There are many people in our society who are narcissistic in their nature, and even though few would be willing or able to admit to, most of us have certain tendencies that come from a similar place.
Vanity is in us all
Vanity itself has its roots in such behaviour, but in some contexts it is merely identified with a preoccupation with self image. Society has indeed placed such behaviour at the forefront of our daily lives for centuries. It’s just just Hollywood actors or the world’s “Top Models” who are guilty of poisoning us with physical ideologies that are far beyond the reach of most of us. As much as we try to blame self-image and self-esteem on the prevalence and bombardment of body image in the media, we must recognise that such issues always come from some level of insecurity within. Otherwise everyone consuming the same media would succumb to its terrible potential, and we know that isn’t the case.
There is also the more recent obsession with taking “selfies” which seem to be an extension of the age old habit of constantly checking on one’s looks in a shop window. We don’t to do that any more because we all carry not only a small mirror in our pockets, but one that can take a picture of our outer beauty, but it can also instantly share it with the world. Literally: the world. For some people this is just a spot of occasional or holiday fun – “Look where I am today…” – but for others this can spiral into a habit of astonishing and worrying regularity.
However, when we start venturing into the realms of mental health and psychological disorders the world begins to get more complex. More dangerous. Above all, it becomes more likely that not only will some people finally succumb to the effects of a disorder, those around them – and especially those close to them – will be caught in the emotional shockwaves. Anorexia, Bulimia, obsessions with plastic surgery, and all other forms of body dysmorphia don’t simply affect the individual, they take hold of relationships, entire families, friendships, and sometimes even entire communities.
It is unfair to lay blame on those who suffer from disorders simply because they have an illness. We are so ludicrously behind the treatment of physical illness when it comes to mental health. Indeed, we are still woefully behind recognising, or even accepting it, let alone treating it. Our prejudice is rooted in our everyday culture and language, and we casually use self-affirming phrases that worsen prejudice rather than address it.
The Lunacy of Language
Most of us will recall Walt Disney “Loony Tunes” with great fondness, and there never was anything sinister in their creation. But when you just hop back a little along the etymology scale it doesn’t take much to link “looney” with “lunatic.” A little thought further takes you to the word “lunar” – of the moon. Now think of all the things we associate with the moon, such as Werewolves. The idea that madness stems from the presence of a full moon is ingrained in our thoughts. Everyone from teachers, to doctors and nurses, and the police, will attest to an increase of “mad” behaviour when there is a full moon.
Many theories have tried to support this; many have debunked it. The moon makes the oceans change, so surely its power on humans should be expected, right? Well, maybe. But the motions of the Earth and the Moon, and their magnetic fields, are really why the seas move. As for increased criminal behaviour, some more cool-minded people have pointed out that a full moon provides more natural light to carry out late night crimes, making it more a pragmatic solution than a sign of some “lunacy” affecting behaviour.
What about women? They are to blame for all out madness, aren’t they? Even dating back to the writing of the Bible, we can see that it was eve who bit that apple and led to all the troubles. The ancient Greeks believed that Prometheus created Man first, and it was only upon the creation of woman – Pandora…yes, her – that we ended up with all of man’s ills being brought down upon the Earth. Hardly surprising, therefore, than madness becomes associated with women, and given the fact that they have a tendency to go “slightly mad” every month (roughly as often as a cycle of a moon…funny, that), and proceed to shed blood at that time, we can hardly blame the medically untrained from centuries ago from making the association between woman’s madness and her womb.
That’s where we find the word “hysterical” – linking to the rather horrendous cure being a hysterectomy. It all made sense to medical practitioners back then who had to assume a physical reason for a mental anomaly. We barely understand the brain these days, let alone back then. (By the way, it is well worth researching “hysterics” and the etymology of the word, the history of science and mental health, and so on.) Take a moment to wonder at scenes in our history of drama. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is a story of male ambition being misguided by witchcraft and madness. It was a disguised attack on James I of England (James VI of Scotland), who was famed for his obsession – his own madness – with hunting and killing witches. Witches, who come from the Pagan faith, which was governed by the motions of the moon – true lunatics – commanded Macbeth into acts of madness. This madness took over his wife, who ended her days obsessed by spots of blood on her hands … well, I hope you can see where I am going with this.
