“Have you forgiven your mother?”
Oddly, this gut-wrenching, intensely personal question follows me wherever I go. I am a psychologist and I present about psychological resilience and the experience of disfigurement. Unlike many clinicians, I freely employ my own history of multiple traumas as part of my talks. During the Q&A, inevitably a smiling audience member raises a hand to inquire, “I want to know; have you forgiven your mother?’ Outwardly, I field the question with aplomb. Inwardly, my Grinchy heart, two sizes too small, growls “No.”
Unfortunately for both of us, my mother was the unwitting source of most of my life’s traumas. I cannot accurately tell my disfigurement story without saying that my mother accidentally set us both on fire and abandoned me in it to save herself. I cannot accurately tell my resilience story without saying that my mother emotionally neglected my brother and me throughout our childhoods, and that he tragically ended his own life when he was 19. There were many more traumas in the wake of my mother’s carelessness, strewn about like clothing after a shipwreck. She divorced two husbands, set her daughter on fire, and lost her son and step-daughter to suicide. When I went to family therapy with her, even the therapist seemed stunned by my mother’s blithe ability to shrug off any accountability. My mother sailed on, mysteriously oblivious to the damage done.
I once imagined that after my mother died, I would be released from thoughts of her. She hurt me so deeply, albeit unwittingly. I certainly am freer, but for that dangling question, thrown from every audience at me like hooks from fishing poles, waiting to snag me. No matter where I speak, from California to New Zealand, the same question comes, “Have you forgiven your mother?”
I’m not sure what forgiveness even means. I love the news stories of extraordinary grace, when somber people wholeheartedly forgive murderers for killing their relatives. In this light, my struggles with forgiveness seem so petty. Why can’t I be like that? What is the matter with me? The best I have managed is an intellectual understanding of why my mother was who she was, and an acceptance of her limitations. Is that forgiveness? Surely it lacks heart, like the Grinch, his poor heart two sizes too small.
Another question: why does everyone wish to know if I have accomplished forgiveness? Forgiveness is supposed to be good for us, improving our health and well-being; perhaps I am asked this question out of concern. Sometimes though, it feels like a moral test, as if I can only be a person of rectitude if I have forgiven my mother. Sometimes it makes me mad. I have been through so much, and I work so hard to make the best of things. Must I also be a paragon of forgiveness?
Recently the Washington Post ran an article on forgiveness, and mentioned a workbook written by psychologist Dr. Everett Worthington, available for free. I downloaded it, with hope, exhaustion, and doubt. What could a free online workbook provide that a decade of psychotherapy could not?
One of the first questions the workbook posed was how much I wished to forgive my mother, on a scale from 1-10. I pondered for a minute. Most of me did wish to forgive her, whatever the heck that even meant. Part of me felt hotly sure that she did not deserve forgiveness, having never been sorry for all her failures, being so righteously sure of her blamelessness. Back and forth I toggled between wholeheartedness and resentment. I finally settled on “7.”
The workbook had many steps, some of which felt meaningful, and others trivial. One paragraph struck me, a way to gauge an “injustice gap.” Hurts range in impact from minor to profound. Also, people can range from deeply regretful to completely unapologetic. The hardest hurts to forgive are those which caused profound pain by a person who is completely unapologetic, which creates a deep “injustice gap.”
Generally, I am an easily forgiving person. I have (unwisely) forgiven men who repeatedly broke my heart and (more wisely) forgiven my self-involved but loving father. I never even got angry at my beloved brother, my hero, who took my heart with him when he jumped from the tallest building in Cambridge. So, it has always mystified me why I couldn’t feel more forgiving toward my mother. Now I realized, it is because she inflicted deep damage, unapologetically and repeatedly. Perhaps my inner Grinch was particularly challenged by a deep injustice gap.
The workbook continued; just because my hurts were deep and my mother unapologetic, I still had assignments to complete. A new section asked me to write a dialogue between my mother (KSD) and myself, in which I should describe how she hurt me, and how I imagined she would respond. Here was mine:
“Me: I wish you could apologize for all the damage you did to me and Marc (my brother.)
KSD: I don’t think I did so much damage. Things were very hard for me. I’m sorry that you feel I damaged you, although I don’t think I did.
Me: I know that you are incapable of seeing this.
KSD: I don’t see it the way you do.
Me: That is your limitation and I try to understand it. I would like to forgive you but it is very hard because you are not sorry.
KSD: I really don’t know what you are talking about.
Fair enough, I thought, with intellectual detachment. What an interesting exercise.
However, there was more. I now had to set up two chairs facing each other. I was to say “my lines” sitting in one chair, as if I were facing my mother. Then, I needed to sit in the other chair, and say my mother’s lines back to “me.” I was instructed to repeat these lines from start to finish, repeating for ten minutes.
It commenced recognizably enough. Sitting in my black kitchen chair, I talked aloud to my dead mother, saying an exhaustingly familiar, “I wish you could apologize for all the damage you did to me and Marc.” Even though her chair was empty, my stomach tightened, and my breath grew shallow.
I rose from my chair and sat down in hers. I said my mother’s response, “I don’t think I did so much damage. Things were very hard for me. I’m sorry that you feel I damaged you although I don’t think I did.” Sitting in her seat, I imagined myself as my mother. I felt her energy, calm, cool, distant. I expected to feel exasperation with her. Instead, I began to feel what it was like to be her. A new feeling arose, out of the blue: Confusion.
Back and forth I stood and sat, stood and sat, stood and sat. When I sat in my mother’s chair, and recited her lines, something shifted. I was not walking in her shoes, but rather sitting in her seat, and this had an unexpectedly powerful effect. She truly had no idea what I was talking about. Not a glimmer of awareness. Not a touch of insight. She honestly could not comprehend one word I was saying.
Hot resentment released inside me. Something long held within, a red and yellow battle flag I clutched in my sweaty fist, unfurled and became a vibrant banner waving in the breeze. I have known for a long time that my mother didn’t understand the damage she left in her wake. In this moment, I could truly feel her mystification, her anxiety, her emptiness. I could feel what it was like for her to face my taut righteousness, utterly confused.
And you know what, just like the Grinch’s heart instantly grows three sizes, my emotional forgiveness burst from a 7 to a 9. (I wish I could say a 10, but a 9 was big for me).
Recently my daughter and I were cleaning up after dinner. She put away the leftovers while I did the dishes, our usual chore division. Anna asked, “Are you more like your father or your mother?”
“I am more like my brother,” I smiled.
“Mom, that’s not what I asked.
I thought, my hands soapy in the kitchen sink. “Well, I am like both of them. My dad was creative and fun, and I can be like that. But I am like my mother in that I am practical, responsible, and steady. I get things done. I work hard. She did too.”
We are all more than the worst things we have ever done. The Grinch stole Christmas that one time. He took all the “Jing tinglers” and “Gar Dinkers,” and all the cans of Who Hash. Towering above him in rage, he beat his tiny dog Max with a whip. In the end, though, the Grinch’s heart burst open with love and he sees the error of his ways. He winds up at the head of the Whoville Christmas table, an honored guest, carving the “roast beast.”
Unlike the Grinch, my mother never saw the error of her ways. That is her tragedy, and mine too. It is good to call to mind that she was also punctual, efficient, and intelligent. It is good to remember that, despite the tragedies, eggregious as they were, she never meant me any harm.
Surely, I am more than the worst things I have ever done. Surely, by stretching my Grinchy heart, I can extend that same ephemeral grace to my mother.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.