You will see many of the characteristic qualities of the authoritarian personality in Karen’s mother: bigotry and prejudice, deceit, violence, religious cover, shaming behaviors, intrusiveness, an overwhelming hatred and need to punish, and more. You will also see that Karen’s siblings do not concur with Karen’s version of their childhood, leaving Karen further perplexed, isolated, and alone. Remember that as a victim of authoritarian contact, you may also be dealing with a deep wonder as to whether you really experienced what you believe you experienced—and, if you did experience all that, why the people around you are reporting such different experiences.
Here is Karen’s story:
My mother is an exceptionally authoritative personality and it was hard for me growing up…and it’s still hard. I am almost sixty years old, live two thousand miles away from my mother (no accident), have a husband and three kids, yet it has been the most difficult, influential relationship in my life. She was and is a piece of work.
She made me wary and too worried about pleasing. I’m in first grade. I’m practicing the alphabet on that horizontal paper with the fat lines. I have trouble with a capital ‘S.’ I erase it and try again. Still doesn’t look right. I erase more. There’s a hole in the paper now. I go to the bathroom and start to cry in the stall. I’m crying so hard I throw up. The teacher comes in and wants to know what the problem is. My paper, I tell her. I’ve made a hole. I’ll probably make a ‘C’ now. Years later, I find my report card from first grade. I always had straight A’s. I am disheartened to read the comment from the teacher: “Karen tries too hard to please others.”
When I was in second or third grade, my mother gave me a diary. She explained that it was for my private thoughts. At one point, I wrote in huge letters, one word to a page, “I. HATE. MY. MOTHER!” One day I got off the bus from school and walked in the house. I knew something was off as soon as I walked in. I always had my antennae up and I could smell her “crazy” even though she did not drink and was not an alcoholic. She had read the diary. I was the worst daughter on earth; worst in the family, and what I had done was wrong. The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother.” Where was the honor? I was beaten with a belt.
I don’t know if it was that time or another time, but I had to stand in the center of the family room and wait for my father to come home. My arms were outstretched in both directions, and she put a heavy book on each arm. I couldn’t keep my arms straight and the books kept falling down because I was too small to handle the weight. She raged at me from a rocker in the corner of the room. “Pick. Up. The. Books. She still had a belt in her hand. “No one wants you. You have no one,” she explained. “You’ll be going to a home for wayward girls. You’re an ungrateful b*tch. What do you think now?”
She never got an answer out of me. This happened again and again. My silence only infuriated her more. I knew she would hit me harder because of it, but the words just stuck in my throat. By the age of eight or nine I knew that if I screamed, it would just start another rampage. “Shut your sh*tty little mouth or I’ll give you something to cry about.”
I am in fifth grade. I want hair like the other girls in my class, which is a big problem because the majority of them have blond, straight hair. Mine is dark and curly because my father is Italian. It doesn’t look good no matter what I do. The style in the 1960s is parted in the middle, or two braids, or a ponytail with two wispy sideburns. I try two braids. I am sent to my room to get the braids out of my hair. I am never to wear braids because it will make my hair kinky. She hates the sight of me. She screams at me literally every time I walk through the family room. And my stomach is too big. “Suck it in! You look like you’re pregnant.” (I’m about 10.) She is angry when I get my period and constantly reminds me to get my filth out to the garbage can outside.
If there is some weird thing on TV about sex or girls being raped or any creepy thing, she calls me in to watch it with her. Sit there and watch this. I can’t tell you how supremely uncomfortable these sessions would make me feel. And when it was over, she asks me, “Well, what do you think about that?” I shrug. I say “Nothing.” The truth is, I don’t know what to say. I don’t know the right answer. I just want to disappear into the cellar. “A boy will say anything to get into your pants. He doesn’t care about you. You’re just like a dog he pisses on and then he’s on to the next. Remember that.” I nod glumly and shuffle back to my room. I escape into books. Books saved me. “You may be book smart, Karen, but you are horse dumb.”
Home from school, walking in the back door. “You may think you are fooling me, but you are not fooling anyone.” I am wracking my brain trying to figure out where this is coming from. What have I done? It dawns on me—the ice skates. My dad had bought me a pair of Hyde skates—high quality beautiful white leather skates. She made him take them back to the store because they were too expensive, and I continued to wear a pair of black hand-me-down skates from my brothers. I loved ice skating. “I’m going to divorce your father (they remain married), and then, you know what? You will have no place to go. I know what you’re trying to pull with your father (um, that makes one of us), and let me tell you, your father doesn’t want you, I don’t want you. I’m going to take your sister and move to Wisconsin (where she is from). You will have no place to go.”
I am in high school. I’ve done well on the PSATs, enough so that I receive a letter from Harvard inviting me to apply. There’s a meeting with local alumni. I want to go to the meeting. I want to apply to Harvard, just to see if I can get in, I tell her, not to go there. I know I’m going to the University of Michigan (and my parents have decided I’m going to be a business major because I’m not good enough at math to be an engineering major), because I have three older brothers, and I’m the fourth one to come through. She stops talking to me because of the Harvard issue. This goes on for weeks, maybe months. It becomes the undercurrent of the next few years. I remember I spoke up at the dinner table at one point, and she hit me so fast and so hard across the face with her hand and a dishcloth, I saw stars. I believe she truly hated the sight of me, she hated me down to my bones.
