Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust VI

Roadblocks VI

The Break:     Independence Finally


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.


One would hope that in a dysfunctional family, the siblings might band together thereby gaining support from each other; perhaps even offer a more positive mirror through which to view themselves, but this didn’t happen for the most part in my family. My older siblings were convinced that I was Mom’s favorite—she beat me less than she did them. Further intensifying their rage, Mom corralled me into following them home from school and reporting if they’d been smoking. Though I begged her not make me do it, I had no choice. She counted on me; it was for their own good, it was a sin not to obey—all her rationales. I couldn’t refuse. You didn’t say no to Mom. So I did her bidding and was ostracized; my sister had nothing to do with me until well into adulthood, and my older brother terrorized me for the rest of our days. How were they not to hate me? And while Mom was quick to enlist me as her spy, she’d turn to them, often in front of me and ask, Why do you hate your sister? Your sister is your best friend. (!!). My only friend was my younger brother, who was equally lonely and tortured by the older two. Mom needed to pit us against each other. That way she’d insure her position with each of us; we’d never prefer each other over her. The only way to accomplish that, besides bad-mouthing us to each other, was to make sure all the arrows (love, attention, affection) pointed towards her. Rather than encouraging friendship between us, she undermined it. We were competitors—enemies even. And so she divided and conquered.

To complicate things for me, though I had a few girlfriends, I was socially unpopular. As I explore in Confessions of Joan the Tall (a memoir written in the voice of my 12 year old self), I was very tall (over 5’11 inches) by the time I reached high school, so from a very early age, I was teased unmercifully by the boys in the neighborhood as well as my older brother S and his friends. Clearly, I didn’t have a safe place outside of home either until I found temporary respite in my all girls high school. It was heaven. I’d found peace. My alienation continued through college, but turned around completely once I started to meet men outside of my immediate community. I enjoyed great popularity with men and the leap in confidence that went with that success, though I was still very innocent and uneducated about how to choose the right ones. My first husband, for one. He fooled around pretty much from the beginning of our marriage. But I pretended not to know. No, I didn’t pretend—that sounds far too conscious; I didn’t know because I was deft at not looking beneath the surface of any supposed ‘truth’ I was presented. What he told me, I believed. Everything that conflicted with that, I repressed.

We were married for 6 years during which time, he got fired from or quit several jobs and often stayed out all weekend. Convinced that any minute he’d walk in the door, I wouldn’t leave the house. I tried to keep the truth from family and friends. I was so ashamed that I had a husband who didn’t want to come home, so I spent a great deal of time alone. I responded to him the way I did all my young life to my mother and S—namely that I could not get angry – no matter what he did. I just begged him to come home. When he decided to do so, he’d simply make a few jokes and make me laugh and that would be that. I’d happily make him some bacon and eggs. I was so relieved that he had finally come back home, that he did love me, that he wasn’t really rejecting me, that I accepted anything he did. Just don’t be mad at me. Just don’t leave me.

As in most cases of abuse however, the hurt lived side by side with affection. At the same time that he was abandoning me for days on end, he was also professing his love, often and vociferously and showering me with praise. He was noticeably very proud of me and told me how beautiful I was. He liked to show me off to friends and colleagues and bragged about what a great cook I was, how smart. To one as needy as I, his admiration was seductive and necessary. I was also used to such mixed messages and ambivalence. Having lived all my life with a mother and older brother who told me – in word or deed – that I was loved and not loved often at the same time, the territory was familiar, so I focused on trying to deserve their love. When love was uncertain and fickle, I didn’t become angry and blame them for not loving me, I blamed myself for not being worthy of their love and tried even harder to please.

Despite all my pleas, eventually he did leave me. For the sister of a friend who was pregnant with his baby. One Sunday afternoon when he arrived home after being gone for two days, he tearfully confided that he needed me to go to Juarez, Mexico and get an immediate divorce, so that he could marry her and avoid her getting in trouble with her father. Outrageous as his request was, my response was even more so. I begged him to stay with me and let us adopt the child. He refused. I came to my senses and refused to go to Mexico. I would not get a divorce; I didn’t believe in it, and I didn’t want it. He left and we were unofficially separated. I was devastated. I wanted him more than I’d ever wanted anything (except Mom?). Under any circumstances. For many months I held out the hope that he would change his mind and come back to me. I’d have gratefully, happily welcomed him. I waited and waited. We were not divorced for another three years (initiated by me). I later found out that he married his girlfriend right after we separated without having been divorced from me. It frightened me to think of how available I had been for shabby treatment, how willing I was to accept any abuse in the name of love.

