Judith Ruskay Rabinor is the author of the new book The Girl in the Red Boots: Making Peace with My Mother. Her other books include A Starving Madness. A clinical psychologist, she is based in Manhattan.
Q: What inspired you to write The Girl in the Red Boots?
A: I began writing this book as a ritual of mourning. My mother passed away in 2011 after battling Parkinson’s disease and dementia for a decade. A slow, sad, debilitating ending.
I was the loyal and devoted daughter who was also despairing and resentful as I plunged into what is now a familiar journey: accompanying our parents to the gates.
I grieved for my mother as she deteriorated, I grieved for myself, too, as I tenaciously stood by her side in what was an exhausting journey for both of us. I’ve always found solace in writing, and I thought it would be consoling for me to write about her.
There’s a deeper answer to this question. The subtitle of my book is Making Peace with My Mother. In writing this book, I learned it wasn’t my mother I needed to make peace with so much as with my ambivalent feelings towards her.
I loved her but I struggled with my angry and resentful feelings. I puzzled over why I was unable to let go of my grievances. Now that I’ve written the book, I understand why: it’s difficult to let go of a traumatic experience without processing it.
For much of my life I’d helped patients understand that one doesn’t have to be victimized by cataclysmic abuse to be scarred by trauma. Unwittingly, I’d minimized the impact of events in my own life I would later understand as traumatic.
Writing has always helped me release and process my feelings—and helped me face my blind spots. Ultimately it’s been a lifelong resource.
There is more. I wrote this book to normalize the fact that painful childhood experiences live on and are sometimes impossible to “just get over.” What’s unique about my book is I describe how doing therapy changed me as well as my patients.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between you and your mother?
A: That’s a hard question. The real answer is, “You’ll have to read the book.”
We had a complicated relationship. On the surface we were compatible and good with and to one another. But my mother was an uber-optimist and her relentless optimism made me feel she was superficial and unreachable.
Often I felt disappointed with her and sometimes, mean-spirited. Those feelings bothered me. I knew my mother loved me and cared for me, and I didn’t understand my negative feelings until I spent a lot of time both in therapy and writing this book.
Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?
A: My mother loved to tell a story about me as a spunky 4-year-old who was determined to get a pair of red boots. The day she bought them, I was euphoric--I insisted on wearing them with my pajamas!
The next morning, when she awoke, I was nowhere to be found--I’d snuck out of the house. My mother found me on the sidewalk, riding my red tricycle. I was naked, wearing nothing but my red boots.
This was a story my mother loved telling; she was proud of me, her feisty, rule-breaking daughter and how independent I was. “You always danced to your own drummer,” she’d tell me.
I always thought I got my spunk and high energy from my father, but I was wrong. Only later in life did I recognize there was a part of my mother I’d ignored: she was the original rule-breaker!
Acknowledging my blind spot was an awakening for me and is core to the book’s message: we are all imperfect narrators; we all have limited perspective. How had I been oblivious to the fact that my mother was the original girl in the red boots?
Q: What do you hope readers take away from your book?
A: I wrote this book to remind readers that stories are our best teachers. Every story you hear has the possibility of changing you.
I have the privilege of being a therapist; the stories in my office are a window on pain and resiliency. Every day I learn from my patients. But all of us listen to others’ stories every day. The stories you hear have great power—all that is necessary is to listen with curiosity: an open mind and an open heart.
Here are some takeaways:
It’s never too late to change your story and change your life. I wrote this book after my mother had passed on. Even if your parent is gone you have the opportunity to revisit your story and rewrite your life.
No one is as bad as the worst thing s/he has ever done. For many years I held onto “Bad Mommy” stories that reinforced my dissatisfaction with my mother.
We are all imperfect narrators. Your story is simply a story but the stories we tell shape us. Now is a good time to examine any stories you tell yourself repeatedly. Do your stories reinforce your grudges? Are you telling the story of a victim or a survivor? Change your story, change your life.
Love is always flawed. Recently I heard Adrienne Brodeur speaking about her compelling memoir, Wild Game. She quoted Vivian Gornick’s advice about building characters when writing a memoir: “You have to show the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the victim.” While writing my memoir, I kept those works taped to a bulletin board above my desk.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Right now I’m absorbed in launching this book! I’m learning about the power of social media, blogging, and e-mail campaigns.
I’m working on a new book about aging, working title: You’re Never Too Old to Publish a Book or Climb a Tree. It’s about aging and having the opportunity to learn new things.
After watching The Queen’s Gambit, my husband taught me to play chess and now we play regularly. I’m looking for a chess vacation in an exotic location for us to attend as soon as the world opens up again.
Another new project I’m excited about is creating a writing retreat with my colleague Laura Zinn Fromm. We’re exploring locations in Mexico or Italy to host a one-week retreat in winter of 2022.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: I’ve been a therapist and a writing coach and I’m impressed with how both therapy and writing can help people examine their stories.
My website tagline says: “Change your story, change your life.” It’s so easy to get locked into a story about yourself that keeps you imprisoned.
A 61-year-old patient of mine has taken great pride in being independent and through both therapy and writing, she came to understand that her independence masked a deep fear of commitment and her fear of commitment masked a deeper of being taken over and controlled.
Subsequently, at 61, she finds herself alone, only now understanding why she lacks companionship and longing for connection. A deeper understanding gives her a new story, and a new story opens new opportunities.
It’s when we examine our stories with curiosity that we have an opportunity learn more about ourselves and open new doorways.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb