I originally wrote this blog for myself alone, as a cathartic exercise.The Narcissist's Child contains my experiences as the child of a malignant narcissist and my understanding of the disorder. A blog about life with and the legacy of a personality disordered mother.
Many ACoNs have trouble remembering significant portions of their childhoods. Some of us have specific periods of time inaccessible to us, others have the details of a significant event unavailable—even the significant event itself may be shrouded in darkness. Researchers believe that most people remember very little of their childhoods before the age of 5 or 6 and memories from an earlier age likely fall into one of two categories: 1) “snapshot” memories, which are more like images than a full memory, and 2) false or created memories, often caused by having heard about an event and believing one is remembering it.
People who suffered abuse in childhood, however, tend to either remember things vividly, or have little memory of their childhoods at all. I fall into the former category: clear and vivid recall. Researchers caution us that very early childhood memories that unfold in a cohesive pattern, like a movie, are most likely false because real memories formed in the pre- or early verbal stage tend to be retained in “snapshots.” They also say that females are more likely to have early recall (true recall) that males but that is attributed to the way in which their mothers interacted with them: normal mothers tend to more fulsome in their communication with their daughters, thereby creating a more colourful, complete memory in the child.
There is much about childhood memory and memory retrieval that researchers do not yet know but one thing is for certain: they have not done extensive studies on ACoNs, people who were abused by their parents—and primarily their mothers—to determine how early childhood trauma at the hand of their parents has affected the retention and retrieval of memories. What follows is NOT scientifically validated information, merely my personal speculations on the subject.
I often use myself as an example in this blog because my case, my situation, is the one I know best. My mother was a neglectful, physically and emotionally abusive parent. I have only one memory before the age of three, and it has been validated by my father as a real memory. I experience the memory in first person—like a dream—and it started out as a series of snapshots. At first they were too fleeting to actually hold long enough to explore. But over time I was able to “grab” a snapshot here and there and examine it. Finally, after a few years, I presented to my father a narrative, pulled together as an adult, made from those snapshots. And he said that it happened and that the truck I remember he sold when I was around 2 years old.
For a while each revisit of the memory brought a detail hadn’t noticed before—I knew, for example, that I was in a truck—like a semi—but I had no clear details of either the interior or exterior. Subsequent recollections of the memory revealed the truck was dark blue, the upholstery was tan and textured like corduroy, there was a knob on the steering wheel, and the air-horn was activated by a beaded brass chain that was draped like a swag from the roof of the cab. The first part of the memory I could access was me, both hands on the chain, my feet pulled up so I was hanging on the chain, and the sound of the air horn. My father later told me that I loved pulling air horn chain, I would ride with him to the sawmill when he took logs in. That piece of information—the sawmill—suddenly evoked the smell of freshly-cut lumber and the smell of pitch. Closing my eyes I saw a fat, round little pot-bellied stove with a fire burning in it and beside it a pile of pine lumber off cuts—the source of the pitch smell. None of the houses we had lived in had pot-bellied stoves like the one I could see in my mind—but the office in the sawmill did. In another recall of the memory I was riding in the truck, standing on the seat, and saw a dead cow in a ditch and it was more or less on its back, the body bloated, its legs sticking up in the air. My father specifically remembered that when I asked him about it—he knew who owned the cow and said he had explained to me that the cow would pop like a balloon if someone poked it, which I found rather gross.
Additional visits from the memory brought added clarification because once I could access it without it flitting away I could stitch together the various related snapshots and “see” it long enough to examine it. I learned I was wearing corduroy pants—dark blue—but never determined what kind of coat or shirt I was wearing. My father always wore a plaid Pendleton jacket, so I may have just stuck that on him in this memory. I realized the interior of the truck, the dash, was painted metal—grey metal—and that this was a “city cab,” i.e., it did not have a sleeper. I remember my grandmother’s house as it was then—with a chimney going up the side of the house and no picture windows and that it was painted a kind of industrial pea-green. All details my father confirmed. (We moved away from that house shortly after I turned 2 and did not return until after the house had been remodelled and the fireplace removed and picture windows installed on that side of the house.)
It was many years after we left the farm that I started having those fleeting little flashes of what I took to be either a memory or a dream (although I was awake). It took over of year of trying to capture those flashes long enough extract something my mind could hold onto for more than a fraction of a second. Once I was able to do that, however, it became increasingly easier to stop one of the snapshots as it raced through my consciousness. And ultimately, I was able to present to my father a pastiche of these little snapshots, a collage of memory fragments stitched together by reason, and get the shock of my life: it was not a product of my “vivid imagination,” to quote my mother, it was a real memory from the age of 2, shortly after my brother was born (I was 22 months when he was born).
This was not a traumatic memory and that may explain why I was able to access it at easily as I did. But when I examined the detail that I was eventually able to capture, I began to realize that I had very few memories from my childhood, most of them were bad memories, and most of them were skeletal in scope. I remembered a dress that my mother had sewed for me for a school pageant-type event, that I liked very much. For a time it was my favourite dress and then it became relegated to the back of the closet, I did not want to see it anymore, and I was glad to come home from school one day and find my closet had been raided and the offending dress had been give to the Goodwill. But I could not remember why that dress had fallen out of favour. And try as I might, I could not raise anything other than a sense of revulsion when I tried to examine what little I remembered of the dress.
Then one day, years later (2009, to be exact), I went out to my kitchen to make myself a sandwich. I made it, took one bite out of it, decided I didn’t want it after all, and took a paper towel from the roll and folded it around the sandwich in preparation for putting it in the refrigerator. And suddenly I was 13 years old again, standing in my mother’s kitchen and she had a sandwich in her hand—with one bite out of it and wrapped in a paper towel—and she was screaming at me. In a matter of seconds the whole scene flashed through my head—being hit, waking up on the floor, being terrified of being late for school—it was all there like it had just happened that morning. And I knew it wasn’t a fake memory because once it was in my consciousness, I remembered the whole thing.
My first act was to sit down at the computer and write it down. Fingers flying, I wrote as fast as I could and, right in the middle of my reminiscences, another memory popped up. I wanted to write about it next, but it slipped away. While I wrote that first memory, perhaps an hour of typing time, half a dozen more memories flitted through my mind, most of them little fragments of memory that needed capturing and examining, like my memory of the truck.
As I finished writing The Sandwich, another memory popped into my head. I had called the school nurse to help me avoid getting marked tardy—something that would get me a beating if it showed up on my report card—and having the nurse come to mind sparked another memory, this one about a toothache. I started writing about that and more tantalizing bits of my childhood emerged from hiding and swirled around in my head, each one more provocative than the one before. Some were actual memories, presented and absorbed in a single flash, others were fragments that needed chasing and teasing out: all of them were pieces of my lost childhood.
Eventually I placed a notepad and pen to the right of the computer while I wrote. While writing The Toothache I was inundated with memories, almost as if a door into my past had suddenly opened and a torrent of forgotten experiences came flooding out. I would stop typing just long enough to jot down some key words—enough to call the memory back—then resume writing on the current topic. Over a period of a few weeks I recovered 46 memories from my childhood, 46 memories that had been utterly lost to me until I focussed on capturing and examining that first memory fragment.
I have given a lot of thought to the process I experienced and discovered a few things I consider to be important. First of all, even if we think we have forgotten our childhoods, odds are that we have not—we simply do not have access to the memories. Why we can’t access them is a question I cannot definitively answer, but I believe it has to do with our emotional stability, our ability to revisit events that involve a child in deep emotional pain and not break down. Since I went through a couple of profound depressions that included suicidal thoughts (and two attempts), I believe my subconscious mind kept these events from my conscious mind until I was emotionally stable enough to revisit these events without breaking down.
Another thing I learned is that remembering these things is like a chain of events. The memories came back to me in no particular order—in one memory I might be nine years old, in the next, seventeen, and in the next, seven. They seem random until you realize that each memory had something in common with the next—and that link was not necessarily obvious. Writing about that toothache brought the nurse to mind and from that I recovered several memories in which she featured. From this I realized that the recovery of lost memories may be facilitated by taking a memory from your past and examining it closely—the more details you can recall the more chances you have of a link to another missing memory: each detail is a potential link to another memory that, in some way, shares that link.
What I found that was most important to me, however, was that in revisiting those old traumas, I became free of their emotional power. I sobbed through the writing of virtually every one of them and, re-reading them later, I cried again. And again. And then I realized that, because I was safe while writing and re-reading them, because I was not in the grip of the fear that characterized my interactions with my mother, those tears were healing. I eventually got to the point where I could read the memories from a semi-detached position: no longer feeling the pain of that abused child but feeling pain forher. It was a dramatic and therapeutic shift in my perspective.
I am sure a qualified therapist might be able to come up with an explanation for this phenomena, and her explanation may be very different from my own. But this is what I think: I think that my subconscious mind protected me from memories that had the potential to drive me to utter despair. When I no longer needed that protection, it started releasing the memories, a bit at a time, to my conscious mind. I think it is significant that the first memory to be recovered was 1) not traumatic, 2) from an almost pre-verbal time (so the memory was largely visual), 3) that the memory was literally seen from the eyes of the child (I did not see myself, like watching a movie, I was a character in that movie and could see things only from that perspective), and 4) it presented in disconnected fragments that I had to apply myself to seizing and examining. I spent nearly a year on this memory, piecing it together, confirming it with my father, examining the details like colours and textures and even smells. And then, because I didn’t know what to do to elicit more memories, the memory retrieval process went dormant. Until I inadvertently replicated a pivotal moment in the abuse I endured as a child—my mother knocked me unconscious and left me on the kitchen floor and went off to work—triggered by the shared image of a paper towel-wrapped sandwich with one bite out of it.
The value of links became instantly obvious to me. Nearly fifty years had passed since the incident with the sandwich but that image was iconic. It was the bridge between then and now—and the key to unlocking the memory of that particular episode of abuse. And each detail from each memory was a potential key for unlocking other memories.
Eventually memories just poured out of me. I didn’t need links or prompts or triggers, they just came. I had to make notes about each one so I could call the memory back when I was ready to write it down. I had 46 retrieved memories by the time their release had tapered off to a trickle.
So what does this mean for you? It means that you can re-process the memories of childhood abuse from the perspective of an adult who 1) knows she is safe from the abuser; 2) knows how it ended—she didn’t die of shame or embarrassment or from an assault; 3) knows she will not be hurt this time around; 4) can now see, objectively, that the child is not at fault and who actually was. By revisiting these events today you can be properly outraged at an adult who would abuse a child, allow abuse of a child, encourage or abet the abuse of a child. You can see, from the more objective perspective of an observing adult, that the child was victimized and see how she was hurt and how those who did it were wrong. You can feel the feelings of that time, sure in the knowledge of the outcome. You can find parts of your childhood which are now lost to you by finding links from existing memories and reprocess them so that those memories are no longer sources of shame, pain, and terror.
Don’t expect to recover all of your childhood, however. Some things were never properly encoded by our brains in the first place and so they never went into long term memory storage. Some things your subconscious may continue to keep away from you due to their potential for causing you harm, even today. I, for example, have been terrified of putting my face in water since earliest childhood and am still unable to access the event(s) that triggered this fear. It could be the event took place so early in my existence that it was never encoded for proper memory (pre-verbal memories pretty much disappear before we reach adolescence) and since I cannot remember ever not having this fear, that is a distinct possibility. I know, from stories told me by my father and stepmother, that my father moved out of the family home, at my mother’s behest, when I was eight. He was gone the better part of a year—he had weekend visitation and saw me and my brother every second weekend during that year. He moved back in and broke up with his girlfriend when my mother decided to halt the divorce proceedings. And I have no recollection of him being gone from the home at all. I have many other memories around this age, but none of them include my father not living with us. Things were very volatile between my parents at this time so maybe my subconscious is shielding me from some devastating piece of information—and maybe my memory of this period has been conflated with a memory from two years later, when my father again moved out at my mother’s behest, took up with the old girlfriend, and never moved back in. I remember that one—I remember telling a teacher that my parents were getting a divorce, a scandalous thing in 1957, as an explanation for my being distracted in class. This I remember: the first separation I do not.
For me, the worst part of remembering and reprocessing was the realization that, at the time of the original events, I was so bound by fear that I could not make any choices other than the ones I did. I was so thoroughly terrorized by my mother that I responded mindlessly to that fear and made choices based on keeping information from her so that I would not suffer further at her hands. In making these kinds of choices I effectively victimized myself—not deliberately, of course, but those choices put me in harm’s way more than once. Growing up this way, I continued to make bad choices because I viewed myself as having only bad choices to choose from and I had even more limited goals: all I really wanted was to feel loved. And I made a lot of bad choices in pursuit of that goal.
