Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.
One would hope that in a dysfunctional family, the siblings might band together thereby gaining support from each other; perhaps even offer a more positive mirror through which to view themselves, but this didn’t happen for the most part in my family.
My older siblings were convinced that I was Mom’s favorite; she beat me less than she did them. Further intensifying their rage, Mom corralled me into following them home from school and reporting if they’d been smoking. Though I begged her to not make me do it, I had no choice. She counted on me; it was for their own good, a sin not to obey—all her rationales. I couldn’t refuse. You didn’t say no to Mom. So I did her bidding and was ostracized; my sister had nothing to do with me until well into adulthood, and my older brother terrorized me for the rest of our days. How were they not to hate me? And while Mom was quick to enlist me as her spy, she’d turn to them, often in front of me and ask, "Why do you hate your sister? Your sister is your best friend."
My only friend was my younger brother, who was equally lonely and tortured by the older two. Mom needed to pit us against each other. That way she’d ensure her position with each of us; we’d never prefer each other over her. The only way to accomplish that, besides bad-mouthing us to each other, was to make sure all the arrows (love, attention, affection) pointed towards her. Rather than encouraging friendship between us, she undermined it. We were competitors—enemies even. And so she divided and conquered.
To complicate things for me, though I had a few girlfriends, I was socially unpopular. As I explore in Confessions of Joan the Tall (a memoir written in the voice of my 12-year-old self), I was very tall (over 5’11") by the time I reached high school, so from a very early age, I was teased unmercifully by the boys in the neighborhood as well as my older brother S and his friends. Clearly, I didn’t have a safe place outside of home either until I found temporary respite in my all-girls high school. It was heaven. I’d found peace.
Though my alienation from boys and men continued through college but turned around completely once I started to meet men outside of my immediate community. I enjoyed great popularity with men and the leap in confidence that went with that success, though I was still very innocent and uneducated about how to choose the right ones. My first husband, for one. He fooled around pretty much from the beginning of our marriage. But I pretended not to know. No, I didn’t pretend—that sounds far too conscious; I didn’t know because I was deft at not looking beneath the surface of any supposed ‘truth’ I was presented. What he told me, I believed. Everything that conflicted with that, I repressed (the power of psychological defenses!).
We were married for six years during which time, he got fired from or quit several jobs and often stayed out all weekend. Convinced that any minute he’d walk in the door, I wouldn’t leave the house. I tried to keep the truth from family and friends. I was so ashamed that I had a husband who didn’t want to come home that I spent a great deal of time alone. I responded to him the way I did all my young life to my mother and S—namely that I could not get angry—no matter what he did. I just begged him to come home. When he decided to do so, he’d simply make a few jokes and make me laugh and that would be that. I’d happily make him some bacon and eggs. I was so relieved that he had finally come back home, that he did love me, that he wasn’t really rejecting me, that I accepted anything he did. Just don’t be mad at me. Just don’t leave me.
As in most cases of abuse, however, the hurt lived side by side with affection. At the same time that he was abandoning me for days on end, he was also professing his love, often and vociferously and showering me with praise. He was noticeably very proud of me and told me how beautiful I was. He liked to show me off to friends and colleagues and bragged about what a great cook I was, how smart. To one as needy as I, his admiration was seductive and necessary. I was also used to such mixed messages and ambivalence. Having lived all my life with a mother and older brother who told me, in word or deed, that I was loved and not loved often at the same time, the territory was familiar. So, I focused on trying to deserve their love. When love was uncertain and fickle, I didn’t become angry and blame them for not loving me, I blamed myself for not being worthy of their love and tried even harder to please.
Despite all my pleas, eventually, he did leave me. For the sister of a friend who was pregnant with his baby. One Sunday afternoon when he arrived home after being gone for two days, he tearfully confided that he needed me to go to Juarez, Mexico and get an immediate divorce so that he could marry her and avoid her getting in trouble with her father. Outrageous as his request was, my response was even more so. I begged him to stay with me and let us adopt the child. He refused. I came to my senses and refused to go to Mexico. I would not get a divorce; I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t want it. He left and we were unofficially separated. I was devastated. I wanted him more than I’d ever wanted anything or anyone (except Mom?). Under any circumstances. For many months I held out the hope that he would change his mind and come back to me. I’d have gratefully, happily welcomed him. I waited and waited. We were not divorced for another three years (initiated by me). I later found out that he married his girlfriend right after we separated without having been divorced from me. It frightened me to think of how available I had been for shabby treatment, how willing I was to accept any abuse in the name of love.
