Pardon the lengthy hiatus, dear reader. Your blogger has been AWOL lo these many months, toiling away in the land of revision.

But I’m baaaaaack.

Which can only mean one thing: my book manuscript is finished! After several additional rounds of reimagining, rehashing, reorganizing, rejiggering, recombining, realigning and resweating bullets, I’d like to say Halle-frickin-lujah. Can I get a witness?

This thing is really happening.

Embracing the Wild, Part 2



A quick recap. In September, I got my do-over Grand Canyon road trip, with a detour to Telluride, where I got a hug from the luscious Cheryl Strayed. As if that weren’t already an embarrassment of wildness, here’s what else I got out of the adventure: a publisher for my memoir.

Yep, that’s right. I sold my book, good people! If all goes according to plan, you’ll be able to buy a copy (at your local independent bookstore, natch) next year.

Some potent magic went to work for me in Colorado. First there was the Strayed encounter I described in Part 1 of this post. What happened after that is so unlikely I had to create an extra post to do it justice.

We were having coffee with the gang of folks who gather for the film festival every year at our friend Nancy’s house. It was our last morning in Telluride. My husband Andy and I were talking with Anne and Tim, an interesting couple from Tucson we’d met that weekend. From across the room, our friend Jacqi interrupted. “Tim, did Carol tell you she’s a writer? She’s written a terrific memoir.” Before Tim could respond, she added, “Carol, did Tim tell you he’s a publisher?”

Tim and I looked at each other a little agape. Suddenly, we had even more to talk about. There wasn’t much time. Andy and I were leaving that morning for the last leg of our vacation. Tim and Anne were hitting the road for the long drive back to Tucson. But the more Tim and I talked, the longer we lingered. I filled him in on the plane crash, tried to give him a quick gloss of my family history, explained how I got into therapy after 20 years and how EMDR turned everything around for me.

He said he’d love to read the manuscript. I emailed the file to him when we got home from our vacation. I figured, if nothing else, I’d get the input of someone who knows the publishing industry inside and out.

I let Tim know there were a few literary agents who’d expressed interest in my book. I’d been sending out queries for months, and some of the agents I’d contacted had asked to see the full memoir. Three of them were still holding the manuscript. Two of the three hadn’t emailed me in quite a while, but I had to assume they were still interested. These days, agents are besieged. Everyone and their mother has a book to sell, which means the sifting and the reading take a long time. I wasn’t firing off impatient emails (yet), but it was getting harder to sit around waiting for someone to bite.

Meanwhile, Tim called to tell me he loved the book. He’d showed it to Anne and she loved the book.  He was sure an agent would want to represent me. He’d been an agent himself for ten years before starting the press, so I figured he would know. He asked that I steer my agent, when I got one, in his direction, because he’d love to publish the book.

I don’t know why I hadn’t considered the independent press option before. I’d gotten it stuck in my head that I’d either sell the book to one of the commercial houses or publish it myself. I really, really, really didn’t want to go the self-publishing route though, because it’s so incredibly hard to get those books seen and reviewed and read. Even though a large percentage of the books on my shelves were published by small and university presses, I hadn’t even investigated the option for my memoir.


Turns out it’s a really, really, really good option.  Tim’s press publishes only six titles per year. He caps it there so he can stay personally involved in the editing, production and promotion of each one. He hand-picks the books he wants to put out into the world, and because he believes so strongly that those books matter, he works hard at getting them noticed and keeping them in print. He has a team of publicists and social media folks working with his authors, and he partners with agents who specialize in the subsidiary rights he doesn’t handle himself.

I had to ask myself what else I was holding out for. Especially in light of the fact that only one of the three agents sitting on my manuscript managed to reply to the email I sent informing them that a publisher was interested.  I’d gotten a lot of positive response over the course of many months querying agents. Nearly half of them had asked to see the book. Some were initially enthusiastic, but nobody was saying: You’re our girl! I figured an agent needed to be jumping up and down about my memoir to even get it past the lobby of one of the big publishing houses.

The agents I’d contacted weren’t exactly jumping up and down. But Tim was.

So I jumped too. Not right away, mind you.  First I had to get past the fact that it all felt too easy. An enthusiastic publisher with a great track record had practically fallen into my lap. Shouldn’t I be struggling harder to get my first book sold? Knocking on doors until my knuckles melted? Wasn’t I supposed to make a blood pact with an agent?

Nah! I finally let myself yield to the serendipity of the thing. I called Tim and suggested we go for it. No reason we shouldn’t take matters into our own hands instead of waiting around for an agent to get involved.

