Portrait of the Narcissist as a Young Man
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Abuse has many forms. Expropriating someone's childhood in favour of adult pursuits is one of the subtlest varieties of soul murder.
I never was a child. I was a "wunderkind", the answer to my mother's prayers and intellectual frustration. A human computing machine, a walking-talking encyclopaedia, a curiosity, a circus freak. I was observed by developmental psychologists, interviewed by the media, endured the envy of my peers and their pushy mothers. I constantly clashed with figures of authority because I felt entitled to special treatment, immune to prosecution and superior. It was a narcissist's dream. Abundant Narcissistic Supply - rivers of awe, the aura of glamour, incessant attention, open adulation, country-wide fame.
I refused to grow up. In my mind, my tender age was an integral part of the precocious miracle that I became. One looks much less phenomenal and one's exploits and achievements are much less awe-inspiring at the age of 40, I thought. Better stay young forever and thus secure my Narcissistic Supply. Plus, my life is my parents' punishment. Childless and a sad failure, I keep hoping against hope and counterfactually that they care enough to hurt.
So, I wouldn't grow up. I never took out a driver's licence.
I do not have children. I rarely have sex. I never settle down in one place. I reject intimacy. In short: I refrain from adulthood and adult chores. I have no adult skills. I assume no adult responsibilities. I expect indulgence from others. I am petulant and haughtily spoiled. I am capricious, infantile and emotionally labile and immature. In short: I am a 40 years old brat.
When I talk to my girlfriend, I do so in a baby's voice, making baby faces and baby gestures. It is a pathetic and repulsive sight, very much like a beached whale trying to imitate a seaborne trout. I want to be her child, you see, I want to regain my lost childhood. I want to be admired as I was when I was one year old and recited poems in three languages to stunned visiting high school teachers. I want to be four again, when I first read a daily paper to the silent astonishment of the neighbours.
I am not preoccupied with my age, nor am I obsessed with my dwindling, fat flapping body. I am no hypochondriac. But There is a streak of sadness in me, like an undercurrent and a defiance of Time itself. Like Dorian Gray, I want to remain as I was when I became the centre of attention, the focus of adoration, the heart of a twister of media attention. I know I can't. And I know that I have failed not only at arresting Chronos - but on a more mundane, degrading level. I failed as an adult.
Interview with ARLLEN
Q: As a narcissist, did you go to school? If so, what kind? What did you think of the facilities? The other students? The teachers? And what was your overall experience of the school years?
A: I attended both primary and high school in my hometown in Israel - a community of immigrants hardened by economic duress and constant insecurity. The facilities - sponsored by wealthy American Jews out to immortalize themselves - were more than adequate. I especially loved the library, an oasis of serene knowledge in a sea of boorishness and irrationality. I was a bespectacled, flabby, smelly and inert student but considered myself, haughtily and unjustly, intellectually superior to both my fellow pupils and our youngish and inexperienced teachers. Overall, I felt, school was a drudgery I had to endure before my meteoric rise to unbridled fame commences.
Q: Was any of the subject matter they taught of any interest to you, if so, what and why? What was your most favourite and least favourite subject and why?
A: My most favourite subject was history because I was allowed to teach it and thus to indulge in theatrics and power plays. I detested math because my inaptitude in it deflated my grandiosity and my claim to be a Renaissance Man.
Q: How were you treated by the other students? By the teachers?
A: Largely with pity and disdain, I guess. Though a few - both students and teachers - succumbed to my dubious charms and admired my accomplishments, whether real and imaginary. These acolytes were at the mercy of my capricious and overweening conduct. They formed my fan club, a source of adulation, affirmation and obsequious applause.
Earlier on I was allowed to skip one year and go directly from fourth to sixth grade. For a short while, I became the toast of the town. I then leveraged this fortuitous celebrity by brazenly lying about the extent of my academic achievements. I learned a few crucial lessons: you are what you say you are, people crave to be manipulated, victims prefer fantasies to reality and it is obscenely easy to gain fame.
