Psychologist Harriet Lerner, who wrote the landmark Dance of Anger, praised as “one of the first books written about women’s anger,” has a new book out. SorryWatch read Why Won’t You Apologize?: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts with interest, pleasure, and seething jealousy.
SorryWatch is jealous, because as a therapist, Lerner has people telling her all about apologies they got that left them still feeling bad, apologies they never got, apologies they dream of getting, or apologies they made that weren’t accepted for some weird reason – and sometimes coaches people through making a truly good apology. Then (with their permission and the use of pseudonyms) she gets to write about it. Whereas SorryWatch too often has to rely on stories reported by others who often don’t grasp apology nuance.
Though sometimes Lerner has to give bad news. Like ‘the apology you want will probably not be coming.’
Lerner is also willing to tell brave, candid stories on herself, like the infamous Banana Incident.
In this cause célèbre, Lerner’s husband Steve came home bearing five bananas, “all at the same level of ripeness.” She writes that she demanded he apologize for the projected subsequent waste, because a) neither of them eats many bananas, b) neither of them makes banana bread, and c) WE TALKED ABOUT THIS BEFORE. He refused. She stomped off. She ruefully sums up: “It took me all of ten seconds to leap from the fact (buying five ripe bananas meant three would rot) to questioning what sort of person would do such a thing.”
More on bananas later.
SorryWatch was very interested in Lerner’s accounts of two belated apologies from mothers to grown daughters. The first tells of Margaret and her daughter Eleanor. Eleanor’s second child, Christian, was never well enough to leave the hospital. He died at 16 days old.
Meanwhile Margaret took care of Eleanor’s older son (3) and ran the household. She kept a stiff upper lip. She did not encourage demonstrations of feeling. If she saw Eleanor crying, she told her to be strong for the older child.
Ten years later, Margaret was one of Lerner’s clients. One of Margaret’s colleagues had a still-born child. Seeing the way people gathered around and supported him, and the way he accepted that caring, made Margaret think again about her controlled behavior when Christian – her grandchild – died.
Margaret told Eleanor she thought about Christian all the time. Margaret said “she regretted never talking about her feelings because she didn’t know what to say and was afraid of making Eleanor feel worse. She said she was sorry that she had not made a space for them to talk about something so important, the saddest thing that had ever happened in their lives.”
Eleanor did not open up. She brushed it off. “There was nothing you could have done. It wasn’t something you could fix. Don’t worry about it.”
Margaret told Lerner she felt better for having made the apology. Months later, on the anniversary of Christian’s death, Margaret planned to visit his grave for the first time. She mentioned this to Eleanor. Margaret now learned that Eleanor visited the grave twice a year. They visited together. At the grave, Margaret broke into sobs. Eleanor put her arms around her. They cried together.
It seems the display of true feeling cemented Margaret’s apology, and created a meeting of hearts.
The second story is of Letty and Kim. Letty was Lerner’s client. Her 24-year-old daughter Kim was avoiding her, seemed angry, but refused to talk about it. Kim’s father, Letty’s ex-husband, had recently died. Maybe it was something about that. Lerner suggested inviting Kim to one of Letty’s therapy sessions. Kim refused.
Going back: When Kim was thirteen, and Letty was out of town, Kim’s father molested her. A few months later, the facts came out. Letty insisted on family therapy. That was helpful. (Allegedly.) Once therapy ended, Letty didn’t speak to Kim about the abuse, not wanting to be intrusive or “make things worse.” Four years later, Letty divorced her husband after he had an extramarital affair. Kim was 17.
A few months after Letty invited Kim to a therapy session, she changed her mind and agreed. At the session, Kim expressed fury at her mother about the molestation. Letty apologized, saying, “I’m so sorry, Kim. I’m so sorry I didn’t know. I’m so sorry I didn’t protect you. I’m so sorry that this terrible thing happened in our family. I’m so sorry that you didn’t feel safe enough to tell me the truth.” They cried and hugged.
But it became clear that Kim was still angry, especially after they inadvertently went to a movie that had a scene in which a teenager was raped.
Lerner asked Letty what she would do next, and Letty said she’d wait to see if Kim brought anything up. Lerner writes, “we almost always leave it to the hurt party to reopen the conversation about a painful or traumatic past event. But it shouldn’t just be the hurt party’s job. It becomes their job because they are so often left with it.” Lerner urged Letty not to make Kim be the one who had to start.
So Letty called Kim and told her that she hoped they would be able to talk about it. “I don’t see the point,” said Kim. Letty said she hoped they could talk later.
Letty made several more tries, which Kim did not welcome, until things blew up as they were having lunch. Kim attacked about the years after the family therapy. “So you stayed with Dad after knowing what he did to me. And you divorced him when I was 17 because he had an affair? So his affair was a bigger deal to you than his molesting your daughter? Is that fucked up or what? It was like you never gave the abuse a second thought. It’s like you and Dad just put it behind you. I couldn’t put it behind me. It happened to me!”
Stunned, Letty said she had never put the abuse behind her. She told Kim things about the marriage she had not told her before – that she never had sex with Kim’s father after the molestation, that the affair caused the divorce because it re-ignited her anger about the molestation, and that she had refused to go to couples therapy with him because of that.
“There are no words to tell you how sorry I am that I left you alone with what happened. I wish I could go back in time and do it differently. Is there any way that I can make it up to you?”
Lerner writes that Kim said, “You can’t make it up to me…. But at least I have my mother back.”
These two difficult and delayed apologies are also not simple. In both cases we see the common policy/excuse of being silent “so you don’t make things worse.” We see serious apologies taking time and persistence to work themselves out. And with Letty and Kim we see damage done by unexpressed resentments and untold secrets.
About those bananas. At a recent talk at CIIS in San Francisco Lerner brought up this subject. Her husband was in the audience as she demonstrated her apology to him: “Steve, I’m really sorry that I over-reacted to those ripe bananas. I was having a low self-esteem day, and I over-reacted. I am sorry. But don’t do it again.”
We probably won’t be picking up bananas for Lerner, but we highly recommend her book.
(In the spirit of disclosure: in the acknowledgements to this book, there’s a paragraph about other writers on apology whose work she’s found helpful, and we were pleased to find mention of “the eagle-eyed “SorryWatchers” Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall…” We were pleased and surprised, and here’s a thing: the acknowledgements come at the end of the book, so we didn’t see this until we’d already formed a good opinion of it. See, not log-rolling.)