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Life

When Your Mother is the Enemy

Image by Gayle Kirschenbaum

Growing up in my house was like growing up in enemy territory and you were the only one who was captured. My body and mind were always braced for the next attack, frequently without a warning. It didn’t matter what I did or how I looked, there seemed to be nothing right about me.

I fought to keep my natural born features – thick dark, curly, hair, a nose that has a bump on it and breasts that budded relatively late. Mom always found fault with me. She campaigned relentlessly for me to have a nose job for decades, insisted I straighten my hair, and wanted me to have silicon breast implants at age 13. It was as if she looked at me and saw the devil, and her unrelenting anger was unleashed on me. The constant barrage of criticisms, humiliation and physical abuse led by her did not make for a warm, fuzzy upbringing.  Even today, mom proudly discusses how she pulled a “Mommie Dearest” on me, referencing the movie about the mean mother Joan Crawford was to her daughter, Christina. Needless to say, there were many Mommie Dearest episodes that were traumatizing.

Image by Gayle Kirschenbaum

She was out to get me from the moment I was born. I was sure I was adopted. That was the only way I could explain why my brothers were both loved and adored and I was treated like Cinderella. Her fantasy about having a third son whom she had already named Gary and announced to the rest of the family was destroyed when she gave birth to yours truly.

Mom was a master at punishing me. What hurt most was the humiliation – humiliation in front of others. There was physical abuse but those scars don’t run as deep as the emotional abuse. I was so afraid of my mother that I suffered from headaches, dizzy spells and nausea. Desperate for love, I had repeated thoughts of something horrible happening to me – like getting hit by a car, surviving it, ending up in the hospital and then relatives would come to see me and give me attention, sympathy and love, which I craved. Embarrassed to admit it, I also had dark thoughts about mom. She and dad often took vacations and I thought if the plane crashed I would then be free. When I think about it now, it is pretty sad for a child to have those thoughts.

I got to a social worker who advised me to get out of my house. Had I the courage, I would have already run away. I ended up graduating high school early and went away to college young. That was the best thing I did. I had finally escaped from enemy territory and was now living among likeminded people who complimented me on all the things I had previously been criticized about. Although, I was coming into my own and blossoming as an artist, I was still seething with anger and resentment towards my mom. Her criticisms never stopped and my role in my family as the black sheep, the scapegoat, had already been set in stone. I dreaded seeing my family and avoided them as much as possible.

As time passed, I knew I could not spend my life filled with anger. I had to forgive my mother. The question was how. As I reflected back to my early years, it was clear to me mom had a problem way before I ever existed. I arrived and triggered her rage. That set me on a quest to dig up whatever I could find out about her childhood, which was not easy. Mom comes from a generation where no one hung out their dirty laundry and family tragedies were buried. I often hit a wall with my research and Mom’s standard response was, “I don’t know. I don’t remember.” It was clear her survival technique was to forget the pain of her past. I did not give up. I found close relatives in the family I never knew existed who shared stories with me, dug up revealing newspaper clippings, and vital records including the death certificate of her younger sister whom she barely remembers. I started putting the puzzle together, and she began to open up a bit more. I soon saw mom as a young girl whose childhood was filled with untimely deaths, suicide attempts and financial hardships. I had enough to help me change how I looked at her. I was able to take her off the “mother pedestal” who should love and adore me and changed my expectations of her. I now saw her as a wounded child who also craved love and attention. She was incapable of giving it to me because she needed it herself.

In time, her insults no longer had any effect on me. I was able to laugh them off and even got her to a place where on occasion she was able to laugh at her own behavior. I had to understand mom before I was able to forgive her and once I was able to forgive her I was even able to love her. Having the ability to forgive has been the biggest gift I was able to give myself.

As a television producer, writer and filmmaker I have spent my career telling other peoples stories. I turned the camera on myself when I made a funny personal short called MY NOSE about my mother’s relentless campaign to get me to have a nose job. It was due to the overwhelming response to this short and the stories I heard from others who were suffering from childhood trauma and abuse that I realized it was my job to make a film about my journey to forgiveness. I locked the door and nearly three years later finished the feature documentary

As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans.” I never expected to put my life out there in such a personal way and to concentrate my attention on building a movement focused on forgiveness and healing between mothers and daughters.

Judaism teaches us that every descent is for the sake of an ascent. Difficult people present us with an opportunity to grow. If I did not face adversity in my childhood, I would have never learned the life lessons I have and be able to help others. When I am faced with an obstacle it is no accident and there is a lesson for me to learn. I live life with gratitude.

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