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Grandma was a sociopath.

My Grandmother was a sociopath. At least, that's the language I grew up with, not sure what the DSM would label her now. It'd probably be complicated. She was brilliant, she was a master manipulator, she was abusive. When she was young she was very beautiful, and she used her brains and her sexual power to get what she wanted. She almost got us kids taken away from my folks when she was living with us (seven years or so, I think, total), threats of claiming elder abuse if my parents tried to get her out of the house for being abusive toward us (my Mom, her daughter, had grown up largely in foster care, so this was a nightmare fear for her). My first realization of my mother's true humanity was her sobbing at the kitchen table when I was five or six because Grandma had disowned her (again). A large part of why I am so vocal about my appreciation of my mother's parenting is because I know her deep insecurities; no role model of good mothering of her own to follow. Grandma once bit me hard enough to leave individual teeth prints in my arm through a jean jacket and a sweater. I was terrified of her, growing up. We all were. She couldn't climb the stairs, so I'd get home from school and dash up as fast as I could. Once we finally did get her out of the house, it took a number of years for me to rebuild a relationship with her, learn how to have one with the boundaries I needed to stay safe from her, but that allowed for me to help care for her at the end of her life. From her, I learned how to keep myself safe with fundamentally dangerous people, and still have the most fulfilling relationships possible given the limitations.

She is also the family member I am most like, hands down.

It's a lot of why, by the end of her life, I was the one who could deal with her best, take the load off my Mom, who had been too deeply scarred to be that close to her without pain. I'm proud I could do that for my family, could find a way to build a relationship that challenging and keep myself healthy and safe within it. And she was a fascinating, amazing woman in many ways. I loved her, for all her flaws, and did find ways to get a great deal out of our relationship in the later years. It was our commonalities that allowed us to work around her psych issues. When I came out to her, her first response was to go find me the article about Candace Gingrich (Newt Gingrich's lesbian sister, for the young'uns). Letters from then on came sealed with rainbow stickers, or with "Love makes a family" pins, or clippings about what the quakers were doing on LGBT issues (she was a quaker). She supported every bit of my activism (she was the one with the FBI record from her history of activism), and I keep a tiny bit of her ashes in a necklace just for wearing to protest marches. She supported me being scandalous, and independent, and a general freak. We bonded over Janis Joplin and the blues. It was a complicated relationship, to say the very least.

When I say that I fear my potential to bully or manipulate people, folks usually laugh it off. They don't see it in me. I'm a progressive activist with all the "right" views about how the world could be, after all. How could that be a serious risk? How could I be _that_ afraid? She was too, though. And she was good at hiding her dysfunction; it's exactly why she was so incredible at manipulating people. I haven't really thought about it in a long time, but so much of who I am is a reaction to my experience with her. It took me years to tell my supportive and accepting parents about my cousins molesting me because Grandma had shredded our family into pieces in the previous generation (vanishing out of state, abandoning her kids until the neighbors noticed them home alone, famously chased my aunt around the table with a knife, disowned my uncle, the stories go on and on), and I was afraid of being the cause of another rift in this generation.

So I don't trust that good politics necessarily means good people. That's for the best, I think, because it isn't true. She was a peace activist, but our home was anything but peaceful with her in it. She did a lot of good in the world, and monumental damage within my family.

I inherited her body shape, the opposite of Mom's. I inherited at least some of her psych disorders (she was in and out of psych hospitals before I was born; we don't know her diagnosis, but it appears that bipolar with some schizophreniform and paranoid features is a likely call). I shared her politics and beliefs. I inherited her brains, and I say that not to brag, but because there is nothing scarier than someone who is dangerous _and smart_. I grew up knowing intelligence could be a powerful, powerful weapon. She was certainly an independent, headstrong, dominant, and scandalous woman, and I identified with that.

How could I not fear finding more of her in me?

When I say I am terrified of my potential to bully and manipulate, that I do everything in my power to defang the power differentials between me and those around me, that it took me 'til age 40 to begin to explore dominance sexually because it is so hard for me to feel safe enough, it's not because I'm a sheltered Pollyanna "nice girl". This is where it comes from. I'm generally light-hearted about it in conversation, "oh, yeah, how did it take so long..." but I know exactly why it did. I know I like being in control; I'm not blind. I know it thrills me, gives me a charge. It pretty obviously did for her too (not sexually; I have no idea about that; my family's famous openness about sexual discussion started with Mom, not Grandma).

When talking about psych stuff with people, especially other people who live in their heads like I do, I often point out that being smart is at least as much of a liability as an advantage in coping. I can make pretty damned convincing arguments to support just about any fucked up headspace my neurochemistry throws at me. I can intellectually intimidate my providers, I can baffle with bullshit. I can weaponize my power with words in subtle, sneaky ways. I can justify almost anything to myself and others with enough work. It's true I use a form of hyper-rationality to navigate my mood swings, but I have to be very careful and intentional about that, or my brain can lead me astray instead of pulling me to safety. A sharp mind can cut in many ways, and I've seen that too closely to ever completely trust my own.

It's gotten better over the years. I know the difference between crazy and dysfunctional, most of the time, and I try to live with the former and avoid the latter. My mother's radical openness about her own bipolar (much more severe than mine), itself a reaction to Grandma in many ways, is at the core of my deep, deep belief in the power of being out and honest even when it disconcerts people, even when it's scary as hell to do, vulnerable and exposing. That changed everything about my family, made this generation so different from the last, halted so many horrible patterns. My focus on navigating social dynamics in large part by making the subtextual power dynamics textual and addressable comes from a similar place, and I think has had similar positive effects.

So yes, 40 years in I've finally gotten to a point where I may be able to play with that fire, explore the fun and stimulating elements of intentional power exchange. I don't know that it can ever be anything but complicated for me, with my history and my fears, but I do think I'm at a point where "rewarding" finally outweighs "terrifying". I'm glad of that.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 30th, 2015 03:29 am (UTC)
Grandma cast a long shadow over the family. But you are not her, and I'm glad that you've grown to the point where you feel that you can move past a lot of this legacy.
Jun. 1st, 2015 04:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks, I appreciate hearing that.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )