Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust III


The Passive Parent

Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own. The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.

As unpredictable as my mother was, my father was that predictable. He was a devoted father who worked hard and spent all his free time praying and helping neighbors with various plumbing and construction projects around their homes. (My parents emigrated from Ireland each at 18, just weeks before the Depression, then worked at odd jobs, went to school, met, married, and settled eventually in a small bungalow community in Throgs Neck, The Bronx.)  None of the homes were winterized when we moved in, so all the dads gave their weekends to raise a house, add a cellar or bathroom, extend a living room, add sheetrock dividers to separate beds. Living as my parents called it ‘hand to mouth’ in the Bronx in 1954, neighbors were vital to the life of each family: all the mothers watched the kids and the fathers built our homes, their only payment, as many bottles of Ballantine or Rheingold as it took to beat the heat of a sweltering parade of Saturdays from April through November. We were one family and were happy in that life—all but Mom (She was content to stay inside the house rather than “gossiping with a bunch of women”.)

A loving father and husband, Dad seldom, if ever, raised his voice. Evenings after dinner and the family rosary, he’d play the harmonica for us, then carry us piggyback to the bathroom for that final pee before bed. We adored him and Mom knew it. She often complained that we never listened to her but one look from him and we were all in tears. She was right. And he was no disciplinarian. He left that to her and tried to keep out of our wars. But on occasion she caught him at the door when he came from work with a long list of our offenses.

His attempts to corral us were perfunctory—a simple reprimand in a slightly raised voice. But after a day or two, we’d be back to our old routine.

What’s the point in talking? she’d say, The only thing they understand is the strap. And she used that often.

One day, to satisfy her, he changed tactics ordering us into the Back Room — a clear sign we were getting a beating. But it was always Mom who beat us; Dad never did, so we were really scared.

“You’ll get the licking of your lives for not listening to your mother,” he roared as he pulled off his belt and slammed the bedroom door. “Lay down on the beds!” he ordered.

Safely in the beds though, he’d cover us with my brothers’ thick comforters to protect us, whispering, “Cry out like you’re hurting,” then raising his voice, “This will teach you!” he beat the blankets and we screamed. Mom, in the kitchen, I imagined, satisfied and victorious making herself a cup of tea.

This seemed to us a clever resolution (and a welcome relief!) since any attempt on his part to stand up for us resulted in such rancor over his siding with us. The prior week was the last of his attempts to stand up for us.

You’re supposed to be disciplining them, not siding with them against me, she cried bitterly.

“I’m not siding with them. I just meant that what they did didn’t seem so bad.”

How can you say you love me if you take their part against me?                               

A man who seldom cried, Dad cried that day, “Why would you ask that?”

Eventually, Dad, stayed out of these confrontations completely. As we grew older and were too old to spank, his earlier “tricks” were outdated. He was powerless to help us anyway. He kept quiet, I rationalized, not only to save himself but also us–in a sense short–circuiting the rage that surely followed his defense of us. The result was that we never expected protection from him. We didn’t expect it from anyone. We were on our own. I don’t even remember being angry with him (I’d repressed it if I was). Rather we felt sorry for him; if anything, we saw him on a par with us when it came to Mom. He was as crippled as we were.

(In retrospect, I feel sorry for my mother, handling all the discipline of four kids (in 6 years) with no help from him. Like most kids, we listened less to Mom—probably because she was always there, mornings, after school, at dinner, bedtime, checking up: did we do our chores, our homework, what friends we hung out with, what comic books we read, smelling Sonny’s breath to see if he’d been smoking, did we take our cod liver oil…it was endless. Mom was the warden and Dad was the Pied Piper).

