Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Where would we be without our painful childhoods?

This was the question that Dr Finch, a psychiatrist, and an unforgettable character in the bestseller book (and now a motion picture) "Running with Scissors" asked Augusten (the writer) when he said, 'I don't fit in." We all have those days, but when you're younger, you have the capacity to feel every isolating moment in its purest agony., as the adult reflex of rationalising it hasn't yet kicked in. In those moments, it helps to have someone to blame. Augusten blamed his parents mostly (and yet didn't really), and i blamed mine.

When i was 13, my father left home and his family - his wife, and two kids - and went to NY, USA to study further. At the time, i thought it was just a short break, and soon he will return and we would go back to being the happy family that we had been (i mean, what are fights between parents, right? And hey, silent houses and non-conversation dinner tables are a small price to pay for having a dad and mom).

When the short break showed no sign of ending, I became worried that the reason my father was staying away was because when he had been here, he used to think that the only reason i talked to him was when i needed money to buy my small treats - candy, samosas, ice cream. I was hugely relieved when a few months later, my mom told me that we were all going to travel to the US, and start a new life with Dad. Maybe he had forgiven me.

Except, USA wasn't much fun. The place was cold, which probably made the people so too, and every evening there were the constant repetitive slightly drunken fights between mom, dad, my aunt and uncle (with whom we were staying in a 3-bedroom apartment that housed 4 adults, my brother, my three little cousins, a nanny and me). So when it became clear that this particular marital equation was not going to work, my mother made the very brave decision to return to India. With 15 year old me.

My father never let me forget it. He considered it the biggest betrayal that his daughter had committed against him - chosen MOM. In my head, it was the most practical decision - Dad had my brother, so Mom was going to have me. It was fair, right? Plus, Dad wasn't earning at all those days, so the idea of him supporting himself and two kids (one of them going to art school - my brother) was impossible. Plus i hated NY, hated the school there, the rules of existence ("don't stare at people, they will kill you!") that had been instilled into my young mind by my father and brother.

So when i returned to India, and home, and my school and friends, just a few months after leaving for another shore, i was relieved. I was happy. Except on those days when i would receive a letter from my father which would hold just the most awful things that he could think of writing to me - how i was selfish, didn't love him, how i was going to end up like my (shrewish) mother, how he was disappointed with me, etc. Let's just say, the fragile bonds of a father-daughter relationhsip were being frayed beyond repair. And we stopped writing to each other.
My mother continued living a half life, living with increasingly resentful in-laws who kept finding ways and means of throwing us out of the house, not earning enough to be able to move out, evading all "how's your husband?" questions with "he's fine" answers and when my father found someone else, and chose to break the news to my mother - bravely - through me, I held my mother as she wept in my arms. That was the day i knew i hated him.

Six years later, when i was in University, doing my Masters, my father dropped back into my life. He wanted to build bridges, held me and sobbed on my shoulder, telling me how thrilled he was to see me, how happy that i had become 'such a gorgeous lady', probably not quite fathoming the fact that he was a total stranger to me. But he tried a lot - gave me money to support myself through the lean beginning years of my work life, contributed finances towards buying my house and partly furnishing it. In exchange (and it always felt like that), i pretended to participate in the "we are fa-mi-lie" role play.

This entire thing probably goes to explain why in my own personal relationships, i am torn in two different directions - the desire to settle down and have a family that sticks together, and yet running at the first sign of committment. I look for father figures in my professional life, from whom i'm constantly seeking approval and hate rocking the boat, I have ill-advised relationships with highly inappropriate people, and torment myself with feelings of guilt and inadequacy when those relationships don't work out. Unfortunately, I don't see a way out of it, as i really have no frame of reference.

So boo-hoo.

Until i come across "Running with Scissors" about a childhood that is truly unbelievable. Born into a family with an alcoholic father, a psychotic mother with delusions of her creative genius who finally gives him up to the care and welfare of her freaky shrink, who defrauds his patients because of his own IRS woes, and his fucked up family where each one would be a separate tome in the psychobabble library of woes. And at the tender age of 15, when no child should be asked to make a decision of that magnitude, he decides to leave it all behind, and chase his dreams of being a writer in New York.

I like those kind of stories. Not just for the resonance that i sense - in some alternate part of me - but also for the fact that these are the true heroes of our time. In an age of technologically isolating lifestyles, where all one seems to have are memories of what one was and what one thought they would be, people who manage to survive their childhoods, and come out the stronger for it, are the ones who need to be applauded.

Augusten came out of it with a bestseller book. Hopefully i'll come out of it with something just as cool.

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