“Raising the Perfect Child through Guilt and Manipulation” by Elizabeth Beckwith

Before I start this post, I feel like the right thing to do is to make sure I say 'I love you Mom'.

Before I start this post, I feel like the right thing to do is to make sure I say ‘I love you Mom’.

I was submerged by a wide variety of feelings while reading this book.

My first reaction was “Mom has done her job right“, followed by “Wait a minute… she missed this… and that…! Is my mom NOT the manipulative, guilt-inspiring, perfect mom I had always thought her to be?” A while later, I gained profound respect for the author, who, even after discovering her mother’s manipulation and guilt methods, still thought she did a great job. I love my mom, but I can’t say I fully approve of some of her education and caring methods, as described in this book. Finally, I realized that my mom had been of the ‘old generation’ of manipulation and guilt, like the author’s grandmother, and it is because she had not had the opportunity to perfect her child-rearing curriculum that she had failed to bring me up as ‘the perfect child’. She tried her best, but limited by her generation and the lack of know-how from other mothers such as Elizabeth Beckwith and her mother, she was unsuccessful in putting the cherry on top of the cake: finalizing her mind game in making me believe her mothering method is the best, and thus inspiring me to write a book lauding her efforts and achievement. Or maybe I’m just not as good a daughter as Beckwith.

The author believes in the ‘what is not stated’ rather than the blunt ‘Don’t do this‘, ‘This is bad‘, ‘You’re a bad child for doing this‘. Instead, it’s the ‘Look at him/her. I’m not the one telling you not to do things. There’s an example of your future if you don’t do as I tell you. But hey, it’s your choice. Whatever. I love you‘.

This latter method implies a lot of things the innocent child is not aware of (I have highlighted the key words/expressions). First, the mother is not the ‘bad guy’ who forbids you to wear that skirt that is too short, or who doesn’t want you to have a sleepover at a friend’s house. She is merely pointing out that if you start wearing that skirt that barely covers your ass, you might just end up as the bimbo over there. Secondly, she provides a concrete example of what you might end up if you don’t listen to her. And examples, boy there are plenty in real life. Just turn on the news. Thirdly, and most importantly, she leaves you the ‘choice’. Or, should I say, she makes you believe you have a choice. After all, technically, she’s not openly telling you not to have a tattoo. She’s merely pointing out at the miserable guy at the end of the street, and well, he happens to have a tattoo. Maybe the tattoo and his current state are connected. Maybe not. But hey, if you want to take a chance and screw your life, then you decide. Finally, telling the child ‘I love you’ is just as important as the third step. This is not a simple ‘I love you unconditionally, no matter what you do’. The innocent child doesn’t know this, and naively believes that whatever he/she does, the mother will be supportive. But the mother knows that by instilling her child with these fatal three words, the child will have this uncomfortable, inexplicable feeling that his/her mother will love him/her even more if he/she listens to what she said. It’s the power of the invisible words that always follow these three words, invisible to the child’s eyes, but masterly impregnated in the child’s brain by the mother: ‘I love you AND I know you won’t disappoint me‘.

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And so, constantly afraid to ‘let mom down’, the perfect child abides by mom’s laws and doesn’t doubt that he/she will be spared of all the dangers in life.

This is where my mom failed, I think. She did manage to put the guilt in me for some time, and I have tried to be the docile little girl for… perhaps 22-3 years. Maybe the fact that we lived in the middle of nowhere instead of a big city where the temptation of ‘being a cool kid’ is always lurking around, did help. But she was too blunt at times, instead of being subtle. And the moment I saw a tiny escape, I took it and although I was often eaten by guilt, that guilt didn’t stop me from… ‘ruining (part of) my life’, as my mother would say (or think). Or maybe Beckwith is genuinely a ‘good person’ and a ‘good child’, who has enough self-esteem and pride not to be allured to belonging to the ‘cool group’. Unfortunately, I’ve never been immune to it and I chose to be ‘cool’ despite the guilt and the ‘You have let me down’ looks I would inevitably get from mom after a night of heavy drinking.

