My Step-aunt Anna
When I was eleven years old, my mother, who had been divorced from my father for a number of years, re-married. My stepfather was a wonderful, kind man and he came from a wonderful, loving family. We lived on the west coast and my stepfather's family was from New York. After the wedding, his relatives came out to the west coast to visit with us one by one. I got along well with my new step relatives. I kept hearing about my Aunt Anna and she sounded absolutely fascinating; I couldn't wait to meet her. We seemed to have a lot in common. I was told she was independent, loved to read like I did, had travelled all over the world as I hoped to, was college educated and sophisticated, just the kind of woman I imagined I wanted to become.
Unfortunately, my mother stepped into the middle of all of this. My mother was emotionally abusive to me (and occasionally physically abusive as well). The abuse had let up somewhat after her new marriage as she did not like for my new stepfather to see her behaving that way. He acted as a buffer between us. One of my mother's abusive tactics had been to isolate me socially from everyone around me; she used various tactics to accomplish this, from telling lies about me, to dressing me differently from the other children at school, to embarrassing me in front of peers as well as other things she did to make sure no one was ever supportive of me (like moving whenever the neighbors noticed what went on at our house). I have since discovered that this is very typical behavior for all types of abusers; social isolation is a very powerful weapon for keeping people in line. When you think you have no one to turn to, you crumble inside and give up. That's what had happened to me.
When my stepfather came into the picture, I suddenly had a whole new family to turn to and it quickly became clear to both myself and my mother that I was rapidly forming alliances in my new family. I liked them and they liked me. And it seemed equally clear to both my mother and myself that I was quite likely to form a happy relationship with my new Aunt Anna when I met her. Since my Aunt Anna's job involved travel, sometimes to the west coast, she would be the relative I was most likely to see often.
My stepfather decided that the best way for us to get acquainted was to take my mother, me and my Aunt Anna (who was his youngest sister) on a car trip across the country. My new aunt, whom I had not yet met, would ride beside me in the back seat while my mother sat in front next to my stepfather who loved to drive. It would be a two week trip with lots of stops, including a jaunt up into Canada to see the sights. I was really looking forward to all of this, especially because I would be really getting to know my new aunt.
That trip turned into utter disaster for me.
I knew my new aunt would be flying out from the east coast and arriving any day and then we'd begin our trip. But I thought it a little strange that my mother refused to tell me when Aunt Anna would be arriving in California. She kept saying, "She'll get here when she gets here. Stop asking questions!" So I waited.
One day, I was reading a book in my room when my mother walked in from the hall and began quietly, but with carefully controlled rage, berating me. There was no warning, no apparent reason for it. She was not scolding me for something I'd done or failed to do; she was just standing in front of me hissing ugly insults at me, cruel words, really ugly things. For no reason! I was stunned, because my mother usually at least thought up some kind of reason for her temper tantrums and this seemed to come out of nowhere and it was really cruel and ugly. I asked her why she was saying these things but she did not pause, she just kept it up with a small sadistic smile on her face.
I began crying as she heaped one ugly word after another, all in a quiet hissing tone. She said I was stupid. She said I was ugly. She said she hated having me for a daughter. She said nobody liked me and no one every would, not as long as I lived. She thought of every cruel thing she could possibly say to me.I begged her to stop and I cried harder. She called me a crybaby and lots of other names, all very softly and quietly but with intense rage and scorn. I kept begging her to stop but she just got meaner and nastier, telling me every single thing she could think of that would make me cry harder. Finally, in emotional agony, sobbing, I began to scream at her, "Stop it! Stop it! I can't stand it!!! PLEASE STOP IT! STOP IT!!!!" As I did so, she got a flushed triumphant look on her face and quick as a flash, she rushed around the room opening the windows and the door to the adjoining room (a bathroom connected my room to the guestroom) as I screamed and cried. Then my mother turned quickly and strode out of the room, leaving the other door open into the hall.
I heard her footsteps and then I heard her in the adjoining room talking to someone in a low civilized tone. I heard a woman's voice answering her, saying, loudly, "....NEVER heard a girl sound so rude in my life!" I then heard my mother talking softly, pleasantly again.
A minute later my mother came back into my room. I was trying to dry my tears but I was still shaken up by her awful nastiness. My mother looked quite pleased with herself as she announced, "Your Aunt Anna has arrived. She was shocked and upset at your screaming. She says she has never heard anything so rude in her life." I was horrified. I'd, of course, had no idea that my new aunt was in the next room, or even that she'd arrived at all. I begged my mother for permission to apologize to my new aunt, to tell her that I did not usually behave like that (I didn't; most of the time I was too intimidated to scream at my mother). My mother forbid me to speak to my aunt until the next morning when, I was now told, we would begin our cross country trip.
My mother had successfully vaccinated my new aunt against any chance she might have a good impression of me. And my aunt now thoroughly disapproved of me and saw me as a bratty spoiled teenager. I now had to spend two weeks sitting beside her all day long in a car. And, at night, when we checked into a motel, my parents had one room and guess with whom I had to share a room....what a nightmare.
In a sense, the nightmare was partly my own fault. I was so guilt ridden about screaming at my mother that I blamed the situation entirely on myself. It was many years, and some helpful therapy, before I came to realize, in my middle years, that my mother had set me up for a bad relationship with my new aunt and that this kind of thing was typical of the socially isolating strategies my mother used on me, and typical of abusers in general. But at the time, I felt I was entirely to blame, that my aunt was right to look down her nose at me, and that it was up to me to try very hard to make a better impression on her. As I saw it, if I behaved in a perfectly mannerly way, was extremely well behaved, and acted entirely respectful, she would eventually understand that I was not all bad and was perhaps a candidate for her approval.
Not! It was a terrible trip for me. I made up my mind to behave perfectly in every way. I barely spoke and never without being spoken to. I deferred to my aunt in every way I could think of and never contradicted anything anyone said. I thanked everyone for everything and did not ask for anything. I even read a book on manners as we rode along so I could be sure I did everything right. I was very humble for a young teen. When I think of it now, it was rather amazing....for a sensitive teen.
But my aunt never budged in her disapproval. Nothing I could do seemed to convince her that I was really OK. Nothing. No matter what I said or did, she would make a snotty disparaging remark to me or about it. It was an awful two weeks during which I would take breaks in the evening to go into the bathroom in our motel room and cry and then splash cold water on my face so nobody would think that, on top of everything, I was a "crybaby." My aunt kept her nose in the air the whole time and acted as if she was doing me a favor to allow me to be near her at all. I still wonder why she decided to go along on the trip under the circumstances. Maybe she needed someone to whom she could feel superior.
My aunt and I never became friends. Or even friendly in any way. By the time the trip had concluded, I was very depressed. I blamed myself a lot. And for many, many years, too. Remembering it could still make me cry years later. About two years after that miserable cross country trip, my aunt died. I felt sad because my beloved stepfather was sad. But I felt nothing. And I felt guilty about that! For many years, until I was well into my middle years, I felt sad, ashamed and guilty whenever I thought of the "bad impression" I had made on my new aunt and how I had not been able to reverse my bad reputation with her in spite of my best efforts.
It's funny, but sometimes I think we have to reach the age of our abusers before we come to realize just exactly how awful they were. As I became a middle aged woman, and after I had worked with kids and young adults as a teacher, it suddenly hit me one day how awful all of this had been and that none of it had been my fault! As I reached the age my Aunt Anna had been back during our trip, it began to occur to me how quickly and how harshly Aunt Anna had judged me. After all, she had not really heard the whole "argument," had she? And, furthermore, what had I done that was so terrible? Had I been swearing at my mother, using profanity or obscenities like kids do so often today? All I had really done is cry out in emotional distress and pain and begged my mother to stop tormenting me. Was that really so awful? And, even if I had behaved badly, I was a young teen and emotional scenes with parents at that point in a young life were/are not unusual in families. And what about my perfect behavior for two whole weeks under the stress of constant, day and night, glaring scrutiny from an unsympathetic woman? Didn't that count for her at all?
Yes, it took me until my middle years to really get mad at my Aunt Anna. She did not deserve to be my aunt! And I most certainly did not deserve to have an aunt like her. As I also did not deserve the extreme emotional abuse and social isolation my disturbed mother heaped on me.
It took me a surprisingly long time to come to terms with this little episode in my life but, when I did, I gained a lot of strength. As I said, sometimes we have to arrive at the age of our abusers to understand just how awful and wrong their behavior was. Wherever you are, Aunt Anna, I hope you have developed more compassion and more insight. Because you sure needed it.