During the first decade of my life, we lived with her parents in Stockholm. Gradually I realised that I had a father somewhere. At some point I also learned about the family secret — that they were not divorced, but that I was born out of wedlock, and that she had formally married and divorced a friend to acquire a married woman’s surname.
Around the age of 15, being alone at home one day and sneaking around in her belongings, I found a small calendar book from 1946 in the back of a drawer. I remember opening it with some trepidation, feverishly browsing the entries nine months before my birth, and finding a mid-March note: “Party at the Academic Association” — she was a lab technician in training at the University of Lund in southern Sweden, and apparently liked hanging out with the students — and then the next day: “God, what have I done!”.
I still remember the shock, holding the diary in my hands, feeling a bit guilty for having sneaked in her private papers — and saying loud to myself over and over again: “That’s me, that’s me! What have you done? I’m a mistake!”
I don’t think I ever mentioned my breach of privacy, and I’m sure we never spoke about the entry. It was something I kept to myself, and I have never forgotten the feeling that afternoon of being a mistake. I think that was the moment when I lost my innocence.
I don’t blame her for anything. She was young and lonely, far away from home, probably didn’t know much about prevention. In those days, having a child out of wedlock was a family scandal, so I don’t blame her for keeping the diary entry to herself. (The diary was not among the few belongings left after she died in 2014.)
But it hurts nonetheless. Both to think about it and to write about it. And I feel slightly embarassed about sharing it like this.
One aim of this project is to explore the experience of sharing such memories with others in the public domain. Why is it embarassing? And what does the embarassment tell me about myself and my understanding of privacy? And most importantly, does it help making the painful memory fade away? Is this kind of public sharing of painful memories a way towards healing?
Published on Facebook 22 December 2015, this post generated a number of very interesting responses:
Ken Caneva: Whew.
Thomas Söderqvist: It was a peculiar moment in my life.
Inge-Bert Täljedal: The answers to your questions are as follows: 1) It is felt embarassing simply because going public about this amounts to a certain breach of intimacy, and you have not yet habituated to being an exhibitionist; 2) it tells you that you are pretty normal in spontaneously keeping a private zone, trespassing the borders of which takes some energy; 3) yes, it helps, in a sense by trivialising the memory somewhat; 4) not impossible, but hard to foretell the therapeutic effect, as it will depend on so many other things. Keep being optimistic about it, though!
Thomas Söderqvist: Thank you. Inge-Bert, that is very helpful and supportive.
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis: Thomas–I remember you telling me about this one morning around the table in your dining area. What is missing in this written version is your voice, its intonation and the look on your face when you made this discovery. I will never forget it–I wanted to laugh AND cry at the same time.
Eva Ahlsten: Poor Thomas!!! It must really have been a shock, in an age when you are so sensitive. Did your mother or your grandparents ever realize that you knew this?
Thomas Söderqvist: Betty – thank you so much for telling me; I remember having told the story to a small number of friends at different earlier occasions, but not exactly when or to whom. Nor do I remember how I felt when I told it. Did I pretend to be amused? Did I ironize about i? What kind of emotion did I convey?
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis: Absolutely flat, no affect, with a Max Von Sydow deadpan expression. But yes, you ironized about it.
Thomas Söderqvist: Eva – as far as I remember I never told any of them about my breach of privacy. And even if my mother discovered it, she never revealed it – as I write in the longer version in the blogpost (http://www.canities.dk/blog/i-was-a-mistake) the calendar was not among the things she left behind after her death last summer.
Merry Maisel: Up to the moment of discovery, had you felt unloved or unwanted? Or had you felt only, like most only children, in the spotlight of attention? What are your feelings today telling you, not only about you but also about your mother? (Like Lucy in the Peanuts comic, I charge 5 cents for a psychiatric session, which is truly highway robbery.)
Thomas Söderqvist: Betty – well, typical me – very Swedish, isn’t it?
Signe Hegelund: Jeg er så betaget af dit projekt! Bliv ved. Gør det. Hold fast i dit mod ❤️
Thomas Söderqvist: Merry – this is a very difficult thing to write about in a short comment. In short: I was very much (way too much) in the spotlight of attention, For good reasons I remained the only child, growing up with three adults, very protected, not many friends in my own age. I will get back to some of the benefits and drawbacks of this in later postings. And my feelings of my mother? That’s a Pandora’s box of mixed feelings, which I will let out in the open, one by one. Stay tuned and I will make you a wealthy Lucy.
Thomas Söderqvist: Thank you Signe – that’s very encouraging, although I’m a bit worried about Inge-Bert’s point that I risk habituating to becoming an exhibitionist. Seriously.
