“You cannot succumb to the pressure of how somebody will misunderstand what you have to say.”— Amy Tan in conversation with Celeste Ng
I’m terrified if I tell the truth about my mother and I, it will be a wildfire I cannot control. That the people who read it will say, “Oh, a Chinese-American mother and daughter with issues, of course.” That they will only see a Tiger Mother. That my mother will be publicly crucified. That people will see my name and think, “Oh, Esther, that author. She just keeps writing about her mommy issues.”
The truth is a topic I skate around, eliding, smiling, deferring. If we are close, or you’ve known me long enough to read between the lines, you know my mother and I have history.
I hesitate to name it trauma or abuse, because those words have weight, responsibility, and assumptions.
Is it gentler if I say she did not love me how I wanted to be loved? But there was nothing gentle about knowing I was nothing by 13 and wanting to die at 17.
I’m afraid I will be responsible for people’s critiques and responses to my story. But I cannot control how others read my words. And I know I must write, because if there had been more stories, beyond The Joy Luck Club and animated Zoloft commercials, perhaps I would have known…
This is a story in me – my mother and I, my despair, my drowning – that must be told. For the girl I was, for the girls who are still waiting. Because no one should have to feel as helpless as I did, should have to wait as long as I did to realize…
…that this, this is not how it has to be. This is not your fault. You are right, not deviant or wrong. That you deserve to be loved in a way that feels nourishing to you and not like dying.
And I must write for myself, because writing is how I’ve always made sense of things.
My mother, when I told her I would write, hung her head, shook it. “I did not hurt you, but do this… thing,” she said, “if you find it cathartic.”
My aunt, when I told her I wanted to write, looked up at the sun, then at me. “That’s good Esther,” she said, “you have a gift, you should speak.”
It is my aunt, of my mother’s six siblings, who looks at her past and is not ashamed. Unclenches her fists, names the past for what it was, wants to tell the truth of it. Am I a bad daughter for wanting to be like her and not my mother?
I hope my family gets more free in my telling. Not all of its stories are mine to tell, but I,
I must let all the ghosts out of the cage of my childhood. I cannot keep them wailing and hidden to spare my mother anguish.
If I was young enough to bear the weight of the ferocious discontent of her marriage, career, mothering; to be fucked up by it; isn’t she old enough to bear knowing what she did?
I cannot ignore the inner-knowing that’s been my lighthouse all these years, that made me a survivor, that tells me this story is mine to tell: the hurt; the lake of tears; the wondrous moments of relearning to be in my body, my feelings, now, safe at last, in the present, with pleasure.
I am afraid this is all I’ll be known for. That others won’t want to know anything else about me.
But I have it let go of that fear to be true to myself, to speak truthfully.
I know what I need to do.
Despite the fear,
Take the leap, and