Note from Jen Pastiloff, founder of The Manifest-Station. This is part of our Young Voices Series for Girl Power: You Are Enough. We are always looking for more writing from YOU! Make sure you follow us on instagram at @GirlPowerYouAreEnough and on Facebook here.
By Premala Matthen
“You’re just like me,” my mother tells me.
Sometimes, rarely, I see her face when I look in the mirror. But I am often asked— by friends, by classmates, by strangers on the street —if I was adopted. I know why they ask, but she pretends she doesn’t.
“Nobody can tell you’re not white,” she says to me. It feels like a lie. “Everyone thinks you’re southern Italian.”
The dissonance is paralyzing.
As an adult I read parenting books, even though I don’t have children. I am convinced that I need to re-parent myself, though I don’t know why. My breath catches when I read: a child needs a mother who is attuned to her. She needs a mirror, so she can see who she is.
Sometimes I see my face when I look at her. When I am four, I decide that I am a writer, and she helps me send my story to a publisher. She makes me feel like the rejection letter is just as exciting as a publication would have been. Real writers get rejected; I am a real writer now. I’m nine when my first poem is published. She makes me feel like the world has been enriched by my words.
I’m twenty and I am practicing the art of storytelling when she cuts me off and tells me I am too loud, I’m embarrassing her. Actually, she tells me that I am embarrassing myself. But I’m not embarrassed; I am lit up. I am passionate. And now I am angry. Now I am hurt.
I look at her, searching for my reflection. But I pass right through her. She is unmoved by my emotion. She is only glass.
I come to believe that if I try hard enough, I can make her my mirror again. I attune myself to her; I try to get the right angle. If I mirror her, she will have to mirror me. I read academic texts so I can use the ten-dollar words she likes. I replace my feelings with intellectualism, the only thing that has ever swayed her.
“You were socialized as a white woman to ignore race. Your white privilege blinded you to my lived experience. I need you to learn about race and racism so that you can support me when I experience it. So that you can see how you add to it,” I tell her. “Race is a social construct, it’s about how you’re perceived. It doesn’t matter that my mother is white. I am a woman of colour. And I was always seen that way.”
Silently I am screaming, SEE ME.
“Well, I don’t see you as a person of colour,” she replies, still unmoved. “I just see you as a person.”
White mothers, I tell my friends. They really fuck you up.
I laugh when I say it, because I don’t want to cry. I don’t want to ask what I really need to know: why does she turn away from me when I most need to be seen?
I am nineteen, struggling to become an adult, when my friend rapes me and my world is turned inside out. Suddenly my own breath feels like it is attacking me. I am knocked down, lost. I look to my mother for guidance. I tell her that I can’t sleep anymore, because I dream only about rape.
She tells me that I have these dreams because I spend too much time on the internet, reading about feminism.
“It’s like how I dream about work,” she says coolly. “That’s what I do with my day, so that’s what I dream about. You just think about it too much.”
I freeze. I hold my breath as tears run down my face. I am desperate for her to see that I am injured. That it is real. That I am not choosing to be ripped open. But she looks away. She gets up and starts doing the dishes.
Later she gives me a handwritten letter. I let myself hope that it will reveal that she is ready to look at me, ready to see what I am trying to show her. But she tells me that my tears made her angry. She tells me she is sorry that I am too wounded to see that there is nothing wrong with what she said. She is sorry that I am so consumed by emotion that I cannot see that she is right. She is sorry that I can’t understand what she said, because if I could understand, I would agree.
And there is nothing I can say to her, because no matter where I stand, how I approach her, we will keep looking right through each other.
I try to stop talking about it. I try to keep my feelings quiet, wound up into a ball and buried at the pit of my stomach. But one night, I cannot stand the silence anymore. I cannot contain it; it is breaking me apart. I am desperate to be held, put back together. So I make myself bigger, louder, trying to take up so much space that she cannot help but see me. I fall to the floor. I lie at her feet sobbing.
She turns around and walks away. We never speak of it again.
My mother is a Pisces, a deeply emotional sign. This confounds me, because I think she would sooner die than share an emotional moment with me. She tells me instead that it is best to put your feelings to the side.
“You have to put them away,” she explains. “Otherwise you will be swept away.”
And finally I see her. She is a Pisces fighting against herself.
I am a Pisces rising. I am just like my mother. But I am nothing like my mother. I worship my emotions; I revel in them. I will risk drowning in order to be awash in them.
And this is why she cannot look directly at me. In me she sees a mirror, and she doesn’t want to be seen. So she distorts, misdirects. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of my reflection. Sometimes I think I see her behind the glass. At other times I see nothing at all.
Because she is not a mirror. She is a house of mirrors. An illusion, built to elude.
I want to rescue her, bring her out from behind the glass. I spend years trying to piece together all the broken clues, trying to make them fit into something I can recognize. I spin around in circles, clinging to the belief that if only I can figure out why she is like this, I will know how to respond. I will reach the end of the maze. I will bring down the walls. I will smash the mirrors, and I will see who she really is. I will look into her eyes and see my complexities, my messiness, my humanity reflected back.
But now I am older, and when I start to spin I can feel the futility. I will never know why she is like this. All I know is that who I am in this world is very different from who she is, or who she will allow herself to be.
All I know is that she can’t give me what she doesn’t have.
Premala Matthen is a writer, a healer, and always a seeker.
Premala, your words touched my heart. It’s so hard to understand, let alone feel and live it. I pray you find and surround yourself with the people who SEE you and LOVE what they see. xx’s
I stumbled across this purely by chance; I still think of Premala as a happy, good-natured toddler, who was never difficult to. E around the way other younger siblings of my friends were. Premala always possessed a quiet wisdom at that time; you could tell there was a lot going on behind those eyes.
I remember the family dynamic, I remember her mother. Even as a child I could see that she cared deeply for her girls, but had a certain personal rigidity.
My own mother has that quality too.
This story made me cry, both because of imagining that little girl I knew grown up and feeling this deep frustration, but also because I found it so painfully relatable.
I’m so glad you’re still writing, Premala, and thank you.