My Family Is My Greatest Disappointment

By Dawn Clancy 09/06/19

Even though my aunt knows I've scrubbed my stepmom from my life in an attempt to stop and reverse years of psychological abuse, manipulation, and mind fuckery, it's a reality she refuses to accept.

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Unhappy woman sits apart from happy family members
This wasn't the first time my aunt casually glossed over a boundary I erected to preserve my health and well-being. ID 116611096 © Viacheslav Iacobchuk | Dreamstime.com

HE IS RISEN!

This was the one-line email I woke up to on Easter Sunday. It was from my aunt, my dad's youngest sibling. Growing up, my cousins and I agreed that she was the cool aunt, the one who took us to the Philadelphia Zoo in the summer and let us drink gallons of Pepsi when our parents weren't around. But I wasn't thinking about that when I opened her Easter email; instead, I was silently fuming over who she publicly copied. As I scrolled through the list, my stepmother's address appeared directly under my dad's and if I could see hers, that meant she could see mine.

I imagined my aunt sitting in front of her computer screen. She would have entered my dad's email first, because he's her oldest brother. Immediately after, she’d insert my stepmother because she's my dad's wife. And I had no doubt my email was added under my stepmom's because my aunt thought of the three of us—my dad, my stepmom, and me—as a family, as if we fell into a ditch and were covered over in cement. But we're not, and we haven't been for more than 20 years.

And even though my aunt knows I've scrubbed my stepmom from my life in an attempt to stop and reverse years of psychological abuse, manipulation, and mind fuckery, it's a reality she refuses to accept. As a result, my email address landed, free of charge, in my stepmom's inbox. Whether she uses it or not is not the issue, it's that she has it when my aunt knows I don't want her to.

This wasn't the first time my aunt casually glossed over a boundary I erected to preserve my health and well-being.

Years ago, there was an incident at my grandmother's funeral. After the burial, everyone headed back to my aunt's house for lunch. Both my dad and stepmom were there, and by that point, I'd been estranged from my stepmom for nearly a decade. As I climbed out of the car, my aunt, with camera in hand, corralled the three of us together on the front lawn. Looking at me she pulled her arms apart as if holding an accordion.

"I want a picture of the three of you."

I looked at her and shook my head, "What?"

"Please." She said firmly. "I need a picture of the three of you."

My stepmom stood next to my dad, and I watched as she slowly rolled her shoulders in towards her chest and puffed her bottom lip out like a child on the verge of sticking her thumb in her mouth. Feeling outnumbered, I glared at my aunt, hoping she would give up and back off. But instead, she got angry. In a petulant fit, she slammed her arms down, stomped her right foot, and demanded, "I want a picture."

At that time, I didn't know how to defend my boundaries. Saying no or walking away from my aunt at that moment would've been a blatant act of disrespect. I didn't want to offend my aunt, but today I can't help but wonder why it was okay for her to offend me.

In the end, I did what I felt was the right thing to do; I walked over and stood next to my stepmom. Immediately, my body flared up in protest. My stomach cramped, my hands trembled, and my breath got caught in the back of my throat. My aunt raised her camera and took the shot. I don't know about my dad or stepmom, but I know I didn't smile.

Back at my computer, I hit reply (not reply all) and mentally wrestled with my response. I was angry, but I didn't know what I could tell my aunt about my relationship with my stepmom that I hadn't already said before. And as my fingertips rested on the keyboard, I acknowledged, for the first time, what I was feeling was beyond anger. It was disappointment. 

I wanted to tell my aunt how disappointed I was in her. But then I realized it wasn’t just my aunt who let me down. It's also my dad, who drank himself stupid, and my brothers, who in their fifth decade of life have yet to kick their drug habits. It's a cousin who overdosed on heroin, and every uncle who died of alcoholism. It's all the other addicts I'm related to who through the years traded blowjobs for crack. And it’s every other family member who, like my aunt, continues to look the other way because they don't have the guts to acknowledge reality. I want to ask my aunt if she's ever looked at the miserable picture she took of my dad, my stepmom, and me at my grandmother's funeral and I want to know if she can see the truth now.

As I mulled over my response, I decided the email I wanted to send—about how our family has been my greatest disappointment—wasn't worth the effort. So, I replied to my aunt with a question I knew she’d be happy to answer.

WHO'S RISEN?

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Dawn Clancy is a freelance writer based in New York. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Fix, The Establishment, Dame Magazine and others. Her website is growingupchaotic.com.

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