Popular as I had become before my marriage, I remained very underdeveloped as a person. I was easily impressed, swayed and dazzled by the charisma of this man and his utter confidence. He traveled through life so easily, presented himself for respect and inclusion everywhere. He was the exact opposite of me. While I continued to live in the world with a sense that I was unworthy and a disappointment to all who knew me—I wasn’t the friend, sister or daughter that the people I loved deserved, he took what was his own painful early life and lack of education and turned that into an almost Machiavellian manipulation of the world. He was outrageous yet very smooth, well-liked and charming, and made friends wherever he went. And everyone helped him—my best friend’s father got him a job selling insurance which he subsequently quit; my younger brother J helped him get into St. John’s University though we later found out that he had never finished high school. When school became too cumbersome for him, he quit and started wearing my St. John’s college ring as proof that he had already graduated.
Like many abused women, I held out the hope that my love and belief in him would turn him around. It was always clear to me that he was chasing something or running from it; I later decided that he was living out his mother’s prophesy—that he was just like his drunken father who died alone in a rooming house many years after last seeing anyone in the family. But he would show her—there was always a swagger to his actions and a sneer under his breath. I also suspect he hated everyone he fooled. The very mention of his name in my mouth is foreign and anathema. I find it so difficult to relate to the person who married him. Her naiveté’. Her ability to be fooled. Her neediness, most of all. For so many years, I was ashamed of her. Now, I’m simply deeply saddened. (It strikes me that I’ve used that word several times throughout this series about my crippled family.) Her willingness to accept whatever came to her as long as she was loved. And if not truly loved, then lied to.
As I look back, I’m convinced that my commitment to marrying him was at least partially fueled by my mother’s complete disapproval of him. Marrying MK was my first emphatic “No!” to my mother. It was my Harley. Prior to that, she had successfully vetoed several decisions I’d made; at one point, I wanted to move from teaching to social work, but she insisted that if I did, she’d have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack. She was adamant and I, not surprisingly, relented. Always doubting myself, I wondered...maybe I wasn’t being fair to her by choosing a profession in which I might have to go into impoverished, crime-ridden areas and risk my safety. Maybe making choices that could bring me harm wasn’t fair to my loved ones. How could I choose a direction that would cause her worry? How could I be so selfish? (How could I act as if my life was my own? Interestingly, my only concern about making a potentially dangerous decision was that it might upset Mom; it never involved concern about protecting myself).
But when it came to deciding who I’d marry, I knew it was my choice and not hers. And she vehemently disapproved; she didn’t like or trust him—in hindsight justifiably so, but she didn’t give reasons that I could hear other than that he wasn’t an American citizen (ironically, he too was born in Ireland) and not educated and was only equipped for manual labor and bartending. I didn’t care about those things. I would have preferred that he be educated, but the lack of it wouldn’t deter me. I think that too added to his lure and attractiveness. He was rough like S and his friends. My mother thought I was worth more than that—a blue-collar profile was beneath me. I completely disagreed with her reasons for rejecting him and thought that snobbery and bigotry were immoral reasons for judging anyone. Like her, I was immovable. All I knew was the way that he made me feel. It was like catching the prince. He was rugged, smart and funny, and all the girls thought he was gorgeous and were excited by his bad boy’ mystique as was I. Despite all the dates that I'd had, he was my first real boyfriend; no one made me feel as special, beautiful and loved as he did. Devilishly handsome, exciting and a bit dangerous, he was delicious to one as repressed as I.
It was out and out war between me and Mom. I even left home to escape her tirades and to teach her that sooner or later she’d have to give in.
He was also my ticket to the world. No one left home until they married at that time. Though I had a car—it was the first thing I bought when I started to work—I wanted to leave Edgewater permanently. I wanted to travel. He had been in the service and had been to Germany and Europe and bragged about being the only enlisted guy on base to have his own car, a Porsche. None of the guys in Edgewater drove a Porsche (I always loved cars, particularly sports cars, and could identify every one by model and year), and yet when I met him, he was driving a VW bug—a red convertible. That also intrigued and impressed me. I’d never met a guy who had the guts to drive a VW Bug. No Edgewater guy would be caught dead in such a sissy car. But he did anything he wanted to, and no one dared laugh at him. I admired his confidence above all and what appeared to be his complete lack of concern for what other people thought. Paralyzed as I often was by my concern that I’d do the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings, I was amazed that someone could be so free.