Q: Did you have a pet during your school years, if so, what happened to it?
A: I never had a pet, though I came close by sharing a turtle with my siblings and a snail with my ex-wife.
Q: Did you happen to make any friends from the student body? If so, do you still keep in contact with them?
A: My life is rigidly compartmentalized. "Friends" belong to time periods, forever locked in mental boxes. The minute I move from one period to the next, relocate, or find a new interest - I lose my "friendships" and "relationships" as that much ballast. I never look back and I actively refuse contact with figures from my former lives.
I did have "buddies" in both primary and high school - mainly collaborators in nasty deeds conceived largely by me and, at the time, deemed hilarious by all of us. But these were shallow and ephemeral liaisons. My prankish creativity did not buy me he other students' love or affiliation. They regarded me as a freak whose very freakishness allowed him to innovate.
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Additionally, I attached myself to a series of mentally disordered or challenged students and deliberately played meticulously executed mind games on them intended to gain unmitigated control over their mental functions. One of the victims ended up in an asylum. This propensity did not survive primary school, I am glad to say.
Q: Did you have favourite teachers, if so why were they your favourites?
A: I had two favourite teachers - one in primary school and one in high school. The first was chosen due to a confluence of circumstances. She taught me English in my aforementioned brief days of glory and was, therefore, associated in my mind with the "good old times". I had a crush on her - the urbanite, sexually liberated, glamorous, well-read woman that she was. She was the first person I dared disclose my overwhelming emotional distress to.
The other favourite instructor, in high school, was her antithesis. Fat, a-feminine, brooding, moody - but she worshipped the ground I walked on. I needed this kind of unconditional acceptance. I was going through a rough patch. My grades deteriorated. My budding sexuality was thwarted by my perverted self-image. She gave me hope and restored in me a modicum of self-confidence by surrendering her classes. I taught as she sat at the back of the class, glowing.
Q: Were you involved in any extracurricular activities such as clubs, sports, or theatre?
A: I lectured a lot and made numerous appearances in school plays. I was the town crier and the master of ceremonies of the local municipality. I published poetry and, by the age of 16, had my own column in a regional rag. I worked in the local library and also tutored immigrants, mainly from Russia and Soviet Georgia. I was a very active lad. I even invented an extremely detailed and micromanaged daily schedule to better myself through a self-imposed syllabus of reading and theatre-going.
Q: Did you attend parties or dances during the school years?
A: Not even once.
Q: Did you learn how to play any musical instruments, sing or dance? Is art something you enjoy? If so, why?
A: The only form of art I really enjoy - to the point of addiction - is cinema. I do pretend, of course, to be interested in higher-brow pursuits: painting, sculpture and music. But at heart I am not, it is merely perfunctory. I played the flute when I was young because my mother wanted to. I stopped the minute she lost interest.
Q: What activities did you do for fun?
A: Reading and - far more rarely - watching movies.
Q: Did you seek out or were approached by suitors?
A: In hindsight I now understand that some girls found me attractive - though why, it eludes me. But I was unable - and, at times, resentfully unwilling - to decipher their increasingly desperate signals. I, myself, never courted. I haven't had sex until the age of 25and have first fully masturbated - with ejaculation - only when I was 19. I was - and am still - very retarded sexually, on the verge of being a-sexual.
Q: What role did your parents play in your life during the school years?
A: I perceived my mother as both an evil entity, out to harm me, hating and contemptuous - and the driving force in my life. For a stretch of time, everything I did was geared to impress her and disprove her lowly opinion of me. When it was clear that I do not stand a fighting chance against her searing disappointment and disdain, I gave up completely. I did not proceed to university and have been peripatetic ever since with little to show for my efforts.
