Sisters and Other Family Legacies

Last June, following my older son’s Bar Mitzvah ceremony I cornered my mother in the kitchen of my old three-story home in Topeka, Kansas. There I confronted her with the following question: Why had I been put in psychotherapy from the time I was barely out of diapers to what seemed like forever after? As I recently told a friend, I was no crazier than any other kid on the block, but my mother would send me to therapy if I came home with any grade less than a B plus. Of course, I was exaggerating — but not that much.

My mother beamed. “I got it for a dollar;’ she said.

“You got what for a dollar?” I asked, not registering that she had just answered my question.

“The very best therapists for you and Susan!” My mother explained that she had obtained a special health insurance policy that allowed my sister and me to go to weekly therapy sessions for one dollar. Susan’s psychiatrist was nationally acclaimed in psychoanalytic circles; mine was her disciple. This was definitely a bargain.

“Did I have problems?” I pursued uncertainly.

“Of course,” my mother responded reasonably. “Doesn’t everyone?”

Giving her children an early start in therapy obviously reflected more than my mother’s love for a good bargain. She, along with my father, wanted each of her daughters to “be someone,” not just “find someone” as traditional values would have it. To this end, she went for the best of what she believed to be most important. Although we were poor during much of my growing up years in Brooklyn, my mother made sure that my older sister Susan and I had the following four things: (1) a therapist, (2) good shoes (I don’t mean stylish), (3) firm, quality mattresses, and (4) a top pediatrician (none other than Doctor Benjamin Spock, who was also a bargain). My mother was confident that these four things — along with the values and principles she passed down to us — would provide us with the foundation we needed to “be somebody” in the world.

A Matter of Jewishness?

I raised the subject of therapy with my mother because I had been inspired by a recent workshop on ethnicity. In the workshop, family therapist Monica McGoldrick contrasted Jews with her own ethnic group (Irish) and several others. Her intention, she explained, was not to stereotype or simplify people but rather to help therapists appreciate the different filters through which we (and our clients) view the world. For the first time I connected my mother’s belief in the promise of psychotherapy to my Jewish heritage.

Monica noted that Jews enter therapy more readily than any other ethnic group and that they stay longer, seeing it as an opportunity to learn and to understand. In one example she shared, when the therapist tactfully suggested to a Jewish family that they were ready to leave treatment, the father explained that the money for therapy had already been budgeted in for the coming year, so they would stay. To Monica (being Irish), such a rationale must surely have sounded bizarre. It made perfect sense to me.

I loved this workshop because I resonated with everything Monica described as “Jewish.” My family fit all the stereotypes, which pleased as much as it surprised me. I grew up without Jewish education, traditions, or rituals. I was not, as I so often put it, “raised Jewish.” But sitting in Monica’s workshop I felt deeply connected to my Jewish legacy. I had been raised Jewish despite everything.

“My Daughters the Doctors”

Some ethnic groups prefer that their children not dazzle, boast, or shine. A dear friend (Anglo-Saxon Protestant) says she was expected to be competent and successful but only in a quiet, inconspicuous way. Being a good team player was more important than hitting the winning home run. From my Jewish perspective, my friend is still dimming her lights.

My sister Susan and I were expected to excel — and not quietly. Expectations were high, and therapy was but one vehicle to help ensure that at least internal obstacles would not block our way. As far back as I remember, my father talked about “my two daughters the doctors” to anyone who would listen. Even as a small child I knew I would eventually obtain a doctorate the way other girls knew they would graduate from high school.

My mother wanted Susan and me to make a significant contribution to society, like her beloved younger brother Bo. My father wanted to brag about his daughters and we provided him with the material. If the material wasn’t up to standard, he would, like a good Jewish father, exaggerate a bit, or a lot.

Holding Up the Rear

Part of my job in the family was to hold up the intellectual rear. For as long as I can remember, Susan, five years my senior, has been the brilliant star, shining larger than life in my father’s eyes. At particularly difficult times in family life (such as when my mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was twelve), I was an outright rebel, but even after I shaped up, my status as the intellectual underdog persisted. The decals from the non-Ivy League schools I attended were never put on the family car window alongside Susan’s decals from Barnard, Yale, and Stanford. Susan became a scientist. I became a “good listener” (i.e., a clinical psychologist).

Family roles can be carved in stone. I recall one visit to my parents’ home in Phoenix at a time when my first book, The Dance of Anger, was heading toward bestsellerhood, and my work was being widely featured in the national and international media. I was mailing my parents weekly clippings that ran the gamut from the National Enquirer to The New York Times. I had even made my appearance on the Phil Donahue show. At the same time, my sister Susan was struggling mightily with career issues and having a hard time of it. As my father boasted about my accomplishments to a disinterested acquaintance, he ended on the following gratuitous note: “Harriet is bright, but you should meet my other daughter Susan. Susan is brilliant.”

