An Open Letter to My Parents
Dear Carol and Jon,
I don’t really know how to start this letter. I don’t even really know what this letter is going to be. I’ve just been thinking about writing this for so long that I believe some part of me needs it. All I know is that I have something I need to say to you, and I can’t trust you to listen. When I’ve tried to talk to you in the past, the things I’ve said have caused you so much pain that you projected malice and insanity onto me to avoid hearing me. That’s why this is an open letter. At least this way I know someone is listening.
You probably think this is going to be a litany of grievances, some kind of public callout. And believe me, it’s going to take every bit of willpower I have to keep this from becoming that. I have so much anger towards you inside me, bitterness that I have a right to, that I will express some other way, some other time. Not here. This isn’t for that.
For the past two years, I’ve been researching the dynamics of parental abuse and family trauma. The things I’ve learned have shaped both my work and the way I see the world. When I started my research, I was unconsciously trying to understand myself—other people’s abuse stories were triggering me and I had no idea why. It couldn’t have been my childhood—nothing traumatic happened. No lasting damage. No pain. Just numbness.
The memories weren’t missing or repressed. I’ve always known, intellectually, what has and hasn’t happened to me. But my anxiety and discomfort surged whenever I tried to reach those memories. I didn’t know why. I had a good childhood. You told me so. So I taught myself not to remember.
Then I got into therapy in order to recover from the trauma I experienced at the hands of a college roommate. You supported and subsidized that work. I will forever be grateful to you for that, and it’s that support that provides the only glimmer of hope for our relationship that I can find. You wouldn’t have allowed me to get psychological help if you knew what you had done to me was wrong. I’ve never believed you to be malicious, despite Carol readily believing that of me. I believe the harm you did was accidental. I said so in that first letter all those months ago.
I’m still obsessed with the subject of abuse, even though therapy has long since taught me how to introspect in earnest. Part of it is my desire to do right by the subject in my art, to find ways to talk about this that help, not hurt. But there’s still something personal underneath. I realized today that my remaining fixation comes from a desire to understand you.
I feel like I understand how you became the way you are. You’ve told me things about your own parents, tiny anecdotes that point to a larger, darker picture you’re unwilling to see. You insist that you feel nothing about these events. You call that maturity. I call it repression.
Most abuse survivors don’t go on to abuse other people, but most abusive people have suffered abuse in their past. I understand firsthand how painful it can be to acknowledge how badly the people you love most in the world have damaged you. I understand that mental health care was infinitely more stigmatized when you were growing up. I understand that you did your best. I said that in the original letter too. What I don’t understand—or what I didn’t understand until today—is your inability to reckon with the consequences of those facts in the present.
When I wrote you that letter explaining my understanding of my childhood and expressing hope for the future of our relationship, you reacted like I had attacked you. Carol, you accused me of being a malicious drug addict (as if we hadn’t smoked weed together several times) and declared us estranged. Jon, you treated the letter as the product of a tragically delusional brain that needed your help specifically to heal.
Eighteen months later, after family therapy and a good-faith attempt to maintain contact, I wrote you and told you that I needed to leave the relationship. You responded the exact same way.
I have wrestled with those reactions for a long time. If I had a child, and my child wrote me that letter after what I believed to be a good childhood, I’m sure I would feel hurt. Maybe I would feel angry. I’m under no illusions that my letter might be the hardest thing you’ve ever had to read (again, I said this in the original) and I can’t predict how it would make me feel. But I know that my priority would be to repair the relationship, not defend myself. I would look deep within myself and apologize for anything I thought might have done my child harm, even unintentionally. I would even apologize for things I didn’t believe I’d done wrong—that’s how you raised me—just in an attempt to give my child what they say they need to help them trust me again. If my child said they needed to cease contact with me for any reason, I would accept that decision and do everything possible to leave the door open for future reconciliation.
Even in some hypothetical world where I’m a delusional drug addict lashing out at you by mistake, your response would do nothing but deepen my convictions and drive the wedge between us. But this is NOT that world. I have apologized to you so many times for so many things over the last eighteen months. My phrasing, my timing, the fact of my hurt. The first letter, the last letter, every session of family therapy. Over and over, to try and show you that I’m not attacking you, to try and get you to relax your guard and listen to what I have to say.
I never even got an “I’m sorry you feel that way,” let alone a real apology.
I didn’t understand that. Especially because you even acknowledged some of the abuse. While both of you took offense to how I characterized Jon’s behavior, you never disputed the worst events I described. Carol, you readily admit that you have regrets about the way you parented me. Nevertheless, you won’t apologize for them.
Why? Do you believe I didn’t need better? I’m a psychological wreck with extensive trauma symptoms. Do you think an apology would somehow undermine our relationship? You’ve done that plenty without benefit of one. Or do you believe parents shouldn’t have to apologize to their children when they hurt them? Where exactly do you think you picked up that idea?
Ugh. I’m getting angry. I didn’t want to do that here.
In one of your responses you mourned the fact that I don’t have any good memories of my childhood. This isn’t true. If I work, I can find them. One of my favorites is the three of us, reading quietly together on Saturday afternoon. It’s not just one memory, it’s a river of tiny moments of peace winding in between the screaming and the shaming and the long, tense silences. These are the parts of my childhood where I didn’t feel like I had to be quieter or smarter or better to make you happy. In those moments, we could just exist as three people, parents and child, together.
No family is perfect. Accidents happen. The power imbalance between parent and child is so great that some minor harm is nearly inevitable. But in order to grow up psychologically healthy, a child needs a family where that kind of unconditional acceptance is the norm, not the exception. I needed that. And you needed that too.
I used to believe that you couldn’t apologize because to do so would fatally compromise your self-image as Good Parents. And that’s definitely part of it. But I think underneath that, you can’t acknowledge that I deserved better because to do so would mean acknowledging that YOU deserved better. And letting yourself think about that would fatally compromise your self-image as Good CHILDREN, a burden you carried alone for decades before I came in the picture.
It makes me sad, because you did deserve better. And so did your parents, and their parents before them. We were all scared, desperate children, once. The only difference between us is that I decided to break the chain. It was the most painful thing I’ve ever done, and I don’t regret it for a second.
I still love you. I hate you sometimes. But mostly I feel sorry for you. I hope you’re able to get the help you need to start your own journeys towards recovery. I don’t think you will. You have each other to distract yourselves, and you’ve always taken pride in refusing to change, even though change is the only inevitability in this world.
I hope you do, though. It won’t change anything about our situation; Jon likes to say that family requires trust, and although I still love you, I do not like you and I cannot trust you. But you still deserve better than the childhood you got.
I know it might be impossible to imagine what that would even look like. All I can tell you is that, after a lifetime of suicidal ideation where not wanting to die was the best future I thought I could hope for, I finally know how it feels to really, truly want to live.
Look inside yourself. Find the scared child huddled in some dark corner. Ask them what they need that they never received. That’s the easy part.
The hard part is learning how to listen.