What kind of an asshole doesn’t talk to their own mother? Let me try to answer that. This past July, soon after my 31st birthday, I received a letter from the IRS. It instructed me to immediately pay back-taxes I owed on a large cash withdrawal I had made in 2011, or suffer dire, IRS-y penalties. Since I hadn’t made any large cash withdrawals in 2011—or, like, in any year, ever—I was briefly confused.
Briefly. But after a few weeks of poking around, and talking to some very startled bank employees, the picture began to come into focus: I had had a trust fund, set up in my name when I was a minor, which had at one point contained more than $30,000. I had known about it vaguely when I was a kid—it was where birthday checks and bat mitzvah bonds were ferried away to, to be held on to “for the future”–but I had never been exactly sure what the account was or where to find it. My mother had cleaned out every last cent before I ever had the chance to find out for sure.
What kind of asshole steals $30,000 out of their child’s bank account? Let me try to answer that. When I was 15 years old, on a trip to the mall, my mother got into an argument with some women at the food court and told me to go wait for her in the Contempo Casuals across the way. This, on its own, was nothing unusual. Both of my parents were prone to fights and arguments with strangers, as well as fights with each other, as well as fights with me. The fights burned brightly, but typically finished quickly with little collateral damage, and as long as I wasn’t recruited to be a part of them, I was an expert at ducking away and going off to look at some chokers until things cooled down.
But that day, my mother was gone for four hours. In those pre-cell phone days, I eventually made my way to mall security, where I called her at home. Half an hour later, she appeared to pick me up, wearing sunglasses and a scarf wrapped around her head, like Jackie O out for a trip to Orange Julius. She told me in the car that after she had sent me away, she had gone to where those women she had fought with sat down, then sprayed her pepper spray at their table—not at them, mind you, just at the table, just to scare them, no one actually got hurt—and then ran off. She yelled at me a little for leaving Contempo, but mostly she was buzzed on having pulled off another great prank, one of her trademark feats of vengeance, and forgot to get too mad at me for disobeying her. A lot of my childhood is filled with faint memories of stuff like this—eggings and car keyings and constantly having to get a new dentist because my mom picked a fight with the old one—and none of it really stands out that sharply; it was all I knew at the time, besides brief interactions with friends’ parents and stuff I saw on TV. But sitting in the passenger seat as my mom drove out of the mall parking lot, I thought to myself, for maybe the first time, “This family is kind of fucked up.”
My mother—like, perhaps, early train-wreck period Courtney Love—sounded thrilling on paper, but was exhausting to be around. As her only child and only real companion (my dad, with whom she also had a story relationship, popped in and out of the picture) I could do anything I felt like—eat chocolate cake for breakfast, stay up late enough to watch Cheers reruns every night, shoplift Wet ‘N Wild lipstick whenever I wanted–as long as I agreed to fight with her, be yelled at by her, play Nancy to her Sid, Catherine to her Heathcliff, and pledge to drown together in our mutual gloom and sorrow.
Not to say that I, an angry teenager, never yelled back or picked fights of my own, and not to say that I didn’t love her. I loved my mother because she was smart and funny even when she was scary, and because I was afraid not to.
Whenever I recounted something my mother had done that I hadn’t liked, that had made me hurt or sad or embarrassed, she would deny it, bounce it back around to me. I wasn’t the one having a bad childhood; I was the bad child, the one hurting a hard-working single mother who had given up everything for her lousy ingrate of a child. With my mother and I the only two witnesses to most of the events in my childhood—every single problem a “she said, she said” situation—I grew up never quite sure which parts of my memory were real, and which were simply, as my mother liked to call them, fantasies. My mother told me, in words and in acts, that I didn’t really exist without her, that I was a mere extension of her, and I loved her because I was afraid that she was right.
After I left for college, our interactions became shorter, sharper, meaner. My mother quit her job, got on workman’s comp, and slowly withdrew from the world. She cancelled her phone line, internet connection, cable TV and garbage pick-up, in the name of maximizing her dwindling savings. I could tell that she was spending a lot of time at the casinos upstate—sometimes she’d tell me outright, sometimes I’d just hear the jingling of slot machines in the background of the voicemails that she left me. When I confronted her about it, she told me she wouldn’t have to gamble so much if I came to visit her more often, which had the appreciable effect of making me visit less.
As my mother’s life became more isolated, I threw myself into collegiate normalcy. I wanted to have a boyfriend and throw crappy dinner parties and ruminate about going to graduate school, not spend weekends visiting her at our increasingly spooky family home, where all the clocks and blinds were broken, and drop-clothes were randomly thrown over half the furniture like a crime scene someone had forgotten to clean up. I didn’t want to spend all day watching my mom watch old DVDs with the lights off. I wanted to be regular.
My mother had always done my taxes—I had never had much of a head for math—but in the early 2000s, in my first few years out of college, I decided to take a crack at them. The only thing that I need was the information about my trust, the one that had been filled up with all that money saved for me to use when I grew up. It had finally happened–I had finally grown up, and I was ready to buy a house or start a family or whatever other adult dreams bloomed inside that bank account.
“Oh, that money’s all gone,” my mother told me, as matter-of-factly as if she was telling me she had eaten the last piece of bread. She had spent it during her long bout of unemployment, she told me, because she’d needed it. Certainly, she’d spent more than that on me growing up—and, she added, whatever amount of money my good-for-nothing father had told me the account contained, the reality was something much smaller, something not worth getting worked up about. She told me to stop being a brat.
