Justin and I are bundled up for a cold walk through my Connecticut neighborhood, with hats and gloves and scarfs. His longish brown curls peek out of the edges of his wool cap. At 29, I recognize that he is more man than boy now, but still MY boy when he visits from his home in Brooklyn. I still can’t get my head around the fact that Justin is a social worker counseling women in Riker’s Island Jail. He tells me it is more like a mental health hospital than a jail. Most are awaiting trial, or even being formally charged, because they can’t pay bail—an injustice that weighs heavily on him. It is a demanding job he says is fulfilling and challenging, as well as frustrating. “The system is so fucked up, Mom,” he tells me. “If I can just make a day a bit better for someone, it’s accomplishing something.”
He’s wearing some old sweats he found around the house and he thinks it is amusing that he is in all one color—a teal green—and even funnier that he dons one of my old parkas in the very same color. “Take a picture—I am monochromatic,” he says. I do. He can be goofy and silly and he knows I love it. Sometimes he entertains me with spot-on accents, or we play guitars and harmonize. We have fun together.
He knows I am writing about his cousin Cheryl. We talk frequently about the state of my book, the different directions it is taking and the difficulty I am having coming to terms with her addiction and death. He has listened to my rants and confusions, as I’ve trudged through the literature on addiction, texts on psychology, biology, brain chemistry and rehabilitation theory. He’s asked me why I am writing this. Why it is so important for me to understand what happened to Cheryl and why I am digging in so deeply to the questions of addiction?
“Should I be on a couch?” I ask. “I ask myself that at least once a day.”
“Really, why do you think?” He ignores my joke.
“I know I want to understand how this happens, and then why some people can recover while others relapse and die.”
He knows about my deeply felt guilt; about what I might have done differently, what I didn’t do.
“Do you think some of it is fear?” he ventures.
Well, of course it is. If we can’t explain or control a looming threat, like the monster of addiction, it may come and take us too—or it may claim another loved one.
He pushes. He’s like that. It’s gentle, but soon you find yourself near the cliff’s edge.
“Do you think you recognize yourself in some of this? Or me?”
I say yes, but I don’t explain. A child of the 60’s, I’ve experimented with some drugs in the past. I believe I owned up to trying LSD.
“I’m very grateful I don’t seem to have an addictive personality,” I tell him.
But I do wonder about the times I’ve had that extra glass of wine or martini when I didn’t need it. I know my head will ache the next day and half the day will be spent ministering to the aftermath.
When I am with him I see he doesn’t like to drink very much at dinner when we have a bottle of wine. So, it seems we are both lucky in this way, that our brain chemistry doesn’t crave a rebalancing from stress or depression, which we also both acknowledge we have to some degree.
Many times, Justin has given me a new and valuable perspective, and has explained a good deal about the psychological concepts regarding addiction. But the personal side of this conversation, the one about our own relationship, has eluded us. Maybe he wants to steer clear of blaming the mother, as he hears his clients often do.
We’ve talked about how the plane crash in 1952 has reverberated through my family. From my mother, to me in her womb as she grieved, to my sister Linda who bore the brunt of the physical pain. To Cheryl.
“It’s in you too,” I say for probably the fiftieth time. “You are also part of this family and that legacy.”
I can feel him cringe at my dramatic sentence. I ignore it.
“What do you think? How has your life been influenced by our original trauma, as you see it?”
Now I’m in reporter mode, which is helping me move forward. The hoods of our winter jackets help too, because we can’t see each other’s faces as we walk side by side. The fake anonymity is useful.
“You know, not much. The plane crash as such is not anything I ever thought about growing up. Not until you wrote your book.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“Well, you were overprotective of me—we know that! And, I think I responded much like you did to your own mother’s overprotection. I rebelled against it and probably did more risky things than I might have.”
I’m almost afraid to go on. There are some things I know, and some things I don’t, and some I don’t want to know. But for some reason, knowing always wins for me, so I egg him on.
“I know you used to sneak out of the house at night when you were in high school, and I worried about it, but I knew all of your friends then and it seemed harmless.”
“You probably didn’t know all the times I sneaked out.”
I don’t let on that I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I thought I knew!
“I never did anything bad really, just hung out with people—friends you knew. We did smoke some weed now and then.” He turns his head fully so I can see him grin at me.
I say, “I hoped I had done some good work with you before then.” But I know that’s only part of the story. His adolescent escapades could have gone a different way. If he had been a different kind of kid, and we’d lived in a different town and he had different friends.
“Later, I probably took some risks I shouldn’t have—risky sex, and situations. Kind of like you, Mom.”
He knows all this from my memoir, a side effect of writing that I am sometimes sorry about.
“And, of course, there is the germaphobe thing,” he says. Like my mother had too, I think, but do not say.
“So, risky behavior balanced with trying to control even the germs in your life!”
“Yep!” We laugh for a minute at this.
“You know I have to have things just so in my apartment, down to little details. I obsess.”
I enjoy seeing the talismans he painstakingly arranges in his apartment, reflecting his personality and creating a space that is an extension of himself. I’m impressed that he is self-aware enough to recognize the underlying reasons.
