Absence of Malice


Paul Newman. 1981 Movie.

No movie review, I just needed an excuse to post a pic of a pretty man.

A favorite blogger asked me how I can write so lovingly about a troubled mother/daughter relationship.

Earlier today, I read about Sharon Osborne’s mental breakdown, as addressed on her show, The Talk.

Many spoke of her courage, candor, and how it might help to remove stigma from mental health issues, particularly depression. There was discussion of how we have progressed in treatment, meds, group therapy, public sensitivity and awareness.

My mother was a mostly untreated manic depressive. My father’s history included a decades-long severe depression in his own family, an illness which was poorly treated, with tragic results.

The skepticism was real and palpable. There was little or no respect for any kind of psychiatric intervention.

My mother’s breakdown happened in the 1950’s, drugs were primitive and dangerous, ECT was considered a risk, but they tried it as a last resort.

It didn’t work for her, and she returned to us in a zombie-like state.

She stopped taking her meds.

For a few years following, 3 young children were subjected to physical and emotional abuse, psychological abandonment, well hidden from our father. He was preoccupied with working 2 jobs to keep the family afloat.

The sudden death of our grandmother,Β  our guardian and caretaker, sent him into a personal and financial crisis. My mother lost her job, half of their income, and was forced into the role of “mom” she had avoided for years.

It was not a pretty scene.

There would be healing, much of which came from the birth of the next child, a much wanted son.

It took me many years to recover from a very wounded relationship with her. When we came of age, we all managed to distance ourselves. But the damage came early, went deep.

Ultimately, I came to forgive her for all of it. It was not her fault. She had an illness that was never properly addressed, let alone healed.

There was an absence of malice.

She did not set out to hurt her children. It was just a sad, tragic by-product of a lifelong mental disorder.

That doesn’t excuse some very violent, negative behavior patterns. It doesn’t heal that early scar tissue. It just allowed us all, in our own way, to come to a type of understanding that helped us move forward in life.

For me, and for how my personal choices would evolve, it was not just valuable, not just important, it was life-saving.


Absence of Malice is a 1981 movie starring Paul Newman and Sally Field, the title is a legal reference that deals with journalistic ethics. It is a great movie, highly recommended, but aside from the title, is pretty much irrelevant to this post.





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74 Responses to Absence of Malice

  1. colinandray says:

    It took me a long time to suddenly grasp the concept that people do the best they can with what they have which, in some cases, is very little. Our “world” is generally the way we were brought up, which is why physical abuse often goes back generations. Somebody once said “You cannot teach what you have not learned.” That logic has very broad applications and is, to me, the basis for forgiveness and no malice.

  2. The V Pub says:

    Such a sad tale, Van. Life’s lessons can be extremely harsh. I’m happy that you’ve been able to look back to see what the causes were and that there really was an absence of malice.

  3. How very sad that this happened at all and is still happening but how wonderful to have absence of malice.

  4. Erika Kind says:

    Even when it is the only way of living in peace it is not easy to look at such experiences with such a wide open mind and heart. Most of all a child does not understand why the parents behave as they do and of course, that can leave deep scars. From all your positive outlook I see in your posts and comments, the love and understanding you feel have helped to heal a lot.I admire you very much, Van!

  5. Having a mental breakdown can happen to the best of us.. I had a total nervous breakdown in the 90’s, Thank goodness for me I had a loving family who supported me through it.. But it is surprising what straw breaks the camels back.. And it changed my whole perspective ..
    We have a Mother’s theme in common and have spoke upon it before Van.. And it took me while to stop blaming.. and see deeper into her world..

    Great post and thank you for sharing .. Hugs Sue

    • One of the tragedies for my father was that he expected to be the one to suffer depression, and not his wife. Someone once told me that we often marry/ enter into relationships with that which we fear. Thanks for sharing. Your candor and warmth, so appreciated. Hugs back to you, Sue. πŸ’˜

  6. Sawsan says:

    Thank you for the pic of a pretty man πŸ™‚
    I love Paul Newman & Sally Field and will try and watch the movie soon.

    I just want to say that I so admire people who share their troubled childhood stories. I bow to your courage. Many people out there need to hear past stories. Seems to me like things don’t come around until we visit the past head on and heart open.

    Much love to you. Thank you for your courage.


    • Thanks for the lovely comment, Sawsan. I was moved by the discussion over Sharon O’s admission, and it seemed like the right time to bring it up. When I started blogging, I talked about many of these family issues, but I stepped away from them. It’s important to note that we all have stories, we are so much more alike than different. πŸ’•

  7. Oh, Van, I sympathize with your situation. We grew up with a mom with an undiagnosed disorder that made things difficult to change. My dad ignored it, calling her hormonal. Doctors said of course you’re tired, sad, anxious, stressed, whatever, you have 4 kids. She seemed manic depressive, big mood swings, and her last year’s was on anxiety meds that helped us forgive. But, as you know, it is impossible to forget all the damage … big hugs

    • Thanks, Diane. It was a bit of a dark ages era for mental health patients. I remember movies like The Snake Pit and Cuckoo’s Nest, which didn’t exactly help with the image. There was so much fear and doubt. By the time she did get real help, she was 50, and riddled with cancer. It came too late. I’m happy you had that last year with your mom . Thanks for sharing. I bet there are a lot of folks who can relate. πŸ’˜

  8. Such a powerful post,Van. As a counselor, I was trained to appreciate the fact that people are usually doing the very best they can. But it’s a hard concept to turn from cerebral understanding into emotional acceptance and forgiveness. Personally, it took me a long long long time to do, though when it happened, it was liberating. This is such an important post about healing. Thanks for sharing your journey.

