All in the Family – Writing About Relationships and OCD

by Matt B. on October 31, 2015

Recently, I wrote an essay in which I referred to my mom as a “deeply neurotic” woman.

I didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing so; part of me suspected that the phrase would bother her.

But this feeling was confusing. After all, I didn’t think I was saying anything new. I’ve written a fair amount about the relationship between Mom’s anxiety and my own, and anyone who knows us knows that we’re full of obsessive-compulsive craziness – there’s no hiding it. Mom even jokes about being “neurotic” or “anal.”

I also wasn’t entirely sure where my hesitation was coming from. It might have been just another obsessive, self-stymying impulse at work – and I give into enough of those as it is.

So I posted the essay, and I didn’t give Mom any warning. I didn’t think I could. After all, I thought, I’m a Writer, and Writers don’t give other people veto power over their work. My job is to share the truth as I see it, and let the chips fall. If these essays are gonna be of any value to others, then I can’t hopscotch over the messy bits.

But thinking this way puts Mom in a weird position. On one hand, she’s encouraged me to write about OCD. On the other, doing so necessarily involves writing about her. And writing about her is very different than talking to her – even if I’m saying the same thing. (Unfortunately, anonymizing her isn’t an option – I’ve only got one mom!)

Most of the time, Mom and I talk about my OCD one-on-one, or in small, intimate settings with people we know and care about. When I’m writing, though, I’m not talking to Mom directly. I’m not necessarily talking to her at all – sometimes, I’m talking past her to an invisible audience (even if that audience includes her). I’m saying things that have much, much more to do with her than anyone else, but she’s just one of many readers scanning through an essay on an impersonal screen.

What a bizarre thing! Separately, Mom and I talk about each other all the time – she to Dad and her friends, I to N and my friends. But when else do we listen in while the other person is talking about us? That’s what reading is sometimes, though – a kind of permissible eavesdropping on otherwise private thoughts.

*                *                *

A few days after posting the essay, Mom told me that the phrase did bother her. For one thing, she didn’t think it was accurate – even if it had been at one point. She was also at least a little embarrassed at being exposed in this way.

We had a long back-and-forth, sorting through our feelings. She suggested that it’s one thing to use the word ‘neurotic’ casually and jokily, but quite another to use it as a sober, neutral description of somebody. Because of course it isn’t; it’s a high-powered word, and it conjures dramatic associations – much more so than word “anxious,” say.

I agreed with her, but I also tend to think that most people are neurotic – and in exactly this elevated sense. Of course, I hadn’t said that in the essay. Instead, I had singled Mom out – maybe even exaggerating the differences between her and others.

*                *                *

I want to write about the basic truths of my life and my relationships. Not to give away secrets, of course, but also not to be too precious. Of course, that’s easy for me to say – I’ve chosen this for myself. The people in my life have not.

And that points to the heart of it: I’m not writing other people’s biographies – I’m writing mine. And I suspect that might make it harder to paint completely balanced pictures of the people in my life. They enter the story where they enter the story (or at least in the places that feel most salient for me to explore right now). As a result, there’s a risk that readers might come away with images of my loved ones that aren’t entirely fair.

This matters to me, and I’ve worked to offer relatively nuanced portraits of Mom and others. (In the first long OCD essay I wrote, I tried to show Mom’s incredible care in several scenes where it shone through especially vividly.)

On the other hand, it makes sense that some of Mom’s negative qualities would figure prominently in these essays. I’m writing about my OCD, after all, and there’s a profound relationship between her anxiety and mine.

All of that said, I’m pretty sure that I can do more to ensure that my words are both accurate and kind – and that Mom has a heads-up next time I plan to publish them![1]

The truth isn’t all. It’s not even most. Cornel West has written that “justice is what love looks like in public, just like tenderness is what love feels like in private.” I’m going to continue to write publicly about my (and my family’s) private suffering – but I’d like to believe that we can have tenderness in both places.

Mom Window

[1] In this case, I looked back at what I’d written and decided to change “deeply neurotic” to “very anxious.”

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