The powerful story of an ordinary woman

by Jerry Waxler

I first met Linda Wisniewski seven years ago at a critique group in Doylestown, PA. Within a few months she announced that one of her essays was going to be broadcast on her local public radio station. I was impressed by her accomplishment, proud to know the author of one of these radio essays. She left the group, and later I heard from a friend that Linda was teaching a course in memoir writing at the Bucks County Community College. Recently, I saw her again, at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania autographing copies of her memoir, “Off Kilter.” Thanks to her persistent passion for telling her story, I can read her book and ponder the gifts her life has now offered me.

The crisis that drives the book is the author’s relationship to her mother. As Mom slipped towards dementia, their relationship became strained. Mom struggled inconsistently, sometimes accepting her fate and other times bitterly afraid of going into a nursing home. During this disturbing reversal of roles, when a child must care for her parent, problems that have been buried for a lifetime bubble to the surface.

Naturally, Mom raised Linda to be a good girl. The problem was that Mom’s idea of a “good girl” was fashioned from an older world, when girls were supposed to stay invisible and do what they were told. Linda didn’t want to follow this training. She wanted to expand towards the freedom of an American woman in the Twentieth Century. These two opposing views of a woman’s role played out in a million homes, as daughters tried to find their identity in a world drastically different from the one their mothers were trying to teach. The resulting schisms were buried for decades under layers of politeness and other charades.

With Mom’s strength failing, and Linda thinking it was time for a nursing home, the stress reaches a crescendo, and Mom explodes, “You’ve made a mess of my life.” This attack jumped out at me. What a hurtful thing to say! I wondered what the “mess” was. My first interpretation was that Mom was looking for a handy target to blame for the downward slide of old age. Then I realized that Linda’s development as a proud, independent woman did create a mess. It messed up her mother’s goal of raising a submissive daughter.

Mom’s outburst makes me wonder what other hurtful things she said to her daughter through the years. Since Mom has been teaching her daughter the importance of being passive, it seems surprising that she would use such an aggressive outburst. And again, putting myself in Linda’s shoes, I saw another lesson embedded in Mom’s behavior. That is, if you want to manipulate another person, then cause them pain.

Psychology lessons from Off Kilter

When I was in graduate school, I took a course called “Assertiveness.” I had always assumed the assertiveness meant “pushy,” so I was surprised by how much insight the word contained. The professor explained it this way.

When you need something from another person, such as love, or privacy, you must communicate. Consider these two approaches. One option is to express your needs in words, using simple statements to help the other person understand what you are feeling. This style of communication called “assertiveness” leaves people feeling good about themselves and draws them closer to each other. The other option is to convey your displeasure by causing the other person pain, in effect punishing them for not giving you what you wanted. The pain causes the other person to pull away, resulting in isolation. Or else the hurt one fights back, creating a sickening embrace of attack and counter-attack.

Through the years since I took the class, I have often seen this dynamic play out in the behavior of individuals and nations, sometimes using aggression to cause pain, and other times using clear communication to reduce pain and enhance mutual understanding. But seldom have I seen it represented with more exquisite insight than in Linda Wisniewski’s tale of trying to help her mother.

I am not my mother

When Mom lashes out, it would be tempting for Linda to draw on her childhood training and respond in the way her mother taught her. Her choices were limited. She could either become aggressive, like her mother, and lash back. Or she could remain quiet, becoming the victim. Of course, neither course is desirable. The high road was to break away and strive towards clear, patient communication. Linda beautifully portrays the power of these difficult choices, as she tries to respect and love her mother, while not “becoming” her mother.

Lifelong process in this adult Coming of Age story

Using flashbacks, Linda shows her journey from child to adult, striking upward like a climber on a hard scrabble mountain. During the climb she was too young and too caught up in the process of growing to be able to step back and understand her family dynamics. As a result, she entered adulthood with unresolved issues. Now, as Mom is growing old, they struggle for warmth amidst their interpersonal tensions. At first, a cloud of doubt descends upon me, making me feel pessimistic about the possibility of love in such a situation.

As I ponder the memoir Off Kilter, I find another dimension that offers me uplifting hope and optimism. By writing her story, Linda has performed a remarkable service to herself and her readers. She has broken the code of silence, and exposed her family dynamics to the world, where we can all compare notes. In a sense, she has taken the high road of assertiveness, not only in her relationship to her mother, but more broadly, as a responsible neighbor and friend. This assertive book can help readers understand her, and by sharing her experience, she helps us understand ourselves.

Links

“Off Kilter: A Woman’s Journey to Peace with Scoliosis, Her Mother, and Her Polish Heritage”  by Linda Wisniewski
Linda Wisniewski’s Home Page
Amazon Link for Off Kilter
For another book about a daughter caring for her mother, see Carol O’Dell’s Mothering Mother
To read my essay about Mothering Mother, click here.

3 thoughts on “The powerful story of an ordinary woman

  1. I can definitely relate to the two choices discussed in your Assertiveness Class. That is, letting someone know what you need from them by either simply asking for it (not always an easy thing to do) or by causing them them pain (maybe by lashing out or making them feel guilty that they hadn’t thought of your needs on their own, without prompting).

    I’ve experienced this from both ends of the spectrum, in my own family, as I’m sure many of us have. Very often, because we don’t simply ask for what we want, anger and frustration simmers within us till it reaches the boiling point. Then we often say something we regret.

    Randall Collins speaks about this in his book Sociological Insight: An Introduction to Non-Obvious Sociology. In chapter 3, “The Paradoxes of Power,” Collins tells us that any tacit social agreement can only endure untill someone questions it. So, for instance, we might tolerate rude behavior, like a friend or loved one always coming late to important family functions because we’re too embarrassed to tell him that he is being rude and inconsiderate. It’s a sort of unspoken agreement that he will continue his rude behavior and never be questioned or chastised.

    Then, one day, after we’ve reached the boiling point, we “tell him off” for being so selfish.

    Too much, too late.

    If we had only asked him to please be a little more considerate by being punctual, we could have avoided unnecessary conflict and insult.

    With this said, I find it very hard to “simply ask” for what I want. I know I repress too much of the anger welling up, rather than face a possible confrontation.

  2. Hi Tom,

    Thanks for the reference. I love sociology – that is, the study of how people relate to each other in groups. And you’ve made a powerful point. The skill of assertiveness is wonderful in theory, but it takes a lot of commitment to relearn old habits.

    So yes, it’s hard, and yes, it’s worthwhile. Like writing a memoir, lots of good things start with good ideas, and then require effort to keep going.

    Jerry

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