Amy Brenneman
Amy Brenneman

Passing (beauty)


Light sinned blacks did it in the segregated south.

Pre-Stonewall gay men did it in marriages where they suffered.

Hell, I did it too.  In the dark ages of my family’s dysfunction (happily changed this quarter century later), when my father was still drinking and my brother dealing dope and I didn’t know any of that, just knew that something was wrong.  I passed as normal.  No, better – exceptional.  It wasn’t enough to blend in; I had to create a diversion with my specialness, so that no one would look beyond my family’s increasingly frayed curtain.

We pass.

We pass tests, we hope to fit in, blend in, and not create a ruckus.  But somewhere in us is a still, small voice:  can’t it be better than this?  Can’t I actually be myself?

My daughter, who has taught me everything, has taught be about this too.  So terrified was I, to be a mother, so overworked and stressed – that I tried desperately to “pass” as a mother.  Please, let me say the right things; concoct the right “schedule,” (courtesy of my old school British nanny).  Feed the right foods and Charlotte would emerge precocious, well behaved, affectionate – and sleeping through the night.  It was formulaic, right?  Put something in, you’d get something predictable out.  Scientific, logical, mechanical.  The star-making machine on that beach of the Sneeches.

But from the start, my Charlotte defied prediction.  She didn’t sleep through the night, ate to her own likes, and marched to her own drummer.  My mother’s eyebrows arched and I felt it ping – zap! – in my belly of shame.

Then at two, the delays were apparent.  “Thank God she doesn’t have any weird behaviors,” said Beth the speech therapist (who has seen her fair share)), “and it helps that she’s so pretty.”  And you know what Beth?  It does.

And yet.  Yet we were back to the game of passing.  Charlotte could basically tolerate any classroom I put her in, but we’d hold our breath, waiting for a strange utterance or inexplicable behavior.  Just the other day, at a resort pool, a girl her age was drawn to her and wanted to play, and they did – but only with me playing U.N. interpreter.

Last year, Charlotte’s and my collective still, small voice began asking:  can’t it be better than this?  Can’t we be ourselves?  Can’t we be honest about our challenges, our struggles and shadow selves?  And isn’t that place, where we can do that – isn’t that the place we call home?

How do we get in the habit of passing?  Surely it is ingrained in us from early on, as American as Paul Bunyon and apple pie.  Let’s look at some dispatches from the front line:

February 2003:  Sky Bar, Hollywood

We are celebrating a work friend’s American citizenship.  Me, Brad, all the others that I worked with at the time.  I am relaxed.  Charlotte is about to turn two and we enjoyed this year SO much more than the last one.  The terrors of infancy (mine, not hers) were retreating, and I found myself actually – dare I say it – having fun.

Tyne Daly and I sat toasting ourselves and laughing our asses off.  She asked me about life, motherhood, art and God – you know, our typical superficial fare.  Then she quite casually asked, “Do you think it’s odd that Charlotte is not speaking yet?”

Penny drop, stomach lurch.  Something is awry.

“Not really,” I try to gather my thoughts amid vodka and Hollywood cleavage.  “Do you?”

Passing, passing.  Passing as normal and hiding all flaws.  But we have been found out.

Brad and I drove home that night with me chattering about her comment (“That Tyne – what does she know?  She was probably just wasted!”) amid a gathering dread.  Three months later we started speech therapy, nine months later an IEP.

That Tyne Daly.  What does she know?

Passing, passing.  By the skin of our teeth, barely making it, squeaking by

April 2004:  Encino Elementary School

I bring Charlotte to her first IEP, which was all Greek to us.  Like travelers in some strange school year abroad, we showed up to mysterious places and met mysterious people who seemed so at ease with this strange business of quantifying another, tiny, human.

At the first session we were to meet the school nurse and the school psychologist.  The meeting was set for one pm – a lethal hour for my daughter.  Transitioning from a naptime she’d never really mastered, I could count on 1 pm being a netherworld of fatigue, hysteria and misery.  For me as well.  We showed up at a tiny room where puzzles were put out and crayons proffered.  Charlotte would have none of it.  Howling, clutching my hair, bracing her legs like a lamb to slaughter, the meeting devolved quickly into an episode of “Survivor” with me playing the part of the apologetic host.  Apologizing with the hackneyed “She’s not always like this!”  “You’re not seeing her best side!” as their pencils scraped government forms.

