Nov 12, 2021

Among the contents of a box of mementos my father showed me during this visit, I found five-by-seven studio photos of my grandmother Marie in a high lace collar, holding a rose; slides of a naked, full-breasted brunette; and my parents’ divorce agreement. This last I read with attention. When I came to a paragraph where my mother agreed never to take my brother and me out of state, it jolted me—despite the fact that I’d known she broke this promise to my father. He was probably the one who first told me this—though I don’t remember when—as an example of my mother’s perfidy. But seeing it in print brought home to me even more forcefully the seriousness and magnitude of this betrayal. I knew my father hadn’t wanted the divorce—at a time before no-fault divorces—and that his agreement was contingent upon this promise.

What struck me then was the cruelty of this breach of trust. At the core of my mother’s sense of selfworth was the notion that she was a highly principled person, and I can remember her telling me more than once over the years that her role model from the time she was a child was Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet despite the lofty moral standard she claimed to hold herself to—and expected Doug and me to adhere to as well, she flagrantly disregarded the most important pledge she ever made to my father, besides her marriage vows—and probably the most consequential one she ever made to anyone.

And while in later age she could admit that things were worse for all of us after the move, she never expressed remorse or any moral compunction about this betrayal. Instead, to justify it, she convinced herself, at the time and forever afterward, that she was so much the better parent—my father being so autocratic and selfish and negligent—that my brother and I were better off without him.

She could never allow that her taking Doug and me to California might have shattered his health. I believe it did; I think it triggered the abandonment feelings he’d experienced as a child when my aunt Julia, the only one who’d loved him, was forced to leave. No doubt there were multiple reasons for his collapse—the loss of control over his life, for one; until then, my father had managed to have everything on his own terms. But I suspect the main reason was losing Doug and me, that there were ways in which my father needed us, perhaps as the companions he’d never had in his boyhood.

Sometimes I think that the shambles my mother and father made of their marriage and parenthood was always going to happen. My mother was always going to choose a man who was emotionally unavailable like her own father, and she was always going to leave him, a decision that would initially feel to her like an assertion of her own power and independence but that would plunge her back into the stress of her childhood dilemma of feeling overburdened with responsibility. And my dad was always going to be an insensitive and autocratic partner who would alienate his spouse, then wind up divorced and feeling abandoned, the way he had been as a child. Alice Miller has said that some of us have a compulsion to repeat, a compulsion I see in my parents’ lives, as well as my own.


As I rework this vignette, it occurs to me for the first time that my mother’s justification for breaking her promise—that is, her superiority as a parent—all but necessitated her denial of her subsequent mistreatment of Doug and me. Though, throughout her life, my mother always prided herself on having a “self-observing ego,” as she called it, there was a moment in my teenage years when I realized how wrong she was about herself.

It happened when we were in the stall of dressing room of a department store, where I was trying on clothes. In a neighboring stall, we heard a mother berating her daughter. The moment we left, Mom exclaimed how appalled she was by the way this mother had treated her daughter—which left me dumbfounded because it was exactly the way she treated me. If she could have seen her own behavior, I realized then, she would have judged herself just as harshly.