I told my story at a Moth Story event in Boston last month. Several audience members approached me afterwards to tell me of someone close to them who is experiencing some form of parent alienation. I recognize what a huge and widespread problem this is.
I was touched by a young man, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, who thanked me for my story. He said “I needed to hear that story”. I wondered if perhaps he had been alienated from a parent. There are so many stories, and many of them are of children who don’t even realize they are being manipulated. It truly is a form of brainwashing and psychological abuse, much like I imagine being in a cult to be.
I know without a doubt that my sister was brainwashed at the age of five to reject our mother. I remember the day she told our mother not to come visit again. “We don’t need you”, she said. “We have a new mother now”. This was from a little girl who loved her mother; a child who was loved deeply by her mother, as I was. My sister remembers her words and says she carries that on her shoulders because she feels she pushed our mother away. I try to tell her that our father did that to her. I don’t think she understands. I don’t think she wants to.
Although my sister was brainwashed, I do not believe that I was-or at least not in the same way. I cannot be sure if this was simply due to my age (three and a half), my temperament, or fate, but I was never brainwashed to believe I did not want my mother. I also never believed that my mother was bad or that she ‘walked out on us’. In my heart and gut, I absolutely knew that was not true.
But I lived in fear. I was afraid to ask for my mother. I was afraid to speak her name to my father. So fear was enough to silence me. It is a terrifying thing, to know you cannot upset your father, cannot ask for his help, even in the wake of a violently broken bond with your mother. How do you ask the abuser, the only parent you have left, for help with the abuse? You don’t. You accept your powerlessness.
The underlying fear for alienated children, I think, is that the wrath they witness from the alienator toward the other parent will be turned on them if they do not cooperate in the alienation. Speaking from experience, it is terrifying. What else but terror would stop a child from asking for her mother?
And it must be a horrible thing for a parent who is aware of this; to know that your child is in the hands of a parent who is psychologically tormenting them. My own mother did not know this. She actually believed it when my sister told her “We don’t need you anymore”. My father had chipped away at my mother’s sense of self worth throughout their marriage, and now she was at her lowest point; she believed that perhaps her children really didn’t need her after all. Perhaps she was not worthy. And even if she were, she could never “win” with my father as her opponent. He made sure she knew this. And so she stopped trying.
Recently, I spoke to my sister about the situation. For the first time, I was blunt and forceful in my description of what I thought my father did. I am not proud of the way I handled the conversation; we all have to come to things in our own time, and sometimes this means not in this lifetime. I don’t have a right to try to force my sister to see what she cannot see. Even if we went through this together, we are two different people, each on our own journey.
I do think she caught a glimpse of the truth in my words though. She even said so. But then she decided that it didn’t matter anymore, it was too long ago, and she had no desire to alter her life nor to reach out to our mother. Her bond is too far buried. Acknowledging our mother would be inconvenient. It would upset people. It would turn her world upside down, perhaps. She is loyal to our father. Her children are loyal grandchildren to our father and stepmother. My sister has wanted it that way.
When you think your sanity depends on not facing the truth, you will go overboard to fool yourself. You will do everything it takes, and then some to keep the truth hidden from yourself and others. This is how I see my sister living her life. She will polish the facade until it is blinding. No truth shall seep through the cracks, for she is ever vigilant, watchful, to be sure the cracks get sealed. I am shining a light on the cracks, and it is causing our relationship to suffer.
I understand that. We are polar opposites, she and I. I have spent my life feeling the truth, needing the truth, and seeking the truth, only to find I already knew it, in my heart. And now I’m telling the truth.
But I understand my sister. And I cannot fault her. Instead, I need to stay grateful that I do have the strength to tell the truth. It’s painful and ugly and so scary sometimes that I want to hide from all of it and surrender. I don’t want to be the messenger anymore. But there is no turning back. It’s my journey, and not just for me and my sister and my mother, but for all of the alienated children. I want to be their voice too. I know what it’s like to have no voice. I will always remember what that’s like.
I have valuable support from some loving and trusted family members and friends. I am grateful. I don’t think I could do this alone.
I am sure my sister and I we will speak again, eventually. But this encounter gave me a glimpse of what I am in for.
I believe I will see more loss in my future. It’s easy to hate the messenger. I understand that. And I will live with that if I have to, because nothing-nothing is as difficult as living a lie in silence.
~ The truth shall set you free.