Sacrificial Lamb

by Loolwa Khazzoom • June 7, 2016 • Family Secrets

It started when I was very young, and it has dragged through today. So confusing. My sister was my hero. I looked up to her, admired her, loved her dearly. And yet I was pitted against her, at great expense.

When I was six, my mom pulled me aside and essentially admonished me for doing well in school and for being artistic, indicating that my intelligence and creativity were a threat to my sister and more or less instructing me to do less well, so that my sister would feel better about herself.

What does this kind of misguidance do to a child? I was not supported, applauded, or encouraged to explore and reach my greatest potential, with the gifts and talents that Gd gave to me. I was effectively taught that my breathing air took that air away from someone else, and that I must leave the air for that other person – that I was only worthy of leftovers, that I was only allowed to come in second place or less.

The teaching went hand in hand with the way my mom cooked – only preparing meals if/when my dad was present (at dinner), offering my dad the choice portions, and objecting when my dad offered my sister and me those choice portions instead – creating a strange dynamic, where my dad was glorified for giving us what we should have received in the first place.

It also went hand in hand with the environment of energetic/sexual abuse later on in my life, where my body and space boundaries were seen as an affront to my dad, where those boundaries were outright denied me, and where I was vilified for wanting or defending those boundaries – in the latter case, following which my father would stop talking to me for three days straight.

It was in alignment with the men of the Sephardic synagogue attempting to shut me up and shove me into the back, in the women’s section behind the four foot wall, because I was a girl – meaning that my knowledge of our heritage, passion for preserving it, and competence in leading the prayers (extraordinary for a child, against a backdrop where Sephardim assimilated in droves) were shunned.

And it was in alignment with the way boys and men treated me as I grew into a young woman –threatened by my physical prowess, sharp mind, go-get-‘em attitude, litany of accomplishments (having overcome the bad training), and self-respecting assertiveness – treating my assets as liabilities and choosing passive, placating women over me, time and again.

It taught my sister that I was the cause of her troubles and that I was to blame for her struggles. I forgot about this until recently, but I now recall that my sister went to therapy as a child, and I was the subject of the sessions. I was made aware of that, too, at the time. What does it do to a child to know that simply for being who she is, she is causing a loved one to suffer?

My mom entirely missed an educational opportunity, where she could have taught my sister the art and practice of self-love. My sister could have learned to compare herself to nobody other than herself, to reject the hierarchy of competition, and to otherwise identify and celebrate her strengths and talents. We all could have rejoiced in my sister, together, while also rejoicing in me.

Instead, my mom used to constantly “joke” with my sister that they were going to throw me into the garbage can. My mom has since explained that she was trying to make me less of a threat to my sister. I meanwhile, lived in a constant state of fear that my mother and sister were literally plotting to kill me. When I was six, I was afraid to go to sleep, because I thought the two of them put snakes in my bed. I needed my mom to sit with me until I could fall asleep. But the longer I needed her to stay, the more hatred filled her eyes – making me more frightened and needing her more, causing her eyes to fill with more hatred, and so on, in a vicious cycle. Every night.

My mother also praised my sister and put me down – for example, telling me something along the lines of how I was not interesting, and how the joke book I read her did not amuse her, whereas my sister could read a phone book and make it interesting. Granted, my mother thought children were boring until they became teenagers (ie, legitimate people), a fact she made perfectly clear, so I understood her criticism in that context, but still. It would have been nice if she encouraged me to read the joke book to her, simply because she delighted in the exploration, discovery, and evolution of her daughter’s mind. It would have been nice if she had taken delight in my delight, simply because she loved me.

It was only when I was 10 years old, talking to my mother’s best friend, Wendy, that my mother truly noticed me. I was telling Wendy that I wondered whether reality was reality or whether our dreams were reality. Wendy turned to my mother in astonishment and informed me that the Greek philosophers asked the same questions. Oddly, while my mother attempted to quash my intelligence in my younger years, that moment was the first time she recognized that I had something worthwhile to say. Of course, someone else had to point it out to her.

Meanwhile, when I was six or seven years old, my parents announced that they were sending my sister to Israel, to live with our relatives – namely, my dad’s six sisters and one brother. They were traditional Iraqi Jewish women, doting on all the children in the family, making elaborate and delicious meals, offering heaps of affection. I remembered how wonderful it was to be with them, during the summer that I turned four years old. The cousins roamed in droves, from house to house, getting fed and pampered by the aunts, all of whom lived in a radius of a few blocks from each other.

I jumped down the hall in excitement, following my parents and sister. “I want to go too! Can I go too?” I was told that I could not go, because I was “the favorite” and that if I went, nobody would notice my sister, so she had to go alone. I was additionally told that I could go alone, later on in my life.

Well, that never happened. The next time I went to Israel, I was 13, and went with my whole family. While my relatives were nice to me, and while they fed me delicious, home-cooked, Iraqi Jewish food, they didn’t truly take an interest in me. Something was missing – an intimacy, a certain level of engagement. They were close with and cooed over my sister, however, who was a tight knit part of the gaggle of cousins who also were nice to but had no particular interest in me. I spent the summer feeling like an outcast, more or less ignored, trying to break my way into the “in” crowd. It didn’t happen. Only many years later did I become close with one, and only one, of my aunts.

I never blamed my sister, though. I blamed my parents. By pitting my sister and me against each other and making it top priority to prevent my sister from getting shut out, they effectively created a situation where I got shut out. I vaguely recall my mom noticing that I was ignored and expressing her regret, saying they should have sent me to Israel on my own too.

Yes they should have.

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Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

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Loolwa Khazzoom is a a public relations manager specializing in holistic media, holistic marketing, holistic public relations, and holistic promotions. Her services include branding and messaging development, image and communications management, website content development and optimization, social media management, traditional media campaign management, book development, and in-house writing and editing.

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