Her, Too: My Mother, and the Legacy of Abuse
The last thing I expected to do on the morning of my birthday was cry. But the tears of Joy were not tears of joy but tears of pain and sadness. I couldn’t stop thinking of my mother. I’d never thought about her on any of my birthdays, in all these years. My birthday had always been about me and how great it was for me to be living my life. I’d never thought about the woman who gave me that life, the woman who birthed me into this world on that day. That was no joyous day for her but a sign of hurt to come.
The recent outing of Harvey Weinstein has been shocking in its gross criminality yet not surprising in its existence. Women have long been victimized by the evil that men do, especially men in power. Men who rule with iron fists, limp dicks, and egos as big as the sky.
To see woman after woman lift up her voice in a #MeToo clarion call of solidarity and acknowledgment of the pervasive abuse that we’ve experienced is liberating on the one hand and sobering on the other. It’s comforting to know that you’re not alone. But goddamn — who hasn’t been abused, harassed, assaulted, or traumatized?
So it was on my birthday morn when I watched an interview with (1). Tarana, a black woman and community activist, started the Me Too movement more than ten years ago to give voice to survivors of sexual violence, particularly women of color — women left without the resources to deal with the trauma of their experiences. By “empowerment through empathy,” they could connect with one another and know that they are not alone. And while #MeToo has taken off in ways Tarana hadn’t anticipated, she said in the interview, “It’s not a hashtag, it’s not a moment. This is a movement.” And there’s hard work that needs to be done to eradicate this “pandemic” of sexual violence against women, especially those who are not famous.
I thought about my own experiences of abuse, assault, and harassment, pre-fame and post-fame. The male babysitter when I was five, the male photographer in my early twenties, the male studio executive a few years ago. Yeah, me too.
And in my acknowledgment of common cause with the countless women coming forward in Hollywood and beyond, I thought about my mother, Joyce. Yeah, her too.
On October 18, 1974, Joyce gave birth to me, not in love but in shame, after hiding her pregnancy from my grandmother for six months. I am the product of a fifteen-year-old girl and an older man she knew. It doesn’t matter how or why or when. It happened, and with both my mother and my father dead, I’ll never know the specifics. What matters is that no one protected her before or after. What matters is that my mother was the one who was shamed. What matters is that my father ruined her life just as it was blossoming. What matters is she was trapped in a trauma she could never escape, a trauma that prevented her from being the mother I needed her to be. What matters is that she didn’t matter. And because she didn’t matter, I didn’t matter to her.
For most of my life, I’ve been too wrapped up in my own pain to ever acknowledge hers. Part of that is due to the fact that there was so much I didn’t know, so much that was kept from me, like my father’s identity, for one. But it was also due to my own righteous victimhood. What could be worse than being the recipient of her resentment, abandonment, anger, and disregard? I had no idea. I was well into my adult years when I learned who my father really was, and even then I couldn’t see past my own pain.
A family member once told me, “Your mother ain’t been right since she had you.” I was eighteen at the time and thought I knew what he meant. She was just “crazy.” It was the night before my grandmother’s wake, and Joyce and I had a big fight. She didn’t appreciate how I was speaking to her, and I didn’t appreciate her grabbing me, so we went at it. It was the first time I ever hit back. Years of anger and disappointment will do that to you sometimes. As family members pulled us apart, my mother yelled, “Your grandmother ain’t here to protect you anymore, bitch! Imma get you!”
What was I supposed to do with that?
While she was alive, my grandmother did what she could to protect me, but she didn’t do enough to protect her own child. I’ll never know how she felt about that. Guilt? Shame? Embarrassment? My grandmother took on the full responsibility of raising me. Was I her chance to make it right? She became the mother to me that neither my mother nor I had had. Was my mother jealous of that, and did that only add to her resentment and our estrangement?
It didn’t help that neither one of us had the tools to actually have the unspoken conversation that was the subtext of our entire relationship:
*Mommy, why can’t you love me?
Because I can’t love myself, baby. I don’t know how.*
For years, the silence between us was so loud, I had to cover my ears. I never knew who my mother was as a woman. I never heard her story from her. She never let me in. I never asked. I didn’t know how. Neither did she. So my experience of my mother was based on how she treated me, what I heard, and what I saw, most of which was far from nurturing and kind.
But I was always my mother’s child, no matter how much I tried to erase her or how much she pushed me away. In addition to our similar names, we looked just like sisters but spent most of our lives living as enemies. I became everything she wasn’t, everything she could have been if she hadn’t had me when she did, the way she did. So much of who I am as an artist is a reflection of who she was and could’ve been. She had more talent in her pinky than I possess in my entire being. She could sing and dance, and she was a much better actor than I could ever be. She was also a poet and the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. It’s taken me a long time to give her that due.
Hers is a story of what happens when Black Girl Magic becomes Black Girl Tragic and the casualties it leaves in its wake. Her story is one of stolen innocence and lost potential, a record of pain spun on a never-ending loop. Her story is sadly the story of so many.
It’s taken years of therapy for me to begin to understand who I am and why I am. And because of that, I’ve come to understand who and why my mother was, better than I could when she was alive. But on my birthday this year, I accepted my mother’s story as a part of my own. It always was and always will be.
*Joy Bryant is an actor, writer, and survivor.*