When I hear people give an overview of their childhood in an autobiography, I am struck by how nicely they boil the tale down to transformational moments; the death of a parent, an incident at school, whatever.
These are people who want a thumbnail version of their history which supports the choices they made as an adult. As Mary Catherine Bateson reminds us in “Composing A Life,” we usually tell stories to supply the meaning we now understand as true.
When I try to find a few anecdotes to convey my childhood, though, I come up as messy and complex as my other stories. A life full of small and difficult confrontations with Aspergers parents isn’t about what happened, dramatic moments of revelation, but is more about what didn’t happen, the tiny and very routine traumas which taught me to keep my head down.
“I always imagined that inside of me there was a cup of green liquid,” my sister recently said to me, “and my job was to stay still and defended so it never spilled. I knew that making a mess with that stuff, letting my emotions overflow, would get me creamed, so I had to be taut all the time.
“When I was making some art, I knew that I put green paint on the canvas, a messy splash, but it took me years to understand how that creation went back to my mental understanding as a kid facing a mother who made everything about her, one who would act out with vengeance if she ever caught weakness.”
Learning to have a strong inner life was an obvious path for a smart kid like me, but it’s not the kind of story that you can just semaphore and make people understand. The never ending sense of danger from parents who just never could be there, meeting you and helping you trust your own emotions, but who rather expected feelings to go away was intense.
My father would just assume that his path was the only one, no matter how it missed the point, while my mother assumed our emotions were there only to torment and mock her, like the emotions of so many people had all her life.
There was no one to help me understand, to navigate, and no one who could help them. I had to do my own therapy, my own discovery, years and years and years of work that might better have been spent in creation rather than in a struggle to deconstruct and understand.
When I go to explain my history, I don’t know how to get it down to stereotypes that other people can easily consume by matching it to their experience.
I do know, however, what it feels like to be terrified to show emotion, to spill that green juice, because you know that if you do, you will get massively bashed by the person who is supposed to love and care for you.
How do I tell you the way that affects your trust and safety in the world?