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!