The Many Meanings of Family Estrangement

For women of color living the immigrant experience in America, Raksha Vasudevan writes, family estrangement poses a painful double burden.

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The therapist was a friend of a friend. A last resort.

“Can you bring to mind a family member who you trust?” she asked. “Maybe a parent or grandparent? A sibling, perhaps?”

I was caught off guard. I couldn’t see what this had to do with the unrelenting insomnia that had brought me to her office. But it was an easy question to answer.

“No,” I said. “There’s no one.”

Her blue eyes narrowed. “Really?” she asked. Without giving me a chance to respond, she insisted I must think of someone, for she was going to perform hypnosis to solve the interruptions to my sleep. But for the hypnosis to work, we needed the help of a beloved family spirit.

I should have left then. But I had nowhere to go, no one to seek out. My partner was out of town. Calling family was out of the question. So, I lied. I named my grandparents on my mother’s side, though I’d barely known them.

As she proceeded with the hypnosis, pronouncing “pattee”—Tamil for grandmother—with a long A and hard T—as “patty,” I tried not to cringe. I failed. So, of course, did the hypnosis.

I’m still trying to figure out how to tell my family story.

That night, like every night for the previous two weeks, I laid awake. But for once, I wasn’t panicking about the long, inky hours ahead; the utter loneliness of being awake while the world around me slept. Instead, I thought about the tale so many still told about family, a tale affirming biological belonging as the ultimate source of care and solace. But though I was not an orphan nor an only child, I had no family I would call as such. Why, I wondered, was this so hard to accept—for others and also, on some level, myself?

I found a new therapist, one who pinpointed family as a source of my anxiety and sleeplessness, rather than its cure. Eventually, with her help, my insomnia resolved. But I’m still trying to figure out how to tell my family story. Not that I want to, necessarily, but America demands it. Explanations are always demanded from women like me, who exist outside the white maleness that is America’s baseline for “normal.” Where are you from? Really from! Where is your family? So you’re here all by yourself?!

If immigrants in America are thought to lead lonely lives, misplaced and misunderstood by mainstream society, we are also thought to find refuge in our families. Out there, America can be scary, alienating, confounding. But at home, with the people who share our blood and our language, the people who made the arduous journey from the homeland to here with us or before us, life is bearable again. “I wanted my children to have a better future” and “I wanted to be closer to my parents/children/partner” are the most common immigrant narratives, and also the most accepted: Family reunification is the most direct route to a green card. To come and live in America for family is a legible—and legitimized—desire. But without those ties, the status of “immigrant” is seen as incomprehensible, pitiful, or both. You must visit your family often! Really, you don’t talk to any of them? How sad! But do you think it’s more important to be right or to have the relationship? What do you mean you don’t want to talk about it?!

I wonder what kind of explanation would satisfy. Maybe this one: I’m estranged from my dad, because he was physically violent and verbally abusive. That’s hard to refute. But what about my mother and brother? How to explain that my efforts with them—visits, cards, calls—are rarely reciprocated? And what’s the point in continuing to try if rejection is all but guaranteed—and all the more painful because it’s issued by people whose acceptance should be unconditional?

My family’s stories of family are not the same. I don’t know whose version is most true.

If you were to ask my family members, they might tell a different story—one where I’m the indifferent or insensitive one. Or maybe our stories reach different conclusions. Though I believe my relationship with my mom is best described as estranged, we still text every few weeks, superficial exchanges about the weather, her garden, my dog. And I’m Facebook friends not with my brother but with the profile he and his wife created for their twin boys, now three years old. We’ve never met.

So, are my mom and I estranged? My brother and me? I’d say yes. They might say no.

All this is to say, my family’s stories of family are not the same. I don’t know whose version is most true. What I do know is this: I’m tired of trying to find belonging and safety where there’s none to be found.

That last statement could have been written by any woman of color fed up with life in America. The alienation that comes with being the first, the token, the “diversity”—that alienation is a second skin for most of us, as familiar as family. And for most of my friends of color, family is how they cope with a culture bent on erasing theirs. They live close or travel often for every birthday, anniversary, and funeral. They cook the foods of their elders. When a natural disaster hits their homeland, they fundraise. Call it family or culture or legacy, but this is what sustains many of them.