Popular as I had become before my marriage, I remained very underdeveloped as a person. I was easily impressed – swayed and dazzled by the charisma of this man and his utter confidence. He traveled through life so easily, presented himself for respect and inclusion everywhere. He was the exact opposite of me. While I continued to live in the world with a sense that I was unworthy and a disappointment to all who knew me—I wasn’t the friend, sister or daughter that the people I loved deserved, he took what was his own painful early life and lack of education and turned that into an almost Machiavellian manipulation of the world. He was outrageous yet very smooth – well liked and charming and made friends wherever he went. And everyone helped him—my best friend’s father got him a job selling insurance which he subsequently quit; my younger brother J helped him get into St. John’s though we later found out that he had never finished high school. When school became too cumbersome for him, he quit and started wearing my St. John’s college ring as proof that he had already graduated.

Like many abused women, I held out the hope that my love and belief in him would turn him around. It was always clear to me that he was chasing something or running from it; I later decided that he was living out his mother’s prophesy—that he was just like his drunken father who died alone in a rooming house many years after last seeing anyone in the family. But he would show her—there was always a swagger to his actions and a sneer under his breath. I also suspect he hated everyone he fooled. The very mention of his name in my mouth is foreign and anathema. I find it so difficult to relate to the person who married him. Her naiveté’. Her ability to be fooled. Her neediness, most of all. For so many years, I was ashamed of her. Now, I’m simply deeply saddened (it strikes me that I’ve used that word several times throughout this series about my crippled family). Her willingness to accept whatever came to her as long as she was loved. And if not truly loved, then lied to.

As I look back, I’m convinced that my commitment to marrying him was at least partially fueled by my mother’s complete disapproval of him. Marrying MK was my first emphatic “No!” to my mother. It was my Harley. Prior to that, she had successfully vetoed several decisions I’d made; at one point, I wanted to move from teaching to social work, but she insisted that if I did, she’d have a nervous breakdown or a heart attack. She was adamant and I, not surprisingly, relented. Always doubting myself, I wondered….maybe I wasn’t being fair to her by choosing a profession in which I might have to go into impoverished, crime ridden areas and risk my safety. Maybe making choices that could bring me harm wasn’t fair to my loved ones. How could I choose a direction that would cause her worry? How could I be so selfish? (How could I act as if my life was my own? Interestingly, my only concern about making a potentially dangerous decision was that it might upset Mom; it never involved concern about protecting myself). But when it came to deciding who I’d marry, I knew it was my choice and not hers. And she vehemently disapproved; she didn’t like or trust him—in hindsight justifiably so, but she didn’t give reasons that I could hear other than that he wasn’t an American citizen (ironically, he too was born in Ireland) and not educated and was only equipped for manual labor and bartending. I didn’t care about those things—I would have preferred that he be educated, but the lack of it wouldn’t deter me. I think that too added to his lure and attractiveness. He was rough like S and his friends. My mother thought that I was worth more than that—a bluecollar profile was beneath me. I completely disagreed with her reasons for rejecting him and thought that snobbery and bigotry were immoral reasons for judging anyone. Like her, I was immovable. All I knew was the way that he made me feel. It was like catching the prince. He was rugged and handsome, smart and funny, and all the girls thought he was gorgeous and were excited by his ‘bad boy’ mystique as was I. Despite all the dates that I had had, he was my first real boyfriend; no one made me feel as special, beautiful and loved as he did. Devilishly handsome, exciting and a bit dangerous, he was delicious to one as repressed as I.

It was out and out war between me and Mom. I even left home to escape her tirades and to teach her that sooner or later she’d have to give in.

He was also my ticket to the world. No one left home until they married at that time. Though I had a car—it was the first thing I bought when I started to work—I wanted to leave Edgewater permanently. I wanted to travel. He had been in the service and had been to Germany and Europe and bragged about being the only enlisted guy on base to have his own car—a Porsche. None of the guys in Edgewater drove a Porsche (I always loved cars – particularly sports cars – and could identify every one—model and year), and yet when I met him, he was driving a VW bug—a red convertible. That also intrigued and impressed me. I’d never met a guy who had the guts to drive a VW Bug. No Edgewater guy would be caught dead in such a sissy car. But he did anything he wanted to, and no one dared laugh at him. I admired his confidence above all and what appeared to be his complete lack of concern for what other people thought. Paralyzed as I often was by my concern that I’d do the wrong thing or hurt someone’s feelings, I was amazed that someone could be so free.

And he was the exact opposite of the kind of man Mom always said I’d marry. She used to laugh about how I’d marry a very rich man who would be completely henpecked by me. I’d be draped in furs and carrying a little poodle, and he’d be running along behind me – a very short frightened man. I hated it and her when she said that. I never wanted to be that kind of wife; I never saw myself as a forbidding self-centered person who would gravitate toward a weak man. That was entirely unattractive to me. And I was hurt that she had such a picture of me. Admittedly, I had a strong sense of my own opinions and I voiced them freely at home—we were allowed to be vocal about anything that did not have to do with religion or breaking a commandment, and of course feelings were never fodder for the Cusacks. But there was nothing beyond that that would suggest I’d want a one-sided relationship in which I controlled a very controllable man. This was her projecting her feelings on me, I think. In fact, in many ways, that’s who she was with Dad. With all of us actually. What she wanted she got—and that was a level of attention that shut everyone else out. So she designed a marriage for me in which I had all she wanted me to have along with a totally ineffectual husband—one who would clearly never be any competition or threat to her.    

