My Scarlet Letter A is for ‘Anger’

Little invited herself to my house for Labor Day Weekend.  It had that feeling, you know?  The one you get when someone is making a trip to tell you something in person.  I mean, why else make a 5+ hours drive with a 7 month old in holiday traffic?

For a full day, we spent the time small talking, cooing at her baby, until I had to wonder if perhaps my sister just needed a break from her new schedule of broken sleep and constant infant care.  I think that’s the first part, in retrospect:  the knowing and not knowing, at the same time.

We stole away for very late dessert after my kids were tucked in bed and hers down for the 8-11 evening nap.  Again, that sense of unease — The hotel- adjacent-not-quite-a-chain diner, the neutral ground of it.

Over decaf and shared desserts, she asked about my family, my kids, and I lulled myself into thinking, maybe this is it, the thing she came for.  The connection.  It crossed my mind she’d tell me she was pregnant again.  Maybe they were moving, or there was a marital issue.  So I told her about my daughter, going into high school, how a boy in her class asked her to meet at Farmer’s Market and omigod, dating is right around the corner.

Little said, “I’ve noticed something about (my daughter), and you’re not going to like hearing it.”  And then she paused, perched.  Waiting.

Usually, I am the kind of person who lets the conversation go where it wants and figures out what we talked about later – like two days later, in the shower.  But as it happened,  this article by Elizabeth Gilbert flashed in my head at her comment, and so I had a blue print for how to act in response to the strange way Little’d teased negative information, as if trying to make me a co-conspirator in her shit talking my child.  Anyway, somehow I wasn’t caught flatfooted.

I didn’t smile back.  “Then maybe rethink saying it.”

On Little’s face,  an unsure smile flashing then disappearing, mouth closing.  Then her decision not to be intimidated out of whatever she came here to say, that I wouldn’t like, about my child.

“She reminds me a lot of Mom,” Little said, but not in a harmless way.  She said it as if this was an arrow fired into me, close range.

It wasn’t.  My kid and my mom are related.  I said so.

Later I will wonder if Little thought her comment would force me to either appreciate Mom or perhaps disown some part of my daughter.

Little shrugged.  “Well, it’s just that you’re so angry with Mom.”

It felt uncomfortably odd for my sister to tell me how I feel.  What I’m actually feeling at the moment of this conversation is:  Oh, ok.  I have now stepped into whatever trap this is, that I could sense five days ago but still didn’t manage to avoid.  

But I end up nodding.  I have been angry with Mom, so I guess that’s a fair assessment, even though what I’ve felt over the past year is more like embers instead of bonfire.

Little looks distressed, as if she hates that we are talking about this.  Even though she brought it up.  “You know, I get it.  It’s just that, to me, Mom’s just always trying to help everyone, like until she runs herself into exhaustion.  You know, I can’t help but feel sorry for her.”

I am not skilled enough to sidestep this trap either.  Instead, I plunge right in.  Because Mom trying to help everyone is one of her most defining characteristics.  She can see the good in anyone, and if you are in trouble, she’ll walk across hot coals to help you.  Everyone loves my mom because of this.  Especially abusers, who know if they look pitiful and needy enough, she will shelter them.  She can’t help herself.  Like she’s told me more than once, they have often been victimized themselves.  And she has to protect victims.

After Little leaves, I’ll realize Little’s using the same tactics my mother used when I spent years trying to explain why I didn’t like the Ex Communicated Relatives. I have to store all my facts and examples, my logical arguments, so that at any time, I might be ready to justify myself.

But I am already feeling queasy by the time I sum up. “This makes me feel like the black sheep,” I say, then feel stupid because that doesn’t really make sense in context, and sounds kind of whiny, like I’m trying to get in Little’s good graces.

“No, I appreciate it,” she says.  We pay our bill and walk through the shared parking lot to her hotel.   “It gives me insight, you know?  I’m just  amazed how differently you and I think.”   She laughs to herself and adds like an afterthought, “That’s what (her husband) says, you know? Maybe that’s how I’m the normal one in our family.”

This arrow lands.  I stop in the street, putting on my Big Sister face, which is full of my eight years seniority.  I’ve just spent the day hosting her husband; it feels super gross to have the veil of his politeness slip, to hear he thinks I’m not normal.  I mean, probably all spouses spend bonding moments elevating their loved ones with assurances of being the ‘normal’ one.