So, when we describe someone laughing hysterically, we’re really referring to the notion of the loss of control to emotions. Women are associated with this madness, and this had a huge bearing on the horrific use of the Sanatoriums – the old name for mental health institutions that derived its name from the Latin “sanus-“ (“well, healthy”), and therefore “sane.”
Gender Politics in Parenting is Madness
Here’s where some thought should be put into the concept of mental health in parenting. We spent centuries in our society with a film belief that women were the “fairer sex”, far more susceptible, and possibly even the root cause, of so much “madness” in society. Connect this the gender imbalances, particularly in the west, and especially under Christianity, the learning, rules, governance and ownership of everything was left to a firm patriarchy. Everything pointed back to the church, which was run solely by men. Everything followed the word of God – which was written by men, who were also virtually the only people able to read what was written. Even when education and schooling began, it would take decades, or centuries before girls were given an semblance of equality in being educated (and they still aren’t in some countries of the world).
By the time we reached the 19th century and Victorian times, our society was so split by economic factors. Previous understanding of madness – and women being at the core of it – would definitely inform the medical profession. As would marriage, which was a business of the church, and therefore at the behest of the patriarchy. Children were born after a couple were married (this is not the time or place to go into the alternative) and therefore they belonged to that bond. A bond signified by the man’s “ownership” of his wife – symbolised by the wedding ring he put on her finger.
If a divorce was to happen, a marriage to end, it would be the ownership of the woman that would be ending. Since the children were conceived in the marriage, they still belonged to the man. Hence why – in middle class family politics at least – if a marriage ended, the woman would probably be leaving the home on her own. And she’d struggle to have much of a “custody battle” because the law was based on the word of God, as written by men, and practised by men. Well, after all, if a woman wanted to leave a marriage, there was surely only one explanation. Madness – right?
Maybe this should give us pause for thought above just how far back the behaviour of Parental Alienation goes. We should also be very careful with any assertions of gender being any part of the mental health of children requiring, merely by a means of genetics, the parentage of both parents, just the mother, or just the father. Especially since so many children in such middle class family structures were brought up more by a nanny and the house staff then their own parents.
We might imagine a total reversal of such family dynamics in the poorer families where all members of the family would be working themselves to the bone just to survive, and the main reason most poor people left their families was because…they died. In those days, most people had long died before they had the chance to go on Jeremy Kyle for a DNA test.
As gender politics became transformed throughout the twentieth century, the dynamics of the family did too. The obliteration of massive proportions of men in two world wars, coupled with a baby boom in the post-war era, shook up the whole structure and approach the creating and sustaining a family. Women had more rights – and rightly so – more independence, and society was many exciting moves in all corners of modernisation. Rock music poisoned the youth (apparently), and the hippy culture probably caused an untold level of STIs to prevail. LGBT politics finally starting getting a long overdue voice, and now we not only have gay marriage, we also have openly gay parents, fostering and adoption.
We should be revelling in a world of astonishingly successful, rounded family structure and success. But amongst the many reasons why we aren’t, there is still one facet of mental health and psychological disorders that takes a hammer to safety that should be the family: narcissism.
Parental Alienation is Everyone’s Problem
I recently saw Stephen Fry live on stage in Birmingham, performing an amazing monologue of and about the stories from Ancient Greece – Mythos. I have written my own blog, The Mythos Masterclass, on the fantastic evening, but I wanted to focus on the ending of his retelling of the Narcissus story. Fry gives a brilliant and eloquent explanation of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) which anyone who has come across Parental Alienation (PA) will recognise:
Narcissistic Personality Disorder, much talked about these days, is marked by vanity, self-importance, a grandiose hunger for admiration, acclaim and applause, and above all an obsession with self-image. The feelings of others are railroaded and stampeded, while such considerations as honesty, truthfulness and integrity are blithely disregarded. Bragging, boasting and delusional exaggeration are common signs. Criticism or belittlement are intolerable and can provoke aggressive and explosively strange behaviours.
