DYSFUNCTIONAL PARENTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve recently read two interesting memoirs about mind bogglingly horrific parents who were both malignant narcissists and bat shit crazy. Despite horrible, abusive behavior, the two children who wrote their memoirs spent a good part of their adult lives trying to win the approval and/or affection of these abusive parents. I’ve always known how important parents are in shaping their children’s psyches and self images. But these books described such extreme cases that I was somehow still surprised that even when the authors ‘saw their parents for who they were’, they were still not able to fully break free.

The books are “Educated”, by Tara Westover and “Motherland”, by Elissa Altman. In “Motherland”, Altman describes her mother as a pathologically vain, shallow, self absorbed and impulsive sociopath who sees her daughter as a reflection or extension of herself, but also as a servant at the same time. She acts like an actual spoiled baby most of the time and regularly creates scenes to get what she wants. She constantly tries to remake her daughter in her own image and withholds love and approval unless her daughter is doing her bidding.

In “Educated”, the psychopathology is off the charts. The father is a totally paranoid prepper who is extremely anti-government and anti-medicine. He won’t let his kids near a school or a doctor and his wife is like a cultist believer in his insane belief systems. The father is brutal and withholding and one of the brothers is physically as well as emotionally abusive to the author. He regularly beats her to keep her from becoming a ‘whore’, which could mean showing your ankles or being seen alone with a boy. The father protects the son and takes his side against the sister.

 

Reading these books made my skin crawl. Both authors managed to make lives outside of their parents’ orbits as adults. Yet they still felt the need to stay involved with their abusers and continue to try to get some form of approval. They also continued to have self esteem issues, even after therapy.

My mother was a narcissist, though not nearly as epic as the protagonists in these books. My first few years in therapy in my late twenties, I refused to even discuss my mother because I firmly believed she was perfect, as was our relationship. It wasn’t until my early fifties, at the end of her life, that I truly grasped the untoward and warped influence she had had in shaping me to her image. It’s taken me a long time to get over my anger at her long-term control of me and her selfishness in how she exercised that control. I’m still very insecure in many ways and though I’ve come a long way towards strength and independence, I know I’ll never be able to completely get there because of my childhood. So I do get, on a visceral level, the unhealthy connection these authors felt with their dysfunctional parents. We can overcome a lot with the psychiatric tools at our disposal today. But I don’t believe we can ever totally overcome the consistent damage that parents can do in our early years.

Which brings me to one of my pet ‘soap boxes’. I believe that everyone should have to learn something about child development and parenting covering at least the first three or four formative years.of life. This course could be part of a Life Skills class in high school that also teaches budgeting and checkbook management, job interviewing, basic cooking among other things.

The childcare portion should cover the basics of how children’s intelligence and personalities develop, what they understand, can do and can’t do at every age and what a child needs from a parent at each developmental stage. I understand that truly sick people won’t be able to absorb or act on much of this. But it could make a difference for the well-meaning majority who want to be decent parents but may just not know how.

 

There’s another book that’s been recommended to me about yet another set of colorful and dysfunctional parents. It sounds interesting but I’m not sure I can handle it now. I think I’ve had enough dystopian parenting for a while!

15 thoughts on “DYSFUNCTIONAL PARENTS – BY ELLIN CURLEY”

  1. I read a book about “breaking up relationships” that wasn’t specifically about parents, but each chapter was aimed at a different relationship. The final chapter was about parents and was titled “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree with Anyone Else but Me.” It went through all the different ways you could try to make a relationship work with a bad parent — and there were lists of different types of bad parents, including physically abusive parents, sexually abusive parents, mentally and emotionally dominating parents … etc. ad nauseum. And finally, in the end, they said (I wish I remembered the name of the book because it was really a VERY good book and it served me well for many years) when nothing works, then you have to consider ending it. Sometimes, there just is no other way. No one wants to do it, but when that is all that remains, then you have to do it. It took me well into my 60s, but I had to do it. It wasn’t nearly as hard emotionally as I imagined. By then, my relationship with my father was effectively dead anyway. It hurt me financially. Everyone else inherited — except me and Owen and Kaitlin. Because we were “the bad kids.” A lot of kids stay “in the family” exactly because there’s money and sometimes, you need the money, so putting up with the old bastard is worth it. You just have to hope he doesn’t live to 120.

    We all have to make our choices, I suppose and no two people are the same. When my father died, everyone was waiting for me to be hit by some kind of emotional “kick-back,” but it never happened. It really WAS over.

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  2. One of the troubles of a dysfunctional family is the children tend to think it the norm. I agree with you that teaching of childcare and development should be a big part of everyones schooling.
    Leslie

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    1. The problem is that even when kids realize that their parents are outside of the norm, they still need their love and approval and that creates dysfunctional parent child relationships and damaged egos and development. Also some parents actually teach their children a neurotic or worse world view that can linger in the child’s unconscious even after they find out how warped their parents were.

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  3. What people don’t understand is that, while we may avail ourselves of therapy, and it may truly help, there will always be a part of us that is still there. and being told to “get over it” is just another form of what we are trying to get over.

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    1. People who say “just get over it” don’t understand the formation of personality, intelligence and emotional lives. Therapy can be very helpful and the earlier the therapy starts, the better. The healthy coping mechanisms have to be firmly established before they can really change your perspective and your feelings.

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  4. Have you seen “Advanced Style” by Ari Seth Cohen? It is a fascinating book (actually two books) that looksa at all these older women in NY and their style of dress. Some of them (most of them?) dress quite outrageously–even for New York. Elissa Altman’s mother is featured in the book. What a shame that these women with money and style and looks–but that’s all they have. I broke away from my parents early on and never looked back. But all the ‘stuff’ they fill your head with lurks around always. I need to find these books.

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    1. It’s so interesting to know that Altman’s mother was written up in another book about over the top NYC women of a certain era. She was apparently over the line in all aspects of her life. And her poor daughter still feels the need to take care of her mother and be there for her. But I did the same thing when my mom got cancer – I was there for her for her last four years although she was making my life miserable in many ways. So I shouldn’t talk!

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    1. I highly recommend these books. I thought I’d be depressed reading them but I found them fascinating – like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

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  5. I had a very protected childhood, so I had zero life skills. I think all teens should be taught about healthy relationships and toxic red flags so we don’t make mistakes. I sure wish I had known. Not everyone had good intentions, there are malignant narcissists who prey on the innocent. Great post and those books are now on my list.

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    1. Being too sheltered is also a form of dysfunctionality in my book. I’m not sure that a high school class in relationships and parenting can cover all the types of people you should be wary of in life. I’m not even sure that even if they did, that kids could overcome the influence of the models of relationships they are absorbing at home at that stage of life. But it is certainly worth trying in some way to give kids a better head start in the adult world.

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