My father was tyrannical but also more lovable because he was mostly absent, toiling hard to extract us from the slums. When present, he was so manifestly sad and frustrated, so down-trodden and ineffectually rebellious that my insurrection against his arbitrariness was inevitably interspersed with moments of great pity.
Q: Did you have any siblings? If so, what role did they play in your life then?
A: I am the first born and my siblings are far younger than me. I, thus, emulated my father's despotism in my relationships with them. In later years, as I became economically independent, I endeavored to secure their affection with numerous gifts. In all, I was a fun brother, always full of stories and wild poems - but, more typically, remote, uninterested and ensconced in an imaginary escapist Universe of my own making. My prolonged and recurrent emotional - and, later, physical - absences have deeply injured my siblings who, throughout their childhoods, were my most ardent, persistent and blind admirers.
Q: Did you notice any racism or prejudice amongst the students?
A: I belong to a minority - the Moroccan Jews - much derided in Israel for its alleged backwardness, ignorance, proneness to superstition, paranoia and hot temper. Inevitably, I was judged more by the stereotype than by any biographical fact. This greatly affected my anyhow volatile sense of self-worth, self-esteem and self-confidence. For a short time I was even active in divisive ethnic politics in Israel.
How did you tend to dress while attending school?
A: We wore obligatory school uniforms so personal choice was never an issue. Off-school, though, I fitted my unwieldy body into whatever clothes my parents bought me. To this very day, I dress shabbily and inappropriately - when at home, virtually in tattered rags.
Interview granted to Elizabeth Svoboda of Psychology Today
Q. Could you briefly describe your relationship with your parents
growing up? What were some of the high and low points?
A. My mother was by far the dominant presence in my life. She treated me as an extension of herself. Through me she sought to settle "open scores" with an indifferent world who failed to appreciate her gifts and to provide her with the opportunities that she so richly deserved. My role was to realise her unfulfilled dreams, wishes, and fantasies. I thus became a child prodigy.
But this was a vicious circle. The more successful I was, the more insidious envy I inspired in her and the more she attempted to subvert me and my accomplishments. Moreover, she resented my newfound personal autonomy. Smothering and doting turned into undisguised contempt and hatred and these fast deteriorated into life-threatening physical and psychological abuse.
Apart from savage beatings, she hit me where it hurt most: tore my poems, shredded my library books, invaded my privacy, humiliated me in front of peers and neighbours. Instead of being her prized possession, I now came to represent the much despised "establishment". To avoid this disorienting predicament, I made myself into a juvenile delinquent, a gang member, a truant, a rebel with one cause: to regain my mother's attention. But to no avail.
I hate the words "physical abuse". It is such a clinical term. My mother used to burrow her fingernails into the soft, inner part of my arm, the "back" of my elbow and drag them, well inside the flesh and veins and everything. You can't imagine the blood and the pain. She hit me with belts and buckles and sticks and heels and shoes and sandals and thrust my skull into sharp angles until it cracked. When I was four she threw a massive metal vase at me. It missed me and shattered a wall sized cupboard. To very small pieces. She did this for 14 years. Every day. Since the age of four.
She tore my books and threw them out the window of our fourth floor apartment. She shredded everything I wrote, consistently, relentlessly.
She cursed and humiliated me 10-15 times an hour, every hour, every day, every month, for 14 years. She called me "my little Eichmann" after a well known Nazi mass murderer. She convinced me that I am ugly (I am not. I am considered very good looking and attractive. Other women tell me so and I don't believe them). She invented my personality disorder, meticulously, systematically. She tortured all my brothers as well. She hated it when I cracked jokes. She made my father do all these things to me as well. This is not clinical, this is my life. Or, rather, was. I inherited her ferocious cruelty, her lack of empathy, some of her obsessions and compulsions and her feet. Why I am mentioning the latter - in some other post.
