How my mom’s family passed trauma down, generation to generation
I was about eight when the kids at school figured out I was an easy target. During recess, a cluster of classmates would corner me under the maple trees on the edge of the blacktop and tease me about my red hair. They could have teased me about anything; I would have cried, regardless. But once I began to cry, they would tease me for that. “Your eyes are leaking!” one would cackle, pointing as the others laughed. I’d sob and run away, hiding behind the beige stucco wall of the school building, willing myself to stop hurting, wishing I could disappear.
At home, it was little better. If I started to cry, it would draw my mom’s attention like a starved dog to raw meat. I desperately wanted her to hold me in her soft arms, to pet my hair and murmur soothing words. Instead, she would demand to know what was wrong, hands on her hips, eyes sharp with worry. I would streak across the house and fall into bed, sobbing. If she followed, I’d beg her to go away. She would turn away, huffing, and retreat to her armchair by the television.
So I learned to hide my feelings. To cry silently. To hold my body rigid so sobs wouldn’t shake me, to breathe evenly so nobody could hear the stutter in my lungs, to let tears wash down my cheeks and dry on their own. For the most part, it worked.
I didn’t know it then, but among the women of my family, silence and trauma are as much a part of our bloodline as our apple-cheeked smiles and our tenacity. Now, it feels like a thin, silver braid, twinkling even as it shackles our ankles like a chain gang.
In high school, I started having stomachaches regularly. A fluttery feeling, like something exciting was about to happen, except nothing was — unless you counted biology class or the occasional assembly. For a while, I convinced myself that maybe I was psychic, that I could sense when something momentous was around the corner. Just like ancient tribes who told paranormal stories to explain scientific phenomena, I turned to superstition to make sense of how I felt, when nobody had given me the words for my psychology.
When I was 15, I was sexually coerced, repeatedly, by a boyfriend — an experience that left me shattered and full of fear. Uncomfortable of men and their desires, prickly, isolated, prone to sudden fits of sobbing. Many women and girls keep such experiences to themselves because they’re afraid nobody will believe they didn’t want it. I didn’t tell anyone, but for a different reason; I was ashamed that I’d had such a terrible experience, and with someone who said he loved me. I knew my mom would be disappointed in me for having sex so young — or that she would force me to stop seeing him, maybe even report him.
A year later, one of my closest friends died in a car accident. The year after that, my mom was in the ICU for weeks with pneumonia. We visited her every day in those antiseptic-scented rooms, strapped to her bed by tubes and wires and machines whose steady whooshes and beeps told us she was alive. But nobody told my brother and me that her body was slowly destroying her lungs, or that it would soon kill her.
I buried myself in schoolwork and took on so many extracurricular activities that even my teachers were worried. Achievement felt good, safe; from the outside, it looked like I was succeeding. If I kept myself busy, scoring success after success, I looked like I was doing just fine. Better yet, I didn’t have to feel anything.
There were moments when I slowed down, like when I would sit on our porch swing under the bloomless wisteria watching cars go by. For me it was like meditation, but that wasn’t what my parents saw. One of those times, my dad accused me of being high. Another time, thinking I couldn’t hear her, my mom asked my dad whether I could be depressed. It was the first time anyone in my family had mentioned mental health aloud. But she never mentioned it to me directly, or suggested I could get help. I brushed my parents’ worry off like any teenager would, thinking myself impervious to mental illness. Not knowing just how thick it ran in my blood.
Sigmund Freud sold us out. After nearly 4,000 years of doctors blaming women’s mental and physical health complaints on our wandering wombs, Freud realized that most of his female patients stricken by “hysteria” had in fact experienced sexual abuse. But he was uncomfortable with the idea that so many fathers and other adult men were abusing little girls, and so he cloaked it in bogus theories. He developed the idea of the Elektra complex, in which little girls unconsciously wish to seduce and marry their fathers.