He patiently answered a million questions and walked me through the details of a publishing agreement. I hired an IP attorney through California Lawyers for the Arts to review my contract. Then I signed on the dotted line and collected the first part of my advance. Yes people, I said advance. From an indie press. It’s far from a major payday (more like a few bottles of rare wine), but it’s a clear indication that Tim is invested in me and my book.

Can I get a Woo-hoo?

This year will be about editing, finding a new title, settling on a cover—all the things it takes to get the manuscript into its final form. Then the pre-publication promotion will kick in during the months leading up to a spring or early summer 2016 release. It’s still hard to believe this thing I’ve been working on forever is actually going to become a book. About time!

Bring on the wild rumpus.

How to Talk to a Narcissist


How to talk to a narcissist

This could be the shortest blog post ever: Don’t bother.

Seriously. If by talking to a narcissist your intent is to actually converse with him, I have news for you. It can’t be done. You can talk around a narcissist. Like, in his general vicinity. If he’s very astute, he might notice your lips moving periodically, maybe connect that to the fragments of sound coming out of your face. As he goes right on blabbering all the fascinating things he has to say about himself.

If you have a big voice, you could try talking over a narcissist, just to see how long it takes before he drowns you out. Because, trust me, he’s never voluntarily going to let you get a word in edgewise.

Your narcissist wouldn’t be a narcissist if he were capable of acknowledging you as a person with words to contribute. The disorder arises from the absence of a core self, manifest as a profound lack of empathy. Constitutionally, your narcissist just isn’t equipped to give a shit about your half of the conversation.

For example, the last time I visited my narcissistic parent, he decided not to put in his hearing aid. Even though I’d flown across the country, and my sister-in-law and niece had flown from Europe. He doesn’t pretend, anymore, that we might have something to say that’s worth hearing.

But here’s the bright side. You don’t actually have to talk to a narcissist, even if he’s a member of the family.

Sure, you might be seated next to him at the Thanksgiving table. Maybe you’ve been sitting there for years, wracking your brain trying to come up with some kind of strategy to shut him up. To make him listen to something other than the sound of his own yawp for just five seconds. More than once you’ve had your fork poised, straining to stop yourself from plunging it into his hand.

But even when your sense of family obligation (i.e., codependence) keeps your butt in the chair next to his, there’s no reason to remain psychically present. If your mind wanders off for a stroll in a more pleasant clime, I guarantee your narcissist won’t notice. He just needs one warm body for an audience. If you’re a breathing carcass with ears, he’s good to go. While he’s holding forth, you can astral project halfway around the globe for all he knows.

With practice, you’ll get good at using this psychic travel time for stuff you’d rather be doing—composing dirty limericks, say, or planning out your accessories for the week.

If you can swing it, I highly recommend you do your talking with a narcissist over the phone. At first you might feel obliged to contribute the occasional “Uh-huh,” “Wow” or “Gee” as a sign that you’re keeping up your end of the call. This is entirely unnecessary. Your narcissist is disinclined to waste any of his precious words inquiring about you, whether it’s to ask how you’re doing or to ask if you’re still on the line. Remember, it’s not you he’s talking to. He’s just talking. What you were doing before the call and what you’ll do after it, whether you’re sad or ecstatic, restless or content, fulfilled or anxious—these things are of zero interest.

So go ahead. Put down the phone. Finish fixing lunch or scouring the bathtub. Your narcissist won’t know you’re gone. He’s an expert at carrying on the conversation all by himself.

I know what you’re thinking. Why participate in this charade at all? Why not call your narcissist on his bad behavior and insist he shape up? It works for Dorothy in the movie. She stands up to the wizard, scolding him for scaring people and failing to keep his promises. And he changes right in front of our eyes, becoming the kind-hearted helper Dorothy and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion need.

Eleanor Payson, author of The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, acknowledges that, in reality, “we cannot expect the NPD individual to assist us in validating our own strengths” the way the wizard assists Dorothy and Co. “On the contrary, we must discover these strengths through other people and supportive environments.” You might fervently wish that your narcissist could change—could learn to praise your heart, your brains, your courage. That he could learn to take a genuine interest in you. That he could hear you. But the likelihood of those things happening is nil. “You may be forced to recognize that the NPD individual is incapable of change as he remains unable to recognize your feelings, and unrelenting in his effort to control the resources of attention, support, empathy.”

