The Ache for Home

Monica McGoldrick
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From the July/August 1994 issue

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. It impels mighty ambitions and dangerous capers. We hope that by doing these things, home will find us acceptable, or, failing that, that we will forget our awful yearning for it.”  Maya Angelou

“GOING HOME.” WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THAT FAMILIAR and evocative phrase? Until recently, I understood it primarily in terms of the ideas of Murray Bowen, family therapy’s pioneering theorist, which have so long influenced my thinking and my own family ties. As a therapist, I had always thought that “going home” meant developing a more adult, personal relationship with your parents and your siblings so you could be more fully your grown-up self even when you were with them. In recent years, however, my notions of home have changed. I turned 50 last July. I now have a 9-year-old son, and, last year, my 80-year-old mother died. Along with my husband, sisters and friends, I am now somewhat startled to find myself a member of the oldest generation.

For me these days, “going home” means not just evoking in memory the house of my childhood, but trying to imagine how to create a safe haven for all of us on this planet. But, I am discovering, it is impossible to think about this larger vision of home, this deeper sense of human connection, without recognizing how the constraints of culture, gender, class and race have kept so many of us from feeling at home in our society in the first place. In fact, so many people are systematically abused, despised, devalued and kept invisible women, children, people of color, the poor, gays that for millions of us, “going home” means going to a place where we have never been in the first place. “Home” for too many of us is no safe haven, no home at all.

How can we break through these iron bars of hatred, bigotry, arrogance and invisibility that shut out so many? How can we come to understand the links between our individual stories, secrets and silences, and the ways that the lives of all of us are part of one inextricable pattern, that we all do share a common home? How can we come to realize that, as Susan Griffin says, “our personal stories and the history of the world are all one story”?

UNTIL A VERY FEW YEARS AGO, FOR me, culture, gender, class and race were, to borrow Betty Friedan’s famous phrase, issues with “no name.” It had never occurred to me that any of them affected the relationships in my family, my schooling or the communities in which 7 lived. None of these crucial determinants of our life experience was ever mentioned during my childhood, my adolescence, my college or graduate education, or, for that matter, during my family therapy training.

So, even though I spent much of my childhood in what was really an interracial family my primary caretaker was African American race was never mentioned. Even though I grew up in a family run by two women who raised three daughters, a family with preferential rules regarding males (a family in which my father was treated like a visiting dignitary), gender was never mentioned. The influence of my Irish background would have been obvious to anyone who could recognize Irish behavior, yet I never thought of myself as Irish. And I grew up in a family in which class was never mentioned, even though we learned implicitly who was above us and below us on the socioeconomic ladder, and we learned rules for behavior that were utterly defined by class hierarchies. In short, we learned to organize our relationships completely according to prescribed, biased and utterly unspoken rules of culture, race, class and gender.

A few years before my mother died, she talked with me about how she had been defined throughout her life first as a daughter, then as a wife, and finally as a mother:

“I was accustomed to people saying, ‘Oh, you’re Inspector Cahalane’s daughter,'” she told me, ‘”and then I was accustomed to everybody saying, ‘Oh, you’re Joseph McGoldrick’s wife,’ so that I was always somebody’s something, just as today I’m Monica’s mother. Just once I want to be known as, ‘This is Helen McGoldrick. She stands on her own two feet.’ But that’s never to happen, Monica. So I was always somebody else’s something.”

My mother’s history, her fears and inadequacies, her struggles, continue through me. The pain of always being “somebody’s something” is a problem I have to take responsibility for, because during the era in which she lived, she was not able to be all that she could have been. Along with her two sisters and their Barnard classmates in the 1930s, she was part of a privileged and dynamic group of women who, in spite of their education and talents, were raised to submerge their identities in the men and children in their lives. My mother was our nurse, manager, chauffeur, host, and the encourager of our projects. She was a brilliant, courageous and remarkable woman. Yet, for much of her life, I hated her for her inability to be a “traditional mother,” for her foibles and, most of all, for her class pretensions.

