I’m on a classic movie kick right now. A couple of weeks ago, I was making my way through the Katharine Hepburn collection. This week, the object of my attention is Bette Davis.
It’s not enough for me to watch the films; I have to do a deep dive into the personal life. I read both of her memoirs and skimmed her child’s.
Her daughter and only biological child wrote a tell-all book on the heels of Joan Crawford’s daughter writing Mommie Dearest, the scandalous book turned movie. Davis’s daughter’s book was interesting because it lacked the meat of its predecessor I read the ending, a couple of pages at the beginning, and skimmed the middle. “What is this?” I thought. I started looking up reviews of the book and it seemed like at the time, many people shared my reaction. No one corroborated her stories, her mom and brother shunned her, and the general consensus seemed to be, she did too much and too little all at the same time. She didn’t have any particular scathing gossip worth hearing and the publication of the book was ill-timed because unlike Crawford, who was dead when her daughter’s book was published, Davis was still alive, albeit weaker, and recuperating from a series of strokes.
My research left me uneasy. I am a firm believer in truth telling as a means to liberation. I’m not here for people trying to censor people’s truth because it makes them uncomfortable. I wanted to support this woman’s choice to write this book and yet, something didn’t feel right, so I went back to the books – hers and her mother’s – and tried to get a sense of what happened.
My theory is that the daughter grew up really feeling the void of a stable father-figure, for which she blamed her feisty, independent mother. She believes that if her mother had taken a more traditional role in her marriages, one of them would have lasted. I imagine it’s an issue of being raised by Lorelai Gilmore when you would have much preferred June Cleaver. Said daughter grows up a little and gets married at 16 to a man almost twice her age. She is determined to be the wife and mother that her own mom failed to be. Mom is dismayed at her daughter’s choices and they fight. Then, daughter gets caught up with the evangelical Christians, which unleashes a world of self-righteous attitude and vindictive behavior on what would have otherwise have been a simple divergence in philosophical approaches to life.
Many of the comments about the daughter’s book included disparaging comments about therapy, something to the effect of, “Another brat blaming her parents for her life. Get over yourself.” It’s those comments that really had me marinating on this old conflict. I too, used to feel like therapy was a gross exercise in self-indulgence and rendered people incapable of moving forward with their lives. I have zero patience for people who blame all their troubles on others and therapy seemed like the biggest enabler for those types of people.
These days, I am such a huge proponent of therapy. It has done wonders for me and I wish more people would go. I wish my dad had gone to therapy. It might have saved his life. Now, that I’m on the other side of this debate about the value of therapy, I am trying to reconcile my earlier beliefs with my current truth. I had to revisit my thoughts in the years leading up to me committing to therapy and in the months right around when I actually decided to really give it a try.
My instinctive response to trauma is to run. When I was eighteen, I ran away from a life that I did not love on the assumption that if I packed light and didn’t burden myself with memories and resentment from the past, I could be free. I tried to accept the hand I had been dealt and not question it. Yet, there were these moments when I broke. I would explode in a fit of anger or sadness and leave a world of hurt in my wake. I realized that despite my best effort, I was still carrying baggage. Fine, I said. I will acknowledge it.
I then thought that understanding was the key to my freedom. If I could figure out why I experienced what I had, then I could accept it and move on. I read a lot of books like Unequal Childhoods and I tried desperately to break through my parents’ insurmountable walls and get them to talk through the difficult topics.
It didn’t help. I found myself in a vortex similar to India.Arie’s in “Heart of the Matter.” I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter/The more I know, the less I understand
But I tried to delude myself into thinking that my efforts were getting me somewhere. Ok, I said to myself, I see (as best as I could; neither of my parents bare their souls easily) who my parents are, why they did what they did and I’m at peace. I had read somewhere that forgiveness is accepting that the past could not be any different. I honestly believe that my parents did the best that they could. There was no other way, so that’s it. In my head, I could see the anger, hurt, and resentment gliding away from me like a slow-moving brook.
It was not so. When my friend gently, but urgently, began nudging me to see a therapist I kept asking, “Why?” What can therapy do for somebody like me?” I’m not one of those people who lies about her life. I look Truth directly in the eyes. I won’t be like one of those people on tv that the therapist has to trick into divulging certain facts. I keep no secrets. Also, what could the therapist tell me about the people in my life? I see them for who they are. I accept them. It’s all good. I’m not about to listen to anyone tell me how I was hurt as child and how I’m screwed for life. I’m nobody’s victim.
But, that depression was persistent. It wore me down. Eventually, I got to a place where I was ready to surrender, so I did.
I approached the process of finding a therapist with so much anxiety. I knew that it was important that I find someone who was a good fit for me, but I’m also impatient and didn’t want to speed-date a bunch of therapists. I had hoped to find a female therapist, a strong, older, maternal woman of color because I respond well to those types, but I also had to be cognizant of location and most importantly, my insurance.
