the how of epiphanies

Someone who read my essay in Thinking Writing on the ways in which memoir writing can lead to psychological insights, wrote that she found the first revelation to be “very powerful because it’s …so incontrovertible,” but the second and third “less convincing, because they are more internal, much more complex, and still open to interpretation…

From the reader’s understandable remarks, I see I’ve inadequately described the eureka experiences that were the subject of the essay. The two episodes the reader found less convincing are, to me, just as incontrovertible, if not more so.

The first epiphany—regarding my belief in an exclusive twosome with my father—was exposed as a fantasy/wish when the photos documenting it were shown to have included my mother in the role of photographer. The photos were proof that we were a threesome on all the occasions for which I have photos; that is, it proved that we were sometimes three (something I had preferred to forget). But what about all the undocumented trips with my father to the park and museum, when the photographer herself may have been absent? In fact, I remain convinced that my father and I did have a special bond. Our shared appetite for learning was ignited in the museum and continued through my childhood, remaining central in my life. That first epiphany did not dislodge my belief about the relationship but only the cherished material proof of it.

The second and third revelations, which the reader questioned, were very different in nature and intensity; both were accompanied by a singular neurological syndrome that I never experienced before or after. When the first epiphany struck, so to speak, my eyes and ears dimmed—my intake volume suddenly switching to mute—and I felt a distinct, low-level buzzing in my brain, as though new pathways were being laid down. A year or two later, when the next epiphany came and was accompanied by the same brain sensation, I said to myself, “Oh, wonderful! Here comes another transformative insight!” The first revelation convinced by dint of reason but the second and third by dint of the unique, physical nature of the thunderbolt.

The second epiphany concerned the fear that my nanny Amy was in immanent danger of being fired, a fear akin to a preoccupying phobia, as Amy was the safe haven in a home I experienced as a minefield of failure opportunities. Crazy as it sounds, when I was very young, I thought that Amy and I were at daily risk of being put out on the street together. We both came in for the same brand of criticism and so made a natural couple, albeit one XXS, one XXL. Perhaps, in addition, I linked our precariousness because I couldn’t face the thought of our being separated. Later, as I came to realize that our status was not identical, my fear mutated into one of losing Amy, of having to defend against the maternal hailstorms alone.

At the moment when I recalled my childhood fear in all its intensity and simultaneously recognized that my fear had never been actualized, I saw that two things I held to be true were mutually exclusive—either Amy was about to be fired or she had never been fired—only one of which could be true. An old thought-path around which I had formed part of my identity was wrong and always had been.

I realized in that flash that I had spent my life in the grip of a child’s distorted fantasy. Long after Amy had never left my parents’ employ, long after all the participants in the drama had died, my fear remained as strong as ever, unmitigated by the facts, like a terror of drowning that fails to remit decades after relocating to the desert. Suddenly, I could see the scared child, with no sense of who she was or how she would manage in life, who continued to quake inside the happy adult, secure in her circle of family and friends.

The third epiphany was brought on by the simultaneity of several events at a time when I was preoccupied with the puzzle of my parents’ bizarre unraveling at the end of their lives, the mystery that impelled the memoir I was writing. Essentially, I was struggling to understand my mother’s late-life infatuation with a pair of shyster developers, an uncultured, politically reactionary couple who could do no wrong no matter their screw-ups and betrayals, and my widowed father’s infatuations with a string of paid companions who ranged from certifiable to near-comatose.

For many months, I had been researching my parents’ early lives, reading my father’s wartime letters to my mother and ruminating on what they revealed: her fears of his potential faithfulness, which he tried to relieve, and his fears of expressing his love because of the power it would give her. For weeks, I had been shifting through memories of my mother in search of ones that indicated other insecurities: her dependence on her decorator and a chic friend for design decisions, her alarming attitude toward her pregnancy and of the one time she’d had to take care of me, her conviction that she was ugly.

The puzzle pieces fell into place when my husband and I were on route to Savannah, minus a companion who had cancelled at the last minute because her mother was near death. We had just finished the first leg of the trip, to Raleigh, during which my friend’s situation made me recall the trip several years earlier that I had made to Mexico alone, just after my own mother’s sudden death there. During the entire flight to Raleigh, I relived that earlier flight to Guadalajara and my then state of mind: worried for my father, shocked that my mother could die, and stunned that the person who thought the worst of me was now no longer there to find me wanting.

I was sitting in the Raleigh airport lounge, waiting for the flight to Savannah, when my incompatible images of my parents came together. I saw the view I’d had of my mother and still had at her death—the all-powerful, accusative demon—in the light of what I had recently learned about her very human insecurities. I thought about my parents’ constant, vituperative flighting in the light of what I had learned about their fears at expressing their love for one another. Suddenly, along with the dimming and brain buzzing, the words came to me, “Looking for love in all the wrong places,” from the old honkey-tonk song, and I burst into terrible, wracking sobs.

I was overcome at the realization of my parents’ neediness that had led them, when their judgment was at its most diminished, to turn to grotesquely inappropriate people for emotional sustenance. At the end of my mother’s life, she had wished for approval and perhaps forgiveness from me, her only child, and was thus susceptible to the younger, shyster couple, who resembled me in certain ways. The couple had set themselves up as ideal replacement children—helpful, devoted, adulatory—while secretly exploiting her, an old story in elderly circles. Meanwhile, my father, after my mother’s death, in desperate need of female affection but long past being able to earn it, pursued his string of misfit paid companions. When the relationship with each of the women ended in disaster (two in mental breakdowns, and one in a threatened sex harassment suit), he was utterly crushed. What a downfall for a man who had risen so far from immigrant beginning and been so sure of his capabilities and charm.

How could I have failed to see the pathos of my parents’ final years? It could not have been more obvious. And yet I was so attached to my child’s view of each that I watched them decline without relinquishing the belief in their airtight confidence and competency, something that, to be fair, was the impression they had devoted their lives to creating. Their horror of weakness had created a personal bind for me, since children (and servants) are inherently defenseless, but they, too, paid a price. Seeing my parents’ own vulnerability and recognizing their fear of it finally put my own in perspective. Giving up my false view of them was a tremendous liberation.

Reviewing the three epiphanies for what they share, I can see the two mental/emotional operations that made them possible. First, each was brought on by my sudden perception of the conflict between a deeply held belief and an undeniable reality. And second, the clash became apparent when I split the mind-sets of two time periods in my life, imaginatively reliving my naive child’s view and simultaneously observing that view from the vantage point of the knowing adult.

The epiphanies were openings. The revelation that a core belief is false, throws into question all the little branching beliefs. All the interpretations of key remembered incidents, the interpretations on which an identity is built, become suspect. An entire personal history begs to be reconsidered. The insights came in a flash, but the fallout is never ending.

2 Responses

  • Karen Kalkstein // // Reply

    Now I’ve read The How of Epiphanies too — brilliant!!!!!!!!!

  • Ronnie Scharfman // // Reply

    Your descriptions of these “Eureka” moments are profoundly moving, Elizabeth. They put one in mind of Proust (yes, you’re right up there…) and his epiphanies about art. He also describes physical reactions that signal the onset of a deep insight, as well as the need to work out what the feeling is. But, especially, your breaking down in tears in that airport realizing something so emotional about your parents, and the regret that accompanies the realization now that they are long gone, resonates with Proust’s idea of the “intermittencies of the heart.” You make the reader feel so convincingly that this fragile moment of insight might not have happened, despite all of your questioning over the years.
    What a gift “involuntary memory” is.

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