Freud was on the trail of post-traumatic stress disorder in abuse survivors, but abandoned it — and potential healing for his patients, and all the patients of therapists who learned from him — because he was uncomfortable with the reality of what his patients had survived. Instead of locating the root of anxiety, insomnia, irritability and the rest in trauma, Freud instead blamed the young girls his patients once were. Even while encouraging them to heal by talking, he taught them not to name what they’d endured.
I can follow my own bloodline of silence and trauma back as far as my great-grandmother Ona, born poor in rural Georgia in the spring of 1893 to Cassandra Gann and John Jackson. Of her early life there remain only wisps; in 1900, when Ona was seven, her parents and four siblings moved to Atlanta where, a year later, her older sister Fannie met and married Rufus Bourn, a meat cutter at a local market. Fannie was 15, too young to recognize exactly who she’d let into the family.
By 1910, when Ona was 17, she had moved 180 miles south to Fitzgerald, where she lived in a boarding house with a random collection of others and worked as a telegraph operator. I can picture her walking from the boardinghouse on Lemon Street to the telegraph office, past tall trees garlanded with wild wisteria, throwing off sweet perfume into the humid air. It must have felt something like freedom. But in 1912, Ona returned to Atlanta to give birth to a baby girl, my grandma Cassie, on April 13. Ona was unmarried and not quite 19. She named Cassie after her mom, Cassandra.
In those years, women who gave birth to children out of wedlock were commonly considered “feebleminded.” This meant they were not only sexually promiscuous and genetically defective, but likely to pass on that defectiveness to their children. They were shamed for not having the good sense to avoid pregnancy and birth, and many were sterilized without their consent, so as not to pollute society by having more babies. At the same time, women and girls were responsible for fending off the advances of men, making them liable not only for men’s behavior but any pregnancies that followed. “Illegitimate” children like Cassie were second-class citizens; some believed that they posed moral and public health problems. All this from not knowing who fathered a child, as if the mother wasn’t enough.
Family members sometimes asked Ona who Cassie’s father was. She responded either with silence or a wave of her hand, such was her shame. But between the family silences were whispers, and those whispers say that Rufus, Ona’s brother-in-law, was the one. Nine months before Cassie was born was Fannie’s 25th birthday party — a likely opportunity for family to gather for a midsummer celebration. I imagine a 28-year-old Rufus cornering Ona, just 18, in an encounter she probably didn’t want. I imagine she may have moved 180 miles away just to get away from him — until she had to come back to see her sister.
Ona had another baby, a boy, in May of 1914, two weeks before her 21st birthday. Again, Rufus was likely the father, though there’s no sign that he recognized these babies as his own. Still poor and unmarried, and with a toddler already, Ona knew she couldn’t raise two little ones. She made the devastating decision to surrender her son for adoption. He went to an orphanage, where one of the workers, Nanny Lou, fell in love with this baby and brought him home for her and her husband, Ernest, to raise. They named him Malcolm Clay Howard.
When Malcolm was just seven, Nanny Lou died after tonsil surgery. Ernest remarried, but his new wife didn’t like children; Malcolm was sent to an institution, where he remained until other members of the Howard clan took him in and raised him. Ona stayed in touch with the family, and they occasionally visited each other. But Malcolm must have carried the scars of his childhood through his entire life, and Ona was surely forever changed. Girls and women who relinquish babies for adoption describe a grief and sense of loss that never fades, akin to parents whose children go missing. They develop depression, self-loathing, persistent guilt and shame, even post-traumatic stress disorder. They may feel as though they don’t deserve love or a decent relationship after letting go of a child, and there’s evidence that their other children suffer because of their mother’s bottomless grief and fractured sense of self.
In Greek myth, the God Apollo wanted to have sex with the princess Cassandra. She agreed, but only if Apollo gave her the ability to see the future. However, once he bestowed this gift on her, she refused to sleep with him. Angry, Apollo cursed her: she would continue to see these prophecies, but nobody would believe her.
“I warn you, fear the child of stolen love; that rustic foundling shall overturn your house,” Cassandra says in her monologue in Agamemnon. “What means that mad woman with drawn sword in hand? What hero seeks she with her right hand, a Spartan in her garb, but carrying an Amazonian axe?”
