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, October 1, 2014

The Emperor’s New Clothes

As a child, I loved fairy tales. I would check out great, huge volumes of them from the library and lug them home, especially just before a school holiday, and immerse myself in wicked witches, evil queens and nasty trolls all getting their comeuppance. One of my favourite tales was The Emperor’s New Clothes, a story about a vain emperor who ordered a new suit of clothes from a pair of swindlers who promised to make it from a magical cloth that only the incompetent or completely stupid could not see. Of course, when the suit “arrived,” nobody could see it, but everyone pretended they could so they would not be thought stupid or incompetent. The emperor paraded through the town naked and the townspeople, not wishing to be thought stupid or incompetent, raved about his beautiful suit of clothes. And then a child, too young to understand the reasons for keeping up the pretext, blurted out “but he’s wearing nothing at all!”

One of the reasons I liked this tale was that it exemplified the notion that a child could recognize what all of the adults around him could not or would not see. I identified with this child because it seemed to me that nobody but me could see what my mother was really like, that I, like that child in the fairy tale, was the lone voice of truth in a world steeped in self-serving lies. The other reason I liked the tale was that in it, the townspeople listened to the child and believed him: he told the truth and he was heard, supported, and validated. This was something that I had not experienced but dearly wished for.

This story validated me and my perceptions…it demonstrated for me that the truth could win, that adults would listen to a child and believe. I just had to find that adult, I believed, and not get caught by my mother in the process. I believed that rescue was just a matter of time, that eventually I would find that adult who listened to me, believed me, and would save me.

I tried a lot of people and the responses were universally dismal. My Sunday School teachers wanted to know what I had done to provoke my mother; at the end of every summer my grandparents listened to me sob through my last night with them, let me beg and bargain with them to stay, and every summer they sent me back. Even those adults who believed my tales of woe and abuse declined to do anything. And eventually, I stopped telling people because even those who listened and believed did nothing. Even when they, too, knew that the emperor had no clothes, none of them were willing to speak up and publicly admit it.

In junior high, in the girls’ gym, I was undressing in preparation for putting on my gym suit when one of the gym teachers looked out the office window and spotted the welts on my legs and butt, put there by my mother with The Strap, a thin leather dog leash with the metal clip removed, which bit into bare flesh like a whip. The teacher called me into the office and there she noted the black and blue marks and small wound on my face, just above the right side of my lip, a bruise and cut left from my mother backhanding me while wearing a sizeable diamond ring. She asked me where I got the marks and I told the truth…and she listened. She more than listened, she believed me and she took action.

Before I knew it, a policewoman had arrived and took me into custody. From there I was taken to the Children’s Shelter where my injuries were photographed and documented, after which I was sent on to where I was assigned a bed and given some clean clothes. I was delighted to be in a place where the rules were clear and if you followed them, you wouldn’t get in trouble…and if you did get in trouble, that trouble didn’t involve beatings or brow beatings, just a dispassionate dispensation of a consistent and pre-determined penalties. I felt secure, like the world had finally gained its bearings and had stopped slipping and sliding beneath my feet.

My relief was short-lived, however. Naïve as to the workings of the court and relying on the information I got from the other girls in the Shelter with me, I expected I would stay for several weeks and, if I was well-behaved enough, I would end up in a foster home. All of this was fine with me, as I expected a foster home to be less fraught than living with my mother…at least they weren’t allowed to hit me.

The girls in my room were excited when, on only my second day, I was called to pack up. They all speculated that I was going to a foster home and I was going quickly because I had never been “in the system” before and was therefore easy to place. I was given my own clothes and shoes back and a stuffed animal to take with me and I confidently left my room and marched down the stairs to meet my new foster family.

Instead, I met my mother. I nearly wet my pants with fear when I saw her standing there, a sheaf of papers in her hands, a terrifying scowl on her face. She had what was called a “writ of habeas corpus” which allowed her to spring me from the Shelter and before I knew what had happened, I was in the car, headed back to her house. She harangued me the whole way home, shouting and yelling and generally intimidating me and, when we finally arrived home, she beat the stuffing out of me. She was going to have to pay for my night in the Shelter, she informed me, and pay a lawyer for her court appearance to get the writ, and pay for a lawyer for court, and if I cost her another cent, I was going to rue the day I was born. The next day I was back in school, fresh welts on the back of my legs and butt, but this time nobody did anything…they had tried and their efforts had borne no fruit, and nobody was motivated to help me any further.

