Being labeled “dramatic” served not only to shut down my ability to talk about my traumas, but enabled my parents to deny they ever happened.
(Trigger warning for rape.)
There is no trauma so devastating that a dose of familial guilt cannot make it worse.
My sister called me at work late on a Friday afternoon to tell me that my cousin, whom I had fostered for a year when he was a teenager, had died at the age of 26. My sister had fostered his younger brother, who died in a car crash shortly after going back home to his family, so she was in a perfect position to relate to the sorrow, anger, and self-blame attached to the death.
For her, though, it brought up the rift that has since opened between my father and his wife, and myself. I haven’t spoken to them in several years, nor do I plan to. My sister has always enjoyed a much closer relationship to them than I have, and she didn’t understand why I characterize my relationship with them so negatively.
In order to help her understand, I shared with her a few of the times that their reactions to traumatic events in my life failed me, including a time when my father’s boss’s son stayed at their house one weekend when my sister and I were also there. He raped me that night, and when I tried to tell them about it in the morning, they flatly denied that it had ever happened. No one ever confronted him, and he spent the next day flirting with my younger sister, telling her that my hatred of him was because I was jealous that she was the one getting his attention.
As she tried to grapple with my father’s inadequate and hurtful response, she said “Well, you know how you used to be really dramatic…” And it occurred to me that the word “dramatic” summed up much of why I can’t talk to my father and his wife anymore.
“Drama” is a performance done for someone else’s benefit. When you call someone “dramatic,” you are saying that their response to an event or person is not just more intense than is called for, but is done specifically to garner a reaction from people.
My first memory of being labeled “dramatic” was when I was 5 or 6, and my brother and sister, who would have been about 8 and 10 at the time, were fighting. Not just yelling and calling names, which was de rigueur for our house, but beating the shit out of each other. I couldn’t get a hold of our mother, who worked during the day and attended school at night, so I called our father. I was terrified that someone was going to get hurt. I was terrified that the violence would turn on me or my little sister.
My father said: “Stop being so dramatic.”
With four words, my overwhelming feelings of fear and sadness were dismissed as invalid, and I was made aware that telling adults the things that scared me would never result in those adults trying to make me feel safe and loved. It would result in adults telling me that my fear was ridiculous, and that my perceptions of the world were wrong. That I could not trust my own feelings and should keep them to myself.
Being labeled “dramatic” served not only to shut down my ability to talk about my traumas, but enabled my parents to deny they ever happened, keeping their consciences clear as they continued to withhold the kinds of help and guidance I needed. By the time I was in my mid-20s, I had learned not to confide anything in them, because they would not keep my secrets. By the time I was in my 30s, I had learned not even to tell them the day-to-day events of my life.
When I was a kid and one of my siblings would pick on me, my father’s advice was always the same: “If it bothers you that much, get away from them.” In my 40s, I decided that the way to deal with the consistently hurtful interactions with my father and his wife was to get away from them, and I cut ties with them. I spent a lot of time sorting through my past, trying to mitigate decades of being torn down, denied, and gaslighted.
But now here was my sister, telling me that my father and his wife were mourning my loss. That they were sad because I didn’t talk to them anymore. That they wished they could communicate with me again and I would acknowledge them. I listened to her sadness and felt bad that she took it all so personally. None of this is her fault, and there is so much about my history with them that she doesn’t know and will never understand because she’s a very different person than I am.
As I cried and shook and paced, laying out pieces of a half-century of family history, I felt better about my decision to step away from a relationship that had always made me feel terrible about myself. I have spent the last 20 years of my life trying to surround myself with people who see my value in the world, beginning with moving to another state.
My sister’s assertion that our father’s deficiencies shouldn’t be held against him, that he did his best, didn’t fall on deaf ears. I understand that he didn’t have the best emotional role models as a kid, and that the ways he deals with trauma aren’t the healthiest. But just because someone’s intentions aren’t bad, does that mean that I should continue to let them hurt me? Just because their view of life is very different than mine, does that mean that I should deny my own view?
I won’t be going to my cousin’s funeral. Funerals are for the living, and I don’t have anything constructive to say to the people who will be there. I loved my cousin, and I’m profoundly sad that his life was difficult and short. I tried to help, and I feel that I failed on a thousand different levels. I wish I had known better what to do, and how to help him. Obviously none of us did.
But now, I know how to help myself.
Lise Quintana is the editor in chief of NonBinary Review. Her fiction has been seen in Red Fez, Drunk Monkeys, Extract(s), and other journals.