Trigger warning: child abuse
“Icy roads beneath my feet,
Lead me through wastelands of deceit,
Rest your head now, don’t you cry,
Don’t ever ask the reason why.” –Opeth
When Tangled hit theaters in 2010, my sister Lydia and I saw it within the first couple of weeks. We were late for the movie, missing the narrator introducing Mother Gothel as the villain. We found our seats just in time to see the song “Mother Knows Best.”
Both of us thought, after watching that song, that perhaps in this movie the witch in the tower was a good person. After all, it was a retold fairy tale. You never know what they’re going to swap around.
For the uninformed, “Mother Knows Best” features textbook emotional abuse with manipulation and control, using guilt trips, threats, and fear tactics. I watched the song again recently, and realized most people knew that when they first saw it. When I was eighteen, I did not see any problems with the song.
Gothel looked like a good mother to me.
So after reading an article about girls in the homeschool movement who live with self-deception, I did the most natural thing I could think to do. I emailed it to my mom, and said I felt like my life had been that way.
Her reply: “We left all that behind in ’06.”
For context, my family filmed for reality TV in 2006. After that, my parents re-branded themselves, championing the word “love” as the ultimate trump card. They wrote a book called “Love in the House,” and emphasized that the greatest commandment is love.
To this day I get shamed for talking about the multi-faceted manipulation in my family, because it’s not in accordance with our brand, “love.” I got a text message a couple of months ago from my dad, after I walked out the front door because he started yelling at me for, well, ignoring his text messages. The text read, “Love is the answer. This is not love.”
Because I was accustomed to believing my parents every time they reinvented stories, I believed my mom. Maybe I wasn’t under pressure after I was 14. But I wrote letters about brightening the house until I was 18.
I visited my parents’ house sometime in May this year, and my sister Hannah, age 11, was standing at the stove. I asked where mom was, and was told that mom had been shopping for the past four hours. My brothers were working, and my eleven-year-old sister was left to feed and supervise her six younger siblings, and clean the entire house. Hannah beamed proudly as she told me about her work: she’d cooked, cleaned, watched the kids.
It was the first time in my life that this situation seemed like too high an expectation for an 11-year-old girl. It was what I was raised with. It had been normal.
The only thing Hannah didn’t have time for was the dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher because, with 14 people living in the house, it’s inefficient. We use too many large serving and cooking items, and there are more plates and cups at each meal than a regular dishwasher can hold. My parents have always verbalized dreams about an industrial dishwasher, but we could never afford one. As a result, we wash everything by hand, which takes hours, but it’s better than putting up with a tiny dishwasher.
Mom got home an hour later. Hannah beamed with pride, waiting for a compliment on how well she’d done. Mom’s eyes went straight for the dishes, piled all around the sink. Hannah had cooked, babysat, swept all the floors, and the other counters and tabletops were clean. The dishes were her one oversight.
My mom started yelling, and I watched my little sister crumple. I felt a twinge of familiarity. I had received the same treatment at her age, and taken it with the guilt I was supposed to feel, and tried to perform better. I became a master of homemaking over the next several years.
We listened to mom rant about how dishes are an important chore, and why didn’t Hannah get them done, and now it would be hard to move ahead with the day, and I-was-gone-shopping-aren’t-you-grateful-for-my-hard-work-enough-to-do-what-I-asked.
Hannah defended herself, listing all she had completed. My mom would hear none of it, so I stepped in. “Mom, the house is never this clean when you’re in charge. It’s always in better shape when you leave one of the girls here.”
This was insult. I was informed that my mom did her best, and now was no time for criticism. I tried to help her see that she was holding her young daughter to a hypocritical standard. It was no use. Hannah deserved a tongue lashing, but my mom could not be expected to keep the house in order.
I brought up the email. “You said you left all this behind, and here we are,” I said. She insisted that there was nothing unreasonable about her expectations.
Another time I visited, Hannah and mom were having the same argument: mom had left the little girl in charge, and Hannah had failed on one chore, and mom was yelling at her. I walked in on the middle of the conversation, and Hannah had evidently just cried.
My sister turned to me. “Happy Fairy, cheer me up.”
Something twisted in my gut. This was what I’d been coping with when I pretended to be happy. This was what I convinced myself was a good thing. This was what I was burying away, and this was why I’d dropped out of college and started mental health therapy – because I couldn’t live in denial of my depression anymore.
I looked at Hannah, who was hopeful and ready for my “magic” power to cheer her, and said, “The Happy Fairy was a lie. I forced myself to be happy. Just in the past few months, I’ve learned to start sentences with ‘I feel…’ because I was never taught to express my feelings. I spent my teenage years pretending to be happy. I thought I could fake it until I made it.”
My mom was standing in the kitchen with us. She was quick to announce, “You didn’t learn that from me.”
But I did learn that from her. One of my mom’s favorite lines was, “It’s scientifically proven that if you smile when you don’t feel like smiling, it sends messages to your brain that you’re happy, and pretty soon, you feel better.”
I turned back to my little sister. “I also distrusted myself when I felt angry or sad. You’re angry for good reason: you tried to keep the house in order and you didn’t please mom, and she yelled at you. It’s okay to be frustrated about that. You don’t have to pretend to be happy, and I’m sorry I made you think it would work. It didn’t work for me. It just helped me bury all my emotions for years.”
In the weeks that followed, my mom used all kinds of emotional abuse to get me to stop criticizing her. She said she could yell at my siblings if she wanted to, that’s just the way she is. She could never see the hypocrisy of having higher expectations for her kids than she had for herself. She threatened to commit suicide. She appealed to my emotional vulnerabilities, and she knew them all: I’d just been through a breakup, I couldn’t trust myself because I was mentally ill, and I should feel guilty and ashamed for not being forgiving and loving enough.
One evening, when I was exhausted from arguing with her, I collapsed on the couch. She sat next to me and stroked my head, and told me I could trust her, and that she loved me, and that she hoped I’d get better, and said how she thinks I’m an awesome person.
It was like being cuddled after a nonconsensual BDSM session, as I told a friend a few days later. Had I not read a post on tumblr criticizing the lack of consent in Fifty Shades of Grey, I would not have recognized what my mom was doing that night.
Then I realized she’d done this all my life: attack, threaten, comfort. Hurt, and then flatter.
And in that one moment, with my mother gently caressing my hair and murmuring soothing words, I lost every ounce of trust I’d ever had for her.