47. pin the tail on the donkey

Family dynamics: how a person who understands nothing, literally nothing, can hit the nail on the head; how she can enter into a situation she does not understand, does not even possess the equipment, perhaps, to understand, and can nonetheless turn everything upside-down, blow it apart. The girlfriend of the son whose mother married a man who was not his father and who rejoiced when she bore him a son: like a medium in a trance, she absorbed things she could not decipher, tuned into voices from the past, raged against them when they failed to make sense, gave them new meaning. No matter that it was false; her role was to register the emotional discrepancies, to stumble over the elephant in the room, and she was so disturbed that she railed against the girlfriend of the son’s father, because if you search long enough for a guilty party you’re bound to find one, stories are everywhere and readily available. No need to invent one yourself, just borrow from those that exist: fables and fairy tales and movie scripts, we’ve been refining the process for centuries, we are a story-telling species for God’s sake, there are thousands upon thousands to choose from. No matter that many of them are multi-layered and ambiguous, or devised to conceal things too difficult to face—there will always be an abc version available, a Disney version with a good guy and a bad guy, an evil witch and unsuspecting children in the woods, or even better: the evil stepmother. The Evil Stepmother! The wickedest of them all: a narrative that traces back to the beginning of time, that contains elements of the archaic mind. It would take a century to identify the mechanism of splitting, the defense mechanisms of idealization and devaluation, the separation of a painfully complex reality into the more easily digestible categories of good and bad, but let’s not digress from the story.

So the girlfriend pins the tail on the donkey; blindfolded, she makes a beeline to the evil stepmother. A lively girl confused by the subtleties and silences of the people around her, she kicks up a ruckus and throws tantrums and eventually becomes a conduit for everything the boy needs to expunge. You’ve ruined my life, he’d wanted to say to his mother; I want to kill you, to his stepfather. But because families have a way of sticking together, because family glue has a way of oozing back over everything that’s been seen, everything that’s been said, because every taboo oozes back into the subconscious oblivion it came from, these missives search out new recipients. An evil stepmother! What better way to get rid of your rage?

An impatient girl; a child, really. A well-meaning, brave, impetuous girl capable of dialing a telephone number twenty times in a row if she felt like it, of showing up unannounced on the doorstep. A girl on a mission, a Jeanne d’Arc with imperfect eyesight. And the boy, hiding behind her like a ventriloquist, letting her say the things he didn’t dare to. How could she know? It would take her a long time to understand, she would need to separate from the boy, and then, eventually, she would unravel it all, or part of it, and then she’d turn up unannounced at the door, years later, to apologize: you weren’t an evil stepmother after all, and the story was far more complicated—a belated revelation that comes as a relief even now, among the shards; a belated forgiveness.

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