In college, when I switched fields from Russian studies to social work, she was, embarrassed, because it indicated such a nose dive in class status. She used to introduce me by saying, “This is my daughter Monica, who is doing Psychiatric at Yale.” For years, I resented her for what I viewed as bragging and for hiding who we really were by embellishing her stories to impress others. Only now do I feel shame about my anger, because I realize she did it because she was so unsure of her own status, and had been made to feel invisible and inadequate all her life. I have come to see it as my business that my mother was not free to be all she could have been. Her invisibility made our lives visible.

I have come to realize that it is not so much our mothers who have let us down, as the yardsticks by which we have measured them. When I speak, you hear, along with the voice of my beloved father, whose love, wisdom and humor I grew up knowing to cherish, the voice of my mother, whose great strengths it took me many years to recognize. And there were many other unsung voices in my family. For one, my Great-Aunt Mamie, only sister of seven brothers and a widowed father, whose family discouraged all suitors, for fear of losing their caretaker. Aunt Mamie took care of her father and brothers until they died or left home. And then she became the Santa Glaus for five generations of our family, as well as for her whole court at 90 Saint Marks Place on Staten Island. Yet she lived in poverty for the last years of her life “on relief,” as it was called then because, not having the education for work that our society sanctions with remuneration, she could not make ends meet. She taught me a great deal about what you can give others beyond your pocketbook about humor and generosity of soul, about sacredness that has nothing to do with physical beauty or great accomplishments of the sort that get rewarded in our individualistic, competitive, materialistic society. Her invisibility also made my life visible.

There were other unsung “sheroes” in my family. One of them was my primary caretaker, Margaret Bush, who was descended from slaves in Asheville, North Carolina. She was the person I was closest to, emotionally and physically, from the time of my birth until her death while I was in college. It was to her that I confided my problems about boyfriends, about teachers, about my mother. After our family moved to the country, like so many African-American domestic workers, she had to live away from her own family much of the time to stay with us. She was always there for me and she loved me unconditionally. I am what she made me. I miss her every day, and she, like my parents, lives in my soul. When I speak, you hear her voice too.

But there is another side to this relationship. Last year, a friend of mine became tearful when I spoke of Margaret. Her own African-American mother, like so many others, had worked in the homes of white families, giving those families love and care that took away from what she had left for her own children. This is the story of racism: black women serving white families at the expense of themselves and their own families. And this is one of the unacknowledged benefits I have received from racism.

I grew up thinking I was innocent that I had nothing to do with racism and certainly not with slavery. My mother, only a few years ago, told me that I was raised to be so “color blind” that I once tried to describe a black girl in my brownie troop by telling another friend everything about her except the color of her skin. My mother had no awareness that this was because I had learned the lessons of racism all too well I knew you did not refer to skin color. Nor did I recognize the fact of Margaret’s white uniform as a symbol of her status within our family. Or the fact that she did not learn how to read until after I did, when she was 50 years old. This, too, reflects the history of slavery, when slaves could be killed for learning to read, as could anyone who taught them. During my childhood, when Margaret learned to read with a local teacher, it was a big secret. I remember I used to go up and spy on her, anxious to discover what she was doing, up there in her room with her teacher, Audrey. How appalling it is now to realize the barriers she had to overcome to get where she did with her life. How incredible that she learned to read from racist books about fair-haired, blue-eyed little Dick and Jane, books that invalidated her own experience by leaving it invisible.

I now realize how much I benefited from racism, including the feet that most books were written for me as a white person. I am also coming, slowly and painfully, to realize what it means to carry around, in Peggy Macintosh’s terms, a kind of “invisible knapsack of privilege” that contains special provisions, maps, passports, visas, blank checks and emergency gear. We cannot see this knapsack, but those who don’t have one see it all too clearly.

1GREW UP NOT KNOWING I WAS Irish, because my family was trying to “pass” for WASP. Of course, “passing” is what everyone in this country is pressed to do we are urged to accommodate, to fit the preferred images, to keep invisible the parts of ourselves that do not conform to the dominant culture’s values. So growing up, I did not even know that I myself had a cultural background.

