Assertiveness Training

Susan Sheu considers her estrangement from her conservative mom, who tried to teach her to stand up and be heard in a male-dominated world — but not to be too unladylike about it.

Susan Sheu | Longreads | December 2017 | 23 minutes (5,862 words)

In the early 1980s, my mother took a class at the local Wisconsin university’s student psychology center called “Assertiveness Training.” She was awakening belatedly to a version of the mind-expanding youth she had missed by marrying and dropping out of college at age 20 in 1967, during the Summer of Love. The class was taught by Dr. B, who told the students to use “I” statements to ask for what they wanted in plain terms during work and family interactions. (“I am unhappy that you said that to me. I feel that I am not heard when I speak to you.”) The idea was to learn to be assertive but not aggressive, to stop being a silently suffering martyr or someone who holds in all their anger and resentment until it boils over into inappropriate and ineffective rage or self-destructive behavior. It goes without saying that the class was all women. As she immersed herself in college again, my mother began to tell me that when I grew up, I could be anything I wanted — a doctor, a lawyer, a scientist. Even though the Equal Rights Amendment had not been ratified, she wanted me to believe that my future was up to me. Perhaps that was one reason she took Assertiveness Training, to be the kind of mother who raised a daughter who wouldn’t need a class like that.

My grandmother was the model of someone who regularly displayed inappropriate anger, someone my mom was trying to avoid becoming. My grandma Violet had once been docile, and my mom believed that she made the rest of us pay for that false submissiveness for the rest of her life. The short version of my grandmother’s story is that she didn’t marry the man she was in love with because he was Catholic and she was Protestant (this was Nebraska, circa 1928); she didn’t attend college despite receiving a debate scholarship because her mother feigned illness to keep her youngest child at home; and she tried to be a good wife in a marriage with a decent, practical man with whom she was not in love. She ran my grandpa’s restaurant while he was serving in World War II, and when he returned, no longer had any day-to-day responsibilities in the business operations.

By the time I knew her, my grandmother was smoking, alternating between Camels and Newports, drinking gin and, if she was feeling moderate, Mogen David wine (“The Jews” drank it. And Sammy Davis, Jr., “that talented Negro,” was a Jew. It had a screw top. And it was sweet.). She told off anyone who stood in her way, and for decades after her death, my mother made me pretend she was still alive, because it was the memory of my grandma’s fiery temper more than the restraining order that kept my father away. My grandma also took Valium, prescribed by the psychiatrist she began seeing shortly before her death in 1978. I was 9 when she died, but I already knew that her outspokenness and self-medication were a great source of shame for my mom and grandpa.

I’ve since come to understand that my grandma had the appropriate response to her circumstances.

When I was growing up, my grandpa, a farmer — that good man who wooed my grandma long enough to marry her, and then spent the next several decades making dinner for her but boring her — always watched the evening news with my mom, my brother, and me. My grandma lived in a house ten miles away, in the city. This was their respectable way of remaining married while not having to tolerate the other person’s daily presence. Anti-Vietnam protests were in the past, by the time we were children watching Tom Brokaw and David Brinkley over roasted chicken in the late 1970s. But whenever there were protests reported on TV, anywhere in the world, my grandpa shook his head in silent scorn. Anyone who caused a fuss or lost their temper, anyone who raised their voice, was a “rabble-rouser,” out of line, and probably dangerous. In any case, my grandpa said, this was not how to get things done.

The idea was to learn to be assertive but not aggressive, to stop being a silently suffering martyr or someone who holds in all their anger and resentment until it all boils over into inappropriate and ineffective rage or self-destructive behavior.

He never did tell us how to get things done, but he wanted us to know that shouting and carrying signs and being on the evening news was no good. At the beginning of the Vietnam War, like many in his generation, he began as a patriot, desiring an end to tyranny in Asia. He had been in the Marine Corps in World War II, stationed in Okinawa. In the end, I imagine the relentlessness of the anti-war movement, and the fact that the United States did not succeed, made him want to erase the entire episode from his mind, removing the original moral imperative for intervention and denying that the peace demonstrators had any impact on his heart.

While we watched the OPEC crisis and Middle East conflicts and other national and international news, my mom stayed mostly silent. She watched with interest and read the local newspaper, but she let her father deliver the mealtime lessons on current events to my younger brother and me. When the local news began in the second half of the dinner hour, she became more animated, taking note of town festivals, pet adoptions, high school sports, and musical events.

My grandpa’s military service in Asia in the 1940s might have been one of the reasons why, when my mom eloped with a student from China and then had two children with him, my grandparents soon accepted that the new generation appearing on their family tree would no longer look like their ancestors in Sweden and Germany. My father was from a poor family who fled from China to Taiwan during the Communist takeover, and around the same time converted from their traditional Buddhist faith to Christianity. That my father was anti-Communist and a Christian certainly made the matter of his ethnicity easier to take.

Later, when my parents divorced, the fact that he was neither white nor American mattered. My father had gone quickly from domineering to abusive during my parents’ short marriage. The hitting, the screaming — my mom and grandparents never forgot to include my father’s Chinese accent and his antiquated notion that husbands’ and fathers’ rights mattered more than abuse in American family law — became the story I heard. My grandparents told their friends that the only good that came from their daughter’s marriage were those intelligent, good-looking, half-Chinese children. This also became my mom’s story. My father was mentally ill, probably paranoid schizophrenic, but what I heard about him when I was growing up were stories that blended his Asian patriarchal sexism with his psychosis, into an ugly mixture that, now that he is dead, I will never disentangle. What I do know for certain is my mom was so terrified and furious at the end of her marriage that she sometimes acted as though raising children in opposition to her parents and ex-husband was her reason to live. My father was the only relationship she’d ever had, and she was young enough to hope for a second act with a better man.

Other times, it seemed as though she wanted my brother and me, especially me, to live the quiet, respectable, traditional life she had hoped for, version 2.0. The second act never happened, and what she might have wanted for herself became hard to distinguish from what she wanted for us.

***

During the Reagan administration, a boy I had loved from afar for a couple of years took me on a date. While we fooled around in his car — his main agenda to get into my pants, mine to begin the love relationship that I imagined would be my first and last — the subject of political affiliation came up. He was criticizing the government, saying the president’s approach to drugs and the Middle East was a mistake. He was from an educated family, so his way of saying this struck me as charming, in the vein of old footage of Bobby Kennedy making opinion sound like self-evident truth. In the barest way of standing up for myself, I told him I was a Republican. This brought the wooing and pawing of me to a screeching halt.

“Why?” he asked. “You’re the child of a single mother, mixed race, and poor, growing up in Wisconsin. Why are you a Republican?”

I sputtered a reply. “They are moral; I just think they’re right.” There was no good response to this kind of ambush where I came from. I liked this boy, and I didn’t want to be talking about this. While he was technically correct about everything he’d said, I’d never thought of my life in those terms. I wanted him to kiss me and tell me how much he had always loved me. But I also believed I was smart. People had been telling me this for as long as I could remember. So his opening with these facts, these demographic truths that I was too proud to imagine anyone else could see, disarmed me. The relationship lasted about another week, when his phone calls petered out and I wandered the halls, too embarrassed to make eye contact with him because he didn’t care for me anymore and because I wondered who else saw me as the sum of the variables he had named.

What I do know for certain is my mom was so terrified and furious at the end of her marriage that she sometimes acted as though raising children in opposition to her parents and ex-husband was her reason to live.

A couple of years later, I went to Vassar on a full scholarship, which did nothing to help me learn how to hold my own in a room full of students from prep schools and professional families. I only knew I loved to read and be with others like me. So during my sophomore year, when a group of students occupied Main building on campus because Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan had reportedly slighted a black faculty member at an event, and my philosophy professor Michael McCarthy wanted to discuss the incident in class, I did not speak up. A part of me knew from times like the car make-out session that I didn’t know how to say what I meant, or that maybe what I had to say wasn’t good enough. But I had strong feelings, and they were hard to suppress. I no longer called myself a Republican. For one thing, the vocal Republicans at Vassar were an unappealing, misfit collection of contrarians, and my close friends were apolitical liberals. But I didn’t really understand or care deeply about liberalism. A guy in class, one of those coastal undergraduates who seemed so much older than the Midwestern boys I’d known, sat near me. I thought he was a skinny weirdo. With his long, stringy blond hair and crooked smile, he would have been mocked or ignored in my hometown. But I trusted him enough to whisper my opinions to him in class. Friends of mine participated in the protest, but I still thought it was stupid, a waste of time. There were so many other things in the world to protest that outranked a senator disagreeing with a faculty member.

My classmate looked at me with what I recognized as tolerance. “You must have patience for the process of disagreement,” he said. “It’s messy.”

He went on to say that protest and dissent were part of our society, worthwhile of our support even when we didn’t agree with the protesters. I realize, now that I’m more than twice that student’s age, that growing up, he must have had parents or teachers who shared these views with him. But at the time, what he said resonated in a way I didn’t understand. I felt a twinge of shame, but not as much as I would have if I’d raised my hand in class and offered to the eminent philosophy professor my 19-year-old’s scorn about protest.

Meanwhile, in the course of my liberal arts education, I met the young man I would later marry. He was Jewish and the son of a respected New England doctor and elementary school teacher, grandson of a New Jersey teamster. He was studying sociology, and I was studying history, both of us interested in 19th century Europe. Some of his earliest childhood memories — he told me in late night conversations while we drank beer and smoked his hand-rolled cigarettes — were attending teachers’ union and League of Women Voter meetings with his mother. When he was in elementary school, his mother had forbidden him to play at the house of a child whose family referred to black people as the N word. She’d felt so strongly about it that she drove over to the family’s house and told them so. She’d marched in the Civil Rights movement and met Martin Luther King, Jr. He told me he was distantly related to Karl Marx, and I laughed and confessed that I was distantly related to H.R. Haldeman, the famous Nixon administration official and Watergate criminal. As my life and my boyfriend’s lives intertwined and we became inseparable, I admired his family history and what it had taught him.

As my mom continued to vote Republican in the 1990s despite her professed beliefs in women’s reproductive choice and preserving the environment, and despite her poverty, I embraced my boyfriend’s political outlook and grew more ashamed of where I came from. But I believed my mom’s conservatism in the voting booth was an aberration, and I remembered the ways she had been a loving and selfless parent, even when she was exhausted from the work she did and the loneliness she endured. Sometimes I hoped that she would figure out for herself that she was voting for politicians who didn’t care about someone like her.

***

In years shortly afterward, I participated in two protest marches that I recall: the first one a “Take Back the Night” march in 1990 in Boston, and the second one a march against the presidency of George W. Bush on the Santa Monica Third Street Promenade. They were about the safest opportunities for dissent possible — marching in Beacon Hill against rape with a couple thousand other women, and again in the bluest part of a blue state against a Republican who had led us into a misguided war. I didn’t delude myself into thinking I was an activist. Both times, friends persuaded me to attend because of our shared beliefs, and I consented.

My mom, meanwhile, fell away from her attempts at assertiveness as she grew into middle age. She ended conversations with long riffs on what she should have said in some intolerable situation with a person who was insulting her or trying to take advantage of her. I would become irritated, asking her why she hadn’t said some version of her ideal response, which was to put the offending party in their place or at least point out their rudeness. She would either tell me she couldn’t, or just not reply to my question about it. When she was particularly angry at a person she’d failed to tell off, she would draw me into the hypothetical exchange with something between an insult and a compliment:

“You wouldn’t put up with this for a minute!”

No, I wouldn’t have, I would say. Because it was true. Sometimes I lost my temper in situations where a stranger or acquaintance upset me, but I was learning to hold my own. The people in my life from college onward spoke up for themselves, and becoming a parent in my 30s meant accepting a degree of responsibility that made me literally the adult in the room. In time I must have taken some of this authority into other spheres of my life.

***

My mom and I are estranged now, not for the first time. I began avoiding her phone calls a few months before the election. She left my house after living with us for several months of the year, and we left plans for her return open-ended. Sometime in the summer of 2016, around the time of the Republican convention when Donald Trump got his party’s nomination, I tried to talk with her directly about what was going on.

“I can’t believe he’s gotten this far,” I began.

“I don’t have to talk about this!” she said, and stormed out of the dining room into her bedroom, closing the door behind her. I was shocked and angry at her reaction. In time I came to wish I had pounded at her door and told her what was really on my mind: that I couldn’t bear to watch her passively support a man who was so much like my father, someone who seemed unhinged from reality, who would demean and do violence to a woman. Who would laugh as he encouraged his followers to kill his female opponent, Hillary Clinton. So much like my father, who had beaten and threatened to kill my mom.

We have disagreed about politics without actually arguing for decades, since she votes Republican as a matter of identity as much as for what she implies are her values.

We have had an inconsistent relationship, marked by years of closeness and maddening frustration. She has provided years of help with my three babies, while my husband and I worked, finished graduate degrees, and raised children in Los Angeles. We paid her enough to lure her away from her old job at a women’s shelter, plus something she’d never had: health benefits. Because of our multigenerational solution, my husband and I enjoyed more date nights than our fellow new parents. We had the added peace of mind of knowing that our children’s loving grandma was at home putting them to bed while we had a few hours alone together, remembering why we we liked each other enough to be married. We also had the peace of knowing that she was no longer in danger of doctors’ bills wrecking her finances. But the years took their toll on all of us. She was helpful but also a tremendous pain in the ass to live with, unwilling or unable to help in ways that we really needed as the babies grew into school-aged children. The break this time was the culmination of many factors, but one of the most important reasons was the election.

***

For the past two years, I have felt the gathering doom of an election that seemed so momentous beforehand and so disastrous afterwards. The bigotry and ignorance, the casual embrace of violence, the disregard for facts and the press that made it hard to believe I had grown up in a country and in a family that gave lip service to the opposite values. I can talk or think of little else.

For months after the election, my mom continued to write letters to me about my kids, my dogs, where she and a friend had lunch, and other everyday news. Reading her letters and emails one might get the impression that she lives in a static parallel universe version of America where it’s still 1980. We have disagreed about politics without actually arguing for decades, since she votes Republican as a matter of identity as much as for what she implies are her values. For years, the most common response when I tried to discuss politics with her was silence or changing the subject. Early this year I sent her one letter, along with a few articles about the disaster that is unfolding in our country, saying I didn’t want hear from her if she voted for Donald Trump. She replied with a handwritten letter, telling me that she had not voted for him, that she had left that part of the ballot blank, but that she would plan on not seeing us anymore. Her usually smooth, perfectly rounded penmanship quivered with what I imagine was a mixture of rage and sadness.

I read the letter twice and then kept it in its envelope on my desk. For a moment I registered relief that she was not one of the 53% of white American women who voted for Trump. But I thought about how resentfully she gave my family that gift while continuing to vote for the party that is the power behind Trump’s wrecking ball. I should write back, but I keep thinking about the emails my husband sent to her begging her not to vote for him. I think about the emails I sent her in 2016. She didn’t respond to any of them. I don’t know to treat someone who wants all the communication to be on her terms and her chosen topics. It is intolerant of me to hold this grudge, but then again, it is intolerant of her too.

Our only avenue of communication now is my Instagram feed. I have spent much of my time since December 2016 at protests, rallies, Democratic club meetings and fundraisers, Get Out the Vote and activist trainings, and similar gatherings of rabble-rousers as well as educated, coastal elites. Once, when I was headed to a Democratic meeting in east Los Angeles, where a number of organizers, union members, and other grassroots politicos were gathering, it occurred to me that I was fraternizing with the opposite of the people my grandfather said were upstanding folks. It is a small, unhealthy pleasure of mine to know that my mom would probably like to unfollow me in order to stop seeing so many political photos and slogans she might disagree with. But if she unfollowed me, she would also stop seeing photos of my kids and new dog and my husband, whom she adores.

***

In February I attended my third protest march since the election. My first had been in December, in Hollywood — the Women and Allies March. The second was the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., with my husband and children. At the march in February on Presidents’ Day, in the crowd of a few hundred protesters in Los Angeles, a CNN reporter interviewed me briefly about why I was there and what my homemade sign meant (“No Ban, No Wall, California Welcomes All”). Luckily I had about five minutes to think of a response. When I was speaking on TV, a friend took a photo and texted it to me. The still shot makes me look intense, like I mean business. My children are in the background trying to look nonchalant as they display their signs for the environment and equality. My mouth is open, and I am in the middle of saying that my father came to the U.S. because of an opportunity for education, but originally fled his home in China because of war, and that exclusion because of religion or nationality is not an American value. Once I got over the initial embarrassment of the CNN video clip, I realized it wasn’t so bad. I looked haggard, but don’t we all these days? I sounded assertive but not aggressive. My sign wasn’t vulgar. I was reasonably articulate. I shared the photo on Instagram and Facebook, where I jokingly called it my “resting (resisting) bitch face,” and hundreds of friends and colleagues liked and commented. My mother was silent.


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The next day I posted photos of pink camellias in my yard and some lettuce at the farmers’ market, and my mother liked them both. If I post a photo of my children other than at a protest, or a photo of my dog, she will like it. If I post a photo of a bouquet or a loaf of bread on my table at home, she will like it. If I post a photo of my husband, she will like it. If it’s the two of us, she may or may not like it, because not liking it is a way for her to say without commenting that I am the bad person in this relationship, and I do not deserve a like.

In her eyes, I am probably a “nasty woman,” a term I hate even though many of my friends have embraced it since Trump used it to describe Hillary Clinton in their last debate. “Nasty” is, of course, supposed to be ironic when women say it about themselves. But “nasty” sounds like I’m hurting someone else, when my aim is reducing the harm done to us all under this administration. If anyone is going to co-opt a term to describe a woman asserting herself, I think I’d rather just be called a bitch. I hate to even call the resistance “the resistance” because it seems like defending democratic, constitutional, American law and values is not resisting but enforcing the norms we have developed as a nation and culture since 1776. But I have finally given in and call what I and many others do “the resistance,” because we are resisting the dismantling of our government and norms of liberalism. Not liberalism as in “Democrats and lefties,” I mean liberalism as in the Enlightenment.

What has baffled me all along is that the reason I am reacting this way to Trump’s presidency, and before that to the rise of Trump, is because of my upbringing with my mother. I have lived exactly as she taught me to live, through her example, words, and values. She told me to go to college, and I went. Women who were educated were powerful and didn’t have to take the night shift job cleaning bathrooms at the nursing home, or answering the crisis line at the domestic violence shelter. So I got two master’s degrees after my bachelor’s.

My mom fell away from her attempts at assertiveness as she grew into middle age. She ended conversations with long riffs on what she should have said in some intolerable situation with a person who was insulting her or trying to take advantage of her.

She told me that the Nazis and fascism were evil, and implied in the righteousness of the Allies in World War II was the idea that the people of Germany had fallen under a spell. They were looking for a scapegoat for their economic problems and cultural decline, which allowed ordinary people to  pretend not to know that their government was exterminating the Jewish population of Europe and crushing political opposition. She taught me that communism was another form of authoritarianism, just like Nazism. So I spent my youth and adulthood believing in a free society, and that recent history had taught us all we needed to know about avoiding the allure of demagogues and dictators.

My mother had told me a good man was someone who wouldn’t dream of hurting me, who viewed me as an equal — the opposite of the man she married, my father. Someone more like Phil Donohue or Alan Alda, those paragons of 1970s male feminism. So I married that kind of man. Unlike my grandma, I married a man who makes me laugh almost every day and often cooks my dinner.

She told me the Civil Rights struggle was heartbreaking and important, and implied in all of this was that if she had been braver or smarter or both, she would have taken part in the struggle. So when the civil rights struggles of the recent era have emerged — gay rights, immigrant rights, women’s reproductive and legal rights, Black Lives Matter — I have tried to be the person she wanted to be in the 1960s and 1970s, who speaks out and takes action against injustice while it is happening, not in the rosy rearview mirror of history. I have have never stopped trying to be that 2.0 better version of her I believed she wanted me to be.

I have continued the assertiveness training. But apparently I was supposed to stay nice. I was supposed to stay “womanly.” Once after she had watched an episode of the BBC’s 1990s version of Pride and Prejudice with me, she told me I reminded her of the main character — witty and ladylike Lizzie Bennet. “You’re like Elizabeth — she’s feisty,” she said. It was a compliment that many bookish girls and women would enjoy, but for the last few years I have viewed her praise with suspicion. Nothing seems open-hearted anymore, now that she suspects I view her life as a cautionary tale.

I learned what “womanly” was in fragments,  growing up. Being feminine like my mother meant wearing makeup when I went out of the house — not too much, although I went through adolescence and young adulthood wearing a mask of 1980s and 1990s trends in punk-ish and then grunge-ish eyebrows, eye shadow, and blush. My mother’s choice of darkened brows and tinted lips has been what I gravitated towards as I aged. Her words — “she looks like a hussy” or “what a painted lady” — echo in my head when I see women with dramatic, painted brows and lips, pancake makeup, and cat eyeliner.

Being womanly was wanting children. She spoke of “career women” from her mother’s era as having had to make choices between a job — as a lawyer or a college professor or a librarian — and a family, and she implied that these old maids had been the kind who didn’t really attract men, so it hadn’t been much of a choice.

To be a woman, one should have faith and know that little things matter. Women should go to church, or have some religion, and should do their part in volunteering to cook with their faith community and bring cans of food to the food drive. This is quietly changing the world, and if we all did this, then maybe there wouldn’t be so many people on welfare or food stamps.

I feel mixed emotions and disloyalty writing this, because I want her to be right. I wish that if we all cooked for the homeless once a month and donated cans of chicken soup to church, we would have fewer families on the street. Because of the way she lived, I think that, regardless of whether or not this makes a dent in homelessness, doing good for others is good for the soul. Because of her, I always took giant jars of peanut butter to my children’s preschool food drives, knowing that high protein food was best and wanting my kids to begin to have an awareness of families who had less than we did. But she never quite believed me when I told her that what charitable organizations need more than cans of food is money.

Early this year I sent my mother one letter saying I didn’t want hear from her if she voted for Donald Trump. She wrote back she had not voted for him, that she had left that part of the ballot blank, but that she would plan on not seeing us anymore.

According to my mother, to be a woman was to know that at the end of the day, a man wants a cozy home to come back to, preferably one that smells like a good meal and baked goods. He wants someone to sit quietly until he’s ready to talk, or maybe make amusing small talk to relax him. She should look nice too. Some of this I learned directly — when I had my first child and my mother came to help for a few weeks, she hustled like I’d rarely seen her in the afternoons to make coffee cakes or muffins. “It’s nice to come home to a house that smells good,” she said, as I sat in a chair nearby nursing my daughter. Some of this I learned indirectly, when, after she left, I struggled to take a shower and powder my face before 6 or 6:30 p.m., so that my husband wouldn’t see such a “wreck of the Hesperus” (my mother’s way of describing herself when she looks tired and unkempt). “Where is this coming from?” flitted through my mind, as I put on a rose-colored lipstick and light cologne upstairs at 5:45 and frantically sang to my daughter to keep her from wailing while I primped.

Part of what has confused me so much in this stage of adulthood, culminating in the election and the break with my mother, is that, as far as I understood it, I did exactly as I was told with my life. But maybe the problem is that I have been too diligent. I sometimes suspect that the actual lesson was “do as I did, not as I said.” I should have been the woman she actually wanted to be if 1970s Women’s Lib hadn’t tantalized and shamed her, who didn’t have to take jobs like cleaning up after old people and answering the phone in the middle of the night to hear terrible stories of family violence. I should have used my husband’s white-collar job to enjoy my garden and volunteer at my children’s schools more often. I should have baked more often. If I had to speak up, I should have been nicer about it, more ladylike.

I think my mom always knew I was different from her and that going away to college on one coast, and later with a husband to the other coast, would change me even more. But she hoped my heart would always lead me to return home to the farm and the small college town where I grew up. This is one reason why, pre-social media, she sent me local newspaper clippings about people I knew or had heard of, of businesses closing, of scandals and other gossip-worthy events. While I might no longer live in Chippewa Falls or Eau Claire, Wisconsin, two small cities where my family has lived since the 1930s, I should never become someone who cares less about “my people” than I care about immigrants, gay people, or black people. Writer Debra Monroe, who is from the same part of Western Wisconsin where I grew up and where my mother now lives, described the chasm her scholarly endeavors created between her and her working-class parents in the memoir My Unsentimental Education. “I wondered — I didn’t understand that getting another degree would change me enough to eliminate the last conversational threads connecting me to my family, shred that net forever,” Monroe writes, of her literature degrees and writing career.

My education was supposed to make my life easier than my mom’s had been, but it was not supposed to change me into a woman who cares less about being a good daughter than being a good citizen. If all went well, my mom must have imagined, I would never have to dirty my hands to make a living and I would breeze through sophisticated adult gatherings with confidence and a good vocabulary. I think the resentment she must feel towards me and people like me for using words like “racist” and “patriarchal” to describe her and the tribe she votes with is how villagers feel when they discover a traitor lives among them. It is like the resentment I feel towards her for believing that she is immune to feeling racism because she married a person of color and has biracial children and for believing that surviving an abusive marriage and rooting for the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1980s makes her a feminist. My mom sees that education and geography have changed me, but I am not sure she understands that she has changed, too.

I think my mom always knew I was different from her and that going away to college on one coast, and later with a husband to the other coast, would change me even more. But she hoped my heart would always lead me to return home to the farm and the small college town where I grew up.

I have no answer to the conundrum of having followed the instructions but nevertheless failing at the task of being a good daughter. The pain of having watched my mother’s mind close as I tried to include her in my life feels like something I might never overcome, other than to take this newest lesson to heart and try to follow a different path.

* * *

Susan Sheu lives in Los Angeles and received the 2017 Bennington Prize in Nonfiction for her memoir-in-progress, The Rag and Bone Man.

Editor: Sari Botton