And Mom competed with me too. She taught me to love beautiful things—particularly clothes – and love them I did. But when she saw that, she seemed to enjoy baiting me and slapping my face with it. Defining it as shallow and manipulative. Of course, I ended up feeling guilty and wondering if she was right that I was superficial and shallow. And would I end up marrying a man I could henpeck?

In retrospect, I believe my mother’s hostility stemmed from her envy of me. She taught me to love what she loved; she wanted me to dress like a model and carry myself in the world like one. She wanted me to have an education and a career. Above all she wanted me to be independent and strong and able to care for myself—in case my husband left or died. She always seemed intent on preparing me for this. “Keep something in your own name,” she always told me. I felt as if she was sculpting me to do exactly what she’d have done (or actually did do) with her life. But when I started to have those things – the clothes, the career, the education, the confidence in myself as an attractive woman – though the conscious part of her was thrilled, unconsciously I believe she resented it. So she created an image of me for the whole family that made a caricature of my interest in lovely clothes and my strong personality. And everyone laughed at the picture that she created. When Mom was cutting and sarcastic, you didn’t fight her, you joined in.

In any case, my need to defeat Mom, to escape confinement in Edgewater and to win the love of the almost mythic teenage guy sailed me unprotected into MK ’s arms.

And eventually into a major break with the Church. Despite the fact that MK left me and ‘married’ another woman, this man was my husband for life. I was barely 30 years old when we divorced and according to the Church I could not date or certainly marry again if I wanted to stay a member in good standing of the Catholic Church. Should I choose otherwise, I’d be expelled from the Church, refused the sacraments and risked hell in the afterlife. This made no sense to me. It wasn’t loving. This wasn’t the Jesus I knew. The Christ that I was brought up on would not want me to be unhappy. He’d have known how hard I tried to save that marriage and how innocent I was in this relationship. But it was the teaching I knew. The same narrow view of what is right and wrong and the same rigidity. Though I was encouraged to seek an annulment, I knew that we did not qualify for one. There had been no deception and our vows were made openly and freely. Eventually, I left the Church completely. Having defied Mom, the ultimate power, standing up to the Church seemed almost natural.

Finally and perhaps most critical, along with the end of my marriage and commitment to the Church, I started psychotherapy – my strongest commitment that I had responsibility for myself, and to the extent that I could control it, I’d never let anyone hurt me again. And that included family as well as friends and men that I would date. In order to do that I would learn what was at the center of my desperate search for love and approval and my profound dislike of myself. I also promised myself I’d never do anything or expose myself to anyone who would make me feel bad about myself when I looked in the mirror. I was profoundly moved over how damaged I was, how available I had been for abuse and how little responsibility I took for my own care. True, there’s no insurance policy that assures us safety in life but to the extent that I could learn what danger was (person or circumstance), I would train myself to set off red lights in my head when I was exposed to it. I was deeply committed to getting well.

Not surprisingly, beyond my failed marriage, therapy led back to Mom. To Sonny. And The Church. There was much work to be done.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy and Trust V



Siblings:  Adoration and Abuse

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.


My older brother S was the first of us to leave home. Not in body (none of us did that until we married) but he bought a motorcycle—a Harley Davidson. He was eighteen. When Dad and Mom refused to give their permission, he got our older sister to sign for it. He needed someone over twenty-one to sign the papers and though Mom and Dad were furious at C for doing it, they knew she could do what she wanted, and they couldn’t stop her. So S got his bike. That was the first thing C did to openly defy Mom and Dad. Before that she’d gotten caught smoking in her high school bathroom and hung out with some kids Mom didn’t approve of, but generally speaking, she kept a low profile. But when she signed for the bike, she openly lined up beside S against Mom and Dad. The alliance that was created in childhood with C and S sneaking cigarettes and sharing secrets were solidified pretty much for life with that move. S trusted C like he trusted no other person in the family.

So S got his Harley. That was a turning point for our family. S was making his statement—in a very loud and public way completely violating what Mom and Dad wanted and getting C to help him. The huge noise of the bike shook the house and our small untouched town and lots of unsavory looking bikers with long DA (duck’s ass) hair appeared at our house. No one had a motorcycle in our town. Guys there got boats when they were 18—some even cars, but none motorcycles. Only the Hell’s Angels had Harleys. And more than Mom, it drove Dad crazy. (But for the young girl in me, it was very exciting having an older brother with a Harley—black and gleaming silver – that made a huge commotion when he got home or started her up. And surprisingly, his rocky friends were always nice to me – dark mysterious guys in black leather jackets and heavy unwashed jeans who spoke in monosyllables and had black frames around their fingernails. They scared and intrigued me).

