In Alison Bechdel’s ‘graphic novel’ memoir, Are You My Mother, she shares about her difficulty relating to her mother, her feelings of being the parents in the relationship, and her adoption of various people as mother figures. Throughout the pages of her recollections, she draws together quotes and thoughts from many other books, from Virginia Woolf’s diary, to books on psychotherapy. One book which she quotes several times is “The Drama of the Gifted Child”. The quotes were so instructive and compelling, I bought the book before I had even finished Bechdel’s memoir.
The title puzzled me a bit. It seemed to be a book about recovering from childhood abuse, but ‘gifted’ generally refers to an exceptionally intelligent or talented child. This isn’t what she means, she refers instead to “all of us who have survived an abusive childhood thanks to an ability to adapt eve to unspeakable cruelty by becoming numb…. Without this ‘gift’ offered us by nature, we would not have survived.”
From this book, I learned that abusive or bad mothers (mother meaning whoever was the primary caretaker of the infant), instead of mirroring and caring for the child, expect the child to mirror and care for her. The child automatically represses her own feelings to become what the mother wants her to be, thus burying the ‘true self’ behind the ‘false self’. This false self will persist into adulthood, until the adult can finally feel the repressed emotions of childhood, and blame the parents for the hurt they inflicted. An adult who cannot do this is likely to be trapped by those old feelings of neglect, powerlessness, and shame, and repeat the relationship with their mother in many other relationships. Many of these children grow up to be parents who, if they cannot recognize their parents’ wrongdoing, will repeat their parents’ mistakes. By feeling the repressed emotions of childhood, a parent can change and end the cycle.
Alice Miller recommends therapy for reaching these memories and emotions, although she mentions many times that a therapist who hasn’t dealt with his own abusive past is unlikely to be able to help a patient deal with hers.
While reading, I experienced very strong emotions and memories. I felt angry, depressed, and lost. I felt almost doomed to be a bad mother, despite how far I have come in working through formerly repressed emotions. I feel that I still have a long way to go, as evidenced by the fact that I am still very depressed and still easily triggered. I think, though, that I have been heading in the right direction.
I wouldn’t recommend reading this book if you are not ready to unpack painful memories. However, if you are ready to deal with a difficult childhood, it is well worth wading through 126 short pages.