It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist's Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent's unconditional love. Start by reading the 46 memories--it all began there.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Reinterpreting Reality: 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families Pt 1

From The 10 Commandments of Dysfunctional Families by Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

1. Thou shalt reinterpret reality to preserve the perfect fantasy.
Sample Situation: This commandment is designed to hide family secrets. If you saw dad stagger and fall down the basement steps because he was drunk, you can’t tell the truth. Instead, reality must be interpreted into an acceptable fantasy.

“Daddy wasn’t drunk; he simply lost his balance and tripped. Poor Daddy.”

Application: Even if you see it, it’s not real. You must have made a mistake. Therefore, reinterpret what you saw to make it nice and respectable. If you don’t, people will think you’re and we’re all crazy. We wouldn’t want them to think that now, would we?

Motto: Always believe the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the alcoholic truth.


In our case that might be rephrased to say “Always believe the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the narcissistic truth.”

Narcissist’s lives are carefully constructed fantasies, houses of cards that cannot withstand the slightest rumble of dissent or disagreement and which are in constant need of monitoring and tweaking in order to continue standing.

If you’ve ever been admonished not to “air our dirty linens (or laundry) in public,” you’ve been expected to play a part in a fantasy designed to conceal reality and promote an image in its place. It isn’t just you and the other family members who must substitute the chosen fantasy for reality, you must live and think and act and speak in such a way that people outside the family believe the fantasy as well.

My NM was the queen of creating this kind of altered reality. And since the people she most wanted to fool were those in her hometown, including but not limited to family members, and we lived more than a thousand miles away, she had ample time away from them to create her little performances of perfection. From spending months making new clothes and refusing to let us wear them until we arrived back in the old home town so they would look new and we would look prosperous, to setting up house in the cheap downmarket section of an expensive, upmarket suburb so we would have a California beach town address, to emulating movie stars in her dress and grooming, my NM was all about image. Substance she cared nothing about…image was everything.

And not just with respect to how she looked or where we lived: she had an image of herself as a hero, an Everywoman who would valiantly rise as needed to save the day—even when the day did not need saving. In fact, the day so seldom needed saving that, in order to make sure everyone around knew how wonderful she was, she would create crises or problems for her to vanquish. Over the years I compiled a list of her “projects” in which she “saved” somebody from some hapless dupe she cut out of the herd of friends, neighbours and family members and tarted up to look like a threat. Even her friends weren’t immune from her predations: people who didn’t agree with her and the image she created for herself found themselves not only removed from her circle of friends, but turned into gossip fodder.

One of the ways NMs reinterpret reality is to change the meanings of things. NM would slap me until my ears rang—but if I looked like I was going to cry, she’d call those slaps “love taps” and if I cried, she would promise to give me “something worth crying about.” Given that those “love taps” reddened my face, made my ears ring and stung and throbbed long after the assault was over, I was terrified to find out what she would do that was worse.

Reality can be reinterpreted in many ways: gaslighting is a useful tool, as are projection and just plain lying. If there was a person in the household—or even among NM’s friends—who might blab the truth about NM, she would pre-emptively strike by using gaslighting, projection, innuendo and outright lies about the person who might one day be a leak, so that when the truth was finally spoken, it would not be believed.

To make sure the narcissist’s reputation and image remain exactly as she constructs it, an N will be hypervigilant for any cracks in the fa├žade. She will have ready excuses for things others might notice, things that could reflect poorly on her except that she twists them to reflect poorly on someone else…like you. Your clothes are shabby because you don’t take care of them and she has decided not to throw good money after bad until you can take better care of your things; GCBro gets to go fishing but you stay home to help your mother with her guests because you like being a little hostess; you enjoy spending your Saturdays standing at the piano singing scales instead of playing with the little girls down the street and you just love your singing engagements, some in bars with air so thick with cigarette smoke you can’t take a deep breath, your bare legs freezing, your little stomach churning with state fright…and if anyone asks you how you feel about it, you crank up a megawatt smile and gush about how much you love the costumes and the makeup and the stage and the singing, one eye always on NM to make sure you are saying the right things to avoid a tongue lashing on the way home and maybe a session with The Strap, that thin strip of leather that left those red, raised, whip-like stripes on your tender 7-year-old flesh.