Jungian psychologist Laurie Layton Schapira coined the phrase “Cassandra Complex” to describe patients who suffer in dysfunctional relationship to the “Apollo archetype” — a society based on reason and order — who experienced “hysteria” or “women’s problems.” Cassandra women feel “attacked not only from the outside world but also from within, especially from the body in the form of somatic, often gynaecological, complaints,” she wrote. She also applied the term to patients who feel as though they are never believed.
Like Ona and Cassie before her, my mom never named her own demons, but that didn’t keep them from haunting my childhood and adolescence. We were forbidden whistling or blowing bubbles in our bubblegum because she couldn’t stand the noise. And when we went out with friends, her mind convinced her the worst was happening.
One night, as my boyfriend pulled his car in front of my house at the end of a date, I saw, through one of the front windows, my mom in her sewing room. Bathed in the dim yellow light, I saw one of her hands dialing as the other held the handset to her ear. As the headlights swept across the front of the house, she looked up, and then hung up the phone.
I kissed my boyfriend goodnight, walked up the concrete path that divided the lawn, and opened the heavy front door. My mom met me just inside, green eyes barbed with fear and anger. She was trembling from legs to lips.
“Where were you?! You’re late! I was about to call the police!”
I was supposed to be home at 10. It was about 10:05.
“I’m only a few minutes late,” I said softly, not sure how to bend myself around her worry.
“You said you’d be home at 10. You should have stopped to call and let me know you would be late,” she said, her voice breaking. It was the late 1980s, when calling home meant stopping by the side of a dark, rural road and having enough change for the payphone. I didn’t understand why she would want me to call; stopping would have only made me more late.
I sighed. “Okay, mom,” I said, too confused to argue further. “I will, next time.”
“You could have been in an accident, for all I know,” she said as I broke away, heading for my bedroom.
I closed my door and leaned on it, shaking my head. I didn’t understand how the span of a few minutes could make her fear the worst. I tried, but I couldn’t make those two ideas connect in my mind, and the weight of my mother’s worry sat in my belly like a bad meal.
A few years after Ona surrendered her son, she married a man named James Clackum in February of 1919. She was 25 and James, a carpenter in Atlanta, was 38. He took young Cassie in as his own daughter.
If Ona’s childhood is a mystery, Cassie’s is more so. The only thing that’s certain is that she was named after Ona’s mother, Cassie Jackson. She watched as older relatives went off to fight in World War I and struggled through the Great Depression. Their little family shifted around Atlanta several times during Cassie’s girlhood — and James’ name did, too. In some historic records he’s John; in others, he’s John C. Landman or Arthur Landman. For a time, when Cassie was 17, she was living with her mom and her namesake grandmother; Ona told the census-taker she was a widow. But a couple of years later, Ona and Cassie were living with John again, and Cassie was working in town as a saleswoman.
When Cassie was 21, she married Gus Jones, who often went by GT. He was a delivery driver, the grandson of Zachary Taylor Jones — the constable of the town of Roswell, Georgia, who married twice and fathered at least 20 children. Cassie and Gus had three kids between 1934 and 1941: my uncle Garrett, my aunt Annie and my mom. They escaped the clamor of Atlanta and settled in small, quiet Smyrna. Gus became a pastor, preaching fire and brimstone in Baptist churches within a day’s drive of their home. By 1940, Ona had moved in with them. Cassie settled into motherhood and the life of a pastor’s wife; a newspaper photo shows her bending down and smiling as she leans her ear to the side of a new church bell while she tests its ring. Gus stands over her, beaming.
Behind Cassie’s cheerful smile, a shadow was taking shape in her mind. But we wouldn’t know it until many years later.
The name Smyrna comes from a Greek goddess also known as Myrrha. As a virgin girl, Smyrna refused a variety of suitors, which offended Aphrodite. The goddess of love punished Smyrna by making her mad with lust for her own father, Cinyras. Smyrna tried to resist, and even attempted to end her own life. A nurse rescued Smyrna from her suicide attempt and offered to help her consummate her desire.