In the past, I had snapped at him or teased him about this business. But later that afternoon I said to him warmly, “You know, Dad, I have the feeling that even if I won the Nobel Prize, I’d always be miles behind Susan in your eyes.”

My father’s response was matter-of-fact. “Well, yes,” he said, “I think that’s true!’

“How do you understand that?” I asked. At this particular moment I felt only a genuine curiosity.

“Well,” he explained, “You would win a Nobel Prize because you excelled in a particular area. But Susan is brilliant in every area. I don’t think anyone is as brilliant as Susan.”

My Uncle Bo
My parents valued both intellect and accomplishment, each communicating these values in a particular way; my father by his outright and unashamed labeling of Susan as the most brilliant person to inhabit the planet, my mother by the way she talked about some other party with particularly intense admiration. The other party was sometimes a precocious child; for example, my musically gifted second cousin who played with Leonard Bernstein at an ungodly early age. But most often it was her younger brother Bo.

I have no words to convey the intensity and depth of my mother’s admiration for her only brother, who in 1970 while changing a tire at the side of the road, was killed by a careless driver. Bo was 57 years old and about to become a grandfather. I was living in Berkeley when my mother called me long distance to tell me of the tragedy. She said it should have been her, not Bo.

Not Bo, not only because she loved him, but also because she saw him as so special. He had stood on principle during the McCarthy era, risking not only his job (which he lost) but also his life. Later, as a pioneer in sex education and other liberal causes, he had contributed greatly to society through his writing and his work. He was killed with a book in progress, I believed his third. My Uncle Bo was a man of such few words that I did not come to know him through the time our families spent together. Rather, I saw him through my mother’s eyes as a man of unparalleled integrity, courage, and intelligence who always did the right thing and who was loved by everyone. At some unconscious level, I grew up thinking I was supposed to be Bo, or marry him or give birth to him. Perhaps I have tried to do a bit of all three. Interestingly, my first son was born on Bo’s birthday.

My mother’s idealization of Bo was more complex, more richly textured, than was my father’s idealization of Susan. But it had no less an impact on family life. My father could not hold a candle to Bo; he could not even begin to enter the competition. As I see it now, there was a connection between two interlocking family triangles: the triangle consisting of my mother, my father, and Bo, and the triangle consisting of my father, my sister, and me. In these triangles my father and I were comrades in “one-down-ness.” Susan and Bo were stars.

A Postscript on Idealization
My mother was the first of four siblings born to Russian immigrant parents. As in most Jewish families, the education of sons was the highest priority. Because resources were scarce, only Bo was able to attend college and he eventually earned his Ph.D. My mother, always hungry for education and at the top of her class, took the commercial program in high school and then found a job to help support her family. Like her two sisters, she is a high school graduate.

My mother expresses no bitterness about this state of affairs which she sees as the only plausible arrangement for family members at the time. And although she has vast feminist sympathies, she does not consider gender a factor that stacked the deck in her brother’s favor. By her own report she has never felt a trace of envy, resentment, or rivalry regarding Bo’s position of greater privilege. It simply made sense.

By labeling Bo as so special my mother could avoid seeing herself as an honest competitor for scarce goods. Idealization can make inequality more palatable, competition impossible. It was as if Bo always belonged in a class by himself, the intellectual gulf between Bo and his sisters, fathomless. Such a polarized perspective left no room for anger.

Looking Toward Children
My mother and her mother, Henne, faced hardships that I cannot imagine, beginning with my grandmother’s traumatic emigration from the Old Country. Life was never easy; the challenge was survival, not self-actualization. Henne was in failing health after the birth of her youngest child and she died in poverty at age 44 from tuberculosis. My mother, a competent and responsible firstborn, raised her youngest sister and quietly did whatever needed to be done. In her own words, she was “never a child.”

My mother, like Bo, had a special position in her family. She was “the good one,” “the responsible one,” and her mother’s closest confidant. My mother was the only one of the children allowed to visit her mother in the state sanitarium where Henne stayed until her death. My mother chose, as my grandmother wished, to never discuss these visits with the other three children, who were not to be burdened with the horrid details of their mother’s surroundings. To this day, my mother has kept the silence.

If the bare facts tell of hardship and deprivation, the emotional experience of family members transcends them. There is no trace of martyrdom or self-pity in my mother’s stories of her past. Rather, she speaks of her family with a love and warmth that can only leave one feeling proud to be a member of this remarkable clan. Once I asked her, “Why wasn’t your mother depressed? How come life didn’t get her down? My mother answered simply: “Because she knew that her children would do well.”

