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How do I know what love is?

Notes on Familial Gaslighting

Ginger Ko

How do I make myself interesting to you?


I am a woman, of color, and, depending on my perceived proximity to whiteness, unattractive. Chronically exhausted, ill, and lazy. I am not particularly kind or fun. I have a bad attitude, and my belief that I am owed attention and consideration will feel confrontational to you.

* * * 


I know that I am supposed to be philosophical about my traumatized upbringing, and by philosophical, I don’t mean ascribing to any kind of actual philosophy except for the American tradition trail mix that is one part fake Jesus (turn the other cheek), one part fake Buddha (deplete yourself of emotion in the guise of fake surrender), and one part fake Puritan (don’t complain, it could be worse), and one part Instagram feel-good photo (a woman atop a cliff coated in sunrise, caption: “My struggles make me who I am,” fake by default). So I am supposed to refrain from regret and resentment, as well as comparisons with others and wishing for a different past. 


* * *

My mother is not a monster, but she is capable of great cruelty to her family. Those who meet her for the first time are struck by her timeless, striking beauty and by her femininity, her high-pitched voice that makes her discordant pronunciation of English strike one’s ears like soft taps from a pillow. It is only in Chinese that she can express her greater capability of incredible verbal cruelty, a kind that relies on both ferocity of tone and merciless content. I was called stupid, fat, ungrateful, ugly, worthless, better dead, a burden, a cancer, a liar, a whore, and I was also subjected to what amounted to hours-long circuitous ranting about my father’s side of the family, the injustice of her own parents, and the cruelty of this country. After a while a predictable script developed. But the performances always remained fresh, the actress never going stale over the professional-mourner style of wailing, chest-beating, flailing herself to the ground or the bed, flinging and shattering objects, the shrieking weeping. And why? What would trigger these theatrical routines? That was almost always forgotten, small trivialities quickly subsumed by the great fires of ritualistic punishment, but it was always made clear that the fault was somehow mine, and these routines were never rehearsed in front of others.

Abuse makes great use of privacy, of the enclosed space of the home or the car, or, in my mother’s case, the ability to brazenly talk evil shit in Chinese while the surrounding group of English speakers remain oblivious to her casting a lasso and dragging me to my death in front of them. The privacy of family is where abusers can exercise demonic and nonsensical control. It becomes a kind of world-building through delusional rhetoric and mythological laws, and the captives of the abuser’s world are always bound by its bizarre cosmology even outside of the privacy. My mother’s particular abusive privacy was aided by our physical and cultural isolation. No one else saw us in our private states. We had no close friends or family who could witness or intercede, and so reality never disenchanted my mother of her kingdom. Sometimes I would talk to my white American friends about my mother’s cruelty, and it ended up contorting into talk about cultural differences, such as stricter parental disapproval over less-than-perfect grades, less-than-perfect comportment, and less-than-perfect filial piety and gratitude. My explanation of my home life became talk about my mother’s cultural unwillingness to allow me to participate in social activities like sleepovers, spending time with friends outside of school, or having any money of my own. And while these differences and limitations were indeed borne of my mother’s suspicion of and distaste for many aspects of American culture, it was also inadequate for explaining how my mother needed to exercise absolute control over me, and how she considered it her right to use me, to punish me for her sadness, and to have one thing in her shitty life that she could mold and bend to her will. It wasn’t about her not letting me hang out at the mall with friends. It was about how, if I reminded her that she had initially given me permission a few days prior, she would scream at me and call me a liar, and then with the eagerness of someone on fire, use my request for a small freedom as a signal to plunge into her practiced litany of grievances over how badly she was treated by her family, her ex-husband, the world, and on and on and on, and where, if I was standing at the outset, I would be left standing silently until my feet left indelible imprints in the carpet that my mother would later have to rake with a comb to remove.


