OPINION: It’s okay if your friend doesn’t speak to their parents

Kate Herreras-Zinman

I’m not on speaking terms with my father, and I wish that was viewed as normal. I haven’t been on speaking terms with him since May of this year, and it comes up surprisingly often. People do ask you about your parents when you’re in college, but those aren’t questions you think of as odd until you’ve cut a parent off.

My father has been manipulative and angry for all of my life, but that was my normal. I had to go to a university he wanted me to go to. I had to do things just his way or he would freak out. For an entire week in high school, he even kicked me out of his house for saying “Fuck you,” which is just about the most normal teenage thing I can think of but, to him, it was an egregious offense.

My father is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as am I. For him, that manifests in a lot of rigidity that shows him needing people to bend to what he wants. It’s something he never worked on. So one day, I reached a boiling point. I was using the last of a semester’s meal plan money to throw a random pizza party for some friends. This wouldn’t do; why should I spend money on something dumb and frivolous when I could save him money by inviting him to dinner on campus with me? He even said he’d like to use my phone so he could call Papa John’s himself. He kept pushing the subject, and I realized that it was too much for me. We haven’t really spoken since; I’ve blocked him on every platform, and the major turning point was very literally pizza.

When it does come up that we’re not on speaking terms, people automatically assume the worst. People say “I’m so sorry.” People ask if it’s because I’m trans. I have to work up the courage to tell them that it’s a voluntary situation — that what I wish they’d say is “good for you!” I have to push down this urge to tell them off for assuming so many things about me. Yet, the situation is a far more common one than you’d think. I spoke to many people who wish this was less taboo — more than I could possibly include in an article. I put out a call on social media for anyone who’d been in this position — voluntarily not speaking with their parents — to speak to me. These are their stories.

First, Elizabeth Sofley responded to my Facebook post looking for people to speak to about this subject promptly. Sofley and I used to be on an improv team together, called Disaster Time, over Zoom during the pandemic, and this was the first time we’d seen each other since. We spoke on Nov. 18.

Sofley had cut off her mother and had a compelling response as to when. “My mom and I were like the Pam and Tommy of mother-daughter relationships. We were like together — apart — together — apart.”

Sofley and her mother would go through periods of not speaking starting when Sofley was 14 years old. It was eleven years ago, at the age of 28, that Sofley cut her mother off for the final time. Having originally left her mother at such a young age, Sofley said, “There wasn’t a preparation to leave. It was more like when Sylvester is hanging on a pole and Tweety’s going ‘pleek-pleek-pleek-pleek,’” Sofley mimed Tweety Bird plucking at Sylvester’s hand. She went to live with her grandmother at that time.

When asked about people’s responses to her not being on speaking terms with her mother, Sofley told me “What would be nice is inclusivity. If someone were to do the math to realize ‘This person probably has a pretty lonely Thanksgiving,’ I think an invite to an event that promotes community would be a perfect response.”

Second, Robert Becker responded to the aforementioned Facebook post. I’ve known Becker for years. He’s a friend of my mother. Becker is a travel agent and rock musician, having played with bands such as The Gin Blossoms. We spoke over the phone first thing the following morning, the 19th.

Becker first cut off his father at a young age, but they eventually got back in touch. “When my mother became ill, I wanted to present a united front with my brothers and me, and my father sent me an email saying that what I was doing was a very kind thing, and that resumed contact between us.”

Becker says that, for a while, this went well. Eventually, however, things turned sour again. “He began to do things that were very homophobic, not directed so much at me as at my little brother who was much more vulnerable than I was; he didn’t have the support of other gay people.”

Eventually, Becker got back in touch with his father through other family members. They’re still in contact today. He says his father recently pointed out how happy Becker seems. “We had lunch, and my dad said to me ‘The others did what was expected of them, but here we are forty years later, and you’re happier than any of them.’ That’s nice. I’m not interested in being compared to them, but at least he recognizes that I’m doing my own thing and learned how to be happy.”

Becker gave me a list of the four books he felt influenced him in finding himself and learning how to be happy during his times of emotional turmoil: “Destructive Emotions” by Daniel Goleman and the Dalai Lama, “The Art of Loving” by Erich Fromm, “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, and “Wind, Sand and Stars” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. He was specific to note that he keeps extra copies around of the last one to give to people because he believes that everyone should read it. He sent me a copy, and I look forward to reading it. The book, a memoir about early delivery piloting and its dangers, sounds as spiritually inspirational as Becker describes it, but the real inspiration came from receiving it in the mail: I’m not the only person who’s experienced this, not even the only person in my life.

Third, I spoke with Jen Haskin. Haskin is a family member of a friend of mine. She reached out to me based on my Instagram post. She hasn’t spoken to her parents in over a year after cutting contact voluntarily. Haskin is also unique in regards to everyone else on this list and, as far as I know, anyone I’ve spoken to; she has Dissociative Identity Disorder. I had a Zoom meeting with her outside the Main Library a few hours after my conversation with Becker on the 19th.

Dissociative identity disorder is something I have very little knowledge of or familiarity with. When I asked Haskin to describe it to me, I joked “I know it’s probably not an easy thing to explain, but right now my mind is going to Moon Knight, and I know it’s not that.” As much as I was trying to be playful, that was also completely true — everything I know about Dissociative Identity Disorder comes from superhero fiction.

Haskin explained it to me in terms I understood. “It’s like a form of compartmentalizing everything. If you think about a bookshelf, for instance, and how there’s just books on it but they each have their own story, that’s exactly how my mind is built, so there’s different personalities that contain different kinds of information and different parts of my life.”

Haskin says that it was one big incident that led her to cut off her parents. “I discovered that I had childhood trauma and sent letters to both my mom and dad and basically told them I had been abused during my childhood, and, if they wanted to talk to me about it, they could follow some strict boundaries I had set with it. I wanted them to physically write me a letter, not just send me a text message or try to call me and talk their way out of it. I wanted them to think about it and process it. Both of them broke that boundary, so that moved me in the direction of cutting them off.”

Dissociative identity disorder made the process of cutting a parent off hard for Haskin. “It was like fighting. There had to be a time when it was about the people who were hurt and didn’t want to talk to them anymore and not about the people who wanted to be in a relationship with them.”

Haskin stressed that the decision still felt like an empowering one. “It still feels empowering, and I would tell anybody who felt like they wanted to do it to do it because, even if it was a struggle, I would stand behind that.”

A takeaway to be had from these stories is that it’s not always a bad thing to not speak to your parents. It can be empowering. It can feel like a step in the right direction. It’s okay if your friend doesn’t speak to their parents, and it doesn’t feel good when people assume that’s a bad thing. If you want to express sympathy, just be there for your friends. If you’re anything like me, as I found when writing this piece, there are already plenty of people in your life who have cut off their parents. It’s just not something that we talk about because it’s so taboo, so maybe they just haven’t told you.

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Kate is a sophomore at the University of Arizona. She loves improv comedy and comic books.