I feel the need to start documenting this.
For as long as I can remember, from my young childhood until today when I am 40 years of age, my mother has radiated disapproval. It’s her default state, underlying every other demeanor. Even when she’s trying to help you with something, or talking about something relatively pleasant, or doing something she enjoys, she still radiates disapproval. I don’t think she has any idea how much this is the case. Every moment I’m in her presence, I feel worthless. I would say that this apparent disapproval is mitigated by moments of positivity, but I honestly can’t remember that ever happening. She is a constant drain and depressant to her children. Or at least three out of four of them. She’s also very passive-aggressive.
Occasionally, I have tentatively mentioned some or other bad experience she put me through in the past, something unpleasant enough to make a lasting impression on me… and her response has always been, “That didn’t happen”/”You’re remembering wrong”/”I would never do that.” And of course it’s entirely possible I am remembering wrong, because humans have that tendency, but I’m not inventing trauma wholesale, and I don’t appreciate being gaslighted.
She has multiple sclerosis. She’s often in a lot of pain, parts of her body randomly don’t work, and she gets easily fatigued, among other awful symptoms. This doesn’t stop her from seemingly having zero compassion for my fibromyalgia and related complaints, but at least it provides a bit of an explanation for her behavior. If her MS was on the back burner for 35 years before it eventually came to a boil, no wonder she’s a constant parade of negativity.
So that’s a general overview of my mom. I’m going to try to document individual events, largely because I’m hoping it will help me deal with her better, but also because I often have moments of doubt. Am I the asshole? Am I exaggerating her behavior in my head out of bitterness? I need to be able to look back at what’s gone before and see the truth of the matter.
So today’s story.
First, some additional background details. Mom is always complaining about what she calls the “court of public opinion,” in which famous people are condemned by commoners that don’t have all the facts. And while I agree that you can’t truly understand the details of someone’s situation just from what you read in the news, I think mom takes her attitude way too far by implying that having any opinion whatsoever on the apparent behavior or morality of someone you’ve only heard about in the news is wrong. Moreover, if the opinion you’re not supposed to have is a negative one and you take any action based upon it, you’re contributing to “cancel culture” — something she’s recently been complaining about a fair amount.
I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around the concept of “cancel culture,” because on the surface it sounds like something some whiney celebrity thought up to describe the call-outs they were receiving for poor behavior. The definitions of it that I’ve seen make it seem like a new name for an old problem — internet bullying in response to something disagreed with. If it’s really a new phenomenon, what new power do the commoners have against the rich and famous that merits a new description? Oh, 1.5 million commoners are trying to cancel Amber Heard by signing a petition asking that she be removed from the Aquaman 2 project. Is that somehow different from petitions people were signing ten years ago having to do with actors? But moving on.
Mom has started ranting about this sometimes lately in connection with J.K. Rowling, because mom loves Harry Potter perhaps an inordinate amount. (P.S. She always seemed sour about my avoidance of the second Fantastic Beasts movie and Johnny Depp.) Now, I made a point of reading carefully through Rowling’s opinion piece about trans women, and the message I took from it was, “Until male-on-female violence is no longer a problem, the physical and psychological safety of cis women takes precedence over the physical and psychological safety of trans women.” And this idea is, very simply, transphobic, and lowers my opinion of Rowling considerably. So I made a decision not to buy the next Cormoran Strike book, despite how deeply I adore that series, especially when I heard about what sounds like a bitter lashing-out within its pages at people that don’t believe men typically dress up as women and claim to be trans in order to victimize women.
So there was mom ranting about people trying to “cancel” J.K. Rowling. And the behaviors she cited were things like “trying to get a certain publisher not to publish her books” and “trying to get her books pulled from libraries,” probably among others (I don’t quite remember). And I was kinda baffled. What power do hurt and outraged trans people and trans allies have to do these things? And say we did succeed in convincing a certain publisher not to publish her books… is there any other publisher within the capitalist world that wouldn’t instantly cut a millions dollars deal with her? And how likely is it that any group could get Harry Potter pulled from a library on the grounds of the author being transphobic? Haven’t a thousand groups tried to get the series pulled on the grounds of “encouraging an interest in the occult,” and largely failed? And if someone did get it pulled from, say, the Pikes Peak Library District, what then? Does free speech suffer a serious blow if Colorado Springs doesn’t have Harry Potter available for free as long as no one else has checked it out?
