As I've been researching my family history this past week I ran smack dab into that facade of glossy perfection when I spoke to my father's brother.
I found that my aunts on my father's side were all very understanding of my queries but Uncle L. kept saying with regard to my mom, "I always thought she was a fine lady, a good woman." It was as if he just could not take in the notion that she could abuse or kill a child because she was nice. He seemed to disapprove of my questioning her actions.
Well, Andrea Yates by all accounts was considered to be a nice woman before she drowned her children. You can be "nice" and mentally ill at the same time, finding yourself behaving out of character through compulsion or delusion, even horrified at your behavior. I don't subscribe to the notion that one must either excuse behavior stemming from mental illness or punish it--but not both. I feel that you can have compassion for people who suffer mental illness at the same time you hold them legally and morally accountable for their behavior. I'd like to see our legal system have a category for "guilty while acting out of mental illness" and a sentence that includes both incarceration AND treatment.
I both hold my mother responsible for all her (known) actions and yet have compassion for her as a person who was truly tormented by her own mother's lack of love and nurturing. I am fortunate that our relationship had improved before she passed away.
My maternal grandparents were also fine people according to Uncle L., who knew them well and considered them friends. This would be my step-grandfather who tried to get his stepdaughters to have sex with him throughout their childhood and teen years (he married Grandma when they were 9 and 11) and my grandma who was so cold and manipulative towards my mom and me. Of course he got to see their public face, which was in fine 1950s form.
This is not to say they had no good qualities. I loved my grandpa dearly and was dismayed to learn about his sexual advances toward my mom and aunt when I was an adult. It just reinforces my belief that otherwise good people do sometimes give in to their worst impulses in spite of themselves. The best among us keep trying to overcome our dark side after making amends. Others keep denying they have a dark side, keeping it carefully hidden from all but their victims.
I'm not sure why I feel driven to drag my family skeletons out of the closet but I am tired of being the keeper of lies. If it makes some people uncomfortable I'm sorry for the discomfort but not for telling the truth. I think it's long overdue.