Mother’s eyes grow round with horror as she looks upon me transformed into a monster. I must be terrifying but I feel nothing. Nothing but an endless serenity disconnected from the chaos playing out before me on the big screen in a darkened theater. The movie being shown feels unreal, strange like a dream. Only, it’s not really a movie.
The monster hits a bookcase, pure rage reeling for release and remembers the block of knives in the kitchen, just around the corner. It knows what I know. How curious.
The monster closes the distance between it and the knives. It’s going to use the biggest one on Mother’s boy-husband, Motherfucker, with passionately murderous intent. He doesn’t stand a chance. The monster cannot be stopped. This will have unwelcome consequences for me. Oh no, that just won’t do.
I manage to pull back the monster just short of the knives and drive it into a corner of the living room, shaking uncontrollably. The movie’s over. I’ve left the theater, back at the helm, swirling with agony and confusion.
Decades later, I’d discover this splintered state of consciousness is referred to as dissociation. When a person commits a horrendous, inhuman act, stabs someone dozens and dozens of times, goes on a killing spree or dismembers someone they loved and later describes the experience as like being in a dream, this is the psychotic, broken state they’re in. Fortunately, no one got seriously hurt (you’re welcome, Motherfucker!) and I’m not relaying this from a prison cell.
Dissociative events like this can be triggered by trauma or stress and, indeed, the weeks leading up to this experience I describe as “walking on egg shells” and I was Humpty Dumpty teetering on the edge. My devaluation was beginning to dawn on me but I didn’t know what was happening or how to deal with it. In spite of feeling my imminent danger of unraveling, I’d traveled home, back to the poisoned well, to attend Sister’s high school graduation.
Brother, Sister and everyone except Mother, Motherfucker and I had left to prepare for the ceremony when Mother and Motherfucker cornered me in the living room and confronted me about my disapproval of the woman Brother was then having an affair on my friend, his wife, with. Because, apparently, his (and their) reprehensible behavior and complete disregard of my friend wasn’t the problem. No, that I took issue with it was evidently the problem.
Barely keeping it together at this point, I tell them that I didn’t want to discuss it right then. You know, before leaving to attend a public event that was the only reason I was there for in the first place.
“No, we’re going to talk about this now,” Motherfucker says, ignoring me.
And that’s when I broke.
Afterwards, I remember riding with Mother and Motherfucker driving to the ceremony as though nothing had happened. My only concern at that point was that I didn’t look too messed up. I looked a little messed up but posed for photos with friends and other people I knew, telling them that I was just suffering allergies worse than normal. But I more or less kept it together.
Upon returning home, I went out to my car and fell apart. No one came looking for me. Sister happened upon me on her way out to another party and seemed somewhat disturbed by the inconsolable state I was in but I told her to go, have fun. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine, I said. I was not fine. Sometime that night I decided to leave and drove back to my apartment where I managed to fall asleep.
The next day, Mother calls, giggling that she didn’t even notice I’d gone and goes on to describe to me how loud Brother and his new lady friend had sex. Brother, himself, instant messages me, accusing me of trying to “break up the family.” Sister chastises me for leaving without telling her goodbye. I was too numb to care. It was unbelievable to me that this was actually happening. Everything I believed about Family was tested and they failed. Only, it felt like my failure.
I was designated to feel that way.
Mother reduced us all to functions, delegated roles implicitly expected to make any accommodations for her happiness (especially pretending her “good mother” persona to be true, if not believing it, but mostly to not bother her) under threat of Motherfucker dutifully doling out punishment for any lack thereof. He was (and remains) her chief enabler, her enforcer aggressively defending her and keeping the inner circle in check. The golden child was her pride. The scapegoat, her shame. All interchangeable. All deniable. Mother kept what she found useful. Happiness made her attractive. Sadness brought her sympathy. Compassion yielded admiration. She projected everything else through us, her enablers, and washed her hands of it.
Whatever role we were assigned is who we were expected to be and punished should we dare deviate from that. When I felt I was losing Family as I believed them to be, I was angry about it. And, as I’ve later learned, I had every right to be angry. But I wasn’t permitted to be angry. None of us were except for Motherfucker because that was his role as Mother’s anger. I was supposed to be ashamed and if I wasn’t ashamed then I was treated as though there must be something very wrong with me.
It was a setup. I was being gaslighted.
