The Memoirist
Published in

The Memoirist

Ambiguous Images and Bad A$$ Mofos

…..I get to decide!

Black and white optical image of (depending on how you look at it) a young woman with her head turned away, or an older woman looking down
By W. E. Hill — „Puck“, 6. Nov 1915, Public Domain,

I was in 3rd grade when I first saw an ambiguous image.

My favorite teacher, Mrs. Sutherland, darkened the lights and prepped the overhead projector. As she slid the plastic transparent image over the glass, twisting the dial to bring it into focus she asked, “what does everyone see in this picture?”

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” by American cartoonist William Hill, published in Puck magazine in 1915. Mrs. Sutherland let it sit there for a few minutes as we pondered, the whirring of the projector the only sound in the room. I was puzzled — there was no mystery here. I saw an image of a young woman with her head turned away from me.

My friend and I looked at each other, faces scrunched up in confusion. “It’s an old lady?” she said at the same time I said, “It’s a young lady!” We looked at each other in more confusion and turned back to the image. It took me several minutes before I could find the old lady. Once I could see the two images, my 8-year-old brain glitched, flipping back and forth between the two ladies so fast I got dizzy.

I liked things to be one thing or another, and the idea that a picture could be two different drawings, depending on how you looked at it was too much. It left the nature of the image up to interpretation by the viewer, and that seemed wrong. All things, including pictures, should be what they are and not try to be different things to different people. It felt dishonest to my 8-year-old brain.

Life went on after Mrs. Sutherland’s class. I finished 3rd grade, grew up, got married, had kids, went to college, and started a career. I didn’t think too much about ambiguous images after 3rd grade.

It wasn’t until I found myself in the midst of a divorce, trying to make sense of what had happened, that “My Wife and My Mother-In-Law” came up again.

In the middle of all the chaos, I sat there on my couch, seeing myself inside the image, split into two different versions of me. I was working so hard to put painful life events into a narrative I could wrap my head around that I found myself dizzy, like I was back in 3rd grade, my brain flipping between two different sides of the same image.

The two realities couldn’t co-exist- I couldn’t reconcile the two ways of seeing myself and my life. I closed my eyes and bent down, hugging my knees, as my brain spun. My mind flipped back and forth between the two ways of looking at my life, just as it had flipped between the images of the young and old woman.

Young woman: I’ve been married for 25 years; I love this man desperately. We crawled our way out of poverty and raised three beautiful children together. We’ve enjoyed good times and survived bad times. We were born half a world apart, yet still found each other and attempted to meld our two cultures together. I love our story; I love what I thought we were.


Old woman: That’s bull. I budgeted the hell out of our finances, he only contributed income. I gave him updates, but I’m the one who marched us out of poverty; he wanted no part of it. I raised the kids mostly alone while he functioned more like a babysitter than a parent. And I was the one finding middle ground in our cultures/religions so we could build our own family traditions from it.


Young woman: He cheated on me …but this can still be a story of love conquering all. I love him enough to get us all through this. I can set an example to our kids of how love doesn’t have to be perfect, that we can love each other enough to get through anything together. Ours can be a story of forgiveness, and we’ll put things back stronger than they ever were.


Old woman: I’m a cliché. I’m a chubby, middle-aged mom of three whose husband couldn’t keep it in his pants. There is nothing here for love to save; there was no love from him. I married a demanding, needy man who took up all the space in the room. I not only allowed that but I also carefully fitted myself and our kids into whatever space was left over. I was a fool for 25 years,


Young woman: He became scary and violent during the divorce…but that’s not really him. He must be going through a midlife crisis. Or have a brain tumor (of note: he did not.) We can still salvage this. Everything can be fixed by talking and listening. We just need more mutual understanding. “Nothing real can be threatened”, right? That’s what Beyonce says anyway.


Old Woman: But….it is him, right? If his actions are threatening, if he is scaring the shit out of everyone and knows it, then yes…this is him. You’ve talked this thing to death with no changes. You can’t afford to be wrong. It doesn’t matter why this is happening, only that it is happening. Be as upset as you want; you can’t argue with reality. This is not a drill. This is happening.


Young Woman: But 25 years! My whole heart and soul have been surrendered to this family…only to have it destroyed now?? How will I manage being a single mom? Who will mow the lawn? Change the oil in the car? How will I take care of the house? What if I get a flat tire? What’ll I do if the furnace craps out or the water heater leaks again?


Old woman: Giiiiirrrlllll, get your head out of your ass! What are you doing?!?! All of these things can be dealt with. But none of it will matter if you are dead. This is how every Dateline story starts! Protect yourself and your kids! Get a restraining order, install a security system, take self-defense classes! Get your kids to take self-defense!! For the love of God, DO SOMETHING!!


Young woman: I failed. My marriage ended. My kids are scarred. I am traumatized. How did I let it go so far? I’m ashamed it took me so long to see the truth of my situation, that my stable, middle-class life erupted like this. I’m embarrassed that my marriage wasn’t what I thought it was. I’m hurt that he didn’t love me the way I loved him. How do we go forward? How can we move on?

My mind glitched again and I was back on the couch. A singular me who didn’t like things to be ambiguous. What was the truth here?? Which way of looking at things was the most accurate?

It’s taken me years to realize that every flip of my mind had some truth in it. It was painful and difficult to get through each one. I hated being able to see all these versions of me; I desperately wanted there to be a TRUTH. A shining, golden, absolute truth that would help me see how the events leading to the divorce could have happened. Because if I knew that, then I’d know where I should go next. I’d know why it happened and how to protect myself and my kids from it happening in the future. But none of the flips had the one and only truth because there isn’t only one.

Once my mind started working again, I could see that truth is largely what we decide it is. Every event, every circumstance, will have multiple ways of interpreting it. The process of going through all the mind-flips, seeing, and examining all the sides, knowing that all the perspectives contain some part of a truth, then choosing which one I’ll go forward with was …excruciating.

In the one version of myself, I was an unobtrusive, middle-aged, single mom of three whose husband was unfaithful and abusive. A powerless lump of hurt and confusion backed into a corner.

In the other, I was one tough mofo who survived a terrifying ordeal, had to start over financially and emotionally, and became a single parent. I came out on the other side as a lean, mean fighting machine. A powerful creature who rose from that corner, found her voice and her strength, and fought back.

I was both. I am both.

And, you know what? There is no failure here. I learned some incredibly valuable lessons- chief of which is this: I am pretty much a badass.

I can deal with whatever life throws at me. I ended a relationship that was bad for me, one that set a terrible example for my kids. We got out of a scary situation safely. I learned to fight legally, mentally, and physically. I got that restraining order and put in a security system. I took so many self-defense classes that I’ve now taken over the self-defense program and teach them at the local dojo. Every weekend I am there for other women who are brave enough to want to learn how to fight back. My children have moved on. The oldest two finished college and are happily married to wonderful people, the youngest is finishing college now. And they are all building beautiful lives. We are all badasses!

So when it comes to how I think of myself, how I present myself to the world…I get to choose.

And I choose the bad-ass mofo.



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Amy Torbenson

Amy Torbenson

Mom of two amazing sons and one amazing daughter, lifelong reader of anything and everything, (really) slow runner, and a terrible cook.