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One thing my mom got right though, was what the author describes under the chapter titled “How to Scare the Crap Out of Your Child (in a Positive Way)”. My mom has this ‘thing’ (that we both call ‘insanity’ but that she probably thinks, deep inside, is a ‘sane and perfectly reasonable concern’) with worrying. She is constantly worrying. Literally. I wish I were kidding, or even exaggerating a bit, but I’m not *sigh*. We miss a call and the first thought that goes through her mind is not ‘Oh, she probably didn’t hear the ring’ or ‘She’s probably busy’ or ‘The battery must be off’. It’s in the lines of ‘She must have been kidnapped and her kidnappers have thrown the phone somewhere under the bridge so that we won’t even be able to trace her’ or ‘Some random person must have shot her and she is lying, lifeless, in a ditch somewhere’. And unfortunately, she’s made sure that we know what she’s thinking. When we are abroad, she tells us about ‘foreign (Asian) girls’ who have been killed. When we go out drinking, she tells us about ‘all these girls’ who have been drugged and raped, or took a cab home and got killed. When we go out clubbing (which, in my defense, hasn’t been that often), she inevitably tells us about ‘all these girls’ who followed a guy they didn’t know and were raped. It’s one thing to ignore her and roll her eyes at her, but you hear these things basically all your life, and it’s not that easy to take ‘the fear’ out of you once it has set its claws in your mind.

After all, Mothers know best, right?

After all, Mothers Know Best, right?

There was this one time when I was in Spain in 2006 and spending my nights clubbing away (ah, the good ol’ days), my flatmate of that time and I met these Spanish guys who proposed we take their car and go to a ‘hotter, cooler’ club in their neighborhood. In the matter of seconds, I already saw the headlines in the Spanish newspapers next day: “Two foreigners in language course killed and ditched”. I saw my mother having to fly to Madrid to confirm my body, sobbing inconsolably at the morgue and blaming me for not having listened to her countless warnings “Don’t follow strangers”. The guys were very persuasive (and well, cute) and my flatmate, who, with her Amanda Bynes looks (not the Amanda Bynes of 2013, but the one in ‘What A Girl Wants’ or ‘She’s the Man’), seemed to be used to this ‘kind of invitation’, tried to convince me ‘It was not a big deal’. My older flatmate, who, looking back, was wiser, flatly said she was going home, but I, young and immature, and desperate as ever to ‘be cool’, didn’t want to be the ‘scared Asian girl’ who doesn’t know how to have fun. So follow the strangers, I did. I was lucky I guess, but it really could have gone either way (this is the Fear talking). Nothing happened, since I am well and alive to write about it 7 years later with perfect nonchalance, but that car ride was probably the longest I had had in my life, and I couldn’t help but imagine our bodies, lying next to each other, on the road, at any point.

The author also talks about awakening the ‘teamwork’ feeling and responsibilities in the child, by supporting the same sports team for instance, as a family, among other manipulation tricks. All in all, it’s a good and fun read, and it’s entirely up to the reader to take her lightly or seriously, but I must say, if I ever have children, I know I will avoid some of my mom’s less polished methods and take on a tip or two from Beckwith. After all, it will all be for my child’s own good.

Note: even if you do make mistakes and are not the accomplished manipulator, you will have things to laugh about with your child when he/she reaches the late 20s, so not all is lost.

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A tribute to my mother

As I was writing my review for “The Color of Water”, I was suddenly reminded of a paper I once wrote for my class in Feminism. It was the most unconventional paper I’ve ever had to write, yet the one that I remember the most, and the one most dear to my heart, regardless of the actual quality of the writing.

The reason I understood James McBride in his desire to write the story of his mother is that that’s what I’ve always wanted to do as well. Writing is just a hobby and a fun and often rewarding pastime, but one of my ‘secret’ wishes and dreams ever since I was little was to publish a book. I don’t know on what it will be, or when it will be, or even if it will actually happen some day, but it’s just something I like keeping in the back of my mind. One of my very first book projects was my mother, if not the first.

