This is an excerpt from Harriet Brown’s new book, Shadow Daughter: A Memoir of Estrangement, a memoir that also looks at other people’s experiences and the research on family estrangement.
The summer after my older daughter turned eighteen was one of the worst seasons of my life. The very worst had been four years earlier, when she was diagnosed with anorexia and we spent more than a year battling that terrifying disease. She got better then, though not completely. But this year, after we moved to a new state and I started a new career, she had a major relapse. Because our daughter was 18, we couldn’t force her into treatment, and we spent several months navigating a lot of drama and heartbreak. Underneath my encouraging words I believed my daughter might die. I felt helpless in the face of her illness.
Through that summer I wasn’t exactly estranged from my mother, but we weren’t in much contact either. I didn’t have the energy or time to take care of her feelings or deal with her barbed comments, so I more or less ignored the relationship. I did talk often with my sister, though, who apparently kept our parents informed, and at some point my mother, surprisingly, began emailing me to offer sympathy and support. “You can turn to your parents, you know,” she wrote, and though nothing in me believed her anymore I still felt the old tug of longing. What would it be like to have parents to fall back on, to cry with, to turn to in a crisis? I had no idea.
My mother kept emailing, every day or two for a week. She said she would do anything I asked, anything to help. Maybe she’s changed, I thought. Maybe something’s different. So I wrote her back, thanked her for her concern, and asked if she could help me come up with some new recipes; my daughter needed low-volume but high-calorie meals and I was, I told her, out of inspiration. This wasn’t true; I’d become an expert on high-calorie meal planning. So if my mother didn’t come through with the recipes, no big deal. If she did it would be lagniappe, an unexpected bonus. I was curious to see which mother would emerge. Would it be the unreliable mother who dropped out of sight? The mean one who took every chance to attack me? Or would it be the mother she said she was, loving and supportive?
I didn’t have to wait long to find out. Less than an hour later I got an email from her with the subject line “Something I’ve been wanting to tell you.” My stomach flipped with a familiar dread. The email began, “There’s something I’ve been wanting to say and it wouldn’t be fair of me to hold back anymore.” She wrote that she found it telling that my career involved writing about food and body image and eating disorders, that this was “very negative work,” that it was “all about loving your body” and yet, as she put it, “Your own daughter clearly does not love her body. Think about that.”
She suggested that just as I had “rebelled” against her thirty years earlier, maybe my daughter was now rebelling against me by having a relapse. She wrote that she was sure many people had noticed this connection but probably no one else had been brave enough to mention it to me because, as she put it, “I will tell you my dear that you are a formidable woman. People are afraid to confront you. You should count your blessings that I’m willing to put myself on the line to talk to you about this.”
There was more, much more, but the screen in front of me swam out of focus and I couldn’t read it. Even if my mother genuinely believed that I was to blame for my daughter’s illness, why choose this moment to tell me so? If she loved her granddaughter and wanted the best for her, why would she do something designed to break me down in the middle of this fight for her life? My mother was entitled to her opinions about me and everything else. But how could she possibly think this was the time and way to share them?
As I sat in front of the computer, reading the email again, I felt suddenly dizzy, as if the room had tilted. I thought I heard the crack of something breaking and wondered if I was having a stroke. Blood rushed to my head and then away. My body seemed to rise and fall. And then it was over and I was done with my mother. I felt no regret or confusion, no rage or longing or resentment or anything, really. A great clarity settled over me. I knew our connection was broken in a way that couldn’t be healed because I no longer wanted it to be healed.
That moment of clarity, and everything that came afterward, was what researcher Kristina Scharp of the University of Washington labels a “last-straw” experience. She’d been wondering about the persistent narrative of estrangements: that they happen suddenly, randomly, on a whim or out of displeasure. In a study called, tellingly, “It Was the Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back,” she described interviews with fifty-two adult children who were estranged from their parents. She asked her subjects to describe what happened to cause their estrangements. Was there an incident or event that triggered the final break? Or did it come about in another way?
Watch this from VICE:
The study results challenged the idea that adult children flounce away from their families out of pique. Pretty much everyone described a “last-straw” incident, an interaction or conflict that led directly to the estrangement. But such incidents rarely told the whole story. They were the catalysts and triggers, the bridges that went up in flames, but the true causes of estrangements nearly always went back a long, long time. As Scharp wrote, “What precedes parent-child estrangement is a complex process that often includes multiple attributions, internal decisions, and external events that unfold over the course of years,” she wrote. “Because there’s so much pressure for parents and grown children to find ways to get along it takes the momentum of many interactions over a long time to create a final break.” In other words, there’s always a backstory and it’s always a long one.
