Dark Gifts, part III

In a world where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.
— Adrienne Rich

I heard from a mutual friend that my younger sister and her daughter visited California this week. She didn’t mention they were coming, and they were gone before I knew they were here. This isn’t unusual in our family.

I grew up in a small community, sandwiched between two sisters, all of us close enough in age, there were no hand-me-downs between us. We wore the same clothes, ate the same food, and competed for the same resources, until each of us clawed our way out of poverty and the quiet cycle of disposability into which we were born.

The first rule when you’re born into a cult is: don’t call it a cult. The second rule: don't leave. The third rule: don’t identify the cult by name. And the fourth rule: never tell anyone where you come from.

Breaking these rules has a cost.

Even now.

Sometimes the past doesn’t want to stay in the past, and it starts to creep into our dreams, trickling into our psyches like early morning fog. So we stay as far away from it as we can, closing windows and doors that threaten to let it in.

When men tell me about their crazy ex-wives or girlfriends, I usually remind them that when you assess a woman on the scale and deviation of a standard male norm, all women are crazy.

But the truth is, I was raised by women who didn’t exhibit wild temperaments. My mother and grandmothers and aunts were well-heeled and prided themselves in their self-control. Their emotions were kept under such tight wraps, I can barely picture either their bodies or their mouths moving. I’ve never heard my mother raise her voice. Where I come from, there was no screaming, no tears, no arguments, no theatrics. The women in my world watched each other like hawks, distant and circling, anticipating the faintest movement of potential prey.

And we steered clear. Because the women we come from don't show love. They keep their hearts stashed in dark corners. If you catch a glimpse of heart and dare to speak of it, they close a door, disguised as a smile. 

Because there is no truth beauty cannot hide.

I am proud of both my sisters for creating lives for themselves and their chosen families that are much richer and more nuanced than the one we came from. I miss their ghosts, but none of us seem able to spend time with each other without hyperventilating. We remind each other of something we've worked tirelessly to forget. And we resist getting sucked back into that vortex. Resisting requires every last ounce of strength we have.

Knowing this, I have had to consciously choose who I will trust, who I will open up to, who will be my chosen family.

Not everyone has this sort of freedom, the freedom to choose. This is its own gift.

Because my family of origin is so disconnected, in every circle I move in, I work to develop relationships that are growing and evolving. I have had the luxury of asking myself what it takes to grow in relationship with another person, and to choose my people accordingly.

One of the most powerful ways to resist and transform disconnection is to name it.

According to Jean Baker Miller, in a healthy growth-fostering relationship:

1. Each person feels a greater sense of “zest” (vitality, energy)

2. Each person feels more able to act and does act.

3. Each person has a more accurate picture of herself or himself and of the other person.

4. Each person feels a greater sense of worth.

5. Each person feels more connected to the other person and feels a greater motivation for connections with other people beyond those in the specific relationship.

I strive to give and receive these qualities in each of my close relationships. Shared blood isn't the only way to make a family.

And this, too, is a gift.

Michelle Dowd