By Leslie Lindsay
An interwoven tapestry of personal story and research, SHADOW DAUGHTER: A MEMOIR OF ESTRANGEMENT sets out to uncover the guilt, trauma, rage, betrayal, and more when it comes to family estrangement.
Research shows that seven percent of all people are estranged from a parent or sibling. But what, exactly, does estrangement consist of? No contact whatsoever? A greeting card here and there? What if you just try to avoid that person? And what about the shame factor? What kind of person breaks ties with their family? And so it goes.
Harriet Brown deftly interweaves her personal story of estrangement with her mother, along with anecdotes, plus research from clinicians and researchers, giving a broader definition of ‘estrangement.’ SHADOW DAUGHTER (DaCapo Press, November 2018) reads a bit academically–that is, it’s packed with much research–but don’t let that fool you. Brown is sympathetic, intelligent, and nurturing. She and her mother have gone in cycles of connection and estrangement nearly all of her life. On the day of her mother’s funeral, following a battle with cancer, Brown is 5,000 miles away, hiking in Hawaii with her husband and two daughters.
I completely identified with Brown’s experience. My own mother ‘died’ when I was ten and she had her first psychotic episode. Over the years, her illness would improve, and so would our relationship. We were estranged when she died by suicide.
In SHADOW DAUGHTER, Harriet presents dozens of narratives from people who have been estranged–men and women, young and old, and those of all professions–she uncovers many of the causes of estrangement–physical or sexual abuse; others from emotional or psychological trauma, manipulation. I found myself nodding at the stories because I ‘got it,’ I had lived it.
Harriet Brown is a journalist and author of numerous previous books, including Body of Truth and Brave Girl Eating. She has written for the New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, Psychology Today, and many other publications.
I am honored to welcome her to the author interview series.
Harriet, I started in on your prologue and already knew SHADOW DAUGHTER was going to resonate. My mother also died. We had been estranged. And while I did attend her funeral, my husband, two daughters, and I recently hiked in Hawaii, a place where my mother ‘ran away’ to live. I felt her there. And the problem with estrangement is, it never really goes away. Can you talk about that a bit, and also a little of why this book, why now?
Starting with the why now—I guess because my mother has been dead long enough for me to do a lot of the processing work I couldn’t do while she was alive. It took about a year after her death for me to feel safe enough to let myself feel the full range of emotions I had about her and our relationship.
In terms of estrangement not really going away, well, that’s true in the sense that the relationship with a parent or sibling or child never really ends. You have to process it and work through the feelings that come up whether you’re in touch with the person or not. But sometimes it’s the best choice in the situation.
“With fascinating insights and deep intelligence, Brown’s brave, profound and oh my God, yes, gripping memoir turns everything we’ve been taught about dealing with impossible family members on its head. This is a must-read for anyone who needs to loosen up tangled family knots—or cut those cords forever.”
—Caroline Leavitt, author, Pictures of You and Is This Tomorrow
You speak about this haunting type feeling throughout SHADOW DAUGHTER. I was especially drawn to a dream sequence you tell—you and your mother are on opposite sides of a door. You are trying to push is closed with all of your weight and she is trying to wrench it open. I have had the exact same dream. Multiple times. There’s so much metaphor there. Quite literally, ‘I’m closing the door on you.’ Can you talk about that, please?
One of my mother’s most common phrases used about our relationship was “My door is always open to you.” And I think over time I came to have negative associations with that image because our interactions were so painful and toxic for me. I’m sure she meant it as a positive idea but by the time we formally estranged it had come to feel like a threat to me. I think that’s what’s behind that dream for me.
When I started writing about my mother’s life—her tumultuous childhood, her even wilder teen years, her family of origin (and yes, I learned there’s a bit of a family history of estrangement), I started to feel a sort of complicated tenderness for her. There’s a lovely quote you mention in SHADOW DAUGHTER from Mother Theresa:
“We cannot hate someone whose story we know.”
That’s so profound. What more can you share on that?
I’m not sure I agree fully with Mother Theresa but I take her point, and I think that compassion and tenderness are so important. They’re the qualities I aspire to as a human being and I think every one of us deserves them. I don’t hate my mother. But I do hate some of the things she did.
One of the people I learned from along this long journey, who I wrote about in the book, is Dr. Frederic Luskin, whose work focuses on forgiveness. I took a day-long workshop with him years ago and something he talked about really stuck with me. I was explaining to him that to protect myself I felt I needed to put distance between my mother and me, physical and emotional, and he asked:
“Yes, but can you do with an open heart?”
That question helped me envision a way in which I could be compassionate toward my mother but still protect myself. It helped me see that I could let myself feel some of that complicated tenderness but still choose to keep my distance.
What bits of self-care might you offer to someone who is estranged from a family member?
First, trust your feelings. People who estrange themselves from a family member nearly always have good reason to contemplate taking that step. Gaslighting and other emotional manipulations are often part of the reason people choose to estrange, and it can be very easy to doubt your own feelings and reactions when that’s happening. Second, let yourself feel those feelings, whether it’s anger, hurt, grief, sorrow, or others. Trying to repress those feelings or deny them only leads to other kinds of problems. You can feel rage or hurt without acting it out. Third, understand that it’s not only OK to prioritize your own needs in the situation—it’s crucial. And finally, remember that you’re not alone. As a culture we don’t talk about estranged families, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there. You’re not the only person who has had to face a difficult family relationship and who’s made this choice.
Harriet, thank you for taking the time to chat with us on this very important topic. Is there anything I should have asked, but may have forgotten?
We often hear experts and others talk about the problem of estrangement. And it’s certainly a fraught topic, and one that can cause pain and inspire guilt and other difficult feelings. I’m not advocating for casual estrangement. But in my experience, and for so many of the people I’ve talked to, estrangement isn’t the problem; it’s the solution to an otherwise unresolvable problem. Sometimes the best thing you can do is keep yourself safe, whether from physical, emotional, or financial harm. Many of us feel a huge sense of relief and liberation after estrangement from a family member, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of SHADOW DAUGHTER, please see:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: I started my writing life at age 12 as a poet, and eventually made my way to nonfiction. The truest thing about me as a writer is this six-word story: I write so I’m not alone. I’ve lived in New York City, Madison, Wisconsin, and now Syracuse, New York, where I teach magazine journalism at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
- Facebook: LeslieLindsayWriter
- Twitter: @LeslieLindsay1
- Instagram: @LeslieLindsay1
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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website on 3.12.19. Artistic photo of book cover designed and photographed by L.Lindsay. Follow on Instagram]