Inge-Bert Täljedal: That is not quite what I meant. I did not want to point out risks, just noted that your reaction seems normal to me.
Signe Hegelund: Vi skal nok sige til – hvis det sker 😜
Thomas Söderqvist: Inge-Bert, sorry I expressed myself carelessly; I understood your point as you intended it – I just took it a step further and turned it into a warning, because see it as a challenge to live with the risk of getting accustomed to a certain level of exhibitionism.
Thomas Söderqvist: Signe, I appreciate that – but how can you tell from the outside whether a person is becoming an habitual exhibitionist or not?
Signe Hegelund: Det kan du sanse…
Morten Arnika Skydsgaard: Tak for en rørende historie. Kan ikke lade være med tænke på, at forestillingen om at at være et uheld er blevet forstærket efter 1973 og den fri abort. Før var det vel et vilkår i mange familier inklusive min egen.
Thomas Söderqvist: (Hej Morten, jeg har svaret længere ned i hovedtråden)
Merry Maisel: It then sounds like, however any of them felt about your being born out of wedlock, they were all, for whatever reasons, enchanted with you (you were surely a bright kid and responsive), and more and more so as you grew. Something to cherish, indeed! Unlike Lucy, I don’t want to be rich, but I do like thinking I’m a friend of yours.
Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis: Yes and they were all women, which is why Thomas has wonderful rapport with women; at least, I think so.
Christian Abrahamsson: It is a trauma.. My grandmother, now 90, was born out of wedlock. She was however born in-between she was a so called trolovningsbarn. The term used when the parents had been engaged but something had happened between engagement and wedding. In this case her father, who was from a wealthy family in Malmö, ran away to Canada. She was brought up by her grandmother. It is still a trauma for her. I have had conversations about this with her since I was very young. Now my own mother has finally started the project of tracking down her grandfather. The result of this in family has been that my grandmother has always been there for me. She is, on many ways, the person in my family that has meant the most to keep the family together.
Christian Abrahamsson: Perhaps even being the reason why I wrote my dissertation about the excluded middle and the in-between. I find your project extremely interesting and I can imagine that it is sometimes very difficult.
Niclas Hagen: I have a somewhat similar experience. I didn’t really took the chance, or rather didn’t get the chance to sit down with my mother and talk about why she decided to have a child. I’m younger than you, Thomas, born 1970 but also brought up by my mother and very much by my grandparents (on my mothers side). I did know my father but he was always a very distant figure. And then he almost completely disappeared from my life. A stepfather came in his place, a man that were very apprehensive about my presence. Often very mean towards me. And still I loved him. Because he was a father figure, someone I admired and looked up to.
And of course the scars are still present in me. Now my biological father and my mother are gone, both dead. But my questions about what really happened during 1969 when they obviously conceived a child is still there. As an adult, with my own mistakes and life experiences, I think that I now have the emotional capacity to hear, respond and take in their story, their side of what happened. It’s also something that I need to understand, as I’m thinking about having children and start a family. To share one’s life experiences and also one’s painful memories is of course difficult but it’s also a way to reach out to others, to open up a space for sharing and to find that similar experiences is also part of other individuals life stories. Thank you for sharing, Thomas!
Cecilia Wetzel: Livet?
Thomas Söderqvist: Livet, ja?
Thomas Söderqvist: Christian – I am fascinated by the possibility that being empathetic with your grandma’s lot might have inspired you to thinking in terms of the ‘excluded middle’ and the ‘in-between’. Have you written anything about this experiene? I’m asking not only for personal reasons, but also for professional reasons: You may know that the central thesis of my biography of Niels K. Jerne is that there is an isomorphism between his deepest understanding of himself in the world, on the one hand, and his epoque-making theory of the immune system, on the other.
Christian Abrahamsson: Yes, it did. I haven’t expressed in as such in any publication. I have a very personal text that I have written but never finished about my maternal grandfathers mother who was also born out of wedlock. She was born in 1898 and went to Stockholm from Guldsmedshyttan in 1914 to work as a maid. I am interested in the ruptures that these experiences create in a persons understanding of who they are. In my family we have had a lot of these biographies. The worst was probably my fathers maternal grandfather who was “sold” into indentured labour when he was 5. He was also born out of wedlock.
Thomas Söderqvist: Niclas, when reading your story (and also Christian’s) I realise that being born out of wedlock is perhaps more common than I have imagined. It’s easy to come to believe that we have all grown up with the two biological parents, and that this is the ‘normal’ pattern. I don’t know the statistics (where does one find the statistics of number of children born out of wedlock?) And yes, opening up spaces for sharing this and other kinds of experiences is, I think, part of what I wanted to achieve with this website and its occasional repercussions here on Facebook. Thanks for responding,Niclas.