It wasn’t until the mid-1970s, when my interest in Bowen theory had finally led me to explore my own roots, that I took a trip with my entire family to Ireland. From the moment we landed in Dublin, I had an overwhelming sense of having come home. I seemed to see my relatives everywhere, people using humor, teasing or ridicule to keep others in line or to maintain distance in male-female relationships, failing to talk about vital emotional issues staring them in the face, and expressing anger by giving others the silent treatment. Suddenly, patterns I had taken for granted all my life fit into a larger picture. It wasn’t that my family was “crazy” I was just Irish! It was a transforming experience that has never left me. In some deep way, I still think of Ireland as home.

It was only some years after realizing I was Irish that I first became aware of gender as an issue in my own life, an awareness that created enormous turmoil in my personal, as well as my professional, life. With regard to my Irishness, I could maintain a certain distance. I could get away from it. But with gender, there was no escape. Wherever I went, the rules for gender inequality still applied. I had a sexist husband who thought he was helping me if he did any chores around the house. But I came to realize that I, too, was sexist, for I felt grateful to him for “helping” me. When I went on a business trip, my husband described me as “abandoning” him and going on vacation. I prepared days ahead for my absence and I would make up for it for days afterward. This was so unlike the treatment of my father when I was a child; he traveled frequently and we did everything we could to make him as welcome as possible on his return.

As I became aware of the unequal nature of my relationship with my husband, I struggled with how to address it how could I bring up a touchy issue without overloading the circuits? Certainly not when he’d had a hard day or was in a bad mood. But when I would finally decide the time was right, my husband would accuse me of “ruining our relationship.” And a part of me would believe this, that it was somehow my fault: If I were only more generous or better at expressing myself, I would have been able to work things out by myself.

In the family therapy field as well, there was no getting away from the pervasive influence of gender and the emotional heat triggered by discussing it. I remember well the first panel on gender at a meeting of the American Family Therapy Academy in 1985. Virginia Goldner, one of the earliest and most articulate voices of feminism in family therapy, pointed out how family therapists had been trained to emphasize generation, but to ignore gender. I marveled at her clarity, the precision and utter truth of what she was saying how could I not have seen it myself? But afterward, many men disparaged her talk, including one of the leaders in the field, who described her as “Darth Vader.” Later, at a national family therapy conference, when the program included for the first and only time predominantly female presenters, many men within the organization expressed their outrage and their belief that this shift represented the desire of the women to “kill off’ the men.

Over the years, I have been mystified by the reactivity of men to these issues. No matter how carefully we tried to explain that feminism was about equality, partnership and a new construction of gender relationships and not about women taking over, reasoned conversations were all but impossible. There were threats that men would withdraw from the field if women didn’t get off “this kick.” Longtime male colleagues came up to me and said, “Monica, you used to be so nice. What’s happened to you? Why are you so angry at men? Did you hate your father? Are you having trouble with your husband? I’m not sexist. I’ve never mistreated a woman. So why are you blaming me for all this? Why are you saying we have the power? I feel quite powerless. We men have problems too, you know. After all, we’re not allowed to feel.”

Of course, it is in the nature of patriarchy for men not to experience their power, because in a society that measures everyone hierarchically, there is always someone ahead of you or nipping at your heels to take your place. But it often almost seemed impossible for men to envision a way of being with other people that wasn’t about winning or losing.

Within the past few years, I began to be confronted with race and racism and now it was / who was on the other side of the power imbalance. Immediately, I heard the issues quite differently. Suddenly, I wanted to say to others the same things men had been saying to me: “Why are you so angry? You used to be so nice. Now you’re being divisive. I have nothing to do with racism, slavery or segregation. I’ve never mistreated a person of color. I’m a nice person, not a racist. I would love to change things, but I don’t have the power, either. White people have experienced oppression, too let me tell you about it.” I wanted to justify myself, as I had heard men do so often by referring to their good intentions, their own experience of class or ethnic oppression, or their kindness to individual women. And as I heard my own reactivity, I realized that I must be part of the problem. Otherwise, I wouldn’t need to be so defensive. We “right-thinking” liberals react

almost viscerally to being called racist. The accusation of racism sounds so damning, conjuring up images of lynchings or the Ku Klux Klan. But when people of color use the term, they often are referring to something much more subtle, the everyday micro-aggressions and insults that we who are white unthinkingly inflict through our ignorance of their history and experience.

