So much about life is about perspective, and that is just one of the many things I learned while reading Laura McHale Holland’s enlightening memoir, Reversible Skirt. In it, Holland writes from her child-self perspective as she tells the story of growing up in the shadow of her mother’s suicide, her father’s rapid remarriage to a woman who becomes abusive to Holland and her two sisters, and, a few years later, their father’s death.
I asked her 5 questions about how these experiences affected her relationships throughout her life, anything positive that she learned, and what is the most important thing to know about how grief and/or abuse can affect family dynamics.
1) You experienced a double-blow of losing both of your parents during childhood and being raised by an abusive stepparent. What fears did both of these factors cause for you?
As a child, even when my father was still alive, I was afraid if I didn’t do exactly what I was told I would be sent to the orphanage where my sisters spent some time right after our mother died. Later, as a teen, I was terrified most of the time. I didn’t have something specific on my mind; it was an ever-present, general feeling of dread. Looking back, I think I was afraid to grow up because in my not-yet-mature mind, to accept how much I was changing, would have meant I was moving on without my father, and I didn’t want to do that. For several years after his death, I think I was suspended emotionally and in denial deep in my heart even though I knew, obviously, that he was never coming back. I think I thought I could hold onto him in some way if I remained the same; however, I was also rebellious and dissatisfied. I wanted everything about my life, including me, to change. So I was seriously conflicted. Later, as an adult, I was afraid I would commit suicide, as my mother had done, because I was suicidal as a teen, and depression haunted me for years afterward. I was also afraid to have children because I thought I might be an abusive parent like my stepmother was, so I didn’t settle down and become a stepmom and a mom until I was 35, at which time I felt I could trust myself to be level headed under pressure. This all sounds like I was a walking basket of fears, but I’m just focusing on that aspect of my experience because that’s where the question led me.
2) Was there anything positive you were able to learn from the experience?
From the way my father and other relatives mismanaged the aftermath of my mother’s suicide, I learned how very important is to keep the lines of communication open with those you love after a tragedy. Had my father been able gather my sisters and me close to him, even just for a few minutes, the day our mother died and tell us she was gone but he would always love us that would have made a world of difference. He wasn’t able to do that, though. He got us out of the house immediately and probably didn’t realize how harsh he was in the way he did it. He then had a brief breakdown in the days following her death. When we reunited with him months later, he pretended like our mother had never existed, which robbed us of being able to own whatever love we had felt for her, especially since he remarried and brought in a new “mother” right away. That loss remains an empty hole in my life. My father could have helped fill it just by talking about my mother from time to time, sharing memories and anecdotes, what he loved about her, how they met, what she liked to eat, what her favorite movie was, silly or tender things she might have done, etc. So, when something truly painful happens, and children are involved, it’s important for the adults to be willing to face their feelings so they can be present for the children, because otherwise, you’re just making a traumatic situation far worse instead of moving toward healing.
From my father’s early death, I learned at a young age how essential it is to openly appreciate the people you love because it really is true that you never know how much time you will have with the people you cherish. This is something I have never forgotten, and I think it has been a good thing.
From my stepmother’s abuse, I learned how important it is to respect young people in your care. I also learned how vile it is when someone abuses a position of power. I vowed I would never abuse authority if I had it, and I think I’ve done a good job of carrying through on that. There are many times, especially in families behind closed doors, when a parent or sibling clips a child’s wings in large and small ways that nobody but the perpetrator and victim will ever see. That is when someone’s true character comes out, and I think it’s an area many of us could stand to look at in our own relationships.
Also, living through trauma in my formative years made me less fearful later on of difficulties that might come my way because I had lost much already and was, in time, basically OK. Another positive thing, probably the most positive thing I learned actually, is how very much my sisters and I could do for each other. Realizing that we could make a huge difference in each other’s lives, even though we bumbled a lot, was a powerful experience.
3) What would you say to your childhood or teenage self?
To my childhood self, I just want to say thank you. It feels like the girl inside of me pestered me to write her story, but I didn’t take her seriously and put the project off for years. But I finally listened to that little voice inside, and once I committed to the project, the voice just flowed through me and onto the page. It seems it was my duty to write Reversible Skirt to release that child into the world so she could touch the hearts of people who have had similar experiences, children who are suffering now, and others who want to help families that are putting their lives together after a tragedy. It’s like she has work to do that is connected to me, but also separate from me and much bigger than just telling my story. To my teenage self, I’d like to say, you are forgiven completely; please come out and play. I’m working on a sequel to Reversible Skirt, and the teen I used to be is the opposite of the child who was always knocking on my door. My teenage self is resistant, sulking and quiet. It’s slow going.
4) What advice would you give to someone in a relationship with a person who had grown up in a situation similar to yours?
That’s a tough question because we all respond differently to the traumas we experience, and I can probably only speak with any real authority about myself. Some folks might lash out; others might withdraw; still others might be reckless. Each of these coping mechanisms would probably need a different sort of response. Some folks are more resilient than others, too. I think about my two sisters, Kathy and Mary Ruth. I went through just about everything in childhood with them, but the specifics of how we act in relationships and what we expect and need are very different. I guess some things that could apply to many relationships would be to spend time doing things together that are enjoyable for both of you, figure out through trial and error ways to express love for that person in ways the person can accept, and not give up or take it personally if the person you love withdraws or acts in other ways that seem out of touch with what’s really going on in the present, and to be encouraging in the areas where you see that the person struggles. I think it’s also common for people who were orphaned when young to feel like we don’t really belong anywhere, that we’re outsiders looking in, and that unconditional love is not our birthright. If we are highly functional, that isn’t something people would ever guess. And if a parent commits suicide, that adds another whammy to the mix because there’s no way around the fact that when parents, for whatever reasons, choose to end their lives, they are also choosing to abandon the precious babies they brought into the world, and this is deeply damaging to the children immediately, as well as later on when they realize that for so many parents, their children give them reason to fight to keep living during their darkest hours. So TLC and kindness are always in order. Always.
5) What in your opinion is the most important thing to know about how grief and/or abuse can affect family dynamics?
If grief is not faced and dealt with in a compassionate way, it stunts people’s ability to be connected and truly present with each other. This causes misunderstandings, rifts and resentments that can continue for years. And abuse makes for families in which nobody is happy, nobody thrives. Children live in fear, biding their time until they can get out, but given the lack of proper guidance and love provided in the formative years, often when the children grow up and get away, they don’t have the skills to thrive. Many become abusers themselves, and the cycle continues. Anything we can do to bring love and resources to children in these kinds of families is helpful.
Laura, thank you so much for your generous, honest, and empowering responses to my questions.
Everyone, thank you for reading this interview, and please be sure to check out Reversible Skirt, available as an ebook or in paperback.