But I find that now, years after I retrieved these memories and made myself journal them and process them, they have lost the power to hurt me. I no longer shy away from them, squirm in re-reading them, or even identify with that child. I am no longer that terrorized child, afraid of everything and nothing, perpetually waiting for the other shoe to drop. I wouldn’t even go so far as to hold myself up as a paragon of healing from childhood abuse, but I would say that I have successfully figured some things out, that I have moved forward, and that I have discovered some useful tools, like recovering lost childhood memories through seeking out linking details in those things I can recall.
We all know that one of the hallmarks of narcissism is an overweening sense of entitlement, but just what does the word “entitlement” actually mean? The Oxford English Dictionary first defines it as “the fact of having a right to something.” That doesn’t seem very pernicious, does it? In fact, it sounds quite reasonable—don’t we all have rights to certain things, like Human Rights?
Scanning further down the OED entry, however, we come across this little entry: “The belief that one is inherently deserving of privileges or special treatment.” Now that sounds more like the narcissist’s sense of entitlement. The American Psychiatric Association includes entitlement in its diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality disorder in its Diagnostic and Statistics Manual. The fifth revision states: “Feelings of entitlement, either overt or covert, self-centeredness; firmly holding to the belief that one is better than others…” and “…personal standards are unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional, or too low based on a sense of entitlement ” The fourth revision of the manual stated it even more clearly: “Has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations.”
To feel entitled is to believe you have a right to something. And we do have rights to some things, both by law and by the social contract of your culture in addition to the “human rights” to which all of us are entitled. The narcissist, however, believes that s/he has rights that the rest of us do not have, rights that advantage him over you, an absolute right to have what he wants regardless of the cost to others. This kind of entitlement is what I call “toxic entitlement.”
Narcissists defend this entitlement very vigorously. They get angry and indignant if you even hint that they are not entitled to whatever it is they think they are entitled to. And those entitlements can be bizarre to the rest of us: my NexH, Jack gave a perfect example when he accidentally ran a red light with a police car behind him and the cop didn’t pull him over. Jack took this as a sign that it was okay for him to run red lights and so he deliberately ran another one, the cop still behind him and, of course, he was pulled over and ticketed. When he got home, he was livid—in Jack’s mind, the fact that the cop didn’t pull him over the first time meant it was okay for him (not anybody else, mind you, just him) to blow red lights. When the cop pulled him over, Jack genuinely felt betrayed—in his mind, the cop had given him permission, Jack acted on that permission, then the cop betrayed him by giving him a ticket. He insisted that the cop had deliberately set him up so he could write him a ticket and “fill his quota.” It never occurred to Jack that the cop may have been distracted the first time and didn’t see him run the light or maybe it was the cop’s end of shift and he didn’t want the hassle of a stop and writing up a citation. Nope—in Jack’s narcissistic mind, he was entitled to run that second light because the cop didn’t punish him for running the first one, and to cite him for the second light was unfair, unjust, and police entrapment.
Jack had a lot of entitlement issues—there was the time that the Highway Patrol had set up a duck pond—very visible, with police cars parked right out in the open and officers standing in plain sight with ticket books in their hands—for drivers who were turning a one lane freeway on-ramp into a two lane ramp by driving in the shoulder. Every car that tried to access the freeway via the shoulder of the ramp was flagged down and the driver given a ticket. Most drivers were obediently staying in the marked lane while the cops were there and the few who were arrogant enough to try using the shoulder were duly pulled over and cited. Jack, of course, got cited for being in the shoulder despite seeing what was going on because he believed he was entitled to use the shoulder. Why? Because he had been using it for a year and nobody had told him he couldn’t. But the story doesn’t end there—the following day, Jack did it again—in front of the cops who were standing there with ticket books in hand—and got anothercitation, which made him red-in-the-face, eye-poppingly, foaming-at-the-mouth mad. How dare they give him another ticket? They gave him one yesterday, wasn’t that enough? Now, lest you think Jack was perhaps a little bit thick, the guy was a brilliant engineer with a genius-level IQ: he was just a narcissist who believed that he—not everybody—was entitled to drive that shoulder.
Narcissistic parents create the same kinds of bizarre entitlements that accrue to themselves only. My NM used to tell me “parents are entitled to the fruits of their children’s labours” as a way of justifying turning me into an unpaid servant (literally my labour) and taking and keeping money that came my way, especially money I got for singing (she put me in contests, talent shows, and even arranged guest performances at bars and nightclubs when I was between the ages of 6 and 9), money I earned picking crops in the summer, and money I earned with my after-school job. Any objection I raised (in those rare moments when my indignation was stronger than my fear of her) was met with a smug “Who do you think paid for all those singing lessons [that I didn’t want] or the roof over your head and the food you eat?” That, of course, is irrefutable, since she did pay for all of those things but, being a child, I had no idea that I was actually entitled to those things and she was not entitled to recompense off the sweat of my brow.
Perhaps the worst entitlement that a narcissist parent puts on their children is the never-ending entitlement. From my earliest childhood, from the very day I learned that I could be legally free of her once I turned 18, that was my goal in life—to be 18 and get away from her. What I could not have anticipated was that, in her narcissistic mind, she was free of her obligations towards me but I was not free of my obligations to her. Many of us bump our noses on this particular bit of narcissistic entitlement, the idea that our Ns are entitled to remain in our lives, in whatever capacity they choose, for as long as they choose to be.
An ignoring NM, like mine, will let you go—sometimes for years—without popping back into your life until there is something they want from you. I got married six weeks before Christmas and moved into my own place, just 17 years old, and that year I received nothing from my mother—not even a phone call or a Christmas card. In fact, I didn’t receive so much as a letter from her for several years and she showed no interest in me and mine until a situation emerged in which I had something that she desperately wanted. Then she became my mother and a doting grandmother to my kids.
Despite their feelings of entitlement, most narcissists are not stupid enough to think that everybody else agrees with their entitlement. This is where manipulation comes in: they manipulate situations, perceptions, and information to support their feelings of entitlement. If manipulation doesn’t work as well as they had hoped, they will tell outright lies, fabrications that will bring about the desired result. All of this stems from entitlement: they believe they not only have an absolute right to whatever they want, they also believe they have an unfettered right to do whatever is necessary to get what they want because you are in the wrong to withhold it from them. This is key: you are in the wrong when you prevent a narcissist of from getting what she wants and that, which the narcissist takes as fact, is what allows the narcissist undertake the most awful actions without a shred of remorse or sense of wrongdoing: they believe what they are doing is not only right, they believe they have an unfettered right to do it.
When you, yourself, do not feel an inflated sense of entitlement, when you don’t know what that feels like, it can be difficult to grasp what it actually means. I often hear people say things like “I don’t know how she sleeps at night…” or “her conscience must be eating her alive” when speaking about the behaviour of a narcissist. When we do that, we are projecting how we would feel—we would find it difficult to sleep at night, ourconscience would interfere with our sleep—onto a person who does not share those feelings with us, who may actually be incapable of sharing those feelings of conscience and remorse. What we don’t understand is that the narcissist feels just as entitled to fuck us over, to manipulate us, to take what she wants from us, as we feel entitled to receive a pay check at the end of a pay period. The fact that she did not earn that right like we earned the pay check is immaterial: she feels just as entitled and believes her entitlement to just as valid as you feel about your pay check. And if someone stands in her way, she feels just as indignant as you or I would feel if we found our pay arbitrarily shorted.
Your narcissist truly believes she has a right to anything she decides the wants, including things that belong to others. Ordinary people like you and me take our sense of entitlement from our culture and its rules: our laws and our customs tell us what we are entitled to and, by and large, we accept that. We know that it is wrong to steal, for example, and even thieves know it is wrong to steal, they just choose to do it anyway. The narcissist thinks differently, however. The narcissist believes she has an absolute right to have or do whatever she wants, even while acknowledging that other people might think it is wrong. Peculiar to the narcissistic mind, the narcissist believes the rules apply to you and me and that weare wrong to violate them, but she, the narcissist, is the exception: she sees herself as literally above the rules of her society and culture. In the narcissist’s eyes, you and I need to abide by those rules because 1) we are not special like she is and, 2) it makes us predictable to the narcissist, giving her the advantage of being able to fairly accurately predict our behaviour and reactions. But they don’t need to abide by them because they are special, they are above the petty rules of society—they are entitled.
But they aren’t stupid—they know that there are penalties for violating the rules, assuming they are caught, and so they manipulate. Lying is an effective form of manipulation and they use it without a hint of conscience. Your own mother can, with a straight face and sincere expression, tell your grandmother that you are a prostitute or a drug dealer or mentally ill or a host of other horrifying things that will not only turn your grandmother against you, it will make Granny worry about the safety of your children. Your mother can tell these lies to a judge, jerking out a tear here and there for effect, along with a big lie about how she worries for your children, what if they get up one morning and find you dead on the floor with a needle in your arm? The fact that this kind of thing has actually happened and been featured in news reports all over the globe doesn’t help you—even though the strongest non-prescription drug you take is the occasional aspirin—and it alarms your FOO to the degree that there is a good chance that your narcissist can enlist one of them the lie and give false evidence against you in court, rationalizing that it is ok to break the law against perjury in order to save those innocent little kids from the trauma of finding their hooked hooker of a mother dead on the floor one morning.
Narcissists have no conscience. If getting custody of your children is her objective, she not only honestly believes she is entitled to have custody of them, she also truly believes that she is entitled to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal. And, as much as we don’t want to admit it, there are narcissists who use the sexual assault laws to punish people who don’t bend to their will or who do not behave as the narcissist expected, believing themselves entitled to do so because that is what was necessary to get what they want. Nothing is off the table for a narcissist, as long as she can maintain plausible deniability or shift blame onto someone else. The woman who falsely accused my friend of sexual assault in order to escape conviction for assault and property damage, laid the groundwork for shifting blame even as she testified against my friend. She blamed her late filing of the complaint on “bad advice from another [conveniently unnamed] lawyer” while she was in jail, thereby creating plausible deniability if someone later accuses her of misusing the sexual crimes laws for personal gain: that unnamed lawyer told her she had a case, otherwise she wouldn’t have filed it.
What is important for us to remember when it comes to narcissists and entitlement is that narcissists do not see things the same way we do. They honestly believe they are entitled—they have a right—to have whatever they want and anyone who tries to stand in their way is wrong and, if they succeed in keeping the narcissist from her goal, deserves punishment. It never occurs to the narcissist that she is notentitled to what she wants any more than it would occur to you that you were not entitled to take a walk around your block if that appeals to you. And, just as you would feel wronged if a couple of thugs tried to prevent you from walking on the public sidewalk, the narcissist feels wronged if you try to prevent her from having what she wants, whether it is your husband, your children, credit for your idea, or your time, efforts and expertise.
Being special and entitled, the narcissist truly believes she should not have to pay for your services, whether you are a wedding planner or an accountant or you bake and decorate beautiful cakes as a hobby: you should be honoured to give them to her for free. She does not feel obligated to respect you or anything about you, from your marriage to your parental rights to your ownership rights of everything from your earrings to your clothing to your car and home. A narcissistic mother will rearrange your kitchen cupboards, closets and furniture, a narcissistic sister will “borrow” your clothes and jewellery, a narcissistic “friend” will seduce your husband and blame you, saying it’s not her fault that you can’t keep your man satisfied… They will do these things—and more—believing that they are doing nothing wrong because, while they acknowledge that society has a set of standards, they do not accept that those standards apply to them. In fact, it is not uncommon to hear a narcissist say something like “Well I have my truth…” that truth being what serves the narcissist, even if it is diametrically opposed to the objective truth. Narcissists have their own sense of right and wrong and what serves them is right and what does not serve them is wrong. The narcissist is just as convinced that she is entitled to whatever she wants and those who obstruct her are wronging her as you are convinced that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West.
It is called entitlement and it is a sincere belief that the entitled person has an absolute right to whatever s/he wants and any action taken to secure the entitlement is justified by the existence of the entitlement. You and I know that is just so much convoluted, self-serving bullshit but the narcissist doesn’t see it that way: she’s not kidding, she’s not even over-the-top: she is entitled and will break every rule in the book—and every person who stands in her way—to get what she wants because she believes in her entitlement and will move heaven and earth—often in small, passive-aggressive and painful ways—to get it. And any hurt you suffer is just collateral damage for which she takes no responsibility.
