The Cassandra Complex
As I walk through the lower east side, the intangible dread of seeing my mother pervades every fiber of my being. No matter how benign the encounters with her, a foreboding takes over. The biting November chill fails to pull me into the present moment. Nevertheless, I press on, admiring the colorful street art gracing the urban walls.
Passing through the Bowery, I come upon CBGB’s and notice Sonic Youth will be playing this weekend. I nostalgically recall seeing The Police there in ’78. I lived with dad back then. As usual, no one paid attention to me. Luckily, Quaaludes and hashish were the magic elixir. Being a teenager with no adult supervision had its perks.
I near the Ukrainian diner where we plan to meet for lunch. My mind is grappling with a judgment my therapist Glenn made. He believes my dissociative response to my mother reflects a sinister aspect of our dynamic too painful for me to accept. Glenn suspects that my mother’s motives are narcissistically driven, not just indicative of her schizophrenia. The jury is still out with this one, but today I hope to be more observant than usual. I need to figure out why I check out every time I’m in her presence.
From a few feet away I see her. Clad in black and white check slacks, a colorful floral silk scarf, tan oxford heels, and a beige vintage Burberry trench, Pearl looks like a cordial, polished older woman. She is unusually well put together given the horrendous hardships she’s endured. Her hair, dyed honey brown, compliments her huge hazel eyes. The same eyes that struck terror in me as a child when she was having psychotic episodes. The same eyes that those who know us, recognize in me. I shudder at the thought of our shared resemblance and yet I also feel a stab to the heart recalling a photo of her in her younger days, statuesque and beautiful. That memory is swiftly obliterated by the peculiar grin emerging from her frosted pink lips.
Her voice is faintly shrill as she proclaims my name, “Cassandra!” I feel myself slipping away.
We hug awkwardly, mumbling perfunctory salutations. Playing the ‘dutiful daughter,’ I hold the restaurant door open and we enter the landmark eatery, known for its stuffed cabbage and delicious pierogi. The mouth-watering aromas remind me of my Grandma’s kitchen.
Prior to living with Grandma, the length of time my older sister, Alexa, and I were held captive by our mother spanned weeks, even months at a time. Eventually child protective services intervened. We were ironically discovered in a park. There was a flyer about a ‘fire sale’ in the building where we lived and mom, envisioning a devouring inferno, had us sleep overnight on a park bench. It was a welcome reprieve from prolonged confinement.
When mom was institutionalized for close to two years, my father’s parents took me in. Alexa and I were separated, but she lived nearby with our father’s brother, Aaron and his wife, Ruthie.
Grandma Dora’s weekly ritual of reciting the Shabbat prayers and the mitzvah of lighting the candles had a curative effect on me. I felt safe and loved, and began to heal. Then the proverbial ax fell.
With Mother’s discharge from the hospital and a bizarre reunion with my narcissistic father, we were to become a typical family. The transience of that early respite with Grandma brings me to a Buddhist saying that encapsulates the message contained in these memories;
“You only lose what you cling to”
Jolted back into the sounds and smell of my surroundings, I find my mother staring vacantly into space. Right on cue, I take over. Surveying the packed space, full of bohemian types engrossed in highbrow banter, I spot a table for two squeezed against a wall in the back of the restaurant.
Barely cognizant, my mother robotically follows me through the narrow clearing. Relieved to have successfully navigated the cramped room without crashing into the exiting hordes or any tableware, we place our belongings on the back of the Brentwood style bistro chairs and relax into our seats.
Our waitress is a buoyant green-eyed, blonde woman who, based on her accent and the nametag pinned to her cardigan, appears to be Slavic. I thank Danica for pouring us tap water and handing us the plastic menus with Technicolor depictions of Eastern European cuisine.
‘Mother’, as she prefers to be called, mumbles a request for a cup of coffee. The palpable tension between mother and I makes me crave something stronger than the bottle of sparkling water I ordered. I’m truly regretting that I didn’t pick a restaurant with a bar.
My mother peruses the menu as if engrossed in liturgical prayers. When Danica returns with our beverages, I consider asking for the sacred manna and a jug of holy ambrosia. It’s good I have a sense of humor. I request the hearty borscht and Russian black bread. My mother’s ceaseless davening over the menu is maddening and I imagine myself hurling the table with maniacal fury. Quickly, I revert to diaphragmatic breathing to calm my violent thoughts.
“Oh my. What’s that?” With affected ignorance my mother points to a photo of a plate of rice. Incredulous, I ask her if that’s a real question or some sort of bizarre provocation. Mother’s odd giggle, suggestive of an ominous private joke, induces a familiar numbing haze. Danica’s luminous disposition dims as she catches on that we’re just a tad peculiar.
Hastily, I order the roast chicken and rice for my mother. Danica takes our menus and smiles dutifully. I used to be mortified by these displays. Now I’m too desensitized to give a shit.