This has certainly been my experience. Confrontation only makes my narcissist defensive and, sometimes, spitting mean. Once, on the phone, I managed to interrupt him long enough to tell him I was tired of having one-way conversations that were all about him. He huffily explained how mistaken I was for seeing it that way, since it is clearly not his nature to be self absorbed. On the contrary, he sulked, he’s a caring listener and healer. When I’ve challenged him in person, he’s gotten physically aggressive, charging me, shouting and jabbing his finger in my face.

My narcissist is certain there’s nothing about him that needs to change to make things better between us.

So I keep my distance, geographically and psychically. I find other people to talk to, people who understand that a conversation, like a relationship, is a two-way street. I screen my calls for wizards. And when, by accident, my narcissist gets through, well:

There once was a lady named Tucker

Who gents liked to turn to for succor.

She might put on airs

When she asked them upstairs . . .

Embracing the Wild, Part 1



The first time I saw the Grand Canyon, twenty years ago, my former partner and I drove four hours from Las Vegas, pulled into a parking lot, walked 50 feet to the canyon rim, took some pictures, got back in the car and drove away. Ditto for Monument Valley, Natural Bridges and all the rest of the national parks we cruised through on that trip.

By contrast, this August my husband and I stayed two nights in the Grand Canyon village. We slept with the windows and blinds open, got up at first light and piled on layers against the chill. We walked eastward a couple of miles along the rim to our trail head, then switch-backed our way down into the canyon another mile or so before climbing out in the heat. In the afternoon, we hit the rim trail again for more miles of incredible vistas to the west. We watched the sun and a trio of chuckling ravens sink toward the unseen river, flowing miles below.

In Monument Valley, we protected ourselves as best we could against the midday heat and hiked the Wildcat Trail, the only way into the park on foot. Every scrubby pinon sent me ducking for a patch of shade. It was grueling and electrifying. We saw nothing of the throng of visitors cruising the park road. No cars, no people, no sound. Just the silent company of giant stone structures.

From there, we drove to Telluride, Colorado for Labor Day weekend. I’d never been before. It’s a little alarming that humans live in such a gorgeous place, surrounded by peaks so high you have to look straight up to see stars. At 9,000 feet, it was a struggle to climb one flight of stairs without panting like a fish. We rode the gondola to the mountain village over and over again and gaped.

Our visit coincided with the annual film festival, and we were lucky enough to nab the last two seats to a free screening of Ethan Hawke’s new documentary, Seymour: An Introduction. Just before the lights went down, Cheryl Strayed and her husband Brian Lindstrom slipped in to occupy two chairs hastily set up on the side of the tiny auditorium. I knew they were at the festival for the North American premiere of Wild, the film based on Strayed’s memoir. I’d fantasized about running into her in a coffee line. Now she was sitting ten feet away.

Seymour is a profile of the 87-year-old concert pianist and master teacher Seymour Bernstein. The film’s big message is about cultivating artistic courage. I blubbered through most of it, but the waterworks really got going when Bernstein talked about his father’s dismissal of his talent and the way he dealt with it: young Seymour would picture himself playing piano inside a protective cage where his father’s criticisms and humiliations couldn’t reach him. Hawke confessed to Bernstein that he suffered crippling stage fright, and Bernstein shared that he had worked hard to overcome the same fear through intensive preparation. If six hours of piano practice a day were not enough to feel mastery of a piece, Bernstein doubled that to twelve hours.

As the final credits were rolling, I realized I had something urgent to say to Cheryl Strayed. I needed to thank her for the ballsy honesty of her work, and for emboldening readers like me to tell our stories without prettifying them or skipping the hard bits. To master our fear of ridicule and let fly with the truth.

She was chatting with the people next to her. I stood waiting my turn. When she said hello, I could see she was a little teary-eyed, too. I introduced myself and then sort of blacked out. I remember her saying that Bernstein was talking as much about writing as music or acting. Talking directly to us writers. I remember thanking her for what her work has taught me about courage. She asked if she could give me a hug!

And our road trip was only half finished.

We rolled out of Colorado into the canyonlands of southern Utah, hiking our way through gorgeous, otherworldy formations, some of which I’d driven past years before. But hugging the edge of a sandstone cliff, hunting for petroglyphs, bashing my shins on wet river rocks—this time it was all about participating instead of watching. Wading in instead of hanging back.

As Strayed writes in her memoir: “It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me. How wild it was, to let it be.”

The first time I traveled this route, I thought my life was far from sacred. I believed that I didn’t deserve to be alive at all. That I should have died in the plane crash instead of Nancy, the way Dad wished I had. It was good enough for someone like me to sit and watch stuff roll past the window—that was as much “living” as I’d earned.

