Is it me? Or is it her? How can there be two different realities?
She phones up and from the minute I hear her tone of voice I know she is in a bad mood. I hate that voice. It makes me feel very bad. She tells “So, you’re going on a cookery course in the summer” and I say “No, but we were thinking of it. The children weren’t keen enough and it was very expensive” but she does not seem to hear this and goes on telling me a long and involved story about how her friend, whom I’ve met once, worked there for six weeks last summer. Even though we are not going there. I know she must have been grilling my daughter. I want to change the subject. I just say how wonderful it looked and then I ask about her son, and what he thinks of the bad behaviour of his football heroes. She says that he doesn’t know anything about the bad behaviour, that he hasn’t read any of the reports, that there haven’t been any reports in the newspapers they read. I say that there hasn’t been too much in the Guardian either, but I’ve read it on-line. Then she tells me to go and get the Guardian and makes me read out the crossword clues on the quick crossword. In doing so I prove that I am wrong and that she is right and there is actually no difference between the clues in the British Edition and the European Edition, and I remember last year, nearly a year ago, that my husband and I had been sitting with her outside a café in a French village and had been amusing ourselves with the quick crossword in the European Edition, but that is had seemed ridiculously easy and so one of us – perhaps him, perhaps me – had said, by way of possible explanation, that perhaps the European edition and the British Edition had different crosswords. And she had remembered this and stored it away and now needed to prove me wrong. I felt attacked, and made my excuses …I had to be at the tennis club with my daughter within fifty minutes and we had not eaten yet. And she told me that her son and daughter had both played tennis today. I wished she would stop competing with me, needing to keep up with me, and needing to prove that I am wrong and she is right. I remember that her husband is away in India. My daughter and my home-help tell me that I was really nice to her on the phone.
A day or two later she sends me an email. All it says is “Knock knock!” and I am suddenly so annoyed by her stupid game playing and by her childish attempts to move on from her angry phonecall, and by her constant competing with me. I write back to her saying “Who’s there?” and then, because I am fed up, I tell her that we don’t need to compete any more, that we have four wonderful children and that we do not need to compare them either and that they should not have to bear the legacy of our childhood. This is because my daughter had been staying with them a few days earlier and had come back and said that she thought her cousins were better than her, more well rounded, higher achievers in more areas, and I wondered why she was thinking in those terms and she told me that her cousins had told her all their grade scores. I was upset about that. I could not bear the idea that my daughter had been got at, that the whole situation had been manipulated by my sister, that my precious daughter had not had me there to protect her. It was not that the cousins were doing “better” that upset me, but that they needed to make sure that we knew all about it, that they thought they needed to compete with us.
And then the shit hit the fan and flew out in all directions. First she said how hurt she was and how mean I was. And I replied that I did not think there was much hope for our relationship until she was able to look at our childhood and see how her behaviour contributed to our difficulties. Then she tried silence. Two weeks. Then she demanded that my husband phone her and when he did, she bent his ear. Then she ignored his advice to keep away from each other and wrote the next morning telling me that I was not to talk about our childhood with her ever again, that she did not find it helpful, and that I had to see her in May at a time of her choosing. So I talked it all over with my analyst (I lie, I cried as I read out the correspondence) and decided that I would tell her that I could not see her in May.
Now she is in a fury. How dare I! she says: the crossword thing was a lighthearted joke because she and her colleagues prided themselves on finishing the crossword every day and she is a very lightheated jokey person, an adult living in the present. She says that she would like to talk to my analyst. I say “No” and she gets more angry. She throws all sorts of things at me, including the future happiness of the four cousins. I still say “No”. She writes to my husband. He writes back without telling me saying that she should leave it and that he does not know why she is pressing so much when she had made herself absent when we visited her town in the autumn. He says she is a bully.
Jokes are concealed aggression in my family. It was something she learnt from my Dad.
But perhaps it is me. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong and it is me that is unreasonable. Perhaps it is me who cannot take a joke, who takes it all so seriously. Perhaps I am mad, mentally ill. After all, it is me who is seeing an analyst. Not just once, but twice a week. And doesn’t she sound so rational? And don’t I owe it to my daughters and her children to give them a happy extended family to grow up in, and isn’t it unchristian and plain unkind to deny her access to us like I have? And am I not just playing a game, making a mountain out of a molehill when I should have just brushed it all off? And am I not histrionic, unable to tell good intentions from bad intentions, unable to distinguish a friendly voice from a malign voice? Paranoid even? Is it not me, rather, that is the narcissist? Always wanting attention and wanting it may way, and spending all that money on therapy just to get more attention? Isn’t that reality more real than my reality? Is my reality not just self-serving?