“Who is it?” the nurse asked.
“Cinyras,” Smyrna told her. She didn’t tell the nurse that he was her father.
The nurse set Smyrna up in a pitch-dark bedroom and told Cinyras that a girl awaited him there. He went for it. After nine days of nonstop sex, Cinyras lit a lamp, discovered that the girl in his bed was his own daughter, and tried to kill her. She spent nine months on the run, pregnant and frightened.
Heavy with child, Smyrna begged the gods to help her. They turned her into a tree — a myrrh tree — to keep her silent. One day, a boar crashed into the tree, cracking it open. The baby Adonis popped out, much to the surprise of the boar.
My mom never shared stories about her childhood — her mom and siblings, her friendships and boyfriends, her life as the daughter of a Baptist preacher. I can’t tell you the names of her favorite girlhood songs, or even how she met my dad. But the poverty and darkness of Ona’s early life had not just colored Cassie’s girlhood; now it was in the air as my mother went from little girl to high-school graduate. It felt strange to me that she didn’t talk about those years, but something told me not to ask.
After my mom finished Campbell High School in 1959, she graduated from a nursing program at Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta and moved to California in the early 1960s. Coming out West, she worked to erase her past. She got her crooked teeth fixed and learned to talk like a Californian, removing every trace of her southern accent. She rarely visited or talked to her family back in Georgia. It was like she’d built a wall against her childhood, and didn’t want anything from those years getting through.
After Cassie and Ona died in the early 1980s, my mom allowed a sliver of the south into our northern California home. She asked my dad to build that porch swing, and she planted wisteria around the edges of the porch. Slowly it vined its way up the rounded columns and wove itself around the carved moldings. But it never bloomed, never gave up those violet blossoms full of sweet perfume.
Throughout my childhood, I rarely saw my parents hold hands, hug or kiss, and I was pretty sure they’d stopped having sex sometime after my younger brother was born. I often longed to see them casually hug or nuzzle close together, some sign that they were still smitten. One night, dressy shoes clicking on the sidewalks as we walked through Santa Rosa’s old-timey Railroad Square to a fancy restaurant, my dad reached out and grasped my mom’s hand in his. A quiet thrill flooded my body. But I never saw anything like it between them again.
I think my dad was always looking for clues to explain why their affection had faded. He told me that during one of my mom’s hospital stays, where a respirator kept her breathing but made it impossible for her to speak, that she’d written him a note on a yellow legal pad kept on her bedside table. She was afraid of a man who kept walking by her room. She asked if he could say something to the nurses. If he could make the man go away.
After my mom died, in 1996, I started asking her sisters whether my mom had been hurt as a child, but they said they couldn’t remember anything remarkable. My dad found a book on childhood sexual abuse among her belongings, inscribed from the author with a message that said, “I hope this helps you with your healing.” That could have been a clue, or a misunderstanding on the author’s part; it dated to a time when my mom returned to college for a degree in psychology, and was working as a volunteer counselor for a local rape crisis hotline. Then again, my mom might have headed in that direction because of something she’d survived.
Like that book, most of the clues I’ve discovered about my mom’s childhood have emerged since her death. Going through family photos with my aunt Donna, my mom’s youngest sister, I discovered that, during nursing school, my mom trained for a couple of months at Central (Milledgeville) State Hospital. Located in central Georgia, the massive stone and brick hospital was known as the largest insane asylum in the world. At its peak, in the early 1950s, it housed 10,000 patients, according to one of its directors, Dr. Peter Cranford. Cranford wrote that the hospital was chronically understaffed and plagued by high turnover rates; nurses who trained there, as my mom did, functioned as supplemental staff. These young women, fresh out of high school with little or no psychiatric training, were called on to care for a wide variety of patients — the anxious, the senile, the violently psychotic.
