Over the years I have encountered many people who have admitted to not knowing about the dark things that were happening in my childhood home. Even less often, I will be approached by someone who eventually admits that they suspected such things, at least to some degree, but weren’t sure what to do about it.
Life is funny, like that.
We are quick to criticize concerned people for their silence and lack of action/intervention, but this is the decision the majority of people come to. We question that we may be wrong, and if we are, we don’t want to make anything worse. We second guess everything, until we have talked ourselves into a corner. I truly believe there is a difference between this and knowing for certain, yet choosing to look the other way.
My mother didn’t have the best judgement. There were mental health issues, absolutely complicated by a heightened self-focussed victim response. My mom, for reasons those of us who love her will never understand, NEEDED people to feel like she had it the worst. This would happen whenever she discussed her romantic relationships, her friendships, her parental relationships and her motherhood. By the time I was eight years old, she was pretty committed to the story that I had held her at gunpoint multiple times and that she had to sleep with locked bedroom doors for her own safety. I had never seen a gun, let alone knew the first thing about doing anything with it. My biggest crimes, where my mother was concerned, were aching for her to parent and love me, and for being her biggest competition when it came to her boyfriend’s affections…
For a collective thousands of hours, I had sat at my mom’s feet while she told me story after story of the heinous abuses her childhood had known. How absolutely diabolically her mother, (and her grandmother too,) had abused her. Some of my earliest memories with my mother are me, cloth diaper & plastic pantsed on the floor, while she sat sewing, telling me these stories with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.
These horrific tales that I grew up hearing were about the very same grandmother whom I spent a ton of time with. My mom expected her to watch me whenever she wanted to date, felt overwhelmed with life, or any other thing.
Basically, I was at my grandparents, two blocks away, a lot.
And, it wasn’t until I was much older before I connected the dots that this same woman my mother DETESTED, filled with resentment of the worst childhood abuse imaginable, was my Jesus loving grandmother. She was patient and, though she could be gruff, I never questioned her love for me, or my security with her. It seemed inconceivable.
My mom never outright attempted to turn me against my grandmother, but she was desperate for me to not only believe her tales, but validate how horrible life was, for her. This meant that whenever the TV movie Sybil came on, my mother sat me down, roughly four feet from our console television, and made me sit, cross legged and watch it. The entire 3.5 hours (plus commercial breaks), every single time it came on, which was a lot. This role of Sally Field’s is almost as much a part of my childhood development as my own experiences were. During each viewing I would have the added commentary of my mom painting far worse images of her own adolescence, comparing herself to the life playing out on screen.
I was eleven years old the last time I assumed my position and soaked in a showing of Sybil. At the time I remember marveling at how well I could quote the film, while also knowing exactly the words and tone my mother would be using in her “bonus features”. This was the closest I’ve come to an “out of body” experience. Even now, nearly 33 years later, it is clear as day how surreal that day felt.
As a gift, the Christmas of 2018, my husband gave me the only thing I really asked for- Sally Field’s memoir In Pieces. I could not seem to formulate words as to why I had to read this book. From the moment of its release, it was always there in my mind. It wasn’t until many chapters in, that I realized my spirit was searching for the words Sally would say about that movie…
I had gone on to love Sally Field movies with a fierce loyalty, after I moved and was no longer in the care of my mother. I was the only girl my age who was adamant about consuming the Sally Field shows. While I certainly wasn’t her prime demographic, I loved her all the same. My own splintered youth so completely fragmented that I could not comprehend this one sided bond that had been stitched into my spirit, to this brown haired actress. It wasn’t until I found myself halfway through her book, roughly a year ago, that I was able to see this clearly. Those hours and hours (and so many more hours) of watching Sybil hadn’t ever filled the gaping hole of whatever thing my mom was needing, but it had tied me to a stranger, playing a character. It gave reason to a question I had never even known to ask.
In case you’re wondering, I do love her book and strongly recommend it. I find her absolutely classy and fascinating, and she barely talked about Sybil at all.
I’m wrapping up the very long and often difficult journey of writing a memoir. In that synchronistic way that things sometimes happen, I needed to read that book (and her accounts of abuses, injustices and her own mistakes) before I could get past some of the things that were holding me back, in my own story. I needed to reconcile a sense of understanding for the mother who hadn’t been much of a mother. I needed to step in and advocate for a child who deserved so much different… Before reading her book, those days of forced Sybil viewing were so far removed from my thoughts. When I saw Sally, I didn’t consciously associate her with that movie. Since reading the book though, and opening that memory, I have thought about it almost every day…
Sybil isn’t streaming. I have spent an entire year checking. I have known that I need to revisit the movie, for myself and for the little girl sitting cross legged, four feet from the old console tv. (My mother also forced me to endure multiple showings of The Entity. I do NOT plan to revisit that. Thankfully, it came on TV a lot less often. My girlhood eyes have seen enough demon rape to last my lifetime. Unlike the memory of Sybil, I have never forgotten that movie and could describe the room she’s monitored in, in GREAT detail still. Our minds are fascinating really…)
After twelve months of hoping the video store (yes, we do have one)might somehow find their lost copy, or crossing fingers that it would finally pop onto Netflix, I reluctantly took the plunge and forked over $16 for a dvd I doubt I will ever watch again, after our reintroduction viewing. (partly because we haven’t even used our DVD player in years and I doubt I even know how. Mostly because, why? This is an advocacy and closure mission.)
Amazon delivered it yesterday, and as I held it in my hand I realized that I hadn’t been opposed to spending money on it, at all. I guess I didn’t want to own it, I just wanted a visit and then it was behind me. I am not scared, my gut tells me it will feel more old friend than horror, but I would also be foolish not to realize that it may stir some things. My memories have been such a fortress to so many of the harder things, this may affect something. Then again, maybe it won’t. I don’t think this movie night will have popcorn, but if you’re wanted to send some positive thoughts my way, I’ll take them…