And he was the exact opposite of the kind of man Mom always said I’d marry. She used to laugh about how I’d marry a very rich man who would be completely henpecked by me. I’d be draped in furs and carrying a little poodle, and he’d be running along behind me, a very short frightened man. I hated it and her when she said that. I never wanted to be that kind of wife; I never saw myself as a forbidding self-centered person who would gravitate toward a weak man. That was entirely unattractive to me. And I was hurt that she had such a picture of me. Admittedly, I had a strong sense of my own opinions and I voiced them freely at home—we were allowed to be vocal about anything that did not have to do with religion or breaking a commandment, and of course, feelings were never fodder for the Cusacks. But there was nothing beyond that that would suggest I’d want a one-sided relationship in which I controlled a very controllable man. This was her projecting her feelings on me. In fact, that’s who she was with Dad. With all of us actually. What she wanted she got, and that was a level of attention that shut everyone else out. So she designed a marriage for me in which I had all she wanted me to have along with a totally ineffectual husband—one who would clearly never be any competition or threat to her.
And Mom competed with me too. She taught me to love beautiful things, particularly clothes, and love them I did. But once she saw that, she seemed to enjoy baiting me and slapping my face with it. Defining it as shallow and manipulative. Of course, I ended up feeling guilty and wondering if she was right that I was superficial and shallow. And would I end up marrying a man I could henpeck?
In retrospect, I believe my mother’s hostility stemmed from her envy of me. First and foremost, I had a mother and she didn't. In addition, she taught me to love what she loved; she wanted me to dress like a model and carry myself in the world like one. She wanted me to have an education and a career. Above all she wanted me to be independent and strong and able to care for myself, in case my husband left or died. She always seemed intent on preparing me for this. “Keep something in your own name,” she always instructed. I felt as if she was sculpting me to do exactly what she’d have done (or actually did do) with her life. But when I started to have those things—the clothes, the career, the education, the confidence in myself as an attractive woman—though the conscious part of her was thrilled, unconsciously I believe she resented it. So she created an image of me for the whole family that made a caricature of my interest in lovely clothes and my strong personality. And everyone laughed at the picture she created. When Mom was cutting and sarcastic, you didn’t fight her, you joined in.
In any case, my need to defeat Mom, to escape confinement in Edgewater and to win the love of the almost mythic teenage guy sailed me unprotected into MK’s arms.
And eventually into a major break with the church. Despite the fact that MK left me and ‘married’ another woman, this man was my husband for life. I was barely 30 years old when we divorced and according to the church, I could not date or certainly marry again if I wanted to stay a member in good standing of the Catholic church. Should I choose otherwise, I’d be expelled from the church, refused the sacraments and risked hell in the afterlife. This made no sense to me. It wasn’t loving. This wasn’t the Jesus I knew. The Christ that I was brought up on would not want me to be unhappy. He’d have known how hard I tried to save that marriage and how innocent I was in this relationship. But it was the teaching I knew. The same narrow view of what is right and wrong and the same rigidity. Though I was encouraged to seek an annulment, I knew we didn't qualify for one. There had been no deception and our vows were made openly and freely. Eventually, I left the church completely. Having defied Mom, the ultimate power, standing up to the church seemed almost natural.
Finally and perhaps most critical, along with the end of my marriage and commitment to the church, I started psychotherapy, my strongest commitment that I'd take responsibility for myself, and to the extent that I could control it, I’d never let anyone hurt me again. And that included family as well as friends and men I'd date. In order to do that I'd learn what was at the center of my desperate search for love and approval and my profound dislike of myself. I also promised myself I’d never do anything or expose myself to anyone who would make me feel bad about myself when I looked in the mirror. I was profoundly moved over how damaged I was, how available I had been for abuse and how little responsibility I took for my own care. True, there’s no insurance policy that assures us safety in life but to the extent that I could learn what danger was (person or circumstance), I'd train myself to set off red lights in my head when I was exposed to it. I was deeply committed to getting well.
Not surprisingly, beyond my failed marriage, therapy led back to Mom. To Sonny, and the church. There was much work to be done.