Whatever my mom experienced at Milledgeville, she folded it into her silence. But others have been more willing to talk about it, and what they witnessed must have struck my mother, sensitive and caring to her core, as brutal.
Janice Ashworth, a woman who trained at Milledgeville in 1961 — and who very well may have known my mom — shared a few of her memories in a comment on a blog post about the hospital’s history. “Thorazine was just being used,” she wrote, referring to the early antipsychotic medication that initially quieted disruptive patients, but whose side effects caused uncontrollable movements. “I also remember ‘shock’ day, when electrotherapy was performed like an assembly line. We were there for a couple of months, very long months.”
Cranford, too, remembers patients lining up for electroshock treatment, which was administered to about 3,000 of Milledgeville’s charges. Many of them underwent the treatment willingly, even though it left them in a stupor and often erased their memories. “Patients were not prepared either psychologically or with drugs for treatment, and except for supervised coma after treatment, they were left to walk stuporously back to the day room, confused but quiet and amenable to being herded by the meekest attendant,” he wrote.
In 1952, Cranford wrote about one of Milledgeville’s doctors, who experimented on “seemingly hopeless patients” by shocking them until they were like children again, hoping they might set up “a whole new system of thinking.” It didn’t work, and left those patients with giant holes in their memory. Other times, patients who reported abuse were given electroshock treatment on the grounds that they were “having delusions” of abuse, only to have their memories of abuse wiped out by the treatment, Cranford wrote.
Following in Freud’s footsteps, the mental-health world had kept on silencing patients’ experiences of abuse and trauma, distorting their experiences into something alien and outlandish. Something crazy.
When I was about 8, I started having panic attacks while trying to fall asleep at night — only nobody in my family seemed to know that’s what they were.
My bedtime routine went like this: my dad would read me stories, sing me songs, kiss me goodnight, and close the door to my room. Sometimes, before he left, he would tuck the soft sheets and heavy blankets tight around my body to keep the monsters from getting in. But once he was gone, the darkness would press in around me and I would enter a waking dream state. The scene was always the same: I was deep underground, the soil suffocating me. There were trees in that airless place, falling or being cut down, faster and faster and faster. Sawblades spinning, trees falling. Speeding out of control.
My chest would tighten and I’d start breathing so fast I would get dizzy. I tried to make my thoughts slow down, but it was like trying to stop a big dog on a leash, or spinning too fast on a merry-go-round. My stomach hurt and I was scared I’d be trapped in this loop forever.
Sometimes it would pass, and I’d eventually fall asleep. Other times, I’d cry and call out to my mom or dad, but nobody would come. At least once, though, I went to my mom, terrified and hyperventilating. She couldn’t soothe me, so she slapped me across the face, just like in the movies. It shocked me so much that it broke through the panic, so I suppose it worked. But what I remember most is feeling like my body had been swallowed by a wave of terror, and my mom hurt me instead of comforted me.
For years after, I wondered if these waking nightmares were some sort of communication from a parallel world. When we moved into the house, neighborhood kids told me that it was haunted, and I had no reason not to believe them. Because of the terrors, I asked my parents if I could switch rooms with my brother, and they agreed. After the switch, the attacks stopped, which seemed like proof that angry ghosts had been targeting me. (My brother, somehow, was immune.)
But in 2018, I was reading an essay by the actor Wil Wheaton about his mental health issues, where he mentions having panic attacks at night when he was little. A shiver of recognition washed through me, followed by a tight fist of anger in my belly. My dad was emotionally clueless, but my mom? She was a nurse — a nurse with hands-on training in mental illness. Surely it wasn’t all electroshock and thorazine. Surely she knew you don’t slap someone having a panic attack. (Even Freud, who developed a theory of anxiety attacks in the 1890s, knew that, though he would have attributed the such attacks in a young girl to “virginal anxiety.”)
Surely silence wasn’t keeping any of us safer.
In 1955, my grandma Cassie got pregnant again. My mom was 14, her sister Annie was 19 and her brother Garrett was 21. Cassie must’ve thought she was done raising babies, and here she was, about to do it all over again.