Perhaps this description is not entirely alien to many Asian-American second-generation kids. The Asian-American friends I had in childhood sometimes mentioned spankings, slaps, beating with rulers, sharp berating. And often the abuse took place over common incitements, such as bad academic performance (the classic A-minus displeasure), or moral horror (dating, makeup). But in the immigrant’s backwardness and unwillingness to assimilate is also the stubborn insight that the American idea of freedom is not available to visible minorities. Children of immigrants are also quick to defend their parents and believe in their upbringing as love and investment. There are jokes, parodies, memes that only we can laugh at, where the heavily-accented parent thumps their children with a backscratcher or a house slipper, all the while screaming abuse. The recognition of a cultural insiderness, even if it centers around common rituals of maltreatment, can warm the heart and also make us defensive: only we can laugh at these things, and only we can deem them laughable.


In American movies, scenes of parental abuse at the hands of white parents cast a net of disquiet over the film, evoking a mood of sadness or grimness. A white father belts his son to demonstrate to viewers that the patriarch is a cruel monster, and sometimes the film even goes so far as to have the scenes of abuse serve as prologue for the kid who eventually grows up to be a serial killer, or a merciless mob boss, or at the very least a really messed up adult whose dysfunctionality serves as scars. If the movie concerns ethnic parents, however, parents administer slaps to the back of their child’s head or heavy thumps between the shoulders or squawk unpleasantries at high volume, but these scenes are often given an air of otherness that de-pathologizes the abuse. They are not abuse so much as another culture’s standards, the oppression of a backwards but demonstrative upbringing that stands in contrast to the restrained—yet capable of great kinetic potential, the kind that will grow on to affect society on a larger scale—white American family. The abused ethnic children, correspondingly, are often shown reacting to the beatings and chastisements as mildly as possible, shrugging them off or even playfully evading the mother chasing them with a stick. The kids will grow up to be another inconsequential face in the unfathomable non-white crowd.


As a non-white child of immigrants, I feel protective of my family and my race. They are, together, markers of my belonging; they mark me as a non-white American. 

* * *

How do I know what love is? Though I don’t know, I have somehow never doubted it: I tell myself that I love someone, and that makes it true. Until I tell myself that I don’t love them anymore, and then that becomes true. If I tell myself that my mother loves me, does that make it true? Does it make my mother’s physical and verbal mistreatment of me a part of her love, or at least co-existing with her love? 


What if the fact of her abuse actually makes her love of me impossible? Could that be true? I think that my attachment to her springs from an as yet indomitable desire to be mothered. I was never mothered, but I am always ready to be mothered, should the woman who birthed me ever decide to do so. She is always showing me signs that she might, and the broken part of me can never help but hope. All this hoping and yearning is exhausting, and if love weren’t a part of the equation, it would be deemed illogical. I know that it’s possible to love my mother while establishing boundaries and detaching myself from her emotional vampirism, but sometimes I also think that I am sick of loving her. I think that I could—if I decided to—stop loving her. I am almost sure that this is true.


In bell hooks’ writing on civil rights for children*, she points out that, in American culture, “the private family dwelling is the one institutionalized sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic. As absolute rulers, parents can usually decide without any intervention what is best for their children” (hooks 20). Keeping the autocratic family bubble inflated is the “social myth” surrounding abuse and neglect:

One of the most important social myths we must debunk if we are to become a more loving culture is the one that teaches parents that abuse and neglect can coexist with love. Abuse and neglect negate love. Care and affirmation, the opposite of abuse and humiliation, are the foundation of love. No one can rightfully claim to be loving when behaving abusively. Yet parents do this all the time in our culture. Children are told that they are loved even though they are being abused (hooks 22).

Here, hooks is at her most famously rigid when it comes to her theories about power and interpersonal relationships. Can it be true that abuse and neglect cannot coexist with love? That when abuse and neglect happens, it crowds out the possibility of love? What about the underprivileged, overstressed parents who neglect their children in order to fulfill basic material needs? Did leaving a child alone and unattended at a local park so that she could work a shift at a nearby McDonald’s, as with Debra Harrell, the black mother who was famously criminalized for her lack of childcare options, amount to neglect or abuse? If love was crowded out of that parent-child relationship, I am tempted to say that it was crowded out by a host of other factors—a shitty support system for parents, economic injustice, the criminalization of Black people and Black mothers—that preceded the supposed neglect.


I am unsure of how to untangle the mother who didn’t care from the mother who might have cared if she had the time, money, and energy. Was I abused or neglected each time I was left somewhere, dropped off way too early, before anyone else had shown up and oftentimes before the lights had been turned on, and then picked up very late, always the last to get collected from the playground, or the library, or the friend’s home that, unlike mine, was stocked with warm, present parents? Very recently, I was taken aback by the sudden memories of receiving top-achieving school awards for which my mother afterwards took tremendous credit, but left me to collect alone while my classmates’ parents arrived for the school ceremony with bouquets and cameras. Afterwards, one of my friends showed me how I appeared in the background of one of her commencement photos, a solitary figure leaning against a brick pillar in the shadows of a walkway, while she and her parents, on the school’s sunny front lawn, leaned into each other with flowers in hand. I mourned the memory of that solitary figure a little, not because she was so alone in that photo, but because she was made so strange in that moment. From that part of my childhood, I mostly remember a suffocating scrutiny, an inescapable stream of verbal abuse and parentifying harangues, never being left alone to think or grow, and all along I was in fact as alone as that child in the photo. 

* * *

How do the marginalized speak about the problematics in their own community without giving it away to the greater audience who will leap at the chance to generalize without understanding the causal factors? How do I say this more clearly? How do BIPOCs talk about the fucked up physical and emotional abuse that exists in our cultures without also self-fetishizing our otherness? How can we pose ourselves as having been whole before the brutality of racism, heterosexism, capitalism, colonialism contorted us, if it in fact might be untrue? What if our caretakers and lovers and kin would have failed to love us even before the poison of marginality? We will never know where material reality separates from bell hooks’s vacuum in which love and abuse are clearly and easily demarcated. We will never know whether someone would not have been an abuser if they had been dealt a different hand in life–I believe this deeply, which is why I believe that we should focus on personal responsibility. Living a fucked-up life does not deprive someone of knowing right from wrong, nor the ability to figure out how to love others. So why do so many of us feel reluctant to speak about abusive tendencies in our communities? Maybe it’s because we know that, while hardship does not give an excuse for abuse, the struggle to survive can make someone feel untethered, monstrous, afraid. We know that trauma alters our DNA.



There is also the revulsion one can feel in publicizing abuse and maltreatment and knowing that it will be compartmentalized for consumption. Where does love and abuse exist within the interlocking systems of power that hooks so famously delineated (the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy)? Love and abuse can certainly exist within both material reality and the abstract—we know this because love and abuse are there all the time. What if we weren’t lucky enough to love or be related to someone with the self-possession, education, and predisposition to extricate their love from the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy? As a Chinese-American, I am always anxious about Chinese-American representation, always fearful that something cringe-worthy or misrepresentative will further fuel racist violence and othering. Fears of generalizing tendencies, and fears that works will gratify racist expectations of ludicrousness, unintelligence, inscrutability, and monstrousness are all at work when I approach written works that come out of Chinese-American culture. These kinds of fears create an expectation that Chinese-American representation must resist white supremacist perpetuation of Chinese-American stereotypes, but also that the representation should remain loyal to Chinese-Americans, and not critique Chinese and Chinese-American culture too harshly, lest the critiques be what the racists gleefully latch onto.



* * *


When the movie Lady Bird came out, the breathless recommendation of the film from both critics and personal acquaintances shored up my own excitement for a women-made film that dealt honestly with the mother-daughter relationship during a girl’s rite of passage from adolescence to young-adulthood. So much of my galling, painful resentment of my own mother-daughter relationship comes particularly from my teenage years living with my mother, when I was kicked out of the house repeatedly and subject to near-daily harangues against my supposed disobedience. My teenage years were when my mother’s controlling tendencies reached a fever pitch, and everything I did, even when silent and simply wearing the wrong facial expression, was proof of my ingratitude, my waywardness, my unwillingness to do right. I was never allowed privacy, I was never allowed to be alone, and everything I did was bothersome. The pop music I listened to quietly in my room while doing homework was criticized for being ridiculous and in poor taste. When my step-father gifted me a portable CD-player for one birthday, my mother would charge into my room and accuse me of spending too much time with headphones on. I wasn’t allowed to put pictures up on the walls of my room, I wasn’t allowed to use the phone, I wasn’t allowed to watch television or read magazines, my choices in clothing were severely limited, and I was even screamed at for reading too many novels. My mother used me as a fathomless source of raw material for wrenching apart and grinding down. What was she making me into? I don’t think she knew, or cared. I was therapeutic for her, an outlet. I knew, down to my bones, that what was happening to me was abusive and unjust. But who could I speak to, and where could I go?