I am not sure if it is a blessing or a curse that I was able to see my mother’s casual, selfish cruelty. Certainly in the short run, it was a curse since I had to live with the frustration of being the only person who could see the truth and the danger of trying to get the truth out to someone who would actually do something about it. But perhaps it was also a blessing since, because I was so acutely aware of how different my mother was from the mothers of my friends, I never bought into the idea that she loved me and was doing all these terrible things for my own good. I did not have to overcome denial where she was concerned, nor did I ever have to struggle with guilt when I cut contact with her: I knew she was abusive, I knew I did not deserve to be abused, and I knew that my only hope was to get away from her control and stay away.

Unfortunately, not everything was so clear for me. I still wanted my mother’s love, attention and approval. I couldn’t un-know the truth about her but, unaware of narcissism and its permanent nature, I could hope for change. And so I began to seek out ways to elicit my mother’s love and approval: I tried to be pretty, smart, accomplished. I got a job and kept up a high grade point average. I took an aptitude test sponsored by the Air Force and scored in the 80th, 90th, and 95th percentile in three of four categories, meaning I could not only choose any specialty I wanted, I was eligible for the Airman Education Program, a scheme by which, if I put myself through one year of college, the Air Force would send me to college to complete my education and make me an officer upon graduation. I became tenor soloist in the school choir, I won a prize for sculpture at an all-city art show for high school students, I received academic awards…and not one of those accomplishment sparked more than a batted eyelash at my success.

Only I and a very tiny handful of other people, seemed to be able to see that my emperor had no clothes. The school nurse was clued in after several examples of neglect landed me at her doorstep and she had to threaten my mother with calling CPS in order to prompt her to take me to a dentist, an optometrist, a doctor. The mother of one of my friends, the parents of my boyfriend and, I suspect, my own grandparents, were aware that something was very wrong at my house…but only that one gym teacher stuck her neck out on my behalf and nothing came of it.

Today, 50+ years later, I have to wonder why so many people couldn’t see. It was so obvious to anyone who cared to look. Little girls had to wear dresses to school in those days…could they not see the marks and bruises, in varying states of healing, every time I climbed up the monkey bars and hung upside down by my knees, every time I bent over to pick up my hopscotch marker, every time my dress bounced up and down as I jumped rope? It was more than “I don’t want to get involved…” because at least that acknowledges that there is a victim and there is abuse. It was like they were so completely blinded, so totally absorbed in the illusion of sacred motherhood that they could not see what was right in front of them: an abused child desperately in need of rescue.

I can understand denial: I was in denial for years that my grandparents had no choice but to send me back to a mother they knew did not want me and who abused me; I was in denial for years that my daughter was not a narcissist who sought to supplant me in the family structure; I was in denial for years that my narcissist husband loved me. But these were people I cared for, people I wanted to believe cared for me…the denial served my hope of one day being demonstrably loved and cared for by these people. But what about the others? What vested interest did the Sunday school teacher, the neighbours, the parents of my little friends, was served by their denial? Why would they ask me what I had done to deserve my abuse, why would they ignore the marks on my legs, the stories of abuse acted out in doll play, the fingernails chewed to nubs, the nervousness and hyperalertness? Why could I, the little kid in the centre of the storm, see the naked ugliness that was my mother and they were stubbornly transfixed by the suit of imaginary clothes?

This, I think, is a question all scapegoats need to ask…not only of themselves, but of those adults in their lives who made no effort to help them as abused children. Why did their aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbours, teachers, and other adults refuse to acknowledge the truth that these children grew up in households full of dysfunction and abuse? And why, years later and these children have grown into hurting, questioning adults, do they still cling to the illusion that those women were good mothers to the children they abused?

