Same family, different life

In previous posts, I’ve commented that my brother and sister don’t necessarily share my perspective on our childhood. For example, despite being raised by the same parents in the same places, they wouldn’t describe both of our parents as abusive towards us, and they tend to push back when I apply words like that to our mother (who is widely regarded as the victim of our father, rather than his enabler and accomplice–I see her as both).

To be fair, I would only have described my upbringing as ‘quirky’, ‘strict’ or ‘unconventional’ until the last couple of years, when my eyes started to open to the control, violence and fear that permeated the first 18-odd years of my life. Earlier, words like abuse would have sounded unreasonable or extreme to my ears–even in relation to my obviously abusive father–so it’s not surprising that my siblings would use different semantics to me.

But it’s not about my eyes being more open than theirs. I’m beginning to understand that our different perspectives on childhood reflect our different experiences of childhood. Not just because I was the youngest (by 7+ years), but because each of us played a different role in our dysfunctional family.

Or, to put it another way: the three of us had three completely different childhoods.

I’m sure my brother and sister remember Dad joking about me being his last chance to ‘get it right’ as a parent, i.e. to finally raise a perfect child, and I suspect they would agree that he wasn’t really joking. But as children, we weren’t equipped to recognise and process the daily reality of this favouritism–the obsessive focus on me, the near-indifference towards them (especially towards my sister given she was ‘only’ a girl), the distinct forms of manipulation and control that were used on each of us. And in adulthood, we’ve all processed our dysfunctional upbringings in different ways, from complete denial to various forms of counselling.

So, all things considered, it’s not surprising that we don’t see eye-to-eye about our parents. But it can be distressing to receive incredulous responses from your siblings when you’re working through childhood trauma you can finally recognise, which is why this article in Psychology Today (“You Had a Toxic Parent, But Your Siblings Say They Didn’t”) was a salve for my soul–and that’s only a very slight overstatement.

It’s a very worthwhile read if you’re struggling to reconcile different perspectives on your childhood with siblings who are doubtful about what you’re saying. Or perhaps you’re the doubtful one–in which case you should read it, too.

(Side note: it was one of my siblings who shared this article with me–proving that sometimes, if you can keep the conversation going, a sense of mutual understanding and validation can be attained with your siblings.)

Overwhelming loveliness: when the nicest people are the most controlling

Do you know someone so overwhelmingly lovely that it’s unthinkable for anyone to say a bad word about them? Someone who goes out of their way to be selfless so consistently that you feel bad about yourself whenever you’re annoyed with them? Someone who is unfailingly considerate, to the point of near-martyrdom?

You might roll your eyes at their brave, sorrowful Facebook posts, and roll them again as others oblige with the reassurance that is so obviously demanded. Or maybe, despite the niggling feeling that something isn’t quite right, you offer your own words of encouragement. I mean, they’re just so lovely — surely it’s the least you can do?

You’re probably wondering if this person is too nice to be what they seem — surely it’s not possible for anyone to be that nice? — but no-one else seems to have similar doubts. So you keep them to yourself and carry on.

Maybe you’ve had to work with this person, and they’ve made trouble for others by doing something outside their area of responsibility without consulting the appropriate people. But, before you could figure out a constructive way to respond, they came to you, eager to explain. Their motives appeared to be selfless — beautiful, even. They probably apologised for doing what they did without discussing it with you first, and they almost certainly mentioned all the effort that was involved in doing it their way doing something that would be “helpful for everybody.”

You were still frustrated, with good reason, but now you had no choice but to appear grateful. The alternative was to be the asshole who made this hard-working, beautifully-motivated, lovely person desperately sad.

You probably couldn’t even blow off steam about what had happened, because no-one was willing to hear anything negative about their wonderful friend. So, you did your best to manage the damage that had been done, allowed the autonomy of the Very Lovely Troublemaker to go unchecked, and waited for it to happen all over again.

Maybe your significant other is one of these overwhelmingly lovely people. Maybe you feel uneasy or miserable around their olympic-level niceness, but can’t articulate why. The ways you’re being controlled and manipulated with a relentless cycle of generosity and guilt might be so ‘normal’ to you that you can’t even see what’s happening, especially if you’ve experienced emotional abuse in the past. It’s possible, for example, that childhood abuse has ‘programmed’ you to believe this is what you deserve.