S had always been rebellious. He did poorly in school, refused to go to college and barely finished high school (a major slap to my mother who’d been so committed to saving money to put each of us through college that she actually took a job – full time! Like most immigrants nothing was more important to her than us completing college and having professions). S’s only interest was drawing, so Mom and Dad enrolled him in a local art school where he excelled. But that didn’t offer opportunities for employment. There was no option for him but to try for the plumbers union with Dad. Proud of how naturally Sonny took to the work, Dad got him a job in his shop, and S became Dad’s helper. It was clear to all of us, how proud they were to be working together. But Dad’s pride, as always, was tainted by his fury at S’s rough and hard look—his long uncut hair reminiscent of James Dean and Marlon Brando infuriated Dad; then the motorcycle pretty much completed the picture of the son disappointing and embarrassing the father. Once he got the bike, S stopped riding to work with Dad and took the bike instead. Everyone on the job talked about it. Dad hated it, but as was his way, said nothing and smoldered instead. The bike announced to the world that S wasn’t and didn’t want to be like anyone else. Even Dad. (Especially Dad?) No one would stop him. And no one ever did. Not Dad. Not Mom. Not even his wife and children. S has done exactly what he wanted for his entire life. And sadly, rather than that continuing to be a statement of independence and confidence, it’s often been fueled by rage.

Shortly after buying the bike, S rode it to New Orleans with his biker friends, and coming home, was involved in a major accident that nearly killed him. (A woman going the wrong way somewhere in Virginia, suddenly – without signaling – crossed the road in front of him. He flew 75 feet over the hood of the car into a ravine on the side of the road). When doctors removed his clothes, they found his rosary beads had left a permanent imprint in the leather of his jacket pocket. Mom and Dad were very proud and assumed that that was why he was alive. That was also the reason, they believed, that he incurred no head injuries. (According to the doctors, it was miraculous that his skull was not also fractured given that he wore no helmet. They weren’t required in the early sixties and neither S nor any of his friends would be caught dead wearing one). He was rushed to South Boston Hospital in Virginia where he was confined for 6 months, then to NYC’s Joint Diseases Hospital for another 3 before they sent him home in a full body cast to be taken care of by Mom for the next year.

(Sad to say, we never spoke about how any of the three of them—S, Mom or Dad or for that matter me and my other two siblings—felt about the crash that shattered their/our lives. Worse than not talking about it, I believe we were all so emotionally defended that we didn’t fully feel it—not deeply, not in a connected, loving way. To start with, we’d always lived our lives alone putting one foot in front of the other in life and in trauma, feelings buried, our own and each other’s. If we were in pain, we lived with it. But despite our silence and emotional disconnection from each other (so typical of us), we rallied to tend to the business of S’s recovery—me asking a cousin to lend us the money for a new car so that our parents could visit him throughout, Mom and Dad traveling back and forth each weekend and conferring with doctors, C and I tending to our younger brother and the house in their absence. Ironically, we banded together and were finally a family).

Clearly the accident itself and all that came from it marked a major turning point in S’s life both physical and psychological, but it resulted in perhaps the greatest emotional trauma as well – not the accident or his broken body, but the year in bed at home with Mom taking care of him. He was 21 years old, and his Mom had to bring him the urinal and bedpan and give him a bath. He didn’t talk much during that time or any as a matter of fact, but knowing Mom, she must have ridden him quite a bit about the bike, not to mention his being first hand witness to her tirades over the rest of us. And he was powerless to respond. He had always used his body (as well as his mouth) to escape and express his anger (most of which amounted to teasing and tormenting me and our younger brother), and now he was completely imprisoned neck to toe in a cast. He was also used to being alone and leaving when he got mad; in fact, from the time he was a teenager, he had lived (hid out!) in the cellar most of the time. Now he lived in the dining room! The table was moved out, and a hospital bed was brought in. He was captive. He could not get away from any of us. Especially Mom. The ever-present fracture between them that began when he was a young adolescent and refused to do her bidding intensified a hundred fold when he had to lie there completely dependent on her— a frozen white mummy naked in all the places he most needed to remain private. It was the worst type of paralysis/impotence for him. He was never the same. His meanness took on a life of its own. No one escaped it. Anger had always been at the fore; now rage became the dominant emotion of his life. It was boundless and eventually bordered on psychotic.

