If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m blogging a project called My Mother’s Cross, which is a mix of memoir and sociological analysis, and which examines her life and her death, her discovery only after turning 60 that she liked sex and that the sex she liked was kinky, and which also examines the rather amorphous boundaries between she and I that allowed me to be a party to her self-discovery.
This week I’m previewing some thoughts about a chapter that I both look forward to writing and sort of dread. It’s a chapter tentatively called “Buffy, the Medical Advocate”. While this entire book deals with emotional material, this chapter is going to be particularly touchy to write because it spotlights some of my own biggest internal challenges.
The title is of course a reference to Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. When my mother was sick, I was her primary medical advocate. I was by her side much of the time, helping to manage her care, keeping careful notes, and trying to comfort and encourage her. I didn’t always balance these things gracefully. I did, though, believe that without me she couldn’t have survived, that I was responsible for her the way that Buffy was responsible for saving the world.
Buffy has been a touchstone for me since I was first introduced to her in the late 1990s. I’m sure it was Season 3. (I’ve since watched all 7 seasons more than once.) Buffy is a strong but naive young woman who bears the responsibility of being the only Vampire Slayer on earth. It is her duty to fight the vampires and she alone has the special power to do so. Her own needs and desires take second place to the survival of others, but of course they leak out all over the place which is part of the drama of the show. She is both insecure and narcissistic. She’s a teenager after all, at least for the first several seasons.
My mother’s alcoholism, and her recovery, left me with similar feelings of responsibility. I didn’t have the survival of all humankind on my shoulders, but I did take on responsibility for fighting my mother’s inner demons and I felt like her survival often depended on my willingness to put her needs before my own. I don’t think that until I started therapy at 19, therapy that lasted through my 20s, that I even understood what my needs were or that they were valid. But I do understand now that while I felt like I had to put myself second often so that I could rescue my mother, in doing so I considered myself the only one who could do it. Like Buffy, I have been both insecure and narcissistic.
My mother’s inner demons were legion, and they had names like self-doubt, procrastination, disorganization, guilt, and shame. She was sometimes paralyzed by her feelings of guilt related to having failed to finish a project or respond to a phone call. She preferred to lie, or at least to veil the truth, rather than disappointing someone. And she felt guilt about the pain that her daughters had experienced growing up, as we waded through the chaos of her addiction, recovery, financial hardships, and failed relationships. I was not always successful in fighting her demons (or my own, for that matter). But there was one class of demons that I always nailed. Those were the demons of sexual shame.
My outness about my own sexuality and my academic explorations of sexuality were like wooden stakes through the hearts of any sexual shame demons that had kept my mother from experiencing satisfying sexual relationships in the past. She’d often talked about coming of age in the sexual repression of the 1950s, and then feeling out of place during the encounter groups of the late 60s. She told me she felt empty instead of excited. In fact, just today, while riffling through some papers to try to find information my sister needed, I found a letter she had written to me when I was in college. In it she links her alcoholism to sex, saying that only when she drank did she feel sexy.
She was so proud of her daughters that I don’t know if it would have occurred to her to denigrate my sexuality or my academic work because of its sexual subject matter. In fact, she celebrated my sexuality, and, I think, enjoyed the vicarious experience of queerness and edginess that it gave her. She read all of my research papers, including my dissertation, and I think those things encouraged her to see sex as worthy of serious attention. When I started working for Woodhull, which was just a little while after she started to develop her sexual identity as a Domme, I think she picked up a lot of the human rights framework, too.
When my mother decided to confront her sexual demons, she did so armed with an awful lot of tools I’d given her, and if there are many regrets and many ambivalences I have about my relationship with her, the slaying of those demons makes up for most of them.
To view the other posts in this series, click here:http://www.woodhullalliance.org/tag/my-mothers-cross/
Image of Vampire killing kit used under a Creative Commons license, courtesy of Gabriel Rome.