Thomas Söderqvist: Merry, well, on the one hand I was brought up in a very protective family environment: not wealthy but since all three of them worked they had what they needed; stable; no domestic violence; nice flat; safe neighbourhood, etc. Very Swedish state employee lower middle class. They don’t seemto have had any particular academic ambitions on my behalf (whenever I got good grades my grandfather gave me a ‘blank enkrona’ (a polished 1 SEK coin) to encourage me) and largely let me be on my own and cultivating my own thoughts in my spare time outside school: no obligatory piano lessons, no ‘voluntary’ sports activities. On other hand, there was also a certain (Swedish?) lack of emotions in the family relations, I never saw my grandparents hugging or kissing each other, they didn’t quarrel, but they didn’t speak with affection towards each other either, they didn’t speak much, no agitated dinner conversations; no religious feelings, well, a far cry from the proverbial Jewish family.
Merry Maisel: Ah, this quality of “reserve” is one I have difficulty with, since I do come from proverbial (although atheist & bolshevik) Jews. Lots of drama. But the kids grew up without getting themselves or others pregnant and (much more likely) without getting arrested in demonstrations. So, all fuss and feathers pretty much wasted.
Thomas Söderqvist: The quality of Swedish ‘reserve’ has never been better expressed than in this painting by Rikard Bergh, Nordisk Sommarkväll (1899-1900) in Göteborgs Konstmuseum
Christian Bernhard Hagen: The embarrasment may, I believe, have several sources. The obvious one is admitting to having breached your mother’s privacy. An other source may be more subtle: being born out of wedlock was still much of a taboo back then – and may still be, though very much less so. It seems to me that you can’t have helped noting, even if subconciously, society’s stance on your status as “illegitimate”. I think that we can never rid ourselves completely of the identities we “acquire” in childhood and youth. We can come at terms with them, but they’ll always be with us.
Christian Bernhard Hagen: I do think that sharing the memory and its associations with people most of whom will be sympathetic with you, may change your own conception of the experience. “Giving the troll a name will make it disappear”, as the Danish saying goes (And I would be surprised if it didn’t exist in Swedish, too 🙂 )
Christian Abrahamsson: Isn’t it also the feeling of having been a “mistake”? I know that my grandmother always lived with that feeling. Also looking more like her father than her mother made it impossible for her to live with her mother and stepfather. I also believe that being born without having intimate knowledge of one or both parents is a trauma, in the proper sense of the word a wound. Something that adopted children have to face.
Christian Bernhard Hagen: Ah yes. That may be more difficult to handle, though feeling loved unconditionally will of course help.
Morten Arnika Skydsgaard: Tak for en rørende historie, Thomas. Kan ikke lade være med at tænke på, at forestillingen om at være et uheld er blevet forstærket efter 1973 og den fri abort. Tidligere var det vel et vilkår i mange familier inklusive min egen. Julekram fra Morten.
Thomas Söderqvist: Jo, det har du nok ret i – men den gang jeg læste hendes dagbog var 15 år efter min fødsel, dvs. i 1961. Hun har fortalt mig i et brev om at min morfar prøvede at få hende at lave en abort en gang i løbet af 1946, at hun fulgte med til abortøren, men fik second thoughts og løbte fra ‘klinikken’. Morfar spurgte ikke en gang til.
Morten Arnika Skydsgaard: Ja, det er dramatisk. Sikke et brev at få.
Christian Abrahamsson: My grandmother used to be refered to as the “bastard” by her extended, very religious family. She still talks about it. It has given her a very liberal view on how other people live their lives. She is one of the least prejudicial people I have ever met. She is still making new friends in her 90s. Her best new friend is a woman from Somalia. Did you ever speak to your mother about this?
Thomas Söderqvist: Christian (BH): Thanks for your two thoughtful comments. Your first explanation for my embarassment sounds plausible from an outside observer. However, I hated her for some 15-20 years before her death last summer, and breaching her privacy would therefore probably not count as an embarassment in my eyes, i.e., I couldn’t and still don’t care less about hurting her privacy. Your second explanation, i.e. that the embarassment could have something to do with my taboo status as an ‘illegitimate’ child also seems very plausible from an outsider perspective, but doesn’t ring a bell with me; I feel completely comfortable with being ‘illegitimate’ today, and yet I still have this sense of embarassment. I actually think Inge-Bert Täljedal came closer to my inner truth, namely that I am embarassed of acting as if I were an exhibitionist, that I am a kind of vulgar personality who washes his dirty laundry in public for sensational purposes. However your and other people’s kind and supportive responses in this thread takes some of the steam out of this anxiety of being an exhibitionist, and for that I am very grateful. As you say, “Giving the troll a name will make it disappear”. (I think my compatriots have a similar expression, but I’m no longer sure.)
