As I work on my first essay in memoir-writing class, I’m beginning to feel vulnerable. I prefer wearing a veneer of titanium, but I’m willing to remove it—momentarily—to see what happens.
I used to see vulnerable people as weaklings. I’m not talking about children, the elderly, people with mental disabilities who could be abused with ease. I’m talking about people who have the ability to reveal their love, pain, and hopes while trusting those around them to be kind.
I view these open people as among the most courageous because betrayal of trust is a possibility, always, with humans. Yet those who trust keep doing so anyway. I believe their courage comes from a strength, the knowledge that mean-spiritedness can be overcome, and trusting is worth its inherent risks. It is a belief in one’s self more than in others.
Despite recognizing this, the last thing I want to do is drop my guard and let others see my ugliness, fears, and soft squishy underbelly that is so easy to wound. Yet here I am, pouring my experience onto paper and sharing it with my classmates.
I’ve always been an over sharer. Just ask my peers in previous playwriting classes. Every new draft of a scene brought the same response: “Cindy, you need to fictionalize this.” The drive to write memoir is visceral, and if I fight it, I think something in me will waste away.
One aspect of my character I’m not eager to share is my judgment of others. It is often merciless, even as I acknowledge my lack of moral authority. Until now, I never questioned the sources of this tendency, but I have the beginning of a clue to one.
I just learned of a dirty little family secret. It was scandalous at the time, but as our society has evolved, the telling of this kind of thing now is routine, even dull, except perhaps to the most rigid of religious fanatics.
The family member involved was a pseudo-parent to me for many years. As a child, I heard her tell me what she saw in me, my future, my parents. The surface of her words had a gloss of kindness, encouragement, and approval. My desperation for love and acceptance was so craven that I clung to her as a life raft while my parents screamed at and beat each other.
As the decades rolled on, the intent of her words became clearer. The nuances of phrase and tone had always left me feeling less than, ashamed, a disappointment to her. That feeling has become an essential part of who I am.
I haven’t spoken to her in decades, just as I have avoided my parents. To be connected is to want to die. I have tried to separate her from this equation, but I’ve been unsuccessful. So I accept that she was one of my mold makers.
This secret revelation, however, has turned my mind, and I see something different. I see a woman who made a most human mistake, and for that, she paid with a lifetime of judgment from her parents. As she was vilified, her twin brother was glorified as the golden child, one who could do no wrong, this despite his being one of the most cruel and perverted people to inhabit this planet. That monster was my father, and my dysfunctional mentor was his twin sister, my aunt, an unwanted surprise on the day of their birth so many decades ago.
My aunt spent years working as a single mother, dedicated to giving her child the best life possible in an era where that kind of thing was only spoken of in whispers. My father devoted his time and energy to fighting with my mother and erasing most of my childhood memories through trauma.
It is understatement to call this unfair. It is also easy to understand why she might look at me, child of the golden child, and yield to the temptation to knock me down, make me doubt, encourage my fears. Judging comes easiest to those who have suffered judgment. I judge because it’s what I know. But now, writing memoir, I want more. I want to understand, and I want to forgive.
There’s a portion of my heart that has opened, for the first time, to this woman. Where I once only saw bitterness and felt recrimination, I now see a human who made a mistake, who tried to make it right, who couldn’t escape the pain of her life’s choices.
I suppose I’m ready to write memoir now. Just two years ago I was writing harsh scenes in playwriting class about this same woman. Now my anger and pain are making room for something greater.
But just for a little while this morning, I’m going to slip back into my titanium bathrobe. Baby steps.