This summer’s trip was a do-over, a reminder of how very different I am today from the woman who, twenty years ago, sat dejected and passive in the face of all that mysterious wild. It drove home how totally transformed my life has been by the hard work I’ve done to face my trauma. Slowly but surely, I’ve found the courage to reclaim my voice. To bring myself back alive. And I found a companion for the rest of the trip who challenges me to stay present for whatever turns up. Someone who always seems to find the wildest detour. Who loves life enough to get out of the car, and who loves me enough to hike for the view.

On Forgiving and Forgetting

My brother Tedd is a compassionate man. An ordained Christian minister, he takes his faith seriously and works hard to be a force for good in the world. He has a special interest in helping those living through trying times. He and a friend do grief counseling with people whose spouses have died. He also has an active music ministry, booking concerts and sharing his story of personal struggle and growth with church congregations.

Were someone to approach my brother after one of these concerts and ask him to pray with them about the wounds they carry from childhood abuse, he would be glad for the chance to offer comfort. He would not ask the person if they are sure the abuse really happened.

But when the confessor is a sibling and the abuser is our father, my brother has asked more than once: How do you know?

Most of us don’t realize how devastating that kind of skepticism can be. We haven’t learned that abuse victims often expect not to be believed when they disclose their abuse, which makes speaking up especially risky. The abused tend to doubt their own credibility. Maybe I made the whole thing up. Jennifer Freyd and Pamela Birrell write that children abused by parents often blame themselves, harboring great shame. “With repeated betrayal, the shame becomes chronic.”  It “makes us feel crazy at times and silences us.”

That crushing, silencing shame is something my sibs and I are familiar with. It’s difficult to shake the feeling that we somehow provoked our father to mistreat us. When he angrily pulled me out of my chair and hoisted me up to the mirror, insisting I see what a bad girl looked like, I was sure I’d brought it on myself.

Tedd’s less than sympathetic reaction to the mention of our father’s abusive behaviors makes him seem indifferent to the ways we’ve suffered. Which makes me wonder what’s really going on.

It’s possible my brother’s repeated questioning–how do you know?– is a kind of willed forgetting. Freyed and Birrell call it betrayal blindness. “We remain blind to betrayal in order to protect ourselves,” they write. Violating a child’s physical, emotional or sexual safety is the greatest act of betrayal a parent can commit. The child depends on the parent for her very survival, so how can she protest? She can’t. Instead, she hides the abuse from herself and others. She pretends, ignores, forgets. Because “forgetting and unawareness help the abuse victim survive.”

As I wrote in a previous post, at one time in his life Tedd believed that he, too, had been sexually abused by our father. He has since changed his mind, following a pattern of disclosure and retraction identified by clinical research. For many people, the possibility of abuse is too monstrous or terrifying to entertain for long. So they take it back. When a brother or sister dredges it up again, they deflect it.

Are you sure? How do you know?

Because he is not an unkind or uncaring man, my brother is willing to concede that others of us could have been abused. He doesn’t deny our reality. But lately he has taken to defending our father’s behavior. Making excuses for him. He tells me he can understand what drove our father to prey on his family and his patients sexually. Living for years with a sickly, bedridden wife the way our father did with Tedd’s mother would give any man large sexual appetites, my brother explained to me. He’d felt some of that himself during his wife’s protracted battle with cancer.

It’s hard to believe my brother would willingly identify with his abuser. That is, until you consider the other options. Like admitting our father threw him under the bus. Like bumping up against his own rage.

After reading what I wrote about our father in my memoir, Tedd brought up forgiveness. Our father helped a lot of people during his life, my brother insisted. Had my therapist encouraged me to consider that and forgive our father for the wrong he did to our family? I explained that what therapy taught me about forgiveness was how to begin to forgive myself. To surrender the self-blame and shame. That’s not the sort of forgiveness my brother was driving at, though. He wanted me to turn my burden over to God and find the freedom he believed would come from granting our father pardon.

No doubt about it, forgiveness can be powerful medicine. But if you don’t first acknowledge the truth of what a person has done, how can you meaningfully forgive him for it? How can any measure of real freedom flow from refusing to face what happened to you and how you really feel about it?

In The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, Eleanor Payson writes that often we would rather believe we are to blame for the painful parenting we received than “look directly into our feelings of hurt and anger.” Furthermore, “we have multiple messages from society and religious teachings that tell us the only way to release these feelings is through forgiveness.”

“Genuine forgiveness does not deny anger but faces it head-on,” Alice Miller writes in For Your Own Good.

