Opening Doors: Chasing a Dead Man’s Story

Walking through the National Gardens adjacent to Syntagma Square in Athens, I came upon a mysterious sculpture. If I hadn’t taken a picture of it, I may have been inclined to believe I’d imagned it, as I could find no mention of it in any of the tour books or web sites about this beautiful park.

Seemingly floating in the air, arms and legs outstretched to the sides, a bronze cast of the body of a woman straddled above a wooden structure made up of eight identical doors, hinged and connected to each other in the shape of an octagon.

Right before stumbling upon this, I had been obsessed with taking photographs of doorways — houses, churches, restaurants, abandonned buildings, portals of ruins.
In all of those photographs, there was only one door, one threshold.

This had EIGHT doors, and the woman stretched across them seemed to be embracing them all.

In a workshop this week-end, I found myself retelling my childhood stories to a small group of people. I had told these stories more times than I could ever possibly count but for some reason this time, they were starting to bore me. I was feeling pretty tired of the anger, the cruelty, the despair. And while I wasn’t quite in the mood for forgiveness, I was readier than I had ever been to lay it all down once and for all.

Later, we were asked to write a letter to our parents and read it aloud to our small group. Drained of anger, and anxious to be done with it, I addressed my letter to “Shirley and Bill,” not “Mom and Dad.” ( I never called either of them those names. My mother went from “Mommy” straight to “Mother” and he, though long dead, I only ever called “Daddy” – our relationship ended before I could outgrow that name.

I wrote my letter about stories. Tired of the one I had always told about being the victim of their anger, selfishness and hatred, the carrier of their fury and bitterness, ( “You tell your father he’s a good for nothing cheating, lying bastard!” “You tell your mother that she needs to get her lazy ass out of that bed and go to work!) I wanted to write a different kind of letter in which I would try to understand my mother’s plight and my father’s silence.

After I read it aloud, one of the men in the group looked at me with very kind, open and compassionate eyes and said, “Oh my Marsha! How sad. What does it feel like to spend your life chasing a dead man’s story?”

Of course he hadn’t been dead my whole life. He died at age 71 in 1997, but he had been missing from my life since 1963 when he left his wife and children (with no apparant warning – at least to me) and proceeded to sue my mother for a divorce ( there was no such thing as no-fault back then) so he could marry another woman.

The only version of this story that I have ever heard is my mother’s. And even though she was the victim in this tale, it was a story that she had authored and that she got to tell her chidren. He was the immoral one, the evil man who broke his vows before God, the adulterer who sacrificed his babies on the altar of his selfishness, who left us penniless and did mean and vindictive things to his family, destroyed the mother of his three chidren, who’d done nothing but be the best loving and faithful chicken soup wife she could possibly be.

There is a real danger in a single story. When there is only one story, it becomes the official narrative which cannot be challenged without dire consequences. If you contest it, you become branded as a traitor. If you argue it, you get shot down. There are no spaces in a single story to pry open – no places to look for nuance, contradictions or other possibilities.

My father never told his story. He remained silent except for these words: “I’ll tell you when you’re old enough to hear,” which of course wasn’t when I was 16 or 18 or 21 or 25 or right through my thirties and forties, when silence became the only language between us.

Something happened though this week-end. When I was asked what it has been like to spend my life chasing a dead man’s story, I turned the question sideways. Took the whole damned story of my awful childhood and shifted it slightly, just enough to know for the very first time that my father had given me a gift.

By not telling me his story, by leaving me in the dark and wondering, my father gave me the motivation to make up thousands of stories of my own, devising complex reasons for why he did what he did to his family. Sometimes I’d imagine it was because he was his father’s favorite which made his mother hate him and that made him unstable. Other times, I’d think about his years in the war and would make up stories about how some old war injury caused him to temporarily lose his memory and one day he’d find it again and come home. Other times, I’d make up fantastic versions, like the one where he was possesssed by a she-demon who sucked his soul from him in the dead of night, or that he’d been bewitched by the tweak of a nose and just needed another tweak for the spell to be broken.

As the years progressed, it was my mother’s single story that did the most damage to my soul with the insistance that there was no other way to see my childhood but hers which cast us all as helpless victims.