I never felt anger. I felt fear, most of the time. A dull, pervasive, permanent sensation, like an aching tooth. And I tried to get away. I looked for other parents to adopt me. I toured the country looking for a foster home, only to come back humiliated with my dusty backpack. I volunteered to join the army a year before my time. At 17 I felt free. It is a sad "tribute" to my childhood that the happiest period in my life was in jail. The peaceful, most serene, clearest period. It has all been downhill since my release.
But, above all, I felt shame and pity. I was ashamed of my parents: primitive freaks, lost, frightened, incompetent. I could smell their inadequacy. It wasn't like this at the beginning. I was proud of my father, a construction worker turned site manager, a self-made man who self-destructed later in his life. But this pride eroded, metamorphosed into a malignant form of awe of a depressive tyrant. Much later I understood how socially inept he was, disliked by authority figures, a morbid hypochondriac with narcissistic disdain for others. Father-hate became self-hate the more I realized how much like my father I am despite all my pretensions and grandiose illusions: schizoid-asocial, hated by authority figures, depressive, self-destructive, a defeatist.
But above all I kept asking myself:
Why did they do it? Why for so long? Why so thoroughly?
I said to myself that I must have frightened them. A firstborn, a "genius" (IQ-wise), a freak of nature, frustrating, overly-independent, unchildlike Martian. The natural repulsion they must have felt having given birth to an alien, to a monstrosity.
Or that my birth fouled their plans somehow. My mother was just becoming a stage actress in her fertile, narcissistic, imagination (actually, she worked as a lowly salesperson in a tiny shoe shop). My father was saving money for one of an endless string of houses he built, sold and rebuilt. I was in the way. My birth was probably an accident. Not much later, my mother aborted my could-have-been-brother. The certificate describes how difficult the economic situation is with the one born child (that's me).
Or that I deserve to be punished that way because I was naturally agitating, disruptive, bad, corrupt, vile, mean, cunning and what else.
Or that they were both mentally ill (and they were) and what was to be expected of them anyhow.
And the other question:
WAS IT REALLY ABUSE?
Isn't "abuse" our invention, a figment of our febrile imagination when we embark upon an effort to explain that which cannot be explained (our life)?
Isn't this a "false memory", a "narrative", a "fable", a "construct", a "tale"?
Everyone in our neighbourhood hit their children. So what? And our parents' parents hit their children as well and most of them (our parents) came out normal. My father's father used to wake him up and dispatch him through hostile Arab neighbourhoods in the dangerous city they lived in to buy for him his daily ration of alcohol. My mother's mother went to bed one night and refused to get out of it until she died, 20 odd years later. I could see these behaviours replicated and handed down the generations.
So, WHERE was the abuse? The culture I grew in condoned frequent beatings.
It was a sign of stern, right, upbringing. What was different with US?
I think it was the hate in my mother's eyes.
You can read about the daily reality in our home:
Q. Once you became an adult, how did your relationship with your parents change? What are some of the unique difficulties of being an adult child of narcissistic parents? Feel free to give examples or describe specific situations you found yourself in.
A. Adult children of narcissists adopt one of two solutions: entanglement or detachment. I chose the latter. I haven't seen my parents since 1996 (Actually, since I left the army in 1982). I avoid the encounter because it is bound to stir up a nest of emotional hornets which I am not sure I could cope with effectively. I also refuse to subject myself to repeated abuse, however subtle, surreptitious, and ambient. Absenteeism is my way of neutralizing my parents' weapons.
But the vast majority of grown up offspring of narcissists find themselves enmeshed in unhealthy permutations of their childhood, caught in an exhausting dance macabre, developing special semiotic vocabularies to decipher the convoluted exchanges that pass for communication in their families. They compulsively revisit unresolved conflicts and re-enact painful scenes in the forlorn hope that, this time around, the resolution would be favorable and benign.
Such entanglement only serves to exacerbate
the corrosive give-and-take that constitutes the child-parent relationship in
the narcissist's family. Such recurrent friction, unwelcome but irresistible,
deepens and entrenches the grudges and enmity that both parties accumulate in
sort of a bookkeeping of hurt and counter-hurt.