It is too easy to simply accept that they “didn’t want to get involved.” What kind of family member turns a blind eye when a child is being abused? It was none of their business? Really? Abuse is always the business of the observer, especially inside a family. Because they were being afraid of being told to mind their own business? If they were afraid, can they not imagine, in the smallest part, how afraid that helpless child must be? At the very least, a family member can refuse to look away, or to convince themselves that the abuse is warranted in the name of discipline: even if the abuse doesn’t stop, the child will not forget who spoke up on their behalf and know that the world in not entirely populated by abusers and their enablers.

Who, besides you, knew that your emperor strode about naked in imaginary clothes woven of illusion and self-serving egotism? In my case, my father and step-mother were aware…and they made numerous attempts to gain my custody. But in the Fifties and early Sixties, “common wisdom” held that children were better off with their mothers and the myth of the sainthood of all mothers held the social consciousness in its grip. Children were not permitted to give their two cent’s worth in courts because we didn’t know what was good for us, and any negative accusations against a mother by her ex-husband were dismissed as sour grapes. The only people who could see and would acknowledge my reality were dismissed out of hand by the court and my input was never even allowed.

The real tragedy of all this is that I was not the only child condemned to this life, and time has not brought with it significant change. There are legions of emperors out there, people who have fashioned a socially acceptable exterior that they present to the world and which is accepted unquestioningly as reality by everyone except those few who can see through the ruse and know that emperor is, in reality, naked. The reality is, the vast majority simply don’t want to know…acknowledgment brings an obligation to act and, because the pain is not their own, they are motivated more to maintain the status quo than to step in and “meddle.”

Some things never change.


  1. Violet. I so feel for for you, and I can so empathise! I used to WISH my parents would divorce, and dad would take me to live with him. It was my constant daydream.

    Of course, I realise now, he would NOT have taken me. I would have been left with her. It was a child's fantasy. I went through my entire childhood and teen years, adopting other friends mums, as my mum. I'd even call them "mum". I was always looking for mother figures. I wanted a warm loving mum, so badly.

    I was a child in the sixties. I reached out to others only very rarely, because when I did, no one believed me. Infact, all it did was make ME look bad, in their eyes.
    "You must have done something really bad, to make you mother beat you like that!" said one woman, older than my mother.

    And at school, I got teased at the monkey bars, for the welts on the back of my legs. So, I tried to hide them, as even other children treated me like I must have been real bad to have gotten those beatings.

    By age 12, other girls felt sorry for me, because if they did come to my home, my mother humiliated me in front of them, and ran me down to them, telling them how 'horrible' I was. Amazingly, my friends would apologise for getting me into trouble, and I'd say sadly "No, it wasn't your fault. She's just always like that."

    But they were children, too. There was nothing they could do to help.

    A friends daughter even stayed once, and mum abused her, and she cried herself to sleep each night.

    But if she complained to her dad when she went home, nothing was ever done about it. My mother got away with everything she ever did.

    Later on (in my teens), other people did see the abuse , but again, no one did anything. Although a few people wanted to confront her and tell her off, but again others talked them out of it.

    It's this conspiracy of silence you mentioned. I had a second cousin who was raped at 14 years of age and impregnated by her father when she at home with a broken leg. Again, it was hushed up, and her mother blamed her, and nothing happened to the dad. The baby was placed in a home, and her mother never forgave her. That was in the 50's.

    My mother still goes on about how they were so much better in the 50's, and everyone was decent back then. She goes on and on with this theme.

    And as my mother triumphantly says, "I am your mother. I GAVE YOU LIFE! It doesn't matter what a mother does, she is your mother and deserves respect!!!" (this is because I complained about the abuse to someone).

    My mother still strongly holds that view, to this very day.

    That mothers have all the rights.

    The thing I still struggle with is, "Where is the justice in the Universe? When are the scales ever balanced? Are they ever balanced?????
    Or do child abusers go to their grave, getting away with it all, gaslighting the abuse away, basking in their role as the perfect mother, while we burn with the unfairness of it all?????

    I've learned that ONLY person who will fight her injustice towards me, is ME.
    The ONLY person who will stand up for me, is ME.