Shame spiral.  We left defeated.  Or rather, I did.  Char was just happy to be back in the sunshine and leave the judgment behind.  She’s always been a wise child.

One week later we had round two.  Dread.  But this time it was scheduled for 10 am – Char’s happy time.  We met up with the PT, the OT, and various other T’s outside on the play structure. Charlotte was delightful.  Smiley and communicative – in gesture if not in word – she charmed the adults who scribbled positive things in their governmental forms.  I crawled out of the shame spiral and emerged sputtering and blinking back onto the shores of a job well done.  The job of raising a “normal” daughter.

Not long after, I told the story of Char’s IEP to a seasoned mother of a special needs kid.  “Oh, no!” she exclaimed.  “You WANT them to fall apart!  Then you get more services!  Sometimes I’ll skip his lunch and nap and gets cranky, just so they give me behavioral!”

Clearly, I didn’t read the memo on how to manipulate the system.  Clearly, too, I was not in acceptance yet that we really NEEDED services.  Other people did, sure.  But this was a short layover for us – this special needs thing – not our final destination.  Let other people learn how to manipulate the system – my daughter and I are just passing through.  Right?

Passing, passing.  By the skin of our teeth, barely making it, squeaking by

September 2002:  Tarzana, California

I slouch at the back of Kid’s Gym.  I worked til 3 am the night before.  That means I don’t have go to work until 3 pm today.  The non-parents in my cast sleep until noon or one, I am up at 5:30 with my 18-month-old girl.  We stumble through the morning – much help from Daddy – and then I take her to her “gym class,” which I’d signed her up for a couple of months before.

In those couple of months, I’d gone with her maybe twice.  I always wanted to, but never could, courtesy of a liquid shooting schedule over which I had little control.  I engineered her life from afar, signing up for things I’d heard about, making play dates with people I barely knew.  “Charlotte and I met a cute girl in the park,” my nanny would proclaim. “I got her number.”  She’d hold the number out to me and I’d call, so shy, so at a loss about this particular social transaction.  The other mother was inevitably cheerful and confident and I faked my way through – I’m nothing if not a trained actress – pretending that I’d done this kind of thing a hundred times.

My mother worked when I was little.  Not many others did.  Mostly I was proud, sometimes I missed the afternoon rituals of cookies and sewing, which were basically mythic but actually existed at my friend Jill Schreiber’s house.  Jill’s mother was sweet and doting – endlessly available but frankly a little dull.  My mother wasn’t around as much, but when she was we’d talk books and ideas, not cookies.  Probably why I still don’t cook to this day.

We had a running joke, my mother and me.  If we had a free Saturday afternoon or some unexpected unplanned time she’d turn to me and say, “What do real mothers and daughters do?”  And then we’d try to do it.  We’d go to a mall (which we hated) or shop for clothes (boring) and try to imagine the activities of a “normal” mother and daughter.  We’d laugh about it all, but I suppose there was some mourning too. We were constantly playing catch up, constantly laboring under the charlatan complex.

So here I was again.  Slouching at kid’s gym.  Watching the other mothers playing parachute, ball and peek-a-boo.  It’s not that Charlotte and I didn’t do those things – we had a wonderful play life.  It was more the culture of at-home mothering was foreign to me and made me feel less-than, not as good as, a charlatan mother.

What do real mothers and daughters do?

As I slouched, a woman came up to me drinking a latte.  She was there with her daughter Kiara and had two more boys at home.  She also was seven months pregnant.  She sipped her latte and slouched with me.  We watched one especially manic mom playing parachute with her son who looked like he could use some alone time.  “Justin!  Justin!  Look at me!  Peek a boo!!”  Justin looked around the room, as if searching for someone to help him out of this awkward cocktail party moment.  “Justin!  Big Boy!  Wheee!!!”

My latte drinking friend, who with three children and one on the way could arguable be called the most experience mother in the room, turned to me and muttered, “Wow.  She really needs to get a life.”

The latte drinker is named Donna.  She became one of my best friends. She’s my kind of mama.

