By Jennifer Matesa
Kaylie Jones, 51, has spent much of her life trying to come to terms with two legacies she inherited from her parents: literary fame and addiction.
I caught up with Jones over the phone recently while she was at her Manhattan home. We talked about the origins of her recent book, Lies My Mother Never Told Me, growing up in an alcoholic family and being a sober mother.
Renew: What’s the meaning of the title, Lies My Mother Never Told Me?
Kaylie Jones: To me, what it means is that my mother, Gloria, never lies, according to my father and everyone else. If you turn that into a basic geometric proof, if she never lies, then clearly I’m insane because what she says looks false to me. So I must be bad; therefore, I’m bad. That’s the syllogism. It’s like a mathematical proof.
Renew: The place where I cried was the place where you discover self-confidence through martial arts, when you tell your daughter, Eyrna, that you’re scared of failing and making a fool of yourself. It sounds so simple and commonplace—most people are afraid of failing and being embarrassed. But what it is about growing up in an alcoholic family that makes this fear so pathological?
KJ: I think in my case, I was derided and laughed at always, so any feeling was worthy of no more than a joke. When your feelings are belittled like that, you have a natural aversion to the possibility of failing or being laughed at. If there was any chance I was going to fail, I learned to quit—or to hide.
Renew: Your father was a famous writer, and you chose to go into his profession. How does knowing all these famous people—they’re all over your pages—affect your ability to stay humble in recovery?
KJ: When you’re born into it, it’s almost like you take it for granted. You don’t think of them as famous; you think of them as an uncle who came to the house and was cool—or who was an asshole. I didn’t talk much about the Twelve Step program in the book because I was trying very hard to follow the traditions. And I think some people got mad at me because I didn’t talk about the program more. But I think until they change that tradition, I think we should stick to it.
Renew: Was it hard to write that you hated your mother?
KJ: It was surprisingly not difficult to write. I think it horrifies people. It’s so against the very foundations of our society: Honor thy father and mother. I really believe [that as a parent] you have to work to deserve that love. I don’t think we just automatically deserve to be loved by our kids.
Renew: You talk a lot about the fear of abandonment and intimacy. How have you dealt with this in recovery with respect to your relationship with Eyrna? How have you talked with her about your family’s problems with addiction?
KJ: Ever since she was very little, we’d be walking down the street holding hands, and somebody would say, “Hi Kaylie!” It’d be a homeless guy or a businessperson in a suit, and I’d say, “Hi George!” “Hi Beth!” She’d wonder who these people were. And I’d say, “Oh, they’re from my meetings.” And she’d say, “Oh, that’s good, Mommy, right?” So the word alcoholic wasn’t taboo in our family the way it was when I was growing up.
Renew: What can you say about forgiveness? I asked several friends in recovery what they might ask you, and the first question was, “How do we forgive family members who have hurt us so much?” A sponsee is engaged in hating her mother right now, and she’s afraid that feeling will never pass.
KJ: That’s a profound and good and incredibly brave question, and it’s very difficult to answer. I think, at least for me, this is going to sound very non-AA, but first of all, you have to forgive yourself to feel the anger, and you have to allow yourself to feel the anger, and if you turn it inward, you’ll slip.
There’s a false sense of control in saying, “I forgive you.” A sense of controlling the outcome of your abuse. To rush through it and feel like you have to forgive before you’re ready, that doesn’t work. I don’t forgive, and I don’t care. I don’t care if people think I’m still ill. And you may never be ready to forgive, and that’s OK.
To read Jennifer Matesa’s book review of Lies My Mother Never Told Me, pick up the May/June 2012 issue of Renew today.
Jennifer Matesa is freelance writer, essayist and author of two nonfiction books, including Navel-Gazing: The Daysand Nights of a Mother in the Making, an award-winning memoir of her pregnancy. She runs the popular blog Guinevere Gets Sober, which covers addiction and recovery issues in the culture.