It is important to grasp this, to wrap your head around the idea, that his narcissistic mistress truly believes you are in the wrong because you aren’t the wife she thinks he should have—as such you are not entitled to anything beyond the roof over your head (and she will work to deprive you of that) while she is entitled to champagne suppers and expensive sparklies. She will have no sense of guilt that your kids are deprived of music lessons or a trip to camp because the money was spent on her—she will only feel bad that she had to give up on that Christmas trip to Aruba because he decided to spend the money on his kids. Your narcissistic co-worker will not feel bad about stealing your idea and presenting it to the boss as his own and he has no compunctions against calling you a liar when you tell the boss the truth: your co-worker has his own truth and that is that he thought of it first, even if you were the one who voiced it first. Your narcissistic neighbour doesn’t care that your lawn is pocked with yellow spots where his dog pees, or that his cats use your carefully-tended flower beds for litter boxes, digging up your newly planted greenery—he is pleased that he doesn’t have to clean up after them himself and proud for having found a way to make you do it. For the narcissist, life is a series of triumphs, of getting one over on the next guy, either to advantage himself or to relieve himself of something onerous. She doesn’t care if your brother goes to prison for three years on a bogus sexual assault charge, just as long as she isn’t convicted of assaulting him and damaging his car. She doesn’t care if your business goes belly-up because she failed to pay for the goods and services you provided to her and now you can’t pay your suppliers. It doesn’t affect her so she simply does not think about it and, when she does, she is pleased with herself for having succeeded, for her cleverness, for her superiority. She is, after all, entitled to it all...
The acronym DARVO stands for “Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender” and perfectly describes how a narcissist behaves when caught and held to account. Never having come across it before, I was gobsmacked when I read up on it and realized just how well it describes the primary narcissist in my life, my (thankfully now-deceased) mother.
Dr. Jennifer J. Freyd, Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon and a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University coined the term in 1997 and in 2019 published a paper entitled “What is DARVO?” Freyd defines DARVO as “…a reaction perpetrators of wrong doing…may display in response to being held accountable for their behavior… The perpetrator or offender may Deny the behavior, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim…into an alleged offender. This occurs, for instance, when an actually guilty perpetrator assumes the role of ‘falsely accused’ and attacks the accuser's credibility and blames the accuser of being the perpetrator of a false accusation.”
It is no accident that a narcissistic parent uses this tactic. In 2017 Freyd participated in a peer-reviewed research study that reported that, ‘…DARVO was commonly used by individuals who were confronted…and higher levels of exposure to DARVO during a confrontation were associated with increased perceptions of self-blame among the confronters. These results provide evidence for the existence of DARVO as a perpetrator strategy and establish a relationship between DARVO exposure and feelings of self-blame. Exploring DARVO aids in understanding how perpetrators are able to enforce victims’ silence through the mechanism of self-blame.’
Broken down into plain English, this means that DARVO is a common ploy used by those who hurt us, a ploy used to throw blame onto us rather accept responsibility for the results of their actions. It also means that it works best on people who have been conditioned to feel responsible for things they aren’t really responsible for, people who suffer from toxic guilt, like many of us.
Interestingly, Freyd and a colleague, Sarah Harsey, in a new project (which is still under review) have discovered that the DARVO phenomenon goes further than just between the offender and victim. When they told the study participants stories of abuse and followed the story with a DARVO response, they found the participants less willing to believe the victim than people who told the same story but not given a DARVO response: the DARVO strategy actually works to discredit victims! Even more interesting, however, is that another study group was first educated about DARVO and when they were told a victim’s story followed by a DARVO response, the study participants found the victim more credible than the study participants who had not been previously educated about DARVO.
Education about DARVO, then, it important: it clues in the bystanders, be they flying monkeys or members of the justice system, to the ploy beforehand. For us, that means learning what DARVO is and educating ourselves as well as the people in our lives who are likely to hear DARVO responses from our narcissists.
Freyd’s paper does not mention the word “narcissist” but does specifically note that the DARVO response is a common tactic among sex offenders. The children of narcissists, however, will recognize the almost knee-jerk response of the narcissist to even the slightest hint of wrongdoing. The fragile ego of a narcissist cannot stand being wrong hence the narcissist’s rationalization and justification of everything she does. Narcissists, believing themselves perfect and infallible, cannot accept an accusation of wrongdoing—or even the possibility that she could do wrong—so she must justify and/or rationalize her beliefs and behaviours to make them appear right. One of the ways a narcissist does this is through DARVO: if something is the fault of someone else, then the narcissist is without responsibility.
The old adage “the best defence is a good offence” is at the core of a DARVO attack and it is not uncommon for the attack to have a third party involved. Narcissists will attempt to impress an observer of their innocence, especially an observer who the narcissist holds in high esteem or someone who has more power than the narcissist, like the police or a judge or a boss. An effective DARVO attack can see the narcissist’s victim up on charges and facing jail time, or professionally reprimanded. Or worse.
For the narcissist to effectively take the role of victim, it is most effective to name an alternative perpetrator. In a real-life case a male friend of mine met (in a restaurant so that there were witnesses) with a women he had broken up with a month earlier. From his descriptions of her, I guess her to be a narcissist and the last six months of their relationship was marked by frequent rows about her intransigent lying. She finally stepped over the line and he dumped her. But he had lent her a considerable sum of money during their year together and he wanted it back so he invited her to come to a busy coffee shop to discuss repayment of those loans.
During their meeting she continually shifted the subject from the money she owed to her personal travails, ending each of her pity-party monologs with a plea of poverty. He, well aware that she was trying to distract him from the subject of repayment and elicit pity for her dire straits such that he would forgive the loans, suggested she borrow the money from her current boyfriend. She responded by throwing a drink in his face. After she had calmed down, however, and thinking she was stranded three miles from home, he had the bad judgment to offer her a ride home, which she accepted. While in the car he continued to try to convince her to pay back the loans on her own, saving them the effort of Small Claims Court. But shortly before they arrived at her residence, she lost her temper again and physically attacked him. At the end of her tantrum he was bleeding from two deep scratches: one on his neck, the other on his hand as he shielded himself from her clawing at his face—she did succeed in shattering his glasses. She then began destroying the interior of his car, screaming invective and condemning men in general, ultimately ripping the rear view mirror from its mount and throwing it at his head. But the mirror was still attached to the car by its data cables and rather than impacting his head, it reached the end of its tether, bounced back, and hit the windscreen and breaking it.
He, of course, called the police and she admitted to the arresting office that she broke his glasses and damaged the car. She was arrested on the spot and spent two days in jail waiting for her bail hearing. After a few hours in jail she appealed to my friend to drop the charges so she could be released from jail but he refused unless she agreed to pay for the damages to his car and repay the loans. She refused and she spent two days in jail before she was finally granted bail and her freedom.
Reverse Victim and Offender
Imagine my friend’s surprise when, the day after his ex made bail, he was called by the police and told that a charge of rape had been lodged against him.
It was DARVO. When he got to the police station they told him the charge was actually sexual assault—or sexual harassment—they weren’t sure yet which. It was immediately apparent to him that his ex-girlfriend, unable to justify his wounds and the damage to his car any other way, had charged him with sexual assault. According to her, she threw the drink in his face because she was offended when he suggested she prostitute herself to get the money she owed him (her interpretation of his suggestion that she borrow it). The police declined to give specifics of the supposed sexual assault but, in mediation over the charge a few months later, she refused to withdraw the charges against him unless he forgave not only the loans he made to her, but the cost of repairs to his car which, because it was a German luxury brand, were not going to be cheap. She couldn’t say that the assault didn’t happen—he had the injuries (and a security video from the restaurant) to prove it did. She couldn’t say the damage to the car didn’t happen—the condition of the car and a hefty repair estimate proved it did—and she admitted it to the arresting officer. So, she reversed the victim and offender and made herself his victim, charging him with essentially molesting her in the privacy of the car en route to her residence and claiming that was the reason she injured him and damaged the car: she was attempting to escape a sexual assault.
Her accusations were so absurd that anyone who knew anything about DARVO would have been instantly suspicious. He said “…borrow the money from someone just like you borrowed it from me…”; she reported he said “…you can get the money by sleeping with other guys…” She said, in writing, “He wouldn’t stop the car so I broke the windscreen…and his spectacles.” Somehow the police found this reasonable and credible enough to file charges against him, somehow the prosecution found this reasonable and credible enough to set a trial date. And when he finally was able to get a copy of her written accusation, he found out that her “sexual assault” allegation consisted of “…he touched me on my thigh…”
Once the senior prosecution staff was shown the allegation, the charges were withdrawn, but not before untold damage was done to my friend, emotionally, financially, and even professionally. And despite having the charges withdraw by the prosecution as having no merit, she still tried to use the fact that he was arrested for sexually assaulting her as her justification for injuring him and damaging his car.
The victim of a narcissist may find DARVO to be difficult to grasp. Certainly my friend was baffled when, in the eyes of the police, he went from being the victim of an assault to the perpetrator of one in the blink of an eye. The police sided with his attacker because she was a woman recounting a sexual assault and nobody bothered to subject her story to the same critical examination they gave his. Ultimately the prosecution withdrew those charges, yes, but not until he had suffered, in his words, “five months of hell” that ultimately put him on anti-anxiety meds. The fact that he was the real victim did not stop the narcissistic ex from turning the tables on him and having the police and courts dance her merry tune for over five months until someone took a look at her accusations with fresh eyes—and without her there to whisper blandishments in his ears—and saw what was really going on.
Not all DARVO attacks are this dramatic but they can be if the narcissist perceives it to be worth it to her. But the fact is, narcissists use DARVO whenever it will suit their agenda. Being narcissists, they don’t care if the accusations they make are true or not, and they don’t care what kind of consequences you suffer, either…my friend’s ex would be happy if she was just exonerated and not convicted of assault and property damage—but if he went to jail for three years for sexual assault, she wouldn’t feel the least remorse. Instead, as a narcissist, she would feel vindicated and that he was getting just desserts for not giving her what she wanted. Most likely, however, the narcissist in your life will use DARVO to excuse a tantrum or a petty, spiteful action or to escape responsibility for some misdeed. My mother denied every ugly, mean, destructive, and cruel thing she ever did to me, telling me that even if my accusations of her maltreatment were true, I was only getting what I deserved. And that included stealing my children for her brother to adopt.
Just as that horrible woman accused my friend of sexual assault to give herself a plausible reason for assaulting him and destroying the interior of his car, with no care for the consequences he might suffer, including the loss of his professional career and his freedom, so do narcissists employ DARVO to exonerate themselves, with no sense of responsibility for the consequences you might face if they are believed. In fact, malicious malignant narcissists like my mother and my friend’s ex- actually find a sense of triumph and personal satisfaction in your suffering because they feel validated and that you are getting just payback for the wrongs they perceive you have perpetrated against them by not giving them what they wanted.
It’s called DARVO, it is effective, and it is devastating to its victims. Spread the awareness—and be prepared.
According to the dictionary, “volitional” means “with deliberate intent.”Volition, then, means intentional—on purpose—deliberate. It is a word that is inextricably linked to choice and is very, very important.
When my youngest child was in school, he was very challenging, behaviourally. He had a high IQ and numerous learning disabilities (diagnosed by a specialist), and his behaviours were sometimes peculiar: he would take a toy from another child by force—sometimes even hurting the other child in the process—and half an hour later be hurt and bewildered when that child refused to play with him. This behaviour started in preschool but didn’t improve as he grew older…even in the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade, he continued behaviours of this nature and nothing seemed to get him to understand the cause and effect involved.
Because of his well-documented learning disabilities, he was in special education and I kept in close contact with his teachers and the school psychologist (who, at one point, claimed my son couldn’t be learning disabled because of his high IQ). He became very manipulative which sparked disagreements between me and the staff: I could see what he was doing, they couldn’t, and because I wouldn’t join them in excusing his behaviours, I was accused of being a “non-nurturing mother.” The year he entered fifth grade he was still writing in block print and doing math at the second grade level because he had convinced the staff that he had forgotten, over the summer break, all of the things he had learned the previous year. As a result, he was able spend at least two school years without doing any real work as the teachers fell all over themselves to find ways to re-teach him—and this time retain—the things they believed he forgot.
I knew that he was faking the math—forgetting how to carry and borrow numbers—but I wasn’t entirely sure about other things he claimed to have forgotten or to be unable to do. The teachers told me he “couldn’t” learn to write in cursive—I wasn’t so sure. He liked drawing so, one Saturday morning I took out my calligraphy pens and taught him how to print using calligraphy. He took to it like a duck to water. The next morning I showed him how to connect the individual calligraphy letters into cursive…he was ecstatic. On Monday he went to school and showed off to his teachers both his calligraphy and his cursive, learned over a single weekend.