    I've had to learn the hard way, that that no one else in my family will.

    And when I was in the church ( decades ago), it was "You need to forgive your mother. Sounds like the poor woman must have been abused. (she wasn't)."

    So I tried New Age, and got "You must have attracted the abuse. It's the law of attraction. You need to forgive yourself for your mother abusing you."

    What I call, the 'blame the victim mentality.'

    So yeah, I've been through a LOT of crap, and finally found this site, where finally there is the voice of sanity.

    What I have learned here, is the trust my own judgement. I slip sometimes, but I AM getting stronger and learning fast, if I slip!

  2. Excellent post! When people reminisce about how wonderful the 50's and 60's were, I feel like I'm from another planet - mine weren't so great. I lived in a small town and I was related to or knew well most of the people in it - surely not everyone could have missed the signs of abuse - but not a word was said. And with the rigid "no talk" rule that operates in every dysfunctional family, I wasn't about to let the cat out of the bag... So sad - I longed for courageous adults around me - but it didn't happen...

  3. These stories remind me of a chapter titled "Bystanders" from Willful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan. These stories also provoke a few questions. For those of you who have experienced such abuse, what advice would you give to bystanders who may notice that something's not quite right about a family? Is it enough to merely be an "enlightened witness" or "helping witness" as Alice Miller describes? What if a bystander only witnesses the effects of emotional trauma, and can't see marks of physical abuse? What if a bystander tries to help a victim, and the entire dysfunctional family, including the victim, reject the help by enforcing the "No Talk Rule"? Thanks!

    1. Yours is a good question and, as in most situations of this type, the answer is "it depends." Most abused children still love their parents and, as victims, fear further injury for telling, Unfortunately, "the system" has a poor track record for actually helping these kids, as my experience shows. It is my understanding that it is no better today, the courts being focussed on keeping families intact...mandated parenting classes do no good with a narcissist. The foster care system is badly broken and has been for decades...children's needs are subordinated to the interests of the system.

      Probably the most important thing you can do is to get involved. Be an available friend to the child. After the ill-fated McKenzies were run out of the neighbourhood by my mother, a nice young English couple moved into the house and the woman was very friendly with me. She made tea for me and scones...she told me about England...she let me play with her baby, taught me how to change diapers and was simply there when I needed a friend. All these years later, I remember that her name was Jane and that she had long brown hair, freckles, and pale, creamy skin. Going next door and "helping" Jane was like a respite for me. It may not have been much, in an objective sense, but it was a great deal more than I had before.

      Abuse victims keep quiet for a variety of reasons: wanting love from the abuser, fear of consequences for talking, lack of alternatives--if you cannot guarantee a child a safe alternative to his abusive home life, he may not wish to take a chance and end up like I did...back in the hands of a vengeful abuser.

      You would be surprised at just how much good it does to let a child know you understand and empathize. Even if you cannot DO anything, for an abused child to know he is not alone in his perceptions is something HUGE. Discreetly placed calls to the school nurse or counseling staff may help, and in the case of obvious abuse, calling the authorities is required.

      I don't advise confronting the parents if they know who you are because that invites retaliation...and narcissists will retaliate. But being available to such a child does much more good than most adults realize because so many of these kids feel isolated and alone. I had my grandparents and my father...too many abused children have no one outside of their abusers. You can be "some one" to one of these kids.

  4. Wow, I really appreciated this post. Very insightful, as were the comments and your replies. Your situation was different from mine in that mine, as in the last comment, mostly involved only emotional trauma. I always wondered what "outsiders" thought of our family...we only saw cousins/aunt/etc at Christmas...and one cousin told me months ago she always saw us as "very private." Made so much sense to're private when you're trying to hide something! I also was never allowed (or it was "understood" that I couldn't) have friends over, and I really couldn't talk to anyone (so I felt). I agree with your response to the last comment....a woman from my church became something of a "substitute mom" for me, just occasionally, but enough to help me get by and give me hope that home life could be normal. I think she had an idea of what was going on, even if she didn't know the details. I'll always remember and be thankful for her. Many thanks for your post too.