    • The best they can is seldom perfect, but it was all they knew. There were so many lessons along that path to acceptance. And yes, it is/was so very liberating, and a long time coming. Thanks, Diana. Appreciate your insight. ❀️

  9. Hi Van
    Thanks for sharing, I didn’t know your background. Your story in important, someone cab take comfort in our learn from.
    Struggling this week.

  10. Val Boyko says:

    Thank you for sharing your story and affirming that we can survive even the toughest experiences from the past.
    “For me, and for how my personal choices would evolve, it was not just valuable, not just important, it was life-saving.”
    Hugs to you Van πŸ’•

  11. Beautiful and wise words I can identify with.

  12. tric says:

    So sorry you went through all that. It’s hard to live with a difficult childhood as the scars run deep, but it must be particularly hard to deal with it when it was your mother.
    I too have lived through very difficult times, but not by a family member. For a time it tore me apart but eventually I too decided it was time to pick up my life and draw a line in the sand. I will never ever forgive him, but I can honestly say I no longer hold any space in my heart for him, no anger at all. As you say here ‘an absence of malice’ and it has been tremendously healing, although I’m not sure if it’s because I’m ‘healed’ that I can be like this, or because I feel like this I’ve healed.

  13. Lady G says:

    And what a pretty man Paul was!
    But seriously, I really admire you for your courage in sharing your story. I worked with patients with Severe and Persistent Mental Illness for about 5 years. Most of my clients were Bipolar and or Schizophrenic. Many of them had additional co-occuring mental illnesses. I also had quite a few patients who were clinically depressed.
    Van, I have seen a lot of families that refused treatment and, as a result, wreaked havoc on their families; no malice intended but a great deal of damage was done in the process.

    In my years of working in the field, one of the saddest things for me was talking with a parent whose 21 year old just got diagnosed with schizophrenia. It was hard explaining to them that their ‘baby’ would never be the same; there was a new normal. Needless to say, the parents immediately began to mourn the adult that would never be as they dreamed he or she would.

    On a personal note, my aunt had a ‘nervous breakdown’ triggered by an abusive marriage. She was hospitalized in the late 1960’s. I don’t need to tell you how much of a stigma that was to the family. I am so proud of her for getting help.

    God bless you and your family Van. I am so glad that you were able to blossom into the person that you are today.

    • Lady G says:

      ***I meant I have seen a lot of people refuse treatment.

    • It’s so interesting that the phrase “nervous breakdown” was used to describe all kinds of conditions in the past. We have become so much more specific over the years. Not sure that the labels really help so much, though. Especially when one commits a heinous act and the media dismisses it as just another X (Insert mental illness here).
      Thanks for such a caring, sensitive comment, Gwin. πŸ’˜ And yes…pretty, pretty man. ☺

      • Lady G says:

        Oh I think you’re right about all the labels Van. I was in a position where I could give a provisional diagnosis; I was taught to use all those labels sparingly.

        That man’s eyes!!! Whaaaa???? Beautiful!
        Thank you for your kind words.

  14. We have much in common, Van, and your honesty here is quite admirable! Those scars never do fade completely yet with a lot of tender understanding and then forgiveness, it is possible to bring Love into a relationship that only held hate. You are courageous and don’t ever forget that. When the depression hits know Love will win out and that you are much stronger then depression. My Heat so goes out to you for I understand the Journey you have been on and are still on. Bless you, dear friend! ❀

    • Thanks so much for your understanding and sensitivity, Amy. I am always grateful for you and your thoughtful comments. Honored to be your friend. πŸ’˜

      • As well as I am honored to be your friend, Van. It takes a special person to not hide what I know to be very painful things. There have been several posts I have spoken about my past, but due to my Mom still being alive, I tippy toe around the Truth. She is living with last stage renal cancer and to upset her at this point I would never do. Besides I have learned to Love her, someone who I hated very much for a very long time. Know depression runs in my family as well so yes I deal with it too. BIG (((HUGS))) ❀ ❀ ❀

      • ❀️ I understand your thought here, Amy. My mom died at age 53. I did not deal with any of this while she lived. I’m not sure I could have done it any differently. The grief that came later was complicated.

  15. rbaldwin0204 says:

    Van, thanks for your honesty and courage. My mom has had similar issues, which I touched upon in this poem: https://rbaldwin0204.wordpress.com/2016/08/06/elusive-forgiveness/. I’m working on the forgiveness thing albeit slowly and cautiously.