My father’s silence awakened in me a fierce need to know – an unrelenting drive to figure things out, to solve problems, look for patterns, search out clues, and create meaning. It led me to want to understand people, their complexities, and their motivations. I pushed me to develop skills that I used in my professional life, learning how to support young people in telling their stories, and in knowing what questions to ask to help them pull the fragments of their narratives together in ways that brought meaning to their lives.

The older I get, the better I understand that everything includes its opposite.

Without death, there is no life.

Without endings there are no beginnings.

And here in my life at this moment, I now know that silence contains voice and every wound contains the power to heal itself.

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  1. I've had some similar experience with somewhat selfish parenting, though it hasn't split my parents apart. Where my experience differs is that instead of getting one side I sometimes get trapped between the two sides.

    There's a certain sadness that comes with being in the middle. You hear both stories, and both stories are sometimes filled with so much negativity about someone you love just as unconditionally. You end up trying to defend the victim in both cases, agreeing here and there. You can't take a definite side or you risk losing the other, and you can't defend the other side too much or you risk being labeled as the other side. And it's not just my parents, either. Sometimes it will be one side of the family fighting amongst themselves.

    When you hear both sides, it's hard to get outraged. It's hard to feel strongly about anything. It's hard to talk about it.

    My mother should know. She's been in the middle of her two sisters since my youngest aunt was born, and a mediator in many other cases. I admire how well she's able to hold things together sometimes. And yet, I guess we forget how it feels to be in the middle when we become one of the sides.

    I'm glad you've found some peace in your search for both sides, but sometimes I think it would be easier to just take one.

    ~Spencer

  2. I can't say enough about how this entry has touched me. Mrs. Pincus, I think of all my teachers, you know the most about my childhood and things I went through before setting foot in those marble halls of Masterman. In the birth of my son, I found the strength to let those things go and look forward to providing him with happiness and open unselfish love. I pushed the feelings and memories down and away and locked them in a box. Now that he's becoming more independent, I have time to try and see things through my mother's eyes.

    I have come to see that the woman who I blamed for so much couldn't be a better person than she was taught to be. I look at her, going through another adolescence, and I pity her. It's not an adolescence of youth but one of impulse and carelessness. I pity her for making the same decisions as her mother and being what she swore she'd never be. As I face another marriage at the tender age of 24, I can see the mistakes I've made, learn from the ones my mother made, and look forward to bonding my life with the man I adore and holding no bitterness or fear. I see that carrying the baggage of the past can weigh a relationship down and with all the clutter around your feet, you can't move forward or close to anyone.

    I have always been told that I have wisdom beyond my years, but those comments mostly came from adults with the mind and heart of a child. I believe self realization and discovery only happens when you can look at your past and predecessors and take from their wisdom and learn from their mistakes.

    You are a profoundly wise woman. I appreciate having influences like you in my life.

  3. Hi Marsha,
    Thank you for this incredibly insightful and amazing post! I love the story and the pictures and the possibilities. Your reference to opposites is fascinating (and seemingly true in my experience as well).
    So glad to know you,
    Danielle

  4. It is amazing to me how I take on the burden of the stories/abuse/shame of my past. My father lives nowhere near me now, but I still sometimes allow his voice to weigh on me. Here is the truth: he is not saying the words to me anymore. I use his voice in my head and repeat them and it has the same impact. I believe I repeat them because some young part hopes they will come out differen, because that is what that young part knows to say to me, because it is a habit. Now that I know this I retool the message that was written on the walls of my memory. That process is what I call forgiveness, because I have chosen to stop letting his behavior hurt me. I do the changing and he doesn't have to do anything. it takes the expectatation away which I like because the expectation has always led to disappointment.
    Thank you Marsha for sharing this. One of the most powerful tools..and weapons we have is our stories. Something in us latches on to stories and whether true or not, they are true…

    Warm regards…

    s

    http://www.bendlight.me

  5. "By not telling me his story, by leaving me in the dark and wondering, my father gave me the motivation to make up thousands of stories of my own." That's a gift, in its own way. At least you can see it as one. And that's a better place to be.

  6. "By not telling me his story, by leaving me in the dark and wondering, my father gave me the motivation to make up thousands of stories of my own." That's a gift, in its own way. At least you can see it as one. And that's a better place to be.

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