In New Memoir, Deborah J. Cohan Explores the Complexities of Love, Illness and Parental Abuse

With her new book, Welcome to Wherever We Are: A Memoir of Family, Caregiving and Redemption, sociologist Deborah J. Cohan explores the complexities of caring for an aging parent with a history of abusive behavior.

How do you go about caregiving for an ill and elderly parent with a lifelong history of abuse and control, intertwined with expressions of intense love and adoration? How do you reconcile the resulting ambivalence, fear, and anger? (Amazon)

When she was growing up, Cohan’s father was at turns a loving and kind man—but also one prone to unpredictable, vitriolic outbursts of shaming criticisms that cut to the bone.

As he got older and Cohan began to observe memory loss and a decreased ability to care for himself, the responsibility fell to her. Before long, she knew it was time to find a nursing home to offer him more continuous care. The realities of caregiving meant that Cohan was challenged to reconcile her love for her father with the pain of the trauma he caused her. 

What Cohan offers readers is not so much a narrative of trauma, as a narrative of caregiving; it is unique in that Cohan doesn’t make the abuse the focus. She does share some of the most heinous things he did and said to her, such as, “You’d make my life easier if you’d commit suicide.” The entire chapter, “Messages,” is a list of voicemails left to her by her father; they run the gamut between, “I love being your father,” to “You ungrateful little bitch.” 

By her own admission, her father could be as kind and gentle as he was loud and critical. He never hit her, but the threat of it was real and constant—breeding in her a fear and hyper-vigilance that is seen in many survivors of abuse. This is what made reckoning with caring for him so difficult. While she has experienced trauma at the hands of her father, she also experienced his compassion and love. 

Another strength of the book is Cohan’s dedication to exploring the gray areas that often exists in families that have experienced abuse. For many, these situations aren’t as black-and-white as other, more extreme cases.

Cohan experienced the contradictions of loving someone who was awful to you, of wanting the abuse to stop but the relationship to continue, of others’ experiences of your abuser’s generosity while you experienced his dark side. Cohan is particularly adept at explaining and examining the challenges that come with these shades of gray.

As a sociologist and domestic violence expert writing about her own trauma, Cohan is able to provide professional insight into the personal aspects of surviving abuse. Most helpful is her discussion of the cyclical nature of abuse. We know that abuse is often passed down from parents to children and that cycles of abuse are challenging to disrupt because of this.

But Cohan also confronts the daily cycles of violence and forgiveness that occur within abusive family contexts, as well as the guilt that often accompanies these patterns. She examines how abuse is reproducible by survivors within their other relationships, using her own marriage as an example. 

Cohan questions how we find our voice and safety, especially as survivors of abuse or neglect. She describes how trauma can also alter memory, can affect body image, can cause a need for perfectionism and can even challenge a survivor’s concepts of space and time.

Cohan graciously offers personal examples of her own struggles with these issues throughout her life—including her hyperawareness of her father’s comfort at the expense of her own. She knows what it feels like to make herself small and quiet, in order to appease her abuser and avoid potentially devastating hazards. 

The most poignant focus of this memoir is Cohan’s navigation of caring for her aging father. She struggles with the daily challenges and humilities of caregiving: dealing with a parent’s memory loss, agitation, the physical limitations, the loss of independence and the frustration that often accompanies getting older.

But Cohan also faces the deeper reality of caring for a person who was both her father and her abuser. He is a good person and a troubled person: Both are true. She feels both love and contempt for him simultaneously. She grapples with the notions of forgiveness and redemption. How can survivors deal with these shades of gray? How does one get beyond the realities of trauma to care for the one who caused it? Must a survivor forgive to heal and be whole? 

One way Cohan was able to make sense of her complex family dynamics and begin her healing process was by writing about it. Writing one’s trauma can be a difficult experience in itself, but one which can also be a catalyst for processing, understanding, and moving on from the effects of abuse. Writing can help with clarity of thought, memory, and ownership of one’s own truth. Cohan doesn’t write a vicious memoir that condemns her father to a life of rejection and judgment. Instead, it is one of candor and, at times, ambivalence. It models critical reflection, authenticity, autonomy, and attempts at understanding through what Cohan calls, “tender curiosity.”    

Welcome to Wherever We Are is a brave memoir that sheds light on the challenges of caring for an abusive parent. This volume is bound to offer solace and support to those in similar situations. Deborah J. Cohan’s honesty and compassion make this a unique and valuable memoir for anyone who has survived abuse by a parent and struggles to make sense of the conflicting feelings of love and responsibility as well as anger and resentment toward their abuser. 

In this gripping memoir, Cohan tells her unique personal story while also weaving in her expertise as a sociologist and domestic abuse counselor to address broader questions related to marriage, violence, divorce, only children, intimacy and loss. (A Room of One’s Own)

About

Karla J. Strand is the Gender and Women’s Studies Librarian for the University of Wisconsin. She completed her doctorate in Information Science via University of Pretoria in South Africa with a background in history and library science, and her research centers on the role of libraries and knowledge in empowering women and girls worldwide. Karla is working on her first book, a history of the Office of the GWS Librarian, due out in 2020. Tweet her @karlajstrand.