Untethered: I Can Still Hear My Ex Mother-in-Law’s Voice

I was just talking to myself the other day, cleaning something in my kitchen, when I pitched my voice a little higher than normal. It snagged in my ear, a bug in a spiderweb rattling all these threads. It took me right back to seeing my ex mother-in-law’s face, the way she was sizing me up, a mix of disappointment and frustration that I wasn’t just simply perfect, someone she could show off or who she felt was good enough for her kid. I smelled her Camel Lights and heard her coaching me after an event, in her gravelly voice, telling me that I spoke too softly, that my voice got too high pitched. When I said something she didn’t like, I could always tell by the way her face would pull into a thin line. Over time, she went from joy, love-bombing really, fueled by the fact that her kid had actually brought someone home with a uterus, to a constant low murmur of disdain for me. It would have been impossible for me to please her, though I tried at first, because to do that would have meant subsuming myself. But over the course of that relationship, and so, my relationship with this woman, I was getting older, growing in my work, becoming more myself. She was losing something of herself, too. With retirement on the horizon, an identity built around her job, and a serious alcohol problem that in many ways kept her isolated, at home, in her easy chair in front of the TV, she wasn’t building toward anything anymore. And I wasn’t going to give her grandkids, either.

Last night, while out with a date, my voice pitched too high. I winced internally. There are a lot of complications around this for me. I can hear it when I’m talking, the feminine lilt, the vocal quirks associated with the ways “girls talk” and then the flattening and warping of vowels I’ve never been able to shake from my Buffalo accent, just to top it all off. My ex mother-in-law came back into my head again, frowning at me for something I’d done that was too queer or weird or autonomous.

Besides the disappointment in me that was obvious, there were lines of sabotage that ran through our relationship, as well as the actual relationship I’d consented to having, the one with my ex. Sometimes, it was something so small that would set me off, but it was a series of these incidents, one after the other, that made it so I gradually couldn’t stand her either. One night, we came over for dinner and she served us pumpkin soup. I asked her if there was dairy in it because I’m lactose intolerant. “Coconut milk!” she said. Later, while taking dishes into the kitchen after dinner, I found an open container of whole milk next to the soup pot. I checked and did not locate any discarded cans or containers of coconut milk. Poisoner!

Still, from her standpoint as a nonprofit executive, she offered advice, and, although it was often a blow to my self-esteem when she’d criticize things like my voice or the way I carried myself, coached me on occasion as I pursued my career change to nonprofit development. I just had to be careful about eating things she gave me, about taking anything she said too seriously, because her interests were always, ultimately, her own.

Which is why, when I read the latest piece sparking viral literary gossip via The Cut about a literary husband potentially using sock puppet accounts to trash talk his wife’s work online, I swung back to the memory of calling my ex mother-in-law to ask for her advice, having landed an offer for a job with a prestigious (and cool) art museum. She told me to, of course, take it, that my old job would be fine without me. It was perfect for me, obviously. Then, when my ex got home, and I told him my news — also an artist and deep admirer of the museum for as long or longer than I had been — I felt like I was walking in a parallel reality.

I think I asked him to repeat himself. He’d said something like, “I don’t want you to take that job.”

We’d fallen so far, in that moment, it seemed from the (idealistic and often naive but also youthful) queerness and deviance and artistic collusion that had felt like it was burning a fire under me for the first years of our relationship. Now, here, at a point where I could walk behind the Staff Only doors of a place dedicated to art, that I’d held in my heart for years, he was telling me no and giving me some excuses that were centered around the fact that the job would leave me too busy to spend time with him. Though this would come up again and again — I wasn’t allowed to be upset if he was mad at me for working late, because he’d told me not to take the job for just this reason — I also got the sense that it was jealousy. He just couldn’t admit it out loud. Like the woman seeking advice in The Cut, I felt I was more-than-possibly being sabotaged by my own partner.

In September, I got some news. Someone I’d wanted to interview for a personal project, a man who’d attempted to kill me actually, had died by his own hand. When I’d first brought up the idea of interviewing him with my ex girlfriend…it…caused conflict. There was shouting, there was panic…and there were prohibitions placed on my work by a partner, an order, an ultimatum. I mean, I did want to reach out to and speak to a murderer, but people do that. Writers do that. I go back and think, now, if there hadn’t been that initial reaction, would I have reached out and gotten the interview? Now, there’s nothing to be done from the angle of actually talking to him. And yes, he’s dead, but the project isn’t. That was just one small potential component — if he even agreed to speak to me at all.

These things that bubble up take me by surprise, like something in me thought they would stay down in my subconscious, weighed to the bottom of a lake with rope and concrete. Now they’re breaking free, and it’s telling me that for what is likely a number of reasons (ongoing other sources of time-consuming stress, job changes, a pandemic, PTSD from other things; the list goes on), I didn’t have the space or the ability to process and heal these wounds. But, now, it looks like something in me has decided that I do.

Part of it, too, is there is a supreme and delicious selfishness in having a space to myself, where I have started to create spaces dedicated just to personal writing projects. No one can tell me not to put post-it’s on a wall, not to collect stacks of rather disturbing research material, not to prattle around listening to mind-poisoning podcasts that make me jump when the house creaks. It’s an audio project, which might be why my voice, too, is coming up for me. Still, when it comes to all things; my voice, other peoples’ voices, the endlessly playing voice that comments constantly with little dollops of criticism, I think there’s nothing to do but work through it.

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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is a Team Writer for Autostraddle (formerly Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director and For Them's Membership and Editorial Ops person.) They write nonfiction both creative — and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret longform project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 229 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. thanks for sharing this, Nico (and all the other installments of this series) – I hope someday this audio project you mention and other of your personal projects are out in the world for us to learn and feel from and alongside you!

    • Thank you so much for reading. I really hope that this audio project gets off the ground sooner than later, too. Gotta keep grinding (there’s a lot of research happening right now, so it’s in the feeling-very-unwieldy phase…but…when it happens, I am sure I will be blasting about it). This was so kind of you to say and I am gonna go cry now haha.

  2. I would like to recommend a site that I recently found, it helps students and schoolchildren to write various works (essays, reports). They helped me a lot, as the work had to be handed in 2 days, and I was not prepared at all. They have a lot of different types of work such as essays or editing documents. Fast and high quality work. I will contact them again.

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