That same year, Cassie and Ona went down to the Office of Vital Records and had Cassie’s birth certificate changed to say that Arthur Landman had been Cassie’s father. Both of them gave sworn statements and the clerk updated the document. Whatever it said before that, whether it listed another man’s name or was stamped “illegitimate,” was erased for good.
My aunt Donna was born April 12, 1956, the day before Cassie’s 44th birthday. For Cassie, motherhood was no easier the second go-around; if anything, it was tougher, even though she only had one child to raise now and she had live-in childcare. Ona, now in her 60s, was still part of the household. Over the course of Donna’s childhood, Cassie developed excruciating back pain, which led to a parade of doctors, back braces and surgeries — and left her unable to work. In one photograph she lies in bed on her side, facing away from the camera, her torso encased in a shell of hard, white plastic held together by thick, heavy straps.
She spiraled into depression and wound up addicted to sleeping pills, just as Donna was turning into a wild-spirited teenager in the late 1960s. For two weeks, Cassie checked herself into the stately Brawner Hospital, an addiction-treatment center and mental-health hospital in Smyrna. Brawner was known then for a novel approach to patient care — centered on kindness, talking through problems, and rest.
Brawner’s massive front porch, framed by white Grecian columns, was dotted with rocking chairs, where patients were encouraged to sit and look out across massive oak trees and green lawns. Cassie’s doctor prescribed her a daily visit to that porch: “Just rock, and rock, and rock until your anger goes away,” he told her. Finally, after two rounds of motherhood, she had a moment to take care of herself. To fall apart and put herself back together.
“I take phosphates or phosphites — whichever it is, and tonics, and journeys, and air, and exercise,” The Yellow Wallpaper author Charlotte Perkins Gilman wrote, “and am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again.”
Many of the earliest patients at the Milledgeville Asylum, where my mom trained in the 1960s, were housewives. One was “furious; hostile; destructive.” Another had turned homicidal; a third had been locked in a shed after a “period of melancholy” that gave way to rage. Some were treated with restraints. Others endured douches, morality lessons, tartarized antimony to induce vomiting, laxatives, and time spent “adjusting to the routine of the institution.” After a period of time, no matter the course of treatment, either they were cured or they weren’t.
Marriage and motherhood are crucibles in which women are expected to melt down the steel of themselves, to re-forge their lives around husbands and children. These are impossible tasks. A woman — no person, really — can function without a self. She may break down, or become melancholy, homicidal, any of a number of things her husband and doctor say she is. Sending women away, to the countryside or an institution, was one way of hitting the reset button and hoping she’d come back more functional than before. Surely, a few women sought out such changes of scenery because they’d had enough, but more often the decision was made by someone else in their lives. For women over 40, the most common cause of admittance to an asylum was “change of life.” Menopause.
I wonder how long Cassie had been waiting for that moment when she could slip away to Brawner and rest.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve thought about squatting in a cabin in the woods for a while, or checking myself into a psychiatric hospital.
Psychiatrists and psychologists weren’t part of our family conversations, except once. A year or two before my mom died, my dad invited a counselor — the worryingly named Dr. Ransom — to our living room to talk to us about how my mom’s illness was making us feel. For an hour, we fought through layers of awkward embarrassment, offering up as little as possible. The only thing I remember is my dad talking about the times we’d had to call 911 because my mom wasn’t breathing well. Ambulances and sirens piercing sleepy nights in our rural neighborhood.
“How do you feel about that?” Dr. Ransom asked.
“I wonder what the neighbors think,” my dad said.
Almost as soon as I left home for college, I started seeing therapists. The first one, a counselor at UC Berkeley, helped me begin to unwind my sexual trauma, but also saw me through my parents’ separation, when I was 21, and my mother’s death, when I was 22. Another, a kind-hearted hippie/grandmother type, listened soothingly while I talked through years of men-induced heartache. But it wasn’t until I began intensive therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder — first sparked by sexual assault, and re-ignited by the experience of giving birth — that I realized I didn’t have words for my emotions.