Gaslighting is abuse whereby the victim is manipulated into doubting their sanity. The term comes from the silver screen era film and play it was adapted from, Gas Light, about a woman who’s husband is manipulating her into believing that she’s going insane in order to protect a secret of his. Narcissists are pathological liars who gaslight everyone in order to maintain control of the false narrative, the fake image they construct about themselves. Everyone the narcissist touches is their victim whether they’re used as enablers or scapegoats, the wreckage left in their wake like an accretion disk encircling an insatiable, invisible black hole.
Losing my shit the way I did was all the proof Family needed that I had a problem. That I was unstable. As the scapegoat I was blamed for having that problem, for being so selfish and cruel as to burden them with my problems. I “need help,” Family would say. But rather than helping, they fed me a steady diet of self-doubt peppered with disparagement all the while demanding that I just “get over it,” “move on,” “forgive and forget” and stop bringing up “the past.” Nothing got resolved because in a Jedi hand wave there was nothing to resolve. It was all in my sick head. It must be. They weren’t the ones losing their minds so it couldn’t be them. Could it?
My role as scapegoat is to be this kind of dump for Family to vent their collective frustration upon in lieu of Mother, or themselves as reflections of her. They all permit themselves to put me down in ways that none of them is permitted to do to the others. The gaslighting, convincing me that I was unstable, that I was the problem, that expressing any spirit of disagreement was tantamount to me being a bad person abusing them, it was all designed to subjugate me for this purpose.
In this narcissistic family paradigm, they literally need to believe that I’m a piece of shit (so that they never have to acknowledge their own deficits of character) and so there’s no amount of evidence to the contrary to convince them otherwise. Not that I have the credibility to mount any kind of defense since being invalidated and none of them have to think twice about taking anything I say the least bit seriously. No one listens to a crazy person, after all, and there’s no reasoning with people who aren’t listening.
And what would my defense have been? No one wants to believe that their own mother is a pathological liar who’s willfully manipulating them for her own ends at their expense. It goes against everything our society generally enshrines in motherhood. It sounds crazy. It comes off mean. What kind of monster would say such things? A better question scratches beneath the surface and asks, what kind of mother would produce such a monster? A good one?
For an instant between insisting I was ever-full of shit, Sister briefly validated me in acknowledging her witnessing Mother blatantly, constantly lying about any small thing during a visit with her, undermining the authority of Motherfucker and any attempt of his to impose boundaries for their adopted daughter. But then she goes right back to blaming me for our “fractured family” and accusing me of being “in denial” as though none of this happened and it was all just “misunderstanding” as Sister liked to say.
It’s absolutely bonkers!
Taurus The Bullshit
Again, everyone the narcissist touches is a victim. Everyone is gaslighted. As much as Family is mislead to believe that I’m the cause of their problems, I also was to led to believe mistakenly that they were the cause of mine.
When I lost favor to Brother, I railed against him as though he ever had the power to make that happen. He doesn’t. None of us pawns do. But I didn’t begin to realize that he was a symptom, part of the smoke screen Mother surrounds herself with, rather than the problem until I went no contact and put distance between us.
Likewise, Motherfucker was arranged as another human shield to take heat for Mother. She presented him to the rest of us to be hated in her stead, similar to my role as scapegoat only that he, the enforcer, is authorized to attack whereas I’m not allowed to fight back. As much of a jerk as he is, he too was a symptom and not the problem.
When I first met Motherfucker he was laid back, relaxed, seemed to be nice and easy enough to get along with. But that disposition changed after he moved into the home Father left Mother after she dumped him. He became pissed off all the time. To him, nothing Brother and I did was ever enough for Mother. He was her new favorite, her knight in shining armor, sworn to defend her. We were spoiled, ungrateful brats. Unwelcome reminders, leftovers from the last guy who boned her. When I’d do a load of laundry and not get it out of the machine before he returned home, I’d find my clothes outside in the dirt. Many mornings before school, I could see his glowering eye furiously staring at me in bed through the crack between my bedroom door and the frame. And we could never, ever criticize him or else it would hurt Mother’s feelings and just piss him off worse.
Mother used to laugh off his weird, passive-aggressive behavior as “Oh, you know Tauruses.” – a veiled reference to Father who was, indeed, a Taurus astrologically, also the youngest son of a brutal mother whom he worshiped and was also a very angry man when they lived together. However, he had mellowed out quite a bit since she left him. Mellow like Motherfucker used to be before she moved him in. And to his credit, I think Motherfucker knew it too on some level, moving out once. But he returned again, angrier than ever. Anger he blamed on my siblings and I.