To occupy himself and escape his prison, he decided to read the Bible – The Old and New Testaments. During that time, periodically, I’d bring him a pad and paper and try to get him to draw; he’d given it up sometime in high school and showed no interest in it despite his considerable talent. That changed when he discovered that his body would never regain the physical strength needed for plumbing work. He decided to put the accident insurance money toward a career in painting. He started at the Art Students League and when he very quickly graduated to painting murals for the League entry foyer, we ‘knew’ the reason for all of it—the accident, his survival, his mission from God. ART. He’d been chosen for genius! He decided to use what money was left to study on his own in Mexico. Revered as the most gifted painter in San Miguel de Allende, a painter’s oasis; artists and critics alike remarked on how similar his style was to that of Rembrandt. However, though he was treated like royalty and referred to as El Padron, after a few years he grew tired of working there and came back to Brooklyn and started to paint the family.

We dedicated ourselves to his work. Dad retired from plumbing, bought an electric saw and started to make all of S’s frames as well as furniture for his apartment, including beds and dressers for his daughters. And he, Mom and I all posed. Our younger brother became his business manager and represented him at the various gallery shows that resulted. His career was burgeoning and the New York art world attested to his fineness. The portraits of Dad, all entitled The Framemaker, featured Dad’s quiet stoicism and strength and focused on his hands—masterfully roped and capable. Though the motorcycle and many of his tirades seemed to suggest otherwise, S’s paintings of Dad revealed his great respect and admiration of him. The paintings of me and Mom were equally revealing. In these, his anger was unleashed. Though I was barely thirty years old and quite thin, he painted me middle aged, fleshy and puffy faced like our aunt, a nun and at least fifty years older than I. I just paint what I see, he shrugged. A passive – aggressive bullseye! I was a very tall girl in a pink dress and he was laughing again and calling me an ‘Overgrown Alice in Wonderland’.

(Of all the family, S expressed his anger with me most openly—never forgiving me for following him from school and reporting to Mom so many years before. Like C, he believed that I was Mom’s favorite. On the other hand, his resentment toward me probably started shortly after I was born—11 months after him—when he was dethroned by the new baby—an age appropriate crisis and the route of sibling rivalry. Though I have no memory of it at all [attesting to how traumatic an event it was], the rest of the family recalls him taking me into a closet and cutting my waist length hair. Anger has always been the third partner in the room where S and I have been. Painting me old and swollen was just further reflection of that).

But his portraits of me paled next to those of Mom. They were ruthless, characterizing her as a cruel woman with searing red eyes. She was menacing. Diabolical. We were all horrified at what he put on canvas, capturing her most evil self, and offering these portraits for public view at his many shows. Yet she appeared undaunted, laughed and made sarcastic comments about them but continued to pose – as if she wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he had gotten to her. But to me, and I imagine most onlookers, it was bizarre. The level of rage in him and apparent denial in her were out there for the world to see.

During that time we also supported him financially. He made it clear, and all of us agreed, that such a gifted artist as he could not waste his talent working at a regular desk job—his talent warranted him support from others just as the painters of old. We weren’t giving him anything, he rationalized (explaining away his dependency on us and negating our generosity), rather he was letting us share in his remarkable art. And remarkable it was. It moved us as the transubstantiation of the Host had and the parting of the waters. Clearly, S had been visited by God and his art was extraordinary. He was another Rembrandt, Da Vinci, perhaps Michelangelo.

Remarkably, he had replaced Mom as the center of our family. And we were ripe for it—we’d already had one person (Mom) next to whom the rest of us paled. One person who believed that she was entitled to our complete devotion. He was her reincarnation. Now we had two narcissistic personalities dictating what was expected of us. Despite that fact that there was no greater force nor personality than they/theirs, she seemed to step aside after the accident to do the holy work of tending to her son. (Years later she reclaimed her focal position, but for a good twenty years each of us dedicated our lives to his work). It had become a religion for us. Though our family hadn’t been blessed by one of us entering the priesthood or sisterhood, we had been anointed with the next best thing and equally important. And we were grateful. S’s art was our religious vocation and legacy. There was no holier work in our eyes. Nor in his.

One wonders how such obsession comes to be. Frankly, I still do. What can possibly account for the fact that my family followed S so faithfully, so exclusively for so long. Some otherworldly force held us firmly in its hand. Looking at it 40 years later, I believe that much of the obsession stems from the times—it was the 1950s and early 60s; all authority was absolute – government, clergy, police. There was no questioning, no rebellion, no expectation of a voice. We were told what the truth was, and we believed it. Education was academic and dogmatic, and thinking was not part of the process – even when my younger brother and I went to college —our schooling was parochial. Add to that the fact that we lived in a tiny untouched hamlet (in the northeast corner of the Bronx); our parents were uneducated farmers from an utterly Catholic country; and our family (under my father’s leadership) was overly involved with the Catholic Church. In school, there were no field trips to museums, no library, no classes in music (except glee club) nor art. We knew the names of artists through the church—the greats whose work we saw in our Catechism or in the art on the walls of the Church. Particularly important to all of this is that it was a strong Church teaching that great responsibility came with a gift for art or music. It was a sin to waste it. God had given it and one had to accept it. And the way to accept it was to make it the center of one’s life. There was really no choice. S had given himself over to God through his Art. And we admired and respected him for it. How could we not devote our own lives to further that mission? It was holy work. Not to have participated would have been a sin for us as well.