And we hung on his every word. Nothing was worse than the thought of his disappointment. Each of us turned ourselves inside out trying to please him and the way to do that was to pray. So each of us prayed a lot. Even my rebellious older brother became an altar boy and joined the Holy Name and Nocturnal Adoration Societies to pray beside Dad and make him proud. My sister and I often went with him to dawn Mass in The Poor Clare Monastery. Besides the pleasure it obviously gave Dad, I loved the feeling of holiness and purity that came with it. There were scores of saints I could call on to intercede for me, along with The Blessed Mother, Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Ghost, and of course, the Poor Souls in Purgatory. I loved having such a huge loving family always listening and understanding. I finally had what I’d always dreamed of. No matter how sad I was or how bad things seemed, I never really felt alone.

It took until I was well into adulthood to be angry with my father. And that’s not uncommon. Children of passive parents have a very difficult time getting in touch with the anger associated with emotional abandonment. In the eyes of the child, the parent is helpless, often the victim themselves (particularly mothers). They’re certainly not at fault for the discord or abuse that exists in the house—in fact, their silence may be said to minimize that by not introducing another variable into the hellish mix. The child/adult tells him/herself that he/she should feel sorry for the downtrodden parent. This protection/pity of the passive parent often lasts a lifetime. It’s less painful to see the parent as a victim and to feel compassion than to see the parent as inadequate. The truth invites guilt for blaming the helpless parent (we expect ourselves to be better than that) and great loss at the admission that the one parent the child identifies with is flawed. It takes considerable work and time (usually in therapy) for an individual to face his/her unconscious anger toward this parent—he/she is very reluctant to view the self as aggressive like the abusive parent.

Though I didn’t expect my father to protect me from my mother while I was growing up, as an adult, I did expect him to confront her when she invented stories about us. In her effort to keep us embattled with each other and exclusively hers, she’d often color the truth or out and out lie about one of us to the other. Often in front of him. But regrettably, he wouldn’t correct her; he’d just stand by silently as she recounted her fictions of abuse at our hands. One particular time, I arrived for a visit to my brother and his family in England, and there was a scarcity of beds, so my friend and I were set to sleep on the floor. That was fine with us, but not with Mom. She insisted that we were tired from the long flight and needed a good night’s sleep, so she and Dad would sleep on the floor and we’d take their beds. We refused, multiple times, but she kept insisting. Exhausted from the trip and touched by her generosity, I agreed. When I got home however, I heard from my younger brother that she’d told the story in reverse. We had just ‘taken’ her bed and left her and Dad to sleep on the floor. Remarkably, Dad, who was there both times, for the incident and when she relayed it, never refuted her account. He just kept silent while she maligned us. My brother was incensed that I would be so selfish and treat my parents so shabbily. That kind of thing happened more often than I’d like to admit. I finally got so angry with my father (I had by this time begun to get in touch with much of the rage that I’d repressed for so long) that I actually slapped his face for his refusal to stand up for me. That slap carried rage for a lifetime of his emotional abandonment. That’s a hard word to associate with my father—he was so present in so many ways, but it’s accurate. It’s also a terrible memory—one I wish never happened and for a long time didn’t remember until it revealed itself when I was writing my last book, Orphans, which tells the stories of my parents, individually and together, and my relationship with them.

Besides the lack of protection that the child of the passive parent experiences, such parenting can reap damaging results later in childhood and adulthood. For one, the child may conclude that protection doesn’t exist in any relationship. So the child is determined to count on no one.  The world is not a safe place; one is out there on his/her own. Bonding is difficult because it requires trust and this child/adult has little reason to trust. Perhaps most critical, the child does not have a model for standing up and speaking for oneself, for fighting for what he/she believes. Children need positive role models, and they learn from their parents (particularly the parent of the same sex), how to be a woman, a man, a substantive human being. The parent, through his/her behavior teaches the child not to speak, not to have opinions, or if they do, to keep them to themselves, to not strive for uniqueness, to be compliant rather than independent. The child learns to remain on the outside of any vital conversation or dialogue where he/she might be blamed or judged.  So the child mimics the parent and becomes a shadow of the self he/she could be. There’s great sadness in that.