It then occurred to me that in order to help him most effectively, I first had to be able to determine which of his educational stumbling blocks—and his behaviours—were volitional and which were not. It seemed to me that the approach to volitional behaviour and non-volitional behaviour had to be different, something that the school psychologist and I butted heads over, repeatedly. If a person chooses and executes a behaviour, they can be motivated (at least theoretically) to choose a different, perhaps more acceptable, behaviour. Rewards and consequences can be brought to bear in an effort to motivate change. Modern laws and criminal procedures and penalties are based on the idea that criminal behaviour is volitional and can therefore be altered.
Non-volitional behaviour, however, cannot be expected to respond to rewards and consequences. Certain mental illnesses, for example, conditions like Tourette’s or Parkinson’s, even brain injury, can cause objectionable—but non-volitional—behaviours. My oldest son has a traumatic brain injury (TBI) from being mugged and one of the residual effects is emotional volatility over which he has little control: he can control his behaviour but not the instant leap from calm to agitated and angry—his brain was damaged (and he has obvious physical signs of brain injury) and it no longer functions normally and some things that were volitional when he was 20 no longer are.
Why is this important, knowing the difference between what is volitional and what is not? Well, taking my oldest son as an example, knowing that he literally has no control over his temper zooming from calm to agitated in under three seconds helps me: I do not expect him to control it because I know he can’t, I do not get frustrated and angry with him for not behaving the way most of us behave because I know that is not an option for him. I don’t expect him to have the same table manners as others because he literally needs two hands to manage a fork: his right hand to hold the fork, the left to steady the tremor in his right so that the food stays on the fork and gets to his mouth. My expectations of him have changed to match what he is able to do rather than be frustrated or upset with him because he “won’t” eat with one hand, because when he laughs he makes an explosive sound like a barking seal, or because he has become clumsy and often knocks into things with his awkward gait. Knowing what he is not capable of allows me to keep my expectations reasonable and within the realm of reality.
With my younger son, however, things were not so easy. I remember saying to that school psychologist “His understanding of people and their feelings is almost autistic. He doesn’t seem to ‘get’ the simplest of human actions and reactions. He seems genuinely hurt when that other child, the one he hit ten minutes ago and took a toy from, doesn’t want to play with him—he doesn’t seem to understand the causal link between his behaviour and being avoided or rejected by the other children…” And she responded by telling me that he could not be autistic because he had a high IQ and he could speak in complete, coherent sentences…and he spoke a lot. Autistic children, she told me, are intellectually deficient and seldom speak—and when they do speak, they are likely to be incoherent or unintelligible.
Dr. Hans Asperger, an Austrian pediatrician, first described the condition in 1944: Dr. Asperger, a paediatrician, noted four boys who showed ‘…a lack of empathy, little ability to form friendships, one-sided conversation, intense absorption in a special interest, and clumsy movements...,’ all symptoms my son displayed. The American Psychiatric Association (APA), however, did not recognize Asperger’s as a specific, identifiable condition and nor did it publish diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1994, fully fifty years after Dr Asperger recognized the condition. This came much too late for my son who was 21 when the condition became officially recognized. But with a set of symptoms in hand and the clarity of hindsight, it was easy enough to identify his condition as Asperger’s syndrome. But I had already come to the conclusion that, while having his condition was not volitional, the behaviours he exhibited were.
When my son was about 10 or 12, he came home from camp with chicken pox (this was before the vaccine was available). It was a mild case—very few bumps—but, typically, it itched like crazy. I put calamine lotion on the spots to soothe the itching and made compresses of witch hazel he could daub on the worst spots but, like mothers everywhere, I advised him not to scratch because that could cause infection or scarring. Having chicken pox was not volitional: scratching the lesions was. The urge to scratch was powerful, but sufficient willpower—an exercise of choice—can result in no scratching.
And there it is: having chicken pox, or Asperger’s—or NPD—is not volitional. The people who have these things did not get them by choosing to have them nor can they get rid of them by choosing to be shed of them: having these conditions is wholly non-volitional. But—and this is a big but—that does not mean that behaviours related to these conditions, and many more, like BPD or AsPD—are non-volitional. Quite the contrary: the fact that my son learned cursive when it was presented to him in a format he liked (something fun like art) rather than a format he did not like (as work, like schoolwork) indicates he had a choice; the fact that he didn’t scratch the chicken pox on his face after he learned that scratching could scar him but continued to scratch the lesions on his arms and torso indicates he had a choice and he exercised that choice selectively, just as my mother could be the perfect mother in front of people who had some kind of power—like judges, social workers, or the school nurse—and then beat me black and blue just moments after escaping their scrutiny. This shows that those behaviours are a choice, volitional, not an irresistible compulsion of the disorder. My son chose to give in to the urge to scratch, but to do it selectively—he had control over that urge. In my mother’s case, she demonstrated that she knew right from wrong, she knew there were potential penalties for doing wrong, and she chose to commit the wrong in such a way that she was unlikely to be caught.
It can be very tempting to excuse our Ns on the basis that they have a disorder and, because we don’t share the disorder, it, we cannot tell what is volitional in their behaviour and what it not, and the compassionate thing to do is to excuse all of their behaviour because we cannot tell what they did through irresistible compulsion as part of their disorder and what was volitional. We are sensitized to being blamed for things not our fault and, being empathetic and kind-hearted, we would rather excuse a wrong than wrongfully place blame.
But that is where we go wrong. We assume that because the condition is non-volitional so is the behaviour. But in many instances—narcissism, for example—this is not the case. Beinga narcissist is not volitional, but a narcissist’s behaviours are. If my mother could treat my brother well, excuse his misdeeds, spend money on him, give him permission to attend events with his friends and just generally coddle him, she was fully capable of doing the same with me. If she could choose to punish me for not making my brother do his chores, she had an equal ability to choose to punish him for not doing them rather than me. Would it be easy? No—what is easy to do is what she had always done, to put the blame for her behaviour on someone else so that she could continue to look faultless…. Was she even capable of treating me well? Absolutely. She acted like a sweet, loving mother in front of her own parents and famly, my teachers, doctors, even judges, because it was in her best interests to do so, because, for that brief moment in time, she wanted to.
And therein lies the crux of the matter: what the narcissist wants is the deciding factor in any choice a narcissist makes. The condition of narcissism does not include compulsive behaviour that the narcissist cannot resist or an inability to recognize right from wrong. It doesn’t deprive the narcissist of the ability to tell socially acceptable behaviour from unacceptable, either. them the idea that they are above such things—that it is ok for them to flout the values of their culture and society, but not for anyone else to do so. And so a narcissist commits her behaviours aware that others will disapprove but believing those others to be wrong because Ms. Narcissist is above such things as adhering to the cultural norms. In the mind of a narcissist, their wants come first, ahead of the needs—and often even the rights—of others.
The narcissist’s behaviour is wholly volitional: he knows what the society considers to be right but he believes people who adhere to those social mores are weak, predictable, and foolish. He deviates because he wants to, because he believes he is entitled to, because he is “too smart” to be held back by the limits the rest of us abide by. And if someone is hurt by his behaviour, well…that isn’t his concern or responsibility. Where you or I might suffer pangs of guilt for hurting another, the narcissist, devoid of empathy, is unmoved by your pain.
The guilt you or I might suffer as a consequence of unacceptable behaviour is uncomfortable to us and, as we mature emotionally, we learn to avoid that pain by avoiding behaviours that trigger our feelings of guilt. Narcissists don’t feel guilt so they don’t have the built-in mechanism that keeps our behaviour in check: self-imposed guilt for wrong doing of any kind. You would feel guilty if you ate cookies that your roommate bought and did not say they were to share: the fact that you didn’t buy those cookies would be enough to keep you from eating them because you would know that, since you didn’t buy them, they aren’t yours. The narcissist, however, would eat your cookies and do it without a moment’s guilt. She might even blame you: “Was your name on them? So how was I supposed to know they were for you? If you don’t want people to eat your stuff, put your name on it.” This actually sounds reasonable until you recall that she knew they weren’t hers because she didn’t buy them, and why should you have to put a label on your own food in your own home when it is easy enough to know if she bought something or not?
Narcissistic behaviour is volitional. It is also disrespectful. It does not always have a malicious or nefarious intent, but the behaviour is done without any consideration for the feelings of those who will be affected by it. Narcissists live in a self-constructed delusional world where up is down, red is black, right is wrong and good is bad…until it serves to serves them to change it. They may cast you in the role of antagonist when the truth is, you are only expecting them to show you simple respect.
For narcissists, life is a one-way street—their way. They “…need other people’s validation that their delusion is true. To achieve that, they create preposterous, slanderous, manipulative narratives where all of that is true and try to convince others of it. And since many people are unwilling and unable to look into the truth behind it, the narcissist can find that validation they so desperately crave and even act out their revenge fantasies… As a result, sometimes people get seriously hurt: socially, financially, emotionally, or even physically. But the narcissist doesn’t care about that. In fact they are often glad, because in their narrative the target deserves it by being “evil,” so whatever happens is justified.
“Of course not everyone can see the truth when listening to the narcissist but it’s quite evident looking from the outside or if you have enough psychological insight and experience.”
Make no mistake—a narcissist’s behaviour is volitional. She doesn’t think about the damage it might cause because she doesn’t care—in the coolest, cruellest, most oblivious sense of the phrase, she does not care. Just as you may not care that sweeping your floor disturbs the path an ant has laid down for his buddies, the narcissist does not care that her choices may cause harm to others. Just as the disruption of the ant’s path was not your intent when you chose to sweep the kitchen, but your sweeping disrupted it anyway, so the narcissist may not have the intent of hurting you, even though her choices had that result. And, if someone tells you later that you disrupted an ant trail to your pantry before the ants could follow the trail and swarm your cupboard, you will not feel remorse for your behaviour—well, the narcissist will not feel remorse if she is later told that you were damaged by the choices she made because she feels entirely justified in what she did and if you got hurt, well, too bad for you but it’s not her fault…she literally does not care.
A narcissist will make choices that advantage her and she will make those choices without any consideration for how they might affect others. She will have no remorse or guilt for any damage you might suffer as a result of her choices…she may even justify her choices in such a way that you are blamed for the consequences of her choices. But be clear: a narcissist chooses her behaviour and she chooses it to advantage herself to the greatest degree possible. Her behaviour is volitional, calculated to advantage herself with no consideration as to how it will hurt others. Because she doesn’t care about anything or anyone outside of herself and her own advantage. And for you to think otherwise, for you to doubt the volitional nature of her behaviour, only validates her and makes it possible for her to continue.
Sometimes, when you are looking for something, you end up finding something else. Usually this happens to me on Google, where I am researching something for a blog post or to sate my persistent curiosity, and come across something entirely unrelated but which resolves one of my many other unanswered. Today, however, I wasn’t Googling, I was free-associating while in the shower when a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated bits and bobs of my history suddenly stuck themselves together into a revelation that spans a good 70 years. And an amazing thing about it is, for being 70 years in the making, it is uncommonly brief!
I got married when I was 17. I was pregnant. He was 19 and in the Marines. It was late 1964 and Vietnam was just starting to ramp up. The baby was due in February and in January he was shipped off for a 6 month overseas tour. I was going to face the last months of pregnancy and birth alone.
We all know that my mother was, at best unreliable. And untrustworthy. And she had been opposed both to my marriage and my plan to keep my baby. (In those days, middle-class girls in my condition got shipped off, ostensibly to some distant relative where she had to take care of sick auntie. In reality, however, we were sent to an institution for unwed mothers, a place where we could live out the remainder of our pregnancies in secret, the babies taken from us—sometimes against our will—and put up for adoption. The girls then returned to their previous lives, pretending the pregnancy and baby never happened, sparing themselves—but mostly their parents—the embarrassing proof of their sinful ways and the tarnishing of their ever-so-important reputations.) But I thwarted my mother and got married, receiving from her the gift of “When the going gets tough, don’t come running to me—you made your bed, now you have to lie in it.”
With that kind of maternal support and my husband overseas, I wasn’t quite sure how I was going to get to the hospital once my labour started, but I figured I would eventually think of something.
As it turned out, I didn’t go into labour. I went three weeks past my due date and my obstetrician, who examined me on the 4th of March after ordering x-rays of my abdomen, sent me to the hospital for a Caesarean section the following morning—the x-rays showed the baby’s head to be too big for my pelvis.
