The Stockholm Syndrome
As the music swelled behind the vestibule doors, my father asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
My father’s question, and its timing, was ridiculous. There was no turning back now. But I recognized immediately what prompted both the question and the timing. He knew what my answer would be, but in asking, he’d be forever able to say he had offered me a way out. It made a sad kind of sense to me. All my little-girl ideas about my father as hero dissolved in that moment.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to,” he said, without his usual confident tone. The words sounded false to my ears as well. I stared straight ahead. But he was waiting for an answer, for absolution. I knew he had already paid the caterer and the florist.
Without looking at him, I said, “It’s OK Dad.”
The wide oak doors opened. We walked down the aisle and he handed me over to someone he knew I did not love. All that mattered to him was that the threat to the family’s reputation would be over in an hour after the priest’s blessing.
* * * * * *
I was the middle child of three, raised in a strict, second-generation Italian family. As the number two girl-child, I was superfluous. But I quickly realized that birth order and gender released me from the scrutiny my sister received as the oldest, the one Mom and Dad cut their parental teeth on. It also relieved me of the overabundance of attention my brother received as “the boy,” the one destined to carry on the family name.
I can’t recall being jealous of either of my siblings; mostly I watched and observed and simply stayed out of the way. As adults, my brother and sister claimed I was the one my parents liked best. From my point of view, I was merely forgotten, not favored.
My father suffered from a lack of self-esteem grounded in the abject poverty of his youth during the Great Depression. Whereas some of that generation who had suffered in the same situation abandoned their hopes and dreams, my father’s early misfortunes drove him to excel in every aspect of his later life. He demanded the same degree of excellence of our mother and his children. The only authority that superseded his own was that of the Catholic Church. Close in second place was his allegiance to the almighty dollar.
I had been dating my to-be husband for 18 months, and we had been on- and off-again for the past year. The more I learned about him, the more I knew he was not right for me, but I had allowed myself to be talked back into the relationship more than once.
We started dating somewhere in the middle of the sexual revolution. Because I was a “good girl,” I had arrived a little late to the party, full of curiosity and wanting to make up for lost time. I allowed him to bed me to get it over with. I did not like it. It was nothing at all what I had expected.
I was ready to move on, but he had other plans. In his mind, I was the one, and he was persistent. To end it for good, I enlisted my parents to shield me from him. They did not like him. They were happy I had decided to break it off once and for all. Our strict household rules had protected me from the world, whether I liked it or not, for all of my life. Surely, people who monitored and controlled everything I did, read, ate and wore, wouldn’t force me to make the mistake of my life.
But I was wrong.
One evening when I was out with my friends, he visited them without my knowledge. He pleaded with my parents to help win me back. He professed to love me. As proof that I loved him too, he divulged that we had slept together.
His confession had the desired effect on my father. When I walked through the door that night, I found the trio huddled over a calendar. My fate had been decided. “Don’t you dare break my heart,” my father said, alluding to the worst fate that could befall an Italian Catholic father — a pregnant, unmarried daughter.
“We are going to make this right,” he repeated sternly. I turned to my mother for help. She refused to even look at me. After weeks of being shunned by my parents, I just gave up fighting them, confident that something, somehow, would occur to prevent this from happening.
* * * * * *
My parents planned and executed my lavish wedding in short order. Inside of six weeks, a guest list had been organized, invitations were addressed and mailed, the country club booked, the band hired. We bought the first and only dress I tried on. It was one shade this side of white, fancifully called “moonlight.”
Just as my mother prohibited a purely white fabric for the dress, she would not allow a veil. It was too virginal. After all, the whole reason for this charade was that I was not. We substituted a wide-brimmed hat instead. It would appear very fashion-forward, without giving a hint of the past transgressions of the wearer.
I had none of the usual pre-nuptial fanfare. No bridal shower or rehearsal dinner. It was just as well not to celebrate this travesty. My sister was appointed my one attendant. On the morning of the wedding I did everyone’s hair and makeup as well as my own. I smiled for the group photos because the photographer told me to; in the “candids,” I looked grim.
At the reception, my parents danced the night away. They had spared no expense. Shortly afterward, they departed for a trip to Europe and returned to receive lilting calls from guests who congratulated them for throwing the party of the year.
There was no honeymoon. In the first of many disappointments to come, my husband failed to complete the one detail that had been assigned to him. On our wedding night, I fell asleep alone while he opened gift envelopes and counted the proceeds. I went to work on Monday as usual. All was as it had been, except that my route to the office had changed.
In hindsight, I realize now that on my wedding day I took my first steps toward liberation. Had I known that 22 years later, my then-husband would introduce me to the love of my life, I think that I would have run – not walked – down the aisle, beaming, the very image of the proper, happy bride.