“So Mother, how are things going?”
We chat about the continuing day treatment program mom attends. She especially enjoys the art groups and attending performance events. I’m relieved that she’s in a safe place interacting with the world.
After months of homelessness, ‘Mother’ finally succumbed to my stipulation that she attend a treatment program and take meds, or I couldn’t allow her in my life. The caseworker at the shelter facilitated that fateful session. He expedited the protocols to have her placed at Community Access and afforded supervised housing.
“Next month the art therapist, will be displaying my paintings,” I hear a touch of pride break through my mother’s timidity and it evokes a deep sorrow for her.
“I’ll be there, Mother. I’d love to see what you’ve done.” We smile at one another in that strained way so characteristic of our dynamic.
Intent on testing Glenn’s hypothesis, I risk sharing about my life. “So Mother, I’m traveling to Mexico. I have a holiday break from school during Thanksgiving.” No response. I push on. “I love the beach. Anyway, Alexa, who says ‘hello’ by the way, will be watching my cat. I’ve had so much weighing on me with work and school, trying to make ends meet and dealing with how damaged I feel. I pretend I’m a normal woman and I’ll go on a date and try to socialize, but for the most part I just keep to myself. It’s too overwhelming to really let others in with all this wreckage from the past.”
Mother is staring vacantly at the yellowed poster of the Heimlich maneuver adorning the faux wood paneled wall on the right. The gravitational pull of disengagement begins to take over.
My mind scrambles in random directions. Reality becomes cinematic and staged. This is where I invariably wind up. Only this time, I need to push through the emotional narcosis and penetrate the source of this enigma.
I grasp at the lemon slice afloat in my sparkling water, and shove it in my mouth. The sourness is unpleasant, but it’s a sure-fire way to dissipate my dissociation and jolt me into the present moment. Digging my nails into my hands assists with this aim and rouses an overwhelming sense of sadness.
This desolate heartache I’m allowing myself to feel is unbearable. It’s clear that I’m alone.
Danica’s arrival with our food temporarily dulls my anguish. With the proficiency of a trauma survivor, I politely thank her as she sets down our meal. Mother silently probes at her chicken with her fork. I feel the texture of the bread in my mouth, the smoothness of the butter, but there is no taste, no flavor. The immeasurable rift between us is indisputable. Yet I remain baffled. Is this catatonia or calculated stonewalling? I am resigned to the possibility that this may be an enigma that will never be resolved.
Every so often, Mother glances my way, but her eyes are glazed over and her expression is hollow. The combination of Mother’s absence and the droning buzz of the restaurant blunt my coherence, but I refuse to concede. With foolish insistence I search for answers.
“Am I paranoid, Mother, or are you deliberately ignoring me? Are you punishing me for having a life, for daring to make room for myself?”
“What dear? Did you say something?
“You’re ignoring me.”
“I’m so sorry dear that you think I’m ignoring you. You mean the world to me! Will you come with me to meet everyone at the Shul nearby where I volunteer?”
“Yes, I’ll stop by the Shul with you, but I don’t like your suggesting that I’m making this up. You can’t just pretend I’m not here.”
Her voice trails off and dead air descends between us. Mother’s fervent nail picking ensues, signifying a swift close to this conversation. She is absorbed in tearing at her cuticles, oblivious to my pain.
I am incapable of reaching her.
Resigned, I ask Danica for the check. I gather my coat and cumbrous leather bag and head to the register to pay the bill. Mother stands by the entrance fixated on her ravaged hands, raw from incessant mutilation. I refuse to look at her as I walk out the door.
Keeping my word, we head to the Shul.
The walk to the synagogue is oppressive. It is an obligatory gesture on my part, one that feels particularly taxing given the latest debacle. The only words spoken are mother signifying that we’ve arrived.
Before us is a beautiful historic Moorish Gothic temple. Entering this impressive structure, I consider the irony of mother helping out with the Tikun Olam committee, the name a reference to ‘world repair’. She assists with a clothing and food drive providing vital services for residents in the district.
Dispirited, I follow her through a long corridor into an area designated for administrative staff.
A mature woman, beaming with warmth rises from behind her desk to greet us.
“Pearl! How wonderful to see you!”
Dressed in the modern orthodox tradition, wisps of reddish blonde hair peak through her crimson silk scarf.
“Cassi, this is Rebbetzin Sarah Goldman. Sarah is the director of the Shul’s Social Action Project and the Women’s Old Testament classes.”
Sarah spontaneously hugs me. I am dumbfounded by the reception and by her enthusiasm over our introduction.
“I am so thrilled to meet you, Cassi! We love having Pearl here. You are so fortunate to have such a generous mother! Come meet more of the staff. Cantor Joel is downstairs with Rebecca and Dina preparing for classes for the Youth Program. They will be so delighted to meet you!”
