Years ago I saw the Finnish film, “Mother Of Mine,” about a young boy, a refugee sent to Sweden during World War II and variously pulled back and forth between his biological mother who couldn’t decide whether to raise him or run away with a Nazi soldier, and his adopted mother who had issues surrounding a dead child that prevented her from loving or accepting him for a long time. I cried for hours at the end when he was violently torn away from one of them and sent to live with someone whom he didn’t consider to be his mother anymore. This film was a naked mirror to the situation in my family, where my sister had acted as a stand-in for my mother in early childhood, only to abandon me by moving away at 18 and turning into a very different person. But despite leaving, she refused to resign her claim upon me just as much as our mother failed to take her place in my life. It’s no good having two mothers, especially when both of them are abusive, possessive, and have no actual intentions of listening to or taking care of you.
My sister’s epoch of emotional abuse really began when she invited me to visit her during one summer while she was at college. This was during the period when I was eleven years old, and my older brother’s sexual, physical, and emotional abuse was at an all time high, but she honestly expected me to come visit her and be entertaining. My sister continuously blew up at me from the very beginning because I kept asking her to repeat what she had said–I was extremely unsure of myself and afraid of making a mistake, but she only made it worse by screaming every time I did this. “Those kids asked me if you were deaf!” she constantly repeated in order to shame me for this. At the time, my sister was sleeping on the couch in a small house with a neo-Nazi skinhead and one of his six girlfriends. Of course I wasn’t comfortable there, but in her eyes it was my fault, even when I contracted a severe, full-body rash of poison ivy from playing badmitten in their backyard.
I had attempted to climb a tree covered in the oily vine when the birdie got, so it was all over my face, causing the skin on my lips to dry and crack, making it difficult to speak. I couldn’t even eat for a week afterwards, but any time I tried to defend myself against her attacks about this visit, she would cut me off by shouting, “Caden, NO!” As if there was no defense, no excuse, I was most definitely at fault because as the white power girlfriend living in the house said to me “your sister said you were so much fun but you come here and are just a big bore.” She said this while pus from the poison ivy was running continuously down my face, and right in front of my sister, who didn’t even try to defend me. I suppose I was just too much of a reminder to my sister of the extremely abusive family that she had just left, and while she wasn’t willing to yell at our parents, I was a convenient target for her pent up emotions. Regardless, it was the end of our relationship, even though the dead connection was dragged along behind us for many years afterwards.
My sister’s preferred solution to ‘dealing with’ my anxiety had nothing to do with understanding me and what made me anxious. Rather, she chose to publicly confront me about it, humiliate me, and use brute force to make me do things I was afraid of. This of course was not a ‘cure’ but only reinforced my insecurities which it was not her right to comment on in the first place, and only added to the trauma I faced. Dozens of times, I remember her standing over me, instructing me to ‘say thank you!’ to our parents, my grandmother, or aunt–people who barely even looked at me in response. Often she would exclaim, “they didn’t hear you!” And make me say it again and again. She threatened and blackmailed me into going on scary rides that made me sick at amusement parks when I was a child, and loved to make me say things out loud when she already knew what I wanted. Even when I was twenty one she still tried to treat me this way, and couldn’t believe that I would dare to stand up for myself in response.
She harassed me non-stop for not doing things on account of my anxiety–such as saying ‘happy birthday’ to my father when just as I was about to say it my mother had screamed at me that “if you didn’t get your father a present, you better say happy birthday!” thus publicly confronting and shaming me for not getting him a present and also making it seem like I had forgotten and was only saying it on account of her. Of course, I had no relationship with my father at that point, and despite my sister’s moralistic attacks on me (while she had nothing but excuses and understanding for our father,) that was his fault. I had good reasons for feeling awkward and deserved empathy for what I was going through From the time when I cut things off with her, she would try to force me to do things in ways which were absolutely impossible for me and I was belittled for trying to organize my life in a way which made me feel comfortable.
In later years, I was disturbed to see the way my sister treated her own son. At mealtimes, she was constantly pulling him aside and making threats, giving lectures if he wouldn’t eat everything she gave him. Repeatedly she would go on about how much food he wasted, when in my view I could see that it was she who insisted on making him practically six meals a day when he wasn’t hungry and hadn’t asked for anything. She was the one wasting the food, but imprinting this message into him early on that he was a ‘waster.’ Children are born with a natural sense of hunger and knowledge of when they are full, when they are ready to stop eating; parents can either respect this, or pervert it by alternately starving and force-feeding. My sister chose the latter option, but consistently blamed him for “not eating anything!” when she had clearly turned this into a power-play herself. I wouldn’t be surprised if he developed an eating disorder later in life just like I did from similar abuse surrounding food.
My sister loved genetic theory, she would often claim that my brother was the way he was because of ‘genes.’ Thus the incest, physical abuse, neglect, and emotional abuse had nothing to do with it, he was just born that way, and so of course our parents were the victims of his “genetic” delinquency. Similarly, I observed her shaming and shouting at her son things like ‘no complaining,’ ‘stop crying,’ and she would use derogatory words like saying that he was ‘whiny,’ and then tried to claim that he had difficulty expressing emotions but it was just ‘genetic,’ or based on his gender. It is valuable for me to look at my sister’s abusive parenting, because it provides a clue not only to things she repeats from our own parents, but many parallels as to how she treated me when as my mother said, I was “raised by her.”
Despite my sister rhapsodizing incessantly about how close we had once been to the point of attempted brainwashing, I have many of my own memories which I accept as the truth today. She was a very violent person really, I recall her punching me in the stomach, slapping, kicking, and choking me whenever it suited her. When I was five, I was afraid of the dark, and she would throw a blanket over my head every time I didn’t do something she wanted, because she knew it would make me cry. She never brought up these events while talking about the past, preferring to idealize and gloss over any uncomfortable truths about herself or our family as a whole. The fact is, we once had a rather unhealthy bond, we looked to each other for comfort in the midst of our family marred by neglect, incest, and emotional abuse. That dynamic couldn’t keep going forever, and being dependent on one another led only to pain afterwards.
I remember bawling my eyes out the first year or two, whenever she left from her short visits home, though eventually I stopped, because I knew it was over, I had lost everything and I became numb. In the film, it took over fifty years for the main character to come to any resolution about his two mothers and how utterly failed he was by them and the bureaucratic system which oversaw his welfare. Thankfully I haven’t spent that long. Today I don’t look to either of my ugly, abusive “mother’s” for love, kindness, or support. I can give that to myself now, and see the past for what it was.