Family Bullies: Victims of Their Own Drama
She was my tyrannical father’s beloved mother. And, under other circumstances, in other lifetimes, perhaps I would have called her Grandma. But not in this one.
In this lifetime, she never felt like a grandmother to me, even though my own father pushed me into her arms on many occasions. I never felt any warmth from her. Never felt any affection. I was the first in the family, at the age of 18, to turn my back on her, walk away and say, “I’m done.”
As I left for my first year of college, I severed what could’ve been—in some other lifetime—one of the most supportive relationships in my life. In hindsight, I think she probably reveled in my estrangement because it made her seem more of a victim to her friends.
There are all sorts of victims in this world, particularly children who are helpless to act against their abusers, their molesters, their neglectors, their bullies. But there are plenty of people in this world who fervently cry victim when they are victims only of the choices they’ve made and the actions they’ve taken. I recently read a nationally published article about a woman who blamed her estrangement from her two adult sons not just on their “narcissism,” but on the “narcissism” of their entire generation. I don’t know this woman. I don’t know her sons. I don’t know anything about the rift between them that keeps them from speaking terms. But I do know the story sounds awfully familiar.
This is not parents disowning children, but adult children disowning parents. Most of us would like to honor our ancestors. But how can we when they dishonor us? I remember very clearly the last time I allowed my grandmother to dishonor me to my face.
I was barely 18 and it had only been a few days since my grandmother had blown off attending my high school graduation, because she didn’t want to miss her “TV show.” It was a Sunday afternoon. A warm day, but cool enough in the shade. Daddy often mandated that we visit her on Sunday afternoons, a weekly event which I had come to hate with a passion, even though I wasn’t allowed to show it. Teen years can be bad enough and awkward enough when so many of us feel like unwanted outcasts around our peers, but to feel the same from your own grandmother?
On this particular Sunday, as on most other Sundays when the weather was nice, my grandmother had set out lawn chairs under the shady trees near the front of the house. These were the kind of chairs with aluminum frames and crisscrossing canvas straps. I can still see them in their green and white colors. There were two chairs this day. One for her and one, not for me or my mother or father or any other family member, but for one of her visiting church-lady friends. It was not unusual for us to spend a Sunday afternoon with her while she sat with this or one of her other friends gossiping about who was cheating on who in the community. There was always drama, always. And if not, then speculations became truth in the course of a conversation.
I’m still not sure how it came up but someone asked–certainly not her–how life was going for me at college, where I had just started school for the summer in advance of the fall quarter. I still remember the awkwardness and frustration of standing in front of the two women in their chairs, the feel of the thick green grass beneath my bare toes as I told them which classes I was taking. Someone asked where I lived while I was at college almost two hours away. Was I in a dormitory? Did I have my own apartment? Did a rent a room? And I explained that I lived in the dorm for the summer but I would have an apartment in the fall. And then, someone asked the question whether I lived in an all-female dorm and explained that no it was a co-ed dorm.
And yes. Yes, Grandma, that does mean that both boys and girls live in the same building.
But no. No, Grandma. Where did you get the idea that I had a boy for a roommate?
No, that’s not the case at all. Boys are on the basement floor and on the second floor, and we girls are on the third and fourth floors. And no boys are allowed on the girls’ floors and no girls are allowed on the boys’ floors. The only time we’re together is in the lobby, in the TV room. That’s allowed.
But no. No, we don’t share showers. We don’t share bathrooms.
No. Stop. Stop, Grandma. That’s not what I said.
But it was no use. I stood there watching, listening as my own grandmother invented a rumor about me and began gossiping to her friend about it—in my presence. Nothing I said could deter her. Nothing I said could correct her. She was giddy with this invented story while I was appalled, hurt, flabbergasted, helpless.
My mother says that to this day she’s never seen me madder than I was that afternoon. My own grandmother took an unremarkable event in my life—living on a locked dormitory floor that did not allow the opposite sex—and turned it into an exciting, “Look at me! Look at this story I have to tell about my own granddaughter! What a terrible thing this is! Come pity me and give me this attention!”
After that day, I may have seen her twice, most likely at a funeral, over the next 25 years. We never spoke again. I never gave her another unreturned hug. I never asked another unanswered question. For the rest of her life, I found ways to avoid her.
She died in her late 90’s without ever knowing my children. Without ever even meeting them. She may have been good to some of her grandchildren, but to me and to my brothers, the relationship was toxic. Always was.
Yet, somehow, even though it was her actions that caused the estrangement, she always made herself out to be the victim. I know that I’m not alone in this and that there are many other people who have had to cut off friends and family as the only way possible to protect themselves from a toxic relationship. Nor is this the only time I’ve had to excise someone from my life.
Sometimes, when people are cruel or dangerous, it’s best to get away from them and stay away from them, whether the threat is physical, emotional, or something else. With so many innocents in the world who are attacked or oppressed, it amazes me that some people who abuse, manipulate, or are just downright cruel to the point of running off their intended targets have the gall to cry victim about themselves, simply because their targets have put a stop to these behaviors.
Even more amazing to me is that these people don’t cry victim just for the attention, but because they truly see themselves as such.
Key Takeaway: The only way to win with a toxic person is to not play.