Though we had found the formula for pleasing Dad, his holiness presented another variable in our struggling sense of ourselves. We were a deeply religious Catholic family with Dad in charge of our spiritual life as Mom was of all else. Truly Christlike, Dad was as close to perfect as anyone we knew (except perhaps for the nuns and priests), and as hard as we tried, we were aware we could never measure up. We could never be as good as he was–or the saints were. I for one was aware that as much as I prayed and went to Mass when I didn’t have to, there were also times I wished I didn’t have to. On the contrary, I was sure Dad never felt that way; he seemed to love every movement he made toward God. What made me particularly sad and guilty was that I knew he desperately wanted one of us to become a priest or nun, and I was terrified that I’d be called by God to do so. I didn’t want to –any more than I could imagine giving up my life to defend God as I knew the martyrs did and surely Dad would.

Sadly, we came up short once again; for Mom, we could never love her enough; for Dad we could never love God enough. We were a disappointment to our parents, to God and to ourselves.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust II


Psychological Defenses:  Often Our Salvation

Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own.  The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.

With an ambivalent mother as the barometer of mood and well-being (often it’s opposite), our home was a threatening place. She knew all and saw all, and though there’s still a part of me that wants to refute it, her responses were violent. But the young Joan didn’t know that; in fact, this is the first time in my life that I’ve described my mother as violent. I can feel the trembling in my chest as I write this. My impulse is to soften that word—to insist that I’m overstating. Certainly, violent is not the way I want/wanted to see her. Nor the way I was taught to view her. Because she had presented such a positive persona to us, Dad, and the world (My kids are my life), I didn’t see her treatment as abuse. Nor was I angry with her: it wasn’t her fault.  It was a flaw (more likely several) in me that caused her to erupt or refuse to speak. Clinically speaking, I had introjected her. Simply put, I saw myself as she saw me (as I believed she saw me).  Her behavior told me that something was wrong with me—I didn’t love her enough or I was inherently bad. And I swallowed that whole. This introjection of the parent, particularly the mother, is the cornerstone on which the child’s sense of herself is constructed and the bedrock of what we come to know as the superego or conscience.

Hence the damage occurs very early in a child’s life. He/she has learned to dislike, disapprove of, even hate him/herself.  It became my quest to monitor what seemed to please and displease my mother and to tailor myself according to that template—what would make her love me? Though there were times when her love was apparent, the opposite was also true, so I could never be sure (and according to Skinner’s theory of reinforcement, it is intermittent reward that is the most effective. The subject continues to behave at the highest level when the pattern of reward is irregular. The outcome cannot be predicted so the effort must be constant). Thus began my unrelenting effort to discover what she wanted and to become that person. Anything to end the silences or quiet the rage.

And Mom’s anger was lethal. Initially, my three siblings got regular beatings with the belt. I was spared for several years because I was ‘nervous’ and diagnosed as such by our doctor when Mom took me to see him to explain the belly pains I was getting regularly. These started with a ‘spastic colon’ and accelerated into colitis as I got older (I also developed other physical problems which will be explored in a later chapter of this series). The other reason I escaped the strap, (besides the fact that I was as close to a perfect kid as she could have imagined) was that I responded to her rages with uncontrollable trembling—until one day she turned on me yelling, Maybe this will stop the shaking! and flung the strap at me as well. After that, I got beat just like everyone else (though not as often because I was obsessive in my attempts to be good). Mom was convinced that I’d been faking, and there was no way she’d let me ‘pull the wool over her eyes’! The attack succeeded—even I believed I was pretending.  To this day, I’m not sure what the truth is.

One wonders how these children and the multitudes of abused children (many under the guise of spare the rod, spoil the child brand of parenting) cope with the dissonant messages from parents. They’re loved, not loved; they’re good, bad; they belong; they’re outsiders. They can do little or nothing to combat the physical abuse (other than, as discussed in an earlier chapter, to enlist the more loving parent or grandparent, uncle or aunt, perhaps teacher or clergy person who might potentially intervene. But that seldom happens; the child has to have a sense of his/her own rights to complain about his/her parent’s treatment. Most do not. To do that would be a betrayal. [Yes, despite all of the abuse, the child still remains faithful to the parent]. Instead, they keep trying to escape the wrath and appease the angry parent. The fault is with them; it’s their badness that keeps the parent enraged).

