused newcomers (but not the locals) about my "race."
   We had three main ones, along with multiple social classes within each:  "Spanish," "Indio," and "Anglo."  The Japanese family was often lumped in with Anglo, because they sure weren't Spanish or Indio.  The African-American families (two) were hardly seen until the schools were integrated.    The Lebanese, being extremely fluent in Spanish, devout Catholics, and dark-haired, were usually lumped with the Spanish-Indio group (to the annoyance of one of my Lebanese schoolmates.)   The town's social classes were based very largely on money, though within the Spanish-Indio group, the Spanish looked down on the Indios (um...for those not familiar--these were people who came from Native American stock in Mexico--not anything north of us)  even if they had made money.  Typical of the time/place there was no bias against "trade" as a source of wealth--it was the amount of wealth that determined social position, though coming from a family that had had money before the Depression got you out of the gutter if you had retained any of the finer values.   My grandfather had made money with his hardware stores, though it was mostly gone by then, so my mother's position wavered between "divorcee, = scarlet woman" and "Ed J-'s daughter."   Monetarily we were well down the scale (the highest paid women in town were teachers), but my grandfather's friends invited her (and later, me) to various social events we would otherwise not have known existed.  Or I wouldn't, anyway. 

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woods, Elizabeth, camera, April

A little more on guilting, with history

According to my mother, my great-grandmother Burks was a champion Guilter--as was her eldest daughter, my great-aunt and first step-grandmother (whoever said families were simple?)  GGM had a partial excuse--she was raised in strictest Calvinism and remained a staunch predestinarian Presbyterian, but she terrorized the family.  My own grandmother (her second daughter) was one of the family rebels; my great-aunt Jessie even more of one, but the first daughter--pretty much forced to be the spinster who cares for mama, until my grandmother died after surgery and my grandfather had promised to care for her--was one of those people who is incredibly sensitive to her own feelings but not to anyone else's.    I was often warned as a child not to be sensitive (it didn't work, exactly, but it did make me aware that my own feelings were not the only ones that counted.)  ANYway: GA (as I will call her to protect any innocent family members I don't know about) told my mother, then 14, that she was responsible for her mother's death, because her birth had been so difficult.   GA also insisted that my mother wear black to her brother's wedding, because GA didn't like his bride.  And that unwanted advances were a girl's fault (in my mother's case, because she had too lush a figure.)

My mother's form of guilting was straightforward engineer: "accidents don't happen; they're caused."   There was a fair bit of "Think first and you won't have to regret afterwards" and "What did you think would happen if you left the milk on the edge of the counter?"  but--due to her own experience with GA--not much of the sneaky manipulative type.  Other people did that.   When I was thirteen, my mother was told she had six months to live; her friends (several of them) took it upon themselves to tell me that if I did anything wrong, it would make her worse (one of them took to coming over to the house every afternoon before my mother got home from work, ostensibly to see her but it seemed to me to make sure that I had washed the dishes and made beds and so on.)   My mother outlived two of her doctors, to her great delight, and nearly outlived the third.  

Others used the classic guilting methods--as I did myself before learning not to--it was how we were all raised, after all.  "Don't you CARE about [starving children, your poor grandmother, so-and-so's feelings, your grades, your chance at college, a sick bunny, whatever]?"  "If you REALLY CARED about me, you'd quit hanging out with her/him."  "If you REALLY UNDERSTOOD, you'd agree with me that I'm right..."   In some cases, it boiled down to a serious control issue--I was easy meat for the Guiltlayers early in life until at some point I realized they wanted to control every moment of my life.  I would try harder and harder to  help (these were always people with problems) .and it was never enough and eventually the rubber band of guilt would snap and I'd blow up and there would go another relationship.  
My therapist pointed out that my intense desire to help and fix things was no healthier than their getting needier and needier to retain control....it's called "rescue fantasy" and I needed to change.  Not to total selfishness--but to healthy boundaries.    It's similar to the literal hot feeling on the back of my neck when I'm about to get mad for a bad reason (hot under the collar is a fact, not a literary device)--there was a pull toward a certain kind of person--a person who seemed lost or lonely or in need of comfort or help--and that particular sensation always seemed to settle on someone who couldn't respond in a healthy way.

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