I hate him, because that’s way easier than hating Little right now.  Later, I will realize this is her bringing in a second opinion to characterize me as angry.

“Oh really?”  I fold my arms, unsmiling, and fully let her squirm. “(Your husband) thinks I’m not normal?”

Little colors, fumbles, says, “Well you know Middle’s (uncomplimentary thing about Middle), and you’re so angry.”

Of course, then I am not just angry, but super angry.  It’s a great trap.  Once a woman is identified as ‘angry’, you don’t have to consider anything she says, do you?  And I’m amazed at how shamed I feel, how desperate my knee-jerk reaction to do anything to not be perceived as an angry woman.  Even as I back up from that impulse, I realize:  how can I possibly defend myself against her accusation when I am totally furious, and rightfully so?  And finally: The whole time I was defending my position about Mom, Little must’ve seen me as the aggressor.

Later, I will realize this is the second time she’s called me angry, even though I haven’t so much as raised my voice the entire evening.


I haven’t decided what to do.  On one hand, Little’s a product of our family dynamic.  She wants things to go back to the way they were, and is using the tools that used to make our family hold together.

I considered step-by-step pointing out to her the micro aggressions, like dubbing me angry and mom pitiful.  But lecturing her on word choice in the midst of her next trap seems unwieldy.  Hell even saying the words ‘micro aggressions’ out loud make me feel like I’m exactly the kind of angry woman that’s easiest to dismiss.

I also considered that maybe I can’t let her in anymore.  This makes me deeply sad, if only for the selfish reason that not that many people know me, and as I’m losing more connections in my family, I’m also not likely to replace that level of trust with new friendships.

I considered embracing anger.  Maybe if I go full artistic Fuck This Bullshit, she’ll see what a shallow, repressive asshole she’s being.




Husband and I are going to Paris this week for our 17th anniversary.  May be posting photos to FB if you want in:

17 Replies to “My Scarlet Letter A is for ‘Anger’”

  1. My knee jerk reaction was to vote for “fuck this bullshit.” After sitting still for several minutes and a deep rethink, then swigging some green tea and honey and getting up for a visit to the toilet, I still think, really that was completely out of line.

  2. Oh for GAHs sake. Family sucks sometimes. My brother and I have this ongoing passive sometimes full on aggressive thing we do. His wife feeds into his end of things. He lives 1 hour from our mother, I live 3000 miles. I will often know more about what is going on than he does. Because I talk to her. One time I was giving him the low down on her state of mind, before our dad passed, and he lit off with a whole string of how awful she was and how this was about him. I had to tell him that not everything was about him, that this was about our mother and depression and SHUT UP neverMIND next time I will NOT SHARE. Then I turned my phone off for the next 12 hours that I was asleep and doing things so I wouldn’t be able to argue with him. When I turned it on he said he had acted like an asshole and he was sorry. So sometimes calling them out works. Not always though. Have FUN IN PARIS.

  3. This:
    I also considered that maybe I can’t let her in anymore. This makes me deeply sad, if only for the selfish reason that not that many people know me, and as I’m losing more connections in my family, I’m also not likely to replace that level of trust with new friendships.

    Do not allow someone who would misuse their access to your emotions to HAVE access to influence your emotional health and well being. I am angry on your behalf. If you go full on angry, let us all go full on angry. I think it could be therapeutic once you have shut her out.

  4. Your Scarlet Letter should be A for Ancredibly perceptive and rational, if ya ask me.
    I find the 8 year age difference between siblings in my household gave us really different experiences in our upbringing. Maybe that is a part of it? It’s sad to think you can’t let her in, but hopefully it’s just temporary. She might understand better in time.
    I can’t wait to see you your Paris pics on fb. Happy Anniversary!

  5. I am LIVID on your behalf. That ambush was uncalled for and untrue. My vote is for “fuck this bullshit” with a side of “rain hellfire” because NOPE.

  6. I agree with the comment re: completely different experiences growing up 8 years apart. My younger brother talked to me a few years ago about “how angry I was” growing up. It made me realize that we had two completely different childhoods. He wasn’t necessarily wrong, but my parents were completely different people raising him than they were with me. It was hurtful in that he couldn’t see the role they played in my anger/depression. But also – I will not – and I hope you won’t – let his (her) view of it make me question my own reality. Hang in there, and thank you for your beautiful, haunting words.