On the other hand, there are psychological tools or defenses that the child naturally (unconsciously) reverts to to make sense of their world. In fact, these defenses are essential in protecting (“defending”) against the loss of sanity. One cannot maintain sanity believing two opposite realities. Our brains demand stasis, logic, order. As is the case with the child mentioned above, he/she cannot live with the truth that the parent is cruel; rather, it’s less traumatic to identify with the aggressor and see the self as flawed. In my own case, though my home was, in reality, a dangerous place, I’d never have admitted it was anything but idyllic. That’s the power of psychological defenses. Profound in their facility to rewrite history, they assist the child/adult in avoiding truths too painful to know/admit consciously: i.e. the awareness that one’s family is troubled and unsafe, that a parent is mean or evil, that they hate their cruel brother or envy their sister. Denial buries these from the conscious mind and replaces them with fictions that are easier for the child to tolerate.  Thus, I was convinced that ours was a loving mother and a loving home.

(Particularly impressive is the power of dissociation in children/adults who have been sexually abused. The knowledge that his/her parent has violated the child in such a heinous way is close to impossible to assimilate. Add to that the fact that in most cases the parent continues to be a presence in the child’s life (often displaying otherwise parent-appropriate behavior and affection)—perhaps sitting across the table for breakfast or dinner. How does that child not explode or disappear into insanity? He/she splits off separating the intact self from the one violated).

And it’s not just children who employ defenses. We all do. Certainly my father was insulated by denial in continuing his delusion that Mom was a loving mother who harbored no ill will against her children. My mother’s defenses remained intact as well (I will explore her psychological development in a further chapter); with reaction formation she was able to convince herself that she was who she wanted to be. She needed to see herself as a good mother who gave all for her children and found her happiness in mothering. And so she did. She died believing that.

It’s important to note, however, that though these truths disappear from the conscious mind, they are not erased completely; they still exist in the unconscious mind [psychology teaches that we have a conscious, a preconscious and an unconscious mind] and can wreak their own havoc on the psychological development of the child continuing their erosion into adulthood until such time that they become conscious and are worked through—most likely in psychotherapy. (That process is complicated and involves teasing out the source of the person’s misperceptions and confronting them; the patient/client and the therapist become partners in a kind of research project aimed at discovering who this person is and where he/she came from—making conscious the unconscious. That’s the goal of therapy. The decision to enter therapy usually stems from the individual’s dissatisfaction with his/her ability to achieve happiness—be it in relationships, professional life or overall peace with one’s life and self).

Finally, though defenses develop unconsciously out of a need to make sense of a dissonant reality, and are therefore essentially good, they often become problematic (outdated, if you will) when they continue to protect us in environments that are actually safe, in other relationships that may well be loving. When the young man or woman continues to see all potential partners as replacements of the parents—forbidding, demanding acquiescence, hypercritical—and to respond as such, intimacy and trust with another becomes virtually impossible.  Our defensive response is no longer appropriate. We expect the world to treat/view us as our parents did. But the world isn’t our parents. Some may be like them, but not all. It becomes our challenge and that of therapy to recognize the difference.


The following is a list of commonly used defense mechanisms many of which will be discussed further in subsequent sections of The Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust series:

Repression: “Keeping distressing thoughts and feelings buried in the unconscious”

Denial: “Refusing to accept reality or fact, acting as if it isn’t so/didn’t happen”

Rationalization: “Creating false but plausible excuses to justify unacceptable behavior”

Identification: “Bolstering self-esteem by forming an imaginary or real alliance with           some person or group”

Displacement: “Diverting emotions (usually anger) from their original source to a               substitute target”

Projection: “Attributing one’s own thoughts, feelings, or motives to another”

Regression: “A reversion to immature patterns of behavior”

