When the newest issue of New York Magazine arrived in my mailbox last week, it didn’t take long for me to flip to the back page and peruse the “Approval Matrix,” their weekly ranking of timely facts and intriguing news tidbits. I usually find it a fun read, but not this time. In the quadrant, which assigned this high-profile story the status of “despicable,” was a photograph of Woody Allen holding a young Dylan Farrow and the words: “The crosscurrents of accusations from the Farrow-Allen households.”
It’s American Thanksgiving today. In the midst of the bustle of holiday prep, I have survivors on my mind. Those, like me, who are estranged from their family. Whatever the status of our family relationships, so many of us feel misunderstood by loved ones who minimize or deny the weight of our experiences. They just don’t get it. And maybe they never will.
My mother sighed, clearly exasperated with me yet again. My transgression? I had objected after finding out that she’d hidden information from me for no apparent reason. I’d learned that my half-sister was flying into town from across the country. My mother (her stepmother) knew all about the trip. In fact, the two of them had made arrangements to get together, along with other siblings. But no one informed me — despite my friendly relationship with my sister at the time. I was completely in the dark about the entire topic until it an extended family member innocently mentioned what she knew.
Becoming estranged from a relative is a sad and difficult decision, one that is usually made with grave consideration and based on the belief that the emotional cost of continuing contact is simply too great to bear. Most of us wish we there was another choice we could make, especially when the family members are our own parents.
Yet, there are probably far more of us in this situation than people realize. We tend not to talk about our estrangements much. Naturally, we hope to avoid the general awkwardness and potential judgment of others. Perhaps there is a dark side to our families that we would prefer to keep private.
I dread that moment when someone unexpectedly asks, “…and how is your mother?” I never have an easy answer at the ready. “Oh, umm she’s fine, thank you,” I usually say, with a quick change of the subject. If the asker is extended family and the subject will surely come up again, I might say “We aren’t in touch very much.” And if my intuition tells me that the person will not judge, I tell the truth: “We are estranged.”
There is no easy way to explain you don’t speak to your parent. Or parents. Or your entire family. The inquiry comes up casually and often enough. It’s a normal question after all, under most circumstances. But we are not most families.