For the NM, reality is malleable. It is what she wants it to be and she recruits flying monkeys among siblings, family and friends to help her keep the fantasy alive and obscuring reality. Even when she is outed, when the fantasy is smashed and her flying monkeys wake up from their trances and see reality for what it is, the NM will not back down. She will cling to her alternate reality, recruit new flying monkeys, and rebuild her fantasy bigger and better than before, denigrating those who brought about her downfall and punishing them by any means at her fingertips.

Examples can be small and seemingly insignificant—they can also be huge and life changing. When I was little, my mother told me I was allergic to strawberries and I was not allowed to eat them. Desserts were rare at our house (the cakes I had to bake every week were for lunches and snacks for the adults, not after-dinner desserts) so it was especially disappointing for the dessert to be strawberry shortcake because I couldn’t have any. I would get the little piece of sponge cake and some whipped cream and NM would say, a smug little smile on her face, “Since you can’t have any of the strawberries, Violet, that just means more for everybody else!” as she put an extra-large helping of strawberries on her plate. It was not until years later when I worked for my uncle picking strawberries on his farm that I learned the truth: I was not allergic to them at all and could eat them with impunity. For my entire childhood she had stolen my strawberries, only to eat them right in front of my face.

On the other hand, making her daughter out to be a “congenital liar” (her term) was life-altering for the daughter. And while it shored up her fantasy life to convince everyone around us that if my mouth was moving, I was lying, it damaged me incalculably…and my children as well. My NM seemed very concerned, when I was 17, about the neighbours finding out I was illegitimately pregnant. She didn’t want me to marry, she wanted me to abort (then illegal) or go to a home for unwed mothers and give the baby away for adoption. Although the child’s father, my high school sweetheart, disavowed paternity, I met someone who wanted to marry me and accept the baby as his own. NM was adamantly against it, partly because she thought I should be punished for my transgression by not being allowed to keep my baby and partly, I think, because she didn’t want to be a grandmother at 34 (she was 17 when I was born). But with permission from the court, I was able to marry, although it didn’t last.

I have always been a big one for truth—my NM’s web of lies and subterfuge was so labyrinthine that it was simply easier to keep my head straight by sticking to the truth. So when she was in her teens, I explained to my daughter the story of her parentage. Imagine my shock when she told me that she knew it wasn’t true because Grammi told her my first husband was her real father. WTF?? It took a lot of puzzling it out on my part, but I suspect NM’s saw more value (and less scandal pointing in her direction) by fostering the lie that I had married my baby’s father—that is how things were done in those days, after all.

But 30 years later, NM was still clinging to the lie! And so was my daughter!! Of course her biological father denied paternity…why would he admit it after so many years? But my first husband, my father and my stepmother all supported me, all told my daughter that I didn’t even meet him until I was 4 months pregnant with her. “Why would a mother lie like that about her own daughter?” my daughter asked, using that as the sole basis for believing the lie. Why indeed? Because it shored up her image…because it made me look like a liar to my daughter…because it made her ex-husband and his “new” wife look like liars…and because my being her daughter was simply an accident of birth—there was no love, no care, not one iota of concern for me in her whole body.

Narcissists live lives of deceit and subterfuge. Theirs is a Through the Looking Glass world, just as crazy and chaotic and inexplicable to normal people as the Red Queen’s topsy-turvy world was to Alice and having only one objective: to look perfect to anyone who pauses to look. Only by adopting their alternate reality do we have any hope of them seeing us as anything other than a threat to the maintenance of their fragile little worlds; but only by sticking to the truth and refusing to engage in their madness can we keep our own sanity about us.

And, sad to say, it’s a Hobson’s Choice—whichever way you jump, you land up in the shit.

Next: Ten Commandments of Dysfunctional Families:
2. Thou shalt always send mixed messages, especially when it concerns relationships.


  1. Fantastic insight! Your words remind me of countless 'interactions' I've had with my mnm. Like you, I kept sane(ish) by becoming extremely logical and truthful in my thinking and speaking. Even now, I can analyze intricate emotional situations with comparitive ease. Whenever I challenged my mother with logic and truth she would just start a weird self-pitying scream and say something like, "Why are you doing this to me!! Don't you start this with me. STOP It!" So effen immature and dumb. Of course, she would run to get validation by bad mouthing me to all who would listen, telling how I upset her etc. The making of a scapegoat!
    Does the daughter you mention know what a crazy Grammi she had or is she in denial?
    I really appreciate your blog, it's so validating...who needs donm?! :)

    1. No, Trisha, my daughter does not accept that her grandmother was a crazy narcissist. She was one of NM's flying monkeys towards the end and was rewarded for her services by being given my half of NM's estate when NM died. She has since ceased communicating with me because of this blog...well, actually, the precursor to this blog, the 46 Memories, which were originally published separately. She actually forbade her husband and son from having anything to do with me and apparently suggested the same to other family members, telling them the stories were all lies and that I was out to embarrass our family because other people would recognize us.