Passing, passing.  By the skin of our teeth, barely making it, squeaking

November 1976.  Gideon Welles Junior High School

Junior High is all about passing, right?  Hide the zit, the nerdy glasses, the low self-esteem.  I sit in social studies wearing turtleneck, Fair Isle sweater and jeans:  the winter uniform of Glastonbury Connecticut.  But everything was a little bit wrong.  The sweater didn’t have the vital three buttons at the front and the jeans were Lees, not Levis.  To this day, I don’t know how my Harvard educated mother could fail to comprehend these distinctions and manage to buy the wrong kind REPEATEDLY but I guess some things defy explanation.  I sit with Jill in the back, out of the orbit of the queens:  Marylynne Tyrrell, Sharon Elliot and Tricia Trusk.  May their names live on in infamy.  You know them because you were in class with them too.  The inhibitors of cool, the not-so-benevolent despots.  Their Fair Isles had three buttons, their jeans were Levis and they wore Bean boots – the requisite foul weather footwear in preppy Glastonbury into which my sliver-narrow feet didn’t even fit.  I still wore galoshes.

My grand arrival into my ancestral home of theater dorks was still a year away.  At this point I was still playing at fitting in.  On that fateful day in social studies the queens gathered their heads in whispered conference.  Then Marylynne raised her petite blond head and scanned the room.  “Whose mother is a judge?”

Face flood in shame.  I’m not passing now.  I’ve been outed as having a mother who works – not the norm for our neck of suburbia – and more than that, my mother has a career.  Mothers could work if they volunteered in the school library, or maybe had a job as a nurse, but this, this, prominent job thing was too outside the bounds of normal.

I swear to you, the way Marylynne dripped that last word, “judge,” she could have been calling my mother a whore.

Passing, passing.  By the skin of our teeth, barely making it, squeaking by

With all of this baggage, we greet our children.  Some dealt with, most not.  Or rather, we think we’ve dealt with it until we greet our children.  Then the issues come roaring into the nursery and settle in next to the diaper genie.

My issues are about hiding my flaws and distracting you with achievement. My daughter, who has taught me everything, has taught me about this too.  She has helped to break the familial cycle of secrets and shame.  She has bushwhacked into the brave new world of authenticity.  She has taught me that life is more than “passing.”  She has taught me there is no “normal” — that the guy we revere as the straight arrow quarterback is probably wearing women’s underwear, or at the very least has a stutter.  Charlotte does not see people in terms of their deficits.  She doesn’t care about cool behavior – she does care about warmth, play and acceptance.  Not a bad standard for friendship.

Finally, my daughter has shown me, again and again, that it is because of the chinks in the armor of our perfectionism that new light can come in, the light of intimacy and help and love.

October 2009.  Topanga, California

So here we all are.  Coming together as community in this bright October day, imagining a world where everyone belongs.  And you know what?  Everyone does belong here.  That is the magic of CHIME.

Last year, Charlotte’s and my collective still, small voice began asking:  can’t it be better than this?  Can’t we be ourselves?  Can’t we be honest about our challenges, our struggles and shadow selves?  And isn’t that place, where we can do that – isn’t that the place we call home?

We have found that at CHIME.  We found home.  From the first, we exhaled with relief.  We don’t have to hide.  Life – school – has become about more than passing.  It’s about saying:

“Here’s who I am.

Here’s what I can do.

Here are my struggles.

Can I ask you for help?

(And while we’re at it, can I help you?)”

We build community by admitting our mutual need, not by pretending that we have none.  And in the process, we are “Chimed.”  We start looking at the world differently.  We accept things that were once scary, we understand things that were once strange, we admit that we don’t have it all together, we get off the relentless hamster wheel of the 21st century and look around for a minute or two.

If you looked at your audience-mates (you don’t have to – it’s way too scary and I’m not that touchy-feely!) you would see a fellow traveler on this unfolding journey.  Beside you is a person who triumphs and struggles, just like you, with fears and joys that mirror your own.  They may look different than yours, and the world outside might judge those differences as more significant than the similarities.  We at CHIME know better.  We know that this “better world” we’re imagining is about seeing a piece of ourselves in everyone.  Charlotte Silberling knows that, as all CHIME kids do.  They are guiding us toward that better world.

Lucky, lucky us.