My mother has written the story of her life, which all but denies my existence. What to do? | Leading questions

You can’t force other people to acknowledge you, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Don’t ransom your wellbeing for that possibility

My mother has written the story of her life, which all but denies my very existence while providing rich detail as to the lives and accomplishments of my siblings. Since I was barely a toddler she never kept her antipathy for me any secret – an antipathy I’ve long felt she must have conceived out of a sense of guilt for not protecting me from the horrible physical and mental abuse I suffered at the hands of my sadistic oldest brother from the age of three onwards.

The lies mother has now left for posterity with her book feel like assault. I don’t care to engage and invite further bitter attack, but letting her go to her reward thinking she’s had the last word rankles somewhat. What to do?

Eleanor says: There is so much here that I don’t know. I don’t know whether you’ve confronted your brother or whether you’d like to. I don’t know whether your mother’s book will be published. I don’t know if she expects you to say rapturous things about it; if she has any sense that she did wrong; if the rest of the family knows; or which options you’re choosing between.

What I do know is that you’ve been wronged. I want to talk to you at that level of generality – as someone who is owed acknowledgment – and leave you to shade in the specifics.

Your mother has not paid you the kind of regard she should have. She hasn’t heeded your suffering, your existence, or the fact that both should have been enough to make her and your brother behave differently years ago.

This failure to acknowledge another person is the molten core of all kinds of wrongs, from betrayal to assault. The bare fact that we exist should have been enough to stop the other person doing what they did, but it didn’t, and in that way their action expressed a profound indifference towards us.

This thought can turn us into bounty hunters for the acknowledgment we were denied. Some of us yell, some of us write screeds. These are ways of brute-forcing ourselves into the wrongdoer’s mental space so they are compelled, at last, to think about us. Because as you say – nothing rankles quite like the thought of them blithely taking the last word to the grave.

The problem is you can’t actually force acknowledgment from people, especially not the kind you deserve. And even if you got it, it might not help. Sometimes apologies land with a thud for the same reason we wanted them: the person is kind of a jackass. When they admit that, it may not change much – you still think you’re right, only now, a jackass agrees with you.

That’s not to say you’ll never get an apology from your mother or that it wouldn’t be healing if you did. It’s to validate your reticence about engaging: you can’t ransom your wellbeing to the possibility that a person will finally change.

So what are we supposed to do with the bounty-hunting feeling? I think we have to pursue acknowledgment elsewhere. If you don’t already have professional help for the trauma your brother meted out to you, it could help with this, too – a good therapeutic relationship will show you what it feels like to be real to another person. It’s important to experience that in a relational space, as well as just to believe it on your own.

And write your own record, if you want – don’t pour so much into it that it starts to hurt or consume you, but write down what you know to be true. Read it as you would read a news story. With everything externalised like that, in lines you know you didn’t lie about, you might find that your acknowledgment of your suffering and existence can make you feel significant and respected in a way your mother didn’t. You might find in yourself the acknowledgment that other people have denied you.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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