Content Warning: child neglect/abuse and graphic description of mental illness
I will always remember the image of my mother on the floor. Curled up and twisted, she screams into the marble of our foyer. A broken vase is imploded into a million fragments. I am perhaps ten. I watch behind a stone column, shyly, with my older sister squeezing my hand as our father and family therapist try to calm her. My mother lays limp on the tile, hunched over as if guarding something near her stomach. Vividly, I can see—even from some distance away—the tears which flow from her crystal blue eyes onto the cold marble, how they pool there, how they eddy, glinting from the ceiling lamps above.
Looking back, this was just another one of her breakdowns, a precursor to the mental illness that was fundamentally changing her personality. In my preteen years, I sat around wondering what was wrong with my mom without the tools, maturity, or knowledge to articulate what I was witnessing. At eleven, my parents’ divorce imploded my life. My sister and I moved in with Mom after the split. Four years later, Child Protective Services (CPS) was called to investigate our living situation. I was at a crossroads; I could join my sister in admitting everything to CPS (Mom’s verbally and emotionally abusive breakdowns, our financial instability) or I could protect my mother.
Despite all the pain I had experienced with Mom, I was still her fifteen-year-old son, and I didn’t want to be taken away from her. I chose to protect her and I told CPS my sister was lying about any accused abuse. My sister moved out shortly after she turned eighteen and I was left alone with my mother to bear the brunt of her paranoia and borderline episodes. She would bang frantically on my door in the middle of the night and hurl accusations at me from behind the plaster. In those moments, she was totally convinced that I was “helping” my father screw her over financially, or that I was part of some secret family “cult” erected with the sole purpose of exiling her from the family.
It wasn’t until I moved in with Dad at sixteen that I began to emerge from the fog of my neglect. I discovered that Mom had taken college money set aside for my sister and me, and I began to receive harsh text messages from her about my personal character, especially after I moved in with Dad. Our relationship deteriorated year after year. The last time I physically saw my mother was over four years ago, and now I only get an email from her once a year, usually denouncing me as her son.
I spent many years trying to understand why my mother did this to me, and how I could and still can feel so much empathy and affection for her. Most of my life, these abuses and emotional deficiencies of my mother seemed not only normal but the very things about her which made her my mother. After all, “normal” is only what you know. It was not until I entered my young adult years that I began to understand something was fundamentally wrong.
I remember sitting on the stiff couch of our family therapist’s office, the clock ticking in the background and silence flooding the room, when our therapist finally said: “Have you heard of Borderline Personality Disorder?” She told us that it’s a mental illness characterized by a long-term pattern of unstable relationships, a distorted sense of self, an intense fear of abandonment, and inappropriate anger driven by frequent mood swings—even though patients want to have loving and lasting relationships. That last part is important. Throughout all the abuse, my mother would never fail to come around and beg me to repair our relationship, even if only days ago I was called an unlovable, disgusting son.
“No,” I told our therapist that day. I had never heard of BPD before.
After learning about the disorder, my sister discovered a novel: The Unseen World by Liz Moore. She recommended it to me after reading it herself, knowing the story would be insightful. I indulged in the first couple chapters before deciding the book wasn’t for me.
“What, you didn’t like it?” my sister asked me, fixing herself a snack in the kitchen. We’d spend hours here, talking about life and voicing our dreams into the late hours of the night, the low murmur of our voices uttering visions of our collective future.
“There was just something I didn’t like about it,” I told her. I now realize that I must have known that diving deeper into this book would force me to confront painful realities I had been avoiding all my childhood. That turned out to be true. Six months later, I decided to give the book another try. I couldn’t explain the change of heart. The book called out to me, and I suddenly fell deeply in love with the world and the characters who populated it. The book became a sort of blueprint text I would return to—time and time again—both to understand myself and understand life.
