Shadow Daughter

SHADOW DAUGHTER

A Memoir of Estrangement


The day of her mother’s funeral, Harriet Brown was five thousand miles away. For years they’d gone through cycles of estrangement and connection, dramatic blow-ups and equally dramatic reconciliations. By the time her mother died at seventy-six, they hadn’t spoken at all in several years. Her mother’s death sent Brown on a journey of exploration, one that considered guilt and trauma, rage and betrayal, and forgiveness.

Shadow Daughter tackles a subject we rarely discuss as a culture. Family estrangements—between parents and children, siblings, multiple generations—are surprisingly common, and even families that aren’t officially estranged often have some experience of deep conflicts.

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The day of her mother’s funeral, Harriet Brown was five thousand miles away. For years they’d gone through cycles of estrangement and connection, dramatic blow-ups and equally dramatic reconciliations. By the time her mother died at seventy-six, they hadn’t spoken at all in several years. Her mother’s death sent Brown on a journey of exploration, one that considered guilt and trauma, rage and betrayal, and forgiveness.

Shadow Daughter tackles a subject we rarely discuss as a culture. Family estrangements—between parents and children, siblings, multiple generations—are surprisingly common, and even families that aren’t officially estranged often have some experience of deep conflicts. Despite the fact that the issue touches most people one way or another, estrangement is still shrouded in secrecy, stigma, and shame. We simply don’t talk about it, and that silence can make an already difficult situation even harder. Brown tells her own story with clear-eyed honesty and hard-won wisdom; she also shares interviews with others who are estranged, as well as the most recent research on this taboo topic.

Ultimately, Shadow Daughter is a thoughtful, provocative, and deeply researched exploration of the ties that bind and break, forgiveness, reconciliation, and what family really means.

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  • Da Capo
  • Hardcover
  • November 2018
  • 288 Pages
  • 9780738234533

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About Harriet Brown

Harriet BrownHarriet Brown is the author of Body of Truth and Brave Girl Eating. She has edited two anthologies and has written for the New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, Psychology Today, Prevention, and many other publications. She is a professor of magazine journalism at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Praise

“Brown’s research and anecdotes help readers understand the many dilemmas involved in engaging in estrangement and offer support for those balancing on the edge of making this life-changing decision.” Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions

1. Chapter 1 explores the social, emotional, and biological factors that keep families together. Given those powerful forces, do you think estrangement can ever be a positive option?

2. Throughout the book, Harriet talks about the experience of estrangement from both the estranger and estrangee’s experiences. How will the book be read by those two audiences? Is it possible to have empathy for both estrangers and estrangees?

3. Chapter 4 talks about “The Myth of the Worst-Case Scenario”; what are some of the most common reasons for estrangement?

4. Do you think it’s possible to overcome an abusive relationship with family members?

5. On page 163, Harriet writes, “A wise therapist once told me that when your parents don’t give you their blessing you must learn to bless yourself. The problem is that without their blessing you are dumb, stuck in the vocabulary of childhood: I want. I need. I hurt. You don’t have, or don’t believe you have, the ability to calm yourself, to release yourself into the world, into your life.” What does she mean by that, and how does it connect to estrangement?

6. We live in a culture where we’re used to thinking that love can solve any problem. Many of the estranged people interviewed in the book say they love their family members but still choose estrangement. What role does love play in estrangement?

7. On page 50, Harriet writes, “I planned to never have children, though. I was terrified that I would inadvertently do to them what my mother had done to me, and afraid, too, that my mother’s ill wish would come true. Then my grandmother died and the need to have a child bloomed in me like a magnolia flower…I was pregnant two weeks later and the next nine months stretched, endless and full of worries. What if the child I carried found me selfish and cold and unworthy of love just as my mother had? What if I didn’t love it enough or in the right way? What if my child filled me with rage as I seemed to do with my mother? What if my mother’s curse came true?” What is the legacy of estrangement?

8. The book tells stories of dozens of people who have dealt with estrangement in one way or another. Which of those stories stood out to you? Why?

9. Chapter 8 talks about forgiveness and reconciliation. What role does forgiveness play in estrangement? Can you forgive someone and still stay estranged?

10. At the end of the book, Harriet finds herself in the unexpected position of caring for her elderly father and developing a new relationship with him. What does this resolution say about estrangement and families?

Excerpt

From the Prologue: First and Last

Being estranged from my mother was one of my defining characteristics, along with glasses, the gap between my front teeth, the long list of things I was afraid of (elevators, airplanes, confined spaces, heights, being alone, dying).

It defined me to the rest of my relatives, too. Estrangement always involves a wide circle of spectators. I was the selfish child, the stubborn teenager, the ungrateful and wounding daughter. My problems with my mother—and they were always my problems, not hers or ours—were the subject of countless conversations among generations of aunts and uncles. Many of those conversations happened in front of me. At a cousin’s graduation party two great-aunts might whisper loudly Doesn’t she see what she’s doing to her mother? How can she be so cold? At a bat mitzvah, where I’d be seated across the room from my parents, I’d see the row of gray heads bent toward each other, the sideways looks. They didn’t shun me, exactly, but I knew how they felt.

