casual cruelty

She spent the whole week mulling over the idea of casual cruelty – the kind of thoughtless crap that people say to other people. Halfway through the week she got introspective, started wondering if she wasn’t just too damned oversensitive. But running over the words again, it was hard to imagine that anyone else wouldn’t see it her way.

You probably need some context – here it is: sitting over a glass of wine with her half-brother and his young wife, the subject of her stepmother (his mother) comes up.

As it always does.

Every family gathering, after a certain amount of alcohol, they find themselves assembling, stunned, at a post-trauma Red Cross meeting point where they try to figure out what the hell had happened to them. Lately, the youngest (with the help of his new wife) has been trying to rework the history into something more palatable. This is laudable, and anyone who knows her knows that she’s deeply into making things better. But not at the expense of the truth: that’s not the road to better, that’s the road to crazy, rinse, repeat.

So, on this night, around about the 4th glass mark, the subject comes up again. She knows enough about the history-rewriting trend to listen, rather than talk, and this is what she hears:

“Let’s face it – it’s natural. It’s impossible for a woman to take someone else’s child as her own, even animals will kill young that aren’t their own. OK, if a woman marries a man who already has a child, but the natural instinct…”

She’s watching the well-meaning wife saying this all in the most reasonable way, as if the listener will suddenly smile and say: “Wow – I never thought of it that way! Absolutely! It’s all clear to me now! How could I have been so unreasonable? Denying us everything from proper education to healthcare – the broken noses, the split lips, the public humiliations, no access to the rest of the family. All a completely normal response, given the biology. Well, that’s a relief. Let’s get on with our lives.”

What she actually says is: “Um, I really need a cigarette..” and she flees outside, hoping that the shock doesn’t show in her eyes.

The worst part is, they follow her there. And the wife decides to enlarge on the subject. She has two small children and painstakingly explains how she’s more closely bonded to the one she delivered naturally, rather than to the second who arrived by emergency caesarean.

Our listener finishes her cigarette too fast, and lights another. But she’s suddenly incredibly tired at the thought of having to explain that, while she understands the role of oxytocin in human bonding, in a world of blended families, we really must be capable of behaving more kindly than polar bears in a thin winter.

Instead, she reaches down into some deep reserve of patience, and tells them about a young step-mother she had to help on a medical forum. Lately married to a man with an 8yr-old son, the woman asked how she could possibly make herself love this child as her own. Our listener’s reply:

“Who in the world expects you to love this boy as your own? Why don’t you simply get to know him, treat him like you would treat anyone? If he’s going to be part of your life, develop your own connection with him as a little human being – form a new bond. Sure, it’s not always going to be easy, but it’s weird for him too. You’re the adult, make it less weird.”

They agree, and it’s like it never occurred to them – which is scary. She changes the subject, and they spend a good evening, but for a whole week it bangs around in her head like an angry ghost. Until tonight, when she hammers its arse to a blank page.

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