Estrangement has been an ever-shifting constellation of regrets and loyalties and, yes, joy.

But what about women like me, estranged from both family and the land of our ancestors? We left India when I was 10. I’ve been back only once, a visit more alienating than any encounter in America. Every relative in Tamil Nadu wanted to know why I didn’t speak to my father. They didn’t pretend not to know his abusive behavior. Instead, they wanted to know: Didn’t he deserve mercy?

“Didn’t I?” I wanted to ask. But I stayed silent, because I understood. For my relatives, who lived in multigenerational homes, whose social lives were defined by visits with extended family and whose plethora of upper-caste privileges were handed down through family lines, estrangement must seem a horrible fate—topped only by being estranged in a foreign land. Surrounded by strangers, in every sense. To them, that must seem a fate worse than death. Sometimes, it seems that way to me too.

People think estrangement is a final state, unchangeable and totalizing. For that reason, some also see it as the easy way out: Being in a relationship with someone—anyone—is inherently messy. Severing the tie cleans things up once and for all.

I wish it was that simple, that static. It’s not. Estrangement, for me, has been an ever-shifting constellation of regrets and loyalties and, yes, joys. It wouldn’t be so painful if I didn’t remember the feeling of curling up with my mother after a nightmare; or my father and I singing along to the Eagles, our voices gloriously off-key. If I didn’t remember my brother putting his skinny 12-year-old body between me and our father during one of his rages.

Estrangement wouldn’t be so painful if I didn’t remember the intimacy that was once there.

Growing up, I used to fantasize about new family: a tight circle of friends or a partner whose family would welcome me into their fold. Now, at 34, I’m lucky to have both those things. But neither have lessened the pain of estrangement. Sometimes, they’ve even deepened it. Like when my partner’s parents talk about their daughter’s boyfriend’s family—how welcoming they are, how tight-knit they are. Their faces light up: One of their children is with someone from a good family.

Or this past summer, attending a friend’s wedding. My partner and I were recently engaged, and I was taking notes on everything: yes to an outdoor ceremony, no to having two officiants. But as I watched my friend’s father walk her down the aisle, there was nothing to catalogue but the grief quietly enveloping me. At first, I chalked it up to the question of who would give me away—certainly not my father. Would my brother or mom even come? I wasn’t sure. The real question, I realized, was not who would give me away but who—and what—I belonged to, a question that surfaced again later than night, when generations of her family converged on the dance floor, swaying furiously to Tajik tunes in a frenzied celebration of their childhood and country and culture. I wanted to join them like the other guests, I really did, and I would have if I wasn’t having trouble breathing, my lungs feeling full of some invisible fluid.

Since then, I haven’t done any wedding planning. The thought of exposing these gaping holes—in my family, or lack thereof; in my culture, or lack thereof—has kept me terrified and dithering, incapable of entering a new tale of family. And even when I do, I know the old story will still be there, bleeding through the page.

These days, I’m less interested in creating a narrative of belonging that’s legible to America than in claiming what already belongs to me. My mother tongue, for one. I’ve started relearning Tamil, a process that’s surprising me, surfacing a different part of myself—playful, innocent, curious. Maybe the part that first came into consciousness.

That’s the other thing that helps: the photo I keep by my desk. It was taken in Chennai when I was five or six years old, blue frocked and chubby cheeked. My brother is sitting next to me, his smile showing his lost baby teeth. In the background, my mother is a sari rushing by. My father must have taken the photo. I can feel his presence hovering outside the frame.

Every time I look at this photo, I feel a surge of tenderness—for my brother, my parents, for Chennai. For the intimacy we once had. And more than any grief or resentment, that reminds me of why I won’t—can’t—return to them. Distance is the only way I know to preserve that tenderness. The only way, too, to protect the self I see in that photo, her bright eyes, her open, unafraid face. Estrangement is the only way to keep from becoming a stranger to myself.

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