The Need for Self-Preservation

The 7th in a Series on my Family Tree … Volume II

Prompt: Outcast


What happens when people withdraw from the family? Could they be considered outcasts by choice?

My maternal grandmother, Alice (Gordon) McDonall (1916-1994), comes up quite often in these family tree posts, as well she might. Granny Alice was an extraordinary woman who overcame profoundly difficult life circumstances to find her independence. In the early 1960s when women in abusive marriages typically put up and shut up granny managed to escape from a 27-year matrimonial nightmare. And she did it under a cloak of secrecy forged over the years to protect both herself and, to a degree, her birth family.

Alice and Stanley McDonall, ca 1935 Source: Family Archives


During her marriage to Stanley Lewis McDonall (1909-1987), a troubled soul if ever there was one, granny Alice chose to withdraw out of a sense of self-preservation. The environment in which she lived was primitive compared to those of her sisters who’d married more solid providers. The shame of her circumstances was more than she cared, or dared, to share, and she had her pride. Her life with Stanley was so far removed from the societal norm as to be an embarrassment. To avoid any albeit well-meaning advice or judgement, and to manage her own feelings of shame and guilt, it was simply easier not to engage with family. Her daughter, my mother, was sworn to secrecy also. No one could know what went on in their home.

Those who lived comparatively comfortable lives could not possibly relate to granny’s meagre existence in a converted chicken house which reeked in rainy weather and had a slop bucket under the sink. Contrary by nature, and seeing no need for it, Grandpa also refused to have a telephone line installed to their house. Granny was cut off from modern society. It was the 1950s.

So, for the duration of her unhappy marriage granny Alice held everything in and locked everyone out. This led, eventually, to a serious nervous breakdown from which it took years to recover. Of course she let no one in on that either. My mother, 14 at the time, picked up the slack on household duties (while also attending school) to the eventual detriment of her own health when she contracted mononucleosis. Stanley couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Mom made herself an outcast at age 17 and rented a small basement apartment which gave her access to a much-needed telephone because of her work as a lab tech. Her father would rather pay the rent for her one-room accommodation than put in a telephone. It took granny a few more years before her chance came to vamoose.

The Final Word

It’s certain the family knew something was wrong, but as granny kept everyone at arm’s length they never knew the extent of her deprivation. At some point she earned the status of black sheep. “Oh, that Alice,” her sisters would often say. Little did they know that the wind had been knocked out of their feisty sister’s sails, and that she’d drifted into a distant ocean in an effort to retain whatever dignity she had left.

Only after granny made her escape (the subject of a novel I’m currently writing based on her life) was she able to re-connect with her family. Casting off the need to be an outcast she gradually opened up and engaged more with her siblings. Still, they never knew the entire story ~ they simply witnessed as Alice blossomed in her new-found independence and demonstrated, as time went by, an ability to laugh at some of her past travails. The bottom line though is that like many caught in the web of another’s sad dysfunction she took most of the unhappy details to her grave.❦

©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2023 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

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