I suppose it could’ve been us. We were kids. Annoying, I’m sure. But we all kept to ourselves for the most part, living like introverted strangers under one roof, for fear of pissing off Motherfucker. Everything was his. The lions share. All the food. We weren’t allowed to touch any of it. Mother only prepared meals for the rest of us when we had company over, otherwise she’d only make food for her and Motherfucker. The child support she received for warehousing us bought many delicious steak and salmon dinners, I’m sure. Sister became creative at making interesting edibles from items we were able to scrounge without drawing attention. Things like Raman Noodles and an old, forgotten jar of peanut butter, for instance.
It’s worth noting that Mother never defended us, her children, to Motherfucker. I think she blamed us and was using him to express that anger and frustration that just would’ve have sat well with her fun, cool, caring mother image that she’d so meticulously crafted but was nearly completely absent in her actions except when it was performance art.
I moved out after graduating high school rather than pay her rent because she was “no longer receiving child support” for me after I turned eighteen years old. Not that her expenses changed a bit after I left, a point that caused arguments in the months leading up to my moving out when Mother would begin pressuring me for money. Once she became so incensed that she actually slapped me across the face before scurrying away like a wounded animal. Motherfucker rushed in up into my face, huffing and puffing, as though she was the one who’d been struck. Like the impotent whelp he is, he did nothing.
Father informed me later that he was garnished another years support for me after I was no longer living in her home. Years later, one of the neighbors informed me that she’d told his family that she was receiving no child support at all as though Father were a deadbeat dad and they’d responded sympathetically by donating things to help her!
Brother was essentially dating a surrogate mother, a very nice young woman and a friend of mine who he used to provide for him pretty much anything he wanted. Sister barely lived at home her last couple years of high school after being given a car (or three), working a job and couch surfing at friends’, I guess. Upon returning home to visit once, I asked her how she was. Surprised, she piped up. “Wow! Mom never asks me that! I could be knocked up and strung out on drugs and she wouldn’t even know!”
Worse! Mother didn’t care. And it hurts!
I once committed the mortal sin of criticizing some part of my childhood to Mother. “When you have children of your own you can raise them how you like!” She snapped back. Later, I returned to my apartment only to be inundated by nasty calls and messages from my siblings for calling Mother a “bad mother” (which I didn’t and denied but, given that she lied for the expressed purpose of making her own son look bad, I couldn’t really disagree with).
It turned out this was just one of the first salvos (that I noticed, anyway) in a smear campaign that ultimately resulted in successfully isolating me from both siblings who condemn me for Mother’s triangulating them against me (they cannot hold her responsible lest they become a scapegoat like me). She put them in the position of choosing her or me for which they always, understandably albeit wrongly, select the former (her) which necessarily requires contempt of the latter (me).
I was the victim, cast as the abuser and Family bought it.
The Tree Remembers What The Axe Forgets
During periods of no contact (or subjected to the silent treatment as the case may be), I’ve cast a critical eye backwards to my past, excavating it for clues to what the hell is going on. Happily, the findings help me arrange events in a proper order and tell a story commensurate with my thoughts and feelings. That what I think is happening, as terrible as it is and bizarre as it seems, really is happening as I’m perceiving it. That I’m not crazy or stupid as I’ve been made to feel. And I haven’t experienced any serious bouts of depression or dissociative breaks in reality since.
Rather than me unraveling, Family has. Maybe this is what they alluded to when they accused me of “trying to break up the family?” It must be as confusing and frustrating for them as it once was for me, especially Sister, who cannot allow themselves to understand why the status quo they’re so nostalgic for cannot be restored without a scapegoat submitting to that effect. A scapegoat that none of them want to be (nobody does) but that one of them must necessarily become to balance this cult-like, narcissistic family dynamic. And they hate me for it, even in absentia, yet maintaining that Mother, for whom this toxic system exists, is a normal, healthy human being who can be reasoned with in spite of their own experiences to the contrary. They mistake comfort for love as I once did. And they suffer for it as I once had, with all the introspection of scared beasts.
The truth is bad. But the fiction masqueraded as truth was far more insidious.