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My parents got divorced when I was five years old, but they maintained an amicable relationship until I was fourteen. By then my father had remarried, and I was living with him. The dysfunction in his new marriage took its toll. In a single year I went from honor student to drug addict and criminal.
My parents entered into a grueling battle for custody of me. My father claimed that nothing unusual had been going on in his house and that I was just a spoiled child in need of discipline, but the judge wasn’t fooled, and he gave full custody to my mother. My parents didn’t speak for twenty years.
On top of all their other differences, my father is a longtime Republican and my mother a diehard Democrat. During the 2008 primaries I discovered that my father didn’t like Republican candidate John McCain. He started talking more and more positively about Democrat Barack Obama. Maybe, I thought, after all these years, my parents might finally agree on something.
Then Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to Obama, and my mother just couldn’t get over it. In the general election my conservative father voted for Obama, and my liberal mother voted for McCain.
San Francisco, California
Aunt Eileen used to jingle. She wore dangling earrings and so many bracelets that I could hear her coming from another room. She’d call me “my Steven” and plant a big kiss on me, leaving her bright red lipstick on my cheek.
Eileen was unlike any other grown-up in my life. Her voice would fill a room. (My mother, her sister, spoke in muted whispers.) She wore vivid colors. (My mother wouldn’t allow such hues in her house, let alone on her body.) She brought my siblings and me frivolous, noisy gifts for Christmas. She spoke her mind and dyed her hair red — and not subtle red, but a red as loud as her clicking heels.
One year my parents cut off all contact with Aunt Eileen. They often did this to family and friends: if someone upset or offended them, that person no longer existed as far as my parents were concerned. Eileen lived barely twelve miles away, but she might as well have been across an ocean.
I went along with this charade, pretending that my favorite aunt, the aunt who brought fun and excitement and laughter to our home, was no more, until finally, when I was grown and visiting my parents at Christmas, it dawned on me that I didn’t have to take my parents’ side. I could choose to have Eileen in my life.
I went to my aunt’s rent-controlled New York City high-rise, found her apartment, and knocked.
She called from inside, “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Steven.”
Long pause. “Steven who?”
“Eileen, it’s me, Steven, your nephew.”
She swung the door wide, and there she was, twelve years older, hair just as red, wearing a housedress, pink slippers, and bright red lipstick. As she grabbed me and held me, I breathed her familiar scent: Dial soap and Chanel No. 5. Then she planted a red-lipstick kiss on my face.
My mother always made excuses for my father’s drinking and brutality toward my four younger brothers and me. She did a marvelous job of hiding the horrors in our household from neighbors and friends.
As an adult I began attending meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics, and I became aware of the confusion, fear, and anger I’d buried all those years. I figured that my brothers, too, must have been living with submerged emotions, so I wrote a four-page letter and sent a copy to each of them. One by one their calls came in, and we shared memories of our father’s violence. Some of my brothers said they planned to seek a therapist’s help. One even drove more than three hundred miles to attend a therapy session with me. It seemed as if this hidden darkness in our family could finally be brought to light.
Then one of my brothers passed my letter on to our mother. I’m sure his intentions were good, but the outcome was not. Our mother subjected all of my brothers to lengthy phone conversations regarding my accusations. She wept, ducked criticism, and manipulated them with guilt and shame. Over the next few months all four brothers rejected my point of view, and me. (One even called me “sick.”) They’d decided that our childhood “wasn’t that bad,” that I was focusing too much on the negatives, that our family was “normal,” and that therapy would be a waste of time and money. My mother never called me to discuss my childhood memories.
Fifteen years have passed since I sent that letter, and my parents and brothers remain estranged from me. I never wanted to be divisive. But I broke the rule: I talked about it.
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