Reaction Formation: “Behaving in a way that is the exact opposite of one’s true feelings”

Sources: Weiten, Wayne. Psychology: Themes and Variations. Thomas Wadsworth

Upcoming: Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust III: The Passive Father

Psychology Today

Bryant Park Reading Room Celebrates CavanKerry Press

credit: Angelito Jusay Photography


Bryant Park Reading Room Celebrates CavanKerry Press

September 5 @ 7:00 pm – 9:00 pm
Bryant Park, United States + Google Map

The Bryant Park Reading Room hosts emerging and established poets through the summer with evening readings. Sit under the park’s London Plane trees and listen to the artists read their own work.

Tuesday, September 5, 7:00pm–8:30pm
Reading Room
Featuring the Poets:

Jeanne Marie Beaumont
Joseph Legaspi
Kevin Carey
Tina Kelley


Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust, Part I

joan-child_with_parent.jpg    The Ambivalent Mother


Note to Reader: As a licensed psychologist, I strictly adhere to the ethics of confidentiality; therefore, I do not use/make reference to any patient/client information in the pieces I write. The only data I use to explore these psychological issues is my own.  The Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will include several pieces related to the effects of early relationships on the development of trust and intimacy.

Nothing’s more important than my four kids, my mother always claimed. My life is my kids. And she believed it. As did my father. That she was the center of our family was certain, but I was never convinced we were her center–her happiness, that her love was as pure and complete as she insisted (and I suspect wanted it to be).  So much of who she was refuted that. Her dissatisfaction and self-centeredness were out there in blazing color– as were her withholding and anger; her face covered with cold cream each time we tried to kiss her, stands out as a beacon of her ambivalence–or the sweaters she knit in the wrong size or color. She’d make a point of asking what we’d like then just disregard it. If I asked for big, I got small; if I wanted white, I got red–discarding what I had to say, on the one hand, turning herself inside out to listen on the other; angry one day, happy the next; this morning, a cutting remark, this afternoon, singing our praise. We learned early on that we had no control over her moods or our own rewards or punishment. She was entirely unpredictable.

As I got older, she’d tell me she hated her living room and wanted to rearrange it and needed my help, so I’d spend the day with her redesigning until she swore she loved it. We’d sit back and admire what we’d done, she vociferous in her praise of my ideas and helpfulness, I satisfied, delighted really, to have been able to do something for her that pleased her. But the next day when I returned from school, she’d have moved everything back to its own corner–each piece in its original place hugging this or that wall as if the preceding day had been a mirage or dream. When I’d ask what prompted her to change everything back, she’d say that the changes just didn’t work– you couldn’t do anything with that room (other than what she’d already done!).

And the important part of it all was her insistence, first, when we originally talked, that she really did want help this time, and this wouldn’t be another case of us spinning our decorating wheels only to have her revert to the same bland construction, and later, subsequent to our completing the job, that she loved the new arrangement– no, this time she really did–she wouldn’t change it back for all the world. I finally refused to help; she finally stopped asking. The living room stands monumental all these years–each piece in its respective home along the periphery of the room, an additional table or chair made room for by shifting each piece ever so slightly left or right of its original home.

So living with Mom meant lots of seduction followed by let down, never really knowing how important or unimportant you were. For example, while the above was going on, she was also schlepping to Macy’s or Bloomingdales to buy me whatever dress or outfit I’d dreamed of, and what I’d conceived of but no other designer had, she bought elegant fabrics to make herself. And make my clothes, she did, constantly modifying patterns to satisfy me. For my college Christmas Dance, she moved the sewing machine into the living room and was sewing until my date arrived. I’d decided that I wanted a shawl to top off the black velvet and white peau de soie strapless. Undaunted, she measured out the leftover fabric; she was used to my additions, so she always bought extra. I don’t remember a time that she made a dress or outfit for me that I didn’t redesign. And she always did so good-naturedly and without pause.

The same was true with food; she baked the favorite cakes and meals of each of us– special creamed fish for Catherine on Friday nights when the rest of us ate broiled or fried, pancakes or banana eggnogs for Sonny’s breakfast while the rest of us ate eggs or Wheatena, meatloaf with mashed potatoes for Jerry, and warm chocolate chip cakes for me when I came from school. From time to time, when I was in college and left at irregular hours, we took turns making each other breakfast. I loved those mornings. She seemed to as well. That way we can both feel like queens, she’d say. Yet on any alternate day, we’d be greeted by her darker sister who’d serve us cereal with sour milk. We complained, of course (though not too fiercely for fear of inciting her), but she insisted it was fine and made us eat it (me and Jerry, that is; the older two just waited for her to leave the kitchen then dumped it down behind the frig. Jerry and I just sat gagging or holding our breath while we swallowed the putrid mess. It felt like hours).

Then there were the silences: for me, the most lethal. My mother used silence as speech; she said great mouthfuls with it. Silence contained her biggest feelings, anger mostly, and disappointment. She’d simply refuse to speak. No matter what we did to try to cajole her into explaining what our crime had been–and it was that mysterious–she’d become frozen and stiff seemingly without provocation and no manner of plea or apology would bring her back. Days would pass with one or all of us totally alone.  Like balloons let go on a day of little wind, we’d float through the house disconnected, directionless–each avoiding the bad one for fear of similar treatment–until Mom decided she was no longer angry or that he/she had been punished sufficiently and were appropriately contrite. This usually took several hours, often days. In my case, that usually meant she called me over to her and Give me a kiss, she’d command. Right here, pointing to her cheek.


Regrettably, there are few resolutions for the child raised by the ambivalent mother. He/she has no choice but to obey; the consequence of refusal brings too great a terror of retaliation. Robbed of a positive sense of self and the belief that he/she has any control over his/her life– love, rewards, or punishment –this child is emotionally underdeveloped and often damaged. Reality is distorted and fickle—changing from one day to the next depending on the whim of the mother. The mood in the home is stifling, threatening. In the best of circumstances, the child has another parent or loved one (aunt, uncle, grandparent) he/she can turn to for help or if he/she is too inhibited to speak, one who recognizes the vise the child is caught in and can step in to offer reassurance. More than anything the child needs protection; hand in hand with protection goes the need for consistent reality testing: affirmation that the mother’s behavior is abusive and that the child doesn’t deserve this—no child does. Ideally, he/she (and the parents!) is taken to psychotherapy to decipher the faulty, conflicting messages and introduce an alternate way of viewing him/herself and the world. That is often not possible. In cases such as mine, my father was no match for my mother. Talking to him would’ve reaped no rewards other than his insistence that he loved us and was sure Mom did too. There were no grandparents or close relatives. Nuns didn’t encourage us to speak about what troubled us. The answer probably would have been to pray (as would’ve been my father’s) or to take my mother’s part. People didn’t speak much in the 50s, least of all children. And we had no rights. The old adage, children should be seen but not heard, is an apt description.

Fortunately, the climate today is very different. Exposure to the media shows a child that help is available, that it’s possible for a parent to be wrong, mean, even cruel. Speech is encouraged in school, even in church and synagogue.  For me, freedom began with my involvement (albeit very gradual) with the outside world –which coincided with my entry into high school. There I started to separate myself from my mother, confiding less, depending less, asking for less. I also met new friends and compassionate nuns who offered a new lens through which to view myself. As I continued to grow into adulthood, I entered therapy and began to recognize the immense power my mother had over me –the first step toward repairing the damage. And yes, repair is possible. It takes hard work but it can be done.

This Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust Series will continue to chronicle that growth including my relationships with my father, siblings, friends, men, two marriages (one failed, one tested but ultimately successful), and motherhood to a place where most days I can actually say that I forgive my mother. She too was a victim. So many of us were/are.


