94 – Understudy

I guess I’m just self-flagellating this weekend. Yesterday four hours in a tattoo chair, today re-reading sites about narcissistic parents. I don’t keep going back to this stuff because I’m learning something new about narcissism – I’ve got a grasp on the pathology and it’s not complicated – but because reading other people’s stories of how their family treated them helps me learn what abuse looks like. It helps me understand what kind of behavior is abnormal, what I’m allowed to be mad about.

I have no idea what a normal family looks like. I’m sure I’ve known a few, but I’ve always found normal people intimidating and tended to avoid them. I guess I felt like I’d infect them with whatever rot was eating at the heart of my house. My parents told me that it was me, that I was the problem, and for most of my life I believed that completely. I believed it so deeply that when I wrote a letter to my favorite advice columnist about a year ago, complaining that my parents wouldn’t stop asking me if they were good parents, what I wanted to know was how to make the question go away. I wasn’t able to mount an argument that they were bad parents, but I couldn’t in good conscience claim they were good. Captain Awkward answered my question directly, and her commenters said what she didn’t: that the behavior I described didn’t match up with the praise I heaped on my parents. They asked me if I was even capable of feeling anger toward my mother. I realized for the first time that I wasn’t.

That realization got me into therapy, and in the last year of that, I’ve become aware of how profoundly warped my view of the world has always been. I haven’t talked to the fam in a bit, for reasons I’m sure that I’ll go into here at some point, but if they asked me that question now, I could answer it. They weren’t good parents, no. That’s it, full stop. They tried, and they genuinely loved me – sometimes – but they were not good parents.

They were alcoholics. It got violent sometimes. It got loud and aggressive a lot. My mom took me out with her to buy more booze at ten or eleven all the time, and I trusted her when she told me that she was fine to drive after killing two bottles of wine since five o’clock. Her undiagnosed dissociative identity disorder made life at home a tap dance in a minefield. There was no way to predict what I might say or do to make her change, but she could turn from cheery sweetness to red-faced, screaming rage and back again in a split second. She would lay down rules and later shame and punish me for following them, claiming she never said such a thing. She never remembered what she did when she lost her temper, and she could lose her temper any minute. What she heard seemed to bear no relation at all to what came out of my mouth. She projected so much hatefulness, so much malice and deception and sadism onto me that I didn’t exist at all. I simply filled out the clothes of whatever scapegoat she needed next.

We used to go to Blockbuster a lot – yes, I know I’m on the verge of old – and there was this shitty horror movie on their shelves called “The Stepdaughter.” The cover featured a blonde in a bloody schoolgirl outfit, holding a bloody knife. My stepdad – and my mother filling in when he wasn’t available – always made sure to point at the movie and say, “Is that you? You gonna come in and kill me in my sleep someday, huh? Whaaat, it’s a joke, lighten up, Frances.”

I never knew what to say to that. After a year of therapy, I can say conclusively that no, it’s not so very funny if you think your twelve-year-old wants to kill you in your sleep. Why do you think that? If your child genuinely wanted to kill you, why might that be? Because, you see, the only way this joke is funny is if we all know that it’s a little bit true, right? It wouldn’t be a hilarious joke if we didn’t all understand that at a baseline level, we do not trust each other, we fear for our safety in our own beds, and that, around here, is called love. This is not a family. This is a war.

And just think, beloved and brilliant daughter, light of my life, just speculate, dear stepdaughter: what if we should come to truly believe you want us dead? What if it was more than just a little bit true? What might we do, if this is war? What might happen to you?

“Climb,” November 2019

They painted a killer over my face.
They showed me that they thought of this as war.
I learned to be what they’d taken me for,
learned to play all their villains’ parts with grace.

They never tell you the name of the play.
Watch carefully and you’ll know what to do;
you’ll work out who you are from context clues.
No matter if you’re right or wrong they’ll say:

“In this family, we laugh when people weep.
We quote the bullies’ best lines back to you
just because we’re sick of children today –
and how can you be drowning, it’s not that deep!
You just want us to feel sorry for you
so someday you can kill us in our sleep.”

Check out the rest of the 100 Sonnets

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