Whose house is this?
Whose night keeps out the light
Say, who owns this house?
It’s not mine.
I dreamed another, sweeter, brighter,
With a view of lakes crossed in painted boats;
Of fields wide as arms open for me.
This house is strange.
Its shadows lie.
Say, tell me, why does its lock fit my key?
– Toni Morrison, Home
I was a 16 year old girl. My bedroom was on the ground floor, next to the kitchen. The house was prefabricated. My earliest memories are of it being built but I hadn’t lived in it for 7 years. I used to play among the beams of a skeleton shelter. The house sat at the foot of the Jura mountains in France, a 15 minute drive to the Swiss border. The close was called Le Trelatour, its meaning not clear. Tre could be Latin for three. Latour is a topographic name for someone who lived near a tower, usually a defensive fortification or watchtower, from Old French tur. Tour in French can mean a fixed outline or loop. It was my 6th international relocation, never having lived in my country of origin. This was due to my father’s work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. I awoke to a terrible sound, a keening coming through my window. I followed it outside. There was a a septic tank at the driveway to our house. My mother was trapped inside it, naked, blind drunk and wailing for my father. It was me who hauled her out, it was me she vomited on.
“Marie showed me where her family was, in the latrines,” my mother said, collapsed on the grass.
“Who is Marie?” I asked
“Marie!” she shouted back, exasperated
My father turned up and I transferred her to him. I then took a shower. I brushed my teeth and spat out the toothpaste at my reflection. Back in bed, I lay with my eyes wide open staring at the light from the street lamp.
Over the years, I would piece together that Marie was a victim of the Rwandan genocide. My mother would have met her in Kigali when she went to demobilize child soldiers, working as a child psychologist. I had to piece it together because my mother certainly wasn’t going to. It was expected that I was to have full knowledge of what was going on in her head. I knew that the next day was going to be bad and I was correct. My mother limped about with my father doting on her, though this never lasted. She ignored me and I certainly didn’t get a thank you or an I’m sorry. I still haven’t. It was the longest time I was to receive this recurring silent treatment.
I was frequently dispatched to beyond fortress walls, never knowing when I’d be allowed back in. It was a trip to Wales two years before that had started it all in motion. Its houses and streets brought utter despair for my mother, triggering oblivion with bottles of wine. Any fun my sister and I had with our aunt was watched sullenly by my mother as if we were traitors. She had had no safe home and so had unconsciously transmitted that to us too. Except ours had been waiting in borderlands, like the ones marked on a political map. We had no time to belong to the countries we found ourselves in. Their values, religious beliefs, rules, expectations or concepts of space and time were ours to experience but never have.
I got on with my studying, keeping my exam timetable on an IKEA pinboard. My IGCSEs were my ticket out of this chaos. I had already decided to finally repatriate and finish my education in England at boarding school. I had no other choice. I had no siblings to turn to, no extended family, no old friends I could maintain, no church, no culture I could sync with and the extreme loneliness of peers or teachers who did not know me. These are the perils of a high mobility and international childhood. I should have had a refuge but instead I turned a key to domestic violence. That I felt this, though couldn’t yet articulate, was an achievement in itself but I would get no recognition from my parents. I called a spade and a spade and I would be punished for it. I include my father in this, his responses to my appeals for help were met with;
“What are you talking about?”
“What do you mean?”
“When did this happen?”
“Where was I?”
“What do you want me to do about it?”
My frustration at his passive aggression and enabling would later just turn to disgust. When I tried to organise an intervention I was laughed out of court. I was making a fuss my mother would sneer as if she’d got one over on me. My pleas for professional help for the family or my mother going to AA meetings sparked hostility. Offering solutions or worse, telling an outsider what was going on, was high treason. My siblings had grown up or were in different countries. There were big age gaps and so we saw different sides to my mother. My father was often away on missions in the Horn of Africa or Rwanda. He took a non family posting to Central Asia and a consultancy in Montenegro. She used this to divide and rule, her favourite weapon golden childing and black sheeping. And because we were newbies in the new countries we moved to, this was a way to keep it all a secret. There was no community to keep checks and balances. Did the moving contribute to the alcoholism? More interesting, was the moving a way to fuel it? Its the chicken and the egg. Playing to a fresh public but behind closed doors tormenting your own children was like being bound in a vice.
I left the nest at age 17. My mother was distraught at the airport. I remember it because it was authentic. In the film The Prestige, the character Sarah is torn apart by not knowing if her husband really loves her;
Alfred Borden: Everything’s going to be alright, because I love you very much.
Sarah: Say it again.
Alfred Borden: I love you.
Sarah: Not today.
Alfred Borden: What do you mean?
Sarah: Well some days it’s not true.
