“To say that Wallace took The Drama of the Gifted Child to heart is to put it very mildly indeed. He returned to it over and over again; his notes were made at many different times, in wildly differing sizes and styles of penmanship, states of mind.”
— surviving antidepressants.org
Wallace wasn’t the only one. Cilla’s Ex, it turned out, also took Alice Miller to heart, also to put it very mildly indeed. Cilla’s Ex likewise returned again and again and made notes in wildly different sizes and styles. During their decade of marriage, Cilla was determined to rehabilitate her husband. She refused to whinge. She refused to burn herself alive. If anyone knew how to lean into the sharp points, as Rinpoche suggested, Cilla did. Better to claim responsibility because at least then she didn’t feel so damn stupid.
After her Ex died, Cilla started dating far too soon. Her boyfriend didn’t want her to talk about the dead Ex. “He’s all you ever talk about,” Ethan complained. It was true. Cilla obsessed. She ruminated. Over the decade with Ex, she became secretive, locked into her self-willed Stockholm. Once Ex was in the ground, she could not seem to stop. Talking that is. About the dead Ex. The “nightmare marriage,” she called it. Crying, too. Cilla did a lot of that.
Cilla fancied herself a feminist. Not that she went around stating any such thing. Cilla lived in the Northwest wilds, where Ex moved her before everything started to go south. Which was their wedding night when he accused her of wanting to fuck everyone there. Even so. Still. Cilla considered herself equal, strong and free. This was the underlying assumption. Hers. And that of her friends. They all believed that about themselves. If you’re unhappy, the unspoken motto went, keep it to yourself. Nobody will believe you, and even if they do, it’s still your fault.
“You’re so lucky!” her friends said at first. “You married a monk!” As if being a former monk conferred Samadhi.
Cilla’s stepson Stephan also considered himself a feminist. “You’re so retro,” Stephan told Cilla. By that Stephan meant the way Cilla scrubbed and organized and cooked and baked along with working full-time. “My entire generation is feminist,” Stephan said.
“Cilla keeps the house so clean you could eat off the floor,” Ex liked to say.
Not long after Ex’s death, Cilla decided to vacuum her library. She pulled out each book, ran the vacuum over it, and dusted and washed the shelves. She was near the end when she found a tattered paperback. The book had been read so often that the spine was torn. She tapped the vacuum off lest the yellowed pages be sucked into the machine. Drama of the Gifted Child: How Narcissistic Parents Form and Deform the Emotional Lives of their Talented Children. Someone had hidden this book. Cilla knew all about that. She had once hidden a book about verbally abusive relationships. Ex somehow found it and flew into a rage. “I’m not verbally abusive!” he shouted.
As if Ex might climb the stairs with that heavy tread that used to terrify her, Cilla’s stomach cramped. She reminded herself that Ex had been dead for a year and a month. She settled onto the turquoise couch and leafed through the paperback. Every page was covered a crazy quilt of jagged underlines in pencil and pen, bright yellow, orange and green highlighter, and exclamation points. It appeared Ex had read the book many times and, perhaps, in varying moods. She’d seen those exclamation points on lists of what she needed to change about herself. On several pages, to illustrate various points, Ex drew stick-figure cartoons. Cilla’s stomach cramped again.
She walked downstairs to put on a kettle for tea.
After Cilla and Ex married, Stephan, then eight, moved back and forth between his mother’s home and theirs. Cilla bought colored pencils and crayons and a workbook about stepfamilies. She asked Ex and Stephan to join her on the turquoise couch. They would go through the workbook together, a few pages at a time, she explained, and this would help them understand this newly-cobbled family.
Stephan cuddled into Cilla’s side. “I’m first,” he said. In Stephan’s drawing, Ex filled the entire page. Cilla and Stephan were tiny figures off to one side. Cilla had fingers. Stephan had none. His sweet face upraised, Stephan passed the book to Cilla. Intent on her point, she drew three figures as equal in size, red hearts flying between them like birds.
Ex loomed behind them. “Please sit with us,” Cilla begged. Instead, frowning, he leaned over to chose two crayons, one dark purple and the other red. Still standing, he drew a figure with sharp jagged teeth leaning over a child’s bed. The figure held a syringe oozing tear-shaped drops.
That evening, after Stephan was asleep, Cilla murmured her concern. “Are you trying to scare him?” she asked.
“I’m being funny,” Ex said. “My son needs to learn to be a man, not some sissy with crayons.”
Cilla brewed chamomile and kava. The brew of calm. She returned to the couch where she had once sought to cobble a family. Parental narcissism damaged children, she read. Children need to be the central actors in their own lives, respected for being exactly who they are. If not, they never experience feelings: sadness or pain or joy. If something awful happens, they suppress their emotions, or they might only feel days later, a sort of delayed pain response.
Cilla stared out the tall window overlooking the footpath where Ex had stood clutching his gun. She herself rarely expressed pain or hurt. She prided herself on this. When she needed a feeling, she looked around to see how others expressed themselves. “That was a great party!” a friend might say. Oh, a great party! Sure. Because obviously her friend knew something Cilla did not.
Non-feeling, Alice Miller said, becomes an art.
In addition to his guns, Ex left behind a spiral notebook of notes about his childhood. He set fire to a vacant house, threw smoke bombs into teachers’ cars, and was eventually kicked out of school. “I don’t know what possessed me,” Ex wrote, a kind of refrain. He must have had feelings, though, because throughout the notebook, he wrote how he cried, as a child and even as a teenager.
