Kirie Pedersen ~ Alice Miller & the Dead Ex

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

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