Here’s a story I didn’t share in therapy yesterday, but it has been on my mind. We discussed how I was criticized a lot as a child.

My father is a very enthusiastic cross-country skier, and so as children, we spent many weekends off at various trails. One particularly cold Sunday, we had driven to a favorite resort and skied the trails all day, stopping only for lunch at the heated chalet. The chalet closed up around 4 pm, and we continued skiing until maybe five. When we got back to the parking lot and our car, most people had already left. We undid our skis, got into the car…my father turned the ignition, and nothing. The car battery was completely dead.

Somehow we must have phoned for help – this was before cell phones of course. Then we sat and sat in that freezing car, waiting for whoever it was to come. Cars all around left, we were the only car there, and dark was falling. It was a cold and kind of scary experience.

OK. Shit happens. Here’s what didn’t happen. There was absolutely no discussion about what had happened, that this was a crappy situation, or that help would come soon. The fact was, my father must have left the lights of the car on in the morning (cars didn’t used to beep helpfully when that happened, as they do now). That never really occurred to me. To me, this was a mysterious occurrence with no cause.

I just think in a normal family, the father might have said something like ‘I did this, how could I have been so stupid…’, or the wife would make some protest, like ‘you did this, this is really a pain in the butt now’. No. My father never did anything wrong, ever, that was acknowledged by him or by my mother or by anyone else. It was not OK to make mistakes, and so he officially never made any. Only other people made those.

Now this is not a huge deal. Shit happens. People forget things. Just – it’s an example that I can actually remember, of how things were covered up, even quite innocuous things, to the extent that at the time, I didn’t even have the thought that oh, my father made some kind of mistake.

We were sitting freezing our butts off through mysterious circumstances that had nothing to do with him, according to family wisdom.

It just strikes me that I didn’t draw the obvious conclusion at the time – it was like I couldn’t think bad things about him. Not even think and suppress. Just not see.

  1. Ashana M said:

    It seems extremely telling. Yeah, in a normal family that would have happened. In a less normal family, the wife would have criticized and the father who doesn’t like being criticized would have reacted and there would have been a nasty argument of some kind on top of waiting in the cold, so your family is like off the charts. The kids and your mother were so well trained that they said absolutely nothing about why the battery might be dead and this could have a human cause. Your mom didn’t even ask about the lights, let alone criticize, because she knew that one doesn’t criticize. He criticizes everyone else relentlessly, but no one is allowed to find fault with him. He is Mr. Perfect. It’s insane.

    • Ellen said:

      Exactly, thanks for understanding. And I can totally see how there could be a nasty argument, and how that would feel really bad as well. But this way, my family’s way, just makes everything seem unreal. It is insane, right? I was doubting myself a bit, but it really is strange. Thank you Ashana.

      • Ashana M said:

        It’s totally insane. Yes, it seems like the nasty argument would also feel bad. A different person would later sit in therapy and discuss how their dad couldn’t take criticism, and there would be these nasty arguments….What comes to mind for me is that there weren’t nasty arguments because your mom knew that it wouldn’t be merely a nasty argument. It would be a complete disaster. Maybe her own parents trained her–think of how she never acknowledges problems, because a problem implies criticism, doesn’t it? Always cheerful, so that no one feels indirectly slighted. Or maybe there were these total disasters before you were born or when you were small. But you and your siblings did not criticize either, because your mom would have cautioned you not to in some way. Thinking about it, I have a picture of a man who has no ability to trust, where everyone, even family, is a potential enemy. He controls them to neutralize the threat, and destroys them verbally when they step out of line. It’s a terrible environment to imagine a child in.

  2. Yes thats odd. Normal people would say oh yeah this happened how did it happen i made a mistake etc. Something to talk more about in therapy maybe? X

  3. leb105 said:

    …and I guess he couldn’t ask for help and a jump from all those other people leaving the parking lot!

    • Ellen said:

      Yeah, that part doesn’t make sense. My father is not silly in that way – he would definitely ask. So maybe there was a bigger problem…the battery wouldn’t hold a charge or something. It’s a very long time ago. Thanks.

  4. Rachel said:

    I agree that your family dynamic and parents’ responses to the situation (and so many others in your childhood) was strange and very confusing to children. In reading your story it didn’t sound strange at all because my mother was the same way – never made a mistake, never copped to errors. So I was left thinking that things magically happened, or more often, were my fault. I lost her keys, I made the dog have an accident, I created her bad mood, etc. I empathize with how invalidating and disorienting it is to grow up with parents who aren’t in reality, and make you question your own sense of reality. Thanks for sharing this story, it really resonated.

    • Ellen said:

      Interesting our parents had this in common! That’s a good way of putting it – parents who aren’t in reality. Because parents shape a child’s reality, it makes for major confusion and in my case withdrawal. Thanks Rachel.

  5. e.Nice said:

    My family did cross country skiing too! I have some favorite memories of being off alone in the woods with nothing but the sounds of my skies and the muffling sound of falling snow. I also have some not so fun memories of feeling like I was going to die in a long race, but I obviously didn’t :-). It is crazy to think of everyone just sitting there, pretending like there wasn’t a problem. Did you at least know that it was going to be worked out, or did you have to worry that you were stuck there forever too?

    • Ellen said:

      Ah…the origins of your love of solitude Nice. 🙂

      Yes, I knew someone was supposed to come. I actually wasn’t that young – pre-teen maybe. My family wasn’t crazy crazy, Just one crazy – I knew we wouldn’t sit in a cold car and wait for death.


      • e.Nice said:

        Maybe crazy, crazy is preferable 🙂

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