I stopped talking to my mother for the first time soon after that. In 2011, during a brief period of reconciliation, she assured me that my whole account had only ever contained “three or four thousand dollars at the most” and that is still had two thousand dollars in it–but that I still couldn’t have access to it, because I might waste it, and she needed to save it for me, for when I wanted to buy a house. I couldn’t be trusted, she said, with such a large sum of money. We stopped speaking again soon after that, and this time, I truly believed that I’d never speak to my mother again.
Even after I pieced together what had happened with my trust over the summer of 2013, plenty of people were more than willing to be in denial on my behalf—people like the accountant that I hired to square away the financial end of things.
“She may have placed the money there when you were a minor and then forgotten about it,” he said. “That does happen.”
“No, I know what happened here,” I said.
“It happens more often than you’d think,” he said.
“No, I’m pretty sure she stole my money,” I said.
“Anyway,” he said, and never mentioned it again.
My absolute confidence that my mother had purposely stolen my identity and my money made me feel like a bit of an outsider while navigating the online financial security industry. When you look up your credit score, or practically any other kind of financial record on the internet, the security questions—what street did you grow up on, who was your childhood best friend, what was your mother’s maiden name—suggest an idyllic childhood, that no one who knew all that stuff would ever try to hurt you. There’s not much to protect you from when the call is coming from inside the house, as it were.
Even in the articles that I found online about kids who had also had their parents steal their identity, there was an unspoken but prevalent idea that calling your parents out for what they did was worse than anything they possibly could have done to you. Most of the children I read about chose to quietly pay back the debts their parents had run up in their names, never pursued any legal action, and –most of the time—claimed to have never mentioned it again.
When you say you had a shitty childhood, everyone wants proof. Well, actually, no one wants proof. Everyone wants your memories of your shitty childhood–your troubled memory of your troubled parent–to be one big misunderstanding. In the past several years, there have been at least three articles in the New York Times about the parents of estranged adult children—how confused and wounded and hopeless they are—accompanied by zero articles about, say, why someone would become estranged from their parents to begin with. The articles treat each child’s decision to cut off contact as a choice they’ve come to with zero forethought, as if they impulsively decided to never talk to their parents again after getting upset because Starbucks ran out of their favorite latte flavor or something.
The implication, of course, is that estrangement doesn’t hurt the child at all, because the child has no feelings.—after all, only someone with no feelings could cut off their parents, in the absence of beatings or incest or untreated alcoholism, or the few other problems that we all agree are “valid” reasons to not talk to your parents. To cut them off for anything less is monstrous. What kind of an asshole are you?
When I realized what had happened and what my mother had done, I felt relief. I felt shame at that feeling of relief, and pain at losing that kind of money, too, but more than anything, relief. I finally had proof. Everything that I thought had happened in my life with my mother, had actually happened. I no longer had to spend so much time wondering which memories and feelings were real, which parts of me were real. This was real. It was all real.
There’s a unique toxic mold that can only grow on the connective tissue between mothers and daughters, and it can be intoxicating to watch it bloom. I mean, that’s why we’re still watching Grey Gardens! It’s a thrill to watch the high highs and low lows of two people so utterly dependent on each other that they can no longer tell if they love each other, or even what love is any more. It was tempting to me, after college, even as much as I wanted to leave, to stay close to my mother, to let her stay in charge, let her keep dictating reality to me. My love with my mother was built on our inter-dependence, and without it, I wasn’t sure that our relationship could survive. It didn’t, and she survived only barely, it seemed. Without our contact, my mother withdrew into our increasingly ramshackle house, leaving only to use the internet at the town library or dump her trash out in the dumpster behind the Stop N Shop in the middle of the night—a ghost who happened to still be alive. She sent me cards on my birthday, but I couldn’t bear to open them.
In the final months of 2013, I received a very nonchalant voicemail from a social worker informing me that my mom, at age sixty-something, had decided to begin intensive outpatient mental health treatment. I held out a lot of hope for a reconciliation now that my mother was seeking treatment. But it never turned up.
My mother scheduled and then cancelled six or seven phone calls since November, all of them arranged through her psychologist. The last one cancelled was days before I wrote this, about half an hour or so before we were due to talk. I’m not sure what my mother, who had never been one to hold her tongue in the past, is avoiding. Maybe she’s changed. But I’m too heart-broken, too terrified by the idea that maybe she hasn’t. Maybe she’s too terrified by the idea that I haven’t, either.
A friend who’s been helping me sort out of the legal aspects of all this made me a goofy little flow chart in Excel the other day, the kind of thing you’d give to your boss if he wanted to look at the pluses and minuses of switching over to a new paper supply company. It outlined three paths I could take, now that the immediate IRS threat had been quelled: pursue legal action against the bank that held my trust; pursue legal action directly against my mother; and–the shortest path—a line with one bubble which simply read “Do nothing” and the ended in a bright red sign marked “The End.”
The flow chart hangs in my bedroom over my desk, alongside a continually growing stack of legal papers that lay out the whole case in deeper and deeper detail. What kind of asshole would do anything besides nothing? Do regular, real-world rules ever apply to the confused hot-house of the family? What kind of daughter treats their mother with the kind of penalties you’d apply to someone else who committed a crime against you, someone else who didn’t give up their life for you, someone else whose body didn’t make you? What kind of an asshole are you?