Tall, thin, with neatly coifed grey hair, Estelle Harrison, fidgets in the chair, looking decidedly uncomfortable. “I’ve never done this before. I’m almost 80 years old. I can’t believe I’m coming to a psychologist. But I have to talk to someone. My husband has lung cancer and he won’t let me tell anyone. Another secret. I’ve been the keeper of secrets my entire life.”
“Why is your husband’s cancer a secret?” I ask, thinking how unimaginable it would have been for me to keep my late husband’s cancer secret, how more impossible it all would have been without the support of friends and family.
“He feels ashamed of being sick, like it’s a weakness.”
“So you’ve told no one?”
“Our daughters know. They call. But they have their own lives. And truthfully,” she says sighing, “I’m not sure how much they’d care anyway. Dave wasn’t a very good father. In fact, he was a terrible father. He used to beat them. That was another secret I kept. He’d take down their pants and beat them with a belt.”
For a reason I cannot completely explain, I think, “Did he get off on it?” What I ask is, “How old were they?”
“I can’t remember how old they were when he started. Young. Too young.”
“Until …?” I ask.
“They both left the house pretty early, so I’d say until they were seventeen. Actually after Maureen left – she’s the oldest – Liz got it worse.”
Finding this difficult to listen to, I say nothing. My mother didn’t protect me from my father’s rages, but he wasn’t beating me and his rage wasn’t fueled by a perverse sexual desire as seems to be true for Dave Harrison.
As if reading my thoughts, Mrs. Harrison says, “You think I’m terrible don’t you?”
“I don’t think you’re terrible, but I’m not sure why you didn’t try to intervene, to protect your daughters.”
“I was afraid he’d get physical with me too.”
“And did he?”
“He slapped me across the face a couple of time.”
I am again silent.
“You younger generation, you all think I should have left him. But it wasn’t so easy back then. I was a housewife. I had no way to support myself. I wouldn’t have known what to do,” she says starting to cry.
Feeling more compassion, I say, “It sounds like your daughters are angry with you for staying, for not protecting them. That must make it harder for them to be available to you; that must make you feel all the more alone.”
She nods her head, still crying.
“This might seem like a foolish question, but why haven’t you told whomever you want about your husband’s illness, regardless of what he wants?”
She looks at me, startled. “I can’t do that. It’s his illness. If he doesn’t want me to tell, I just can’t.”
I feel myself getting angry at Mrs. Harrison’s passivity. Is that reasonable? Or is my anger at my mother seeping into this therapy session? Or, yet another possibility, am I feeling Mrs. Harrison’s own anger?
“Are you angry with your husband, Mrs. Harrison?” I ask.
“I can’t be angry at him. He’s sick.”
“You can still feel angry with him. You can feel angry for his mistreating you and your daughters. You can be angry that he won’t allow you to speak, to tell people who could be supportive of you.” Suddenly I wonder, “Does your husband know you came here today?”
“Oh no, I could never tell him that. He’d be furious at me for telling our secrets.”
I again feel annoyed. Now I wonder if I am feeling angry like her husband, angry that she is so passive, angry that she presents as a martyr just waiting to be beaten. Does she carry within her both the beaten child and the angry parent, with the angry parent projected outward so she doesn’t have to feel the rage herself? Way too complicated for a first session but I do ask, “What about your own childhood, Mrs. Harrison? Were you beaten?”
“Oh no. I was the good one. My brother and sister got my mother’s rage, but I always did what she wanted and I never talked about what went on at home.”
“Just as you did with your husband. But were you angry with your mother?”
“I couldn’t be. I was too afraid I’d give her some sassy answer one day and then I’d get it too.”
“Sounds like you might have lots of angry stored up inside.”
She shrugs. “I guess.”
Unsurprisingly, another passive response.”
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