I’ve had a happy childhood, I won’t complain, but one of the saddest memories I have of those times is when mom would sit or lie with my sister and I in bed as we were about to sleep, in the dark, and tell us about her childhood and her first years of marriage. I don’t think she ever came with the actual purpose of telling us sad stories. I guess at times we were the ones to urge her to tell us about when ‘mommy was a little girl’. Most of them started with a simple reminiscence of how she would have to go in the small hill behind her house to gather wood to make fire, or how she was always the tiniest, ugliest student in class, but also always the best and most studious. But that was the extent of her happy memories of these years long gone by (actually, the wood-gathering story is, technically, not a happy memory either). Then came the ‘real deal’, which is just too much for me to write it all down here. And inevitably the tears would come rolling down, and all my sister and I could do was whisper to her ‘Mommy, don’t cry. We’re here now’. I don’t know how much of an actual comfort that ever brought her.

But worst than those stories were how her in-laws, my dad’s mother, sisters and brothers (and he had plenty) treated her during the 4 years she was in Korea after her marriage. Once again, I would literally have to write a book about those, but suffice it to say, that was enough for me to -still- have profound disdain for my dad’s side of the family.

(Mom now says she’s forgotten all about it, that she’s not the ‘weak, young and naive’ 20 something year old she was back then, and although she doesn’t ‘hang out’ with my aunts, she can at least be civil to them when they meet once a year, and well, say everything she couldn’t have said back then with a smile on her face. Her being the one to actually have those ‘family gatherings’ at least once a year, I’m still baffled and annoyed at her nonchalant policy of ‘putting the past behind’, and in the end, I’m the one left with the spite. Strangely enough, my antipathy won’t go away that easily, although technically, they haven’t done any wrong to me. It’s all very twisted, I know.)

Anyways, as the child who had to listen to her mother’s tears in the dark of the night and cry with her, the best ‘revenge’ I could think of back then was to write a book about my grandmother, my aunts and uncles. I would tell the world of what I considered the atrocities they made her go through (but I guess many women went through such treatment back then, not that it makes it any less abominable). I would devise whole chapters after my mom left, reassuring us, alas too late, that ‘it was all over now’. But then I began worrying about practical things, such as how my real name would be published on the book and how dad’s family would read about it and knowing them, they wouldn’t be filled with regret and remorse, but would probably torment my mom for not raising her daughter right. It also seemed a bit ‘too much’ to ‘expose’ them as such. And so I gave up my first book project.

Nonetheless, I still think Mom had a pretty ‘interesting’ life, although to this day, she will not tell me about what she did in her early 20s before she married dad. Between her high school graduation and October 9th 1983, their wedding day, her life to my sister and I remains a blank slate with just a few scribbles faintly discernible. I don’t even know if she will ever tell us. So there goes my other book project.

However, thanks to the Feminism class, I had the opportunity to have a tiny taste of what that would be like, writing a book about her, and it was also my real first attempt at trying to see my mother as an individual and not just as mother and wife.

So this is a small extract of the essay (the prologue and the conclusion) I would like to share, as a tribute to my mother, my very first feminist and hero, despite all her petty prejudices and faults. You annoy the hell out of me sometimes, but this is for you, Mom. I love you dearly.

(I think this is by far the most personal blog entry, as I’ve tried to avoid issues too personal at heart (this is, after all, the internet…) But well, I think a writer, whether it is something you do as a hobby or as a profession, should know how to open up a bit from time to time.)

(Note: Her full name was an important part of the essay, but I had to remove that, just as a matter of privacy and precaution. Also, ‘ssi‘ in Korean is used as a way to address others in the ‘adult world’, so that you won’t sound rude by just calling out first names.)

Prologue

The daughter – S.L.:

MS.C. The sound of these three syllables, coming from her own throat, and moreover hearing it from other people’s voices, echoes distantly and unfamiliarly to her ears.

MS.C. Yet she was born as so, she was raised as so, this is what her friends used to call her in her school days. Her mother and father at some distant time in her life must have given a more tender and affectionate meaning when they first whispered these syllables into her ears. Or did they ever? Yet she still seems to yearn for that sprinkle of tenderness these three syllables must awake in her heart and her memory.