The Unseen World is a story about a young girl, Ada, and her unconventional upbringing with her father, David, a computer scientist declining into early-onset Alzheimer’s. Eventually, Ada’s father passes, and all that is left to her are a few mysterious items in his office. The most important is a gift, a little floppy disk which decrypts a secret message embedded in an AI program David designed years back.
From the outside, it would seem I have nothing in common with Ada: both my parents are alive, none suffer from Alzheimer’s, and neither are computer programmers. But I found that the power of fiction lies in the truths seeded beneath the words, which bound my life to twelve-year-old Ada’s like invisible fibers. The ambiguous nature of fiction allows it to move us, inspire us, and even to inform us about our very own lives. Unreality becomes reality reflected.
Ada grows up in a strange world of adults, just as I did. She is homeschooled in the lab where her father is employed. Particularly because she has no friends her age, she constantly finds herself set to the same emotional bar as her adult peers. However, when David begins to decline in health, everything changes.
Ada moves in with her more traditional neighbor, Liston, and she attends a real school with other kids. It dawns on her that perhaps the relationship she found so normal most of her life—hours in the lab with David, her consciousness tethered to his—was not so good for her after all. Perhaps David, this behemoth of a father whom Ada adored, had failed her in some crucial way. After her first day of school, Ada asks, “How was I supposed to know any of this?” Like I did towards my mom, Ada “felt anger toward her father… Surely, Ada thought, they could have prepared her better than this?” (107). She begins to recognize that even parents can have flaws: “[Ada] pondered, for the first time in her life, the particular flaws of David, which she had never before counted, or even noticed: and she wondered what other people said about him when she was not there to hear them” (114).
Like Ada, I venerated my mother and lived closely with her for many years after my parents’ divorce. I attended to her needs, took care of the house, and comforted her through her emotional distress. I was her emotional security blanket and this never seemed bizarre to me. In fact, I was deeply comfortable in this role and I never questioned her competency as a parent.
It was only after my mother suddenly moved to Arizona that I was forced to move in with my father. I began to relearn what a normal life of a child looked like. The flaws and oddities of my mother started to become strikingly clear in her absence. Maybe it wasn’t normal that I was expected to comfort her during crying spells or tip-toe around her depression and mental illness. I still remember nights when I would obsessively scroll through Zillow trying to find a rental Mom and I could afford because her overspending always put us in jeopardy of losing our condo. I too began to wonder, for the first time: what were other people saying about Mom when I wasn’t there to hear them? What had they been saying all my life?
When I moved in with my father, there were no more emotional breakdowns in the middle of the day. My responsibilities changed as well. I no longer had to organize filing cabinets filled with divorce papers, organize bank records, or create spreadsheets for a monthly budget. Instead, Dad could do his own finances.
When Ada moves in with Liston after her father develops Alzheimer’s, a similar phenomenon occurs. Breakfast is made for Ada, lunches packed, a plan for school set out — whereas before she was expected to take care of herself. Ada is being taken care of like a child is supposed to be, and the socially inept flaws of David begin to shine through in full force. David expected Ada to be totally self-reliant and independent, always. But isn’t there a line between healthy independence and parental neglect? I was discovering that line myself. When I moved in with my father, I suddenly gained a parent who laughed, joked around, and encouraged me to follow my dreams. My mother was always afraid of the world and kept me close to her at all times (as David had with Ada), but my father set me loose to explore, reminding me that he’d be there to protect me if I fell. The parallels between Ada’s transition and mine were shocking.
Like Ada, I had been freed from a burden that I didn’t even know existed. I no longer had to walk on eggshells, worrying about my mother’s accusations in the middle of the night. I could sleep soundly knowing no one would be banging on my door.
