So one of my sons has some serious skills when it comes to dog whistling and gaslighting and boy am I grateful I get to be a different sort of mom, than what I experienced. I get to be a loving witness and a trusted ally. I agree to see and hear them both, the best that I can(and not triangulate- no matter the temptation and familiarity). I continually explain to them that in a perfect world – what is true and kind would matter the most amount. But in this world, more people than not prefer a confident, poised liar/abuser (who does not personally affect them) to even the most innocent or vulnerable person– with intense reactions to pain, fear, discomfort. I am deeply aware and pained that my son has his sensitivity weaponized against him, by two family members whom he loves and from whom he also cannot change or catch a break. All I can do is love them both through it, call it out, and model something more wholesome than that. This is a cycle to break. It has fractured both sides of their families in every direction, with a fair amount of addiction and mental unwellness, some less perceptible.
I was thinking today of when I was maybe five years old, sitting at our dinner table in Fayetteville,NC, with only my mother and my sister, who was 11 or 12 at the time. My sister mouthed the words “you are a pig”. As a 5 year old who was highly sensitive and who was hungry for my sister’s love and approval, I burst into tears. When asked what was wrong (with me?—invariably the question and suggestion) and I shared that my sister had just called me a pig, my mother quite literally gnashed her teeth and declared me crazy and a liar– because since she was sitting right there – she would have known if my sister had in fact, called me a pig.
At that age I lacked the skills to articulate that my sister had mouthed those words— like she didn’t say them out loud with her voice. While smiling aggressively at me, she silently mouthed them very definitively to only me, again. She was smugly triumphant- always. Jilan Catherine Ghoneim Whitney
And so, we all agreed in that moment, that I was insane and bad. My mother would never be genuinely curious or concerned about my inner life, only annoyed, while performing sympathy and compassion for my sister, who had fallen prey to my antics. Such a loving and sensitive protective mother. Awww
Not only could I not trust my mother or sister, I could not trust myself to effectively deal with them–and being with each of them caused me great anxiety. Later that the day, I heard my mother on the brown coily corded kitchen phone, first with her mother and later with her brother, describing how awful and troublemaking I was – delusional and hysterical.
On that day my sister and I learned important things about our roles and our power within that family. Life was officially not safe for me from that day forward. It was ok to hurt Maggie. People who have abused me or sat silently as I was degraded, prefer to recall only how undenaibly angry and problematic I became around the age of adolescence. I do not deny that it happened. I had become unstable in that arrangement and then hormones were like grease to a fire. It was impossible, hopeless. This was home life.
With no known way to communicate my angst and no caring ally, that dynamic fucked me up at the deepest levels. My mother’s frequent reports to her family primed the pump for our family trips to New York. Everyone deeply encamped in the wrongness of Magda- the deranged, thin-skinned, defective, troublemaking liar, unworthy of love, protection, connection. There was nowhere to go but down. And down I went. This left my mother’s family feeling overwhelming compassion for her and my sister and observably disgusted and enraged by me, for constantly choosing to put them through so much.
I’ve only recently learned the terminology dog whistle. So, at least, I now know exactly what that thing my sister so skillfully and regulary did to me, is called.
These two women shaped my ideas and core beliefs about truth, trust, worthiness, abuse, belittling, transparency, integrity, betrayal, honor, honesty, connection, safety. Everyhting I understood about those things began with what they modelled for me…until recovery and motherhood taught me something better, more true and good than anything I had known.Much Love,
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