How a child understands abuse through symbols and stories.
My mother loved Turkish Delight.
I personally never liked the stuff. I couldn’t eat it without thoughts of The White Witch and Edmund’s temptation away from Aslan in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. I couldn’t figure out what she loved about it. I know that she had the real stuff a couple of times in her life. I had had it with her. I ate a bit of it to please her but in my heart I couldn’t shake the idea that the stuff was toxic. It was the stuff of evil.
These weren’t thoughts based on anything except for the connections that I had with Turkish Delight and the struggle between good and evil that C.S. Lewis painted so classically. It bothered me how much she loved it. She could eat an entire box of it in a sitting and the greedy way she hoarded it reminded me only of Edmund Pevensie. It seemed to my childish mind that the mere act of indulging in Turkish Delight was a prelude to betrayal.
Are these the silly connections that a child makes? Children love games of adrenaline and daring. They love to pretend that something is forbidden: Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.
We’ve all played that the floor is hot lava and instant death if you are to accidentally touch it (well, all the fun people have in my experience). You jump from couch to couch or bed to chair, maybe allowing the use of pillows as islands if the leaps are too big. That inevitable moment when you realize that you’ve messed up this time and you’re going to fall in the lava. Your heart races… and then you laugh and get up out of the ‘lava’ and jump back on to the nearest ‘island’. I played those games and other superstitious games based around imaginary dangers.
The way I felt about Turkish Delight and my mother’s unwholesome relationship with it was a whole different thing. I really felt that the danger was real with Turkish Delight, that betrayal was just around the corner and was heralded by her indulgence. It was a sign to me that I couldn’t trust her and anytime she would eat it or I would find a wrapper of it in the glove compartment, it made my skin crawl.
This is the fear of childhood, the fear of betrayal in those who take care of us and are responsible for meeting our needs. I loved my mother very much, but I think it would be fair to say that I trusted her less than the Pevensie children trusted their selfish brother Edmund. The problem with my mother was not her love of Turkish Delight, but the fact that, like Edmund, she had no self control around it. If she had eaten a piece of it, it wouldn’t have been disturbing, it was her need for excess that made it disturbing to me.
It had a resonance for me. I had read Lewis and Tolkien since before I went to Kindergarten. If her obsession had been jewelry I have no doubt that I would have associated her with Lumbago because the symbolism that I was using to express my fear was rooted in a child witnessing an excess. It was an addiction for her, just like alcohol is an addiction for some people.
This is part of the nature of stories: they give us a language to express the things that we see around us. I knew my mother wasn’t Edmund. I knew the difference between fiction and reality. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that my mother was addicted to many things and Turkish Delight was the one that happened to twig at me and warn me, even when I was very small, that there was something deeply wrong with my mother.
My mother was bipolar. She abused prescription drugs and she abused sugary candy and she did it because she had been so injured as a child that she had never recovered. She would never recover, she died as she had lived, one excess too many destroyed her. I don’t want to give the impression that she was evil or bad, no more than Edmund Pevensie was evil or bad. She was a child in her mind. She never grew up past the age where her mind and soul first broke apart from the abuse she had suffered. She was, like Edmund (like all of us), prone to being selfish. She fought against that urge to be selfish, she tried to be a good mother but she wasn’t always a good mother to all of her children and she floundered with me especially. This was because of the way she had been broken and was never able to heal and is another and a much longer story.
The language of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was all the explanation I needed for her behavior when I was that small. It would be years before I would comprehend the depths to which she had been abused and how alone she was her entire life. It wouldn’t be until after her death that I would begin to understand why she had so often found her only daughter difficult to cuddle and love the way she loved her boy children.
The Pevensie children forgave Edmund his betrayal and, even though it took me awhile, I forgave my mother for all of her betrayals. I forgave her for the darkness that consumed her, for the despair that she lived in so much more often than she lived in the light. I forgave her for all those days that she couldn’t get out of bed, provide me with food and the other basics of life but after that I had to learn to forgive myself for not seeing her struggle more.
Turkish Delight was a big flashing warning sign to me that something was wrong with my mother. It was a symbol and that is the power of the story. We may not understand the parallels we draw when we make connections and to fictional places, times and characters or the telling of true stories but these symbols become indelibly inscribed in our minds. It is the language of learning, the language of the parable. This is why it is vital to read as much and as widely as possible. Even when I was small I had already read a great deal of high quality fiction and my mind gave me indicators and symbols that I could understand based off of what was closes to the situation I was in. Later, in junior high school after I had first been exposed to horror movies my mother would sometimes appear in my nightmares as the monster in the movie.
Was this fair? This intensification of symbolism? Well, I’m sure there would be a lot of debate about that from my siblings and her siblings as well. It is easy to remember only the best parts of those we lose and forget the excess that drove them to the grave. When I had nightmares about my mother I would go to her and I would hold her while she slept. Because that was the sort of mother she was to me. If I had a nightmare, I would hold her. If the nightmare was about her, I wouldn’t sleep but I would sit in her bedroom and stroke her hair and watch her sleeping features.
She told me she as cursed. She told me she was haunted by ghosts and demons. To me it always came back to those wrappers of Turkish Delight. The White Witch and Edmund. She wasn’t a monster, just a scared, cold, hunted child who had been tricked into doing ‘bad’ things.