Or perhaps you’re fully aware of your partner’s control-by-generosity, and you’ve accepted it. Perhaps you’ve decided their lack of insight into their own behaviour isn’t their fault, or that their motivations really are genuinely lovely, even when their actions are not. So you put up with it out of commitment, or obligation, or because the alternative would be too complicated, or because you know almost no-one will believe the truth about how things really play out behind closed doors (you’d be right about that, by the way).

Does any of this sound familiar? I’m sorry if it does, but here’s what I’ve discovered: it’s ok to distance yourself from the nicest people in your life. Sometimes, it’s necessary.

I wish I’d stumbled on a post like this before, say, early 2016. I wish I’d been able to recognise some of my own relationships in its vague hypotheticals. I wish I’d given myself permission to completely disconnect from some of the nicest, most controlling people in my life.

Instead, I’ve learned the following lessons the hard way:

  1. It’s not ok for overwhelming loveliness to be used against anyone as a weapon of guilt and manipulation. Not ever.

  2. Disconnecting from the control of ‘lovely’ people is likely to result in lost friendships. More of them than you might expect. It’s worth it, but don’t underestimate how painful these losses can be. Reach out to at least one true friend regularly. Find a good psychologist if you need one. It’s really important to take care of yourself.

  3. It’s normal to experience overwhelming unloveliness when the usual behaviour ceases to be effective in achieving control. The dark sides of ‘lovely’ people can be surprisingly awful, and the vindication you feel when they show their true colours might not be adequate compensation. Again: take care of yourself.

  4. Trying to understand the psychology of ‘lovely’ people is a monumental waste of time and energy. Is their behaviour deliberate or unconscious? Are they narcissistic or merely dysfunctional? You’ll probably never know. Respond consistently to their actions and stop second-guessing what might be motivating them. Nothing you say or do will change them, and you’ll be happier if you leave them to their own dysfunction.

  5. Your true friends will stand by you. There may not be many of them, and the friends who prove to be ‘true’ might not be the ones you’d expect, but they will be enough. You will make wonderful new friends, too. Be open to the unexpected.

Hopefully it doesn’t need to be said, but not all lovely people are controlling and manipulative. Many of them are as generous and thoughtful as they seem. I would never suggest treating selfless, caring people with baseless suspicion — but if their generosity is making you feel burdened, or uncomfortable, or controlled, maybe it’s time to start asking why.

Because in my experience, it’s the most controlling people who can also be the loveliest.

Acceptance is the new black

For most of my adult life, I’ve been a pretty well-adjusted human, all things considered.

That’s what I would have told you 12 months ago, anyway. I’ve been on a bit of a journey of self-discovery since then, and no, that’s not code for “self-indulgent mid-life crisis.” Ask the trauma psychologist I’ve been seeing fortnightly (not that she’s allowed to tell you anything).

Confronting the parts of myself that are dysfunctional has been devastating at times, liberating at others. Exhausting, too–it’s hard work to reflect deeply on the ways you’re under the influence of your past, to regularly articulate your thoughts and feelings to a therapist, and to work steadily on the changes that are needed for a more functional future.

But the biggest challenge, I think, has been learning not to resist each new discovery about myself. If I hadn’t found a way to accept the Luke who materialised, piece by piece, during each psych visit–the real Luke, flawed and broken but growing and healing–I would either be deeply depressed, or still at square one, believing myself to be well-adjusted.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just a hypochondriac, working up medical excuses for decades of bad habits and faulty decisions. That would be easier to deal with than this continuous loop of memories, reactions, therapy, research, reflection, and practice. But I’ve slowly learned to accept this new picture of myself, gaining knowledge along the way. And knowledge, they say, is power.

It started with panic attacks I could no longer pretend were anything else. They could be triggered just by seeing my mother’s car, or a car that looked like hers, and they would totally immobilise me. I had no choice but to accept that I was experiencing debilitating panic attacks and needed help. (On reflection, they had been happening for a while–racing heart, uncontrollable shaking, irrational thoughts–I just didn’t recognise them.)

It took a few weeks to find a psychologist who specialised in treating adults with childhood-related trauma (given interactions with my parents were my main triggers, I figured this would be a good place to start). She quickly formed the opinion that my symptoms were consistent with unresolved trauma from child abuse, and that I’d need significantly more sessions than Medicare would cover to get on top of it. She recommended applying for funding from NSW Victims Services.