But that too had to end. As we grew older and more conscious of how ‘common’ great talent is—one only has to look at the museums and concert halls to know how many gifted people there are in the world, S became less exceptional, less anointed in our eyes. He also continued to rage at Mom—they were out and out warriors finally—and be abusive to the rest of us. Though he moved back in with Mom and Dad each time he returned from his latest flight from the US (he’d become very militant politically—strongly supporting the Black panther movement – and vitriolic in his attacks on us and the world), either he or she would instigate a battle and S would move out with his family. That happened several times, until such time that we all grew tired. He couldn’t tolerate the fact that we didn’t abandon his daughter after she left home—it was her or us—and we had finally grown tired of the years of abuse we’d been subject to. The ritual was always the same, he returned to his boyhood in Edgewater and the mistreatment and betrayal he’d experienced at the hands of our family—particularly from Mom and me—and rage would escalate and fly untethered at us. We became frightened. He broke off all ties and disappeared. The only contact we’ve had in the last 25 years was his appearance at our Dad’s wake, our attendance at his wife’s funeral and three separate phone calls to me inquiring about C’s health when he’d heard that she’d been sick. But for the daughter he’d forbidden us to see years before, to this day, C is the only one he has any contact with—a phone call every few months to check in. She was his only friend in the family from boyhood and so she remains. She may well be the one person he’s trusted in his lifetime—except for his devoted wife who remained committed to him through all the many moods, separations and abuses of his life. He continues to live alone.

Psychology Today

Roadblocks to Intimacy & Trust IV

Emotional Triangles









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.

The effects of having an ambivalent mother and passive father resulted in lifelong trust and intimacy problems for me and my siblings, and our mother’s demand for devotion often resulted in emotional triangles. She insinuated herself into virtually every relationship we had. The most painful of these centered on my sister—the oldest of the four of us – my sister and Dad, she and her friends and she and her husband. And our mother’s competition with all.

Sadly, C felt that Mom didn’t love her. Rather than a lack of love, I believe it was Mom’s possessiveness that fueled her rejection of C—she simply had to come first. Always quick to attack, she was envious of my sister’s close relationship with our dad, and our dad’s closeness to her. Because he had a special nickname for her and was attentive to her (and her of him), Mom often felt abandoned by both of them. Mom also deeply resented C’s friends (as she did mine). She had no friends of her own and didn’t like any of ours. She didn’t trust them. Why did we? They weren’t worthy of us. She knew what we deserved, and she never met anyone who ever came close.

As a young girl, C had an active and successful social life. In fact, of the four of us, she and Sonny had the most normal teenage years. They hung out with a crowd. They, at times, preferred friends to family, they smoked, listened to rock and roll music, they liked the opposite sex and had the usual secrets that teenagers do from their parents. But rather than viewing these as signs of a successful transition from childhood to adulthood, Mom read them as a rejection of her. When C preferred to shop for her own clothes or with friends, Mom saw that as a betrayal. Sadly for both of them, Mom took on every outside interest or friend of C’s as an opponent and as proof that C preferred them over her. That hurt both of them. I don’t think that Mom ever forgave C for not choosing her for all activities, and C never got over the fact that Mom seemed to love her less than she loved me and our brothers—especially me.

You were born with a silver spoon in your mouth, C always complained. That meant I had Mom. And in a sense she was right. I put no one before Mom when I was a kid and well into adulthood. She had more control over me and was able to mold me in ways that she couldn’t with C. I did what she wanted me to do, became who she wanted me to be. I was the abnormal one—socially uncomfortable except for my lack-luster girlfriends and terrified to do anything that would disappoint Mom or Dad or would smack of sin. C and S, my two older sibs were just average kids doing their share of breaking away but still staying close to home and family. But their very natural and age-appropriate assertions of identity and independence were violations of trust and abandonment for Mom.

Not unlike all of our siblings, C’s confidence was very low. Convinced she wasn’t smart, she didn’t want to be noticed and had a hard time expressing herself among all the big mouths at our dinner table. Unlike the rest of us, she wasn’t aggressive so she was often shouted over. Eventually, she just stopped trying to talk. Like Dad, she kept what she felt private and never developed the ability to stand up for herself. (Sadly, trust in oneself was never encouraged in our family). Her dilemma intensified when she decided not to go to college and chose instead to study business (which she excelled at), but she never got over her feelings of inferiority – especially with our younger brother, J and me. Not only were we louder and more aggressive than she was but we both went to college and that elevated us even more in Mom’s eyes and intensified as he and I went on to get advanced degrees. To this day, C believes that we’re more intelligent than she is because we’re better educated. To Mom and therefore to C, education equaled/equals intelligence.

