Monday, April 6, 2015


My mother believed herself a victim, and in a perverse way she was proud of her victim status. In certain respects she was a victim: victim of an inattentive, alcoholic mother. Victim of an absent father. Victim of an inequitable divorce settlement. But she was never the victim she wanted to be. Among the piles of books around our apartment when I was growing up could be found all kinds of victim literature: books about concentration camps, memoirs penned by camp survivors, drawings of children housed in Theresienstadt. There was another large stack of books about anorexia and its victims, books written by psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in attempts to explain the disorder, and books written by sufferers themselves.

Not the happiest of libraries in my childhood home, and emaciation everywhere you looked.

My mother identified culturally as Jewish (although she was half-Jewish, on her father's side, which according to the laws of Israel doesn't even count) only so she could gain proximity to the sorrows of its people. When it was inconvenient to be Jewish, she dropped the label. Oh, we celebrated Christmas with angels and the Messiah and carols sung by little British choirboys whose high voices bounced off of ancient stone cathedral walls.

As a child who loved Christmas but who could also name every concentration camp in Germany and Poland, I found my mother's preoccupations rather peculiar. Now I find them inestimably sad.


When my mother developed a blood disorder in her late sixties, she was told that there was a tiny chance the condition might eventually morph into leukemia. So when she called me to tell me about her diagnosis, of course she stressed the leukemia aspect. So convincing was she that I ended up believing she had leukemia. What she had was not leukemia but a propensity to overproduce red blood cells. The treatment was simple and effective: to have blood drawn once a week to counter the overproliferation. The danger of foregoing treatment was not, as I'd been informed, the development of leukemia, but much more likely to be stroke.

I know my mother as well as I do myself. She had crossed out the possibility - indeed, probability - of stroke, because stroke was not a diagnosis that lent itself to victimhood the way leukemia did.

Predictably she refused to have her blood drawn once a week and ended up having a catastrophic stroke. A victim she was, but mostly a victim of needing to maintain her victim identity in face of all evidence to the contrary.


I am incredibly lucky not to have inherited my mother's psychiatric issues. I never thought myself a victim, though living in her household I often thought myself fat.

Sometimes I rail against the way it was and had to be. I think about my name, Sarah, and why my mother called me Sarah. She told me her reason, once when I was maybe twelve years old. "In 1939," she said, "Hitler decreed that all Jewish females should be known by the name 'Sarah.'"

Then she looked at me expectantly. This was, in her mind, a perfectly sufficient justification for naming a baby.

I nodded, because tragically, I already understood her well enough to find her bizarre reasoning logical in its own way, within its own system.


I have not suffered from cancer, or stroke. I have not lived with anorexia. I have not been persecuted for my religion or lack thereof. I have been given a victim's name, but I choose to recast the source of my name well back to its origin in biblical times: Sarah, lady, princess, noblewoman.

You might say that I am a victim of how I was raised, immersed as I was in victim language, history, and culture.

But I am no victim, and unlike my mother, I am proud to say so. I am Sarah, lady, princess, noblewoman. No, I am Sarah, an ordinary person living a blessedly ordinary life, capable of mourning all the victims but always aware of my place outside of their tragically large and crowded circle.


Veronica said...

Wow. What a story. I'm glad you emerged from that environment intact.

Magpie said...

Oh, lady, Sarah. Oof.

Mine too, victim. Different manifestation, but victim none-the-less.

Mary Gilmour said...

You are not, in my opinion, an 'ordinary' person. Your writing, your sensitivity, your compassion, are extra-ordinary, admirable and endearing. How amazing to read about all you have overcome. How lucky I am to have you as a friend.

Tanis Miller said...

You're an extraordinarily talented writer. One of my favourites.

This essay resonated deeply, for my mother sounds very similar to yours, in so many ways.

Marisa said...

I, too, spent years fiercely clinging to my identity as a victim--an identity that, sadly, felt safe due to its familiarity and the attention it garnered.

While hospitalized for nearly a year with an eating disorder that almost led to the cessation of my breath, a chaplain said something that not only resonated with me at the time, but has stayed with me ever since (as a powerful reminder of where I have been and never want to revisit). After frankly discussing victimization and victimhood--imposed both from without and within--he looked up at us, his audience of frighteningly cachectic young women, and said:

"Nothing is expected of a victim."

It was a sentence that stopped me cold and led to a period of profound inner reflection. . .and, in the end, I chose life with all of its wonderful responsibilities, obligations and, yes, expectations. Today, I am fully recovered from three interrelated diseases: Anorexia, bulimia and the sick preoccupation with self-generated victimization. I now, for the most part, embrace my imperfections, and the people and situations that challenge me to be a better rendition of myself.

Every day, I am thankful: For the opportunity to live beyond my addictions; to alter my sense of self from victim to warrior; and to have crossed paths with a man who, with six words, helped redirect the flow of my fate.

I am sorry, so terribly sorry, that your mother could not find her way out. The city of Victimsville is a dark, lonely place that is far easier to settle than leave behind.

Christine said...

Growing up in an environment like this must have been so incredibly difficult, Sarah.