A year ago, on August 19th, my mom died suddenly. And oddly enough, all I can only think of is how she would have reacted when Philip Seymour Hoffman, Shirley Temple, Robin Williams and Lauren Bacall died. She’d say, “Oh my God, no.”
When she died, it felt unreal. Then, the Wizard of Oz song “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” popped into my head, not entirely unexpectedly, and I almost think she sent the song over to me via ghost waves. (I wouldn’t doubt it. She had a great warped sense of humor, when she allowed herself to laugh.)
I don’t feel I’m betraying her memory, as she was a writer too, and us writers know the price we pay for documenting our stories. For two decades, my mom wrote, and re-wrote, her life story. There was the play she wrote about life in our hometown, like Peyton Place, where people who claim to be good are actually covering up scandals and secrets. Or the memoir about her family and the perceived attacks her brother waged on her.
My mom became a historian in town, self-publishing three books. Unlike her fiction, these were the only books that didn’t focus on suspicion, betrayal, and paranoia. Seems she was always being persecuted for no reason. She had no part in it, she was never wrong.
When I first heard the AA description of an alcoholic as self-centered, egoistical, and an actor who controlled the whole show, my mom came to mind. Her presence, her actions, her ability to instigate drama was the background of my life. I was addicted to her.
Her narcissism became my obsession, so when she died, I wrote about it. I started to talk to others about my experience with her, and how Alcoholics Anonymous’ meetings echoed growing up with her. I was powerless to her drama, quick to see what I’d done wrong to hurt her, and how constantly sorry I felt. The broken record in my head constantly played my character defects.
She said, “Confucius says,” so often when I was a little kid I thought Confucius was one of her friends. I also thought the entire city hated us, and her, and that my uncle might kidnap my brother and I or murder us. Deep down, I wanted my mom happy. I wanted life to be normal. As Confucius says: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.”
There is no step on confronting evil uncles, but I did that after she died. I am lucky to have this thing called “closure.” And guess what? I have over a dozen more family members who also wonder what happened twenty-three years ago, when I was eight years old, to make my family stop talking to my mom’s family. But in my mind, I wondered: Didn’t my mom always want her family back? Or am I betraying her? I was taught as a kid they were cruel, heartless, monsters. They welcomed me back with open arms.
Maybe blood really is thicker than bullshit.
I have a low tolerance for bullshit. It’s why I can’t lighten up about the sexism or bad psychology of AA. I can’t be told alcoholism is a serious, debilitating illness where simple triggers can create full scale epic relapses, and then be told that the sexism from the 1930s Big Book is no big deal.
But somehow it’s not AA’s fault that the book skews the truth, like hiding the fact the chapter from the wives of alcoholics, “To Wives,” was not written by wives. It was written by Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA. His wife Lois said, “Bill wrote it, and I was mad. I wasn’t so much mad as hurt. I still don’t know why Bill wrote it. I’ve never really gotten into it- why he insisted upon writing it. I said to him, ‘Well, do you want me to write it?’ And he said no, he thought it should be in the same style as the rest of the book.”
Lois was not an alcoholic, but like any human who feels slighted, she felt bad. I would read the sexist Big Book and question if my therapist or rehab or if other AA members gave a damn about women. I watched this video of students reacting to gay couples kissing, and the interviewer remarked, “You have tears in your eyes.” The student admitted he was trying to calm down. When the interviewer asked, “This means that much to you?” The student replied, “Yes sir, I mean, I hate seeing people that are treated differently for no good reason.” That sums up my feelings about the unfair treatment of women in AA literature.
Sometimes, when we’d read the Big Book at a meeting, I’d remark under my breath, “Glad my wife isn’t like that!” Haha… My mom would say women can do anything a man can do. Why isn’t it “Men can do anything a woman can do?”
Her mom, my Nana, lied about her age so she’d be only 2 years older than my grandfather. (1917 vs. 1914… The four could look like a seven, right?) He was a Lutheran who agreed my Nana could raise her son and daughter as Catholics. My grandfather the feminist! My mom skipped a grade, so even though my parents are the same age, she graduated before my dad. They married between their July and September birthdays so my mom would be 27 and he’d be 28. Mom did not want to be an old maid.
Her nervous breakdowns coincided with the paranoia about the city and her brother being “out to get her.” Dad was emotionally unavailable, and quick tempered, which caused me to take my mom’s side in their spats. How dare you hurt my mom, she’s the best mom and she’s already been hurt too many times.
When I criticize AA, I become my dad criticizing my mom. How dare I hurt AA after all AA has done to help so many people? Yet, I also see many in AA as people who have also been hurt, and they probably react defensively because they don’t know any other way to react.
In the midst her fits and tantrums, my mom repeated a phrase she insisted a deceased relative gave to her during a near death experience following a car wreck, “Tell the truth.” Messages from the afterlife might skip a generation, though. That message may have been for me.
So today, I celebrate the mom who loved her hometown and gave back, even if in a sad way she felt she was not wanted there. I celebrate the mom who was unable to give love because she was unable to feel the love around her from so many. I learned to love anyway, to be kind anyway.
That’s what someone she admired also said, Mother Theresa: “People are often unreasonable, irrational, and self-centered. Forgive them anyway. If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway.” I’ve been put down, demeaned, and demoralized in my life but it doesn’t mean I hate AA. The contrary is, I feel immensely for the people in the rooms who may be suffering like I was.
When I was kicked out of her house, my mom kept my son there without having custody. It is only now that he’s told me his grandma said I was evil, plotting against her, and on a mission to tear the family apart. But he forgives me for not being able to talk with him, and he forgives his Nana because she was sick. It took a year, but it was worth it to have my son back, and to be able to share freely with me. “What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway.”
The frustration taught me patience. The tears made me stronger. When I’m accused of having a vendetta against AA, I step back and realize that is what they want to believe and it has nothing to do with me. Their love for AA is as addictive as the love I had for my mom.
To paraphrase Mother Theresa, it was never between me and them anyway.