Now, there are some behaviors I agree with my mom in thoroughly disapproving, Saying hateful things about someone that are not relevant to the actual issue at hand, I believe, makes you a jerk. “I hate J.K. Rowling now because, as an influential celebrity with a far-reaching voice, she is contributing significantly to the oppression of trans women by holding and publicizing transphobic opinions, and that feels like a betrayal” — sure, I’ll take it. “J.K. Rowling is a dumb bitch and I hope she gets raped to death” — no, no, no, no, no. Harassment — online or in person — is never appropriate. An opposing opinion needs to be expressed, but it needs to be expressed in a coherent, rational manner that doesn’t undermine it entirely.
Also, however horrible I may find Rowling’s opinion, she has a right to it and even a right to express it in public. Complaints about the fact that she spoke out are counterproductive, because aren’t you speaking out this very moment with an opposing opinion? And don’t you value that right for yourself? Complaints about the substance of her opinion are very valid. And if I sound like I’m tone-policing, I don’t mean to be. Go ahead and express all the rage and sorrow in your heart that Rowling has raised there with her inhumane thoughts. Just do it rationally, and in a manner that doesn’t turn you into the troll in the situation. Don’t hop on her Twitter and send her death threats. Don’t randomly harass obvious Harry Potter fans you may run into. These are never appropriate behaviors.
That said, mom’s attitude toward the entire thing still doesn’t sit well with me. First of all, we’re not even supposed to have an opinion, I guess, because we don’t know J.K.R. personally so we don’t have all the facts. And secondly, we’re not supposed to take action against something we disapprove of because that would be “cancel culture” and that’s wrong.
So this brings us to today. We were putting up the Christmas tree with Christmas movies on in the background, which has been our Black Friday tradition for time out of mind. We also tend to talk through the movies, because we’ve seen them a thousand times and like to voice new thoughts that pop up in response to them as they hit us. This could very easily be considered an annoying and rude behavior, but it’s continued for many many years without anyone complaining.
So brother and I are putting lights or bead garland on the tree, and all of a sudden he says, “You know, I like cancel culture, because…” He expressed it better in a text message later when we were discussing this, so I’ll quote that here. In a society in which celebrities and big corporations get away with everything, people are starting to use their purchasing power to stand up a tiny bit for what’s right by choosing not to pay people to do evil things. The basic concept is moral, and empowering, and sorely needed. And yeah, people on the internet very often get set off, don’t bother doing the research, and then go off on some idiotic crusade to stifle freedom of expression. But the problem is their unwise and egotistical behavior, not the original idea of standing up to evil. He put it more briefly as we were decorating the tree.
I mentioned that people take it too far, like doxxing and stuff. Mom put in, in what I considered a cuttingly disapproving tone, that people don’t know the whole story of celebrity situations and condemn them without all the facts. Knowing she was thinking of J.K.R., I said, “I dunno… that article J.K. Rowling wrote about trans women was pretty clear.” Then brother and I moved on to talk about something else. Presently mom got up and left the room, entering her computer room and shutting the door behind her. (It’s always an immediate, palpable relief when she leaves the room, but you just know it’s the calm before the storm.) I thought it might be in response to an aggregated annoyance about our talking through the movies and then also saying stuff she didn’t like.
She came back maybe 15-20 minutes later and watched the tail-end of the movie without a word. Then, when the movie had ended, she made the following announcement (paraphrased as best I can):
She just wants to say something. Sometimes people of her generation disagree with or have different morals from their kids, and they choose to kick those kids out and just have them removed from their space, from their lives. She thinks that’s her generation’s version of cancel culture. Sometimes in life — and she thinks it happens even in this house — people have different opinions on morality and other subjects, but still manage to get along. And she doesn’t want to listen to her kids using coarse language and referring to themselves in coarse terms, but she tries to stay quiet because she doesn’t want to cancel someone else for having a different opinion.