  7. So, if you’re ever randomly cruising through north Idaho, we should meet for coffee and share some micro-aggressions. Added bonus: my husband! He’s got a similar dynamic in his family. Wheeeeee!
    I have had eeriily similar conversations with my little about my anger and our mother’s pitifulness (‘tender-hearted’ in our family), and I feel you about this WTF-edness situation. Sadly I have found, in my family dynamic, that they don’t see it from my point of view, or refuse to. So I end up relenting, putting on a happy face, playing nice and trying to mind my words and actions so that I don’t have to deal with situations like that. I hope that you have better luck if you chose to speak up. I hope that your little is more receptive than mine. She’ll only see herself as an asshole if she really wants to see things from your pov.

    Alright, all that garbage out of the way, have a really great time! Please eat a Nutella crepe for me, and if it’s not on the itinerary, consider Sacre Coeur. And if you have time, flights to London are pretty cheap. Bastille Whiskey (it’s French) is super smooth, if you have access. Just a lot of random words there. Bon voyage et amusez-vous bien!

  8. Ah… the family dynamic, it is a crazy biosphere that is so hard to escape.
    On the one hand, do nothing, except have a great time in Paris.
    On the other hand, rage so Little can see what angry really looks like.
    Ultimately, people see us in the way that is most convenient to them, and generally has much more to do with their own insecurities.
    So, four agreements this shit and move on, no?
    Except, it really also does call for some grieving of the adult relationships we would all like to have with our siblings… you know, the ones where we don’t shove each other into boxes called family dynamic, and we see each other and love each other warts and all.
    Sending you the biggest hug. And, again, hoping you will have a wonderful time in Paris. Happy anniversary!

  9. Pretty sure that when three out of six comments contain the phrase “fuck this bullshit,” you gotta think there is something there. Cuz…. “fuck this bullshit!”

    Sigh…. I would ignore the whole “my husband thinks I’m normal and y’all are nuts,” bit. Of COURSE he thinks she is peachy and you are not. He HAS to subscribe to that because she is HIS brand of fucked up. He MARRIED her, for pete’s sake. I just…. wow. That is super messed up!

    Honestly, I cannot wrap my head around everyone still being in communication with the ex’s. Just. Ew.

  10. Holy shit. Yeah, fuck that bullshit.

    I have some rambling.

    Firstly, *I’m* angry on your behalf. What a thing to be greeted with. How *rude*.

    I wonder what she expected to get out of it? Because how can anyone think that “ha ha I’m the normal one, you’re really angry and mean, and mom’s a poor pitiful soul” will result in anyone wanting to change their behaviour? (I’m NOT saying that you should change your behaviour. I just mean she showed zero emotional intelligence in presenting it to you like that.)

    If she wanted you to actually change something, then she should’ve been a lot more rational and reasonable and NICE to you. She should’ve been on your side. Telling you that she liked how you reacted to your mom about a certain thing. Asking you if you were aware of another bit of evidence that might’ve changed your mind a bit about how mom did this or that. Telling you genuinely that she supports you being angry about these things but wonders if you have the full story about this other thing.

    How she came at you was as if she’d set out to piss you off and make you feel invalidated and wary. Perhaps that was her aim. Hell if I know.

    I am a lot like your mom in some ways; I’m a sucker for a sob story too and sometimes I hate it. And I don’t get angry outwardly all that often, not really. Largely because of emotional issues with my upbringing (my mother got angry a lot and I never felt like we were “allowed” to – I do it, sometimes, but not like lots of people I know).

    I’m a lot like my dad with that too. My dad is a sweetheart, very rarely gets angry.

    And he used to piss my mother off a lot anyway.

    I didn’t really understand this much as a kid. I mostly just saw her being mean to him. But as I got into my teens I began to understand it more and more. Yeah, sometimes she was very mean and aggressive and I hated that a lot, but also he used to slide out from obligations and would come home from work like 5 mins before dinner time, and would spend a lot of time with work needs, and would travel a lot for work. She would occasionally have to entertain people for his work. He didn’t seem to spend time away from us to escape us or to escape his obligations with us. Work was just very busy. He was a loving dad who would play with us and watch TV with us and so on. So I’m not saying my mother drove him to it, not at all, but I can definitely see how even though he was very nice, her anger was still frequently justified. Sometimes he’d listen to her, sometimes he’d just jokingly deflect, and I can see how that would’ve frustrated her even more. He got to be the loving fun one with us and she had to be the disciplinarian because she was around all the time.