      She apparently doesn't see the inherent contradiction in that reasoning: if the stories were all lies, then who could possibly recognize us? And if people DID recognize us, wouldn't that prove the stories were true? No, her silence is a punishment for me airing the dirty laundry...and because she rightfully suspected that her years of betrayal and subterfuge and lies would also be included where appropriate. She is my NM's heir not only in terms of the six-figure legacy she got, but in terms of inheriting the mantle of NMatriarch. Like NM, she has made me invisible, non-existent, in her world and she lies...

      I sometimes feel like the (invisible) filling in an Nsandwich!

  2. This is what my momster did to me! Beginning when I was a little girl, she told people that I was a pathological liar, so no one would believe me when I was finally old enough and emotionally strong enough to tell people what she had been doing for years behind closed doors.

    As you said:
    "Reality can be reinterpreted in many ways: gaslighting is a useful tool, as are projection and just plain lying. If there was a person in the household—or even among NM’s friends—who might blab the truth about NM, she would pre-emptively strike by using gaslighting, projection, innuendo and outright lies about the person who might one day be a leak, so that when the truth was finally spoken, it would not be believed."

    My momster pre-emptively destroyed my reputation with twisted half-truths and outright vicious lies. Her favorite lie was projection: What SHE did, she lied and told people that *I* did.

    This was by far the most heinous of her abuses against me.

    1. I can definitely relate to you in this--my NM did the same thing. It was her projecting her behaviour in adolescence that so confused me that I finally had to complain to my father (they were divorced by this time) and he told me that the things she was accusing me of (and even punishing me for) were the exact same behaviours SHE had engaged in when she was a teen. Neither of us knew the term "projection" at the time, but the concept was clear.

      And, of course, it wasn't enough for her to accuse and punish me, she had to blab her lies to everyone in the family. I was a tramp and a liar and a wholly reprehensible person long before I even knew what the things she accused me of were! I had a female infection at the age of 13--I was still a virgin, as was ultimately confirmed by the doctor who treated me--but before I saw the doctor, she had already blabbed to all and sundry that I was having a miscarriage and I had to go to a gynecologist for a D&C (which was performed without anaesthesia). Did she correct her lie after the doctor pronounced me a virgin? Not on your life! Not only would that have revealed her as a liar, it would have restored my innocence...absolutely unacceptable!

  3. "Airing dirty linens"'s so curious that you'd be using the same metaphor that was on my mind when writing my current blog entry. I had been crawling through cyberspace looking for paintings of women doing the laundry when I read your post. I feel so validated now! ha!

    Similar to yourself, I'm a big proponent of truth---even truth that's painful to bear. And I like your new series of articles. As always, you are a true pleasure to read.


    1. Thank you CZ. I know quite a few DoNMs and, frankly, truth seems to be an issue with most of us. I think, perhaps, that living in a melange of someone else's lies is so confusing that truth is our only salvation: it never changes, you don't have to remember who you told what, you simply stick with the constant, immutable truth and it serves you as well as you serve it.

      One of my favourite sayings is "I'd rather be given an ugly truth than a pretty lie." We have to base so much on what others tell us--decisions, even life-changing decisions, we make on the strength of another person's word. Would I have married and moved to South Africa if I didn't believe my husband when he said he loved me? Would you have made many of the decisions in your life if you had not trusted the word of another? Absent truth, trust is not possible.

      Sadly, sometimes, you cannot be true to yourself and to the truth without airing some of that dirty laundry. Vague references to an unpleasant upbringing serve only to make us look melodramatic and silence only makes us feel bad and like collaborators in helping the NM keep her fantasy world intact. Truth is not always beauty, but is immutable: just because someone refuses to believe it doesn't change it.

  4. So horrible, what your NM has done. All of it, and turning your daughter against you, that is the worst. There are so many similarites between your life and mine.