  16. amommasview says:

    I think you highlighted that people can do what they consider their best. For them it will always be the very best they can do. And yet, it’s not much for the other ones involved…

  17. I’m sorry for those pains Van, those children suffering, even though it was years ago. It’s never easy to hear.

    But to grow up and take control and see what it was, that’s empowerment and strength. And courage. To not blame and not hate for something beyond someone’s control, that’s wisdom.

    To not live your life in the darkness that used to be….. that’s freedom.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  18. Forgiveness and understanding is perhaps the best outcome. Thank you for writing this, Van

  19. lbeth1950 says:

    I shared some very similar experiences with my father. It makes their loss much harder. I still feel like I am working on myself. Reading other people’s experiences really brings me understanding. I am still learning that my father was a person, dealing with issues I never faced. His goals for his children were based on his upbringing. Safety, enough food, shelter, for his family, and meeting social norms, were his priorities. When I was raising my family, based on my experiences, I was able to take those things for granted and start from there. That changes everything. He was doing the best he could with the tools he had, just as I am.

  20. lbeth1950 says:

    It is so good to have friends who understand.

  21. Nurse Kelly says:

    So sorry to hear of these tragedies in your life, Van. I remember you mentioning something about your mother and a phase she went through when she “ran away” somewhere to find herself. Children can never understand that, and it may take years for them to accept the reasons why even if they eventually do. Treatment for mental health has come a long way, but in my opinion, has a very long way to go yet. SO many people are struggling.
    Glad to know you were able to move forward and learn from it all, though. I hope writing about it helps you and gives you strength. xoxo

    • She did try to escape (to Jamaica). It’s always surprising to me that folks like you remember those details, Kelly. And of course, writing has made a huge difference for me, incredibly healing. I appreciate your thoughts and kindness, always. ❀️

      • Nurse Kelly says:

        That’s right, it was Jamaica, and she bought a dress there. I think you’re a very special person, Van, it isn’t hard to remember things you’ve told me. I also think the strongest, most capable people have walked through a few fires in their lives in order to get there… which is true for you. xoxo

  22. George says:

    Bless your heart, Van. Thank you for sharing this intimate portrait of your life. Unless someone has been touched by this illness, it’s hard to understand or appreciate he day to day pain one loves with. Absence of Malice is a terrific movie but hard to achieve in life.
    Thank you again.

  23. writerinsoul says:

    I know that it’s common to say now that forgiveness is something you do for yourself and it can be done independent of the other person, but it helps immensely if the other person acknowledges their wrong-doing and attempts to make amends. Without that, it’s hard to move forward in the relationship. I gather that your mother *did* do that at least in part?

  24. Thanks for sharing this with us! A very sad and heartfelt post Van! You are amazing

  25. joey says:

    At the height of my anxiety, which I think came just before the breakdown, I remember being unreasonably angry at a number of issues which would still be angering, but not to the point of the rage I felt at the time. A bad barista, a rude martinet at the phone company, my mother in law asking stupid questions, busy bodies on post — all encountered my rage — not my children, but maybe if enough time had passed…I dunno, it’s hard to say. I really was doing the best I could, at the time, given my circumstances. I am a better version now, more reasonable, after therapy. I don’t know what would have become of me without the therapy. I don’t like to think on it, really.
    There’s a pile of trauma in my childhood, but more the absence of malice sort. Benign neglect, we call it. I don’t know that it makes the scars lesser, but it’s easier to heal the relationship with parents who truly never meant to hurt you (I think anyway.) I’m an extremely well-adjusted person and I did all the work to get here and it makes me more compassionate, so I don’t ask why anymore.
    There have been regrets and hindsight showed them how they could have done things differently. I forgave them before they asked me to. The older I got, the more I could see them as people. They were doing the best they could at the time, given their circumstances. That goes a long way to make the present better than the past.

    • Such a thoughtful, honest response, Joey. You have had quite a journey and an amazing perspective. My mother’s rage was directed at us, quite the opposite of what you describe. She would be out of control, the phone/doorbell would ring, and she flipped to her smiling, charming demeanor. She saved her best for strangers. She hid the horror from extended family, friends, etc. They didn’t believe us. That made it so much worse. I didn’t forgive her while she was alive. Regrets. Thank you for sharing your story, I am honored by your candor. πŸ’˜

  26. Angie Mc says:

    You touch my heart, Van. You always do. Truth plus forgiveness properly worded is a treasure to share. And bravo on one of the best blog openings ever πŸ˜πŸ™Œ

  27. dgkaye says:

    You worded this very eloquently and succinct Van. This is what I tried to dissect and discover about my own mother when I wrote my recent book. Learning forgiveness for the sins of our parents because they didn’t know any better. We have come a long way when we can reach that point of understanding instead of letting resentments grow and fester within us. πŸ™‚

  28. The opening comment includes this line: “You cannot teach what you have not learned.” By extension, what you *have* learned, you *can* teach – and in this case, I will thank you for the lesson in compassion.

    Oh Van. As always, I am deeply touched by your posts.


  29. Pingback: Do They Still Make Kraft Caramels? – The Zombies Ate My Brains

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