Q. What effects do you think your parents' personality problems had on you--as a child and as an adult?
A. I owe my multiple personality disorders - narcissistic, borderline, masochistic - and my depression to their unhealthy upbringing and to the nightmarish atmosphere that they have instilled in our home. I owe them every single self-destructive and self-defeating act I have since committed (quite a few). I inherited from them and via their flawed version of socialization my paranoid delusions, my antisocial behavior, my misanthropy, my a-sexuality.
I am fully accountable for
my conduct. My parents cannot be held responsible for my choices at the age of
46. But that I react the way I do, that I am the sad vessel that I am, is their
doing, no doubt.
Q. When we become adults, what are our responsibilities to parents who have personality problems? Do you think we're obligated to put up with them as a kind of payback for everything they gave us when we were young, or are we justified in cutting them off if the situation gets too intractable?
A. Our first and foremost obligation is to ourselves and to our welfare - as well as to our loved ones. People with personality disorders are disruptive in the extreme. They pose a clear and present danger both to themselves and to others. They are an emotional liability and a time bomb. They are a riddle we, their progeny, can never hope to resolve and they constitute living proof that not only were we not loved as children but are unloveable as adults.
Why would one saddle oneself with such debilitating constraints on one's ability to feel, to experience, to dare, and to soar to one's fullest potential? Narcissistic parents are an albatross around their children's necks because they are incapable of truly, fully, and unconditionally loving.
Q. Now that your parents are no longer part of your life, have you compensated by putting together your own "adopted family," so to speak, of people you care about and that care about you? If so, could you talk a little bit about what effect doing this has had on your well-being?
A. In my late teens and early twenties I was still making the mistake of looking for a surrogate family. Soon enough, I have discovered that I cannot but import into these new relationships all the pathologies that characterized my family of origin. Ever since then I am careful not to get involved with family structures. I haven't even created my own family. I am married (for the second time) but am repulsed by the idea of having to parent children. In general, I am trying to avoid relationships with an emotional component.
Read more about these sentiments here:
Q. How can we try to manage difficult parents' behavior, if at all—or at least, minimize its impact on us? Q. What advice would you give others who find themselves in a similar situation with their parents? What were some of the strategies that worked for you?
A. At the risk of sounding repetitive: disengage to the
best of your ability. Make it a point to limit your encounters with these sad
reminders of your childhood to the bare minimum. Delegate obligations to third
parties, to professionals, to other members of the family. Hire nurses,
accountants, and lawyers if you can afford it. Place them in a senior home.
Move to another state. The more distance you put between yourself and your
personality disordered abuser-parents and their radioactive influence, the
better you are bound to feel: liberated, decisive, empowered, calmer, in
control, clear about yourself and your goals.
These points are crucial:
Do not allow your parents to manage your life any longer
Do not allow them to interfere with your new family: your wife and children
Do not allow them to turn you into a servant, instantaneously and obsequiously at their beck and call
Do not become their source of funding
Do not become their exclusive or most important source of narcissistic supply (attention, adulation, admiration)
Do not show them that they can hurt you or that you are afraid of them or that they have any kind of power over you
Be ostentatiously autonomous and independent-minded in their presence
Do not succumb to emotional blackmail or emotional incest
Punish them by disengaging every time they transgress. Condition them not to misbehave, not to abuse you.
Identify the most common strategies of fostering unhealthy (trauma) bonding and the most prevalent control mechanisms:
Guilt-driven ("I sacrificed my life for you…")
Codependent ("I need you, I cannot cope without you…")
Goal-driven ("We have a common goal which we can and must achieve")
Shared psychosis or emotional incest ("You and I are united against the whole world, or at least against your monstrous, no-good father ...", "You are my one and only true love and passion")
Explicit ("If you do not adhere to my principles, beliefs, ideology, religion, values, if you do not obey my instructions – I will punish you").
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