It was that evening—the day my child was born—while I was still dopey from the anaesthesia and the pain pills, that it happened. The nurse came in with my meds—this was in the days when hospitals were well staffed and nurses did more direct patient care than they can do today—and she said that when she finished distributing the meds she would come back and give me a back rub.
Unbidden, my mouth opened and out popped “No, that’s ok. I really don’t like anybody touching me.”
In that moment I knew that I had spoken a truth of which I had never been consciously aware. I didn’t like people touching me.
But that was at odds with my behaviour—my teens and early adulthood were during the Swinging Sixties and Free-Love Seventies and I swung and free-loved just like everybody else. But I didn’t like people touching me. I didn’t.
I knew from childhood that my mother didn’t want me. She was very clear on that, even told me to my face in my early teens. I slept around both when it was the “in thing” and when it was not. I had a couple of bad marriages—one so bad I almost killed myself while suffocating in the depression it evoked in me. I had a good marriage and he died and for the first time I experienced raw grief. I have been cheated on and lied to and treated with disrespect by a man I loved, and listened to him swear he loved me while he continued to cheat. I was abandoned by my mother repeatedly. I have been abandoned by husbands and lovers and even the child whose reluctance to leave the womb compelled the Caesarean that sparked that first epiphany.
And all of these experiences, while seemingly disconnected and spread over a span of decades, are related in one very specific way: I didn’t want these people to touch me—I wanted them to want me. Not what I could give them or do for them or provide to them or perform for them—I wanted them to want me…just me.
Today, at 71 years, five months, and ten days of age I have finally figured out that what I really wanted wasn’t sex, it wasn’t cuddles, or orgasms or back rubs or hand-holding or massages or jewellery or presents of any kind—what I have wanted all along simply to be wanted.
Ending relationships is hard. It doesn’t matter who we are ending it with—a friend, a spouse, a sibling or parent—the very act of terminating a relationship is emotionally daunting. Well, I should amend that to say that if you have a modicum of compassion and empathy, ending a relationship is hard. For those who have little or no compassion and empathy, it can be shockingly easy.
We imbue our relationships with values greater than their intrinsic value. Suppose you, in childhood, spent a summer in a camp of some sort, and each room contained four children and an adult chaperone. And let’s further suppose that the chaperone for your room was not a warm, nurturing personality but, rather, cold and stand-offish. But she still provided adequate food, shelter, and protection for you and your roommates. During your time under her care, you would find your chaperone to be the adult you trusted with fulfilling your most basic needs, right?
Now, let’s suppose that you return home to a mother who is much like your counsellor: cold, aloof, unemotional. She provides you with those things necessary for you to survive: food, shelter, clothing, medical care, the means to meet peers and make friends but, like your camp chaperone, she gives you nothing of herself. She is the adult you trust with fulfilling your most basic needs. And yet, despite both women being much the same—cool, aloof, detached, unemotional, unengaged—you will have different perceptions of and different expectations for each one.
There are things called “loaded words” in our vocabulary. A loaded word is one that conjures up emotions when the word is read or heard. The word “plant,” for example, is emotionally neutral whereas the word “flower” has positive connotations and the word “weed” has negative ones (my father once told me that a “weed is just a plant growing in the wrong place—a rose bush in a veggie garden is a weed”). Words like “new” and “improved” are positively loaded words, and words like “dirty” and “grime” are negatively loaded ones.
There are other words that we imbue with additional meaning, words that evoke more than just negative and positive emotions. The word “woman” is fairly neutral (unless you are a misogynist) but the word mother, for most of us, evokes a sensation of safety, warmth, love, and comfort. Even those of us who had distant, unloving mothers can find a longing for those qualities. If you are single, the word “husband” or “wife” may evoke feelings of everlasting love, security, and happiness, in keeping with the fairy tales both ancient and contemporary that hold marriage as the Holy Grail of human interaction—“and they got married and lived happily ever after…” Or it may produce feelings of intense longing or even loss, even if we have never been married, because we feel deprived of the kind of relationship that would lead to that Holy Grail and the feelings we expect it to spawn.
Of those words we can identify as being loaded, “Mother,” perhaps, is the most loaded word in the lexicon, particularly for those of us whose mothers were toxic. The internet is awash with maudlin paeans to mothers and motherhood, women who are less-than-stellar human beings are perceived to have acquired social sainthood through the expedient of giving birth. Women who spend their lives being bitchy, demanding, overbearing and toxic are eulogized as saints due to the singular fact of their having achieved motherhood. And even women who, prior to giving birth, would have been considered potential candidates for Death Row due to their anti-social tendencies, find themselves being given the benefit of the doubt based solely on their status as mothers. The public expresses disbelief that any mother could deliberately inflict harm on their offspring, and mothers who kill their own children are viewed with literal disbelief: “She was his mother—how could she do such a thing to her own child?”
People who express such disbelief—that a woman could deliberately inflict harm on a child to whom she had given birth—exemplify a large segment of the population. They believe in the myth of sainted motherhood: all mothers automatically and without reservation love their children unconditionally and would sacrifice all, including their own lives, for the well-being of those children. The virtually universal belief in this myth makes it tough on the survivors of such women, particularly if the survivors did not suffer permanent physical damage to which we can point as proof. If we have no burn scars or broken bones or permanent lash marks, our ordeal becomes a mere “he said/she said” in the eyes of mother-worshippers everywhere. And, because we don’t believe and we cast a shadow on their belief, those of us who speak out are often greeted with disbelief and scorn, our feelings and experiences invalidated by people who, for whatever reason, are unwilling to entertain the idea that their belief in the universal sanctity of motherhood might be in error.
Some of us had unloving fathers but, because fathers in our society are less imbued with saintly qualities, and because our mythology and history are full of frightening fathers with belts and with “dead-beat dads” who abandon their offspring, we have less difficulty in getting people to believe our fathers were difficult for us to survive. In my case, I had a good father and a narcissistic mother and some people excused their disbelief of my history in maintaining that if it was “that bad,” surely my father would have interceded. But they completely overlooked a few salient facts: 1) he didn’t know; 2) my mother was not one to be controlled; and 3) my mother was spiteful—had he known and attempted to do anything about it, she would have rained even more hell and damnation on me in retribution…which exactly why he didn’t know—I didn’t tell him and she never went completely off the rails on me when he was home.
It takes a lot of personal insight and work to come to the realization that the reason your relationship with a person is toxic and the closer the relationship—the more “loaded” the word that describes your relationship status—the more difficult it is to recognize that you are not the cause of the toxicity. Be it a parent or spouse or sibling or long-time friend, you can be in an unsatisfactory relationship with a toxic person and not realize that the difficulties in the relationship are your fault. In particular, if that toxic person is your mother, you may see yourself as the cause of the dissention because you are viewing her through the lens of hope.
You can use this lens of hope on anyone. If you feel that the appropriate relationship between sisters is to love and support each other through thick and thin, to be BFFs, to always have each other’s back, you are going to be thoroughly shocked when your finally realize that your sister does not see the relationship the same way. One of the biggest mistakes we make in life is that we expect others to treat us the way we treat them and, in close relationships, for people to feel about us the same way we feel about them. We can live for years—decades even—in denial, pretending to ourselves that these people, who might even be our own children, love us like we love them and puzzling why they treat us in ways we would never dream of treating them. So when we focus the lens of hope on someone and expect their behaviour towards us mirror our behaviour towards them, we set ourselves up for repeated disappointment—and a long-term toxic relationship.
When we reach the point of enlightenment—this relationship is toxic and it’s not my fault—we are faced with a decision: continue the relationship as it is (because the toxic person is not going to change) or exit the relationship. Many of us opt for continuing the relationship simply because are unwilling to “give up” on the other person—in other words, we continue to harbour hope that the other person will change in order to accommodate us and a healthy relationship will ensue. It is a false, futile hope because people—all people including emotionally healthy people—make changes for themselves. They don’t change to accommodate others, they change because they feel a change is needed or will be beneficial to them in some way. And so, in order to have a healthy relationship with you, your toxic person would have to perceive the relationship as toxic, recognize herself as the toxic one, and take matters in hand to change that. Has she done so? Has she taken even the first step, recognizing the relationship is toxic? Probably not because, for her, it is not toxic—and that means she either doesn’t believe it is toxic for you or she believes if you think it is toxic then you must be the one to make changes.
And in a way, she is right. If the person with whom you share a toxic relationship cannot recognize or acknowledge that it is so or, she recognizes it but writes it off as your problem, then you will be the one who has to take the steps to rectify the problem. And because you cannot change anyone but yourself, you are going to have to do the hard work of determining whether or not you can endure—for the rest of your life—this person being how s/he is right now. Or, you are going to have to start marshalling your inner resources for ending the relationship and setting yourself free.
If anyone tells you that this is easy, don’t take advice from him or her because if the other half of this relationship can be described by one of those loaded words—mother, father, spouse, grandparent, sibling—then unless you have reached the “thoroughly fed up” stage, this is going to be hard…possibly the hardest thing you have ever done.
What is necessary is that you harden your heart and put yourself first. As the children of narcissists, this can be a difficult thing to do. We are conditioned from birth to put others first and many of us end up in care-giving jobs and choose partners who need nurturing and caring. It feels like going against our nature to put ourselves ahead of others, especially a significant one like a parent, spouse or sibling, but do it we must. If you are looking out for your narcissist and she is looking out for herself (and she is), who is looking out for you? You need to step away from the toxic person and start looking out for you. It will feel uncomfortable and alien at first, but start doing for yourself all of those little things you used to do for him/her—and stop doing them for him/her. Don’t call once a week or once a day or whatever your schedule it—let her call you. Don’t make his coffee, pack his lunch, or do things that you aren’t also doing for yourself (like cooking dinner). Let him iron his own shirts, let your mother’s call go to voicemail, tell your sister “No!” when she wants you to babysit her untrained, destructive dog (or kid). Start letting go of all of those thoughtful little (and big) time-and-attention-consuming things that you do for them and turn that time and attention on yourself.
Start loving yourself. If standing up for yourself starts fights, then don’t start a fight. Keep silent, smile, remind yourself that this what you are giving up—THIS—whatever it was that made you feel defensive or hurt or stressed—is what will be in your past.
If you live with the toxic person either move out or make that person move out. Don’t call the person, don’t accept calls from him/her. Don’t read texts (but save them for evidence) but respond, just once, “Please stop contacting me.” If you are married, file for divorce. Get a restraining order if they won’t leave you alone. Take every step necessary to separate your life from his/hers because if they cannot see that they are toxic to you before you reach the “fed up” stage they are never going to see it.
We are often tempted to write that final “what you did wrong and how you hurt me” letter but, in truth, they don’t care. You will only be giving them a blueprint for how to hurt you again in the future. Many times they will make attempt after attempt, either personally or via flying monkeys, to reel you back in. They are without ethics and think nothing of lying to you, telling you the lies you want to hear, the lies that will bring you back to their side, the lies they will use to bind you to them.
The biggest of those lies is the profession of love. It is what we all want—we want the words but even more, we want to be the recipient of the deeds and the demeanour and the attitude that says we are loved. Beware when professions of love and unaccustomed attention begin to arrive as you are pulling away—they are the ultimate lies, the big guns, trotted out to guilt you back into harness like a tame pony walking in endless circles for the benefit of others. Those words of love, were they true, that attention, were it sincere, would have been caressing your ears and warming your heart all along, not just trotted out like the good china for a special occasion.
You have to harden your heart to the very things you have yearned for all of these years. It sounds counter-intuitive to do so, but the truth is, it is all fakery. You will not be hardening your heart to the love you have always wanted, you will be turning away yet another onslaught of fakery, of being taken advantage of, of being snookered and rooked and taken in by a toxic con-artist. The fact that this person shares blood with you or spoke vows with you or has been at your side for uncounted years is actually immaterial: this person has taken advantage of you, betrayed your trust, and treated you like an afterthought for most—if not all—of your relationship and now it has to stop. And, unfortunately, the only way for you to ensure that the toxicity stops is to remove that person from your life.
This is not something to view lightly or undertake in haste. This needs to be a decision for the remainder of your life, not a position to take as you wait for the toxic person to change. This is a permanent step, a platform from which to launch the rest of your life which will not include the toxic person. No birthday or Christmas or Mother’s Day greetings, no watching the person’s Facebook or Instagram to see how she is doing or if he has moved on. It is the locking of a closed door and destroying the key. It is the first step in more than a new chapter in your life, it is the prologue to a whole new volume.