Sarah guides us towards the stairwell.
Mother’s ability to communicate, should she be willing, doesn’t escape me. I find myself feeling unhinged.
Descending the steps, Mother is animated, conversing with Sarah about ‘poor Mr. Rabinowitz’ and his early onset dementia. Sarah looks my way to gush over how my mother has been partly responsible for his care, bringing him meals and offering him companionship. Mother looks luminous as she soaks up the accolades. I catch her eye long enough to whisper,
“It’s a good thing his reasoning’s impaired.”
Mother quickly turns away, clearly relieved that Sarah didn’t catch my remark.
Voices waft towards us as we exit the stairwell and enter the vestibule. Sarah leads us into an open space, with a foosball table and shelves stocked with board games and paper goods. Situated on the far right beside a lovely upright piano is Cantor Joel and two modestly dressed women. Tinkering with the piano keys and absorbed in lively conversation, they barely notice our presence until Sarah initiates an introduction.
“Look who’s graced us with her presence on her day off, and she’s brought her lovely daughter Cassi!”
The young woman with long dark hair and olive skin is wearing a beautiful Hamsa necklace peppered with semi-precious gemstones. Her bold print maxi dress and round tortoiseshell eyeglasses are suggestive of a bohemian spirit. When she approaches to cordially extend her hand and introduce herself as Dina, I detect a subtle spicy vanilla scent.
Comparatively, Rebecca is more traditional, attired in a loosely fitting black turtleneck dress and low-heeled burgundy leather boots. Her thick curly dark blonde hair is conservatively tied back efficiently with a barrette. A simple gold chai necklace compliments her refined style. Cantor Joel, clad in distressed loose-fitting jeans, a white button-down oxford short and suede blue Pumas resembles any typical mid-40’s tall, dark, handsome man. The only distinguishing sign of his Hazzan status is the embroidered kippah donning his head.
I am rattled by their exuberant greetings. Cantor Joel reaches for my hands, earnestly expressing how pleased he is to meet me. Likewise, Dina and Rebecca express similar sentiments and impart an appreciation for my contribution to the philanthropies through my work and studies. I am flummoxed. Apparently mother is talking about me to her co-workers as if she has an actual interest in my life.
They are animated and expressive, and although I seem engaged, I am detached and numb. I feel like a prop in a staged production.
I glance at my mother, the mastermind of this farce. She appears unassuming and congenial. Engaged in pleasant repartee she sounds guileless, but beneath her façade, I detect a cunning that can no longer be denied. It is disturbingly clear to me that mother selectively reveals and conceals what accommodates her motives. At my expense, she procures attention.
Characterized as an exceptional parent, full of empathy and humanity, further evidenced by her lovely charitable daughter, she gets to feel special and significant.
I am merely a tool, wielded to shape this false narrative. When accolades and veneration are not attainable, she is vacant and disinterested, feigning innocence as she vacillates between ignoring me and engulfing me. My emotional life is obsolete to her. I exist solely as a utility to dignify her pathetic life.
“Your mom tells us you live in Sheepshead Bay. Quite a trek! How do you like it there?”
Rebecca’s query pulls me out of my trance. Dazed and embarrassed, I invent a random excuse for being so preoccupied. “I’m sorry, Rebecca. I must have drifted. I actually have a colossal paper I have to finish tonight and I’m feeling pressured to head home soon.”
Amid the exchange of farewell pleasantries Cantor Joel generously offers to show me where prayer services are performed. A curious impulse compels me to take him up on his kind offer.
Ascending the steps Cantor Joel shares about a Klezmer music concert being led by a Cantorial intern he supervises.
“It’s the following Monday evening,” He shares, “And the acoustics are wonderful!”
As we enter the sanctuary I am immediately imbued with quiescence. Beams of sublime refracted sunlight infiltrate the sacred space and amplify the grandeur of colors comprising the rose stained-glass windows. I center myself, allowing the vibration of the sanctum to sooth me.
Respectfully, Cantor Joel waits in silence, indulging my moment of repose. Mother is standing by the Yahrzeit Tablet, seemingly perusing the names of the memorialized dead.
After a few minutes, Cantor Joel inquires if I’d be interested in viewing the magnificent Wurlizter pipe organ. Sensitive to my fatigue he adds, “I won’t keep you for long as I know you are tired.” His thoughtfulness makes me smile for a moment. He reminds me of Glenn, and the gentle consideration he brings to our therapy sessions.
“Thank you, that would be great.”
We make our way to the choir loft above the Bimah where the organ is kept. The view of the temple from this place of elevation is breathtaking. I discover that the organ, restored to its original glory, is just as impressive. With over 600 pipes, three keyboards, orchestral percussion, and inventive sound effects, it is an astounding instrument. Listening to Cantor Joel rave about the organ’s symphonic sound makes it obvious that it has deep sentimental value for him.
