my mother, myself
who has the right to tell a story?
An earlier version of this essay appeared Sunday’s edition of the Toronto Star. It was commissioned and edited by the dazzling and talented Sarmishta Subramanian.
In the early ’90s when I was 14, I stayed up late at a pool party in Toronto, chased a bottle of Schnapps with a tab of acid and ended up in a three-way with my close friend and a guy I’ll call Scott. I promise you it was a lot less fun than it sounds.
Rumours spread through our Toronto high school, a selective academy for the arts. My friend broke up with me, saying our relationship was “too intense.” I lost weight, failed math, took up smoking and fainted in choir, singing the descant in Pergolesi’s “Stabat Mater.”
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Later, when I confessed the whole sordid tale to my mother (a then-single magazine journalist) she responded with a story of her own.
The story was this: In the early 1960s, she’d had a sexual relationship with her pony club instructor, the stablemaster of the Caledon hunt club where, once upon a time, her family dressed up and rode around the fields in red coats with packs of baying hounds like old fashioned people in the Victorian prints that hung on the walls of our basement Chinatown loft. The Horseman was married with four children. When it began, she was 12.
The abuse carried on long after my grandfather discovered it, grounded his eldest daughter, then quietly banished the Horseman and his family from the club and the county. They never spoke of it again.
At 21, my mother married my father, her high-school sweetheart, then gave birth to me, and subsequently my sister. Dad went into sales and Mum became a country housewife on a farm not unlike the one she’d grown up on, the down payment a wedding gift from my grandfather. Twelve years into their marriage my Grandad died. Mum left us and moved to the city. Heartbroken, years later, I followed her.
My life in Toronto with Mum was an inverted mirror image of my cosseted small-town childhood. The kids at arts school were diverse in cultural and economic terms, many of them the children of divorced (or soon to be divorced) urban intellectual creative-types like Mum. Deadheads, potheads, budding punk poets, bulimic rejects from the National Ballet School and child stars who’d wandered in off the set of “Degrassi Junior High”. Drama curriculum included Surrealism, confessional “trust building” exercises, straight and gay love scenes (with kissing) as well as a teacher-directed production of “Cabaret” in which underage girls danced in bustiers, garter belts, heels and ripped fishnet stockings. We wrote plays and rehearsed them late into the night and shared cigarettes with our teachers.
Life with Mum was similarly frenetic and free. She worked a lot and went to “media events.” I attended weekly Midnight Madness screenings of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at the Bloor Cinema and hung out on rooftops with my friends figuring out new ways to do bottle tokes. We moved whenever our lease was up. In essence it was teenage-wasteland paradise.
The revelation of the Horseman changed everything. My mother offered it as a kind of origin story, a keystone and absolution that explained away the chaos of our life, and all our problems. The story was awful and true, and in the context of our life it also became a narrative of convenience, which is why I included it in my forthcoming memoir. Doing so prompted my mother to publicly accuse me last year (in the pages of the venerable Literary Review of Canada) of “appropriating” her story and cashing in on her trauma. The piece tells the story of my mother’s abuse and lays out in detail how everything that transpired in her life (including marriaivorce and motherhood itself) sprang from this dark seed, and then she lays claim to the tale. “I have not led a blameless life. I own every mistake I have made — every one. I feel my daughters’ pain as though it is my own … but I will say this as directly and vigorously as I can: this story, this one, is mine.”
But it’s not quite that simple. My mother’s story was not a secret; nor did I attempt to steal it. It was thrust upon me at an impressionable age and then presented as the origin story of everything, including my existence on planet Earth. There were, in fact, no secrets in our family of two – my mother saw herself as a rebel but I now understand she was also a part of her generation. This was my corner of Toronto in the ’90s, a town run by the optimistic privileged white progressives who came of age in the ’60s. Regulations and boundaries were simply not cool.