When I asked the people I interviewed to tell me what caused their estrangements, I never heard about just one incident. Pretty much everyone poured forth a saga of miscommunication, alienation, betrayals, and grief. One of those long and winding tales came from Mark, a 32-year-old criminal defense lawyer who’s been estranged from his parents, grandmother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephews for several years. Unlike many of the people I’ve interviewed, Mark has no complaints about his childhood. He was close to his parents and wanted their good opinion; he worked hard in school so they’d be proud of him and says he always enjoyed being part of the family.
The trouble seemed to revolve around his engagement and later marriage to a woman I’ll call Janice. Mark says he never quite felt comfortable taking Janice to his parents’ house; he couldn’t put his finger on the problem, but he knew it had something to do with his mother. Still, things went along pleasantly enough from his perspective until a misunderstanding with his sister sparked open combat with his mother. She told her son she was upset about his fiancée; she said everything was Janice’s way or the highway, and this bothered her. She gave him a list of grievances about Janice: she was bossy and controlling, she was a gold-digger out for Mark’s money, and Mark had to put his foot down and stand up for himself now or it would be too late.
The situation continued to deteriorate during the couple’s wedding planning. Mark tried to maintain his usual relationship with his parents, but their conversations were now filled with awkward silences and unspoken criticisms. As the plans progressed, Mark says, he was still trying to repair the rift. “I’d send a text, and I’d be quite careful about how I worded it, and I’d think, Right, that’s the text that’s gonna do it,” he says. “You’ve explained it all very well. You haven’t been aggressive or overly critical. You’ve said all the right things. You’ve walked them into a corner where they can just be reasonable and fair and decent, full of good faith. But it never worked.”
By then, he says, all he wanted was for his parents—his mother, really—to be civil to Janice. “I didn’t want them to change, I didn’t want them to say sorry, I didn’t expect them to be best buddies,” he remembers. “And I was very lucky that Janice was actually amenable to patching things up with them, because believe me, many girlfriends would have thought, Bloody hell, you and your family are a bunch of nutters, sod this, I’m off.” And he missed his family. He’d always cared what they thought of him, and the fact that now they saw him as a patronizing, disrespectful son who got a girlfriend and blew them off astonished him.
He spent months arranging a meeting for the four of them, a night to talk things through and find a way to move forward. His father and Janice both spoke, offering their thoughts and feelings in a non-accusatory way. His mother sat with her arms crossed, a scowl on her face. Then Janice, trying to be straightforward, said something along the lines of Look, you don’t like me and I don’t like you, but that doesn’t mean we can’t get along. “A reasonable mother who wanted to sort things out would have said, ‘Well I’m sorry you feel that way, it’s not that I dislike you, I need to get to know you better, and I hope in time you can come to like me,’” Mark recalls. Instead his mother stormed out, leaving Janice in tears.
That was three years ago, and since then, says Mark, his contact with his family has been sporadic and painful. “I could very easily reconcile with my family, but it would be a complete betrayal of my wife, and it would flush my marriage down the toilet,” he says. He’s calm throughout this long recital, though clearly distressed. At one point he says, in the same reasonable tone, “You don’t know what I’m telling you is true. There are two sides to every story. For all you know it could be all my fault.” It’s true, and it’s certainly something I think of not just when I talk to other people but when I ponder my own estrangement. I’m aware that every story I tell myself and others would be, and often was, told quite differently by my mother. Who’s to say I’m right and she’s wrong, or vice versa?
Mark has clearly thought about this too. “I could be exactly what they say I am,” he acknowledges. “And the only answer to that is that I don’t think they would say that. I don’t honestly think my mother would say, ‘Oh you’re only hearing one side of the story, mind, Mark could be the innocent party.’”
I try the same thought experiment, imagining my mother saying something like This is just my point of view, but Harriet sees things differently. It feels about as believable as the tooth fairy. I’m not sure my mother was capable of acknowledging other points of view, and Mark feels the same way about his mother. “I can’t force my parents to accept the woman I love, who I’ve chosen to spend my life with,” Mark says, and he’s right. He can’t. None of us can.
While these “last-straw” experiences can be superficial or deep, minor misfires or major betrayals, it seems to me the reason they take on so much power and meaning in estrangement narratives is that they signify something much bigger than one particular conflict. They’re about trust, really, or rather the loss of trust.
Maybe that trust has already been eroded by years of incremental losses; maybe there’s not much left of it. But the dissolving of the last shred of trust between a parent and child, sister and brother, aunt and niece, is still powerful. And when it’s gone, no one, not another parent or aunt or uncle, not the king’s own horses and men, can re-create it. It becomes a kind of death, far more final than any one act or incident. It’s the death of possibility and of hope, the death of the faith one person holds in another. Without that trust there is no center, no connection. No relationship.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of Tonic delivered to your inbox.
VICE may earn a small share of sales from links in this article. Editorial staff chose these products independent of company promotions.