Inevitably, when an African American expresses frustration or anger at a family therapy meeting, the white people want to get him or her “feeling okay” in the course of a single conversation. It reminds me of how much I always hated it when men indicated that they hoped each conversation about gender inequality would be the last women would then feel alright and not be angry anymore. I realize I have taken this attitude myself in conversations about racism, but I now recognize the arrogance of my refusal to see that the pain of racism can’t be taken care of so easily. How can we demand that black people’s anger and sense of injustice disappear, when the problems that evoke them remain?

To the men who told me they weren’t sexist, I used to say, “If you’re not actively working on the solution, you’re part of the problem.” I realize now that unless my own life is about overcoming racism and my invisible knapsack of privilege disappears, I am also a part of the problem and therefore I am a racist. I must work so that everyone is entitled to those privileges. Then we will all have a home.

Going home or being unable to do so is also about class. Until very recently, in my heart, I thought class was a boring, sociological topic, irrelevant to therapy. “I don’t know what there is to say about class,” I once told a group of students, “except that it’s better off not to be poor.” Then, one day a few years ago, I got involved in a discussion with some faculty members from the Family Institute of Westchester about the class rules in our families. During the discussion, I remember thinking, then on the way home it hit me my whole life has been organized by class values. The clothes I wear are a class statement, the car I drive, my house, my furniture, the pictures on my walls, the music I listen to, even the language I use to write this article.

The topic of social class was never mentioned in my training nor is it ever mentioned among family therapists. Everyone knows the class code for the degrees in our field M.D., Ph.D., Ed.D., D.S.W., M.S.W., MA and so forth yet we don’t talk about it. We know, too, the complex hierarchical code for colleges and universities the Ivy League, the Seven Sisters, Berkeley, Georgetown, Howard, Spellman, Trenton State. This concept of class is exquisitely comprehensive; it governs all social interactions; the rules of class insidiously influence our feelings of otherness, of not being okay.

In one situation or another, the myth of our having a classless society leads to our lying about who we are, whether to hide our WASP roots or the money that would distance us socially in the mental health field, or whether to hide our poverty and working-class origins. Class is about whether you grow up believing the American Dream applies to you, whether you can grow up believing you will ever be able to support yourself through work, whether you can feel protected by society’s laws, entitled to society’s goods and so forth. Class is also about who is in and who is out, who gets bullied, picked on, excluded, made fun of. While patterns of social exclusion develop most intensely during children’s school years, rejection and the concomitant pressure to conform to “pass” continue to define us all our lives.

Whatever we cannot acknowledge the secrets we keep about our own class background, our unspoken feelings about race, or sexual orientation, or gender-carries a cost. Guarding secrets consumes our energy and compromises our relationships. It continues to go unsaid that where you come from does matter, that you cannot shed your past and become whatever you want merely through hard work and desire. It goes unsaid that anybody cannot become president not a woman, not an African American, not even a white man if he happens to be gay or Jewish. It goes unsaid that the concept of “liberty and justice for all” was never meant to apply to everyone in this country. We must begin to acknowledge our own beliefs and feelings about class, race and gender, to dare to put our assumptions and prejudices on the table so we can examine them and see what they cost us and what they cost others.

AM EARLY 19TH-CENTURY American physician, Samuel Cartwright, described “drapetomania,” a mental disorder prevalent among slaves, which was characterized by a single symptom the uncontrollable urge to escape slavery. This diagnosis turned the desire for liberty into a sickness that was the problem of the slave, not the slave owner or the institution of slavery. Naming is an enormously powerful act. The use of labels to control others continues almost unabated in many sectors of our society, including family therapy. We are much more ready to diagnose the victims of abuse than the abusers. We have numerous acronyms MPD (multiple personality disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), SCS (survivors of child sexual abuse) that define the entire life course of those who have experienced trauma. But we omit from our descriptions those who traumatize others, just as we did more than a century ago with slavery. Why, as Ken Hardy and others have asked repeatedly, isn’t racism defined as a mental disorder and labeled as psychopathology? Or sexism? Or battering?

Families of color, families of the poor, and immigrant families, whose norms and values are different from those within our naming scheme, remain pathologized as deficient or dysfunctional, or, worse, invisible within our society. They are labeled “dependent,” while the dependence of the dominant groups on society is left invisible and they are left to imagine they are autonomous rather than benefiting from schools, health care and legal institutions that silently serve their needs. Many family therapists still are trained without reference to the insidious role that hierarchies related to culture, class, race and gender play in the United States. They are taught concepts of human development, psychopathology, family functioning from the skewed, patriarchal, classist framework of the dominant white groups in our society. They believe that you can learn about “men’s issues” and not include issues of African-American men, that you can learn about “couples therapy” or “child sexual abuse” or “the family life cycle” or “dual career families” or “genograms” without including people of color in the discussion.

The problem with naming is not only with the labels we apply to others, but also with the ones we apply to ourselves. A name both includes and excludes. By defining myself as “Irish American,” I may be reassured by a sense of belonging to a group, but at a certain point I am also distancing myself from those who are not Irish in ways that may undermine our mutual sense of “home.” Focusing on any fixed group identity, whether based on ethnicity or class or race or gender, clarifies some things, but necessarily obscures others. As we try to create a truly multicultural society, enormous challenges face us. We must find ways to appreciate the many levels of our identities, while finding a balance between validating the uniqueness of each of us and acknowledging the common humanity we all share.

“All of us are more a hodgepodge of identities, cultural and otherwise, than anything else. So any restrictive characterization inevitably misses much of who we are. This complexity has been captured brilliantly in Louise Erdich and Michael Dorris’s novel, The Crown of Columbus. With different details, this might be the story of any one of us:

I belong to the lost tribe of mixed bloods, that hodgepodge amalgam of hue and cry that defies easy placement. When the DNA of my various ancestors Irish and Coeur d’Alene and Spanish and Navajo and God knows what else combined to form me, the result was not some genteel indecipherable puree that comes from a Cuisinart. You know what they say on the side of the Bisquick box under instructions for pancakes? “Mix with fork. Leave lumps.” That was me. There are advantages to not being this or that. You have a million stories, one for every occasion, and in a way they’re all lies and in another way they’re all true. When Indians say to me, “What are you? I know exactly what they’re asking and answer Coeur d’Alene. I don’t add, “Between a quarter and a half,” because that’s information they don’t require, first off though it may come later if I screw up and they’re looking for reasons why. If one of my Dartmouth colleagues wonders, “Where did you study?” I pick the best place, the hardest one to get into, in order to establish that I belong. If a stranger of the street questions where [my daughter] gets her light-brown hair and dark skin, I say the Olde Sodde and let them figure it out. There are times when I control who I’ll be, and times when I let other people decide. I’m not all anything, but I’m a little bit of a lot. My roots spread in every direction, and if I water one set of them more often than others, it’s because they need it more …. I’ve read anthropological papers written about people like me. We’re called marginal, as if we exist anywhere but on the center of the page. We’re parked on the bleachers looking into the arena, never the main players, but there are bonuses to peripheral vision. Out beyond the normal bounds, you at least know where you’re not. You escape the claustrophobia of belonging, and what you lack in security you gain by realizing as those insiders never do that security is an illusion …. Caught between two worlds is the way we’re often characterized, but I’d put it differently. We are the catch.”

THERE ARE TWO COMMON PITFALLS in discussions of diversity. The first is to be so inclusive that the pervasive injustice of racism is trivialized in the rush to embrace the multiplicity of other “isms.” The second pitfall is for discussion to get polarized, with the “black/white” issues becoming so predominant that other groups feel their issues have no place or that the discussion turns into an endless argument over which oppression is the worst or most important.

Last year, at a workshop on diversity, several panelists were giving impassioned presentations about the impact of white racism on African Americans. During the break, a gay, white colleague expressed distress that his perceptions about homosexuality were difficult to voice in the context of the presentation. Later, a Latina presenter spoke movingly of how discussions of black/white racism made her feel invisible. A third colleague became upset at some joking about his behavior as a white male. The panel also triggered for him some resentments from his working-class upbringing, but, in the context of this particular discussion, these feelings seemed to him somehow trivial and small-minded. Each of these panelists felt a strong urge to withdraw.