Merry Maisel: Oh, heavens, yes! The only jarring note is that you “hated” your mother towards the end (that is, lately)–did she make things difficult for you and your kids? All our personal histories, and the way we talk of them, are nearly banal next to the stories carried by today’s refugees and displaced people. Whenever I begin to feel very strongly that I’ve carried some cross (or star of David?) quite a distance, I have only to watch the news…
Thomas Söderqvist: Absolutely, Merry, I agree completely, see below in the main thread.
Inge-Bert Täljedal: Parent–child and child–parent relationships are heavy stuff, even in “happy” cases. Have you read Alice Miller?
Thomas Söderqvist: Yes, Inge-Bert, I did read Miller 30 years ago. Quoting from letter to a friend on 25 March 1983 ( in Swedish): “Det finns en bok om mig: Alice Miller ’Das Drama des begabten Kindes’. Och i en marginalanteckning på titelbladet till den danska översättningen (Det selvudslettende barn): ”mars ’83 – en stor upplevelse – lärdom: jag slutade för tidigt hos [terapeuten] Ernst! Jag hade just precis påbörjat bearbetningen av rädslan för att bli avvisad. Läst igen i början av oktober -83 –> mycket viktig för min förståelse av depressionen.” Maybe it’s time to read Alice Miller again?
Inge-Bert Täljedal: Det kunde säkert vara intressant och givande. “Det självutplånande barnet…” igen, eller kanske som omväxling denna gång “I begynnelsen var uppfostran”.
Thomas Söderqvist: Har du läst den?
Inge-Bert Täljedal: Ja. Den kändes inte relevant för mig på ett ytplan, eftersom den fokuserar starkt på den mycket auktoritära “svarta pedagogiken”. Men under detta flnns Miller’s återkommande mer generella resonemang om vuxnas kränkningar av barn och de senares benägenhet att tränga bort minnet av dem. Ett viktigt tema är försoningens förutsättningar. Boken innehållet fallstudier, bl a av Hitler. Klart läsvärd och tänkvärd menar jag.
Christian Abrahamsson: I have to admit that I very often feel the same, although in different circumstances, about “washing my dirty laundry” in public. I do however really believe in the practice of ta ut trollet i solen , then it bursts. Being from another generation I still feel very much that I share a lot with you. Perhaps because I sense that you are a person who actually practice ethics. in your daily live. I try to as well. Although I fail all the time.
Christian Abrahamsson: The Swedish expression btw is bring the troll out into the sun and then he bursts. That is at least the way I have been taught.
Thomas Söderqvist: Christian (A): I have had a very complicated relationship with my mother, which will be more evident as I produce more material on the website and here. In summary: I insisted for many years to have a frank discussion with her about our first 15 or so years relationsship – but she was usually very defensive (although offensive in all other matters). Over the years I received only small snippets of insights (always in writing after insisting on it) into her situation and what had happened before and after my birth. She obviously did not want to speak about it. I felt she was never interested in hearing about my pain or my version of the story. Exasperated, I broke with her when she was around 75, and we never met again (she died 15 years later in 2014). So no, unfortunately, I never really got a chance to speak with her. And I still haven’t come over my hatred.
Thomas Söderqvist: Christian – I think we both try to practice an ethical daily life – and I for one know that I’m failing most of the time, either because I am too intolerant of stupidity or too emotional to really hear what people are saying, or whatever.
Christian Abrahamsson: Emma thinks, from reading Facebook, that you and I are very much alike. For me that is a compliment.
Thomas Söderqvist: Well, I guess it’s reciprocal 🙂
Eva Ahlsten: You really have started me to think about your situation, your mothers situation and her parents situation. In their social life, do you think they were ashamed of your mother getting pregnant or did they fell sorrow for here? Did they see your father in your eyes? Do you know if she told them about your father? I think that you must have had a very hard teenage after having read the diary but, from aside, I also think that your grandparents had a hard time but not as hard as you because you were a child and they were grown up. They also had each other. They helped your mother to take care of you. What had happened if they hadn´t? I can see that you are angry with her. You found a truth that she never wanted to share with you. You must have been very disappointed, as if she had lied to you.
Thomas Söderqvist: Eva: Great questions, thanks!. But difficult to answer, I’ll get back tomorrow after having slept on it.
