In the digital age, news that once might have stayed local goes national and sometimes viral, and that’s certainly the case for an obituary published in Reno, Nevada.  It’s elicited literally thousands of comments, pro and con, everywhere it’s been reported on not just because it pillories the now-deceased mother of eight but also because it was supposedly written by her surviving children. The obit has since been withdrawn by the newspaper, although it’s not clear whether it’s out of what many have called “a sense of common decency” or because the editors are checking the veracity of the piece.

Here it is for you to read and weigh in:

Marianne Theresa Johnson-Reddick born Jan 4, 1935 and died alone on Aug. 30, 2013. She is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity, and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.

On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the after-life reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty, and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure.

Most of us have found peace in helping those who have been exposed to child abuse and hope this message of her final passing can revive our message that abusing children is unforgiveable [sic], shameless, and should not be tolerated in a "humane society". Our greatest wish now, is to stimulate a national movement that mandates a purposeful and dedicated war against child abuse in the United States of America.

 I should begin by saying that I totally understand why, if they actually wrote this, her children felt moved to.  One of the really hard things about being the child of a cruel, unloving, or abusive mother is that few people, if any, believe you when you actually summon up the courage to tell.  (If you want proof, just take a look at the photo that accompanies this blog.  Does that pretty young woman holding that baby —yes, me—look like she’d be capable of being mean?  You will have to take it on faith that she was.)  It’s not just that in the court of public opinion, the child is always on trial because we like to believe that all mothers are loving and the kid must be lying; it’s also that many mean mothers are, in fact, charming in public and also work hard at covering their tracks.  Many of them co-opt their husbands into believing that their treatment of their child or children is warranted.  Remember too that a mother, especially when a child is young, has all the power and holds all the cards.

The obituary has people talking because it violates so many taboos at once.  Perhaps the strongest is the Biblical injunction to honor your mother and father, followed by the ancient wisdom of never speaking ill of the dead.  We’ve all had the experience, to one degree of another, of hearing a perfectly okay, if somewhat flawed person be eulogized and discover to our surprise that he or she was really a strong candidate for sainthood.  Another taboo is the American sense of fair play—the woman’s dead and can’t defend herself, after all.  This was the source of the enormous vitriol heaped on Christina Crawford for writing Mommie Dearest not during her movie star mother’s life but after.

 But the really big taboo —the one the culture is invested in —is trashing the myth of a mother’s instinctual, unconditional love.  It makes people so darn uncomfortable.

But while I understand the impulse to finally get this truth out into the open, is an obituary really the way to do it?   That may sound like an odd question to ask given that I wrote a book that included, among many others, my own story and my vision of my mother.  But the intent of my book wasn’t to bring the truth of my mother’s abusiveness to light; the intent was to reassure other women who had similar experiences that they weren’t alone and that children neither warrant nor are responsible for their mothers’ abusive or neglectful or cruel treatment and behaviors.  I realize that the writer or writers identify the intent as mandating action against child abuse but a part of me wonders if the message isn’t diluted by the aspect of revenge.

I do understand that this obituary stimulates talk —some of it on the children’s side and some on the mother’s—but does it really encourage reflection?  Reflection on what makes a good, bad, or adequate mother?  Reflection on what children need and deserve? Does it make us more culturally empathetic to the plight of unloved daughters and sons, and the pain they struggle with?  Does it encourage each of us, women and men, to approach becoming parents and then being parents thoughtfully and deliberately?

You tell me.

 Copyright © Peg Streep 2013

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