Trigger Warning: the following contains a discussion of rape.
Graduation day: I won a university medal and my mother kicked me out of the family. While I’m sure that she would not claim a direct causal relationship, I’m starting to wonder. It seems that the more external validation I receive, the more caustic she becomes.
I’ve been playing over in my mind the events that have led to all the dramas, and I’m starting to think that this just isn’t even about me but rather the role I play in my mothers life, namely that of the black sheep, the trouble maker, the ‘bad to her good’, and the cause of all her problems. If I don’t adhere to that role, then she would have to readdress her own responsibilities and failings. I’m starting to think that she desperately needs to believe that I am a bad person because if I’m not, then maybe our relationship and our history has had something to do with her.
I have just finished a fine art degree. The week before graduation we (the honours cohort) held our final exhibition, the culmination of our years work. I invited my family. Normally I don’t bother, but it was the last show, I was nominated to MC the event, and I thought it would be nice to have some guests there. The night went by without drama, although my mother and stepfather left shortly after the speeches.
Two days later, as I was cleaning the house and getting lunch ready in expectation of my mum and my stepdad’s arrival, I received a phone call from mum cancelling their visit. She said it was because things were too tense due to the fact that her and her husband were fighting. Also, she just wanted to let me know that their fight was entirely my fault.
Apparently he had been deeply offended by the speech I had made at the exhibition. This instantly struck me as odd; the speech I had given was a very stock-standard thank-you to the staff on behalf of the students. I followed the traditional format – welcome everyone to the show, thank the lecturers, thank the tutors and support staff, thank industry professionals for coming, thank friends and family for their support, and then introduce the next speakers. How could any of that have offended anyone? Well, because it proves my “extreme ingratitude” of course. The worst bit for my stepdad was when I thanked friends and family. As my mother told it to me, this was “just the final straw”, and he “rolled his eyes and thought ‘yeah, she’ll thank everyone but me”.
As I’m sure you can understand, I found this rather exasperating. I mean seriously, he doesn’t think he is included in ‘friends and family’? Although I tried to reason with my mother, she wasn’t having a word of it. In her view, he was right to be hurt; while I might have thanked her before, I had NEVER thanked him and he had only wanted to be singled out and thanked personally during my speech for their financial support over the course of my degree. I’m just completely ungrateful.
Again I tried to reason with her – of course I’m grateful, of course I’ve thanked him, no it wasn’t accompanied by fanfare and applause, but NEVER is a bit of an exaggeration. And it wasn’t MY speech, I was speaking on behalf of the entire cohort; it would have been inappropriate of me to start naming my own individual family members without thanking everyone else’s family individually. This wasn’t an Oscar’s acceptance speech; it was an exhibition opening, and the last opportunity for graduating students to thank the university staff.
At this point in the conversation, my mother brought out the big guns. “Well think about this,” she said. “I overheard some of the staff talking about your artwork and they said ‘This artist makes very narcissistic work’, so I think you better think about how you are coming across to people. I am just so embarrassed by the things they think about you”.
Using other people’s opinions as weapons is pretty typical warfare for my mother. Whenever she feels that her position or logic is challenged, she lashes out with comments like, “this is why your sister/partner/aunty, etc. says *insert random insult about you*” or just “this is why people don’t like you”. Half the time the things she says are either incorrect, out of context, or just plain untrue. The thing is that I have received more validation at university then anywhere else in my life; my confidence has grown exponentially and as a result, likeability just isn’t the issue for me that that it once was. Not everyone is going to like me; not everyone is going to like my artwork. I’m ok with that, or at least I’m learning to be. But in spite of this, my mother’s comment hit me hard. I was furious. Not because someone had called my work narcissistic, but because how dare she attempt to undermine my confidence, hard work, and the relationships I had developed in the university.
What I find funny and also incredibly frustrating, is that narcissistic – as a term to describe the artwork in question, is actually quite apt. It is narcissistic; purposefully, knowingly, ironically narcissistic. To give you a bit of an idea, it is a self-portrait for a start (inherently narcissistic), also it is a video performance work (arguably the most narcissistic of art mediums), but I take it further: I pose for the camera while a leaf blower blows my hair off my face. Diamonds swirl in the background while kittens and unicorns fall across the screen. To anyone who has noticed that we are currently living in an unprecedentedly narcissistic age of profiles, statuses, and selfies, the work could be considered humorously, critically narcissistic. I did actually intend it to be funny, but obviously any humor was lost on my mother.
Even if my mother’s reality of the overheard comment is true (as an insult and attack on me personally), it was a pretty classless move to repeat it to me in that context. I was still waiting for my results and had the next three years of my life dependent on them. If I didn’t receive first-class Honours I would have blown my chance at an academic scholarship and doctorate. Despite very kind and reassuring support from the uni staff, I still felt ill with self-doubt and anticipation. What if they don’t like my research? What if they don’t like my work? What if I’ve completely messed up? What if, in the final moment I’ve finally revealed my fraudulence? What if they don’t want me? What the hell am I going to do with my life? Impostor syndrome or not, waiting for results is stressful. I think it was unnecessarily mean for her to come in at that point and state that in her brief time overhearing a conversation, she has uncovered the staff’s true feelings about me – the same staff that are currently marking my work, assessing my application, and who I hope will become my colleagues in the future.
She didn’t actually listen to any of this. The conversation went downhill very quickly. She insisted that I just couldn’t take criticism. I can’t remember which one of us hung-up on the other.