Anyone who has been through a heated public discussion about diversity issues knows how easily it can turn into a divisive contest triggered by the many legacies of oppression found in our society. It is hard for most of us to stay together when our particular “otherness” is not the focus. If we are to keep the conversation going, we have to learn to tolerate ambiguities and hold several different ideas in our minds at the same time. We must realize it is much easier to present ourselves in the position of the oppressed than to take responsibility for our role as the oppressor.

One thing is clear to me: in order for people to embrace a multicultural outlook, they first need to feel safe. We must acknowledge the horror of racism to make it safe for people of color to discuss sexism or homophobia in their communities. Similarly, our acknowledgment of homophobia will make it easier for those who are gay or lesbian to acknowledge the racism and classism of their communities.

Making cultural diversity into something more than a catch phrase requires sensitivity, flexibility and the ability to maintain a wider perspective. That means we must take into account the special invisibility of African-American men and the particular way that racism has been directed against them, without ignoring the invisibility of African-American women and the role African-American men play in the oppression of African-American women. While doing this, we must not humiliate or dehumanize white men, even as we must continue to hold them accountable for their privilege, entitlement and lack of awareness of their role in perpetuating the current system.

We must also struggle against the backlash that accompanies profound shifts in deeply held social attitudes. For several years, the family therapy field has been reeling from the reaction to the feminist critique. Many men have withdrawn from professional meetings. Now, as issues of culture and race are beginning to assert themselves, we are witnessing similar efforts to keep these subjects invisible. There is the frequent warning that “We’d better go slow, or the whites will retreat in droves from our organizations.” Or those with the power to employ staff say, “We would love to hire a senior minority family therapist, but we can’t find any,” without questioning their standards for a senior family therapist. (Most clinicians of color have not defined themselves as family therapists, so we are looking in the wrong places for them.) Or those with the power to plan conferences say, “We did cultural diversity last year. We need something new for this year.” Or minorities are pitted against one another, with articles written blaming women for the oppression of poorly paid, minority child-care workers or about how the stereotypes minorities have about one another are stronger than the stereotypes whites have about any of them. Of course, this framework makes invisible the social structure created and held in place by the dominant groups that pits minorities against one another.

We must work actively to overcome the forces that divide us. The forces for segregation are so powerful that, unless we make strong and deliberate efforts to nurture diversity, the status quo will prevail. We cannot assume that racism will disappear just by our being “good people,” or by leaving people of color to deal with it. This means that we who are white must confront racism rather than ignore it. We must learn to become uncomfortable in segregated situations and with reading books that pertain only to white people. We must become so uncomfortable that we are moved to do something about it.

But to do what we must do, we need each other. We must consciously divest ourselves of our myths of separateness, our false beliefs that the injustice that traps the other does not also trap us, that the suffering we experience in our own group or culture or gender, class or race is inherently more serious than the suffering of others. We can no longer tolerate the barriers that have kept us separate for so long. To take pleasure and strength in the particular heritage to which we were born is fine; to buttress our own identities by humiliating or demonizing or rendering invisible those of other heritages is a sure recipe for our own disaster. Isolated in our self-declared tribes, we will surely be defeated by the forces that have traditionally had so much to gain by keeping us divided and encouraging us to blame each other for the social ills of the whole.

Alone, we will be mystified, silenced, invalidated; we will burn out in the struggle. But, together, we can help each other pull down the walls that separate us, demolish the invisible barriers that keep us from the connection that is our human birthright. It will never be easy. We are none of us yet fully formed human beings; in my view, we are all still just half-baked. So we will continue to blurt out racist or sexist or classist or homophobic comments, often without realizing what we are saying. If we are lucky, someone will draw our prejudices to our attention, and, if we have the patience and good grace to listen, to quell our own instinctive self-righteousness and defensiveness, we may learn a little more about our world, about each other and about ourselves. We may then be able to transcend, little by little, the false haven of our prejudice and blindness, to hold ourselves accountable for the fate of each other, and to gradually widen our vision of what we call home until it becomes a safe place for us all.

Monica McGoldrick, MSW, is the director of the Family Institute of New Jersey.