Grandmothers (and other fictions)

My great grandmother was a wizened old crone, shaped like a pretzel, senile beyond belief, barely coherent or, it seemed at times, sentient. My all-too-brief encounters with her, perhaps once or twice before she died, were awkward and embarrassing, me supposed to feel something, the pull of blood, the unreserved love we have for strangers who are part of our lineage, and experiencing, instead, indifference and disgust.

Within the familiar languages of kinship, such admissions are unacceptable. Should be kept private or, if shared, done so with close family members. If we dislike our relatives, we should have proper reasons—abuse, indifference, neglect—not idiosyncratic reactions based on aesthetics. But it strikes me that the demand we love and respect kin simply because they are kin is just as idiosyncratic.

I am interested in moments when familial affect is supposed to provide a point of empathy. “Just like grandma used to make,” the commercials intone. I am especially interested in moments when this expected empathy fails. (As an aside, I can declare with absolute certainty that my cucu was never a “grandma.”)

One should not pick on grandma. I will.

I have been thinking about my reaction to my great grandmother to imagine how the familial relations we consider benign if not benevolent may be absolutely terrifying for others. Our own psychic and ideological investments in those relations may blind us to the terrifying potential they hold for others.

Now, of course, none of this is new. It is, say, the difference between a loving father and a raging homophobe—perspective is key. Only, I think something different happens when the objects of horror—terror, to use an overused word—may be relations defined, often if not always, by their pleasant associations. Put otherwise, the thought that my gwaci-roasting grandmother may be an object of absolute, irrational horror goes against everything (to use a cliché) I have ever imagined about my personal and family history.

Indeed, the anti-racist, anti-colonial, feminist and queer languages I have learned tell me that such irrational horror “others” my grandmother, refuses to imbue her with the “humanity” (here defined as the potential for goodness) that she “deserves.” While I am on board with the political aim of such arguments, I want a more textured way of thinking about the horror of the quotidian—the ugly baby, to give a for instance—as a way of being in the world.

What happens, that is, if instead of understanding our worlds and histories as benign potentialities of goodness, we see them as occasions for terror? Of course, this question lies at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” though her reflections turn inward. It is less the impossibility of community or empathy that interests me—though that has its intellectual rewards—more what might be termed the scabs and scars of the social.

A sense of self-preservation—and, to be honest, fear—prevents me from naming the many occasions and emblems of benign “good” that might lead to another person’s terror-horror. Not to mention, I believe such occasions are both too numerous and irrational to be enumerated. To understand such moments (and events) as constitutive of the quotidian might be useful for re-thinking our claims that we understand the universal appeal of the benign and lovable.

To understand, that is, that the very people, objects, institutions, relationships that we consider to represent, not the best, but most ordinary, may not be perceived as such by others. And, at the same time, to resist our urge to pathologize or demonize those who, in current political parlance “do not share our values.” Also recognizing, and this is key, that the inability to share values—to find “grandma” lovable, for instance—need not be the occasion for violence. In language I have used before, it seems necessary to imagine the uses of indifference and disgust as essential and useful elements of the worlds we inhabit—especially in the inadvertent frottage we term “living together.”