Not many people get the privilege of reading about a childhood they scarcely remember. It is, I would imagine, a most remarkable event. And I also imagine that the day I discovered my adoptive mother Janet had written a book about her experience of raising me, would have been remarkable if only it hadn't been the second most remarkable event that year.
These two events are disconnected in time and space. One happened in 2017, and the other in 2003. But for me they happened when I found out about them, about six months ago. And they do rightly belong together, they are connected, although I won't be able to tell you precisely how until I work it out for myself.
The real story must include what she didn't write, and what filters through the structure of her storytelling and encoded attitudes.She's written about how her life has been littered with tragedy. How horribly I, her adopted child, have hurt her. How dissolute I have turned out to be, despite her loving care and dedication. And how Chris, my adoptive father and her husband, was an abusive monster. Some of it is true...
Actually, I laughed when I first saw it recommended to me on Amazon. Because when toxic people can't control you anymore, they try to control how people see you. Janet's actions are sometimes so boringly predictable. Yet although the day of discovery itself was met by me with a shrug of "typical Janet", the ripples of her words on my understanding of who I am, and how I am, have been revelatory. These revelations have come in shifts, presumably as my brain decided I was ready to cope with them. I'm off work on a double dose of depression meds, so I suppose in one way my brain was right.
The real story is not her story, because that's only one piece of the puzzle. The real story must include what she didn't write, and what filters through the structure of her storytelling and encoded attitudes. It's the story of how narcissistic woman abused her adopted daughter and set the stage for a lifetime of complex trauma. It's how an abuser convinces themselves that they are the victim. But also how an abuser can actually be a victim.
To tell the full story, I will also have to tell you about the other remarkable event, which happened on an equally unremarkable day two months before. This one has been etched with a corkscrew into my bones and having told the whole story to one person only and ever, I don't know yet how I will tell it.
I have however told seven people about the precise contents of Janet's book.
When I told her, my mother-in-law cried. My friend clutched her solar plexus, and said "Stop, please, I feel sick." My colleague and mentor said, "you do realise this is part of her abuse, right?"
I do, of course. In fact this book, this precious book and its existence shows me more than she ever meant to show me. It doesn't just describe her experience of me growing up, and her own victimhood. There's a glaring lack of the abusive acts she herself perpetrated, those which don't show her in the light she wants. So I might have continued to doubt my reality, wavering in my past gaslit insanity. Luckily for me Act III, the finale clears up any remaining questions. This is the piece of writing which shows me she was without a shadow of a doubt abusive, and still is. This is her unintended gift to me. A validation, at last. The remaining missing pieces which explain who I am. And an answer to a question I've been asking for over a deacde.
Janet's piece is laid out in three acts. Act I plays out a past I consciously knew very little of, but nevertheless remember, the way you remember and envisage family history passed down through oral tradition or photographs. The stories my mother told me from when I was too young to even understand. How psychologically and violently abusive my adoptive father was towards her and had always been. Words I witnessed as a child, which had started many years before and had been accentuated occasionally by fists. Janet was expected to toe the line.
"What kind of woman are you? You're a nothing. A failure."
Afterwards when she finally managed to leave him, he gave himself free reign to poison my mind, "she should put a cross up in the front yard and hang herself from it," he said. And at the time I agreed. So somewhere in my mind I already knew Chris' attitude towards women, and shared it. I internalized it. My barometers of success became a career and children. I couldn't fail. He called his secretary of seven years "Dopey," both at home to us and to her face. She had no other name.
So I saw his abuse on multiple occasions, yet until I read Janet's grief and vitriol poured out in black and white the penny hadn't quite dropped in my memory. I hadn't been compassionate to her and yes, of course there must have been a lot more I didn't see. I also hadn't realized how normal I thought his attitudes were. He said, she was a nothing. He said, she was worthless. Worse still, she cried about it. To him, it was the ultimate proof of her manipulative womanhood. To paraphrase a recent quote I read, "when you live in a house on fire, you think the whole world is on fire."