Sitting on her overstuffed sofa in an office high above downtown San Francisco, I was checking in about the previous week, describing one of those fights with my partner that had quickly turned cold and silent.
“How did you feel afterward?” she asked, leaning forward in her black leather chair, round face framed by dark hair.
I blinked. I searched the thesaurus of my mind and came up empty. I tested the few words that came to mind: hurt, frustration, sadness — but it wasn’t any of those.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Don’t know, or don’t know the words?” She said, reaching behind her. From a folder, she pulled out a sheet of paper covered with different words and handed it to me. Words for feelings, like angry. Annoyed. Afraid. Disgusted. Discouraged. Guilty. Humiliated. Pleased. Quarrelsome. Who knew there were so many ways to describe emotions? Each one filled a gap in my heart, mapped a chunk of landscape I’d been through many times without knowing the way.
“Uneasy,” I said, as though I were picking from a menu based on what I was hungry for. “Worried. Scared. Angry.”
“Good,” she said, settling back into her chair. She waved at the paper in my hand to let me know I could keep it. It was clear how much I needed it.
One evening after dinner, when my daughter was about 6, she became convinced that she needed to get our backyard ready for a playdate we hadn’t even arranged yet. She set up different areas of our small, weedy yard for games and activities, and made signs for each of them. By our small toyon tree was the treehouse area; in the shadiest corner was the spy area; a shovel and a pile of dirt was the strength area (and also the digging area). The sun was going down, and it was time to get ready for bed.
“Sweetie,” I said, “We need to go in.”
She kept working like she didn’t hear me. I walked over and touched her on the shoulder, repeating the suggestion.
“No!” She said angrily, moving away to work in a different part of the yard. The more I tried, the angrier she got. “If I don’t do this, the playdate will be ruined!”
Soon, though, it became too dark outside to see. “Come inside, and make a list of everything that’s left to do,” I said. At last, she agreed.
She’s often gripped by the need to do something, or find something, immediately — draw a picture, write a note to a friend, locate that one stuffed animal we haven’t seen in more than a year. These moods often strike just before bedtime, or when we’re trying to get out of the house for school. She’s also gone through periods where she was so afraid of germs that she washed her hands until they turned rashy, and she has so much trouble letting go of possessions that her bedroom is stuffed to the ceiling with old toys, clothes and books.
She hasn’t lived any trauma; it’s the blood of her foremothers, staining her thoughts even before they’ve fully formed.
Although we’ve given her the words for her emotions — sadness, anger, frustration, hurt and many others — when she’s upset, she’s too upset for words. Her anger and fear consume her, make her think we’re her enemy, make her hate herself. Like a powerful storm, her feelings only let up when they’re ready, when they’ve blown through her and out the other side.
Still, she knows what anxiety and depression are, and what to call them, because both are her daily companions. We talk about the “brain weasels” who sneak in and tell you all sorts of things about yourself that aren’t true. Her therapist tells her that these thoughts come from the “negative part of her brain,” or her “stinky-thhpppthhthppp brain.” But she can’t get enough distance from these thoughts, yet, to treat them skeptically, or at least recognize them as a distortion. And when se’s in them, she believes only the worst is in store for her — that we’ll never let her watch My Little Pony again, that she’ll never taste another piece of cake, that we hate her, that she wants to die. In those impulses I can see a ghost of my mother, believing the worst because I haven’t come home yet.
And when the storms blow away again, we ask her what she was feeling, suggesting the words when she isn’t sure of them. She curls into our arms, damp-cheeked, warm and worn out, and sighs with relief.
Giving birth to her, I made the most noise I’ve ever made in my life; screams and growls, yelps so loud the downstairs neighbors couldn’t sleep. And now, when I watch my daughter howl and rage, a small girl inside me discovers new ways to let her anger, terror, sorrow, and grief breathe. My daughter and I are teaching each other a new language, one that can name the women and the wounds that came before us. One that will lead us out of the silences.