I did, and it was granted, but it took some time for me to accept that my childhood was “abusive” (I wouldn’t have gone much further than “strange” or “volatile” previously). It took even longer to accept that seeking help as a “victim” was a reasonable course of action under the circumstances. (Even now, my sister is skeptical when I describe my childhood in these terms. Turns out her childhood was awful in different ways to mine–and that it’s not unusual for this to be the case.)

In time, as I progressed through therapy, it became necessary to accept that I’m dealing with C-PTSD. “Complex” PTSD is a form of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder that’s brought on by sustained abuse over an extended period. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia’s C-PTSD article that should help explain my reluctance to accept this diagnosis:

Researchers concluded that C-PTSD is distinct from, but similar to PTSD, somatization disorder, dissociative identity disorder, and borderline personality disorder, with the main distinctions being that it distorts a person’s core identity, and involves significant emotional dysregulation.

Then there’s the fact that most of my significant decisions as an adult have been the result of subconscious self-sabotage. This realisation, when it finally sank in, knocked me around for days. Refusal to pursue academic success in any field? Choosing to work as a photographer because it was the opposite of what my parents had groomed me for? Starting a family with a controlling but superficially lovely woman? All of these, and many more, were subconscious attempts to give my abusive father no success to claim for himself.

It gets worse: in many cases, I have subconsciously set people up to be disappointed or angry with me, anticipating they will abuse me like he did, believing it’s what I deserve. I thought I was lazy, or unproductive due to obsessive perfectionism, or pathologically horrible (despite genuinely good intentions). The truth is much more awful.

Accepting that so many of my choices have been so destructive for so long has been tough, but so has accepting other people’s lack of acceptance. Whether they’ve spurned my lack of compliance with their rules (e.g. “marriage is forever, no exceptions”), or couldn’t deal with me describing my childhood as abusive, huge swathes of my pre-2016 network of family and friends–even my own brother–have quietly but definitively asserted that they would prefer not to acknowledge my existence any more than necessary. Although I had anticipated most of this (ditching the church and my marriage was always going to have consequences), the depth and extent of the judgement and rejection has been confronting enough to create moments of significant doubt, anxiety and depression.

Thankfully, between my real friends (whose friendship has always been unconditional), a bunch of new friends, and a new family, I’ve received more than enough acceptance to get through those moments.

There will, no doubt, be much more to accept as I work towards being the best possible version of myself. But I’m thankful for what I can already see, and determined to make the best of it all.

Just write. (With an AlphaSmart NEO. Maybe. If it helps.)

Have you been shaking your head at ads for these crippled laptops, with their tiny screens and their weird design and their breathtaking prices?

Well, it turns out they’re useful for something (the ads, that is): in the comments, ignorant people like me can learn about distraction-free writing devices like these, which apparently have a “cult following” among writers and have been around for the better part of two decades (only discontinued in 2013, still supported, and still available for cheap on eBay).

It won’t surprise you that after learning about these cute li’l word processors and telling myself I didn’t need one, I promptly ordered two and am typing this review on one (Susan might eventually try the other, when she’s done laughing at me).

I had been considering setting up a “writing laptop”–without access to any of my work laptop’s unfettered distractions–but the AlphaSmart NEO is much cheaper, and (probably) much better.

Much like a mechanical typewriter, it only displays a few lines of text at any one time, and editing is painful. This is a good thing. It forces you to keep writing. It saves you from the distraction of editing your first draft before it’s even finished.

The software is dead-easy to use, but offers enough features and settings to make the NEO adaptable to your personality and/or eyesight without getting confusing. If you’re a nerd, “NEO Manager” still runs on current Mac and PC operating systems, providing access to firmware updates and extra settings.

Because I’m a nerd, I used this to enable two-button powering on, to prevent accidental startup when the device is kicking around in my bag.

Speaking of which, the NEO starts up almost instantly, has a better-than-average close-enough-to-full-size keyboard and a solid build, and sits nicely on my lap (the stealth bomber design isn’t as strange as it looks in photos). Plus, I’ve heard it’s not unusual to get 12 months out of its AA batteries.

