Helen’s troubles with her narcissist mother started long before she could talk. As an infant she suffered an undetected neonatal stroke. Helen’s mother, Maurine, said she was a colicky baby who was acting out to spite her. It wasn’t until Helen lost her vision and partial facial muscle function at seven years old that an MRI identified her early stroke.
Following her loss of vision, which she eventually regained, Helen endured over two dozen surgeries. “My mother viewed my problems as competition, so she got sick a lot for attention,” Helen said. “She never talked about my health or asked me how I was doing.”
Room for Improvement?
Helen said her mother abused her two younger sisters, but she was the primary target of Maurine’s rage, both verbal and physical. Once when Helen brought home a report card of straight As, her mother gave her a brutal beating, saying she should have gotten A+s. “I went to my teachers after that and asked why I hadn’t gotten A+s, and they said they didn’t give them,” Helen recalled.
Look at Me!
At the dinner table one night when Helen and her sisters and father were talking Maurine suddenly slipped from her chair and collapsed onto the floor, apparently unconscious. Shocked and concerned, her family rushed to her side and picked up the phone to call 911, at which time Maurine regained consciousness. The same scenario played out a few more times at the dinner table. If the conversation shifted away from Maurine, she would dramatically drop to the floor, eliciting concern from her family. Helen said, “Pretty soon we knew that Mom’s ‘fainting spells’ were more ploys for attention. After that we ignored her and talked over it. She continued to fall sometimes. She’d lie there for a bit and then pretend to wake up in confusion.”
Charming on the Outside
In their community Maurine couldn’t do enough for other families. “Everyone loved her,” Helen said. “She remembered everyone’s birthday and baked them a cake. She was a Girl Scout leader. She’d take the girls on hikes and sew their uniforms. All of my friends loved her. No one noticed that my sisters and I weren’t on the hikes. We never got birthday cakes.”
Helen described her father as a narcissist too, but she said he didn’t target his kids as much as her narcissist mother did. “He was an alcoholic and a gambler, and he was gone a lot at work,” Helen explained. “One of the most heart-breaking moments for me as a child was realizing Dad knew what was going on. After a bad beating from Mom, he brought me a candy bar.”
Helen said her parents often fought violently and after they divorced took out restraining orders against each other. One day when Helen was 14 and her father stopped by to pick her up from her mother’s house, Maurine emerged with a gun and shot at both Helen and her father. She missed Helen but hit her father, who fell forward across Maurine’s property line onto her lawn, in doing so violating the restraining order. When police investigated the shooting, Helen’s father declined to press charges against his ex-wife. When they approached her for questioning, Maurine, knowing there were no charges against her, admitted she had shot her ex and then added that she wanted to press charges against him for violating her restraining order.
Helen said one of the things that saved her growing up was spending time with her grandparents. She said her paternal grandfather would intervene on her behalf when her mother lost her temper. As a young adult Helen interviewed members of her mother’s family to try to figure her out. “It was immensely helpful to talk with them,” she said. “I realized my mother’s problems existed from a very young age, that it wasn’t my fault.”
Still Got It
These days Helen has firm boundaries with her narcissist mother and a 3,000-mile buffer. She protects herself and her 22-year-old daughter, but, she says, her mother hasn’t changed much. Helen described her most recent visit with Maurine back in Georgia:
“My daughter is very pretty and often gets looks. We took my mother out for dinner one night, and some young men at a nearby table noticed my daughter. They were smiling and trying to catch her eye, something my daughter dislikes and tried to ignore.” On the car ride after dinner Maurine would not stop chuckling. Helen said, “Mom had a familiar smug look on her face. When I finally asked her what she was laughing about, she grinned and said, ‘I’ve still got it, the sex appeal. Did you see those good-looking men staring at me?’” Helen continued, “My mother is almost 80 and has facial paralysis and one eye sown shut.”
Helen said, “I’ve worked hard to have a workable relationship with my mother, not a loving one. She doesn’t have a clue what that is. I’ve never had a single moment of maternal affection from her.”
Julia Hall is the author of the forthcoming memoir Carry You about life, and a few near deaths, in a narcissist family. Read excerpts.
Related Articles by Julia Hall
- On Being a Narcissist Magnet
- Raised by Narcissists? Why You Can’t Afford the Wrong Therapist
- Tolstoy Was Wrong: Narcissistic Unhappy Families Are Kind of All Alike
- Why I Hate the Word ‘Narcissist’
Featured image of painting by Egon Schiele, “Mother and Child.”