A Letter to Mom, #4
The final letter in a series of four that I wrote to my Mom with stuff I couldn't/wouldn't/didn't say to her when she was alive.
In my work in the chemical dependency field in the 1980s (you remember when you came to visit me at the treatment center I ran, Mom, and how impressed you were with the work I did?), we taught our patients about the Johari Window, a tool developed by Joseph Lift and Harrington Ingram (Johari)1 to help people understand themselves and how they interact with others. It consists of a four-square grid in which you can examine your public and private self and your conscious and unconscious self.
I’ve found it helpful in understanding myself and my life story and in thinking about what I want to change about myself. Here’s what each quadrant means.
Public/Conscious (Open) Self
In the top left quadrant of the Johari Window is the Public/Conscious Self, the part of you that is known to you and to others around you. This is the visible you that people who know you would recognize when they hear you describe yourself. For example, I’m a white woman in her late sixties who was born in Michigan, grew up in Arkansas, and then returned to Michigan for school and a substantial part of my life.
Although I’ve also lived in Colorado, Massachusetts, Illinois, and North Carolina, I now live in Richmond, Virginia, with my wife, Wendy (yes, I got married, Mom, in 2010, but more about that at a later date). I have an active spiritual life as part of my Unitarian Universalist faith. I’m a social justice/civil rights activist, writer, and tech lover.
I have a wide range of skills that friends and employers have come to rely on. I’m calm in crisis situations, practical in everyday life, and dependable in my commitments. Although I’ve moved around a lot, both geographically and relationally, I work hard to keep people—friends, and even some of my exes—in my life.
I’ve always struggled with my weight—since the time between 7th and 8th grade when I came home from a month at Aunt Babe’s and you decried that I had gained twenty pounds. “Must have been all those hamburgers and all that pie!” you declared. For the first time in my life, and from that moment on, I felt your disgust about who I was.
These are things that most people who get to know me can easily learn about me. They are things I would have told you or you would have learned about me when you visited, even though I know you didn’t like “cause” people.
Public/Unconscious (Blind) Self
The top right square in the Johari Window is the Blind (or Public/Unconscious) Self. It’s the part of you that is known to others and not to you. It might be a personality trait that annoys people, such as you laugh too loudly at a party, or a trait that people admire, like you always go the extra mile to help someone out. In either case, you’re not conscious of the behavior, it’s just who you are.
A personal development goal could be to become aware of how others see you, learn what they know about you that you don’t, and uncover experiences that impacted you that you don’t remember. As a child, I always had the feeling that other people, especially you and Dad, for starters, knew things about me that I didn’t know. As an adult, I’ve discovered what some of those things were, and that’s why I feel a need to tell this story.
Private/Conscious (Hidden) Self
The bottom left square in the Johari Window is the Hidden (or Private/Conscious) Self—that part of you that you and only you know—your innermost thoughts and feelings, escapades that you never told anyone about, secrets you keep. Moving what’s inside me to my public self has always been challenging to me. I don’t show my feelings easily. Some people have even said they experience me as aloof and difficult to get to know. I’m sure I get those traits from you. It’s better not to expose yourself to others for fear they might judge you.
I have to trust before I share much about me. This was especially true before I came out as a lesbian. Although I’m much more open today than I ever was as a younger person (as evidenced by this memoir), sharing myself with others is an ongoing part of my spiritual journey. This is where you guarded the family secret(s), Mom, praying no one would ever find out.
Private/Unconscious (Unknown) Self
Which leads me to the last window square in the bottom right corner, the Unknown Self. This is the part that is not known to you or anyone else, your hidden motivations and desires, things you don’t understand about why you do what you do. With honest self-examination, reflection, and openness, some of what’s hidden here can become known, at least to your private self.
As I’ve grown older, this has become an even more critical part of my journey, to better understand my actions, motivations, and responses to life’s events. To do that, I must be willing to learn things I don’t want to know, to accept my own shortcomings, to admit to myself that, even in my sixties, I might have some things to learn about myself.
The greatest struggle of my life has been to lift the shade on the Johari Window, to let in the light, especially to understand, accept, and maybe even forgive the lies on which my life was built—those told to me and those I told to others.
Your secret didn’t fully unravel until I turned fifty years old, four years after you, at the age of eighty-eight, slipped away in your sleep at Jarrett’s house. Maybe it’s good you weren’t alive when I learned the truth. I don’t know if I ever could have confronted you with it, and I don’t know how we could have had a relationship with this unspoken thing between us.
You taught me never to make waves. As you well know, I’ve not always heeded that advice. I’ve made plenty of waves in my life, especially when it comes to challenging injustice and violence I see around me, but would I have ever been able to talk with you about this? I honestly don’t know. I guess that’s why I’m talking to you now, why I’m exposing your secrets to the world in this way.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve certainly questioned myself about whether it’s my story to tell. Do I have the right to tell your secrets, the choices you made, the lies you told? Is that fair to you to tarnish your memory? These are the questions of every responsible memoirist, and the answers are never easy.
In this case, I’ve come down on the side of yes. I was indelibly impacted by the choices you made. I’ve had to heal the pain you caused me, and I’ve had to find a way to understand how it has affected me. This is my story to tell. It’s my hope that it will benefit others who are trying to heal from similar deceptions.
If you were still alive, I would encourage you to tell it with me. It’s hard to imagine you could ever do that—you carried too much shame for that—but I truly believe that would result in genuine healing for both of us. I hope you could have seen that too.
I’ve said all I want to say to you now in these letters, Mom. It’s time to start telling the story I’ve uncovered. I hope your Spirit will guide me if I get something wrong. I’ll do the best I can, be as honest as I can be, and lift as much of the shade on the Johari window as possible. I also hope your spirit will understand how important it is for the truth to be known. I love you, Mom.
Next week, I’ll publish Chapter 1 of If You Only Knew: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Their Undoing. I invite you to accompany me as I share this story. I need all the support I can get! If you haven’t already subscribed, please do so. That way each chapter will be delivered to your Inbox, and you won’t miss anything. I am so grateful for you!
Annette's Wanderings, including a serialized memoir, If You Only Knew: A Memoir of Family Secrets and Their Undoing, is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Luft, J.; Ingham, H. (1955). "The Johari window, a graphic model of interpersonal awareness". Proceedings of the Western Training Laboratory in Group Development. Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles.