Monday, August 01, 2005

As the Guilt Turns

A few days ago, I wrote about alienated emotional labor, which focused more on how women tend egos and repair emotional wounds for men. Today I am far more interested in how our mothers or grandmothers (or other significant female relatives) saddle us with a whole lot guilt. Perhaps we deserve to feel guilty: we are in fact behaving unfairly or unlovingly toward our Aunt, but we aren’t yet willing to change our behavior towards her, because that would require having to supply her with a constant stream of attention and energy. The reason it takes so much energy to behave well, or at least the way our Aunt wants us to behave, is because we have to spend a great deal of time figuring out exactly what she wants. Why? Well, here is my theory: older women (and perhaps this is really just an observation about Midwestern, Lutheran, Middle-class women) are less likely to tell us what they want or how they are feeling. If my grandmother, for example, is feeling left out of family gatherings, she lets me know through indirection.

So, let’s consider the most recent example of grandmother guilt. I have been in San Francisco at a conference for the past four days. When this conference is over, I am planning to head to my hometown, where both my mother and grandmother live. My mother drives to SF, to pick me up and bring me back to hometown. My brother and his girlfriend (who live in SoCal) fly up, on a whim, to see us and go to a couple of business brunches. So, extraordinarily, Mom, Me, Brother and Brother’s Girlfiriend are all in one city for one night. And, we didn’t bring Oma (grandma).

Why didn’t we bring Oma? A lot of reasons: no room in the car, no hotel room for her . . . but the real reason is probably that we didn’t think of formally inviting her (she is always welcome) or, if we are really honest with ourselves, we knew that the emotional labor of bringing her along would drain the fun out of this one evening in the city. And, we got busted. Here is how:

The Email Guilt Assault: She calls my cousin, “Mary,” on some other pretext. Mary asks if I am in town. Oma sighs and then says well, no, Aspazia is with her brother and mother in SF. Mary is outraged! They didn’t invite you to come along. Oma says “its ok, no big deal Mary, I am sure they were busy or didn’t have any room.” Mary is still outraged and from a comfortable distance of Ottawa, sends me and my brother a outraged email: “I don’t want to judge, because I know there are probably complicated reasons, but was there something Oma could’ve done to be included? You know that family is everything to her and she already missed out on Easter and Mother’s Day celebrations.”

Zap! Guilt email. Yet, this email from my cousin, Oma has cleverly engineered her to write (and yet Mary doesn’t quite realize this).

Full Frontal Guilt Assault: I am now in hometown. Oma calls mom up at 7:30 am on another pretext. The story is: her friend wants to see how my mom’s new floors look. They arrive while I am trying to make coffee, hair is a nest, and I am wearing a pink chenille bathrobe. I walk over and give Oma a hug. She then leads into an accounting of all the things she has done for my mom in the past two days, while appearing to just have polite conversation. For example, Oma’s friend asks my mom how she keeps the new floors clean. Mom answers that she just sweeps whenever she sees clumps of dog hair. Then Oma declares: “Oh, these floors are so much easier to take care of the carpet. Yesterday, while Daughter and Aspazia were in SF with my grandson, I just went around the house and gathered up dog hair and cleaned out to make the house nice for their arrival.” Nervous laughter. And then, mom and I leap to assure her we are grateful for her sweeping but, really, she doesn’t have to do this.

After about 5 minutes of these sort of subtle, passive aggressive digs, Oma is ready to leave. First she asks, with wounded eyes what are plans are today. I say (honestly) that we haven’t yet figured out what to do, I need some coffee. To this, she sighs again and says: “Well, sorry to bother you guys.”

Zap! Zap! The full frontal guilt assault!

Whenever I teach Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, and particularly his account of ressentiment, I am struck by how well it captures the behavior of my grandmother. When I am lecturing on this point, I often point out that historically women have used ressentiment, which is an effective weapon, for it renders the victim obssessed with her own shortcomings, rudeness, or other character flaws. Full frontal guilt assualts are also impossible to retaliate against, because they appear like polite conversation.

The pop culture phrase for ressentiment is passive aggressiveness. Women of my grandmother’s generation were not encouraged or taught how to ask for what they wanted, or empowered to get what they desired through their own agency. My grandmother was taught to believe she was less valuable than her brothers. She wasn’t trained into the family farming profession, but expected to marry so that her husband would take over the responsibilty of providing for her. She was taught to be dependent on others with more social power, and, therefore to get her own way, she had to employ psychological weapons and cunning to trick her husband to give her what she wanted.

The most notable trait of women who engage in full frontal guilt assault is that they appear to be victims at the hands of everyone. They exaggerate slight disagreements--where someone might have gotten impatient with them and took a tone--and call then “altercations” or “abusive behavior.” They enlist the sympathy of others, especially people who do not really spend a lot of time with them or only on exceptional occasions, such as Mary in Ottawa, who doesn’t live day in and day out with Oma like Mom does.

Ressentiment as a tool that older women use against younger women is really sad. It is a marker that the guilt producer feels herself to be a victim and without power. It is also a sign of “level 5 neediness” (see The Wedding Crashers). With these dynamics among women, especially women who are related to each other, it's not a surprise that we are without a successful women’s movement. We spend a great deal of time managing the guilt that we ingest from those caretakers and relatives who were supposed to be empowering us and making us feel worthy.