The teenagerhood depicted in Lady Bird was of a decidedly more mainstream American flavor than the one I endured. The teenage girl had many of the freedoms I lacked, and the parents were struggling with economic conditions that were not also impacted by their own race or immigrant status (a brother, an adoptee-of-color who was shown not to exist under the same auspices of white girl preservation, was a minor character). There was, however, a familiarity in the way that the mother figure Marion treated her parenting responsibilities as a kind of world-building that relied on sheer strength of will against the onslaught of invasive forces. Marion was like my mother: she felt that in order to protect and mold her daughter, she could carefully curate the kind of influences and potentialities that her daughter faced. Much is made of Lady Bird’s expensive private Catholic school education, the choice to take on the onerous tuition made because Lady Bird’s older brother had witnessed violence at his public high school. Marion is mean-spirited about her daughter’s accomplishments and capabilities, sharply quashing her daughter’s aspirations for an expensive and elite east-coast college education by remarking in the film’s opening scene that Lady Bird probably wouldn’t be able to get into any of the schools anyway. As the film progresses, Marion’s nastiness is eventually understood as complex: the family’s economic capabilities are rather limited, which necessitates a kind of desperate pragmatism in the face of a teenager’s starry-eyed foolishness, and Lady Bird is also shown to be somewhat of a middling student at her high school, revealing that her mother’s assessment also has a ring of truth, a peal that Lady Bird has struck against herself. 


Marion is also someone who is sharply hedged in by the emotional limitations of money. She is tired because she must work to support her family, and she is sharp with Lady Bird because she does not have the energy for delusions or unconditional support; she does not have the money from which to source that energy. Her sharpness is capable of drawing blood because the realities of money necessitates this kind of viciousness. The project of raising a middling daughter with dreams of glamour is undertaken as a nearly physical endeavor; despite the warm and whimsical tone of Greta Gerwig’s filmmaking, viewers of the film can feel the weaponry of snippy meanness puncture the film’s soft Californian lighting and dry, golden climate. Lady Bird is drawn as a smart and confident teenager—just smart and confident enough to commit folly. This confidence, this intelligence and precociousness, is what creates the youthful misapplied desire that Marion wanted to quash continuously and then in the decision of which college to attend, becoming a monumental vehicle for which Marion came to identify as the final challenge to her parenting skills. 


Marion’s relationship with Lady Bird by the end of the film is constituted by silence. The silent treatment, so familiar as a specific type of punishment that works via the importance of acknowledgment. It is a form of control; it is a very clear negation of someone’s personhood. To pretend that the other person is not there. To withhold interaction, as if the other person is nothing. Of course, this silent treatment is a climactic reaction to Lady Bird’s ultimate betrayal—daring to apply to an expensive, private, out-of-state college. Remember the opening scene when Marion put in the nasty little dig that Lady Bird probably wouldn’t even get into a fancy school anyway? To even dare to apply, however, is the ultimate betrayal; it betrays Marion’s meticulous control that had, before the silent treatment, been constituted by little put-downs, little digs, and withholding praise. I wonder if it’s too much for me to relate to one of Lady Bird’s reactions to her mother’s meanness by opening the passenger-side door and falling out of the car—I often thought of doing something self-harming in the face of powerlessness, destroying myself as a way to feel the last fragment of my agency. But my self-harming would not have been cinematic; I never had an audience, onlooker, or bystander. 


In Scherezade Siobhan’s essay on familial gaslighting, “A Dangerous Inheritance: On Familial Gaslighting,” she describes various ways that parents and caretakers inflict familial gaslighting on young children by responding with negative judgment on their child’s achievements and interests, almost always with disastrous consequences, no matter how small the moment. Body-shaming, labeling things as “a waste of time,” belittling efforts outside of the parent’s narrow desires for their children’s accomplishments, refusing to accept even an adult child’s independent decisions—these are all controlling actions. Parents who want to mold their children and pare away the excesses do so through judgments on the child’s self-worth. Molding oneself in our parents’ image for ourselves is seen as an expression of loyalty to those who had given us the means to live. With familial gaslighting, there is an inherent understanding that by providing a child with caretakers, the caretakers take as recompense the child becoming only what the parents want them to be. We owe it to our parents to become exactly what they want us to be. 


