Finding the Truth In My Personal Mythology

A Personal Mythology


WHEN I WAS THIRTY-SEVEN, my first marriage floundered, then ran aground. And like others shipwrecked in that tragic way, I suddenly found myself confronted by a band of mutinous castaways–those personal demons who, without my ever suspecting it, had been holed up all along below decks.

Fortunately, I found a good therapist, one who knew I had to take at least some responsibility for what had happened. And so, when I mentioned, Oh, by the way, my mother left when I was eleven, we began to look closely at the role that abandonment might have played in my fractured relationships with women.

With her help and encouragement, I began a series of long-distance phone calls back to Ohio: conversations with my now estranged mother that might help me recover something from the past. But not just from my personal history: this was as much about understanding what her own childhood had been like. Not to excuse her for leaving, or to let her off the hook for the choices she’d made, but to get a more balanced understanding of why things had turned out as they did.

At that point in time, my mother and I had been reconciled for fifteen years. But our separation for almost as many–from the time I was eleven until I was in my twenties–produced an unexpected effect: somehow that gap in our relationship, one lasting more than a decade, made it easier for her to talk. It came as a bit of a shock to me when she shared intimate details that seemed inappropriate for a mother to share with her son. But before long I realized why: After being out of touch all those years, she had come to consider me more of a friend. And less of a son.

As strange as it may sound, I had mixed feelings about that revelation. On the one hand, it meant that I had indeed lost my mother forever. On the other hand, as deeply painful as it was, it also meant smoother sailing for the journey I was now embarking on. This journey–to get to know her better–was intended to help me know myself as well, and because our estrangement enabled her to tell her story more frankly and openly, it allowed a clarity that may not have been possible for her otherwise.

In one conversation my mother asked if what she’d done in leaving my sister and me as children might have contributed in any way to my troubled relationships with women. In that moment, I felt that if she was asking out of guilt, she must be carrying enough already without me complicating things and putting skin on the bones of all those ghosts. And besides, if she honestly didn’t realize that she’d hurt us, what good would it do to tell her now? I didn’t think she could have changed anything, even if she wanted to. Which, to me, she obviously didn’t. So I lied and told her no.

So, a little at a time, she began to recount the story of her own troubled childhood. As if we were just friendly neighbors sharing stories over the back fence, she told me tales from our family history that I’d never heard anyone else talk about. She described her relationship with her own mother, Rose, and how the stresses of those dark years, combined with my grandfather’s drinking, had almost ripped her family apart. She remembered Rose dragging the four of them–her, her brother, and their two sisters–from bar to bar, chasing down my grandfather for grocery money. And finally, when Rose had enough and left (at least for the time being), they had no place to go except the dirt-floor cellar of a relative’s home. There the five of them slept in one bed and used a toilet that sat out in the open, with little privacy for Rose or her children.

Over time, as I learned more more and more about the seeds that would take root and blossom into my thorny life, the calamity of my past seemed more understandable, perhaps even inevitable. And, as I continued to meet with my therapist, she helped me see that my mother had learned to parent from someone who didn’t get that much job training herself. Eventually, there came a shift in the view I held of my mother–from a woman who was detached and selfish to one who had no other choice but to act out in fear and pain. And so I came to realize that her decision to leave that September day when I was eleven wasn’t an isolated event in our time together. It was instead the defining nature of our relationship. She had been abandoning me all along. From the get-go. You might even say it was her parenting style.

And so, with more and more revelation, I began getting more and more clarity. As if coming out of a fog, I began to understand the nature of the stories I’d been telling myself in order to come to grips with my own life. I had in fact been creating my own personal mythology.

But these myths were not lies or fabrications in the sense of how we most often use the word today, but myths in the classical sense, like the Greek or Roman variety. These tales had evolved inside my own mind as a way of understanding life and were imbued with greater truth than the facts themselves. Greater truth than I would have been able to bear.

My first installments in this personal mythology took the form of collages. For some reason I was drawn to the wings of butterflies, which I learned I could purchase from biology supply companies. They seemed an elegant counterpoint to old, black-and-white photographs. Before I realized the deeper implications, I had created a pantheon of winged goddesses, one for every woman I believed had flitted in and out of my life, beginning with my mother. (I portrayed her as a beautiful somnambulist, wandering about aimlessly, wreaking havoc.)

That tip-of-the-iceberg art came nearly twenty years ago, and the myth telling continues in the books I’m writing now, all of it serving to hold up a mirror for my own consideration, to gain a clearer picture of who I am. And it’s strange to realize that, in addition to telling these myths to others, I’m telling them to myself, as if I were telling a fairy tale to a child, that he might not only know of the beast that lives in the woods, but also of the beast that lives inside himself.

And like any myth teller, I am only just beginning to understand for myself what these stories mean. I am only just beginning, at this late point in my life, to hope I may someday be able to speak a truth.

To go to the beginning of my personal account, telling the true life story of my family and the events that have lead to my novel series, The Butterfly Myths, click here.  

Danae by Titian (1490–1576)





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