If You See My Mother: An Open Letter to Kate Bornstein

I started writing this just after I finished Queer and Present Danger, Kate Bornstein’s compelling, funny, fascinating and wonderful autobiography. So it’s a little bit about that, and a little bit about Monthers Day, and a little about other crazy shit that’s up with me right now. But I did truly love the book.

She introduces herself as a recovering alcoholic with suicidal ideation, borderline personality disorder and PTSD. At the very outset of the book, she says in no uncertain terms that it is being written for her estranged daughter and grandchildren. Considering my strained relationship with my own mother, who could be described in the exact same terms, I wasn’t sure if I could read it at first.

There was a time when I couldn’t even sit in an AA meeting without seething with rage. Alcoholics think the world stops every time they close their eyes or turn their backs. And for them, it does. The alcoholic life is full of stops and turn-offs. Binge moments when the world might as well have turned off the lights on them, because they were not there. The rest of us, however, have a very different narrative for our lives. We sober few have a front row seat to the devastation of everything that we hold dear, up to and including our closest loved ones.

I liked the book because it was well written, but also because I could read different parts and think of my own mother in similar situations and feel compassion by proxy because, of course, I don’t have the intensely personal and tumultuous history with Kate Bornstein that I have with my mom. As far as I was concerned when I picked up this book, I’d read Gender Outlaw and liked it, so I felt like this would be another good book I would enjoy, and I was right. It was also a chance to see into the framework of a borderline personality alcoholic for whom I didn’t already have a resentment.

The last chapter, which was written directly to her daughter and grandchildren, was especially poignant to me. Kate’s words echo my own mother’s words, not only in her ex-hippie, foul-mouthed, sci-fi colloquialisms, which is a speech pattern my mother and her have uncannily in common, but also in the assumptions they make. When she texts me, my mother tends to assume a didactic tone. As if my refusal to talk to her is anything more than a sign of my own spiritual lack.

As if I am not constantly hurt by the fact that I can’t talk to her.

I always thought that my mother’s fascination with me was merely an extension of her own narcissism. I am just a crumb that has fallen out of her gravity, and as such, must be returned to my path. Her path. She assumes that my decisions are frivolous, that my life is lacking, that the wisdom of her years is somehow welcome. I didn’t fall out of her gravity. I achieved escape velocity.

I had a 30 minute sobbing breakdown on Mothers Day because what mother would want me? I am not a daughter. I am a cold thing, a machine disconnected from humanity. I am a malfunctioning process, left too long to calculate its own purpose.

I have so much mother love in my life today, but it is so hard to let it in. Because I closed that door. I opened it once, and that was the worst mistake I have ever made. I have to cut that woman from my heart a million times every day, and all I want is to open the door.

I read about an experiment with baby baboons where behavioral scientists replaced their mothers with wire mothers who hit them and electrocuted them. And the worse the wire mother treated the baby baboon, the tighter the baby clung to her. When other baboon babies went out into the world and explored, the wire mother babies stayed near the mother in the blind stupid hope that she would stop electrocuting them and be fucking mothering.

If it was in my nature, I would have died in a cage, hugging a pain-box, wishing it could love me. The most depressing truth in all of this is that my mother does love me. And she’s abusive. A wire mother doesn’t ask to be made. She only does as she was programmed, regardless of intention.

Which is where Kate Bornstein and my mother differ wildly. Not in mothering, I can’t speak to that, but in the processing of programming. Reading Queer and Present Danger was healing for me in that I could see how a person could recover, and be recovering from the very conditions that ripped my own mother away from me. It didn’t give me any kind of hope, that would be a miss-classification. I don’t have hope for my mom because I can’t anymore. But I used to wonder what it would look like for her to do better, and now I have read about it, at least.

So, Kate Bornstein, if you see my mother, could you draw her a map? I don’t want you to tell me if you do, I can’t know those things anymore. But I want to thank you for showing me a different perspective on my wire mother.