    1. I am sorry, Charity, that your life has so many similarities to my own. It has not been an easy row to hoe, although NM's death and NC with my NDaughter have taken a lot of the stress out of it.

      As much as I would like to lay this entirely at NM's feet, I can't. My daughter is an intelligent, capable woman who has a history of making selfish choices back to her teens. She has long been more image then substance conscious, and based on what I have learned about her recently, she just gets worse with age (she was 47 this year). She had the same choices--and she had stronger evidence--as my other family members when it came down to choosing whether to believe me or NM regarding NM's allegations that I had abandoned her and her brother. A social worker reviewed the family's court records, eye witnesses to key events, documentation such as letters and cards with postmarks on them...none of this swayed her belief in my NM's lies.

      Why? I suspect because she knew that to become NM's Mini-Me, she would be rewarded--and she was. I don't think it was coincidental that she and NM became thick as thieves when my grandmother died and NM inherited a six figure legacy...within the year she had asked NM for a large sum for a down payment on a house and NM just gave it to her. By this time my daughter had betrayed me numerous times in numerous ways, from lying to the parents of her friends about me, by accusing me of abuse to some of MY friends to see if she could get them to offer her a place to live to trying to seduce my husband (he actually complained to me about that!) to later, when she was of age and he and I were divorced, moving into a house with him. She ran away from home at 15 and hooked up with a pimp and his girlfriend, a woman with whom she bonded and to this day calls "Mom,"--she even identified herself in an obituary as a sister of the deceased's when one of the woman's adult children died. What she wante was to get away from any kind of authority and literally run wild--and she had no conscience about how she went about it--an eerie throwback to her grandmother's wishes and behaviour decades earlier.

      So, it was no surprise, really, when NM left half of her estate to my daughter...or that my daughter decided that I no longer exist. It was in the cards from her teens if I had bothered to really SEE what I was looking at. It's a painful situation but something over which I have no control, so moving forward is all I have open to me...that, and the truth, so that others who may find themselves in a similar situation can know they are not alone.

    2. I have a situation with my elder 41-year-old son that is similarly heartbreaking.

      I fully believe that when an adult child decides to go no contact with his or her parent(s), all or most of the fault almost always lies with the parent.

      But, not all, and not always.

    3. A sentiment I sadly share with you, Charity.

  5. Not having kids, I can only imagine the gut wrenching anguish of not being close to your child...but to know that your own mother worked to make things worse between you is brutal! I am so sorry for what she dragged you through. My mother always put incredible effort into somehow sabotaging my relationships with 'anyone' who liked me, family, friends, she even somehow got me to believe I was a bad seed, a black sheep, when in reality I was the sweetest most warm hearted in the family. I have so many memories of this type of thing happening I am going to start a blog to just get everything out...and maybe let go of some of the pain. Being new to your blog, I look forward to reading some of the past entries, thanks for sharing!

  6. The 46 Memories (tab at the top of the blog) started out that way...just to get everything out. Blogger allows a privacy setting such that nobody but you can see the blog and this is just how the 46 Memories started: a cathartic exercise to get all the gunk out.

    Eventually I began to share a story here, a story there, to help other DoNMs realize they were not alone in some of their experiences. Then I made it public, but low-key. Six months or so ago I decided to make it public in a format that would be more accessible: a flying monkey from another site caused some disruption in a support group I am involved in and as a result I felt the need to get the word out about the DoNM site run by "Danu Morrigan" because it was becoming more and more apparent that there were dozens, if not hundreds, of women who had been gravely hurt by their callous treatment at the hands of "Danu" and her chief monkey, "Light." So I wrote up the "Beware these Sites" tabs, pulled the 46 Memories out of storage (at first because I had no real content for the blog!) and was off and running.

    What is germane for you here is the fact that I initially wrote the blog in secret and kept it secret for more than five years. You have options ranging from complete secrecy to full disclosure, so you can reveal to the public as much or as little as you like. If you have a concern about someone finding your blog, like your NM, simply set it to private--even set a password--and nobody will see it but you and--bonus!--nothing left on the computer (or in a little book under your mattress) for the snoopy to find.

    Writing it all out, whether for yourself alone or for public consumption, is a cathartic act. It helps bring clarity, gives you insights, relieves your psyche. It is really, really worth doing.


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