Having some days it being true became not good enough for me.Stephen King understands alcoholism. He captures it so well in his novel The Shining. He knows that the alcoholic can love their child and that the child loves them back, it’s one of the saddest truths of abused children. It is this love that destroys the infamous Overlook Hotel. Curiously, they did not include this incredible element of the book in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation. It was Jack Nicholson who stole the show even though the real star was the COA Danny. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Stephen King was spot on when he describes the father acting like an alcoholic even when he’s sober. I’ve seen that too. I miss my mother and I grieve that I don’t have one anymore. I had to give myself permission to feel that. I often wonder what happened to her as most, if not all of my memories of her from before adolescence were so happy. There were red flags. I have a memory of going down a hallway in our house in Virginia, towards the sound of my newborn sister crying. My mother saw me and slammed the door in my face. When that same sister had to wear eye patches as she had an infection, it hadn’t stopped her from carrying on learning to walk. I held out my hands to help her. I can still jump at the interruption as if it happened yesterday.
“Don’t touch her!” she screamed at me, slapping my hands
There is a beautifully translated book by Delphine De Vigan called Nothing Holds Back The Night. The author chronicles the search for her mother Lucile who disappears into addiction and mental illness. She finds a photo of her and the description resonated;
Lucile appears in profile. She’s wearing a black polo neck and holding a cigarette in her left hand. She seems to be looking at someone or something, but she’s probably not looking at anything. Her smile has an elusive sweetness. Lucile’s black is like the painter Pierre Soulages’s. Lucile’s black is an ultra-black, whose reflections, intense highlights and mysterious light point to an elsewhere.
During my 20s, I was adjusting as a hidden immigrant to life in London and I also lived in China and the United Arab Emirates. I visited my parents on reverse home leaves in France or Russia. I’d regularly hear her crashing around the house at night. She’d light her cigarettes on lit hobs and leave them on, she’d crash the car on the way home from parties. She stole the thunder from my sister’s 18th birthday party, secretly drinking and then entertaining with some saccharine speech. All the guests loved it but my sister went to bed early. She’d shake her head and clutch her heart at NSPCC appeals. She drunk dialled my husband’s family across the Atlantic one Christmas whilst my grandmother was gravely ill in another room.I found my invitation to university graduation discarded on the kitchen table. She stayed behind with late guests at my wedding when the family photos were being taken. She’d greet me drunk after I travelled more than 24 hours from Shanghai. She telephoned me when we lived in Abu Dhabi to say she was in a motel and that she’d left my father.
“I have to be at work tomorrow,” I told her
“Oh? But it’s Sunday tomorrow,”
“The weekends are Friday and Saturday here,”
“Yes, I have to get to sleep,”
I was starting to understand with much clarity that my mother demanded empathy, was even too empathetic for the people she was involved with in her aid work but catastrophically had no empathy for her own children. Charity begins at home doesn’t it? It doesn’t end there but it has to begin there. I dreamt another path for my life. What is the point of empathy if it’s not reciprocated? I’d be scorned for being cold if I confided in friends.
“She’s your mother and she’s having a hard time,”
So I stopped telling people about it. How could they see the whole canvas? How could they see that my mother wasn’t having a hard time but that the hard time was her life? Since my teens, it had been nothing but crisis after crisis. And those same people chiding me never considered that I never wanted to develop this hardness inside me.
I still see my mother today. There are spots of sunshine but they never last. I don’t know if she still drinks. She still uses tactics to violate my boundaries but as I’ve had front row access to her ways, I am able to manage them. It is a relationship with strict border controls, both internal and external, and no visa extension. This is especially important since I became a mother.You know when they tell you that everything changes when you become a parent and how much you will love your child? It was very much true for me. I profoundly and deeply love my daughter. I couldn’t imagine putting her through what I had gone through. So what did that mean for me? The question was already an answer and it was the most difficult one of my life. I am vigilante. I recall my mother telling me how her own alcoholic mother lit a bonfire and destroyed all the family’s belongings when she became a widow. I can see my mother doing the equivalent one day. Intergenerational trauma is a thing. My mother called me every name under the sun when she was drunk. When I challenged her, she would call me a liar. I know today that I’m not the things she called me, that she was probably calling me what her mother called her. That doesn’t make it any easier, mind you. It doesn’t excuse it either. Tellingly, in my parent’s new house there is not one photo of their children or grandchildren. I fear for the family albums which have been discarded in the damp and rot of the garage. My own daughter’s birthday has been forgotten every year. They are both living out a karmic retribution but they will take the denial with them to the end.
Home is defined as the place where one lives permanently, especially as a member of a family or household. Sometimes, deep down, I shake off the feeling that I don’t have or even deserve one. I think that because I was shown it growing up. Danny from The Shining reappears as an adult in the sequel Dr. Sleep. Stephen King expresses his inspiration in the author’s note.
Every now and then—while taking a shower, watching a TV show, or making a long turnpike drive—I would find myself calculating Danny Torrance’s age, and wondering where he was. Not to mention his mother, one more basically good human being left in Jack Torrance’s destructive wake. Wendy and Danny were, in the current parlance, codependents, people bound by ties of love and responsibility to an addicted family member. At some point in 2009, one of my recovering alcoholic friends told me a one-liner that goes like this: “When a codependent is drowning, somebody else’s life flashes before his eyes.
It’s my life that flashes before me now, lighting a journey back to live in the United Kingdom for good.
This beautifully written post is by Eleanor Nicolas who’s own blog can be found here
As always, remember that Nacoa is here to listen.
Feel like you want to say something as the child of alcoholic then contact us here.