Lessons in Forgiveness and Intergenerational Feminism
Veronica Esposito on Michelle Orange’s Pure Flame
When I was young my mother rarely talked about her youth, but the things she did share were awful. It was a childhood filled with trauma, so much and so heinous that she would probably score a three or higher on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Quiz. For those are aren’t familiar, the ACEs Quiz distills the many awful things that can be done to a child into ten simple questions; through the immense efforts of Nadine Burke Harris, it has developed into one of the most powerful tools we have to determine how childhood adversity impacts adult health. My mother’s score of at least three ACEs would place her into the upper 25 percent of the population regarding childhood trauma. It would indicate an adulthood with challenges like anxiety, interpersonal difficulties, and reduced physical health—indeed, all things that I observed about her during my childhood, and things that were transmitted, intergenerationally, to her own children.
What the ACEs Quiz did not predict—although I do believe this also was another consequence of all her childhood trauma—was that my mother became a woman who rejected her transgender daughter.
Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been if my mother hadn’t been so badly served by the world around her; or if she’d had the wherewithal to heal from all of that abuse. Would it have been possible that when I tried to express my girlhood, instead of acting with fear, revulsion, and aggression, she would instead have acted with the love, acceptance, and guidance that I needed?
That rejection was part of the childhood trauma that I experienced, and during my journey toward a livable womanhood, I’ve met this trauma face-to-face. I’ve come to understand that my mother’s rejection was her way of trying to protect us both from a world she saw as frightening and malevolent. In doing this, she did to me what many mothers have done to their daughters, teaching them to fear their own femininity as a way of coping with a sexist world. I can comprehend and attempt to forgive this, but it doesn’t change the fact that her protection really harmed me: it taught me that the world was frightening and malevolent, and that my femininity was worthy of scorn and hatred.
As I’ve grown up and worked to heal from this childhood I’ve become more and more distanced from my own mother; I’ve become distanced by my ability to accept and love who I am, and also in how I choose to cope with the realities of a sexist world.
As I read Michelle Orange’s powerful book, Pure Flame, I saw her giving voice to the tensions that have dominated my relationship with my mother. A feminist, Orange argues that the generational strife between mothers and daughters is in partly rooted in the contradictory visions of womanhood that feminism has granted to each successive generation. For Orange’s mother, emancipation took the form of demanding equal pay, moving hours away from her family to take a job that treated her with dignity, and using her considerable earning power to buy nicer and nicer clothes, jewelry, and briefcases. Although Orange herself can understand the appeal of these things to her mother, emancipation looks very different to her, and she feels conflicted as she tries to remain true to herself while connecting with her mother’s values. Orange proudly declares herself a feminist, but her mother shrinks from that word. She is bracingly honest as she wrestles with the good and bad of her mother’s choices, trying to forge a statement on the relationship that is at once honest, fair, and compassionate.
It is the kind of statement that I would like to render on my relationship with my own mother, and reading Orange’s book helped me take many steps toward it. I was struck by what Orange said about her mother’s relationship to feminism; it helped me see how meaningful it is that, while feminism is second-nature to me, my mother would not apply that word to herself. I recall once asking my mother if she was a feminist, and how she responded in the negative, as though the whole idea of being a feminist frightened and disturbed her, so very much like Orange’s mother. At the time, her response seemed unaccountable to me in the way of so many other things my mother believed about herself. I saw her as a woman with great brainpower, a true passion for advocacy, a deep belief in morality—all things that seemed to me to add up to a clear feminist identity. And yet she was repelled by that word. She had such a different idea of herself from how I saw her.
Maybe something similar is true for Orange. She makes it clear that her mother’s pursuit of status items like luxurious jewelry and a Bottega Veneta briefcase leave her feeling cold. For her mother, these items were crucial parts of her female empowerment, but for Orange they are just uncomfortably ostentatious adornments that sit uneasily in her life. Perhaps she does not need to so blatantly declare her validity with status items because it is more of a given. Certainly not nearly as much of a given as it should be, but much more so for her than for her mother.
When I try to imagine what makes me feel valid as a woman, and how that differs from whatever makes my mother feel valid, I see that this difference is based on so many other differences in our lives: class, religion, generation, the fact that I am proudly queer, whereas for her this identity is abnormal and fearsome. She came from such a different society than I did. Women in my mother’s generation were still routinely taught that their college education—if they even got one—was only to make them a more marketable homemaker. They were taught that rape could not legally happen in a marriage, and that sexual assault was more a matter of their own shame than their victimizer’s. In the era of my mother’s youth, feminism was seen as an aberrancy—not the sort of thing any respectable woman would want to be a part of.
As I grew up, it was very different. It was a time of the “Year of the Woman” and the Anita Hill hearings; the mood was set by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s intersectionality and a punk subculture that popularized a vision of edgy, hip female empowerment. There was Murphy Brown vs. Dan Quale, the possibility of a nascent vision of female sex-positivity. Feminism was compelling, and it had long since transcended the boundaries of women’s liberation to become an entire cultural critique. It was eroding the so-called traditionally American values of hypermasculine independence, the “strong silent type” who gets his emotional release by slaughtering a punching bag. We were coming to see that, in reality, that strong silent man was really weak and pitiable. “When we overemphasize a goal of autonomy and ‘standing on our own,’ we are siding against our own neurobiology,” writes Judith Jordan. “We create chronic stress. Honoring our relational nature allows us to reach out for help when we are afraid.” With these words Jordan became one of the foundational voices critiquing the mental health field from a feminist vantage point. Her ideas would come to reshape the field and become commonplace in the 90s and beyond, underscoring a critique of masculinity and true American values.
These critiques were essential to my development and well-being. When I finally found the wherewithal to take control of my own body and become the daughter that I knew myself to be, it was feminist voices that got me there. I was inspired by women like Judith Jordan and Kimberlé Crenshaw, I drew strength from writers like Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Sandy Stone, Judith Herman, Patti Smith, Jessamyn Stanley, Marina Abramović, Donna Haraway, Tarana Burke, and Elena Ferrante. I began seeing feminism as something I could embody and contribute to. They taught me to see my body in new ways, to see my place among women, even though I felt like an outsider in so many ways. I also developed deep, reciprocal friendships with powerful and brilliant women who had their own conflicted, vulnerable relationships with the same questions of body, autonomy, and identity that I struggled with. The more we shared with one another, the more I saw that what we had in common vastly outweighed what was different about us. Today, as I work to maintain my sense of safety, well-being, and body-positivity in a world that still makes it far too hard for a woman to have any of these things, the community that supports me is a deeply feminist one.
In empowering me, all of this also began separating me from where I came from. I don’t think my feminist community would make sense to my mother, and I think the values I hold about my rights, my body, and my empowerment would come between us. Orange says as much regarding her own mother-daughter relationship in Pure Flame. Throughout her book, she avoids mentioning any discussion she may have had with her mother regarding her peers, her intellectual influences, her own successful writing career; I don’t get the sense that such conversations would have gone anywhere helpful. Instead the she and her mother struggle to forge bridges in their relationship with elaborate vacations to places like London, the Art Institute, and a pampering wellness getaway in Baja California. It is a vision of two women whose communities and lifestyles are increasingly at odds, two women who have little left other than their family history, fighting to discover the small spaces where their ideas of womanhood might still be mutually intelligible.
In drawing attention to this tension around feminism through the generations, Orange raises a question that disturbs me. Why is feminism divisive in this very particular way? Why does it not bring generations of mothers and daughters together?
Reflecting on this question can at times make me feel old, for now I see how much the young women in my own life are working from a different set of feminist expectations and possibilities than mine. Their lives compel me to remain agile as I try to catch up to the knowledge that they gained through the version of feminism that their generation has been born into. It is a feminism built around intersectionality, the validity of all bodies, the Internet as both a technology of oppression and liberation. It is also a feminism that stands for my right to exist as a transgender woman, which sets it apart from other feminist “waves.”From the vantage point of the older generation, I see how personal these ideas are to them, how much they are bound up in the traumas that they have gone through on their developmental path into women.
Perhaps that last fact has made it easier for me to locate my sense of humility, my open-mindedness as the younger women in my life have passionately shared with me their vision of what feminism means to them. From the vantage point of the older generation, I see how personal these ideas are to them, how much they are bound up in the traumas that they have gone through on their developmental path into women. Traumas that underlie their passion for these ideas that so clearly resonate for them in ways that are much more intuitive than how they resonate for me. Knowing how much I have been harmed by my mother’s harsh dismissal of my own ideas, I strive to remain empathetic, to give these younger women the space and respect they need and deserve. To do so feels sacred and essential. I know what it means to them to be listened to and believed. And it helps me, for this grace boomerangs back onto me, improving my own life in countless ways.
There are also things than transcend our differences. Early on in Pure Flame, Orange relates how, after her mother had made the decision to detach from her family in order to pursue her career, she became the subject of a lightly fictionalized Harvard Business Review case study. Class after class of students read of her mother’s decision to move far away in order to earn better pay and greater respect—and class after class heaped derisive scorn on her, decrying her as a bad woman who chose career over family. Yet, as researchers found, when classes were presented with the exact same story—only changing the gender of the protagonist from female to male—the students unsurprisingly reacted with admiration for the bold patriarch doing his best to seize opportunities to the betterment of his family.
This seems so relatable, so timeless in its truth as to verge on being a parable. Perhaps that is why, as Orange relates this tale, I can feel her passion, her righteous sense of anger on her mother’s behalf. It is one of the first and only times in Pure Flame where Orange and her mother are really communicating, where they are sharing vulnerabilities and grievances as women in ways that are deeply meaningful to each other. I think of my own mother, a member of this same generation, dropping out of high school, becoming a mother, raising three children. A woman of such prodigious brainpower and energy that I am convinced she could have gone on to be a powerful businesswoman like Orange’s mother was. I think of the internalized doubt and derision she would have had to overcome to do so, all of the social barriers she would have needed to knock down to get there.
Reflecting on these vulnerabilities helps me to know my mother better. Among the many things my mother gave to me, which include her beauty, her intellect, and her tenacity for advocacy, I managed to also receive her deep, deep ability to diminish herself. I really wish we could have a conversation about these things, as Orange and her mother did. I can see now that they are a response to a world that has withheld our validity as a matter of course, that has at times made it feel as though our possibilities are limited to a little, tiny thread that we must walk down. Understanding this, I can better see how she finds it impossible to be the mother of a transgender woman. Her rejection still stings, but I move closer to authentic forgiveness.