Regrettably, friendship never came easy for C and me. Though we tried as adults, we kept missing each other—always one step ahead or behind the other. When she was ready, I wasn’t; when I was, she wasn’t. At a certain point, we lost contact completely. Her belief that I was Mom’s favorite and Mom’s seeming preference for me and the boys, carried over from childhood, made it impossible to be friends. Anger, particularly repressed, has always been a cancer in our family, so it backed up in each of us and spoiled whole casks of our lives.

Though we did eventually reconnect and started having weekly lunches, we continued to struggle. Particularly about my relationship with our younger brother, J, and his wife—a triangle which never included her.

Have you heard the latest from our wonderful family? C asks. My stomach sinks. I don’t want to have this conversation.

“What do you mean?”

Mom called and yelled at me for not calling J to remind him to pick her and Dad up at the airport Saturday. He forgets and she blames me! Typical.

“That’s Mom. She can’t get angry with J. He’ll turn her off completely. She gives you the hardest time of all of us, C.”

I know. Do you hear much from J?

“No. I keep telling you that but you don’t seem to believe me.”

Well, you’re his favorite. You must hear from him. Mom keeps telling me to call him. You too. I’m tired of calling you guys. All I hear from Mom is how great you two are. I’m the one who does everything and you two are the heroes. I guess because you’re the educated ones.

Clearly, C was resentful. How could she not be? As an adult, she was a completely devoted daughter—by the time she was in her early twenties, she was telling Mom everything, calling her every day from work and handling all of my parents’ day to day business and financial concerns. Ironically, Mom finally had what she had always craved—C’s preference for her company over any other. Mom was C’s best friend (but she was still quick to criticize her—or tear down anyone new who entered C’s life) and she was more sure of C than she was of the rest of us. At a certain point in our lives, each of us began to stand up to her, and she knew that there’d be repercussions for me and the boys if she gave us a hard time. But C, so like Dad, seldom ever spoke back to her and Mom took advantage of that.

Fiercely loyal, C did the same thing with her second husband. After her first marriage broke up, she had custody of her young son and remarried a few years later. Though I believe he loved her, her new husband was very openly critical of her, her friends and family. Particularly Mom. How like her he was, both so quick to tell C what a disappointment she was, how she chose everyone else over them. It was uncanny how they duplicated each other. I used to dread being in a room with the two of them—C’s husband and Mom competing to be right all the time. They fought over everything—each committed to being the one that C listened to—neither of them tolerating anyone else having greater influence over her than they did.

The family triangle! It seemed that our family was/is always constructing, or if not constructing, then caught in emotional triangles, and everyone I can think of was instigated by Mom and later C’s husband. But triangles can be seductive. Though very stressful, they can offer the one fought over great affirmation and for us there were great wells of longing that needed filling, and certainly two loved ones fighting for one’s attention goes a distance in filling those wells (at least temporarily). I don’t know if that was true for C. I know the battling caused her heartache. Eventually, her husband became ill with breathing and heart problems and hence needier and more resentful of C’s relationships with friends and family. No, they wouldn’t be coming for Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving…It was clear that C would never leave him—like she would never leave Mom—especially after he got sick. She finally retired and a few months later, he died following a fairly simple surgical procedure. This was one year after Mom died.

I’m convinced that C’s husband’s and Mom’s deaths were C’s liberation. With both gone, there is no one there to criticize or undermine her. No one to defend herself against or to compete for her devotion. There are no emotional triangles. While Dad was alive, she continued to handle his business needs for which he was enormously grateful. For the first time in their lives, their devotion to each other stirred only pleasure in those around them. And very importantly for both of us, she and I have again rekindled our friendship which we watch over carefully – requiring honesty and directness from ourselves and each other. Of the four siblings, ours is the only relationship to have survived our past. Having no framework from childhood for closeness to fall back on, we have to invent as we go. We still struggle; we are who we are, and we know it. We’re trying to accept it.


Unlike my relationship with C, my younger brother, J and I were close friends until well into adulthood. Joan is me in ‘drag’, he often said describing me to people who hadn’t met me. Like that between S and C, the bond that held us in childhood flourished in adulthood. The family caretakers, we took care of each other and together we took care of everyone else. And the affection was reciprocal. J always said I was his real mother; I took care of him as a child and continued to do so as he grew. I encouraged him to go to college, but like all of our siblings, he questioned his intelligence, so I countered with how smart I knew he was. Just as years later I followed him to NYU for graduate school, he followed me to St. John’s for undergraduate school and there we shared many of the same friends. We shared everything. We protected each other. We were the team that we were as kids.