The only aspects I don’t rate are the green colour, the lack of an undo button (although I suppose this helps with Just Getting The Words Out), and the fact that it’s not manufactured anymore.

I’ll go ahead and seek help for my compulsion to join “cult followings” of niche tech now. (No I won’t.)

Ali’s Wedding vs. The Big Sick

Without realising the parallels between them, nor the fact that both movies were biopics written by their male stars about themselves, I added Ali’s Wedding and The Big Sick to my DVD collection in one 3-for-the-price-of-2 transaction. After watching The Big Sick a couple of months ago, Susan and I were finally in the mood for another rom-com recently, and despite the lingering sense of déjà vu, I think it’s safe to say Ali’s Wedding far exceeded our expectations.

Comparing these movies isn’t really fair, except that they were both:

  • autobiographical;
  • released in 2017;
  • written and performed by comedians whose parents emigrated from Asia to western countries;
  • preoccupied with the highs and lows of forbidden (or strongly discouraged) love.

Where Ali’s Wedding stands alone (aside from being set and produced in Australia rather than the USA, obviously) is the depth of its portrayal of an Australian Muslim family. According to Osamah Sami (who wrote and starred), it’s “the first Muslim rom-com”.

From the gently corrected misogyny of the men who came to his father for advice (his dad was the leader at their local mosque), to the community-wide gender roles and segregation (and the ways these are both challenged and respected), to the lewd but somehow endearing elderly polygamist (“temporary marriage”, anyone?), to the flashbacks to the horrors of Iraq and Iran, the bar has been set pretty high for this new genre of romantic comedy. It’s hilarious, warm, believable, honest, memorable, and… different. Unusual. Nice.

4 stars, and may there be many more dramas with this cultural backdrop.

Where have all the tech posts gone?

If you’ve been following for my tech-related posts, I’d suggest heading over to and re-subscribing.

Having one blog that covers all of my interests has kept things simple, but the reality is that only the rarest of followers will be interested in both my “personal” posts and my “technical” ones (which are usually incomprehensible to non-nerds). I’m planning to write both types more regularly in the coming months and thought you’d be better served by keeping them separate.

If/when time permits (ha!), I’ll do some design work on both blogs, but for now, they look the same. Which is probably a bit confusing, but I’m sure you’ll cope.

SBS: “‘Not constructive’: PM dismisses plan for companies to reveal pay gap”

SBS: “‘Not constructive’: PM dismisses plan for companies to reveal pay gap”

Uh, Scott, I hate to be the one to point this out, but workplace conflict “between one set of employees and another set of employees” is already present.

It’s a widespread, high-impact conflict called the gender pay gap. You’re obviously familiar with it. It involves people being systemically paid much less than their penis-owning but otherwise equally qualified colleagues.

Accounting for this conflict accurately, business by business, industry by industry, is an essential step towards eliminating it (not just “narrowing” it, you misogynistic asshole).

One doesn’t resolve or avoid conflict by denying its existence, Scott. Then again, you have a trophy for the boats you “stopped” by denying their existence, so I guess this is business as usual for you?

Babylon Bee: “Ken Ham Ejected From Theater For Yelling ‘WRONG’ Every Time ‘Jurassic World’ Actors Say ‘65 Million Years'”

Babylon Bee: “Ken Ham Ejected From Theater For Yelling ‘WRONG’ Every Time ‘Jurassic World’ Actors Say ‘65 Million Years'”

It’s satire, but only just.

This send-up of Ken Ham at a hypothetical Jurassic World screening has disturbing parallels with how my father would have behaved under similar circumstances (although you’d never have been able to get him into a cinema–he needed to be able to censor everything first, to ensure we were protected from scantily clad women, naughty words, and the evils of evolutionary science).

I still remember him standing up during a solo end-of-year performance at my siblings’ high school (I was being homeschooled at the time). I believe it was “Fever”, and he didn’t approve of the song or the seductive way it was performed. A very loud “boooooooo”, clearly heard by everyone in the hall, followed. Even though, at 12 years old, I was still very much under the spell of his brainwashing and control (so I believed he was justified in objecting to the performance), I was utterly mortified. It would have been even worse for my brother and sister. And that poor girl… I sometimes wonder whether her singing career faltered after that (assuming that’s the trajectory she was on). Regardless, it would have been so traumatising for her.