One consequence of Janet's book, is that any vestiges of love and respect I had for my estranged adoptive father, have been successfully vanquished. His undue influence on me and my attitudes also needs examining. But that's for later.
Act I also dedicates pages to Janet's struggle with infertility. She was so desperate to have a child, any child, in order to validate herself in his eyes as a "real woman" and simply no doubt, to love and be loved, that they went on to adopt a child. Despite their mixed heritage (which was frowned upon by British society in general). Despite their advancing years (which invalidated them in the eyes of many adoption agencies). Despite their abusive relationship, which passed undetected how? But then the miracle happened. And the call came.
They had precisely 9 days to prepare for my arrival. They'd been late entries in the child bingo, and I'd been born prematurely. Already I wasn't the child they'd been looking for. They both wanted a boy. They were offered me instead. I was the inadequate band-aid for their marriage, and for their self-image, especially hers. To be fair the odds of me succeeding hadn't been in my favour.
Janet's infertility had already caused her to become depressed, anxious and horribly despised by her abusive Greek-American husband. A man who had profited from an Americanized persona and education, whilst keeping his attitudes towards woman, grounded in his Ottoman heritage. My mother was isolated in her marriage, in the community, in her self-expression. She was prevented from getting a job and controlled financially. She describes his tyranny at length. And so she was desperate to have the thing she wanted most in the whole world: "a baby of her own." She writes,
"Well-meaning friends told her if she adopted a baby she would almost certainly conceive. Et voila, her family would be complete."
It wasn't to be. I didn't achieve my true purpose, because she didn't conceive. Her family was never completed. I was never enough. And her husband's abuse became evermore relentless.
Act II describes my childhood. I am the worst kind of child, she writes. I lie. I steal. And worst of all I seem to have no shame. Her book and my own memories dovetail on some points. I remember that my father gave me too much money. As an adult with my own hindsight and the support of her words, I recognize that he did it to spite her. But it differs on others. I remember that she taught me to sing a song to him which ended "I love Daddy, because he's the second best of all." This part is missing. This and other behaviours like it, show I was a pawn in their drama triangle. As I grow older she describes me as intelligent, but lazy. Secretive, controlling and manipulative. And as a teenager, partial to alcohol, running away and sexual experimentation, although she doesn't know the half of it. And seems oblivious to why that might be, even though the trauma shines right up at me, out of the pages.
But in Act III I'm an adult and Janet has very little experience of me, or contact with me. I know this for a fact, because I was living with my father in Cyprus, and afterwards purposely in a university at the opposite end of the U.K. As an author, I sympathize. She had very little source material... so instead she invented it. She lies outright. You can't go back from that.
The narrative switches point of view, to my point of view. She writes from my perspective in the third person, and describes events I alone experienced and scantily shared with her. She tells the world about the story of rape and abuse which drove me to addiction. She assumes my voice and tells a false and gross story. She tells what she thinks she knows of my deepest, darkest secrets, then she distorts them and changes them so that they makes sense inside her skewed framework of 'how it must have happened' using her fixed framework of me a manipulative, and promiscous woman. And in doing so, she exercises ewhat has been her biggest abusive muscle, the king of the patriarchal weapons and the one which she used to imprison me all my life. Shame.
When I finally felt my full reaction to what she'd done, months later, I confess that my gut reaction was to seek answers on the internet. I googled "least painful, most lethal" and found what I was looking for. A gunshot to the head, if you're interested, is the best way. But I live in Sweden where there are no guns. The second most lethal is Cyanide. But it's also 17 minutes of hideous agony. And I'm kind of a coward like that. But neither can I live with this inside me anymore and since she has told the story, stolen my story, I must also tell the story. Because it is my story to tell, not hers. And even though I've kept it a secret for twenty years, I must now shine a light on it and release it.
The only question left is where to begin.
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