There’s a high school orchestra recital. Despite being a poor flautist (I sit last chair with the flutes), I keep playing. I don’t have private lessons, I don’t practice (Shut that door, I can still hear you!). Mainly it’s a way to get out of the house. I don’t even bother to tell my parents about the recital. I have the long black dress on—it’s actually my mother’s—and I love wearing it even though we aren’t the same size. My mother was not buying me a separate black skirt and white blouse, and she didn’t care what the conductor had to say about it. I am on my way out the door. I have put sprigs of baby’s breath in my hair. I think I look pretty great. I’m hoping to see my friend’s older brother there. “Where do you think you’re going?” I explain about the concert. She wants to know why I didn’t tell her about it. Because I didn’t think you wanted to go. Something snaps in her. She picks up the black iron poker from the fireplace and tries to hit me over the shoulders and back. I’m faster, though, and I spin around with my arms up to protect myself.
“How dare you raise a hand to me.” She is raging and screeching—she is completely in another orbit. Who did I think I was? I wanted her to get a second mortgage on the house so I could show off and go to Harvard. “Well that isn’t going to happen you conniving little b*tch.” I was trying to seduce my father. I was disgusting. (Note that my dad barely spoke to me on any given day and dropped me off three blocks from school in the mornings because he was always running late.) “Well he doesn’t love you. I’m going to divorce the son of a bitch. You will have nothing. You will have nowhere to live. I am going to sell this house.” I don’t remember anything else about the night or if I ever made it to the concert.
Last year, I lost a cousin in a car accident in Wisconsin. I hadn’t seen my mother’s side of the family in 40 years. My sister and I decided to attend. I knew my mother would no longer be flying back and I wanted to see if my memories of my maternal grandmother’s house and other relatives compared to the real thing. An older female cousin picked me up from the airport, and we had a chance to share a long afternoon before my sister arrived. We were both looking for explanations. Her mother and my mother were sisters.
In her family of five, there were heavy casualties. A brother with suicidal tendencies, another brother dead (something related to his liver), a sister struggling with alcohol dealing with a daughter of her own who overdosed (big family secret—I was told she died of pneumonia); it was bad. My Aunt Nancy had favorites she liked to pick on. Her son Johnny refused to go to her funeral and still won’t speak about her. One daughter decided not to have children for fear of continuing the line.
We talked about our other aunts (there were six) and ticked through the female offspring. They were all a mess. The common traits were astounding. These women were jealous of other women, angry all the time, could not empathize with anyone, could not show affection, and did not value anyone else’s accomplishment. There was a high degree of loyalty to the Baptist church. There were long Wednesday services, long Sunday services, and other obligations like ‘picking beans for the pastor.’ And to hear my cousin talk, these churches survive today and there is high drama in every one of them. Affairs, pedophilia, etc.
Some consequences I have noticed:
- Inability to make decisions (second-guessing and more second-guessing)
- Never able to articulate what I want, because I never seem to know (Should I stay in this job? Leave? What do I want to do instead?)
- Loss of self (I can’t even answer the question, ‘What’s your favorite song’?)
- Too eager to please
- Too accepting of responsibility for others (from family to work responsibilities)
- Susceptible to criticism
- Lack of resilience
- Incapable of joy/prone to sadness
- Susceptible to guilt, shame
- Lack of boundaries
- No vocabulary to express self
- Anxious demeanor (waiting for the next bad thing to happen)
- Watchful, attuned to the states of mind of other people
I have been diagnosed with dysthymia and I do struggle with darker episodes from time to time. I take an antidepressant. I feel as though I was born under a cloud—even in my baby pictures, I look worried. I think in a way I was robbed of the capacity to feel joy because of my mother. I am trying to undo the long-term effects. My intention is to continue to work toward uncovering what brings me happiness and solace. Talk to me next year!
By the way, my brothers do not share my recollections. They have papered over them for one reason or another, and they never experienced the side of her that I did. My sister had a different mother, too, really, by virtue of being born eight years after the first four kids. The effect, though, is that it is difficult to maintain the “truth” of my story when there are no collaborators and no witnesses. Of course, I know better than to expect some kind of grand moment with my mom where she owns up to what she did and how much she hurt me. But I have lost the urge to blame her or punish her, her health is failing, and I only wish her safe passage.
If you’ve had the experience of being harmed by a family authoritarian—a parent, sibling, grandparent, aunt or uncle, partner, adult child, etc.—or by someone else close to you—a cleric, teacher, boss, co-worker, etc.—I invite you take the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire, available here. I also invite you to tell your story, as it is long past time that we got this epidemic of wounding exposed—and ended. Come back each Thursday to read more about authoritarians in the family and please think about taking the Authoritarian Wound Questionnaire and about telling your story.
This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.
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