This sort of thing was normal throughout my childhood. The delusion was that we (as right-thinking Christians) were significant players in a desperate battle for survival, and were therefore justified in boldly “resisting” whenever anyone or anything dared to accidentally challenge our values or beliefs.

It’s no wonder I’m in therapy.

Update: here’s Ken Ham’s response. I told you it was barely satire.

Serena v. Naomi (or not)

It’s been interesting to hear a few different angles on the whole Serena Williams / Naomi Osaka thing today. Being 2018, probably humanity’s most polarised year yet, responses seem to veer towards one of two extremes: disgust with Serena (how dare she ruin Naomi’s moment?!) and disgust with the umpire (how dare he change the course of the game?!)

Annoyingly, I think parts of both arguments have merit. Is it possible that they’re both right?

There is undeniable truth in Billie Jean King’s comment on Twitter:

When a woman is emotional, she’s “hysterical” and she’s penalized for it. When a man does the same, he’s “outspoken” & and there are no repercussions. Thank you, @serenawilliams, for calling out this double standard. More voices are needed to do the same.

Even I’ve watched enough Grand Slams to know that male players are routinely far less deferential to umpires than Serena was, and they are barely ever penalised. Whoever might have otherwise won, it’s undeniable that this umpire’s sexism changed the outcome of the game, and Serena was completely justified in railing against it. Whether it was wilful or unconscious sexism isn’t at all relevant–sexism ought to be challenged, in all of its forms, in elite sport and everywhere else.

Meanwhile, I totally sympathise with Naomi Osaka, whose phenomenal success has been overshadowed by this controversy. She deserved an opportunity to play in her first Grand Slam without any of this drama. The same is true for all elite female athletes–they should be treated as equal to their male counterparts, unencumbered by sexism and misogyny. But in sport, as in life, the patriarchy is still far from smashed, and the results continue to be messy.

Let’s not make the mistake of blaming Serena for distracting us all from Naomi’s victory. Responsibility for that rests solely with the male umpire who treated her in a particular way because she’s a woman.

Surely we’ve learned to stop blaming women for the mistakes of men by now?

PS: congratulations on your win, Naomi. I’m sorry that it’s been tainted.

Not an actual review: “The Glass Castle”

Content note: this post includes references to domestic violence and emotional abuse.

Alcohol abuse and homelessness weren’t part of my childhood. As far as I know, my father’s violence wasn’t substance-related, and the austerity he subjected us to never resulted in skipped meals or malnutrition.

In countless other ways, though, my therapist was right. It wasn’t difficult to find parallels between Jeannette Walls’ childhood and my own, and watching the movie based on her memoir was, indeed, cathartic. Eventually. After I worked through the seething mass of memories it laid bare.

This is not a cinematic review of The Glass Castle. It’s a guided tour of how it has affected me. It’s an attempt to articulate the catharsis of processing repressed memories. It’s been written to help me, and shared in the hope that it will help you.

The mother

Unsurprisingly, Jeanette’s father (Rex, played by Woody Harrelson) is the central figure in this story of family dysfunction. He is unambiguously portrayed as responsible for most of the distress that plays out for everyone else. But there are moments that highlight the complicity of the mother (Rose Mary, played by Naomi Watts) in creating a traumatic, hostile environment for the children (and I’m not just referring to the opening scene, where Jeanette suffers burns due to her mother’s negligence).

The dynamic between my parents was similar, and it remains impossible, to this day, to determine how much of Mum’s role in my toxic childhood stemmed from being a victim of Dad’s abuse herself, and how much was a willing, conscious choice. The Glass Castle is similarly inconclusive about Rose Mary’s contribution to the Walls family dynamic.

My situation affords a little more insight, because despite leaving Dad 16-odd years ago, Mum’s abusive behaviour towards me has steadily escalated as the chasm between her values and my choices has deepened. Also, contact with her currently triggers far more significant post-trauma responses in me than contact with Dad does.

I mention this at the outset because Rose Mary’s abuse of her children isn’t necessarily obvious. She elicits sympathy as her husband’s victim, and the ways she enables and perpetuates Rex’s stranglehold on the family aren’t even noticed by the children (they’re too busy reacting to their father). But who could blame them? At 35, I’ve only just started to recognise these behaviours in my own mother.