This is what he understands at 29, which is much more than I did until I was near 50. When he marries and has children, if he does, he may have even more clarity. At his same age, though, I didn’t have a clue about my motivations. I’d been married twice by then and had just met his father. I was oblivious as to what had brought me to that point, despite a good deal of counseling. Not one of the five therapists I had seen to try to remedy my marriages had delved into my family dynamics. They had no idea about the dead sister, the injured sister, the depressed mother, the distant father. None even knew about the central family trauma of the plane crash. Did I just have terrible luck when it came to finding therapists? Or was I so closed down I would not let them in?
Our conversation, though I enjoyed it, was less than satisfying for my purpose. But I have more information at my disposal in a chapter Justin contributed a few years ago to a book titled Essential Breakthroughs: Conversations about Men, Mothers and Mothering. It strikes me that he is like me in discovering what he thinks and feels, and in communicating best, through writing. The chapter he wrote is called “Why Isn’t Everyone Celebrating Me? My Mom, Bankruptcy and My Ego.”
I remember that he interviewed me for the chapter, and now I ask his permission to use his work in my work. We are both amused at completing the circle in an unexpected way.
He sets the stage with my divorce from his father, our bankruptcy and loss of our home, my unemployment and, essentially, single-parenting. Much of the chapter focuses on how his life was shaped by the dynamics of my mothering. Reading it is a daunting recognition of the depth of our power as parents. If we recognized the true extent of our impact at the time, I doubt we would be able to utter a word or make a decision.
Justin doesn’t blame me for much in the chapter, except for instilling in him an expectation that he will receive the same lavish praise as an adult that I gave him as a child. Maybe the biggest let-down in life is that no one will ever love you as much as your parents. Justin says, “This mention of limitless possibilities—that I could be anything I wanted to be—has been an oasis for me and has, I think, helped me recover from defeats.”
But, along with this, he contends I projected my own uncertainty in our situation. “It’s likely that reassuring me that everything was going to be okay alerted me to something I wasn’t even aware I needed to worry about. . . It’s almost as if her faith in me would save us from our woes.” He notes that I now admit that “some momentary denial was necessary to enjoy life at all at the time.” There was a good deal of financial stress in our lives, and Justin rightly points to my attempt to protect him from worry. He puts it all in terms I have never thought of, that I was shielding him “from the realities of a system of wage-toiling that left her with no savings, a constant hunt for a job that paid enough, and a near constant feeling of worry about how we would survive as a little family.”
For all this shielding, Justin intuited “holes” in my performance and grew up wanting to protect me. “Perhaps I sensed that, underneath her efforts to convince me that all was well, she needed comforting—which of course she did. And today, while I often crave celebrations like a trip to Chuck E. Cheese, especially in periods of depression, I am usually skeptical of them, as if they carry the whispered message that all is not well—with me or the world.”
His feeling of protection over me spawned his caretaking personality, as did my praise for his listening skills and empathy. My social worker boy says, “This particular praise for my care taking, along with the unavoidable exposure to my mother’s needs, may have helped to hardwire me for empathy and listening. . . Setting a tone of prioritizing the needs of others before my own. . . And of course, this therapy mode often leaves me feeling depleted from listening and lonely from not sharing.”
The circular pattern is evident when Justin notes, from my own writing, that as a replacement child for my sister, I never felt I fit in with my family, having missed the pivotal event of the plane crash. He says, “By her own analysis, growing up in a family where she sometimes felt invisible inclined her toward constant praise of me and her conveying that I was exceptionally special and valuable.” He quotes me from our interview, “I wanted to be more fully present for you than either of my parents was able to be, for various reasons—grief, guilt, resentment . . . Correcting that parental relationship might have been unconsciously my impetus.”
I am stunned by this next passage, written by my son several years before I discovered this same truth:
“These cycles have a way of repeating themselves, deriving from nourishment from past moments of worthlessness . . . Not coincidentally, these are some of the same feelings her parents felt after the death of their child in the plane crash. Family therapy theorists like Kaethe Weingarten would argue that this intergenerational transmission of trauma was somehow perceptible to me . . . So while her celebrations and love helped me feel validated (and still do today), I likely metabolized her reassurance within our family memory of epic, senseless loss, wherein the world is frighteningly unpredictable. I speculate that I, in my child understanding, could feel the holes in her certainty and maybe in her own self-confidence. This may help explain why I now defend my own worth so ardently.”
By his own admission, there persists a fragility underneath Justin’s outward projection of superiority. That vulnerable inner little boy, however, is never hidden from me.
Judy L. Mandel’s new memoir, WHITE FLAG, will be released October 1, 2022 from Legacy Book Press.
Judy L. Mandel
Judy L. Mandel is a former reporter and marketing executive. Her New York Times Bestseller, REPLACEMENT CHILD, is the story that her parents and sister had unknowingly prepared her to write, through letters and news clips, pointing her to clues of their inner lives. Her new book, WHITE FLAG is an investigative memoir centered on her niece’s struggle with an addiction to opiates. She is a co-founder of the Replacement Child Forum.Follow us on your favorite social media sites: