“On Hereditary Trauma: My Mother’s Narrative and Me"

In his elegy “Lenox Hill”, Agha Shahid Ali recounts to his mother on being asked by the universe, “So, how’s the writing?” To this question, he responds, “My mother/ is my poem”.

Upon reading this piece, I had never more intensely resonated with a line. Poetry, to me, is emotion or experience manifested in its most candid form. It is artistic expression so honest that only one sequence of words, thoughtfully and meticulously arranged, can express it. And though the content of its expression might be weakness, or embarrassment or fear or imperfection, the expression is perfect in itself. In this way, in this honest, perfect imperfection, my mother exemplifies poetry.

Call me self absorbed for following that introduction with this statement, but I feel inexorably lucky to view myself, in many ways, as a mirror image of my mom. Growing up, she and I had always assumed roles closer to those of sisters than of mother and daughter. We are each other’s deepest confidants and closest friends, each other’s therapists and, consequently, each other’s punching bags. Both of us being slightly socially awkward, the uninhibited free-flow of conversation always felt wonderful and welcome between us.

My mother is far from perfect. She’s forgetful, having to be reminded of the CVS shopping list baseline three times before departing on the errand, only to return with one fewer item than expected. She’s almost nauseatingly awful with technology, in consistent reiteration of the same basic questions, like, “how do I upload a picture on the FaceBook,” or “Where is Netflix on our TV,” my repetitive answers seemingly slipping through her ears undetected by her memory.

When I bring it up to her, she reminds me that she taught me how to use a spoon, so I shouldn’t talk. She’s imperfect, but despite all this, like poetry, she’s always been her variation of perfect to me. Her faults make her the whole woman I look up to, share everything with, ground myself in. And as it turns out, most of the imperfections I identify in her are embedded somewhere in my character as well.

But it extends farther than that. It’s not merely her faults that I admire, but also her acknowledgement of and reception to her own faults. She never tries to mask her imperfections, doesn’t try to argue or defend herself against them, but ostentatiously embraces them instead, joking bubbly about her forgetfulness if called out on having forgotten the eggs, or responding with a haughty, “Yeah, but you love me for it,” when badgered for her technological deficiencies. She recognizes a fault, a mistake or a negative circumstance, and re-angles both her and her audiences’ perspectives to view it in a better light.

I must admit, I’ve always been both envious of and motivated by the narrative of my mother’s life, her incredible experiences that renovated the world views she holds to today. With all of our similarities - our mutual forgetfulness, our artistic drive, our sensitivity and our stubbornness - I’d always perceived my life dreadfully boring when juxtaposed to hers, always felt an urgent, almost guttural yearning to follow in her footsteps. With her adventurous nature and inextinguishable positive light, she stands rooted in my mind as the perpetual “greener lawn”, as the model narrative to follow.

So, this past semester, when I was diagnosed with an eating disorder, I couldn’t conclusively decide whether I felt shocked, or relieved, or empowered when my mother sat me down and confided that she had gone through the same exact thing, around my age. My mom? This figure of complete positivity, self-confidence and groundedness?
She explained to me how she understood , really understood: the kind of understanding that you don’t even recognize as truth until it’s materialized into words, and then it just seems so glaring obvious, hovering like letter soup in front of you. She understood that it’s not even about losing weight; maybe it was, once, but not anymore. It’s more parasitic than that. It’s the perfectionism, the need to control, the physically debilitating fear of losing that control. She saw , even before I was actually diagnosed, before I lost the weight and before the terrifying health problems that ensued: the liver failure, the loss of hair, the loss of bone. She saw , and she understood. Upon hearing this news, I immediately thought about a Holocaust testimonial poem I had read a few years back, called “Black Fugue” by Paul Celan. In the poem, Celan relates the experience of trauma as being inherited, passed down between generations like black milk from mother to child. I thought about this. This notion of hereditary trauma. Was my condition not merely a product of my perfectionism and lack of self-confidence, a kind of agency in my disorder for which I often feel guilty? Was I more susceptible to this manifestation of self aggression because my mom had experienced the same thing?

I don’t know. I still think about it, constantly. But what I choose to also acknowledge is that if she struggled with a disorder similar to my own, she is a monument of victory over the condition, the personified light at the end of this tunnel I’m continuously trekking through. If her condition has somehow manifested itself in me, so am I able to inherit the positivity and strength that arose from her battle. I have learned, and continue to learn, that so much of my recovery is rooted in perspective; my worst days often ensue when I allow myself to wallow in a train of negative thoughts. On the days in which I choose to be positive, I find myself less restrictive. I use my mom’s eyes as model lenses, continually re-angling my perspective to recognize the slivers of light in my condition that she would choose to see.

Like I said, poetry to me is the most truthful manifestation of experience, the medium of language through which I feel most fluent. So, I’d like to conclude with a poem I had written recently, one that demonstrates how my positive thinking, whether inherited from my mom or cultivated from my own experiences, is embedded into my day-to-day life.

On days like this
the unkempt edges of my perspective
are tailored with gilded lace,
stitched in such a way
that I can’t look at it straight
but its iridescence
reflects into my vision
and I watch the world
with gold in my eyes.