The darkness

The setting and the specifics were different, but the oppressive darkness that settled over the family home during Jeanette’s teenage years felt uncomfortably familiar.

It was the unpredictability. No-one knew what would trigger Rex’s next outburst, who would be targeted, what sort of assault or destruction there might be. For Jeanette and her siblings, their father’s drinking was a determining factor; in my home (where drinking was seen as a deadly sin), Dad would lose his shit totally sober. Alcohol wasn’t necessary for him to snap without provocation, to crush us with broken glass and cruel words.

Not knowing how or when your father will next unleash hell–knowing only that he will, and that it won’t make sense, and that there might not be any warning–means your home is unrelentlingly, inescapably hostile. Starved of love. Desperately unsafe. Remembering those years, I can almost see the pall of blackness hanging over the house. I don’t think it was just the dark wallpaper and awful carpet.

School was Jeanette’s escape, and it was mine too. Whenever I could, I would stay in the library until it closed and catch the last bus home. Facing consequences for getting home late was better than spending those hours near my father, who was unemployed at the time. He would usually be hidden away in his tiny, cluttered study, obsessing over his latest theory or grand plan (not unlike Rex’s ‘glass castle’), but I never knew when he would emerge or what to expect when he did. Avoidance, occasionally disrupted by the naive belief that I could somehow be perfect enough to make things better, was how I survived.

As in The Glass Castle, there were moments of light, too. Acts of generosity and care from a man who was usually the opposite. Just enough goodness to ignite a feeble flame of hope that things were about to get better (they never did). Eventually I could see that even these rare moments of kindness were designed to help him get what he wanted.

The exceptionalism

Just like Rex, my dad was anti-establishment, anti-government, and pro-conspiracy.

Unlike Rex, Dad’s rejection of conventional wisdom was entangled with his particular brand of Christianity–a veritable Frankenstein of evangelicalism, pentecostalism, and seventh-day-adventism–none of which passed muster in their own right, due to glaring deficiencies only he could see.

Differences aside, Rex and my father were both deluded about how unique they were, and they both tried to assert their exceptionalism through their families.

They both homeschooled their children, because schools couldn’t be trusted to teach you what you really needed to know. (My siblings were spared this privilege. As the youngest, I represented Dad’s final opportunity to create a less disappointing version of himself, so he pulled out all the stops.)

They both made grandiose plans that never materialised, and promises that were never kept. The most obvious one in The Glass Castle is the actual glass castle–the solar-powered home that never progressed beyond a hole in the yard. My dad’s schemes weren’t usually so tangible (although he was briefly obsessed with a stock market hack that was supposed to net us a heap of money); instead, there was the constant promise of a happier future, when he’d be done with his countless projects (like his system for organising all human knowledge), and done with the mountains of newspapers that couldn’t be thrown out until they had served their purpose (the unlocking of his exceptional theories).

As far as I know, he still has most of those newspapers. (It’s like those scenes in A Beautiful Mind, except the secret messages embedded in The Australian in 1995 remain uninvestigated.)

Jeanette’s parents, and mine, didn’t believe in doctors. With very few exceptions, to this day, it’s self-healing or death, because rushing off to a doctor at the first (or tenth) sign of illness is what everyone else does–and we’re better than that.

Jeanette’s parents removed her from hospital before she had recovered from her burns. Mine refused to take me to a doctor despite years of debilitating cystic acne on my back and face. I’m still covered with slowly fading keloid scars, but memories of high school change rooms and the struggle to conceal fresh blood stains on my shirts are just as indelible.

Both Rex and my father wanted their children to believe they were exceptional–as long as they could define what it meant. In The Glass Castle, Jeanette copped it for merely being a gossip columnist, and her choice of husband was similarly condemned: “you’re better than this” (or words to that effect). I could hear Dad (and Mum) in Rex and Rose Mary’s cutting words.

Ironically, it’s fair to say that there have been some unfortunate choices in both Jeanette’s life and my own. Finding your way takes longer when you’re unknowingly carrying your parents’ delusional expectations and unhinged judgements.

The austerity

In The Glass Castle, it’s striking that Rex always has a cigarette in his mouth, and a hip flask in his pocket. The children might not have eaten for three days, but their father’s addictions are always fed.

My father wasn’t addicted to alcohol or tobacco, but his obsessions were expensive, and the rest of us had to help him fund them.