Ajumma. Mrs. L. S’s mom. G’s mom. These are the appellations she is used to now. Since a time she cannot venture to remember now, they have replaced her identity as an individual and as a woman. Being a wife and a mother brings unexpected joys, emotions she would never trade in a million years, yet when she finally muster the effort to sit down and rest her mind at ease just for a second, she can still see the faint shadow of a young MS.C., sitting at her desk and nibbling her pen in search for an inspiration to support her fellow labor union members.

Dreams. Hopes. Ambitions. Challenges. Passion.

College degree. Writer. Role-model.

Words and ideas that once had power over the woman she used to know as MS. Stars she wanted to reach, goals she wanted to become once. These stars faded away and these goals became crushed when she realized that being a 25 year old woman without a father to depend on or a mother to take advice from, with three younger brothers to take care of, placed her in a whole different dimension, closed off from the world she wanted to live in. What was she to do, what good were these aspirations of hers if she could barely pay her rent and buy food for the day? As she walked up the aisle that day, each step she took towards the altar was one step away from her hopes.

 The mother – MS.C.:

MS.C. It feels good to have it resonate in my ears, even after so many years of living as Mrs. L and S and G’s mom. It may only be a tiny whisper, a distant sound in my memory, yet the fragments of memory these three syllables bring me still provide me with the sense of power I used to be accustomed to. I can still sense the power surrounding the young MS ‘ssi’ when I announced firmly and proudly I would be called so and not by ‘Miss C.’, as were my few female colleagues. ‘Miss C.’ would have their coffees made and brought to other male colleagues, would make photocopies for them, would smile at their jokes for no reason. ‘MS ssi’ would stand up to them, voice her opinion and speak for herself.

Yet it was not easy being ‘MS ssi’ during those times. Even when the word ‘feminist’ was yet unfamiliar to many people and especially to men, I was already viewed as a ‘feminist’, hence taunt, rebellious for no reason and making things uncomfortable when they should not have to be.

MS ssi. This name was the shield I brandished against the inequality I was facing and a medal I wore proudly as my identity. I was not yet anyone’s wife or anyone’s mother. This name represented my ambitions and my possibilities. It did not take long however to realize this shield and medal came with a difficult price. Using my talent of writing to promote the rights of labor unions was only a speck of sand amid the political mess from which labor unions were not exempted. Fractions and divisions occurred within the organization and confrontations escalated to a point that my involvement became a barrier to pursuing my studies.

My lifelong experience of living in utmost poverty and my frustration, transformed into passion to fight for the rights of the least privileged, were not sufficient to continue what had become a plight. With my three younger brothers to take care of and with no hope to be expected in the near future, disappointment and hopelessness subtly and slowly replaced what there had once been courage and perseverance.

On a beautiful fall day, I left a trail of MS ssi on every step I walked up on the aisle. As the pale leaves on the trees touched the ground, I felt as if small parts of myself were falling with them, only to be left on the ground to disappear one day.

It did not take long for ‘MS ssi’ to become a treasure hidden and cherished only in my memory. The ‘me as individual’ was still there, but surviving besides the strong presence of the new ‘me as daughter-in-law’ and ‘wife’ and soon ‘mother’. Fortunately, I still had my writing to keep ‘MS ssi’. Writing to me was a conversation with myself, with MS as individual. Unattached, defined only by what I intended myself to be and by none other. To the outside world, I may have been the new bride, the unsatisfactory daughter-in-law, the soon-to-be mother, but as the words formed themselves on the white, untamed sheet of paper, I would find myself back and MS would come back to life. However, this thin string of my individuality was taken from me when my mother-in-law and sister-in-law decided to secretly open and read my diary. The feeling of being violated, not to mention betrayed, came with an indescribable shock as the broken lock fell to my feet. I felt as if the layer of wrap I had carefully put around my conversations, around myself, had been brutally ripped and I was not even allowed to complain or mutter a word of protest. Every time I saw my mother-in-law and sister in-law share a secret laugh between themselves, I knew they were unveiling a small piece of myself behind my back, snickering at it, wiping the betraying smile off their faces with that part of me and tossing it after they were done with it, like a useless piece of paper. All I could do was watching these pieces of myself being torn from my memory and pride, yet my hands and feet were chained by my duty as daughter-in-law and I was not even allowed to kneel and pick them up to put them back where they belonged, in my personal space. These pieces they have brutally torn left a hole in my heart and mind, a hole that even today, nearly 30 years later, has not been filled.

