Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Visit from the Furies

by Jean Roberta

Guilt was personified for people in ancient cultures. The ancient Greeks feared the Furies, a trio of supernatural beings that were old even in the “Golden Age” of Athenian culture (approximately 500-400 BCE). They haunted anyone who broke their moral laws.

In the 1970s, I was married to a Nigerian from the old city-state of Kalabari (reminiscent of Greek city-states, IMO), traditionally presided over by a goddess named Akaso, who drove evil-doers to madness. I sometimes dreamed that she was tormenting him.

At this moment, I feel guilty because, in the craziness of end-of-semester grading (and chasing plagiarists), holiday parties, and exchanging emails with the young man who offered to set up a website for me (yes!), I forgot that December 6 was my day to post. Ack. I like to think I uphold my commitments.

Like Amanda (probably on a milder level), I also feel guilty for having a health problem that has forced my spouse to go out of her way to help me. This is my broken wrist, which is now healing nicely after surgery on November 5, though I’m still wearing a sexy-looking removable lace-up cast, like a corset for my hand and forearm. This all happened because I slipped on snow-covered ice in early November. I probably wasn’t careful enough, and I hadn’t learned how to fall on less-vulnerable parts of my body. I was obviously lacking in useful survival skills, even though slip-and-fall accidents in winter are very predictable in mid-Canada, where I've lived for most of my life.

The truly scary thing about personified Guilt in ancient cultures is the implacable nature of them, or her. (And is guilt considered female because she is imagined as an angry mother, or several? I wonder.) According to the myths, you couldn’t talk your way around her/them, or apologize, offer a few “Hail Heras,” and be absolved. The Furies would hound you to the grave because something about your transgression, no matter how minor, upset the grand scheme of the universe, and they were its original guardians.

Sometimes the worst guilt is the most irrational. I feel guilty because I didn't send Christmas presents to my grandchildren since their mother told me to stay out of her life (and theirs) in summer 2010. (This means that they heard nothing from me for 3 Christmases. Each year, I sent my daughter and her husband an email asking if they would let their children receive presents from me. I got no answers.) This year, I mailed a box of toys in time to get there before December 25, even though I have no way of knowing if the box will be intercepted, re-labelled, or given to charity. I might never find out.

According to the Greeks, the crime of killing one's mother (e.g. what Orestes does to Clytemnestra, according to a famous cycle of tragedies) is unforgiveable. Simply banishing her from one's life is clearly a lesser crime, but it would probably attract attention from the Furies, those upholders of traditional respect within blood families. Would I want my family of blood kin to fall like the House of Atreus? Hell, no. I would have nothing to gain from that, even if I were spared.

Conflict in general tends to make me feel guilty, even if I can't imagine what I could have done to prevent it.

I feel guilty about former friends (and friendly acquaintances who might have become something more) that I've lost track of over the years. While not posting here on Friday, I invited a very long-term friend at the university to lunch with me in the Faculty Club next week (she's not a faculty member, and could only go as my guest). Her religious views sometimes grate on me, but her good qualities compensate for that.

I do what I can to fend off the Furies.


  1. Oh Jean... your guilt is bringing out my guilt! Well, maybe not my guilt but at least my compassion.

    I cut off contact with my father in my teens. When he died, I hadn't spoken to him in more than a decade. But, to be honest, if I could go back in time I would do everything the same. He was a manipulative man with severe addiction issues and always an excuse at hand--his actions were never his fault, as far as he was concerned.

    My girlfriend is on the flip-side of the equation. Her adult son cut off contact with her when he discovered she was trans. She still presents male with her family and assumes her secret is safe, although I can't imagine her son has kept it all these years. I rather suspect the family considers her closet identity just another skeleton in the... well, in the closet.

  2. Giselle, I think separating yourself from a parent can be excused if it's something you have to do to survive and stay sane. Your girlfriend's situation sounds volatile. I hope she doesn't have to live in the closet forever to maintain a connection with her family. Much as I usually don't want to wish guilt on anyone else, I tend to think that grown offspring who cut off ties with their parents for reasons that have nothing to do with abuse or neglect should be visited by the Furies. :)

  3. Sorry for your busted wrist, Jean. What you experience about irrational guilt should rather be anger over ignorance. But I know it's much more complicated than that. Be strong, grrrl.

  4. I'm so glad you brought in the Furies. In a sense, they demonstrate everything that's wrong with guilt. I'm pretty certain that nothing is unforgivable.

    As for your daughter and your grandchildren - well, your daughter is the one who should feel guilty, not you.

    BTW, I like the image of a corset for one's wrist!


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