A better question is: What can you do when you discover that the person you most loved, admired, and trusted–a Great Soul, inspiring source of wisdom to many, with exceeding charm and grace–had tried, without your knowledge, to undermine your integrity in the eyes of others most of your life?
In my case, I was struggling to understand why my wonderful mother had never taken back, even on her deathbed, the terrible accusation she’d made in my adolescence: that I did not really love her. A close friend who’d become close to my mother revealed, very reluctantly, the extent of my mother’s negative rants about me, years after my mother’s death. And only because she’d read my initial attempts at this memoir and thought such knowledge would give me a fully picture of the problem.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Perhaps you and I were mistaken. But whoever that highly significant person was or is–mother, father, sibling, best friend, revered mentor or role model–he or she gave you and me our first intimation of personal evil.
My mother never became famous, but her radiant qualities, combined with her extraordinary life story, compelled me, her surviving child, to record her unique story for the ages. And to expose the roots of why she betrayed her most loyal devotee.
As a young woman in the wilds of 1920s New Zealand, she refused to let the onset of chicken pox keep her from attending a dress ball. All she had to do was conceal her condition from her mother, the former head nurse of a large hospital, pack her gown and dancing shoes in saddle bags, and ride horseback through a thunderstorm.
When she returned from boarding school she realized that her rustic family home on a sheep station was unfit for social gatherings. No one offered to help her, so she taught herself how to hang wallpaper. All she had for this on the farm was a wobbly pole ladder, which she stabilized by inserting its slidey ends into a pair of rubber boots. She then persuaded her father, sister, and some curious Maori natives to level a patch of land for a tennis court. The station became a hub of lively tennis parties, attended by all classes of people. At the parties her younger sister met her future husband.
Not inclined to marry and manage the family sheep farm, my mother left home to train as a nurse. A tubercular spot and a romantic betrayal forced her out of hospital work, so she left the area and became the nurse companion of a wealthy woman. In 1939 she joined her patient’s family on an ocean liner to British Columbia, Canada. She was unaware of the occult shenanigans that led her to cross the border into Washington State and meet an American cult leader, who became my father. Too quickly, he convinced her to marry him and abandon the man she would later describe as the love of her life.
A freak accident resulted in my father’s premature death, and my mother was suddenly a widow with two young children, my brother and me. As I grew a bit older, but still a child, I began to witness a dark side she showed only to me. With my stepfather and brother making themselves scarce, I was captive to many-houred harangues, to my mother’s rambling, singsong repetition of platitudes that I could neither deny nor escape. Once, when I begged her to let us both get some sleep, she screamed as she closed my bedroom door, “If I die it will be your fault!!!”
When I earned straight A’s in high school, she complained to a school counselor that I was seriously deficient as a daughter at home. When the counselor heard about the household tasks I carried out along with my studies, music and sports activities, he advised my mother to encourage rather than criticize. Instead, she accused me of betraying her, declaring that I might be an A student but I was an F daughter.
Though she was never physically abusive, to survive her tirades I had to encase myself in a protective shell emotionally. Perhaps this caused my mother to accuse me of not loving her. It was deeply wounding. Though I felt blessed that such an otherwise wonderful being was my mother, on a most vulnerable level she was invalidating the truest thing I knew about myself: that I loved her totally. Her consistent refusal to acknowledge that I loved her eroded my sense of integrity and potential for happiness. The blessing of her being my mother became a curse.
Let me be clear. My memoir is not a case of Mommy Dearest. Readers of the book will come across moments filled with great tenderness, joy, deep insights, humor, and direct experience of her courage and grace.
The memoir also explores my difficulty identifying what I felt wordlessly—the trauma I had to acknowledge and heal from in order to take ownership of my life. The book traces this process, culminating in the time I spent with her while she was dying, and my discovery of a cache of old love letters after her death.
Making sense of my life as her daughter has been the most daunting challenge to the main focus of this website. It is often said that we all have our crosses to bear, but some of us have curses to lift. How else can we bear or lift them, unless we utilize a form of energy dark enough and powerful enough? Simone Weil called attention “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Like its synonym charity, generosity begins at home. Weil also advised us to cure our faults not by will, but by attention.
The problem I had to face with my mother had an element of evil so bewildering that the best I could do was utilize Weil’s advice on intractable problems. She advised us to withdraw our’s sense of ‘I’ and to “project the light of our attention” indifferently on the good and the bad. Only then would the good win out. In Weil’s view, “therein lies the essential grace.”
That’s what I’ve tried to do with my mother’s story. Writing the memoir over several years, revising and reconsidering what others had to say about it, put this most difficult part of my life under a long steady light of attention. The ‘dark energy’ of this process came to feel like a form of grace.
I hope [LOVE] RACHEL – A Daughter’s Memoir of Love, Betrayal and Grace might help others apply the light of their attention to whatever threatens their own sense of integrity.