Wife. Mother. People may think these are the only two words that have defined me for the last 30 years of my life. With their books, theories and opinions, they try to convince me to find my identity. Do they not see that by assuming I do not have my own identity, they too fail to see me as the ‘individual’ they want me to be? Who are they to glance their sympathetic glances and point out to my ‘lost’ identity when I have, from my own way?

I may have spent much of my time pondering on how to maintain the household, on how to raise my children, on how to support my husband, but my mind still had time to devote some of these thoughts to myself and my eyes were still mine to observe the world around me for my own purpose and my pleasure. I have always been MS, daughter, wife and mother.

Concluding thoughts – no more guilt

This essay began as an attempt to look at my own mother from a different perspective and perhaps as an unconscious effort to ‘save’ her from the usual victimization of mothers so frequently conducted in the Korean context. However, as I tried to give a voice to my own mother, who does not write anymore because of a ‘trauma’ mentioned above, I found myself victimizing her and attributing words and thoughts that I thought were hers. A simple conversation with her made me realize my mistake, which I believe is probably the mistake of many authors and directors, all children of their mothers. There are basically two elements in the Korean culture that project a wrong image of the mother. The first is the feeling of guilt that mothers seem to constantly carry as their burden, guilt that they feel towards their children, which also transforms into a feeling of guilt felt from their children. In other words, the guilt resides in both groups, the mothers and the children. Mothers feel guilty that they could not provide more to their children, while the children feel guilty that they neglected their mothers and their mothers could not achieve the dreams they might have had. The second element is that mothers are rarely portrayed as independent, separate individuals. They are always followed by their devotion to their children, this overarching reality they would do anything for them; which is not untrue, but which is only a part of what makes them a ‘person’.

Only when mothers will be void of this feeling of guilt and will be portrayed as people with their own freedom and dreams, will we finally have a culture that accepts mothers as they really are and not as what we think they are.

Nikita – Parallels

[Spoiler Alert]

TV Show: Nikita

Episode: Season 3, Episode 19, “Self Destruct”

Two things I just have to say right away.

1. How SAD was the blood on the floor, at the exact spot Sean died (although it was, technically… internal bleeding…hmm…), and Alex’ flashback on their last kiss? I still miss Sean terribly… and I still think it was a terrible move from the writers to have him off the show when he had so many fans and brought in the very much needed goofiness and humor from time to time, in a place as tense as Division.

2. ‘Nikita’ does THE BEST, MOST AMAZING flashback scenes, especially when it involves Michael and Nikita. Season 1 had, of course, the best ones, but the one on this episode was pretty awesome too.

That being said, this episode was filled with parallels I was ardently scribbling and taking notes while watching. One of the many reasons I love this show and truly admire the writers for their talent, effort and devotion: watching each episode is like watching a number of seemingly independent and separate dots as they magically connect themselves. As we see the present unfold as a fruit and direct consequence of the past and one character as a reflection (or projection, Amanda would say) of another, we also see the boundaries between male and female character, and between good guys and bad guys fade away. Each new episode is like, to the risk of sounding cliche, finding a piece of the puzzle you didn’t even know existed. And as you place it in the perfect little corner of the puzzle, you see it not only fits with its neighboring pieces, but that it is just as connected and dependent to all the other pieces and the big picture as well.

1. The episode starts with Alex going into this shady part of town, with hookers, pimps, drug dealers and what-nots. It’s a glimpse to the world she would be right now, had it not been for Nikita, and, in a sense, Division as well, the very two targets she was fighting so hard against like insane for the past couple of episodes, leading to a very heavy and heart-breaking sacrifice. True, it is Division that ruined her life in the first place, but we also have to admit, Division is also the one that gave her a second life, and like she said to Sean, ‘this new one could be something better’, and it was!…until Amanda worked her mojo on her and she lost her self.