So, I googled Boston therapists and filtered the results by therapists who accepted my insurance. I looked through the list and then emailed the ones whose picture put me at ease. I ended up with a young Jewish woman who practices near Harvard Square, my favorite place in Boston. When we met for the first time (and probably the first couple of months after that), I was not certain that she could be of service to me. I was falling apart and could this young (I actually don’t know how old she is…maybe early to mid-30s?) girl hold me up?
For the first month, I just talked at rapid fire speed while she maintained eye contact, never taking notes, before calling time and then giving me about 2 minutes of feedback. After the second meeting, she said, “Wow, Andrea. As you were talking, all I could think was, ‘gifted.’ I think you were a gifted child.” I was caught off guard by how that compliment warmed me. I called my little sister (my post-session debrief buddy) and told her what she said. “Oh you didn’t know? I thought you knew.” No, I have never self-identified in that way and I floated around on her words for the rest of the week.
I joked with friend, “Well, if I don’t get anything else out of these sessions, I can at least have someone to give me weekly self-esteem boosts.”
But her compliments also made me uncomfortable. Some sessions, she would sit there smiling at me while she spoke about how eloquent I was, etc and all I could think was no, I don’t need someone who is this impressed with me. I needed someone who is a few steps ahead of me, so they can give me much-needed reality checks. The last thing I need is an amen corner.
I told my psychologist friend that I was in therapy and he hollered. “I can’t even imagine what you would be like as a patient.” I told him what she had said about me being gifted and he replied, “Maybe that was her way of telling you that she probably wasn’t a good fit for you.” Ugh. Do I need to start looking for a new therapist?
If I weren’t so lazy, I would have left. But I am, so I stayed. I’ve been in therapy for almost four months now and it’s crazy because I can see the world of good it has done, but I am not able completely track the train of progress.
However, a couple of moments in particular do stand out. The first occurred in maybe the first or second session. I was trying to find the words for an unspoken shame. The shame itself wasn’t the focus of the session – I was doing my best not to discuss it – but I had to mention it as context for the rest of the story. I fumbled around with my words until she cut in and said, “You wanted connection,” and nodded as if this desire was the most natural thing. I continued on with my story, but I kept watching for the expected disgust to cloud her eyes; it never did.
I thought about that for days and weeks after and kept repeating it to myself, “I want connection.” Suddenly, this hidden shame was sitting in the light and I couldn’t imagine why I had hidden it and loathed myself so. All because this woman had looked me in the eye without a trace of contempt in her eyes and said what I could not.
My little sister was just here visiting for a couple of weeks. One night, I was sitting in the living room watching Now, Voyager for the first time. She came in at the ending. I went to the menu and skipped around to rewatch my favorite scenes with her. My sister’s commentary on anything is always delivered very drily. I have seen her in a fit of emotion only a couple of times in my life. In general, she is even-keeled. As a deeply emotional person, I have come to appreciate her more stable mannerisms because when she says something in her cut and dry manner (similar to my therapist) that resonates with what I feel in my heart, I am soothed. I tell myself, “Hah! I’m not crazy!”
As I’m scrolling through various scenes, I’m discussing the aesthetics, not focusing on the content of the story. I don’t think I was trying to be deceptive. I doubt that I knew then why that movie had settled into my soul as it had. We then arrived at a contentious argument in the movie and I heard my sister take in a sharp intake of air. She did not exhale for awhile.
“Ooo, why do I see my life in this old movie?”
I smiled and didn’t reply. I woke up the next morning still thinking about that film. I got online to see if someone had written a good review of it that summed up my feelings. I discovered it was a book and I jumped on my bike, headed for the library. I am sure I looked like a star-struck adolescent as I walked out, carrying that book like it was a signed copy of my favorite celebrity’s photo. I balanced the book between the fingers on my right-hand as I rode back home. I was near the end of the book by the time I met my sister for dinner that evening and I had to beg her forgiveness as I sat at the table, hurrying to finish.
The next day was Tuesday, the day of my therapy sessions. Usually I love Tuesdays. I bike to my appointments and I love flying through the residential area where her practice is located. I feel like a little girl once more and it makes me feel alive.
This Tuesday, I woke up shaking. I knew what I needed to share. When I called my friend after Thanksgiving, melting down about some bad news I had just received, she had broached the subject of therapy again. “Andrea, you have done so much work on yourself and you’ve made so much progress, but there is…something…and it’s right there at the back of your throat. It’s making you so tired.”
Suddenly, it was all to clear what she had been referring to and I was ready to acknowledge it. I got dressed with such painstaking care and on my way out of the door, I stopped by my study where my sister was sleeping. I thought about waking her to tell her, but I decided against it. I rode my bike to Starbucks and tried to get some work done before my mid-morning session. I could not stop crying. I cried all morning and was still wiping tears before I knocked on her office door.
When I started therapy, a friend told me that her sessions always left her in the fetal position, sobbing desperately and asked if it had been the same for me. It had not. I had never cried in therapy ere this session, but that morning, she opened the door to find me staring with bloodshot eyes.
