Monday, April 10, 2017

The Life Sentence of an Unhappy Childhood


The other night I stumbled upon the movie White Oleander airing on television, near its beginning. I cannot say I like films like this, but I admire the writers, directors, cast, and crew willing to take on the subject of psychological cruelty, and the agony of undoing the hell that parent-child relationships can often bring. The ramifications of one's upbringing are profound, and so variable in their outcome that stereotypes are useless.

Children are unable to stand up for their own right to peace, quiet, dignity, and love that does not come out of parental selfishness. The result is denial of their situation, and latent hostility towards others. By the time they are teenagers "acting out," or twenty-somethings bobbing and drifting in the debris of their past, the damage is done. When strangers, or even friends, ask what happened, or how did you get here, your response is to ignore them or change the subject. Then you hit thirty-ish and you begin to recall the past with the clarity of an unsubstantiated alibi. After all, up until now you had been conditioned to believe that you murdered your own childhood. Suddenly you cannot help but tell your story. You become the crusader, but you still couch your own pain in a "desire to help others." As the battles dwindle and the war wanes, you are left with a vacancy unfilled, and go back to the flat-line flow that is your life, punctuated here and there with good times and devastating bouts of depression, for your remaining days....or until your parents free you by their own passing.

This perpetuated, and perpetual, guilt, vindictiveness, distrust, and dishonesty is the legacy of generations upon generations of parents ill-equipped to raise a healthy child because they were not brought up in a sane environment. The coping skills of blame, shame, withholding of love and affection, infliction of punishment, and the examples of smoking, alcoholism, and other behaviors are handed down time after time after time.

We have been instructed to believe that the hallmarks of a broken childhood are reflected in the adult child through substance abuse, and indeed the twelve-step programs and anonymous groups can be places to begin silencing the echoes of the parental recordings playing endlessly in your mind. You finally begin to see the "buttons" and start the long process of rewiring or disconnecting them. You react with a little less intensity when one of them is pushed.

Still, social dysfunction, in all its many forms, is the overwhelming result of following the patterns set forth like the ruts from wagon wheels lifetimes previous. Maybe you never have an enduring, loving relationship with someone else. Maybe, like me, you become unemployable, because you see the social structure of the workplace for what it is: every employee's attempt to make up for their childhood of want, woe, and war....and that includes yourself if you are not wary, or willing to expend the enormous amount of energy to just "deal." Lather, rinse, repeat.

Our childhood senses and minds lack the filters that come with maturity, and we accept everything our parents dole out as fact and reality, not the products of a disillusioned personality, itself the victim of its own trauma. There is no end to the insidious strategies invented to insure that a parent maintains control of their child. Surely the world would fly apart if the chain of child-rearing incompetence were ever to break. We cannot afford, hell, survive, the exposure of our flaws, nor properly articulate their origin. We were just kids when we learned how to parent.

At the end of White Oleander, the mother marches into a life sentence at a real brick-and-mortar prison. She finally relented from pressuring her daughter into testifying, thereby setting her offspring free from the prison she created in the girl's mind. Rarely is it that easy, that metaphorical, that decisive. Most of us still spend our days methodically sawing through the bars with mental files, provided we even recognize the cell that we are living in.


  1. My mom was just 17 when she met my dad and they started having kids ASAP. It kind of shows. Just the lack of skills in general. They tried hard, everybody does, but with little life experience and barely enough money it just wasn't quite enough. Not the worst, not the best.

  2. I totally recognized how effed up my childhood lead me to be... that's why I went through therapy before getting pregnant (I went through therapy many times in my life, but I specifically wanted to address some underlying issues before I got pregnant). I hope I don't screw my kid up.