An Evening With CavanKerry Poets



CavanKerry, a not-for-profit literary press, aims to expand the reach of poetry to a general readership by publishing works that explore the emotional and psychological landscapes of everyday life. Come enjoy recent work by publisher and poet Joan Cusack Handler, “…whose verse memoir, Orphans…tackles the big subjects – family history, aging parents, Irish Catholicism, belief and unbelief, and her own impending mortality – with a fierce, wrenching fearlessness” (poet Elizabeth Spires). She is joined by poet Tina Kelley, reading from Abloom & Awry (2017), which poet Pattiann Rogers says “presents the unrestrained curiosity and imagination of childhood in exquisite language without exaggeration or sentimentality. ” Also reading is Danny Shot whose book, Works, is due out in 2018, and whose poetry has appeared in Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe and The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. “Danny’s work highlights the joys of human life, while also tearing away sheets of denial to confront modern political and social hypocrisy…” (poet Eliot Katz).

Tuesday, June 6 ~ 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM   Cost: $10

The Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street, New York, NY  10014


Reading & Discussion with Joan Cusack Handler

Please join me for a Reading & Discussion of my latest book, Orphans

Wednesday, April 5

7:00 PM

Women of Irish Heritage Meeting

The Shillelagh Club

648 Prospect Avenue (Upstairs)

West Orange, NJ

GoodReads Review of Orphans by Molly Peacock

Molly rated 5 Stars – It was amazing
Joan Cusack Handler’s parents are so vivid in this memoir that they fly off the page. How often in a daughter’s memoir—here a memoir of her Irish Catholic parents, new to New York and bringing up a family in the 1950’s—can you actually feel the voices of the family? Orphans is not just in Handler’s voice, but in the voices of her parents, carefully recorded and presented with blasts of personality, joie de vivre, sadness, shame, religious fervor, cruelty, anger, thrill and celebration. What’s so magnificent about Orphans is that Handler fearlessly uses the whole palette of human emotions. Her gentle father with his commitment to God and her ferocious mother with the threats of the backside of her hand both bloom in this book. With guilt and backward glances, with acceptance and adult fulfillment, Handler, also author of Confessions of Joan the Tall, makes us know that voice is life itself. She gives us a tapestry of retrospection, and, as a side benefit to the stories of a man and a woman and their four children, a path for how to live. (less)

East Hampton Local Publishes Heartfelt Verse Memoir

Joan Cusack Handler posing with her poetry book
Sep 5, 2016 11:45 AM


No one is taught how to cope with the death of a loved one, arguably the most emotionally painful experience in one’s life. After Joan Cusack Handler’s parents died, she decided to explore the aftermath in her latest book, “Orphans,” and reflect on her family life.

Ms. Handler, a 75-year-old poet and psychologist, published the book in March after collecting 10 years worth of her poems that she never thought would form a cohesive body of work. This honest and intimate verse memoir delves into the vulnerability that comes with losing both parents and essentially feeling like an orphan. Although all of the stories are personal accounts, they discuss universal topics that virtually everyone with family members experiences.

Ms. Handler provides a glimpse into a household of strained relationships and religious conservatism from three different points of view.

She recorded her parents’ words when they were ill and turned them into poems. Eleven poems, titled either “My Mother Speaks” or “My Father Speaks,” are stories about their own upbringings that provide insight into the way they later raised their four children. Ms. Handler recorded their voices to hold on to a part of them after they died, unaware that these words would end up in a poetry book.

“I kept their diction and expressions and preserved as much of their actual words as I could, and then went in and shaped it into poems,” Ms. Handler explained. “As much as possible, I tried to avoid tinkering with what they were saying. It was an amazing experience, because I had no idea that I could do that and that their voices would cooperate.”

In the only poem titled “My Father Speaks,” her father, Eugene Cusack, talks about his wife, Mary O’Connor Cusack, who died in 1998: “I miss Mom these ten years. / But you get used to it — / the quiet. / And there’s plenty to do. I’m always busy. / Sometimes I’ll even hear myself talking / like she was still here in the room with me. / Mom was a great talker.”

