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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The Sitting Swing: Transcending the Need to Blame

Oh, the blame game. I loathe it. One of my big pet peeves is people who can't accept responsibility for their own actions, people who always have someone (or something) else to blame for their misfortunes. So, I guess it's not surprising that I spent the first half of Irene Watson's The Sitting Swing despising the author. I mean, I felt for little Irene who grew up with parents so cold and overprotective that they damaged their daughter emotionally, socially and (on occasion) physically. However, I wanted to strangle her when she made excuses like:

"This situation developed because I was a second child without a sibling to look to for example, without a parent to look to for example either, because Mom was my clear and present enemy, and Dad was around for meals and bedtime and that was about it. He wasn't any protection from the enemy, so he was, in this scenario, in the bad camp" (104-105).

Used to the stoic example of my mother, who grew up with an emotionally abusive, alcoholic father, but went on to become one of the most caring, content adults I know, I just don't buy the idea that a traumatic childhood automatically begets a miserable adulthood. Luckily, I missed Irene Watson's point completely. Her book isn't about blaming; it's about transcending the need to blame.

The Sitting Swing is Watson's story of coming to terms with her childhood, a period that left her broken-hearted and bitter. The first half of the book describes her early years in rural Canada. Living on an isolated farm in Alberta, Irene spent the majority of her time with her mother, a hard woman made even more so by the loss of her first child. Under her tutelage, Irene learned that everything she said, did or thought was wrong. Although her mother claimed to want only the best for Irene, she routinely ignored, rationalized or waved away problems Irene brought to her attention, even when they involved outright abuse. Not surprisingly, young Irene turned into an angry, rebellious young woman. Even after she married, she couldn't shake her mother's constant criticism. Years later, Irene was still so crippled by the hurts she suffered in childhood that she checked herself into a treatment center.

The second half of the book describes Avalon, and the 12-step program Irene went through there. Through the process, she learns to accept responsibility for her own reactions, stop blaming the past for her current problems, and start fulfilling her life's true purpose. Although her time at the treatment center was difficult and humiliating, it was also cathartic and illuminating. The experience allowed her to move past her childhood and become a successful author and businesswoman.
Although I found the author's story inspirational, it was told in such an odd way that I had trouble sticking with it. Her tone is conversational, making the book very readable. However, it's so casual that she tends to meander, losing focus and straying from the points she's attempting to get across. The first part of the book, in which Watson paints a portrait of her early years, is almost compulsively readable. However, once Watson comes to her marriage, the narrative stops. Before we even get a chance to know her as a newlywed, we're given a grown up Irene who's now a mother, a therapist, and a woman on the brink of divorce. She's also a woman whose turned herself in for intensive counseling because of vague childhood trauma. We see her go through Avalon and emerge as a whole, healed human being. We never really learn about her marriage, her children or her adult relationships with her parents. It's like she gives us the beginning and ending of her life story, but no middle. Without it, I felt lost, like I was missing some vital information.

My other big beef with this book is that once Watson started talking about her 12-step program, I started to lose interest. This section included very long paragraphs of dialogue from her counselors; I admit I started skimming, since all I really wanted to know was what Watson got out of the program and if it helped her patch up her life. In the end, she learns to forgive and forget, but she seems to receive no insight into what made her mother tick. Although she goes back to her childhood home and tries to get information out of an uncle, she never confronts her mother, which made the whole book seem unresolved to me. I really wanted to know what happened between her and her mother, how they related (or didn't relate) as adults and if she ever talked to her mother about the injustices she suffered as a child. Without all this, Watson's story just didn't seem complete.

All in all, I didn't love or hate this one. Some of it was engrossing, some of it wasn't. Some of it was illuminating, some of it wasn't. So, I'm ambivalent. I didn't love it, I didn't hate it.

Grade: C

If this was a movie, it would be rated: R (for language and references to sexual/adult situations, although more implied than graphic)

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