Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Mature Optimism's Gift of Insight: Cognitive Bias Coping Bubbles Part II

This post which discusses optimism as a cognitive bias continues from PART I which can be read HERE. It references examples of ideas that I drew from the musical Gypsy to explain how optimism helped me to cope with less than optimistic circumstances. 

It is a part of a broader discussion of how those in recovery from trauma can make safer choices in their relationships. (I'm clearly learning as I go.)

Little did I realize until last week that I'd lifted my “Mama's little circus freak” moniker directly out a scene from Gyspy. Mama Rose Hovick who becomes jealous of the public attention garnered by her daughter whom she viewed as the least talented tells her that she is little more than a circus freak. Gypsy Rose Lee, the new stage name of her daughter [Rose] Louise, found great success in the Burlesque venue as their family's Vaudeville career evaporated along with Vaudeville itself. To tame the sting that she feels as she transitions out of stage mother mode and as her other loved ones leave her behind, she wields her iron will to force those left in her world to give her that to which she feels entitled. She tries to seize her own worth from the ostrich feathers of her daughter's new, successful career.

Though the musical closes in what seems like a pleasant mother-daughter truce, I know too well that most stories of that intensity don't comfortably end that way. I think that in many ways, Louise (Gypsy Rose) was a better, kinder woman than me. That's not something that I'm proud to declare in my honesty, and the archetypes depicted in Gypsy and different perspectives of what all of that means continue to work on and in me. I hope that I don't need another twenty-five years to reap those benefits.

Everything's Coming up Roses

I never called my mother “Mama,” yet my jaw remained on the floor as I watched the scene where Louise first stands up to her mother. I was “Mama's” circus freak because Louise only calls Rose "Mama." I watched that scene over and over last week in utter awe. This time through, I had done enough healing work to see myself as the daughter instead of the young mother, fighting for her children as she sang about achieving her dreams. How painfully deep did I identify with that hapless daughter who could never make the mark! That wise part of myself that really does know the truth saw myself in that mirror that Louise gave to me. How I longed for the strength to do the same half of my life ago! How could I go on playing a role that caused me so much pain, but how could I stop without losing my mother?

The next scene and song echoed statements that I'd heard from my mother throughout my whole life. She claimed in many ways that I owed everything to her, even my own ideas and my own talents – though she seemed to fear and hate them. And I would have destroyed them for her had I been able, just to win her love. Yet at the same time, she owned them and she felt like she owned me because I owed her for everything. I didn't understand that she just didn't have enough of her own strength of self to view me as separate from her. That's why no matter what I did, I caused her shame. Half of the time, it likely wasn't my shame anyway, and I suspect that a good chunk of what my mother felt and expressed had little to do with me.

Lines right out of the song Rose's Turn could have been lifted right from my mother's very life, just as Sondheim had lifted them from Gypsy Rose Lee's memoir. I do remember well that by what I suspect is no mistake, though daughter “Dainty June” and boyfriend Herbie get honorable mention, Louise is not named in that final (fantastic) song. I felt this same kind of creaturely sense of awe when I read a particular book about dysfunctional parenting, as though my mother had memorized phrases of entitlement from a textbook that she repeated over and over. It seems from this evidence that the language of shame, survival, and rivalry between parents and children transcends circumstances and experience in Twentieth Century culture. At least it did for me. And the saddest thing about it was that I am sure that her intentions were pure. She just couldn't see beyond her own pain.

Rose's Turn

Understanding and compassion for Mama Rose and for my mom came slowly for me over decades of hard, heartbreaking work. Some of it has come just because of the passing of time as I enter my own new seasons of living an older life – which seems so strange because of how precocious I had to be for so long. I spent ages feeling like a neophyte, and I didn't have the broader perspective that I needed to understand things from another vantage. Along with that, I also had to accept that “life wasn't fair” and no amount of optimism that I hurled at my relationship with my parents could change it. (My parents believe that life is fair and that optimism can overcome all.)

I did find some wisdom in the words of Bernadette Peters who speaks of some of the very same feelings that I've had myself about the music and the play. She performed in it as a child with a show mother behind her and then again, later in life, as Mama Rose. Today, she is but a few years younger than my own mother, and I took heed to her words when she spoke about her insight into Rose after performing in Gypsy's Broadway Revival. I must admit that her words of compassion rubbed me in an uncomfortable way when I discovered them last week, but out of love for my mom, I am willing to stretch to understand.

Peters explains how Rose had to build a life for her two young daughters as best she could with basically nothing as she “makes a way in the world for her children.” As her children grow past her and weary of mama drama as they found their own lives, Peters finds Rose asking, “All I did was give them my love, and this is the thanks that I get in return?” During the song itself, we hear Mama Rose consider for a moment that she lived for her children, but along the way, she fell into the trap of living through her children.

It seems that we all end up living our own lives anyway, even if we try to hide under the skirts or the coattails of someone else. Peters describes this moment that she sees in the musical as Rose's realization that she might have had her own rewards if she had found some way to honor her own needs while still caring for her daughters. What might her life been like if she had? She would not have needed to seize from her daughters what honor and rewards – and independence – rightfully belonged to them apart from Rose.

Rose's Struggle

Yet the choices that we take for granted for women today were a mighty luxuries for most people of that day. Rose Hovick was born in 1890, about the time that my mother's family came to the US to escape the abject poverty that they faced in London. My grandfather who was born just a few years after Louise had to hitchhike 20 miles one way to attend high school, and though he earned straight A's and favored chemistry and physics, he barely survived the fate of “owing his soul to the company store.” He mined coal and sulfur and clay and worked on farms in exchange for food until labor laws and work programs provided a job for him as a welder for the Harbison-Walker Refractory Company.

How much harder would it have been for Mama Rose to provide for her girls when my great grandfather who raised his family in the middle of nowhere in the country could barely make a life for my grandfather and his many siblings? I heard similar statements from my mother who would declare over and over that her own parents treated her unjustly, and she did the best that she could. While I resented that this was often offered as an excuse, I did understand that she did all that she could with what she had to give me. (She couldn't see past her own disappointment to understand that I only asked to be treated fairly, hoping that she could see the differences between us as a part of my growing up and not as a rejection of her.)

For these reasons, I believe that an element of this divide rests in the luxuries that each generation enjoys, but as we humans do, we end up taking them for granted. My grandfather who would have loved nothing more than to go to college built his own bubble so that he could create a life that he could both attain and enjoy. Yet as a result of his own fears and struggles, he didn't make the most of the advantages that he could have offered to my mother. I question whether it's possible to overcome these perspectives that divide us so that we might find it easier to love one another through conflict and tension.

Until I finish Part III of Optimism as a Coping Bubble,
please consider these for further reading: