My parents often told stories about how I had an imaginary friend during my early childhood. I know now that this must have been how I was working out a strategy for my soul’s survival.
That strategy was to suppress my memories of painful moments. When things became too painful I would split them off, my conscious mind would block them out.
In my search for the truth of my childhood, I was fortunate to locate a woman who had taught in my grade school and was a good friend of my parents when I was growing up. I learned from her that the happy childhood I had created in my mind was not real. That happy family I created in my mind was like those big posters you put your faces in to get your picture taken. I had split off my own reality because I needed to believe what our family pictures portrayed.
My parents’ friend told me a different story. She said she and her husband often talked about me, saying I was one of the smartest kids she had ever known, talented, funny, articulate, sweet, a leader the other kids looked up to. Her comment was that any other parent would have been proud to have a daughter like me.
They could never understand why my Dad was so demeaning to me, humiliating me, comparing me to my friends and always finding something wrong with me. He never complimented me on anything. She said Dad always seemed to be competing with me to prove he was smarter than I was.
I asked her about my Mom, about what she would do when my Dad put me down. She said that Mom was a wonderful mother in many ways, but my Dad always came first with her. If I ever showed I was upset when Dad was ragging me, he would stomp off saying he just couldn’t deal with me when I was like that. Then Mom would chastise me for upsetting him. Voila — the double bind.
As was the custom in the 1950s, my parents’ friend didn’t intervene. She and her husband thought about it, but my Mom never seemed to think anything was wrong, so they decided not to rock the boat. I was strong and was surviving, wasn’t being beaten, so they let it go. They didn’t know about the family secrets that would have explained my parents’ behavior.
The reason my Dad was so hard on me was that he was hiding a shameful secret and a terrible childhood trauma. His father was killed by his mother’s lover and his mother was labeled an adulteress. His mother then abandoned him (this is what it must have felt like to him) and his brother and took his sister with her instead of them. Dad always used to say that I was so much like my Aunt, that she was always too smart for her britches and thought she could do anything a boy could do. I was the scapegoat for the pain and anger he had been carrying since he was 11 years old.
My Mom was abandoned by her handsome father when she was two. She must have been so scared when she quit her job to stay home with me after I was born. No wonder our house was spotless and we both always looked so perfect in the pictures. She did everything she could to make sure the love of her life, her good looking husband, didn’t leave us. Of course it made sense that she would always defend him and put him first. It makes perfect sense that “Don’t upset your father” was the mantra at our house.