Just as in childhood his friendship saved me from utter loneliness and muted (as much as was possible!) the bite of S’s rage, in adulthood, J soothed me through the pain of a failed marriage. He and his wife willingly shared their two sons with me and included me in family vacations and all holidays. He also set about convincing me to go back to school to get my doctorate; he prescribed the same program at NYU, a joint practice (he was already on his way to his Ph.D. in psychology), independence and the financial security to buy my own home. I balked, refused, and finally agreed.

Years later, we opened Westchester Psychological Services office in Hartsdale, NY. Plopped in the middle of the huge empty box that became our offices, we were new kids on the block masquerading as major leaguers. Sleek brass door signs announced us: G.P.C, Ph.D., Joan M. Cusack, Ph.D. We had no patients but our waiting room could accommodate 15.

Eventually, people were referred to us. We worked as a team as often as was feasible clinically. Two brains focused on a case was reassuring. Less lonely. Dealing with the emotional and psychological vulnerability of patients humbled us greatly. We knew well how critical each intervention was. Each word, each nonverbal cue. Neither of us was so confident that we didn’t labor long hours over cases. And long hours examining our own counter-transference (feelings triggered in the therapist during treatment that must be analyzed, so that they don’t distort his/her clinical judgment and patient analysis). Our partnership was our saving grace.

But then I met Alan, my second husband, married, had a child and left our joint practice to establish one closer to home. I was very sad, however, to leave J. Though he insisted that he fully supported the move—it was the logical thing to do, it also marked a complete change in our relationship.

“What’s going on J. I never see you anymore. You’re always busy. Can’t we at least get together for lunch?”

We see each other all the time—you guys are coming over for a barbecue on Sunday.

“But you’re very remote. It would be nice to get together – just the two of us to catch up. We haven’t spoken alone since I left the office. I miss that.”

Things are pretty much the same with me. Nothing to talk about. Give D a call; she could use a lunch out or a day of shopping. You know me, I never had much to say.

J was gone from me. But he left Mom and Dad too.

Thank God, Dad and I can always count on you and J when we need help or advice, Mom often said. And they often did. We were always the ones called on—particularly about our older siblings (and so the family triangles multiplied!). But most of these crises took place when J was a young father of two boys and his only family life was more than full—he was juggling family, school and full-time work—meanwhile, being called by Mom to help with the crisis of the day in the family. Sadly, I was less available to help and in some cases more needy of attention myself—first by my own fractured marriage and life, then my graduate studies and life as a single person and finally my second marriage and motherhood. Eventually, the signs of wear were beginning to show on J. I suspect he was feeling overloaded, tired of caregiving, and abandoned. He became very moody and receded into himself. Clearly, he wanted to be alone. He let his wife take his place in all relationships. Even with me. I missed him terribly and kept trying to reach him but he was unresponsive. I was hurt and resented being ‘turned over’ to his wife. Our friendship, almost overnight, became the familiar triangle with her replacing him and him a shadowy non-participant. Not surprisingly, like Dad. Eventually, I stopped pursuing him.

But life was more than a loss for J. As he moved further and further inside himself and away from family, he discovered sculpting. Though remarkable in his own right, he had lived most of his young life in S’s shadow. His gift for art wasn’t really taken seriously by us until well into adulthood when he began to sculpt. In reality, his talent was completely eclipsed by S. Not surprisingly, today, he sculpts as he lives: privately. He prefers not to be known. He sculpts for the pure love of the art and the act of the art, yet he proudly shows his work to family and friends. In fact, it was sculpting that started us talking again.

At a family gathering, I asked, “How’s the work going?”

Come down to the studio, he offered. I’m working on a new piece of Mom and Dad.

Then later, “Don’t they look like they’re standing on the church steps after Mass?”

“It’s uncanny. It’s them bowing toward each other—she whispering a secret, him giving his undivided attention.” I was stunned at the power of the work. His subjects appeared to move in space and speak. They were alive. He began to give pieces to me for Christmas, a birthday…

This new relief looks like you. Take it. I cast an extra.

Thus began a renewal of our friendship which took the form of a delightful monthly lunch that pleased both of us.  For awhile. Inevitably, another incident would occur that would separate us again. The last, a conflict between me, his wife and son was six years ago. Aside from a periodic phone call to ask me about our sister’s health, we haven’t spoken since the day of our father’s funeral. I don’t expect that to change; despite our close friendship for so much of our lives, J and I ‘matured’ into siblings who do not trust each other. That’s very sad. But fortunately we were there for each other when we most needed it—as children.

Our fourth sibling, S, will be explored in my next post. His is an even more complicated story but also true to our collective mistrust of family and love.

Psychology Today

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)

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