Fry’s definition would be scary enough if we were only considering how adult narcissists affect other adults. But when it comes to PA the main issue is that the true victims of the “railroaded” and “stampeded” emotions are children. Having worked with children of all ages for well over fifteen years – many who, with hindsight, were definitely victims of PA – I’ve got a very clear image in my mind of what an emotionally weakened and fragile child looks like.
In an ideal world, when relationships end they would do so amicably and without the animosity that results in the needs for solicitors and courtrooms. Understandably, sometimes that cannot happen. In fact, sometimes the relationship itself is such a destructive force – and continuing it would be harmful to the children – that separation is the only answer. We’re all mature adults here, right? We can accept that, can’t we?
No. Someone with NPD cannot. And the more they are challenged, the more they are even invited to accept at least part of the responsibility for the breakdown of the relationship, the more their NPD bites back. And it bits back hard. They will go to any lengths to fulfil their self-image and any threat to that will be challenged. Even railroaded.
That is why it has to be the responsibility of everyone involved in the welfare of children to be alert to the effects of PA. If we don’t all atop worrying about our rights and start focusing on our responsibilities, there is only one possible result.
The Death of Hope
Even their own children are used, way beyond their understanding or cognitive ability to process what is going on. It leaves them hurt, confused, scared. But worst of all – it leaves them silenced. They cannot say to a social worker: “help me, I believe I am a victim of Parental Alienation.” That means they rely on us to see it – and be prepared to do something about it. To be ready and prepared to help them, not matter how uncomfortable that might be for the parents.
What angers me most is how so many people will claim that the NPD ex-partner managed to manipulate everyone. Where I do not doubt that, what I do find abhorrent is how so few people will stop and look a child right in their eyes.
That look in a child’s eyes. The look that says ‘please’. When they can’t express what they think or how they feel, but they no longer want to hide it. And their shoulders sag under the terrifying weight of the world as they inhale their words. Quiet, uncertain, punctuated with anger, flickering with desperation. Their gaze drops down, slips to the side as if the answer is written somewhere just out of reach. Until suddenly their eyes fix on you and their soul threatens to spill down their face, slipping through their fingers as they lose grip on their thoughts. Through burning-red rage, or the stone-cold silence, you know, you feel, that gaze screaming ‘help!’ The window to the soul; the gateway to the heart. Those eyes, that look … saying ‘help me’.
from No Smoke*
The extract above is from I play I wrote and staged in 2014. It isn’t about PA, but it is about false allegations of child abuse and how children get dragged into them. It’s also about when the false allegation isn’t based on the fact the abuse isn’t happening, it is because the abuse is happening where no-one has cared to look.
The link here is that when it comes to Family and Custody law, the lengths the parent with NPD will go to in order to get what they want, no matter what, can and does leave a terrifying trail of emotional destruction in its wake. In their blinkered pursuance of hatred towards their ex-spouse, and their obsessive need to control the situation, and make the world hate them, their NPD stampedes and railroads the feelings of the child. The damage is profound and worsens with time. The longer the abuse is allowed to continue, the more their hope of ever being saved dies.
When Pandora opens that jar and lets out all the terribly things that will punish, harm and kill humanity, the only thing she is able to trap inside the jar by closing the lid, is hope.
If that is the only thing left for our children to cling onto, as they are left on their own to suffer the abuse is figurative and often literal darkness, with the lid firmly held on, how long can they survive? How long can their own mental health survive before it suffocates and dies alongside hope, trapped in the darkness of hatred?
*No Smoke, by Colin Ward (Act II, Sc. vi), 2014. Publication pending.
The Mythos Masterclass, blog by C Ward.