We went upstairs and I launched into my memories. I had tried to organize my thoughts beforehand because the fifty minutes flies by and I didn’t want to waste time. I only have a handful of sessions left because I’m leaving my job (Where am I going? I don’t know! Stop asking so many questions!) and will be without insurance soon enough.
While I spoke, I tried to organize my thoughts to say, “This is what my heart longed for as a child. This is how I coped with the lack. This is how I tried to remedy the lack. And all the ways that I failed to do so.” When I finished talking, I felt the air deflate from my chest and I finally was able to meet her gaze and see empathy staring back at me.
“I think you were very resourceful. I mean, wow, the things you did were very resourceful. And it didn’t work, but you tried. And it’s ok to mourn the loss.”
I went home, lay on my bed, and cried. Lying there, I was reminded of when my sisters and I had lain on my sister’s bed the day after the funeral, recovering from the most recent attack of grief.
Later that evening at dinner, my sister asked me about the session, but there was something about not being on the phone and having this conversation in person that made me reticent to speak. I did paint a very broad picture of the session and ended by asking her, “Why is it just me? There are five of us. Why am I the only one struggling with this?”
She disagreed. I wasn’t the only carrying that need. It’s just that my personality made a difference in how I carried and addressed the need.
“So what happens now?” she asked. “Are you going to talk to Mama?”
I looked up in surprise. “No.”
This is where my experience with therapy diverges from how it is portrayed in popular culture. Me being in therapy does not mean that everyone I know is now in therapy as well. I have no intention of forcing anyone else to delve into these matters with me. As irony would have it, I was more prone to force people to have these uncomfortable conversations before I went to therapy.
No, this journey has been about me. My therapist has brought me face to face with Andrea. Obviously, other people have come up repeatedly in our conversations, but what they did or said is only relevant in light of how I processed their actions. Ultimately, it’s about me and the peace I am making with myself. I have not been at peace with myself because I’ve been trying so desperately to be at peace with my parents. I could not validate my own needs because then I would arrive at the conclusion that my parents failed me and if they failed me, how could I continue on in this life with them?
As I can only control myself, I made the decision to chastise myself because I could not chastise them. Well I could, but it would not do any good. The damage was done. My therapist has been helping me find another way. I can accept their choices and also acknowledge my own needs and desires. It’s not easy to carry both truths, but it is necessary for my own freedom.
Maybe my situation is unique because I live alone. I don’t have to make any adjustments to my environment (requiring others to engage in my process) to grow as I would like. The only way I can see my revelations arising in conversations is if that person and I both want to grow our relationship. If and only then would I feel compelled to take a deep dive into these waters. I learned the hard way that relationships are a two-way street and it’s not enough for me to want a change. Both parties have to want it and be willing to do what it takes.
When I think about therapy, I’m reminded of Phylicia Rashad in For Colored Girls when she tells Thandie Newton’s character that her behavior makes sense in light of the conversation that she just overheard between her and her mother. It all has a root. And you have to find that root, to pluck it.
That’s what I’m trying to do: pluck the roots of this parasite that is not native to my soil and is strangling the life out of everything else in my garden. What is most interesting about this parasite is that it has been with me so long, longer than I have had a consciousness of myself. It is very opinionated and has made many a decision that is not in my best interest.
For example, many of the relationships I have facilitated in my adult life are very similar to the ones with which I began this life. If my first community did not serve my emotional needs, it seems masochistic of me to have replicated those relationships later in life. But, I am not a masochist. I fight very hard for joy, so why am I doing this?
There was a popular article in The New York Times that asserts that most of us will marry the wrong person. The argument goes that when we are looking for life partners, we’re looking not for happiness, but for love, and for many of us, our understanding of love is tied up in our childhoods. Love looks like whatever our parents/caregivers gave to us and as adults we seek to recreate that love, no matter how problematic that love was.
I think there is another variable involved. It’s not just that we are mechanically recreating our childhood. For many of us, childhood was about survival. We survived by saying, “This is normal. If I am having a problem with it, then there is something wrong with me.” We demonized our own feelings to make it through and now that we’re adults, we don’t have enough perspective to step back and say, “Wait, I don’t have to follow that pattern anymore. I’m now in the position to not only validate my feelings, but to go forth and cultivate a community that will do the same.”
At least, this has been my predicament. I look around at many of my relationships and see pieces of my childhood dancing around all of them. Many of them have been difficult to maintain since I have started therapy and this process of self-reflection and growth. I cringe at the thought of future interactions. How long before one of their comments will send me spiraling into my old patterns of self-hate? It’s odd because even when I have enough distance to look at them and see their comments and actions as about them and their own struggles, it is still difficult for me to let the offense wash over me. No, this parasite is still with me and it thrives on that which gave it the sustenance it needed to take root in the first place.
So, I have isolated myself, severely limiting the energy I give to those environments that will suck the life out of the little peace I have created. I’m excited about the day when I completely uproot this parasite and am free to go chase the life I want.
The book Now Voyager, takes its title from the poem, “The Untold Want” by Walt Whitman and I made it my screen saver, so I ruminate on it daily.
The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted
Now Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find