  5. It's a funny balance. I saw the naked empress as a child, and hated her for the hypocrisies and lies. But somehow, even now, I can't stop doubting the things I've seen with my own eyes.

    It's like how I spent my entire adolescence fantasizing about being able to finally get away. But whenever those options opened up to me, some terrible fear of some unnamed apocalyptic event stopped me from acting.

    But finally, here I am at the point of NC with her. I finally assembled all the nasty little puzzle pieces I'd been picking up all my life. And when that picture was finally complete it screamed out at me: "There's no way that this is your fault, there's no reason you should live like this!"

    But doubt is an insidious animal and it found a new way to rear its head. Left with no way to defend the behavior, I have begun to doubt that it happened. This is particularly easy because my abusive childhood resulted in complex PTSD, complete with dissociative amnesia. Given that I lack so many memories and am left with so many fuzzy, jagged ones, it's easy to say, "maybe I misremembered it, maybe there was context that made it understandable."

    Do you, or does anyone here, have any advice or links about overcoming this particular doubt? In my heart I know I'll never be happy or successful unless I keep it up, but I'm only 2 months in and it's hard to keep all of the uncertainties out.

    1. I can only say something very general: Write it out. Write everything out that comes to mind: the pieces you remember, how you felt, how you feel now, the doubt, the back and forth of believing yourself and believing the abusive messages you got. It gives you an opportunity to "be real" and get in contact with your feelings. It may serve as a reality check at some point in the future as well.

    2. I can really relate to what you're saying. Hope you'll read this, even after all those years! For me it helped to watch a lot of good tvshows/youtubers/books about how healthy people behave and compare that to the few memories I have of my childhood. For example: I was a very romantically type of girl and was in love with a few boys in my class as I was 9/10 years old. But one time I also fell in love with a girl. I told my mother and she didn't respond at all, and the girl I told also didn't say anything and stopped being my friend. Well. For a very long time I didn't understand how painful this must have been for me. But when I began to understand how normal people would react to a child saying something like that, not by gaslighting but, maybe, by saying: No! You're in love with a girl? How's that possible? Or by otherwise expressing how strange they think this is, that would be also painful for a child, but not the crazymaking pain that gaslighting does. So, by watching normal people interact, I now can understand how sick my mother's reaction was, even though it seems nothing compared to beating a child or something like that; it IS as painful. This blog helped me also to see what is right and what's wrong. Hope you're be in a better place right now!

  6. I finally had a massive break through regarding my enabling father. It was something on Caliban's Sister's blog, that set of a memory of my father. (I only just started reading her blogs properly, last night). The blog about her dad reading porn.

    You see, my father was always totally emotionally shut off on me. He never wanted a daugher and rejected me outright after I was born, but delighted in my GC brother when he was born. My MN mother loves reminding me of that. She says they never wanted daughters.

    Growing up, dad was remote and rarely spoke to me...except to tell me to shut up. Same when I cried because my cat died, or if I had nightmares, or anything. It was just a loud roar, "Shut up!!!!"
    I could never work out why dad never protected me from mum, and last night I finally realised, after reading Callibans blog about her dad's porn magazines, as it set off a very painful recollection.

    You see, when I was about 15, I'd try to spend time with dad (he usually never spoke to me). He'd only tolerate me being near him, if I didn't speak. He'd shove one of his hard-core porn novels at me and say I could only stay if I read that and shut up. Don't speak.
    I just wanted to be in his space, so I'd read this garbage, just so I could be with him.
    He didn't care about hurting my feelings with his emotional rejection. He just didn't want to engage with me.
    And even if he did let me stay, my MN mother would angrily rush into the room and scream at me, "He's my husband!! Go get your own husband!!!! (she'd just shriek at me!)
    And I'd amazed and think. "But I'm just a kid. I'm too young to get married."
    All I'd wanted was a little time with my dad.