Life never got my mother down either, at least not for long. My mother, now 80, has always been a strong and spirited survivor, triumphing over three cancers and whatever obstacles were placed in her path. What has been the source of this enormous strength and love of life? In her words, “I had faith in my children. I knew that you and Susan were special. My children were the most important thing in my life”

The Dilemma of Success
During a recent trip to Phoenix, my husband Steve went to see my father in the nursing home where he now resides. At the close of this visit, my father reflected, “You know, Harriet has become the famous one. But Susan was supposed to be the famous one. Susan was really the Golden Girl.” He paused and then added, “I wonder if Harriet ever thinks about that.”

“I’m sure she does, Archie,” was my husband’s reply.

When we do not think about things consciously, our unconscious does it for us. While I have been freer than many women to “go for it,” I’ve had my fair share of conflicts about “getting it.” When my first book was published I anticipated imminent tragedy. When it hit The New York Times bestseller list I began checking my breasts (or fearing to check them) for lumps. With each new leap forward and upward in my career, I have imagined all varieties of ill fortune, from my younger son being kidnapped to my plane plummeting toward the ground in flames. Fortunately, these anxieties are transient and I manage to have a good time in between.

My difficulties with success only partly reflect the emotional dilemma of surpassing my sister, thus violating family roles and rules. More significantly, I have a case of what I have described in the professional literature as “multigenerational guilt.” Throughout my lifetime, I have felt a pressure to succeed for my mother and grandmother, proving by my contributions that the hardships and suffering of the previous generations have not been in vain. At the same time, I have felt anxious and guilty about having for myself what the bright and ambitious women of the previous generations could not have.

I have brought this complex dilemma out in the open and worked on it during the past few years. Susan, too, has been working on her own feelings surrounding achievement and success. She has learned, as a well known feminist once put it, that a pedestal (like a prison) is a very small space to walk around on.

Cracks in the Old Roles
My son’s Bar Mitzvah last June was the first time my entire first family — my mother, my father, Susan and I — gathered in a synagogue. Since we have been allergic to religious rituals, I was surprised we felt so deeply the importance of this day. Perhaps nothing is really carved in stone. Change, however slow, is always happening even as we cling to our old stories.

As our families gathered the night before the big event, one of Steve’s relatives praised my work. Without missing a beat, my father began to expound on my sister’s incomparable brilliance, implying that I could not hold a candle to her. Those who didn’t know our family well were embarrassed and taken aback by his comments made at my expense, but it was old stuff to me. I knew that my father loved me and that he was enormously proud of me. He was just doing his thing.

The next morning at the temple, moments before the Bar Mitzvah ceremony began, my father motioned for me to come to his side. Although my father is a high school graduate, he has a distinguished, almost professorial way of speaking. He is not prone to direct emotional expression.

“Harriet,” he said, “last night I was not able to sleep. Instead I found myself reflecting and contemplating on many things in life.” He paused and cleared his throat. I could not imagine what was coming next.

“One of the things I was pondering,” he continued, “was the comment that I made about you and Susan last night. I have decided to make a promise that I will never do that again.” Suddenly my father began to shake and cry. “I’m so sorry,” he said between sobs. “I’m so sorry.” I hugged my father and told him that I loved him. His apology was very much appreciated, although no longer needed.

My father’s love was more than evident by his very presence at the Bar Mitzvah. Almost 80 and in poor health, he had travelled against medical advice. Everyone knew it was too much for him, but he was firm in his resolve to mobilize his remaining energy and strength to make it to Topeka.

My father collapsed less than a week after returning to Phoenix and was put in a nursing home following an initial hospitalization. He will never be able to return to his home — a situation that was coming, but hastened by the strenuous trip. What was most important to my father was that he made it to the Bar Mitzvah. Neither of my parents would have missed it for anything. And this from folks who, as I once (but no longer) put it, “didn’t raise me Jewish.”

In recent years, each of us has grown more curious, thoughtful and objective about family members — and more open about ourselves. As I learn about the previous generations in greater depth and detail, I am better able to place my own achievements in perspective.

During my last visit to Phoenix, it hit me that my internalized drama of “My poor suffering mother!” and — “Lucky, successful me!” is yet another glib and false polarity. My mother would not have traded her life for mine. And her successes, from my current vantage point, are as considerable as anything Susan and I might aspire to.

My mother’s achievements are evident in the sort of person she is and how she has conducted her life. Her intelligence, her quiet dignity and courage, and her strength of character reflect the influence of her proud, close knit immigrant family and the adversities they encountered that broke everything but their spirits. I am grateful that both of my parents have survived long enough for me to know them better and to tell them of my admiration and love. We are learning that there is more than one way to be a star — and room for more than one star in a family.

Harriet Goldhor Lerner, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. Harper and Row has just released her latest book, The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman’s Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships (Spring, 1989). They will publish a paperback edition of Women in Therapy in June 1989. Her international bestseller, The Dance of Anger, was first published in 1985.