We had to use a bucket to collect cold water from the shower while we waited for hot water to come through (it would then be used to fill Dad’s obsessively managed drinking water filtration system). Dishes had to be thoroughly rinsed in an ice cream container (without replacing the water until it was basically solid), so they could then be washed in just one sinkful of hot water. We owned a car, but to save money, it was almost never used; Dad had to charge the battery overnight before it would even start. Sometimes, it still wouldn’t. Water, gas and electricity meters were read weekly and tracked over time. There were “consequences” if readings were higher than they should have been, or if our water handling was too wasteful, or if the dishes were too dirty, or if we requested transportation by car.

The penny-pinching was ruthless and never-ending, but somehow there was always enough money for Dad’s computers and encyclopedias.

The youngest

Jeanette is the second-oldest of four children. Maureen is the youngest. The movie includes a reference to Jeanette’s regret over leaving her little sister alone with Rex and Rose Mary after she escapes to New York, but Maureen’s experience as the youngest of the Walls children doesn’t feature prominently otherwise–The Glass Castle is, after all, Jeanette’s story. But as the youngest of three myself, I couldn’t help noticing a few hints that Maureen’s life was probably even more challenging than Jeanette’s.

There’s a seven year gap between me and my brother. He’s a year younger than my sister. Even now, they both comment that I had the better deal. We moved house less frequently after I was born. Dad was, apparently, less violent with me than he had been with them. And it seemed to both of them that I benefited from being the “only child” as they finished school–especially given my interests were similar to Dad’s, and were better supported than theirs had been.

But they were largely absent while I received Mum and Dad’s undivided attention. They couldn’t see that Dad’s enthusiasm for providing me with access to technology wasn’t about him “spoiling” me; it was him attempting to succeed where he had failed, by living vicariously through me. At 35, I am only just beginning to recover from his sustained efforts to control and manipulate me into being the person he wanted himself to be.

This wasn’t my siblings’ lived experience, so they get a bit eye-rolly when I describe it as abuse (especially when I refuse to let Mum off the hook for her role in letting it all happen). Each of the siblings in The Glass Castle responds differently to their parents, too; Jeanette’s brother, for example, seems content to remember the good things Rex had done while Jeanette is feeling uncertain about reconnecting with him before he dies.

Different children can have different childhoods despite having the same parents, apparently. Just ask the youngest child in a dysfunctional family.

The nickname

“Mountain goat.” It’s an endearing nickname for a child, but Jeanette is done with it by adulthood, and she says so. Rex ignores her, and the unwelcome moniker lives on. There’s a poignant moment in The Glass Castle where he tries to use it to connect with her as she tries to pull away from him. (He fails.)

It might seem like a minor thing, but it’s not. My father calls me “teddy bear,” or TB for short. I hate it. Every time he uses that childhood nickname feels like an attempt to assert control over my identity, to wash away all of his inadequacies and replace them with fond memories of a happy past that only exists in his head.

Pro tip: if you love someone, don’t use nicknames they hate.

The first marriage

Jeanette’s first marriage proves to be almost as dysfunctional as her childhood.

At first, her husband appears to be the opposite of her family. He’s calm and understanding; he’s successful and well-respected; violence and aggression doesn’t seem to be in his nature. In time, however, it becomes clear that his benevolence has strings attached; that he’s just as controlling as Jeanette’s father; that when he stops getting what he wants, the tables will turn.

Let’s just say that I can relate.

The ending

I’m not sure what to make of The Glass Castle‘s ending just yet.

It’s unsettling that Jeanette seems willing to overlook decades of abuse in order to remember her father as a hurting, misunderstood genius-hero, rather than the destructive force he actually was. Hopefully the book will shed some light on her thought process, but for now, I’m struggling to understand her apparent reluctance to reckon with the reality of Rex’s overwhelmingly toxic impact on his family.

As a society, we’re programmed to make excuses for male abusers. We believe that men who are capable of murdering their families can be “good blokes“, and we can’t see that by perpetuating this myth, we’re quietly endorsing every other “good bloke” who is a piece of shit behind closed doors.

So while it’s not surprising that Jeanette could be willing, and able, to remember Rex so fondly, I can’t help wondering if we’d be more likely to break the cycle of intergenerational abuse if we weren’t so busy suppressing our memories of it.

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