It is not easy and, as someone who has removed both toxic family members and a toxic spouse from my life, I can tell you that it is worth every tear shed, every urge squelched, every overture repudiated. You can come away whole from a toxic relationship, even one of many decades long—but you can only succeed if you refuse to drag bits of it with you.
It isn’t easy but weaker, less determined individuals than yourself have done it and succeeded. Remember to love yourself first, make choices based on what is good for you, not for the toxic person you are leaving behind. If s/he truly loved you, if the relationship had the barest chance of being healthy and mutually rewarding, it would never have become toxic…the other person would have put you and your well-being and happiness so far ahead of his/hers, that the toxicity could never have gotten a foothold. With two people giving to each other, thinking about the welfare and happiness of the other, a relationship thrives. When both people in a relationship are focussing on the happiness and well-being of only one of them, toxicity is the inevitable result.
The relationship may be beyond saving, but you are not.
Mostly we talk about Narcissistic Parents from the standpoint of those who are still living and tormenting us. Some of us have deceased NPs, but we were already aware of their negative impact on our lives before they died. But there are those among us who do not realize the negative impact those parents had on our lives until they are long dead.
So, what if your NP is long dead and you are only just now realizing the fact that the problem was not you, after all, it was that now-dead parent? What are the implications of such a realization and how do you deal with it, cope with it, heal from it? The situation, while sharing many elements with those whose parents still live and torture them, is quite different when the parent is dead, particularly long dead.
There are two distinct advantages to embarking on this journey after the NParent has passed on: 1) because they are gone, they are not regularly adding to your burden of pain, and 2) you can no longer cling to the hidden hope that if you could come up with the right word or deed, the door to your NP’s stony heart will open to you. These are issues for many ACoNs whose narcissist parent still lives: they continue to add to the adult child’s pain and the adult child often continues to hope—often subconsciously—that there is a chance the parent will “wake up” and see the pain their child is in and step in to assuage it. When your NParent is dead and gone, neither of these issues are on the table.
On the other hand, the adult child of a dead NP has to deal with guilt, both self-imposed and often from well-meaning (or not-so-well-meaning) outsiders for “speaking ill of the dead,” for telling unpleasant truths about someone who is no longer about to “defend him/herself.” And while those of us whose parents were living as we wrestled with our demons, did have them to go to, to ask “why?”, to call to account, the truth is, very few of us ever actually do that. Not only do we recognize the futility, we also recognize that it is in just such a scenario that the NP flourishes the weapons of fear, obligation and guilt—the dreaded F.O.G.—to obfuscate truth and send us fleeing, confused by gaslighting and rolling in guilt for not “honouring” our parents.
So how do you approach this if your parent was already long dead when you figured out that you were the adult child of a narcissist? You start by recognizing that none of the abuse was your fault no matter what your parent told you and no matter how you have reframed it to make it your fault. It was never your fault. Ever. It was the responsibility of your parent to correct and discipline you, yes—but it was your parent’s choice as to how to do that, and the choice to use abusive methods rests solely on that parent.
You cannot excuse your parent making those choices because “she had it tough” or “he didn’t know better.” Unless that parent was isolated from the rest of the planet—no books, magazines, newspapers, television, radio, internet, movies or personal visitors—your parent had the opportunity to learn new ways to discipline. Even if s/he was raise in an authoritarian cult with no connections to the larger world, if your parent was sufficiently emotionally engaged with you, s/he would feel empathy for the pain and fear s/he inflicted on you. That s/he did not feel that empathy, that s/he did not wish to protect you from the pain and fear, is more germane than the fact that s/he may have suffered the same kind of treatment as a child. The very fact that you were her child and she was not motivated by her love for you to find methods other than the hurtful methods used on her is critical because she did not hurt with you. An empathetic parent will suffer pain for inflicting pain on his child; that pain will motivate the parent to find another way to shape and mould and discipline the child without abuse.
Understand that hurting you in the name of correction and discipline was a choice your parent made: there were other choices to be had and an abundance of resources, even “back in the day” before the internet. I had my first child in 1965 and there were magazines and books available even then. My mother was a brutal authoritarian who raised me with slapping, beating with a belt or strap or stick or shoe or whatever came to hand; she browbeat and humiliated me, shamed me, and set up situations in which it was impossible for me to succeed and then punished me for my failures—that is the kind of behaviour that passed for discipline in my mother’s house and I could have very easily just adopted it. But I went to the library and read voraciously during my first pregnancy, everything I could lay my hands on for ways to raise a child without hitting and screaming and humiliation and shame—and I was only 17 years old. If a 17-year-old girl who was raised with brutal physical discipline and crushing emotional abuse could grasp that there were other ways to raise a child, ways that did not damage the child emotionally, and pro-actively seek out information about those alternatives, then what excuse does your parent have? The truth is, your abusive parent had every opportunity I had (and likely more), but s/he simply had no interest because s/he was not sufficiently emotionally engaged with you to want to guide you without hurting you.
Once you realize and accept that it was not your fault that your parents abused you the next step is to assign responsibility where it belongs: on the deceased parent and his/her choices.
Cue the guilt goblins: this is where you become overwhelmed with guilt for thinking so badly of this person who did the best she could with what she had and now you are thinking bad things about her and she’s not here to defend herself…guilt! guilt! guilt! Icky, terrible, awful-feeling guilt! Are you going to shed those guilt feelings by excusing your parent for choosing abuse over compassionate discipline? Or are you going to shed the toxic guilt that has been programmed into you to keep you away from the truth by embracing that truth?
Ask yourself: how do you know she did the best with what she had? Could others have done better with the same? Or with even less? (Remember—1965—I had no TV, no radio, no newspaper subscription—and there was no internet—I haunted the library and got answers that way.) And how do you defend the indefensible? This person emotionally abused and manipulated a little kid—someone who was incapable of self-defence—for her own advantage.
Author Anne Lamott once said “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write [speak] warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Notice she doesn’t make an exception for “people who can’t defend themselves because they are dead.” It is my thought that if someone is okay with going to their grave without acknowledging or apologizing for their transgressions against you—which means those transgressions have not been resolved—then it is not only acceptable but healthy and normal for you to seek resolution on your own, after they have died. Their life is over—even if their reputation is stained by your telling the truth, their life is over—and yours is not. And the life and reputation of a living person is far more important than the reputation of someone who can no longer feel the sting of humiliation or the pain of rejection or the emptiness of feeling unloved.
It is wrong to shame and guilt a person for telling the truth. And that holds true whether that truth telling is simply admitting to yourself that your NParent abused you and s/he was wrong to do so, or if it is telling your entire family what s/he did to you. It is wrong to guilt yourself and it is doubly wrong for others to lay guilt and shame on you for telling a truth they would prefer not to hear. It is doubly wrong because 1) shaming someone for telling the truth is, in effect, demanding that the person lie and 2) expecting someone to lie about their lives in order to protect you from unpleasantness is reprehensible—it expecting someone to sacrifice their integrity so that you can be live comfortably in denial, so that you don’t have to face something you don’t wish to acknowledge.
Some of us will feel angry at that departed parent, others will find themselves going through the stages of grief again. Yet others will try to cling to our denial, to keep the parent alive in our hearts and minds by emulating or at least defending the deceased. Some of us were devoted to our parent, we loved them—he was your Dad, she was your Mom. But part of waking up to the reality of having an N parent is realizing that the parent we believed we had was not necessarily the person s/he really was.
Denial is a powerful thing. We use it to make the unbearable tolerable. Some of us forget the stuff that hurts, others remember things differently from the ways they actually occurred. Still others will simply remember a saint where, in fact, the late parent was an egregious sinner. How we live with the spectre of the deceased parent is as individual as we are, but too many of us sanitize our memories lest we feel guilty about speaking ill of the dead and betray the commandment about honouring our parents. But healing is about truth and at some point you are going have to face up to it and make a decision: move on or stay stuck? Do you want to heal or do you want to keep your illusions intact? Because they are mutually exclusive.
Truth about someone means acknowledging the bad as well as the good. It means letting go of that protective layer of illusion that has allowed you to believe that your parent loved you as much as you loved him. It is recognizing that actions tell the truth and when words and actions conflict, believing the words is the path to denial, believing the actions is the path to truth…and the truth, when you are dealing with a narcissistic parent, is seldom pretty. It is painful—really gut-wrenchingly painful—to come to the conclusion that your parent didn’t love you, that his convenience, his football game or his bottle of whiskey or his cronies were all more important that you were. I divorced a man who used to call and set up a visit with his two little kids and then just simply not show up. Two little pre-schoolers dressed up and waiting for Daddy, excited to see their father, and he just doesn’t show up. When asked later why he didn’t come, his excuses would range from “car trouble” (then why didn’t you call?) to he overslept and then it was too late (then why didn’t you call??) to he didn’t want to miss the playoffs (then why not call rather than leave the kids just hanging?). His words said “I love my kids,” but his actions clearly showed that they were the last item on his list of priorities. Where did you fit on the list of your deceased parent’s priorities?
My mother would rather have bought herself gaudy cocktail dresses and heaps of flashy costume jewellery than take me to the optometrist; she got her teeth cleaned every six months—I did not see a dentist for the first time until I was 14 and had massive cavities. On the one hand, one could argue that we didn’t have much money and kids in that kind of household often have such things as glasses and dental work put low on the household priorities. But on the other hand, in a household headed by a fully functional, loving parent, such things as cigarettes, liquor, and revealing evening wear do not take precedence over the health and welfare of the children.
One of the advantages of coming to this juncture after your NParent has died is that you can stop collecting evidence. Oh, you may have to do some brain work to recover suppressed memories, but there is no new—and potentially confusing—evidence being manufactured daily, which is very much the case for people whose NPs are still living. Dealing with a static situation is much less confusing than dealing with one in which the dynamics can change at the drop of a hat.
But, there are disadvantages to dealing with this when the NP is dead—you can’t test the situation to see if your discoveries are, in fact, correct. You can’t ask questions to see if your NP has a plausible reason for their behaviour and, of course, there are always those who make it their business to criticize and find fault with your search for inner peace because they think the dead should be enshrined as saints and you are busy exposing their idol’s feet of clay.
I don’t really have any answers here—my NM was very much alive and in fine fettle when I went into therapy. She had another dozen or so years to inflict herself and her maliciousness on me and the rest of my family. It was clear that there was no love lost between us, that there never had been. She was a predator and I was her favourite prey—that began before I can remember (and I can remember a few things back to age 2) and it continued until after she died, her Will a document of both generosity (to some) and character assassination ( of others). But I continued processing my experiences of being her daughter for many years after she died and I found it was somewhat easier, since I wasn’t constantly fending off new assaults or trying to integrate her latest inconsistent behaviour into my picture of her.
What was not easier, however, is the lack of reinforcement after she died. In her last years we had contact once or twice a year and each time I came away from a visit or put down a letter from her, my tank was topped up: I was reminded, sometimes forcefully, of why we were estranged and why we would always be so. Once she died, I found myself in the amazing space of second-guessing myself, my convictions, my own memories. I became less emotionally engaged (probably due to lack of reinforcing provocation) and the distance that brought caused me to start thinking of excuses for her. It was hard, sometimes, to remember just how awful she was to me. Time may not heal all wounds but it does dull the pain and therein lies the trap: as the pain dulls, so does your conviction of the need to protect yourself and that can lead to new pain.
My best advice in this is to journal. Especially is s/he has died. Write an account of your experiences with your NP—the experiences that hurt you, why it hurt, how it hurt, what s/he should have done under those same circumstances. Funny thing, when I did that, I realized just how much choice she had, how many options she had at her command, and it made me seriously question why she invariably chose brutality, both physical and emotional. She did not learn this from her parents—her brothers confirmed that as well as my experiences of living with them for multiple summers. Writing things down kept them accessible to me as I puzzled out seemingly conflicting things: her ability to scream at me and, in half a second, be speaking sweetly and calmly to a friend on the phone. Write things down so that you collect the body of evidence that your subconscious will quietly sort for you, kicking up little “aha!” moments and the occasional big epiphany.
Remember that none of their behaviour was your fault, it was their choice, and you have never had any power over their choices. In the long run, it is easier to sort out the dynamics of the parent who died, leaving a fixed legacy for you to work with, than the living parent who continues to add insults and injuries, but neither is stress-free.
A lot of people reading this blog will take issue with the statement that happiness is a choice we make but, if you think about it, it cannot be anything else.
