“…contrary to what you may have heard or learned, the past is not done and it is not over, it’s still in process, which is another way of saying that when it’s critiqued, analyzed, it yields new information about itself. The past is already changing as it is being reexamined, as it is being listened to for deeper resonances. Actually it can be more liberating than any imagined future if you are willing to identify its evasions, its distortions, its lies, and are willing to unleash its secrets. “
Toni Morrison at Wellesley 2004
My mother spent a lot of time during the last years of her life sifting thru memories, looking for insight and clues to the meaning of events that had affected her; trying to understand, to make sense of it all. I find myself doing the same thing these days – and am comforted by Toni Morrison’s commencement speech to Wellesley College 2004, where she rails against “adults being exoticized into eternal juvenilia” and “cultural vapidity” that appears to only have become more rampant in the past 13 years.
I confess that in the past I’ve been quite critical of people who rewrite history; I’ve judged them as being guilty of denial, of being delusional, of sugarcoating reality. I used to wonder about this aspect of Christian Science when I was an active student – sure, it was helpful to reframe troubling scenarios in a more spiritual context, but wasn’t that cheating somehow?
I believed “what’s done is done” and there was no way to fix the mistakes I’d made in the past. But upon further reflection, I’m coming to see the wisdom of reframing what happened and the choices I’ve made. For one thing, it helps me to (re)view the past with compassion and kindness, towards myself and everyone else. I now don’t think it’s too Pollyanna-ish to look for the benefits of any given scenario, and many things that happen can hold just such hidden blessings, if we’re patient and motivated to identify them.
Nobody has the exact memory that you have. What is now known is not all of what you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free…
– Toni Morrison @ Wellesley 2004
One of my biggest regrets was my relationship with an early boyfriend who turned out to be emotionally damaged and eventually became mentally ill. I met him when I was 17 and didn’t recognize the warning signs that anything was “off” about him. But over the few months we were seeing one another, I became alarmed at his fits of rage that erupted at random times for unknown reasons. The night he grabbed my arm violently leaving a nasty bruise, I knew that I had to break up with him. Initially he seemed to take it well, but then he began stalking me at school and broke into my home when my roommate and I were away. He’d become downright creepy, seemingly overnight. It wasn’t safe to love him any more.
The stalking continued without direct confrontation for 2½ years – I’d catch sight of his red scarf across the street or feel eyes on me when I was working in a practice room, but we never interacted. Then after I graduated, he disappeared, only to resurface a few years later by showing up unexpectedly and uninvited at my apartment door. The building doorman had to threaten to call the cops to get him to leave, and entreaties from both of my parents and their lawyers for him to stop stalking me were unsuccessful. I felt sufficiently scared at that point to take legal action to get him to leave me alone, which he managed to do for another few years.
But then he began writing letters. In spite of being reminded that 10 years had elapsed since the relationship had ended and being informed that I was now a married woman, he continued to send letters demanding me to return to him. Year after year after year, no matter where we moved, the letters would follow us. We contacted the Postal Inspectors and after they investigated and interviewed him, their legal advisors told us that he was disturbed and receiving psychiatric help, that he was harmless and should “get a pass”, to just discard the letters, since there was nothing they could do to get him to stop writing and sending them. So for many years, that’s what we did.
Over time the letters became more and more offensive, as he scribbled his rage and hateful comments on the exterior of the envelopes, making the most outrageous claims, (his version of rewriting history) and blaming me for everything bad that had ever happened to him. I began to think of the letters as “Hate Mail from Hartford” and saw myself as a victim as their delivery continued unabated. Some days I could handle it, but other times I felt overwhelmed and oppressed.
The toll this took was rather like Chinese water torture; while the mental dread was much worse than the actual pain inflicted, it also didn’t help that the authorities were dismissive of my complaints. After all, I was “only” receiving non-stop written verbal abuse from an obviously delusional man – how bad could it be, really? Compared to former boyfriends who went after their exes with guns and online revenge porn, nasty letters are pretty small potatoes.
Still, I wondered what the hell I had ever done to deserve this ceaseless abuse; as I recalled, I had treated him sweetly during the time we were dating. And I wasn’t cruel or insulting when I ended it; I had never made any promises of exclusivity or for a future together, and it just didn’t make sense to me that he was so fixated on a brief casual relationship that had ended so long ago.
I tried to rise above it; to take the higher view, to forgive him and see him bathed in white light. Since I feared him and resented his pervasive presence in my life, I couldn’t bring myself to actually love him, but I prayed for his healing. For decades I had shredded his letters or tossed them into the trash. On the advice of a shaman, I’d even tried burning them at the mailbox, so as not to allow their negative energy into the house. I marked them “Return To Sender” and “Refused” and sent them back, reasoning that this was his bad juju and I didn’t have to accept it – and then he stopped putting his return address on the envelopes, so I couldn’t even do that. I felt more and more trapped.
One day on the way from the mailbox to the trashcan I noticed he had progressed to making death threats, which alarmed me enough to recontact the police and the Postal Inspectors. But follow-up with them yielded disappointing results; restraining orders would prove ineffective and the USPS didn’t want to get any more involved with him. Turns out there had been many complaints about him from many quarters, as he was still writing to psychiatrists, nurses and caregivers who had retired and even died. He’d been cagey in his assaults-by-mail to everyone who had ever tried to help him over the past 47 years and avoided breaking the law, at least to the extent that the district attorney didn’t consider it to be worth prosecuting him. He was intractable and adamantine in his conviction that he’d been “done wrong” by anyone he’d ever met (especially me!) and we were all apparently going to hear about it forever.
To have an apparently unsolvable problem like this is something I’d never wish on anyone. But in the course of all this drama, recently a couple of things fell into place for me:
I made the decision to see his letters impersonally – as “junk mail” instead of “Hate Mail from Hartford”. No one rails at receiving junk mail, after all – it’s just a fact of life, like robocalls, spam in your email inbox and commercials on TV. You just toss it in the recycling pile (after blacking out any identifying information), just like you push the mute button when that annoying ad comes on for the umpteenth time in the middle of your favorite show. It’s nothing personal. No drama. That helped some.
And then I came across the following:
“I have breathed my way through so many people I felt wronged by; through so many situations I couldn’t change. Sometimes while doing this I have breathed in acceptance and breathed out love. Sometimes I’ve breathed in gratitude and breathed out forgiveness. Sometimes I haven’t been able to muster anything beyond the breath itself, my mind forced bland with nothing but the desire to be free of sorrow and rage.”
– Cheryl Strayed in her book Tiny Beautiful Things
Reading this passage the other day is what finally unfroze my heart re. this guy who’s been stalking me all these years. I realized that because of his abuse, I’d been partially adopting his version of the story on some level, instead of fully embracing what I knew from my own experience to be true. I understand that it’s not safe to be in touch with him now, I have no interest in his circumstances and it’s not my job to fix him. But I did love him back in 1970, the best I knew how, until it became unsafe to do so. I don’t need to deny that I loved him then to feel safe now.
“Although you will never fully know or successfully manipulate the characters who surface or disrupt your plot, you can respect the ones who do by paying them close attention and doing them justice. The theme you choose may change or simply elude you, but being your own story means you can always choose the tone.”
Toni Morrison at Wellesley 2004