Blanket statements of forgiveness that suppress or circumvent our real feelings are not the starting point for healing. Instead, Payson continues, “all healing must start with awareness and the retrieval of our authentic thoughts and feelings.” In Where to Draw the Line, Anne Katherine describes the freeing encounter with genuine emotions this way: “Expressing our true feeling about a true incident lightens and enlightens. All the energy tied up in keeping the anger contained is released. After we’ve been angry in a healthy way, we have more energy.”

“Only the truth will shift a feeling,” Katherine writes.

“Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” Jesus Christ promised his followers.

I am not a religious person. But I claim that promise for my siblings and me. When we elect not to forget, not to blind ourselves, but keep charting our way through the minefield of our own explosive feelings, we’re making ourselves free. We’re navigating toward lasting forgiveness.

Party Line



In a Venn diagram of our family, Bruce, Sue and I would be the only offspring in the shaded area where Fathers #1 and #2 overlap. The three of us were the lucky ones who got a double dose of narcissistic parenting. That may in part be why, as adults, we’re spread out across the globe. We’ve put a lot of miles between where we grew up and where we make our homes today.

For too long, the distance between us didn’t register. We were happy to see one another when we found ourselves all in one place, but we didn’t stay in regular contact. Our lives were not entwined.

Therapy started to change that. Much of what I was realizing and grappling with involved more than just me. Our whole family was implicated. I wanted to know how my sibs had experienced the day-to-day traumas I was trying to process. So I picked up the phone and started asking.

And then our mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Suddenly, there was an urgent need to be in communication with one another—to share how freaked out we were, strategize around Mom’s care, stay up to date on her condition, vent when the pressure of frequent visits to our parents’ house turned us into slavering lunatics.

When she died it was like a curtain flew open, exposing Father #2 to the glare of a spotlight. Outlining his narcissism in pitiless neon. We realized she’d been making herself a shield for thirty-five years, positioning her body between Dad and us. What had eked out, what we’d seen before she died was tame. He turned on us with the full fury of his ruthless need.

Nine time zones separated us kids: Bruce in Germany, Sue on the East Coast, me in California. We worked out that Bruce could call at 9:00 at night his time, which made it 3:00 in the afternoon for Sue and noon for me. That’s been our standing conference time ever since. We’ve talked on the phone once a month or so for the last six years.

Those regular calls have dramatically changed our relationships. We know one another and what’s going on in each other’s lives in ways we never did before. As we learn about ourselves we bring our discoveries to the group for discussion. In our little subset of three, each of us feels accepted, loved and lavished with support. We’re no longer isolated by the facts of our past. It’s become clear that we didn’t invent the abuse we suffered. Talking about it together not only confirms the truth of what happened to us individually, it lets us comfort one another and pool resources for healing.

It feels like this is the way a family is supposed to operate. But when you’re raised by a narcissistic parent (or two), “loving” and “supportive” are not behaviors you get much exposure to. Au contraire. One of the most insidious ways those with narcissistic personality disorder manipulate their families is by pitting individuals against each other. They create an atmosphere of derision and mistrust to keep the ranks in their own separate corners, smarting from constant jibes.

Father #1 taught us to focus on our glaring faults and believe we didn’t deserve his support. Father #2 reinforced that we will never be as good as he is. At anything. Then he turned our attention to one another’s worthlessness. Whenever he got one of us alone, he seized the opportunity to lambast the others.

Divided, we fell.

It took my brother and sister and me a long while to fully recognize that we’d been duped. That, in fact, we were on the same team.

After we instituted the sibs conference call, we had to figure out how to have a conversation that wasn’t all about our narcissists. We were so well trained to hold them at the center of our attention that we could easily spend 90 minutes talking about our fathers instead of ourselves.

We’ve learned, slowly, to limit the energy we expend on them and to recognize when the conversation is getting hijacked. These days we’re pretty good at keeping the focus on our own lives and struggles, comparing notes on what works and guiding one another away from pitfalls.

That doesn’t mean we never talk about the men who raised us. I don’t think a child ever completely accepts that those who were supposed to cherish and protect her savaged her instead. No matter how old she gets. I do know that wishing our parents were different doesn’t make it so. Instead, we work at sharing the truth of our experience, opening ourselves to one another.

Shaping ourselves into the kind of family we want to be.


What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Abuse



My brother Bruce decided to go for counseling after seeing the great benefit I got from EMDR and talk therapy. In an early session, his therapist gave him a children’s book to read, a story about a servant of the king who takes pity on a street urchin and invites the boy to the castle for a meal. After the boy stuffs himself at a banquet table, the servant offers him new clothes to replace his rags. They stop first at the castle baths, where the servant prevails upon the boy to discard his filthy clothes and climb into a warm tub. While the boy is soaking and the servant is off fetching clean things for him, another man, the king, comes into the room to speak to the boy.