Thomas Söderqvist: Merry Maisel raises an important point: “All our personal histories, and the way we talk of them, are nearly banal next to the stories carried by today’s refugees and displaced people”. I agree completely. My personal pain is a small drop in a broad river of human suffering which we only get glimpses of in the media and the history books. Merry’s comment makes me realise that another reason why I find it embarassing to go public with my personal history is that very early in life I ‘knew’ – although I don’t remember anyone ever telling me so – that it’s shameful to express my own problems, needs and desires when there are so many others that suffer so much more than I do. I’ve always also found it difficult to openly draw attention to myself and my own predicament in group settings; to give an example from my acadeic life: I’ve always envied (and disliked) colleagues who shamelessly and egotistically drew attention to their and their research groups’ demands and ‘needs’.
Merry Maisel: But I do not think it is “shameful” to express your own problems; it is only human, and feeling their weight is what permits you to learn compassion–and proportion.
Thomas Söderqvist: It’s not a question of whether it *is* shameful or not – but whether you feel that way or not.
Eleanor Wittrup: I have been privileged to be a part of a wonderful on line community of people who have suffered great trauma and their supporters. And the thing that they have repeatedly and gently taught me is that there really is no ranking of suffering. NEEDS, yes, the need for physical security, food, shelter etc are clearly most pressing out of all the possible needs, AND emotional needs are not at all trivial. Suffering, emotional injuries and damage are profoundly important for human beings. And Merry is exactly right that it surely seems like our abilities to treat others with thoroughgoing, clear eyed compassion is built out of a willingness to feel and acknowledge our own hurts. Shame is a terrible emotion for this because it implies/rests on the belief that if we are known for what/who we are we will be unacceptable to others and thus rejected. And when we internalize this as small people we get into the (emotional) habit of rejecting ourselves. Nothing good comes of this. I see your willingness to acknowledge your feelings as profoundly important – to you and to the humanity you are a part of. Bravo.
Thomas Söderqvist: Thank you Eleanor! As you can see on my rudimentary website (http://www.canities.dk) I am actually thinking of this as an example of a self-therapeutical investigation. I was also very moved by your sentence “Shame is a terrible emotion … because it implies/rests on the belief that if we are known for what/who we are we will be unacceptable to others and thus rejected”. That sentence struck me as very true.
Bert Rubaszkin: Intressant läsning och jag kommer att följa dig med stort intresse. Men jag kommer inte att lita på dig till 100%. Jag tror att man använder Facebook till att bygga upp en “persona” som man vill att omgivningen skall se. Själv har jag medvetet valt och valt bort olika aspekter av mig själv som jag presenterar eller inte presenterar på Facebook.
Thomas Söderqvist: Det har du i och för sig rätt i, Bert. Men jag tror inte det är något speciellt för Facebook. Det gäller också den ‘persona’ jag har utvecklat i mitt umgänge med vänner och bekanta, med kolleger på arbetet, via pressen de få gånger jag har uppträtt i intervjuer och reportage, och inte minst om jag trots allt ända skulle ta steget att skriva en hel memoir/självbiografi. Märkligt nog känner jag mig mer ohämmad i det här mediet än via traditionella massmedier, trots att jag i princip är lika synlig här. Jag tror jag lever i en självvald llusion om att Facebook är en slags ‘semi-privat’ arena där jag kan slappna av och presentera en liten smula mera ‘sann persona’ än den jag bygger upp tex på arbetet. Trots att jag vet att min profil är offentlig. Det är lite grann som fransk 1700-talskultur. Så det är ok, du behöver inte lite 100% på mig, annat än att de ting jag berättar är så nära de faktiska beginvenheterna och minnena jag kan komma, men omvänt kommer det att finnas begivenheter, relationer, tankar m.m. som jag aldrig kommer att dela.
Thomas Söderqvist: Eva, responding to your comments last night: I think they were quite ashamed of my mother’s pregnancy. My mother once wrote to me in passing that her father wanted her to make an illegal abortion and when she refused to do that he took her to a lawyer to convince her to accept that they adopted me and that she was going to get the formal status of older sister; and when that failed she accepted (or suggested?) to get formally married with a friend and divorced immediately after so that she could get another surname than theirs. Even though my grandma seem to have tyrannised by mother emotionally, they helped her economically: she had a secure state job (as la ab technician) and they also gave her and me some extra money now and then, they were babysitting and I could be with them after school hours, and so forth. Gradually my grandfather began to like me, I think he began to accept me as the son he never got, and we became quite fond of each other. I cried when he died, I still get tears in my eyes sometimes when I think of him, but I didn’t even attend my grandmother’s funeral.