* * *

I have been thousands of miles away from my mother for almost as many years as I was within her daily reach. I also call her on the phone and leave her messages. With the distance of non-daily interactions, I am less susceptible to her ups-and-downs and am afforded the exhale of her larger trajectory. And within this larger trajectory, something else has happened: the built-in (and thus abused and dysfunctional) therapeutics of family and children have drawn away, so my mother has been forced to rely on outside relationships and friendships for self-awareness and affirmation. She has joined a group chat of Chinese friends from her younger years, several of whom live in the U.S., but many still in China, and they have cohered into a group of empty-nester consciousness raisers. When I speak to my mother on the phone, she will sometimes drop in references to heated debates and shifting perspectives within the group chat and she will have reached conclusions that she never would have accepted from anyone else but women whose life experiences mirror her own. This side of her, full of empathy and wisdom, is surprisingly expansive when not confronted with her own history of wrongdoing. If her acknowledgement of complicity should ever appear, it will never be seen by myself except in rare instances. Siobhan, in another essay entitled “The Other Her: On daughters of abusive mothers and the silence about intergenerational trauma in Indian families,” writes sympathetically about her mother’s history and being in the world as a complicated intersection of gender, ethnicity, caste, family, and her mother’s individual aspirations and accomplishments. Yet she also writes, very familiarly, about how conversations with her mother force Siobhan to sit in the passenger seat as her mother admits, explodes, then rationalizes:


I sway with her as she rises and falls between sunken depths of victimhood and a furious need to assert herself as aggressor with me... She barks out the most appalling periods of her survival trying to ration milk for a baby me against a single cup of tea for herself, her only real indulgence. She blames me for it all and then suddenly the phone rings, she gets on with a perfectly modulated voice as if this entire episode with me prior to that ringing sound was a figment of imagination.

These glimpses of a reality-based reflection are probably the most that children of abusive immigrant mothers can hope for. There are too many other distortions and refractions, displacements and disillusionments. Siobhan, a practicing psychologist, points to the limits that children face when trying to understand their maternal abusers: 

We speak about distress and dysregulation a lot when we consider the spectrum of ‘moods disorder’ which includes bipolar I and II. The word disorder in itself is a bone of contention for me because it fails to fully integrate the various loose ends of causation other than just making it overwhelmingly individualized. Erasures of socio-cultural realities amass.


I can also recognize all the factors that led to my mother’s parenting choices, and I can even empathize with them. But, as Siobhan notes, with knowledge does not automatically come forgiveness; a saturation and clarification of another’s personal history does not seamlessly lead to resolution, be that resolution a forgiveness, reparation, or revision. There is only the future to change, a future that has become even more heavily weighted than before. And a present to contend with, a present that both does and does not depend on individual decisions.


I am glad for my mother’s middle-aged Chinese consciousness-raising group on chat. It is both endearing and inspiring, underscoring the lack of a social network that could have made my mother—and her children—less alone when she was struggling. The linguistic and cultural barriers built into the immigrant experience causes something that is often understood as the opposite of assimilation—a clinging onto what an immigrant has ostensibly left behind, an undercutting preference for familiarity after immigration suggests that disruption and severance was preferable to remaining. And American children of immigrants are also split, though without the confidence of belonging anywhere. We are othered in our homeland, we are othered from our parents’ homelands, and those who see us cannot understand us. We are keepers of our parents’ experiences, but we are also keepers of our own. No one will choose us except ourselves.


*hooks, bell. All About Love.



This essay quotes or refers to sections of bell hooks’s All About Love: New Visions, Greta Gerwig’s film Lady Bird, and Scherezade Siobhan’s essays “A Dangerous Inheritance: On Familial Gaslighting” and “The Other Her: On daughters of abusive mothers and the silence about intergenerational trauma in Indian families.”

Ginger Ko is the author of Motherlover and Inherit, and several chapbooks. Her next project, POWER ON, is forthcoming from The Operating System.

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