My brother’s immediate thought, before he had time to quash it, was this: What is that man going to do to the naked boy?

Bruce told me this story while we were picking blueberries together in Maine. Blueberrying has been one of our very favorite things since we were little kids. Our aunties would set off with metal pails and milking stools, a parade of kids in tow carrying empty Cool Whip tubs. The tiny, taut berries gave us blue teeth and a row of warm pies oozing juice on the counter.

Not everything about our childhood scared us. We have our cinnamonned memories. But there are so many shadowy fragments. Hunches, nagging feelings, questions like the one that ambushed Bruce. Intimations and awful possibilities.

My oldest brother, Allon, has told me a few times on the phone recently that he’s pretty sure our father had sex in the office with his secretary, a woman from church.

While she was dying of cancer, my mother talked about the time she walked into the waiting area of my father’s medical practice and heard the sounds of rutting coming from a treatment room. “Don’t you dare open this door,” my father’s voice commanded from inside.

When my middle brother, Tedd, started counseling people in his church who were struggling with memories of abuse, he realized that he had suppressed similar memories himself. Our father used to take him along when he made house calls to female patients. Tedd was posted outside the closed door and told to give the signal if he heard anyone coming. Maybe there was more, my brother admitted.

Today Tedd chooses to remember his version of blueberrying, the good things about our father. His generous support of missionary organizations. His role in founding a Christian academy and Bible college in Maine. The relief from suffering he gave his patients. Tedd says these deeds more than make up for whatever hurt our father caused. He urges me to join him in offering forgiveness.

But forgiveness for what, I have to wonder. How can you forgive what you don’t see? What you can’t quite pull into focus?

My sister Sue confessed as an adult that she suspected our father had sexually abused her. Maybe over a prolonged period. She was reluctant to say so, even though he’d been dead for decades, because she had no proof, just a feeling. We learned to keep our feelings to ourselves in my family. Airing them was an invitation to a trampling. But Sue was brave and spoke aloud what her gut had been telling her for a long while. She wanted corroboration. Maybe our mother saw or heard something all those years before. Maybe she could shed some light, dredge up some kind of confirmation.

Our mother was familiar with our father’s predilections. At the end of her life, she talked pointedly about the ways he forced himself on her. He did so even in the presence of my siblings and me.

Although she shared a bed with our father for fourteen years, our mother could not say unequivocally to my sister, “Trust you instinct. This happened to you. I believe.” Our mother preferred to “just drop it.” She believed the past was behind us.

To her credit, my sister has not let it go. She works with an exceedingly kind therapist and sometimes, together, they use EMDR to address her history of abuse. I know from experience a very little bit about how brave Sue is to do this, and how paralyzingly scary it must be.

Still. What do families talk about when we talk about sexual abuse? About a doctor who violates his patients? A husband who violates his wife? A parent who violates his child? Where are the words? How do we begin?


My First Narcissist

Father #1 in my family diagram is my biological father, Arthur. It was important to him to be taken for an important man. As a sought-after family physician, he rushed to the bedsides of his patients at all hours and made himself indispensible at the local hospital. As a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, he taught Sunday school and counseled struggling souls in the ways of righteousness.

From every angle, he looked like a pious man of God, an unimpeachable community leader.

He sent my oldest brother, Allon, to school in Florida because an Evangelical minister with an international following sent his kids there too. Allon was thirteen years old. Our father bought him a ticket and put him on a train to travel the 1,500 miles by himself. You can still hear that dejected kid in his voice today when my brother asks, “What did I do wrong? I don’t know why he sent me away.”

My middle brother Tedd was sent away to the Christian academy our father later helped to found with an itinerate preacher. Since reading a draft of my memoir, Tedd has told me many times about being in his dorm room at that school, which overlooked the parking lot. He knew our father was on campus when his car showed up in the lot. But instead of coming to say hello after his business was finished, our father climbed in his car and drove away while his son watched.

He’s been dead for four decades but people still take my sister aside to tell her what a Godly man our father was. A faithful servant of the Lord. How can she tell them that this revered Christian man was incapable of loving his family? That he stalked his patients, his wife, his children as sexual prey?

The hell a narcissist creates for those closest to him is an intensely private one.

Most Sunday nights after the evening service, my parents invited their church friends over to our house for fellowship. Bruce and Sue and I were sent to bed before the guests started arriving. Our father demanded that we stay out of the way. I would lie in bed staring at the ceiling while cars pulled in and ladies’ heels clacked up the front walk. One night, instead of settling in the living room or drifting to the kitchen for coffee and sandwiches, a group of guests hung back in the front hall. Spasms of laughter floated up the stairwell to the bedroom I shared with Sue.

I padded down the stairs in my footie pajamas and stood sleepily rubbing my eyes.  “Oh no,” one of the adults said with a wink. “Did we wake you?” Then they whirled me into the living room and plied me with chips and cookies while I performed. I danced. I sang. I answered questions. They hooted at my answers and looked approvingly at my parents. My father stood stiffly against the wall, arms crossed, his thin smile stretched taut.

He grabbed my wrists, marched me back to bed, hustled me under the covers and slammed the door shut on his way out. He wasn’t about to be upstaged in front of his flock. Least of all by a snot-nosed little kid.

When I met my husband, forty years after my father’s death, I found myself resisting the powerful manifestations of his love. This was what I’d been trying to invite into my life. Yet to be the object of such unequivocal feeling made me anxious. My therapist, Jan, suggested that I was holding onto the belief that I didn’t deserve to be loved so well.

We used EMDR to pursue that possibility. As I slowed my breathing and listened to the tones ping from one ear to the other, my father’s face appeared. We were outside, at dusk, standing in the space between the garage and the house. It was cold. He towered over me. He kept saying the same thing again and again: You don’t deserve to be loved. You don’t deserve to be loved. And then: Your mother only loves you because she has to.

Jan stopped the tones and let me cry a while before asking what was happening. Then she proposed I go back as an adult to get my child self out of there. She restarted the tones and back I went. I told my child self not to look at him, to keep her eyes on my face. As I held her and backed away from my father, I showed the child me all the things she was going to learn and experience, the fullness of who she would become. I told her that person was already inside of her. That she was perfectly suited for the journey just as she was.

I carried her into the house. My mother was lying on the couch. I told my child self to brush Mom’s hair until it was time for dinner, and while she was brushing, to raise the brush to her head sometimes and brush her own hair too.

Jan suggested I might be feeling unworthy of unreserved love because my mother hadn’t received it herself. She asked me to go back to the couch and have a conversation with Mom about that.

I told my mother I didn’t want to hold back or defend myself out of fear. I didn’t want to repeat her mistakes. She encouraged me to open myself completely, without reservation or doubt that I might not be worthy. Sitting in Jan’s office, I felt a palpable expansion, my chest brimming with breath.

We used the tones to reinforce the new belief: I deserve to be loved well. I laughed out loud at the image that came. My child self and I were outside again, between the house and garage in the almost-dark. We flicked our fingers and my father crumbled like dust. Poof.


Is Your Parent a Narcissist? A Quiz



Right before the American Psychiatric Association released the fifth edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM, I read somewhere that narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) had been omitted from the new edition. Supposedly, the APA had decided that narcissism was so prevalent in the American population it could no longer be considered a disorder.

Turns out the DSM hasn’t scratched narcissism off the list of disorders. We may indeed be getting more self-involved as a nation, but that doesn’t change the fact that for some folks, it goes beyond Trump-style egomania. It’s a pathology. A disease. An affliction families are exposed to and shaped by every day. (On second thought, The Donald might just be the NPD poster boy.)

Here’s a taste of the diagnostic criteria for narcissistic personality disorder outlined in the current DSM:

  • Impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Relationships are largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation
  • Excessive attempts to attract and be the focus of the attention of others; admiration seeking
  • Personal standards unreasonably high in order to see oneself as exceptional

Sound like a mommy or a daddy you know? Take this quick 5-question quiz to find out if you, too, were raised by a narcissist.

I. You call home from college to report that you made the Dean’s List. Your parent:

  1. congratulates you, gushing about how wonderful you are and how proud he is of you
  2. reminds you that he started college at age 16 and graduated magna cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Deus ex machina

II. Whenever a service person comes to the house (piano tuner, plumber, IT guy) to help him out, your parent:

  1. thanks the person profusely and doesn’t begrudge them their fee
  2. waits until the person has left and then calls him a know-it-all, a Mr. High-and-Mighty smarty pants, a cretin whose shoddy work your parent must now correct

III. Your parent calls you on the phone. You didn’t realize he had your phone number. He explains that:

  1. he just wanted to hear your voice; he’s been missing you and wants to know how you’re doing
  2. he decided his dog needs a birth date to celebrate, and he couldn’t wait to tell you that he’s giving the dog yours

IV. Your hardworking sister is struggling financially. Your parent offers to give her his second car. A week later he:

  1. takes the car to be fully serviced and detailed, and pays for the title transfer
  2. retracts the offer, saying he needs the car to drive his dog around

V. You arrive from the airport late at night, after traveling cross country to visit your parent. He:

  1. sits up waiting for you excitedly, your favorite snacks at the ready when you walk through the door
  2. locks the doors, turns off the lights and sets the burglar alarm after changing the code

If you chose the second answer to any of the above, well, welcome to the club. Lots of people probably think your parent is a charming person. They have no trouble telling you so every time you run into them. They sigh reverently, or eye you with envy. Most people will never see your parent the way you do. Because if there’s one thing your parent knows, it’s how to put on a good show. He does this as if his life depended on it.