The fashionable notion that a person’s story can be appropriated is troubling at best; it shows a startling lack of understanding of the writer’s imagination. My mother knows this. As does Kristen Roupenian, the writer who wrote the viral New Yorker story “Cat Person,” whose details she fashioned from the real life details of an ex-boyfriend’s ex, a lesser writer who later complained she’d been robbed. As do any number of writers who’ve been involved in similar “scandals.”
Stories, like cultures, are shared by definition – in isolation they cease to exist, or matter. As long as the written word is properly attributed (i.e. not lifted verbatim and plagiarized outright, its origins obscured), it cannot be ring-fenced as private property. Older, creakier cultures understand this – appropriation could accurately describe the entire history of human culture and art. You don’t see anyone cancelling Shakespeare for ripping off the Romans or the Romans for ripping off the Greeks.
My book is a memoir about my childhood and adolescence, which was formed in large part by my mother and the stories she told me about herself. It’s not an attempt to steal her material but a wholehearted investigation into how our stories became so enmeshed in the first place and, ultimately, an effort to unpick this tangled emotional knot.
The debate over stealing stories is a pernicious thought trap – this is what happens when we turn victim narratives into cultural currency: Even the most honest and brave victim stories can and will be weaponized as narratives of convenience. This is not good for anyone, least of all victims themselves. Or their children, by the way. It’s a difficult conversation but I think it’s worth talking about.
Here is another truth: Once told, a story cannot be revoked or countermanded back into a secret. My mother’s story, the one about the Horseman, is one I never wanted in the first place. I didn’t ask for it; I had it thrust upon me as a child and it changed the way I saw everything. That, too, is what my book is about. It’s about how stories are shared, and reverberate through the generations, and give birth to sub-narratives of their own. It’s a complicated truth – but so is any good family story.
During my high-school years, my mother was in therapy and we both came to see her abuse as “the central defining event” of her life (her words). To me, the Horseman was both a horror and a balm. He was the reason I could forgive her for anything. He was why my mother was so unconventional, so interesting, so brave, and he was why, at times, she could be irresponsible, chaotic and sad. He was the reason she became a mother too young – a decision she later openly regretted, in print. He was also the reason why my mother could not “mother” me as an adult, why I instead became her confidante and roommate, and she mine.
At 18, in my first semester studying English at McGill, I embarked on an affair with one of my mother’s former colleagues, a married magazine editor, for whom I’d babysat in high school. He’d been in town promoting his first novel (an erotic roman à clef about the ’60s) and took me out for dinner, and then later, on a press junket to New York. I broke it off with him by not returning his calls (we had no word for “ghosting” back then). For a while he was distraught. He turned up at the restaurant where I had a summer job as a waitress, and he later called my mother, who told him to piss off, which he did. She of course knew all about it.
In my late 20s, I moved from Toronto to London, where I married and had children of my own. After that my relationship with my mother became more strained. We still visited and talked but there was an underlying tension that sometimes boiled over into argument. Having children of my own caused me to re-evaluate the circumstances of my own childhood. The protectiveness and love I felt toward my sons was intense, but it was combined with overwhelming anxiety and confusion about the past.
During and after the so-called “watershed moment” of #MeToo, my mother and I talked about the Horseman a lot. At one point we decided to collaborate on a book – an investigation into what had become of him, but we later abandoned it. By that time, however, I’d already started writing a book of my own – a memoir about growing up as my mother’s daughter. The book terrified me but once I started writing I couldn’t stop. “Where You End and I Begin” tells the story of what it was like to grow up as the daughter of a charismatic, brilliant, brave, loving and unapologetically damaged woman who refused to keep her abuse a secret (from her daughter or anyone else who knew her well) and who also, at times, used it as an excuse.
My book began as a collaboration with my mother; when that failed it evolved into something else – a book that was different, more urgent, an investigation into one mother-daughter relationship that probes the tender spot where filial love and stories intersect. It is heartbreaking to me that it has become a source of division, but once I started I pushed on. As my mother often told me growing up, “Writers write.” I took her at her word.
The book was born in the noisy aftermath of #MeToo, an astonishing moment that prompted a recognition of truth for real victims, including my mother. It highlighted the suffering of women who had suffered abuse, but it also raised the moral stakes in a way that did not make it easier for the vast majority of women to share the many more complicated truths we held.
Many sexual trauma narratives are not as morally unambiguous, or horrific, as Weinstein or the Horseman. More often than not, the truth is a bit of a mess. And it can be difficult to articulate those truths. Between the scandals involving ludicrously aggrieved aspiring writers who feel their trauma has been appropriated by more successful peers and the bluster of blow-bag culture warriors whinging about “witch hunts” on Twitter, there isn’t much space for people (often women) who want to describe a less dramatic but in many ways more universal discomfort: The weird, upsetting, uncomfortable stuff that’s happened, much of which can’t be easily slotted or understood.
Raising the moral stakes does not make the world feel more just. And when subtlety is lost in the wider conversation, the consequences of misunderstandings become greater. People get vilified or fired and the irony is that the burden of responsibility is thrust even more squarely on victims. There is a dearth of space for those who are interested in asking complicated questions or just want to stand up and say, This happened. It was upsetting and uncomfortable. Technically it was not illegal, and I definitely had a part in it. I don’t know exactly who is to blame, perhaps I never will. But it was part of something bigger that was wrong, and that matters.
When the potential consequences of telling a complicated truth threaten to outweigh the value of telling the story in the first place, more women are told, or tempted, to sit down and shut up. Victim narratives are powerful, they evolve and give birth to other stories in turn, and most of them are not redemptive or happy. All these stories deserve to be told, they must be told, the question is how, when and for what purpose?
When the man I call the magazine editor heard I was writing a book he sent me a message. Time had passed, the Canadian media community is small, so we’re friends – at least on Facebook. He said he didn’t want to flatter himself, but might he be so impertinent as to ask if “our story” was a part of it? A year or so later, as a courtesy, I sent him some draft pages. He sent them back full of detailed notes, in which he both fact-checked my remembered history of events and objected to the dissemination of the basic facts on the grounds that they would be “too identifying.”
The editor accused me of trying to “cancel” him, which astonished me, since I hadn’t even used his real name. I pointed out that he was retired with a pension in his 70s. His wife already knew, because he’d told her, along with half of Toronto, years earlier – back when shagging the babysitter who later becomes a columnist was still a good look for a man. His wife, to her immense credit, didn’t hold it against me (we’re also friends on Facebook) nor, apparently, did she hold it against him. The affair had been consensual and I’d been of age. I pointed all this out. He said that wasn’t the point.
Of a scene in which I recounted the story of how, while I was still in my mid-teens, he’d driven me home from babysitting and asked me out for a beer at 2 a.m. on a school night, he complained I made it look like he was “grooming” me. I asked if he disputed the basic facts; he said he did not.
The problem, the editor admitted, was that he didn’t remember our story that way. In his mind it was a fond, if slightly illicit, memory. He did not see anything immoral in it outside “the adultery part,” which he said he felt badly about on account of his wife. Over and over again he asked me if I’d been traumatized. Over and over again I said, Um no, not really. But I added that it was weird – of course it was weird! I was your teenage babysitter! – and that I’d thought about it a lot, and not as a fond, illicit memory either.
Furthermore, I suspected it was somehow connected to the story of my mother, the feral bohemian chaos of my childhood and even the story of the Horseman, which had made a big impression on me at an early age – because trauma narratives are powerful. This, if anything, I explained to the editor, is what my book is about. “But what if I get cancelled?” he said, begging me to consider his wife’s feelings. I congratulated him on the birth of his first grandchild and suggested, that when the time comes, he might advise his son to call the babysitter an Uber.
Like my mother, the editor is welcome to his version of our story. But it does not preclude me from telling mine. The truth is complicated; stories intersect and conflict. We need to accept this. Anything else is a lie.
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