What do you think it would take to make you happy? Would a lot of money do it? Michael Jackson had a lot of money…Elvis Presley had a lot of money…Robin Williams had a lot of money: it didn’t make them happy. Money just allows you to be miserable in comfort.
Would love—being loved—make you happy? I would say that Jackson, Presley, and Williams were loved by millions. Oh—you mean a more intimate, personal kind of love? Well, the truth is, it doesn’t matter how many people love you or how deep and personal and intimate that love is, if you don’t feelloved, those around you are powerless to impart that love to you. Whether or not you feel loved comes from within you because you can feel unloved even when surrounded by people who would give up their lives for you.
How we feel at any given moment is a reflection of our choices, our expectations, and our attitudes. Our feelings may be influenced by outside events, but the degree of that influence is our choice, conscious or subconscious. Some things inevitably shake our equilibrium: death, betrayal, loss of something we hold dear, but how—and how long—these things affect our happiness is within our control.
It starts with our beliefs. Do you believe you will never be happy again if your Significant Other is no longer a part of your life? If he gets hit by a train or runs off with another woman or develops dementia or amnesia and no longer knows who you are—if you truly believe you will never be happy again without him, then you have created a lifetime of unhappiness just hanging out there in the ether, waiting to pounce. This can create anxiety for you that can make you clingy or suspicious or anxious or jealous—all things that can bring your worst fears into being: he leaves because he grows weary of your clinging, suspicions, anxiety and/or jealousy.
Perhaps you don’t exhibit those kinds of behaviours—you are successful in keeping your anxiety hidden—but the worst happens anyway. He finds another woman or he dies or he just decides he is tired of being a couple—regardless of reason, you find yourself alone, without him. You are never going to be happy again because that is what you believe, what you have created for yourself. So, even if a terrific guy comes along who thinks you are the greatest thing since sliced bread, you aren’t in an emotional space to embrace his entry into your life. Either you reject him outright or you find yourself feeling guilty—like you are betraying the one who is gone—if you accept his advances.
We can get addicted to misery. We can and often do create it for ourselves. There is no legitimate reason to do so, but we convinces ourselves of stuff that we hold as values and then we beat ourselves up when we don’t measure up. Never mind that we have set ourselves unrealistic—even impossible—standards, that we adopt standards set by others when we were too young to see how unrealistic they were. Never mind that we have internalized the voice of a critical Other (parent, other family member, coach, religious leader—anyone who was an authority figure in our formative years) and we allow that voice to override our own voice of reason, we somehow feel held to those standards and will not allow ourselves to be happy until we have achieved the impossible. If we do, if we allow ourselves to be happy with less, then we court guilt. If we don’t, if we work towards those impossible goals (or become paralyzed with procrastination because if we don’t try we can’t, technically, fail) and fail to succeed, we are unhappy. And subsequent failures make us even more unhappy because they seem to point to us as failures, losers, and how can a loser be happy?
But it is a trap we have set for ourselves because we control what we believe. We define what is success and failure, good and bad, right and wrong. We can either sit down and cognitively define those things or we can do what most people do: accept the definitions handed to us by Others, authority figures, parents, people we admire. When we accept the definitions created by others, we give away our autonomy, the authority to control our lives, the power to choose happiness.
You don’t have to have a lot of stuff to be happy—that is also a trap, the idea that because we are poor or deprived or lacking in something we want, we cannot be happy. There are billions of people all over the world who barely have enough to eat who are happy. Being happy does not mean to be arrested, to cease forward progress or even to stop acquiring the stuff you like. What it means is to stop finding fault with your life, yourself, your family, your partner, your lot in life. It means being grateful that you are still able to breathe and think and love and considering everything beyond that to be a bonus. It doesn’t mean being complacent or enduring abuse or living in a boring rut. It means continuing your forward progress from the standpoint of adding more joy to a life already joyful for what it does have, not dissatisfied and resentful for what it does not have. Taking that latter path guarantees that happiness will always be just out of your grasp, it is a frame of mind in which the goalposts are forever moving, just out of reach, it is an unfulfillable promise of future happiness whenor if some future event comes to pass. “I’ll be happy when I get that promotion,” or “I’ll be happy if I win the Lotto,” or “I’ll be happy if I lose weight, my man stops cheating, my child gets perfect grades, my wife stops nagging, my mother apologizes for her transgressions, my son stops doing drugs, my book gets picked up by a major trade publisher, my boss recognizes me, etc., etc.,” We all have a litany of things or events that will make us happy, but how many times have we acquired something on our list and the happiness it brings us is fleeting, and we are soon feeling dissatisfied again and looked forward to that next thing that will bring is happiness?
The happiness, the joy, is already within you. You have given yourself a set of hoops to jump through, a series of hurdles you must clear before you can release it. Someone else may have set up those hurdles and hoops but you keep them in place. You have bought into someone else’s paradigm, one that says you are not deserving of happiness unless you earn it. But look at a baby—a chuckling, gurgling, giggling baby—babies overflow with joy and they haven’t earned a thing. And when they are unhappy, it doesn’t take designer shoes and brand-name jackets to restore their joy and good nature—their needs are small and easily fulfilled—food, a fresh nappy, a cuddle, some sleep. How long has it been since being held in the arms of someone you love has brought you joy?
We do this to ourselves. It is like a virus that we catch from others, the belief that achievement and/or acquisition are the keys to happiness. They aren’t: you already hold the keys to your happiness in your heart. You already have the ability to feel happy with what you have right now. You are the one who chooses to withhold it from yourself.
But what if—? You ask. And every one of us can make a list of trials and tribulations that hold us back from happiness. A cheating spouse, an interfering mother, a rebellious teen, an asshole of a boss or worse, unemployment, ill health…and a laundry list of things that can dampen our spirits and our outlook. But you have another list, a list of the things that make your life worthwhile: people you love or who love you, devoted pets, do you have enough to eat and a roof over your head? Do you have access to the internet, the news, perhaps a cell phone to keep in touch with the people you love? What about a therapist or a friend you can unload some troubling thoughts onto? Unless you are naked, alone, starving, and isolated from everyone and everything you have known, you have a reason to be happy. Maybe not jumping-over-the-moon happy, but you have a reason to not be feeling despair.
I am not talking about depression here—depression is an illness that needs professional treatment so if you are depressed, please see a therapist. What I am talking about here is a decision, conscious or unconscious, to postpone “happiness” until later, to make it the reward you get for achievement. It is a choice you make to defer feeling happy to some undefined time in the future, a time that never really comes because as soon as we achieve, our “earn it” mindset creates a new goal and shuts down the happiness because you don’t deserve it until you have accomplished whatever it takes to achieve that new goal. And when you achieve it? Predictably, the cycle repeats itself so that you get no more than a taste of happiness, a whetting of your appetite for it, which acts as a further motivator for you to continue the game.
Happiness is within your grasp, right now, this minute. You need only decide you will have it, the way things are today. You can keep working on the same goals—let your reward for achieving them be a sense of self-satisfaction, a pride in self for the accomplishment. But let happiness and joy into your life today in spite of those things you see as obstacles. They are only obstacles if you decide to make them that.
Many years ago my therapist advised me to write a letter to you, telling you what it was like to be your child. She gave me the option of sending it or not and I, always on the trail of truth, decided to mail it. I also wrote a letter to my father, containing much the same information, and I sent it to him as well.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of your death. Twenty years of being released from the prison of your existence and expectations. Twenty years of emotional freedom. Twenty more years of never having had a mother.
When I sent you that letter some 25 or 30 years ago, your immediate response was to play dumb, then go on the attack. I should have seen that coming, I should have anticipated that kind of response from you. Somehow I believed that you, upon learning that I grew up in abject fear of you, would feel bad for that terrified and cowed little girl. I gave you examples of just how frightened I was—so scared that I didn’t tell you when your husband molested me because he said if I told, he would say I started it and we both knew who you would believe. And he was right, because even though I told you more than 20 years after the event, you still went straight to blaming me. Then, bizarrely, you decided that I had misspoken: you decided it couldn’t have been Frank because he was married to you at the time, as if that was some kind of magic talisman against him lusting after your 16 year old daughter. Surprisingly you decided that I wasn’t lying about actually being molested, I was lying about who molested me. And then you decided that the perp was my father (even though I hadn’t seen him for at least a year). The fact that I was so afraid of you and your reaction that I didn’t tell you about it was completely overlooked—you never addressed it at all. You took the whole letter, which was about how I felt growing up as your child (hint: terrified of you), and turned it into an unjust screed against you, wresting the cloak of victimhood from that terrified child and donning it yourself. Somehow, in your mind, I was victimizing you and the countless indignities you visited upon me for the entirety of my life…from my birth until even after your death…were expunged from the fabric of history, this new slant with you as my victim, taking its place.
My intent, in that first letter, was to “wake you up.” I was labouring under the misconception that, if you just knew how much you had hurt me, if you could understand that my fear of you overshadowed every other aspect of my life, you would “realize” what you had done to me and that you would be sorry. You would recognize how hurt I was and that you would empathize with me, that as my mother you would feel that hurt yourself and be sorry for it. Somehow I expected that this would lead to a new understanding between us, that you would stop hurting me because you loved me and we never want those we love to suffer, especially at our own hands. I believed that a mother loves her child and that all these events in my life that led me to live in desperate fear of you were based in you not understanding how deeply, how profoundly, I was hurt because if you knew, if you understood how much pain I was in, you would feel bad for having caused it and, most importantly, you would stop doing things that hurt me.
How wrong I was. If anything, my letter encouraged you by letting you know just how capable you were of affecting my feelings. Not only were you not sorry, you compounded my hurt by mounting a vicious attack on me. Do you remember the card you sent, the card in which you wrote all of that denial and vitriol? I most certainly do—the background was grey and there was a pen-and-ink watercolour of a dejected-looking knight on the back of a bedraggled horse, captioned something like “You can never hurt me again.”
When I opened the envelope I was full of hope that the letter it contained would herald a new era for us—a time in which we worked through our issues, a time in which you explained mitigating factors so I could let some hurts go, and you apologized for behaviour that hurt me so I could accept your apologies and forgive. I held that hope in my hands, in that fragile white paper envelope, and it crashed down around my ears as soon as I saw the cover of that card. I can clearly remember sitting at my desk and pulling it out of the envelope and being overwhelmed with a combination of dread and sadness as I saw the drawing and its caption. I knew what the message inside was going to be, even before I opened it.
Well, I thought I knew. In the moment after I saw the front of that card, I expected rejection and denial. I did not expect for you to seize the victim’s mantle because the whole concept of my childhood being one in which I victimized you was simply beyond the scope of my imagination.
Little could I have imagined, in those dark days of depression and pain, that I might one day be thankful for that card and for the message inside. You spent three pages—in small, crabbed cursive—telling me how my perceptions of my own life were wrong. Each sentence was a slap in the face, a punch in the nose. By the time I finished reading it, I was literally breathless, gasping for air. My brain was overwhelmed—I could not make sense of it at first. It took several readings—slow readings—for me to grasp what you were saying because none of it made sense in the first read.
In the intervening years I have come to be grateful for that awful, awful letter. You finally, without any holding back, showed me who you really were. At first I couldn’t read it in one sitting. Each paragraph was literally like being hit in the diaphragm and it took time to recover from one before reading the next one. I skimmed the whole thing to get the gist of it, then it took me a couple of days to really read and absorb it all. It hurt. It was so painful some parts of it took my breath away. I cried a lot.
But it wasn’t what you said that took my breath away or made me cry. It was the implications of what you were saying meant. I had been in therapy for a few years when that letter came and I had come to a place where I could read those pages and actually see them for what they were: a revelation of truth. Truth about you, truth about our relationship, truth about where we were going. These truths were things I had actually know but had hidden from all of my life but now, thanks to therapy, was now able to start assimilating.
I had known for my entire life—at least from my pre-school years—that you did not love me. And since at least my teens, I was also aware that you knew it as well. I was a means to an end for you, nothing more, and when I ceased to be useful to you, you couldn’t get rid of me fast enough. This is why you could dump me, year after year, on relatives for the summer and I never received so much as a post card from you. “Out of sight, out of mind,” you liked to say, and that was so very true. I fooled myself into believing this was normal, that other kids who went away to camp or to visit family, didn’t hear from their parents for the whole of their visit, even if it lasted 10 weeks.