2. The episode, properly titled ‘Self Destruct’, takes us into Alex’s own journey of self destruct after her loss. Flashback time, and we see Nikita, 6 years ago, when she lost Daniel and went down the very same path and signed on a ‘suicide mission’, which Michael tried to get her off from. The feeling of guilt weighing down on her, feeling responsible, feeling she should have been the one to have died, it’s all a deja-vu for Nikita. And of course, she knows exactly what her young protegee is going through. Although she has experienced and seen with her own eyes that indeed, ‘not everyone can be saved’, Alex is still savagely and blindly determined to save everyone, at the risk of her own life.

3. And now, the BIG flashback into Michael and Nikita. Did anyone just melt when he said “You have people who care about you. You do have something to live for”? No? Just me? It was a big OMG moment, considering, well, you know, that is EXACTLY what Nikita said to Michael in Season 1, Episode 9, “One Way”, when Michael was the one going into a suicide mission to kill Kasim. This is precisely why I love the flashbacks in ‘Nikita’ and why I admire and adore the writers for their obvious attention to details when it comes to character interaction. A lot of the flashbacks in Season 1 dealt with characters saying each other’s exact line, with a few years of difference. Nikita especially would tell Alex many of the things that Michael himself, and Amanda had told her. (I just had to watch that scene one more time after writing this)

3. Isn’t it a bit spooky that Nikita often goes back to her experience with Amanda to find answers and words of comfort, more often than we would want to? She may say Amanda is a bitch, and yes, she is, but she can’t deny that she also was… her ‘mentor’ (for the lack of a better word) at some point in those years at Division. Despite her initial animosity, Nikita eventually learned to turn to Amanda in her moments of confusion and sure enough, the ‘mother figure’ always knew how to give a hell of a pep talk. The ‘trust’ Amanda put in Nikita because she was, in her heart and in her instinct, a ‘survivor’, is the exact advice and words of comfort Nikita gives to Alex.

4. The title of this episode doesn’t only reflect Alex’s journey but also the journey and ‘risk’ Division is at. Ryan plans to blow the place up so that they can all vanish in the wind and he will be the one to take responsibility. Throughout the whole Season 3, we’ve seen the group struggle with keeping Division running. Despite their initial objective of getting the ‘Dirty 30’ and only them, before letting the place go, they’ve had to face difficulty after difficulty, and risk after risk, during which they were forced to make unsatisfactory and ominous compromises. And throughout their tough journey, the deeper they were getting themselves into this mess they decided to give a try to, the more I’ve been convinced that Division is an entity with a life of its own. I bet Percy is seeing all this and rejoicing himself from his grave, with that evil look telling them ‘I’m Division’ and that if not him, then no one else can run it. And he is right. We’ve seen Division take over the better of Nikita, Michael and Ryan. It is because Division was also self destructing that it led its members to walk the same path. Once again, in ‘Nikita’, we just can’t draw a clear distinctive line between what is good and what is bad, because it’s never so in reality either. Even after this wreckage, Michael and Nikita are still determined to make it work until the end. You can’t just blame everything on Division and destroy it and expect to live a good happy life after it. After all, the previous episode was titled “Broken Home”, meaning that with all its flaws and twists, Division is still the best ‘home’ they’ve known so far.

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5. And last, but not least, isn’t Ryan Fletcher (Noah Bean) handsome in this picture? 

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Honestly, Ryan is my least favorite character in the show (not that I don’t like him, per se, but the others are so amazing I just can’t put him high on my list) and I think, one of the weakest ones too, in terms of story, power or presence. But I have to admit, he looks quite dashing in this picture 🙂 And I didn’t realize how much I was actually missing him while he was in comma until the moment he turned and said ‘You missed me?’ (obviously not to me, but to Nikita). I found myself crying ‘Yes, yes, I did miss you!’

PS: Did anyone notice the dorky glasses Birkhoff wore in the flashback? Like he used to in the first season? We also had an appearance by one of the agents who allowed Percy to come back in Season 2 during Amanda’s absence and who got killed in all the mess. Gosh, the attention to detail they have at ‘Nikita’ is simply… admirable.