    That’s my roundabout way of saying that even when someone is incredibly nice, anger can still be a valid response to elements of their behaviour.

  11. I’ve been glad I’m an only child for most of my life, because I would not want another person to have gone through living life with my mother. Now I realize there are other reasons, like I could have a sibling who thinks my mom is great. FUCK NO. I am so sorry. Your mom did some fucked up shit to you, your mom is doing some things that are breaking your heart, right now, at the very least. You are JUSTIFIABLY ANGRY. Your sister is the peace keeper (so is my mom’s little sister) and fine. Let her do that, To Someone Fucking Else. I know losing family at this age is hard (ask me how I know!), but you should try some boundaries. Write a letter. Rewrite. Let someone read it. Send it. Establish boundaries because you need to take care of yourself, and fewer abusive family members are better than abusive family members fucking up your life. *all the hugs* Have fun in Paris. Fuck that bullshit.

  12. I cannot believe her gall in starting the conversation with an opinion about your daughter. That was completely rude, not to mention an off- limits topic. Nobody has the right to conduct an assessment on someone’s child unless asked. She went way over the limit into deeply personal territory that’s none of her business – and a topic she knows nothing about. And then to use that as a stepping stone to her subjective analysis of you … grrrr. Now I need to go crank up “Shake it Off” by Florence & the Machine.

  13. I sent additional comments to Anne offline that veered away from her situation towards a past one of mine, but I’d like to add to what I wrote here earlier and reinforce what others (and Anne herself) have said. Family bullying is usually about what other people need to unload, and the more emotions bullies try to deny, the more they put you down. Anne, you’ve already stood up to Little in just the right way with the eye contact and “Excuse me…” (in other words).
    I still think you would be right to express your anger. I don’t think you necessarily need to excommunicate her but just step out of the past event and set boundaries (time, place?) to make it easier for yourself the next time, if and whatever (showdown?) it is for. Use “I” messages rather than “you” messages, saying “I think” or “I feel” rather than “You always” or “You shouldn’t.”
    And as you’ve acknowledged before, people who are regularly criticized by others tend to be very critical of themselves as well, so stay the course you’ve been on in letting that go. And fuck “normal.” What is that?


  14. Fuck that bullshit. My brother is a peacekeeper, too, and sometimes there’s just no peace to be had about somethings. Starting off by saying something that she assumes will be insulting to you about your child then turning around and insulting you as well was beyond insensitive. If she wants you to make amends with your mother, she needs to state that clearly rather than making it out like it’s just a personality flaw of yours and your mother’s that is causing the issue. But she had also better be prepared for the righteous indignation and deservedly angry dressing down she’ll get afterwards as well.

    As an aside about the husband: they always think their spouse is the only “normal” one in the family (as if there’s even such a thing as normal). They are there to support whatever harebrained drivel comes out of their spouse’s facehole and so if she says, “I don’t know why this has to be so hard?!?” (Denial) He’s gonna offer up whatever dismissive statement he can come up with to validate her feelings and dismiss yours. Especially if he’s the type to avoid an argument.

    Please go have fun in Paris and stop by all the pretty places while you’re there. And macarons. Because macarons. Nom nom nom

  15. I have had to stop letting one of my sisters in. It’s relief and heartache all at the same time. WE used to confide in each other. But she has lost the ability to keep a secret.

  16. When her opening gambit is to shit talk your daughter, I think “fuck this bullshit” is the most appropriate option. What was she expecting you to say or do?

    Today my husband very kindly let me know that I, too, am an angry woman and that he doesn’t like that about me. To which I say, “too fucking bad.” And your sister, her husband… they don’t like how you cope with the tremendous pain and stress of watching the core of your family unit slowly dissolve? Too fucking bad.

    Just as she is coping the best she can, so are you. I think we can love someone and sympathize with them without necessarily giving them the keys to our inner vulnerabilities if they can’t be trusted with access. It is always heartbreaking to realize that someone who should be trustworthy really isn’t. Maybe there will be a day where you can trust her again. Maybe that day will never come. But for your own sanity, it might be better to protect your heart around her.

    Have a great time in Paris. Leave your worries at home and just allow yourself the freedom to be.

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