Why do I tell sad stories about my past life, on my blog and sometimes IRL?
For sure, they aren’t easy to listen to or read. For that matter, they aren’t easy to tell. I do not like to relive them. I also worry about being rejected by friends when I tell them. After all, there is presumably a certain point when enough’s enough. Most people like to be around friends who make them feel happy, not friends who seem to be consumed with sad things that happened in the past. So I try not to tell them too often IRL.
Sometimes, I tell them because it’s like a poison that is taking me over. A poison that I am trying to expel. Maybe if I write it or speak it, it will leave me for once and for all. Maybe it will be like vomiting—you feel awful before you do it, you feel awful while doing it, you feel awful afterwards… but then ultimately, whatever-it-was that disagreed with you is gone, and you feel better. Maybe I can finally shed these awful memories, and somehow become like everyone else. Like, not haunted. Normal.
Well, that’s the hope. But so far, it hasn’t worked.
Sometimes, I tell them because they still bother me. It’s like the thorn in your foot that left a bit of itself behind even when you pulled it out. A bit that’s too small to see, but it still hurts. Yes, the story is in the past, but it still haunts me, because there is something about it that I can’t figure out. Usually, why things happened the way they did. Sometimes, I can’t figure out if a particular person who acted a particular way was in the wrong or not. Or what the incident should or should not have told me about his or her personality or priorities. So, I tell the story hoping that someone will know the answer. Someone whose judgment is better, who knows more about human beings and what is or isn’t acceptable behavior than I do.
No, I don’t want pity. I want insight.
I am not the only person who tells these stories. My kids do too. But they do not usually tell them as sad stories. To them, these are odd, sometimes funny, yet strangely disturbing stories.
Recently, I was taken aback when two of my kids retold the same story. On different occasions, independently, and without any prompting from me. It’s a story that haunts me because I don’t understand it. I guess it haunts them too.
One of my sons spontaneously began reminiscing when I saw him last. He began to tell about something that happened years ago when my ex took us with him to his homeland, which at that time was a war zone with militias ruling over various patches of territory. The detritus of war was everywhere, with burned-out government buildings, spent (and unspent) ammunition scattered on the ground in places, and now and again, the remains of a tank.
I ended up in a life-threatening situation, the details of which I will not go into. But I was a hair’s breadth from death, and my oldest child (who cannot have been more than six at the time) was standing about fifteen yards away looking at me with absolute horror on his face, thinking that I was going to die before his eyes. My ex and the men with him just calmly turned away. They weren’t going to wait and see what happened—or even comfort my child.
I did survive, obviously. My ex never discussed what happened afterwards, at least not with me. He never justified it, never apologized for it, never even explained it.
I don’t know how my younger son even knows the story. He was not even a year old when it happened. Although he was present, he cannot possibly remember.
My oldest child remembers. And he too began talking about it to his partner when I was visiting him recently.
Interestingly, he prefaced the story by saying to his partner, “Well you know Mom, she’s crazy, so she went off the road and….”
After hearing him say that, so much became clearer to me.
This brought back so many memories. My son was talking just like my ex used to talk. That was just the way that my ex would have told the story, had he been telling it.
I was crazy/silly/strange/too emotional/not being reasonable, and X happened. Isn’t that funny?!?
Yes, totally. What an amazing slight-of-hand. Now, the attention of the audience is on “crazy/silly/weird/emotional” Mom, and not on my ex’s actions. Now, it’s all about me, and how it was my fault, because I do “silly” things… and my ex’s actions aren’t even up for discussion, much less judgment.
Even though looking back, I can’t imagine myself even seeing a total stranger in such a life-threatening situation, and calmly turning away. Or ignoring a kid—much less a kid who is my own!—in circumstances like that. But hey, what’s a man to do when he’s stuck with a “crazy” woman?? Surely he merits everyone’s deep sympathy for having to deal with a wife like that, poor man.
Just the other day, I was finally able to put into words some of what bothers me about that incident: Did he actually want me to die? Maybe he just didn’t really care one way or another? Why did he ignore his own son—I know that he loves him?
And why did the other brothers turn away too?
Presumably, they did so because they didn’t see his behavior as objectionable or wrong. So, I guess it wasn’t? I mean, they were good brothers. They were not monsters, they were pious and reasonably decent people.
This is where it gets complicated.
Because of course lots of awful things happen in war zones. I could explain it away by saying that those brothers (and my ex, for that matter) had already seen plenty of death and tragedy. One more dead woman, one more terrified kid in those circumstances was nothing. And if they’d let themselves get upset about it, then they’d have quickly become unable to deal with daily life in that place.
But looking back, I notice that this sort of thing happened again and again in my marriage. Not on the same horrifying scale, of course. My life wasn’t usually on the line. But my ex would usually manage to be absent—physically, if possible, or if not possible, emotionally—whenever I was upset, afraid, giving birth to a child, dealing with a miscarriage, seriously ill… and he’d expect my friends to step in and help me and my kids, or me to just suck it up and deal. He would even be in the same room as me, and just ignore me. He’d get angry when I couldn’t just snap out of it/ignore the pain/get better in a flash and do whatever it was that he wanted me to do.
Of course other people knew that this went on, including the brothers. His friends, in otherwords. One brother in particular would get impatient with my ex’s behavior, because he argued that my ex should “take responsibility” for his own wife and his own kids and not expect other people (meaning, his wife, who was a good friend of mine) to have to take on that burden instead.
But I am not aware of anyone ever objecting to my ex’s behavior because it was in and of itself wrong. Wrong because it was cruel and abusive. No, the issue was that my ex was burdening others with the care of his wife and kids.
When everyone sees something and doesn’t object, then the message (intended or not) is that this is acceptable behavior. Especially in an insular community like mine, in which everyone minded everyone else’s business and would loudly object to people “doing haraam.”
For years, I thought this was acceptable behavior. Sure, it shamed me in front of the community—other women’s husbands (or if they had husbands like mine, families) didn’t seem to find their very existence a burden. So, there must be something deeply wrong with me. I must be fatally flawed. After all, if there was something really wrong about what he was doing, then the brothers wouldn’t be going along with it.
But anyway, that was presumably the way he was. He wasn’t emotionally demonstrative, he was busy, and he preferred the company of his friends to me and the kids. As he said, this was his culture. And I had to deal. All the books and sermons about how to be a good Muslim wife emphasized that—that it is the wife’s job to understand what makes her husband tick, and to provide it. And, that she must avoid making demands on him. A man had the right to a wife that pleases him—but the reverse was not the case. After all, “your husband is your paradise or your hell” (it’s a hadith).
* * * * * * *
When I got out of that conservative, insular Muslim bubble and went back to school and then work, one of the first things that struck me was how strange it was when men listened to what I had to say, and even seemed to think that my ideas were worth something. Especially when the man in question was older, or had a more senior position. Or when a man would listen when I gave reasons why I didn’t think X was a good idea, and would even take that as my refusing to do it, so he wouldn’t get mad or try to pressure me into doing it anyway. It actually shocked me the first time that a man showed concern when I was upset about something. It still does surprise me, actually.