Eleanor Payson, M.S.W. uses the analogy of the Wizard of Oz to explain narcissistic personality disorder and what it does to families and individuals subject to its exhausting tyrannies. Your parent is a master at using his wizard voice and billows of green smoke to manipulate every situation, monopolize every conversation, suck up every last molecule of oxygen in the room. You exist in his world to enlarge his sense of self, to show him how great and powerful he is. And, as Payson puts it, “to be devoured by [his] unrelenting needs.”

You want a brain, a heart, some courage? You want to go home, little girl? This isn’t about what you want. It’s never about you.

When your parent senses that you’re on to him, when your awareness of his disorder prompts you to start questioning, pushing back, refusing to let yourself get gobbled up by his all-consuming need, things get prickly. He will breathe flames. He will command you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Don’t listen.

Make sure to get a good, long look at the little operator back there frantically working the controls. Call your brothers and sisters over to look too. Maybe then you’ll be able to start seeing him for what he is: an imposter, a fraud. An old humbug.

It can be one of the hardest things you ever attempt, to break the hold of a narcissistic parent’s spell. Every child, no matter how old, desires nothing more profoundly than to know that her parent is on her side, that he is devoted to helping her get what she needs. Coming to grips with the fact that he has a very different agenda—one that takes zero notice of her self or her wishes—can be brutal.

Get some support. I’ve spent a lot of time talking with my therapist about how to set limits. I ordered a copy of Payson’s book and then ordered more copies for my siblings. We spend time comparing notes, reminding one another that our experience is not a dream. We strategize ways to minimize the toxic effects of our parent’s disorder. We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. But that’s not the end of our story.

Survivor Guilt

In the days and weeks following my family’s airplane crash, people kept assuring me I’d be fine. “You’re young,” they’d say. “You’ll bounce back in no time.” It would be a different story for my parents, these same people confided. A parent should never have to bury his child. One day when I had children of my own I’d understand, they promised. Losing a sister just wasn’t the same. And I still had my whole life ahead of me. I was lucky to be alive!

I listened. I tried to feel lucky. But all I could think was: Nancy is dead. I wasn’t even wearing my seatbelt. Why am I still here?

When my father told me he wished Nancy had been the one to survive, the guilt bloomed inside of me like a fungus. Gradually, I made myself a living corpse. I took shallow sips of air I didn’t deserve to breathe. I slogged through heavily freighted days.

Survivor syndrome emerged in the 1960s as psychotherapists began to identify a pattern of symptoms present in Holocaust survivors: depression and persistent anxiety, social withdrawal, emotional numbness, nightmares, mood swings, loss of physical drive. Survivors of natural disasters, warfare and terrorist attacks often suffer the same conditions. Our traumas differ, but we shoulder a common guilt at having lived through the horror that killed others around us.

I was forty years old when I finally began to invite myself back to life. First my therapist gave me the words “survivor guilt.” Then she gave me the eye movement therapy EMDR. (Hang on to your hats. There is much to come about EMDR in subsequent posts.)

Six months into therapy I wrote in my journal: “If everything I do has to be good enough to justify my LIFE, my having been allowed to live when Nancy died, how do I even get out of bed in the morning?” I was beginning to plumb the depths of my guilty self-punishment. Beginning to sense that every single day might not require me to defend my existence.

At the same time, I was realizing that my second father was not the only one who wanted to negate my life. My earliest childhood memories predate the plane crash by at least a decade. In them, my first father tells me again and again that my life has no value. To him or anyone else.

Survivor guilt gave me language to explore a big part of what had happened in my life. It helped explain why I behaved as if I didn’t deserve to occupy my own skin. But there was more. That guilt was compounded by the message I received from both of my fathers: We don’t want you.

My journal entry ended this way: “I’ve been raised by men who, given the choice, wouldn’t have had me live. Now I have to grow up, grow out from under them, grow past them, tell them to BACK OFF because I’m here to stay.”