October 15, 2010
Sister from another mother
I heard from Jessie Sholl the other day. Her memoir, DIRTY SECRET: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding, is coming out in December, and I am hanging on this book. The title itself is revelatory, makes me think of my own mother — why is our mothers' problem our secret? Why does it hang over our heads? It's vicarious shame, like vicarious embarrassment, the agony you feel when you're watching someone make an ass of themselves in public (which of course the Germans have a name for: fremdschämen). It's empathy, but it's too much empathy. It involves entering the mental realm of the disordered in order to understand them. I've likened interacting with my mother and her husband to jumping into a double dutch; you just try to anticipate how they're going to turn the ropes, try to stay inside the eye of their cyclone of fucking lunacy.
I was watching Hoarders on A&E the other day, thinking suddenly, I wouldn't want my child to live like this. I thought about all the heartbroken parents who genuinely love their kids, but whose kids are suffering from addiction and mental illness to the point where they have to be given up for gone. I thought about how far I would go for my kid, how I'd fly anywhere on the map for them, and how I would march in there (wherever there was) and physically drag them to rehab, or a hospital, or out of the filth they've been living in, and get them cleaned up and safe. So why won't I do that for my mom? Because I tried once and failed? I must not have tried very hard. Shouldn't I try again? I wouldn't give up on her if she was my kid.
I KNOW, I KNOW. My mother is not my kid. I KNOW. She is childlike in her helplessness, in her stubbornness, in her lack of practical sense. In the way she lies about things poorly, stupidly, like children do, with pie all over their fingers and face, insisting that they didn't eat the pie. She is a fucking eight-year-old brat at times. But she's not legally a child. If I had a kid who lived like this, I could appeal to the authorities and courts, I could send that child to a disciplinary school, I could have that child kidnapped, like my friend A.'s parents did to him when he was fourteen, had him woken up in his bed in Brooklyn by two men who threw a bag over his head and tied him up, then threw him in a van and took him to the airport, where he was sent to boot camp in the desert for three months. If my mother were my child, this would be legal.
But she is neither a child, nor is she mine. She is her own adult. She is legally allowed to live however she wants, and though I don't see how that could be possible, the authorities have told me so. Animal Welfare, Building Department, social services for the elderly — they say there's nothing they can do. Even the guy I wanted to hire to clean the place up told me he couldn't and wouldn't do it. "This is how they choose to live," he told me. "They're not unhappy about it. You're unhappy about it."
I didn't realize, until I had this stray thought, that I still thought she was mine, that I ever thought she was mine, but of course I always have. Even when I was avoiding her, I knew I could never leave her. The best I could do was stuff her in the attic like Rochester's wife. Now it seems she's escaped.
The strange thing is, she ran away from me. And all this time I thought I was the abandoner.