This, I told Kathy, sounded exactly like the alternate personality I knew from my childhood. Her spaciness. Her yelling nonsensical, dangerous things and then forgetting that she had screamed at all. My mom could snap into another self, and she did. And whether the tumor caused it or was merely a parallel discovery, nobody will ever know.
If I wasn’t going to get confirmation of my mom’s mental illness, from Clem or Phyl or anyone else, I wanted proof of how it might have begun . I wanted the truth about the grandfather. And I got that truth when I spoke with one woman who knew my mom when she was young. This person unfurled her story like a balled-up blanket, and suddenly it was all before me.
My mother had been severely abused.
In 1953, she said, my maternal great-grandfather began molesting my then 5-year-old mother. The assaults went on for years. This person knew because she had grown up around the grandfather and he had raped her, too.
She had never told another soul about her own abuse, this person on the phone, and she sounded relieved to have it out. She made some excuses for James Falkner, said he had once owned a granary in the small town of ” data-disable-toolbar=”true” data-disable-return=”true”>Belvue, Kansas, and had been one of the richest men in town. But then the Depression hit and he lost it all. Maybe this is why he abused young girls, she reasoned; maybe it was repression, frustration, or rage. And then she asked me not to reveal her identity. James Falkner had long been dead, but she had her own family to protect.
This person was in touch with my mom in the last years of her life, when, she said, my mom finally started to remember.
“Your mother, she carried a lot of pain,” the woman said. “She didn’t remember the abuse until a few years ago, just before she got the brain tumor. But then she started having nightmares.”
She said my mother called her when the nightmares began; she was having night flashes of someone, a man, coming to her at night and assaulting her, but at first she didn’t know who it was.
“I didn’t want her to think it was her father, because it wasn’t,” she said. “The grandfather moved in with the family when your mother was about 5. Your mom thought her mother knew it was happening, and it happened all the time. For years.”
I cried when I got off the phone, with sadness for my mom but mostly with relief. The singular darkness lifted from her and landed on a person I had never known but had heard about in snatches of her madness. My mother’s grandfather stories were sequestered away in the part of her brain that lashed and screamed and called me a whore, the same part of her brain that marched her up the stairs and into my bed on a night I wish I could forget. Language fails to reach the experience, the twinned despondence and terror of molest, but I remember it like I remember her words he raped me every night . And when I learned it was true—that my memory of her blocked memory was solid and valid and real—I felt a thin kind of hope. At the end of her life, it seemed, a light had cracked through the blockage; there was a bridge. The mom everyone said was so nice, the mom who “loved everybody, forgave everybody,” was beginning to remember the unforgivable grandfather. And maybe, at the end of her life, there could have been a bridge to me.
I remembered the story of the grandfather that my mother told me. Even when I was a kid, I felt he was part of the mystery, and sometimes when I was brave I would tiptoe into asking her about him.
“I don’t remember anything about my childhood,” she would say. “From about six through sixth grade, it’s all black. I remember dressing up as someone called Mrs. Jones when I was really little, but maybe that’s because there was a picture.”
“And your grandfather?” I asked her.
“I don’t remember him, either,” she said. “There are the stories about him burying his eyeglasses in the garden, but you already know those.”
I’d been afraid, all these years, to diagnose my mother with a mental illness, especially because the disease I thought she had had been so stigmatized. In the nineties, a scandal erupted around recovered memories; experts and laypeople were suddenly claiming that experiences like hers were impossible. The fashion turned, and people suddenly were supposed to never be able to forget serious abuse: The therapists suggested stories and foisted memories on their impressionable patients.
My mother, of course, never went to therapy. In fact, she hated the very idea of psychiatry; I remember her telling me once that there was likely a reason she didn’t remember her childhood, and she didn’t want anybody digging into what she had effectively suppressed.
But if people didn’t believe in the memory blocking, then you can’t have dissociative identity disorder, or multiple personalities, because it is the repression of memories that causes the self to split. And some people don’t believe DID even exists. This is why, despite my mother hitting all of its hallmark signs, I’d been scared to label her that way.