“As you can see it has all the bells and whistles, but I’ll keep it simple and play a little Shalom Aleichem… Peace be upon you”.
Cantor Joel’s rich tenor voice and the celestial vibrato tone of the organ permeate the space. For a brief time, I am transported, carried by the music towards tranquility.
Paradoxically when the music ends my exasperation with my mother intensifies. I will not let this go.
Making our way down the narrow steps from the choir loft back to the sanctuary, I express my gratitude to Cantor Joel, “That was beautiful. Thank you. I was very moved.”
“It’s my pleasure! I hope it inspires you to return. We would welcome your presence in the congregation.” I smile at the invitation knowing full well this will be my only visit.
We join my mother who is now sitting in the front row by the ornate cherry wood ark. The tension between us is palpable and apparently discernible to Cantor Joel who awkwardly departs.
Alone in the sanctuary with my mother, I take a seat beside her on the pew. No longer animated, she has reverted back to a state of reverie.
“I presume you can hear me, Mother, even though you’re so good at pretending you’re incapable.”
Mother’s nail picking commences, but I go on. “Today you showed me your determination to be present with your colleagues. True, it was superficial. Maybe all there is to you is just a hollow persona.
I suspect even if you can give more, you simply won’t.” Tears descend as I speak, “I believe we’re done, Mother.”
That gets her attention.
“Oh, are you going home dear? I’ll walk you to the train station.”
Although my mother is seemingly oblivious to my pain I carry on.
“Life has not been easy, Mother, for either one of us. Loneliness and ravenous need will forever be my Achilles heel. It’s a constant reminder of what I was denied. I understand that we are to never approach what occurred between you and I. Oddly, that I can handle, but this inferred contract to shield you from ever being burdened by my needs, my pain, my losses has to end.”
“I’m your mother, Cassi, I’m sorry you feel that you can’t share your struggles with me.”
I laugh incredulously. “What an unbelievable mind fuck!”
“We’re in a synagogue. Must you be vulgar?”
“I’m vulgar? I’m appalled at how obscene you are! Your insidious tactics to control me and keep me in line is nothing short of depraved.
You use my innate dependency as your daughter and my compassion for your plight as ammunition, punishing me when I dare to be real. There is absolutely no ownership for anything on your part. ”
“That’s not true, dear. I’m sorry you feel that way. Should we walk to the subway now?”
With futile disbelief, I respond, “I’m so sorry for your suffering, Mother. I truly am, but I can’t live like this. Please go. I need to just sit here and be alone for awhile.”
“Alright, dear. Call me. Don’t be a stranger,” I cringe as Mother plants an unctuous kiss on my cheek before rising to leave.
Alone in the sanctuary facing the ark, I am shaking. I pray, invoking God’s guidance to help me lament shattered illusions, to offer me healing and the strength to align with a higher will.
Stirred to write, I rummage through my overstuffed bag in search of my journal. I commence with writing.
I dared to be authentic. Silence ensued. That moment offered heartbreaking transparency. Mother, I saw the volition in your purposeful retreat, shielding yourself behind your cloak of insanity, to obliterate me. All along the shroud of psychosis has obscured your malevolence. I’m no longer fooled.
I am revisiting my vulnerable formative years when you were at the peak of your illness. It’s when the worst of the abuse occurred. I remember that house, permeated with filth, infested with bugs and garbage. There were so many cockroaches that I thought the walls were alive. My body was a toxic wasteland. I was malnourished, slowly dying from an impacted rectum. By three years old, I wanted life to be over. Throughout adolescence, I resorted to violence to escape your grip. You would barricade the door, intent on keeping me hostage as you were able to do when I was too young and frail to fight. I’ve never forgotten you hauling me out of bed dragging me across the floor, tearing off my nightgown as I begged for mercy. You threw me out of the house naked, the penalty for expressing anger. I hid behind the milk box by the front door.
Flashbacks of your knife and hammer complete the tableau of horror. Now I am angry and the venom of hatred disturbs my composure. I am viscerally reminded of the crippling damage incurred from our bond.
There is no formulaic pathway to rely on. My sorrowful search for cursory glimpses of you led me to finally accept that you are indeed sinister. In order to save myself from certain annihilation, I have to dissolve all ties with you.
While there is clearly no opportunity for meaningful reconciliation, Mother, for good or bad, as cliché as it sounds, you will always be a part of me and I will do what I can to purposefully mourn and willingly carry on with what will forever be unsettled.
I stop writing and gather my belongings. The heavy burden of my fate feels oppressive. Bundled in my black wool coat and teal cashmere scarf I let out a deep sigh and make my way to the subway.
This truncated version of The Cassandra Complex is included in Sheri Heller’s collection of short stories about women with complex trauma, Women on the Edge.