Cilla never saw Ex cry. She rarely saw him smile or laugh. On the rare occasions Cilla cried, Ex became furious. After he died, though, she could not seem to stop crying. “Now he can’t hurt you anymore,” her friends said. But as if haunted, she remained frightened. Dating Ethan was a relief. He did not want to hear about Ex. She could tell herself none of it had happened and would never happen again. Cilla considered calling Stephan to tell him about her find but pushed the thought away. Stephan rarely seemed happy to hear from her.
When Ex was small, his father told ghost stories. When Ex was five, his father dressed in a bear costume. As Ex left his room late at night to use the restroom, his father leapt from a hallway closet. Ex recounted this story many times, but Cilla did not know that someone’s refrain could hold a hidden message. Early on, Ex took Cilla camping along the Oregon coast. The second night, something crashed through the brush outside the tent. Ex was six feet four and weighed two hundred pounds. While serving in the military, he volunteered for the most dangerous raids. That night on the Oregon coast, he moved close to her. He was shaking. “It’s going to get me,” he said. Holding him that night, Cilla determined she would heal him.
Scary stories, Miller said, allow the parent to control the child’s fear and to feel strong. Ex’s father and then Ex himself believed they were helping their sons by passing on their own childhood terror. On the rare occasions Stephan acted out, Ex told him: “The bears are going to get you.”
Cilla arrived at a passage claiming that unless the invisible chains binding one generation to the next were broken, the curse would be passed on. As if Ex deemed one method of marking insufficient, the entire page was starred and highlighted and underlined. On another page, a sentence was underlined and highlighted bright gold, exclamation points dancing down the margin: “What these mothers once failed to find in their own mothers they were able to find in their children: someone at their disposal who can be used as an echo, who can be controlled, is completely centered on them, will never desert them, and offers full attention and admiration.”
Was all this marking about Ex’s own mother? In the spiral notebook written during the final days of his life, Ex wrote that his mother’s emotional distance was how she showed love. And why wouldn’t she withdraw from such an awful child? And if his mother couldn’t stand her child, how could his father bear the stink and noise? Perhaps the underlines were critiques of Stephan’s mother, the Biological, as Ex always called her. For that matter, the sentence described Cilla herself. She wanted Stephan to mirror how good she was. How she cared for him ceaselessly, as if he was her own.
Children of narcissistic parents tend to enter sadomasochistic marriages, Miller went on. Just as these children are taught to suppress pain and joy and fear, so do they suppress sexual feelings. Cilla sipped her now-cold tea. The fragrance of salt and cedar drifted through the open window. A bald eagle chittered on the red-barked madrone suspended over the rocky cliff. For Ex, sexual feelings provoked shame, rage and fear. “That was wrong,” he would say after love-making. “That was evil.” And yet he wanted her with him at all times. He obsessed that she yearned for other men. Cilla had believed herself as good a wife as she was a stepmother. When he went silent, she apologized even if she didn’t know what she’d done wrong. As the result of her love, Ex would change. She just had to try harder. Her attempts seemed only to provoke more scorn. “Contempt for those who are smaller and weaker thus is the best defense against one’s own feelings of helplessness,” Miller stated.
Cilla found another page tinted gold with highlighter. Individuals raised by narcissistic parents often select marriage partners who suffer from depression, Miller said. The marriage partner may already exhibit signs of depression before the marriage, and once married, depression takes charge. Watching the partner fall apart helps suppress the memories of one’s own childhood and helps the partner feel strong.
Discovering the self, Miller claimed, meant giving up the illusion of the perfect. The path to liberation is not that one becomes free of pain. What one might recover, instead, is vitality. One might even learn to feel. When Ethan said she was obsessed with the dead Ex, Cilla shouted and cried and slammed dishes around her tiny kitchen. “You want to erase my life,” she shouted. “Anything before you.”
Toward the end of Ex’s life, Cilla smiled more in public and became increasingly numb in private. “Why do you smile all the time?” someone at work once asked, as if she might be high or hiding some secret and forbidden joy.
“To keep from getting frown wrinkles,” she said. She smiled. How to tell him, or anyone, she no longer felt anything at all.
That evening, Cilla tossed yams in olive oil with lemon and freshly-chopped rosemary. She laid a fire in her roasting pit and placed the golden orbs into the coals. Ash floated above the fragaria chiloensis. Did Alice Miller believe those damaged children, those narcissistic losers, had even the slightest chance? Was it possible, after all, or ever, to make anything right? Was it possible, most days, to savor joy and delight? By chance and kismet, maybe. Maybe some did have the slightest chance. Cilla lifted each marked page and allowed it, like a feather, to float into the flames. When the yams were tender, she ate them with her hands.
Kirie Pedersen’s writing appears in Sou’wester, Hunger Mountain, Weber Journal, Emry’s Journal, Superstition Review, Under the Sun, Still Point Arts Journal, PANK, and elsewhere, and includes nominations for Pushcarts, Best American Essays, and other awards. “Getting a Life-Coming of Age with Killers” was selected by Hilton Als as Notable for Best American Essays 2018. I hold an MA in Writing, with Annie Dillard as thesis chair. More writing can be found at www.kiriepedersen.com