As I continued to read the book, I found quickly that damaging self-reliance was not where Ada and I stopped sharing parallels. At this point, Ada’s world and my world were crossing space and time, merging together in an analogous sequence. Her life had become my life, and I saw my life in hers. We even shared the same feelings of guilt, particularly when our parents lost themselves and their identities. As David descends into Alzheimer’s, so does his sense of self. As my mother descended into her mental illness, her world became composed of a distinct non-reality. I found it utterly hard to keep up with. This mother was so different from the mother I had known when I was little. At times, I did not recognize her.
I go to bed now and think: I haven’t seen or spoken to my mother in years.
Is she lonely? Will she make it to next year?
Is she alive?
The Unseen World grapples with this abstract notion: if memories are the fundamental building blocks to a coherent identity, when one loses these memories or memories are distorted —who does this person become? Who are they in relation to you? Just as Ada lost David through the disease of his mind, I often struggle with these same questions about my mom. Is communication still possible somewhere deep inside her brain? Who is my mother, now that her world is so immeasurably different than mine? For me, it’s a sort of existence worse than death. My mother is here on this planet. I can touch her, I can feel her, I can hug her if I want, but I can’t reach her. There is no closure, only continuous pain and confusion.
All this begs the question: what is the Unseen World?
It is a world of no worlds, the space in-between worlds, relationships, glances, and the extensions of ourselves we will never be able to properly voice or explain to others. It’s everything we can’t say, or don’t know how to say, or otherwise lose the words. In the book, it manifests itself in the program ELIXIR. The AI program is filled with a data bank of words and past human interactions. It’s built on what humans put into it: how to respond, the right words to say, vernacular, and speech patterns. When Ada finally uses that little floppy disk to crack the code, David’s life story is revealed to her—all of what he didn’t have the courage to say when he was alive. Ada begins to forgive her father for being a man who perhaps was never cut out to be a parent, but tried his best. It is revealed that David had been mistreated in his own life, gone through pain, gone through disappointments; in essence, he had gone through everything Ada had also endured. Betrayal. Loss. Anger. He had lived a human life.
We often forget our parents lived before we came along. We often forget that they had parents too. In my mother’s case, she was the daughter of a WWII survivor, a Jew of Polish descent. Her childhood was anything but rosy, mired with parental abuse and parental alcoholism, much of which I did not know about when I was younger. So when Ada received her message from David, I received a sort of message from my mother too. Not physically but through the last vestiges of those telepathic bonds we once had. It said: forgive me, I am just a human. Indeed.
When Ada cracks the code, she emerges from reading the transcript with one deafening thought: “Only humans can hurt one another, Ada thought; only humans falter and betray one another with a stunning, fearsome frequency. As David’s family had done to him; as David had done to her. And Ada would do it too. She would fail other people throughout her life, inevitably, even those she loved best” (442). Even those she loved best.
I often think I will be doomed to repeat the same abuse my mother endured, passed on to me, and now destined for me to pass onto my children. But then I understand it does not have to be that way. When Ada accepted David’s humanness and mistakes, I think I finally let go of the anger against my mother’s illness. I let the loss liberate me. We all have Unseen Worlds moving about us, connecting us to the people we love, to the people who hurt us, wronged us, abused us, cherished us. That is the magnificent thing about the Unseen World. There is no right or wrong, only humans trying the best they can to make a life.
But our Unseen Worlds do not have to remain hidden away, or encrypted on a file somewhere like David’s only to be voiced when we die. They can be cracked, just as Ada had cracked her father’s. We can voice them. We can conjure them into being. And by doing so we can set ourselves free of loss, trauma, and anger. When I finally finished the novel, I was able to talk more openly about Mom. I had long conversations with my sister and my brother. I opened up with friends when I would normally masterfully skirt around any topics regarding parents or mothers.
Whether I like it or not, my mother’s world, her illness, and my life are invisibly linked together—there is no rooting her out of my past. So instead of erasing her, I acknowledge her. I keep telling our story, I keep voicing from the unseen to the seen. Somewhere, anywhere, there she is—her eyes blue and alight. She’s smiling. We’re talking and laughing again. Can you see her?