    This has opened up a LOT of other bad memories of my dad, whom I'd always thought of as the 'nicer one', because he wasn't openly hostile and aggressive like mum.
    Now I can see it so clearly, why he never protected me. He was totally emotionally disengaged from me, all along. He simply didn't care about me. I was just a nuisance to him.
    Now I know why he supports her. They BOTH never wanted me. It wasn't just her. It was him, too.
    He just didn't care. It was all about her, all along, and I failed to see it. :-(

    I feel no more guilt. I can see he was as toxic as she was. What man refuses to hug his 14 year old daughter, after promising her that at the end of summer he'd relent and give her a hug, and then shrinks away from her and says "yuk" and makes her feel physically repulsive? There never was a hug.

    Why sing cruel songs to me when I was 14, calling my the biggest disappointment in the world. (which made me cry)

    What man beats his 7 year old daughter almost unconscious, because she found a condom and thought it was a balloon and took it outside and filled it with water. He finally flung me away from him like a rag doll, and told my mother, "You belt her in future. I'll kill her if I have to do it again." I remember that beating.
    Why belt me at all, for such an innocent mistake?...............I no longer feel guilty about going No Contact.

    (Posted by Sweet Violet for Venus)

  7. Anonymous, I found the thing that helped me with doubts and seeing things in context, and even bringing up memories, was journalling. It seemed to help me access all those things. It's what helped me to stop feeling guilt and shame when mum would have little digs at me about the past. On paper, and in context, I could see these things in the past had been HER issues.

    Sigh. I'm having trouble posting at the moment, so I hope this goes through. But yes, journalling was what REALLY helped me. Maybe you could try that?

  8. Your story brought back memories of my abusive father's treatment of me as a child and young teen. The memories are so painful and difficult to recall. I have spent decades seeking the ability to not have this be the center of my life. It has been frankly very difficult. My children have done better than me in many respects, but I am certian they could have done better if I had carried the baggage better. I respectfully wonder if this sort of in depth re-examination is productive, even as I completely relate to it and empathize with the suffering inflicted. My point is not a judgement but an questino: I do not have the answer at all.

    1. There is no such thing as "carrying the baggage better." We each carry it in the best way we know how. There is, however, shedding that baggage--but you cannot do it without the very introspection that you suggest is not productive.

      Think of your past as the foundation upon which your life is built. If the original foundation is faulty, then it is going to have a negative impact on your life. If you ignore the faults they will not go away, they will simply fall prey to entropy and get worse with time, eroding the life that is built upon it. In order to repair that foundation, to make it strong and supportive of a good, healthy life, you have to go back to it, find the weak and damaged areas, and fix them. Without doing that, no real improvement is possible. You can slap a coat of paint on it, put a few sheets of plywood over the cracks and crumbling areas, but the damage remains it will leak out in many ways: rage, addiction issues, lack of intimacy, lack of connection, no real purpose in life...and it will continue to undermine the structure of your life.

      As one of the members of the Narcissist's Child Facebook Group reminded me, "the only way out of it is to go through it." In other words, the only way to get rid of the pain of your dysfunctional childhood and its current effects on your life is to revisit the pain, feel it, process it, and then put it behind you. The anticipation is worse than the actual experience...believe me, I have been there and done that.

      Repression of your past hurts is like putting a bandaid on a spurting artery. You get some temporary relief and you might even think you have fixed the problem but eventually it will break through and you will be faced with an even worse issue than you had in the first place. Only by addressing your past, discovering what you learned as coping mechanisms and eliminating the ones that are now working against you, can you move forward into a positive future.

      And it is never, ever, too late to begin.

  9. I often asked myself this same question when I was a kid. Why can no one else see my mother for what she really is?? As I grew up I learned that they DID see her for what she really was....A LOT of people did. But they did not dare do or say anything to stop her because they were all terrified of her. My mother was known for being VERY vindictive to anyone who went against her in the slightest way, so everyone knew what kind of shit storm would flare up if they dared to intervene in her abuse of us. The only two people who weren't 100% afraid of her wet my paternal grandparents. THEY battled her head on for many years and eventually took custody of me and my brother. The elementary school nurse also threatened to call CPS on my mother a few times as well, since that was part of her job duties. My grandparents passed away this past year, and I cannot tell you how badly I miss them and their solid, supportive, structural presence in my life. I consider them to be my true parents and I can't wait to see them again someday.


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