Our relationship was like an endless shaggy-dog story and I believed in the end that my mother and I would score some kind of reconciliation, some version of a happy ending, though the details of that ending remained hazy and unimaginable. That’s a common belief among estranged families, maybe because of what researchers call the “non-voluntary” aspect of these relationships: you don’t choose your parents, children, sisters and brothers, and so you can never un-choose them. I think of it more as immutable: whether we talked once a week or once every five years, she was still and always would be my mother. That’s the kind of phrase people often use to suggest that despite superficial conflicts, there’s something sacred and meaningful and worth preserving about the mother-daughter (or any parent-child) relationship. I mean it as a statement of plain fact: no matter how often or how much I wished for a different mother, she was mine. And maybe my mother felt the same way. Maybe she would have been a better parent to a different sort of child. Actually I know this is true because she was a better parent to my sister. Where I turned inward my sister roared her anger and hurt. What I held back my sister flung into the air. She was a better fit with our mother, who thrived on Stürm und Drang, high-decibel conflict and equally loud reconciliations.

I got along better with my father; we were both introverts with a tendency toward the philosophical. But he chose the path of appeasement, telling me frankly that my mother would leave him if he didn’t take her side. So my mother and I talked occasionally, calls that ended with shouting, tears, and a phone slammed down. Later we emailed, coming face-to-face at an ever-diminishing number of family weddings and funerals, though I avoided some of those events and wasn’t invited to others; estrangement happens to the whole extended family, not just the particular people involved.

I was that girl, and then that woman, the one with a screwed-up relationship with her mother. The one who couldn’t stop talking about it. I wasted thousands of hours fighting with her and then processing those fights, trying to figure out what she was thinking, why she said this or that, how she could do whatever it was she was doing. I drove away friends and significant others with my chronic anxiety and perseveration. What I really wanted to understand was why, when my mother told me over and over how much she loved me, I didn’t feel loved, at least not in any way I could recognize. I couldn’t process the cognitive dissonance and so it had to be my fault and there had to be some way I could, and should, fix it.

Over the decades of our alienation I talked to and about my mother in rage, in sorrow, in grief, and in hurt. I loved her and I hated her and eventually I felt neither. I spoke to her in anger, out of a wish for revenge, from a desire to understand what was wrong between us, all the while believing I would never understand the problem or find a solution. Our relationship remained a mystery to me and I think to her as well. There were many versions of what happened between us; certainly there was her version and my own, and to say they were different is like saying a centipede is different from a mastodon. For a long time I could not figure out how to interpret what had happened and was happening between us. I still struggle with that.

A few years before my mother died, after an especially harrowing exchange, I realized that I was done. The constant tide of longing and rage and sorrow had receded, leaving an absence in the shape of nothing. When I stood at the back of her room in the ICU we hadn’t communicated in three years. Breaking off contact with her wasn’t the end of our relationship, of course, just as her death wasn’t the end. But it did finish one long chapter of the story, the chapter where over and over I put aside our history and my feelings and tried to come up with a happy ending. Over the years our relationship often reminded me of the recurring Peanuts cartoon where Lucy promises to hold the football steady so Charlie Brown can kick it. Each time she promises and each time he believes her, running at the ball only to have Lucy yank it away at the last second, sending him flying through the air to land with a whump on his back. By the end of my mother’s life I had finally walked away from the football. I’d broken the connection between us for good, closed the door, to use my mother’s favorite metaphor, as in “The door between us will never be closed.” She meant that as a promise, I know, but I heard it, especially in later years, as a threat.

Of course this is my particular perspective; my mother would certainly have a different one. As in all stories there is no single truth, no omniscient point of view. There’s no such thing as objectivity because we see and touch and feel and tell everything through the filter of our perceptions and memories and experiences. My mother was complicated, contradictory, and inconsistent—in other words, she was human just like the rest of us. Flesh and blood. Capable of both tenderness and viciousness. A woman and not a monolith.

What I long for is the definitive story of my mother and me, or at least the one I can tell myself, the one I can live with. As Jonathan Gottschall illustrates in his book The Storytelling Animal, humans need stories as much as we need air and food and shelter. We use them to make order out of the chaos, to make sense of the mysteries that surround us. “Humans evolved to crave story,” he writes. “Stories give us pleasure and instruction. They simulate worlds so we can live better in this one. They help bind us into communities and define us as cultures. Stories have been a great boon to our species.”1

The stories we tell ourselves roll around the private tumblers of our minds like rocks being polished into gemstones. The stories we tell other people roll across time and space, gathering up whatever’s in their path. Stories, it seems, are dynamic, not static. What we think determines our words, and the words we use shape what we think. There is always interpretation. There is always point of view. There are always details that don’t fit, that contradict, that challenge.

We can know all this and still long for the real story, the one that will make sense of it all, that will peel away the layers within layers and tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth. It’s in our nature to want the story, just as it’s in our nature to not be able to tell it. For a long time I tried to suss out the “real story” of my relationship with my mother until finally I realized the only story I would ever know was the one I told myself. Instead of continually analyzing my feelings and observations against some idea of what I should be feeling and thinking, I came to trust what my body and heart were telling me. That was the real story—for me.

My mother is gone now and I will never know what she told herself about our failed relationship. About us. I know only my own story, which starts like this: my mother is dead and I have been missing her my whole life.

That’s as good a place to begin as any.