And I think there was more; that’s about all I can remember. She said this with an air of condescension, disapproval, and unhappiness, as of someone offended and hurt who knows she has the moral high ground. And I feel the need to unpack the part I can remember.
First of all, she made this announcement to the three of us in the room — me, brother, and dad. Brother was the one who expressed approval of cancel culture. Perhaps mom interpreted my disapproval of her attitude about having all the facts as also expressing approval of cancel culture. But she didn’t address herself to either one of us specifically. Dad took no part in any of this.
Kicking your kids out of your house is IN NO WAY similar to fans taking various reasonable measures against a RICH, POWERFUL celebrity that they believe has done something immoral. Those two situations are so dissimilar that I almost think mom deliberately brought up parents kicking their kids out as a veiled threat. Yes, it would absolutely be better if brother and I each had our own home like mom’s more favored and emotionally supported children. It would be better in a hundred thousand ways. But alluding to it in a lecture about why your son is wrong to value a so-called culture that exists to call people out on their bad behavior — especially when also apparently talking to your gay daughter when you disapprove of all queerness and there are certain statistics on who gets kicked out most frequently — seemed purposely vicious.
We do not get along despite differing opinions. Mom is passive-aggressive about it, and brother and I just have to try to work around that. Mom is an expert at derailing or entirely shutting down a conversation in which I’m trying to talk about something she doesn’t approve of. She ignores me; she changes the subject; she expresses endless disapproval. And if I ever try to disagree with her opinion, she jumps onto that supposed moral high ground again. We can’t agree to disagree, because we never get that far.
And the coarse language thing left both me and brother scratching our heads, because we have not the faintest clue what she was talking about with that. Brother and I (I more than he) are always careful not to swear or use vulgar or suggestive language around her. And she is so bad at hearing things more than, like, one room away. I don’t know if her physical hearing is going, or what, but you can shout at her from another room and she won’t hear it. Which means she wouldn’t have overheard, say, my phone conversations with Zombie Girl or brother’s GM’ing over video chat in order to get an impression of us using “coarse language,” though I guess I’m not really surprised that she knows we do. BTW, is it just me, or is there something really classist about that phrase? Anyway, if she has a problem with someone’s language, she needs to bring it up to that person, not verbally vaguebook about it during the course of some completely different lecture!
Then of course everything I said before about her opinions on “cancel culture” still stands. I just don’t understand the concept well, and I don’t know that I’m entirely onboard with her opinion of it. And because I don’t entirely get it, I suppose I shouldn’t have an opinion of it at all, let alone discuss it.
Anyway, after her diatribe, I tried to say something useful, so I confessed that I still don’t really get it. In a very hard tone, she gave me her definition of cancel culture: people trying to take away the livelihood and opportunities of other people because they disagree with them. And I’m still sitting here like, “Can I do that? Is that something I have the power to do? Because I’ve longed for years to make it impossible for Peter Jackson to
butcher and trample any more classic literature no you know what? I’m not even going to strike this butcher and trample any more classic literature, but never felt that I had the influence or the right.” Then brother mentioned that he was thinking about what she’d said — brother often takes a long time to think about something someone says — and that seemed to cheer mom up a little. She stopped pouring out quite so much disapproval and settled down to watch the next Christmas movie.
And if I’m remembering correctly, she really did refer to “people” doing this to each other “because they disagree” rather than mentioning fans and celebrities. And I can definitely see the potential for a broader application that makes the concept less forgivable. Like, if the PTA got together and pressured the school board to dismiss a certain teacher because they were gay or something, I guess that could fit into what mom seems to consider “cancel culture,” and that would be terrible. But based on what brother said, he was obviously thinking in terms of fans and either celebrities or other entities with a lot more social power and probably money. And my only statement was about J.K.R. specifically, and you know what? Nobody is going to put a dent into her empire by boycotting her work or signing a petition.
This is, of course, only the first story in The Mom Chronicles, and that because it happened today. I don’t feel I can legitimately ask, “Am I the asshole?” (referring to myself with coarse language there) when I’m so biased and haven’t related anything more than this. But as time goes on, I hope to be able to document more of these occurrences and get, eventually, a more balanced picture. In the meantime, I’m not averse to thoughts on the situation or on “cancel culture” or J.K.R. or whatever.