I couple of days later I wrote to my stepdad. While I needed a day to let myself simmer down, the truth is that it bothers me that he feels I am ungrateful for all their help, because I’m not. If I haven’t made my gratitude clear to him then that is an issue, and I have no problem with addressing it and saying thank you again. So I wrote to him and I apologized for appearing ungrateful and clarified to him that my speech was in no way designed to exclude him. I explained that I was speaking on behalf of the class, that it wasn’t my speech alone and that I was following the script. I reassured him that I considered him to be family and that my generalized thank-you to family and friends had been directed at him. I also thanked him as sincerely as I could and told him that I am very aware I could not have done finished my degree without their help. And I meant it. I am grateful.
In his response he explained that he had been in a particularly bad mood at the time (for very good reason – he had just been made redundant) and on top of that, Mum and him were fighting about issues over her unwillingness to help out with his elderly mother. He said that the conversation with mum had gone too far but that he thinks some things he said were taken out of context. He also accepted both my apology and thanks. We were good. Lets move on.
If I only had to deal with him we would have moved on, by now I had my marks back (100% 1st class) and I had just been notified of my acceptance to the doctoral program. I finally felt proud of myself; I had clawed my way from being a high-school dropout and teenage runaway to becoming a university graduate. Now, two days out from graduation, I was in the mood to celebrate, but unfortunately this is the point where things were about to turn really bad.
*Cue dramatic music. Mum called.
Right from the start she had ‘that tone’. You know the one – the mother tone: the tone typically reserved for disobedient teenagers. It normally consists of abruptly short sentences followed by tightly pursed lips and a scowl. For example, “Now that’s enough!” or “You listen to me”. Having three children myself, I know the tone well, but I have become much more accustomed to giving it than receiving it.
“Right.” she said with the warmth of Nurse Ratched, “I’m sorry for my part in what happened”. Purse, scowl, and pause.
That pause is my pre-scripted place to apologise to her in return, at which point she will agree that yes I should be apologizing to her, because she was right all along. If mum does anything well, its passive aggression; she is a master at it. This time I really didn’t feel like taking the bait. “Ok mum”, I replied. “But I don’t think you understand why I was so upset at your comment about overhearing the staff say my work was narcissistic.”
“What?! I never said that!”
“Yes Mum, yes you did.”
“No I didn’t! And I can prove that I didn’t, because I know who it was that said your work is narcissistic and I know they’re not staff.”
‘Well who was it?”
“I’m not telling you.”
“Well it’s actually irrelevant anyway mum. I’m not upset that someone thinks my work is narcissistic. I’m upset because…”
She wasn’t interested in hearing a thing. For the next little while we spoke over the top of each. I tried to explain that artworks can be called narcissistic without implying that the artist is necessarily a narcissist. She tried to explain that I am definitely a narcissist – she had googled it. I’m narcissistic with a false sense of entitlement, and everyone thinks so. Also I’m a liar, clearly – because I’m accusing her of saying the staff said something when it was actually someone else. My complete lack of gratitude and unwillingness to thank my stepfather just proves everything.
“But I have thanked him.” I insisted. By this stage I was offended, hurt, and frustrated.
“Not good enough. Now stop talking and let me tell you what you should have done.”
“Ok Mum, but I’ll make you a deal. You tell me what I should have done, and I’ll listen. But then, we are going to talk about what you should have done and you can listen.”
“Well, what the hell do you mean by that?”
And out it came…the first thing that popped into my head… “How about what you should have done when I was raped at 13 and you refused to talk about it”
I actually added a couple more things to the list but it was already too late. She had given the phone to her husband and walked away. The shock of suddenly hearing his voice on the phone and the knowledge that, once again, she wasn’t willing to listen to me, was too much. My partner, who by now was standing next to me listening, took the phone from me and attempted to talk reason. It didn’t go well.
First he argued with my stepdad about why he wasn’t willing to put me back on the phone so that he could give me a stern talking to about upsetting my mother. Then my mother got back on the phone and he argued with her. Their argument – what I heard of it anyway, sent chills down my spine. Although I couldn’t hear what she was saying, it didn’t take a lot to work it out. For the next 15 minutes my partner argued empathically that “It did happen…She was raped…She’s not a liar…You can’t say IF it happened; it DID happen…What has your embarrassment got to do with anything?…” and on it went. She was completely adamant that I was lying. Eventually someone hung up. Afterwards, my partner cried. I stopped crying and entered a state of self-preserving numbness, a familiar state I remember from my teenage years. My partner did try to talk to her once more the following day, but it just got worse. She remained completely unwilling to talk to me.
Needless to say, she didn’t come to my graduation. Instead of congratulations, I received a text message stating that I was no longer part of the family. Thanks Mum.
If you have managed to make it this far through my post and are still reading, let me express a little gratitude: Hey, thanks for listening. This is long and convoluted and I’m sorry that I feel compelled to vent it out in a blow-by-blow account. This has taken more explaining and time than I had anticipated. I opened this blog by suggesting that I had come to a realization about why this situation has become so out of hand – that I’m starting to think that her view of me has much more to do with the view of herself that she desperately clings to than any kind of reality, and I do plan to get back to that point eventually. Hold tight for chapter two and the next exciting adventure – joint therapy with my mother.
Spoiler Alert: Things aren’t going to get better.
Chapter two can now be found here