Whenever I speak about my past, it’s like a pressure cooker pressing against my ribs, a bloated skittishness that uproots and electrifies usually dormant nerves. I want to escape. I want to run.

 

 

I was meeting with two women to talk to them about a project I’m interesting in doing. Like with the first year of Minding the Gap, I had a general direction of where I wanted to go but wasn’t sure what the film would be “about.” To answer their question of what it is about, I told them it was about motherhood and daughters. Thus began a conversation surrounding all of our childhoods. One woman, who I’ll call Sarah, had an abusive mom with whom she doesn’t speak with anymore, along with the rest of her family, because it’s a toxic environment. The other woman, who I’ll call Rachel, had parents who made a lot of mistakes but whom she still loves. Their stories were anecdotal and sparked conversations about cultural views of motherhood, friends of theirs, and what it all means for their lives now.

 

 

When it was my turn to talk about my childhood, I spoke in short, expository sentences. I told them about my abusive stepfather, and I said it something like this: “My stepfather was abusive.”

 

 

They gave me concerned, nodding glances. There was a silence as they waited for me to continue. I told them that it felt like walking on egg shells at home and how it created a culture of fear, living with him from the ages of 8 to 18, and that fear extended throughout the family members in the house and made my brother and I estranged from each other. More silence. I didn’t look them in the eyes.

 

 

I used to think that I didn’t like talking about my childhood because I didn’t want to be someone fishing for sympathy or someone who made the mood dark or someone who wanted to make the conversation all about himself. Tacked onto this logic, I had strong ideals from books/movies that I worshipped during my teenage years in lieu of a stable reality at home: masculine humility, silence as a virtue, stoicism in the face of hardship. But I think these are just excuses to help protect myself from opening my personal pandora’s box, inside which lies a tangle of unanswerable questions.

 

 

I’ve spent so much of my life trying to get other people to talk about their childhoods and often succeeding. I think that’s what drew me to make Minding the Gap. To know that I’m not alone in my tough past, to understand how others cope, and to experience the humanity in others.

 

 

Making documentaries about people’s families is a tough ask. Sarah and Rachel both had their reservations. Sarah was concerned about her family knowing anything about her at all; she wanted to remain private to them. Rachel felt her life is a tangle of yarn right now and she doesn’t know what to make of it. Both didn’t want to hurt their families by bad-mouthing them on camera.

 

 

But Sarah did bring up the sanctity of the Mother. How we don’t talk about mothers because there’s a societal taboo against seeing them as anything but sacred. She mentioned one Fresh Air interviewee who got mad at Terry Gross for bringing up how his mother would abuse him, even though it was taken out of what he wrote in his own book. It was so taboo for him to talk about his mother badly on NPR that instead he got mad at Terry Gross. Seriously. How do you get angry at Terry fucking Gross? Sarah said one's relationship with one's mother is more important than their relationship to God.

 

 

But it made me think of my own mother, who I speak with a few times a year, at best. I’m aware I’m angry with her about harboring her abusive husband for most of my childhood and so I avoid that anger by avoiding her. But I feel guilty that she’s also a victim of his abuse. And I also feel guilty that that marriage gave my mother and I our U.S. Citizenship, which is worth it’s weight in gold (just ask any working class person in mainland China).

 

 

But I’d never realized why it is that I find it so difficult to blame her. The ideal of the Mother and the reality of our mother's mistakes is a psychological catch-22 invisibly enforced by a societal norm so pervasive and subconscious that even calling to attention to this conundrum feels wrong. And I know this opinion, carried out to a lot of logical conclusions can be used for nasty misogynistic fallacies. But for me, it’s a real factor that is a cause of my real lack of a relationship with my mother, which affects my relationship with women in general.

 

 

In a way, unlike Sarah and Rachel, I have the privilege to avoid having to think about my family. I’ve only seen my father twice since he left my life when I was five years old, my stepfather and I don’t speak, I never got to know my extended biological family who are living in China, and I am psychologically independent enough to survive without a family. I grew up a latch key kid before my stepfather and was out of the house as much as I could be after coming under his ward. In a way, I’d been detached for so long that I never had a relationship with my given family, so I don’t feel any need to make sense of them. Whereas Rachel and Sarah both care what their families think about them, I don’t feel like I do.

 

 

But something about the way Rachel and Sarah talked about their pasts with such casual whole-hearteness made me swoon with nostalgia. I’d realized that the past few years, I’d been replacing time spent with the friends who comprised my chosen family members with time spent building a career in film and making Minding the Gap. I missed conversations that involved sharing, caring, and daring. I just turned 27 last week and I’ve long understood that as boys and men, we aren’t as direct and we don’t open up so nonchalantly. But, as S & R asked me more about my childhood and I felt the rush of panic in my chest while keeping the panic completely cloaked in a calm voice and casual gestures, I was terrified that I’m unwittingly becoming that sort of man myself. The ones who are torn up inside because it's too terrifying to show emotion.

 

 

“You seem on the outside,” Rachel began saying. She paused. She was trying to find the right words, maybe so as not to hurt me. “So normal,” she finished saying.

 

 

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