Exiles by Carolyn Kay Steedman
First impressions of Steedman’s “Exiles” left me feeling as if the woman had a lot of sour grapes to deal with.The overall flavor of the piece leans toward the negative, the cynical and sometimes even the sarcastic.She seems particularly critical of her parents, who probably did their best with what they had, but nowhere do we see much in the way of compassionate empathy on her part.The title she chose for the piece, Exiles, emphasizes the alienation that she felt from her parents, as well as the social/economic alienation which she felt her parents had endured.If I had to place a particular definition on this interpretation, it would be that Steedman suffers from a lack of objectivity.
One such example of this cynicism appears in the last paragraph of page 649, wherein Steedman goes out of her way to describe in detail how her mother lied to her about her past:
As a teenage worker my mother had broken with a recently established tradition and on leaving school in 1927 didn’t go into the sheds.She lied to me though when, at about the age of eight, I asked her what she’d done, and she said she’d worked in an office, done clerical work.
Steedman then goes on to say how she had sought out and verified that this lie was true:
. . .I talked to my grandmother and she, puzzled, told me that Edna had never worked in any office, had in fact been apprenticed to a dry-cleaning firm that did tailoring and mending.
Steedman later on sought additional opportunities to reveal her mother’s evasion of the truth.From the top of page 650:
. . .Now I can feel the deliberate vagueness in her accounts of those years: “When did you meet daddy?”-“Oh, at a dance, at home.”There were no photographs.Who came to London first?I wish now that I’d asked that question.
And so Steedman goes on and on trying to reveal every possible negative thing she can dig up about her parents.She extends her father no more mercy either, as we see at the bottom of page 650:
I remember incidents like these, I think, because I was about seven, the age at which children start to notice social detail and social distinction, but also more particularly because the long lesson in hatred for my father had begun. . . .
And also at the top of page 651:
But we were forced to choose, early on, which side we belonged to, and children have to come down on the side that brings the food home and gets it on the table.By 1955 I was beginning to hate him-because he was to blame, for the lack of money, for my mother’s terrible dissatisfaction at the way things were working out.
My reaction to all of this is “What a complainer!”Good grief, usually poverty and hard times draws people together and helps them appreciate the better things in life.This is particularly true with those who endured the depravations of WWII and the depression, such as her parents.But seeing how Steedman appears to have been one of the first baby-boomers on the scene in the late 40’s, one can see how wealth and prosperity probably surrounded her in the community.It’s amazing how greed sets in so quickly upon a people and develops within them a “Gimmie! Gimmie!” mentality that can never be satisfied.
Perhaps Steedman is expressing the only form of revenge she can exact from her parents, now long since dead.By dragging their names through the mud it appears that she may be getting some form or sadistic pleasure and satisfaction.I am sure she would never admit to it that way, however.She probably feels she has written quite a scholarly piece–giving her parents a detached, objective observation.They may have even become another one of her “case studies.”But when all is said and done, and the diplomas have been tucked back in the drawer or hung back on the wall, we’re all just a bunch of selfish, self-seeking human beings who often give in to the base and deplorable.
This piece was about name-calling.It was a carefully veiled attempt on the part of the writer to shield her malicious intentions toward her parents with cultural witticisms and academic prowess.I wasn’t fooled.Anyone who cannot afford to grant their parents just a little bit of slack, or perhaps even a little bit of gentle humor for the tough times they went through really hasn’t grown up yet.