But until this letter came, I was not in a place to accept that. Even contemplating it brought me a rush of panic because, until then, I had not individuated enough to not feel threatened by the idea that you did not love me, had never loved me. You see, a child small enough to still be dependent on their parents for their very survival recognizes that that survival is jeopardized if the parent does not have an emotional connection—love—for that child. When we mature and individuate and become able to provide for our own survival, we cease feeling threatened at the prospect of losing a parent. We are saddened by it, but for those of us whose emotional dependency needs are not satisfied in childhood, the idea is terrifying—even though we consciously know that your absence makes no difference in our actual lives.
But I had progressed enough in therapy that I was able to see that letter for what it was and while I reacted to it predictably—with shock and hurt and outrage—I was able to detach enough to see what was behind that bubbling cauldron of hateful words, lies, and self-serving misapprehensions. I still didn’t know what narcissism was, I didn’t have the words to label what you were doing but I had a visceral understanding for the first time in my life.
From reading that letter I came to understand things about you that had been closed off from me either through my denial or your own subterfuge. I learned that truth was, to you, something malleable and flexible that could be shaped and moulded to fit what you wanted to portray. As long a kernel of real truth was at the core of your fabrication, you could—and did—call it truth. And so you accepted that I was molested by your husband—there was the kernel of truth—but you reframed and repackaged the event so that it wasn’t Frank, it was a previous husband against whom you still harboured animosity, even more than two decades after you divorced him. You took a tiny bit of the truth and built an egregious lie around it but, because your story contained that wee bit of fact, you sold the whole package as truth, even when you knew it was not what I said, not what I wrote, not what I meant.
I came to understand that your dysfunction was intractable and entrenched. You would never, ever change, never improve, never get better. I learned that you had no conscience whatsoever, because you could take a tragic truth—your teenaged daughter was molested by your husband and she was too afraid of you to tell you about it—and turn it into another story that blamed an innocent person, and suffer no crisis of conscience about it. If you were caught in the lie, you could blame it on me, accuse me of telling you that my father did it, because this was before the days of home computers and copiers so it was a pretty safe bet that no copies of my original letter existed—you could destroy it and then go on to lie with impunity: and you did exactly that. Your letter gave me incontrovertible proof that facts mean nothing to you if they don’t support you or the position you have taken.
The fact that you exploited and victimized me for my entire childhood and even into my adult years was lost in your self-pity party. I was there for you to use and when you had no use for me, you couldn’t be bothered with me. You got angry with me when I cost you money: doctor, dentist, eyeglasses, not to mention food, clothing, and incidental expenses like hairspray or make up. When there was housework to be done, or child support to be collected, I had a purpose in your life. When I moved out on my own, you had no use for me and I was studiously ignored until you needed something you could only get from me.
But, like most children, all I wanted from you was to be loved. In that awful letter you told me that you had always loved me but you didn’t know how to show it. I pondered that for a long, long time—for years, actually. Every time I felt the urge to pardon your lack of demonstrable love, however, something would pull me back and then one day I realized that it was a lie. Just plainly and simply, a lie. You not only knew how to show it, you showed it to my brother every day—every single day. The truth was, you didn’t love me and you didn’t have sufficient empathy or conscience to motivate you to even pretend you did. You so blatantly favoured him that other family members saw it and even remarked upon it. You cornered my stepmother, Patsy, in a supermarket one day and harangued her about how unfairly your mother had treated you as a child, how she favoured the boys over you and how unjust it was—and all the time you were blathering on, Patsy was thinking “Look at yourself! You are doing exactly the same thing! Look at yourself!” I know this because Patsy told me about it around the time you send her that twenty-five page letter warning her about my father and his temper, an absolutely absurd act on your part because, at the very most, you were married to him for a total of eight years and by the time you wrote that letter, you had been divorced from him for more than twenty, and Patsy had been married to him that whole time. By the time you wrote that, the information was more than twenty years out of date and she had much more recent experience with him—and that experience was more than double your own in terms of time spent together. What were you thinking when you wrote that? Were you hoping to sow dissention or make Patsy afraid or suspicious?
It took me years, but I finally learned that the term “projection” was coined for people just like you. I used to be baffled when you would accuse me of reasons and motives that had never crossed my mind. I saw you do it to other people as well, and I could not figure out what made you think that way. When you ran Mrs. McKenzie, the next-door neighbour, out of the neighbourhood with accusations of prostitution, drug addiction, child abuse, being after the neighbourhood husbands, when you claimed that her status as a widow was a lie and her daughters were illegitimate, I wondered where you got your information. It did not occur to me that none of it was true until I went over to their house to play with the girls and saw the house was not as you claimed (filthy and unsanitary) but every bit as clean as our house. There was a framed picture of their father in uniform on top of the TV and those girls looked more like him than their mother. They had more food in the house than we did. She did not beat her daughters every day like you beat me. A little independent fact-finding led me to the conclusion that your source was in error. Years later I realized that you just made it all up, that you projected some of your own faults and wishful thinking onto her and simply invented the rest. And before long I began to realize that was not an isolated incident—you did this all of the time and when contradictory facts cropped up, you just ignored them or explained them away.
Lying was a way of life for you. Not one word out of your mouth could be believed without independent corroboration. Not. One. Word.
And yet, people who had known you since childhood, people who knew you lied as easily as you breathed, still believed you when you trash-talked me. When you painted me with the blackest possible brush, they accepted it as the gospel truth and not one of them bothered to contact me for my side of your story. Even your parents, the grandparents I spent virtually every summer with for nearly a decade, your parents who knew how afraid I was of you, who heard me weep every year as you were en route to collect me for the next school year, who heard my stories of life with you and who saw evidence with their own eyes of your deleterious effect on me, even they believed your spiteful, calculated tales of drug addiction, prostitution and child abuse (sound familiar?). And nobody bothered to ask me. Not. One. Person.
I learn the hard way. I was still dying to find a way to make you take me into your heart. I refused to absorb and assimilate all of the truths that you kept slapping me in the face with. I wanted my mother love me, to be proud of my successes, to sympathize with me in my losses, to offer help when I needed it, to back off when I didn’t. And in my quest for that mother—the mother I wanted and needed and deserved—I allowed you to get way too close to me. I was so focussed on winning your love and approval I didn’t see what you were doing, where you were going, what you were up to with Annie and Jake. It was clear that you had no intention of helping me—you had already told me not to come to you when things got tough, that I had made my bed so now I had to sleep in it—but nothing could have prepared me for you lying not only to the family but to lawyers, court officials and judges and running away with my children. Nothing prepared me for you going out of state and lying to the courts there as well. And nothing prepared me for you giving my children away for adoption, telling Annie that I had abandoned her and Jake when, in fact, you took them out of state without my consent or the court’s permission and lied to the court in order to get a guardianship so that you could give the children to Uncle Pete and Aunt Susan to adopt because they were infertile. That was the motivation of the whole thing and nobody figured it out for ten years.
But when the truth finally came out, both Uncle Pete and Uncle Gary stopped speaking to you. When you died, Uncle Pete said he had more important things to do than go to your funeral: he was building houses for Habitat for Humanity on an Indian reservation. Uncle Pete was always pretty rigid about such things as integrity and he was undoubtedly mortified at the realization that he had been suckered by you, that you had lied to him for all those years and he bought into it. He was already getting the idea himself because he drove by my house one weekend and saw me out in the front garden, digging and planting and creating a landscape out of bare adobe clay soil. Somehow I didn’t look like the drug-addicted prostitute you had convinced the whole family I was.
Annie believed that I abandoned her, even after the truth of your subterfuge and deceit was out. “Why would a mother lie about her own daughter like that?” she asked, excusing your lies with specious logic. But it is a good question, Mother, and now, nearly 40 years after she asked it, I think I have an answer:
Because you are a malignant narcissist.
Because you have no empathy or compassion or love for anyone but yourself.
Because you don’t care about fairness or justice or even entitlements, except for yourself.
Because lying about me got you what you wanted from others, primarily sympathy.
Because you have always seen yourself as the poor little victim—you saw yourself as Nana’s victim because you perceived that she favoured her sons over you (despite the fact that gender-based roles were fairly rigid when you were growing up and your parents were no different from the parents of your school-mates and friends), and a victim must have an abuser. When you left Nana’s house, my father inherited the role; when my father left the house, the dubious honour devolved onto me.
By lying about me from my earliest days, you created yourself my victim. And you saw yourself as a Heroic Victim, someone who valiantly overcame the evil abusers and triumphed. You became really good at setting up situations and selling others on them. First, you had to identify a persecutor and then demonize him/her. Mrs. McKenzie comes immediately to mind, but you also had each of your parents identified as persecutors. Then it was my turn…I deprived you of sleep, then I had the temerity to be allergic to cow’s milk and Grandma Violet—another persecutor to add to your list—had the absolute gall to expect you to milk goats for their milk for my bottles. Oh…and I persecuted you from before my first breath—I refused to be born so you had to have a caesarean section. By the time I gave my first cry, I had already ruined your figure, caused you to have mastitis, and a painful surgery in which you had to have a transfusion. Then to add insult to injury, I was fretful, couldn’t tolerate cow’s milk, had colic, and developed eczema.
Then I got teeth and began biting my nails. I didn’t like to be around you, I preferred my father and grandmothers. When I was two and Petey was a baby, you abandoned me, the problem child, and kept the cooing baby boy with the thick blond curls. You literally abandoned me and Nana had to collect me from a foster home and bring me home to stay with her and Grandpa for almost two years.
And yet, even after having me with them for two years and being very clear on what a problem child I was not, after hosting me every summer and knowing that I was obsessively obedient (because I was afraid of what you would do to me if I wasn’t), still, they believed your lies and never even bothered to ask me for my side of the story.
And so I was ostracized from the family and you, who abandoned your child, you who your husband caught in flagrante delicto with another man—and me in the room!—you who they all knew lied as easily as you breathed, they believed you when you told them horrible things about me because “why would a mother say such things about her child if they weren’t true?” To garner sympathy, that’s why. To be the victim and get sympathy from everybody who heard your tale of woe. To be seen as heroic, a devoted mother to an incorrigible child—how good a person must you be to put up with my intractable behaviour. And, for the people who only saw us infrequently, it worked. Even my grandparents allowed that maybe I behaved differently when I was with them. Did you tell them the same thing you told me…that living with them full time would be very different than just spending a summer, that they were on their best behaviour during the summer—it was easy to pretend for a few months. Is that how you explained that I never got into trouble during the summers?
It was projection: for you, pretending to be innocent and saintly, put-upon and persecuted, bravely soldiering on in the face of an incorrigible and wilful child. It was projection for you, pretending to be the perfect mother to observers while, behind closed doors, you could have given Mommy Dearest lessons. (Fitting, isn’t it, that Joan Crawford was one of your favourite actresses?) And because you knew you could pretend to be someone or something you were not for a summer, you simply assumed that not only could your parents and I do the same, you assumed we were doing the same when, in fact, we were not.
Why would a mother say such things about her child if they were not true? If that is a valid question, if the implication that such an accusation on the part of a presumably loving mother is, ipso facto, in indication that the words were, in fact, true, then why is the inverse not the truth? Why would a daughter say such things about her mother if, in fact, they were not true? Why is my word in doubt yet yours is not?
Because you have shaped the family’s perception of me, since my earliest years, as an incorrigible child. You did it for so long and in so many ways and with such conviction on your part that even those who spent considerable time with me doubted the evidence of their own eyes. And when I did fuck up, as all children do, it was perceived as deliberate wrongdoing on my part—evidence supporting your contention that “butter wouldn’t melt” in my mouth, that wrong-doing was as inherent in me as my blue eyes.
You alienated the entire family from me, not just my father and grandparents and aunts, uncles and cousins, but my own children as well. When you stole my children and inveigled the rest of the family to maintain a solid silence as to their whereabouts and condition, you did so by painting me even blacker and not one of you—no one person among you—gave a single shit about what that would do to me because, by the time you did this, you had successfully turned my attempts at survival into a lurid tale of depravity to which I was exposing those innocent babies. My son’s medication for his meningitis-caused brain injury was evidence that I was “drugging that baby.” My reaction to your betrayal—a betrayal I should have anticipated based on your history of abandoning and abusing me—was to have what amounted to a psychotic break. It was very wise of you to have left your house and sneaked away to another state because I can tell you today—after your elaborately constructed palace of lies succeeded in the court giving you a temporary guardianship of my children, a court order you promptly violated by taking them out of state and denying me the court-ordered visitation, I came looking for you with a gun. You had just laid upon me that last proverbial straw.
I went crazy. Literally, dangerously crazy. I stopped caring if I lived or died. I stopped caring if somebody else lived or died. All of my humanity was stripped from me. I could have dispassionately killed you in those days—in cold blood and in front of witnesses...