Ms. Handler admitted in an interview to having had complicated yet strong relationships with her Irish immigrant parents. She struggled to understand her mother’s behavior toward her and her siblings, but she always knew it stemmed from her grandmother’s death when her mother was only 6. The loss and its impact are described in the first poem of the book:

“My mother never really got over that. So she was really very possessive of her children, very needy—she was wonderful and she was horrible.”

Ms. Handler and her father always had a loving and respectful relationship that lasted until he died seven years ago at age 99. Although she considered them very close, his conservative outlook—he was a devout Catholic—was consistently a bone of contention. Her different religious and political stances caused frequent fights between the two of them.

“There were lots of things we couldn’t talk about,” she said. “I grew up with awareness that there was a whole litany of feelings that I was never supposed to have and that I denied to myself and to everyone around me.”

Although she considers her first family “very broken,” she is grateful for the family she now has. She and her husband of 36 years, Alan Handler, split their time between New Jersey and East Hampton while raising their son, David.

She said East Hampton holds a special place in her heart: “In many ways, this is really our home. It’s where our heart is. My husband was in the process of building this house when I met him. It’s our oasis. We were married in this house.”

Joan Cusack Handler will have a book signing for “Orphans” at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor on Saturday, October 22, when visitors can meet her and discuss her poems.

Publisher Profile / CavanKerry Press

A review by ForeWord Reviews


Reviewed by Matt Sutherland

From the founder of CavanKerry Press, this delightful memoir in verse bears witness to a complicated family history of Ireland’s Troubles, devout Catholicism, fierce maternal strength, aging, death, bitterness, and love. That Joan Cusack Handler’s poetry is flawless serves to draw the emotional tension of her carefully measured remembrances even tauter. She is the author of two other collections of poetry, another memoir, and the recipient of five Pushcart nominations.


Partners in this loss, Dad attends
mornings, I afternoons, but Catherine
gives all: two weeks’ vacation sleeping on the stiff recliner
for the words that will
finally tell her that,
yes, her mother loves her.
My sister suffers a deeper grief;
this is the second time she’s lost our mother —
convinced from childhood that she was adopted, no
other reason for Mom’s refusal. But I pose
another: Catherine’s Dad’s favorite.
For our mother, our father loving his daughter meant he loved
his wife less.

Disclosure: This article is not an endorsement, but a review. The author provided free copies of his/her book to have his/her book reviewed by a professional reviewer. No fee was paid by the author for this review. Foreword Reviews only recommends books that we love and make no guarantee that the author will receive a positive review. Foreword Magazine, Inc. is disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.


Gray Jacobik reviews Orphans

Top Customer Reviews

I’ve read and re-read “Orphans” and much of it keeps coming back to me whenever I’m walking or driving or have an idle moment (waiting in a security line at the airport, for example). While composed in different voices, each taking his or her turn, there’s nonetheless a tapestry quality because the poet’s interweaves the speakers’ stories as well as as moves back in forth from the historic-present (the voice of the lyric-I who seems to be writing this while sitting on a beach somewhere) to the distant past, to the near past, to the middling past, and so on. The family history of each generation implicates and shapes the fundamental qualities of the next, especially of the poet’s mother and father. I feel as though I’ve come to know this family, to absorb the gist of it as a family, in a wholistic way, as a gestalt; even though, I know that logically that’s impossible. To me, this sense speaks to the skill of this style of integral storytelling. To name a theme, I’d say “we are our stories and that’s both a blessing and a curse to be damaged by, cherished, and transcended.” I marvel at how the poet conveys, not directly, but as a subtext, how difficult it is to be born into any particular family constellation and thrive, to know and feel all a sensitive person, child and then adult, comes to know and must endure, must come to terms with. In that sense, Orphans strikes me as an heroic tale. I feel elevated in the way that poetry enriches my sensibility (language and perceptions heightened), and in the way memoir enriches my connection to the flow of human history: Orphans is a successful and engaging integration of both genres. It’s gotten under my skin.

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