Parents set the stage for the relationships we have with our emotions for the rest of our lives. A mother’s hug exposes us to the warmth of love, a game of peekaboo inspires our first laugh—but among all of these experiences that guide our relationship choices until we seek therapy, perhaps the most vital, is a child’s exposure to shame. There is nothing like shame to hold a household together.
This is a principle that my mother, Dawn Phillips, holds dearly in her heart. The first time I was awakened to my mother’s true gift for inducing guilt was at the tender age of six and a half. With only 17 teeth to my name, I found it difficult to digest not only tough meat but also my mother’s various crash courses in etiquette. I had just spilled my drink during our family dinner—a mistake my mother would usually reprimand me about all night—but tonight was different. Tonight, I decided to take matters into my own hands and apologize. I figured my actions would mean more than my words, so I decided to mime out “I love you” to my mom across the dinner table. I began with the “I,” and a decision had to be made about which finger I would use to spell it with. My pointer finger was too crooked. It was too difficult for me to extend my ring finger alone. I needed a clear, long capital “I”—and what better finger to use than the one dead center. My mother was like God and I was standing in the Garden of Eden. My forbidden fruit? My tallest finger. Like the flick of a lighter, my middle finger popped out right in front of Dawn’s rapidly widening eyes. Much like Eve, completely unaware of her nakedness, I had no idea that at the age of six, I had just silently told my mother “Fuck you” right after spilling milk on her prized rug.
Screams. Shrieks. The sound of a mother’s horror at the sight of what preschool had done to her only child. Everything happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to finish miming the heart or the “U.” I was sent to my room sobbing, confused at how dinner went from being mildly tense to explosive in a matter of seconds. All I knew was that I had done something wrong—but not the usual, inconsequential mistake. This was wrong in a different way. Sitting on my bed I considered turning my stuffed animals’ faces away from me.
A knock on my door was followed by my mother timidly walking into my room one step at a time. She sat down on my bed and started to cry. “Yikes,” I remember thinking to myself. Now I just felt uncomfortable, and I still had no idea what was wrong. I was very close to writing the whole series of events off as purely a her problem, when she asked me point blank:
“Do you have any idea how using a symbol like that makes me feel?”
“How could I,” I thought to myself, “you didn’t even let me finish.”
I tried to pitch my case but we didn’t seem to be understanding one another. Each time I brought the finger back to try to finish miming “I love you” to her, she just seemed to get more upset. I was at my wit’s end.
“Do you even know what that finger MEANS?” she asked.
Things were getting interesting. Pandora’s box had been opened. God herself became her own worst enemy. “No. What does it mean?” I asked. Silence. We stared at each other. I cocked my head to the side. My mother shifted from her body weight from her right butt cheek to her left butt cheek. “Well, you see,” she began, “That finger represents a word. A word that many people find to be very offensive.” “What word?” I asked. Silence.
“Well you see,” she began, “There is this—activity—that two people engage in when they really love one another—when they want to make a baby.”
I nodded my head.
She went on, “There are acceptable words for this and there are bad words for this. That finger represents one of the bad words for this.”
She hadn’t answered my question. “What word?” I asked.
Dawn was cornered in a moral dilemma. Should she or should she not introduce her six year old to the word “fuck?”
“The word,” she said, “Is ‘fuck.’”
Dawn Phillips may be a master at the art of critique, but she has zero improvisational skills.