Thirty something years ago I was sitting on the therapist’s sofa bemoaning my then-husband’s latest rounds of narcissistic behaviours. I knew nothing about narcissism in those days and it was not a disorder that was high on the radar of the mental health community. I was hurt, lost, and above all, confused—he would tell me he loved me but then he would do something mean or disrespectful or insensitive, making it difficult for me to believe what he said. His words said love, but his behaviour felt painful, disrespectful, and sometimes frightening. Unsure of myself—being the child of a narcissist I was not particularly confident of my ability to make good choices and my track record up to that point was anything but stellar—so I was complaining to my therapist that he lied so often, but so well, that I never knew what to believe.
She gave me a piece of advice that was to stand me in good stead for the rest of my life: when the words and the actions don’t match, believe the actions—it is easy to speak a lie but much harder to live it.
While this advice is excellent and it has been very helpful in my life, it was only recently that I began to understand that I had only understood the most superficial aspect of my therapist’s words. With some thought I came to realize that there is additional depth to this advice, a nuance that takes its meaning much deeper than the simple act of comparing one’s words and deeds in order to find the truth.
When I was two my mother abandoned me, telling the State of Oregon to find me an adoptive home. Her mother, on hearing the news, rescued me from the foster home and for the next two years I lived with them. When I was almost four my parents reconciled, collected me from my grandparents and shortly thereafter, away we went to Southern California, as far as we could get from our rustic little farming town.
My mother had created a scandal and in small towns like Timber Creek, gossip spread fast. My grandfather was a successful businessman and one of those “pillar of the community” types, president of the local chapter of the Lion’s Club, an elder their church, and so on. For many, many years I simply assumed that my grandparents had rescued me because I was their grandchild and they loved me. Seven decades on, I begin to realize that it wasn’t that simple: my grandparents took me to live with them because, according to their personal code of conduct, family took care of family and they would look bad if they, prominent, respected and financially comfortable members of the community, left a grandchild of theirs to be absorbed into anonymity at the cost of the taxpayers.
After examining the evidence I have collected over the years—much of it recollections of other relatives, most of whom were less than complimentary about my mother and her behaviour—I have begun to realize that the motives for my rescue were less about taking care of a helpless, abandoned toddler and more about minimizing the social and financial impacts of my mother’s scandalous behaviour.
To anyone who cared to pay attention, it was clear that my mother didn’t want me. Why else would she tell the State to find me an adoptive family and yet not surrender her newly born son? She didn’t want my father either but in retrospect I don’t know if they were just separated or actually divorced. Whatever it was, despite behaviour that humiliated my father, his parents and her own parents as well, they reconciled and when they did so, my idyll with my grandparents came to an end and shortly after my brother’s second birthday, we moved to SoCal.
There was a problem with that, too—both of my parents were dead broke. A move from central Oregon to Southern California isn’t exactly cheap, even if you didn’t have a lot of stuff to move. Between gas for the car and food, it was a trip that took money to make and my parents didn’t have any. The car was an old Ford Tudor, probably early 1930s, that someone had painted dark green with a paint brush. The back seats had been taken out and I remember sitting on a wooden child-sized bow-back Windsor chair in that empty back space and my brother on a pallet of old wool Navy surplus blankets. We drove to Southern California in that old junker and when we got there, we had no place to live and neither of my parents had jobs.
So now I have to think about my grandparents. Where were their priorities? Was caring for their abandoned grandchild a burden they no longer wanted to bear? Was my presence in their lives—they took me to church and shopping and many other places with them—a constant reminder not only to them but to the members of their community of my mother’s disreputable behaviour? Was I a constant reminder of the scandal that they undoubtedly wished to put behind them but they could not bring to an end?
What was most important to them? Considering that my father’s parents were farmers who struggled to make ends meet and that neither my father nor mother had steady employment, where did the money come from for the move to SoCal? It was obvious that my mother did not want me or to be married to my father—she abandoned me and left him, after all—what could have prompted her to reconcile with my father and accept responsibility for me after two years?
Well, the only thing that really motivated my mother was money. And of the players in this little drama, only her parents had any. So the only scenario that makes any sense is that my grandparents funded the move and very likely engineered both my mother’s reconciliation with my father and my return to my mother’s custody. What motivated my father? Well, when I was eight my parents again separated and my father met a nice woman and began dating her. When my mother found out about Patsy she cancelled the divorce proceedings and demanded that he return home. He told his girlfriend that he had to go—because of his children. (I know this because two years later my mother finally did go through with a divorce, he married that nice lady and she was my stepmother for 53 years: she told me that was what he said when he broke up with her.) So my father’s motivation was most likely his children.
I was afraid of my mother. I have a few memories of us living in Salem after I was back living with my mother and father (before we actually packed up the car and left for California) and I have a memory from that trip. What both memories have in common is fear of my mother and wariness of being too close to her (I liked to stay out of range of her so she couldn’t slap or trip me. My grandparents had to know I was afraid of her: how could I live in their house, under their noses, when I was too small to have learned to keep secrets or tell lies, and they not be aware that she scared me? My dogs can’t even talk yet I know what each and every one of them is afraid of.
So how does this shake out? My mother didn’t want me, and she didn’t want to be married to my father: she abandoned me to the state with instructions to find me an adoptive home; she left my father and took up with other men, causing a long and ugly scandal in our sleepy little town. Neither my father nor his parents had any money, nor did my mother—certainly not enough for gas and food for four people to move more than a thousand miles away. And yet…my parents reconciled, I returned to my mother’s care, and my father drove drove that old rattletrap Ford all the way to Southern California with enough money to not only get there but to stay in a cheap motel while they looked for jobs. The whole thing had to have been engineered and funded by my maternal grandparents—nobody else had the dosh.
So what does this say about my grandparents? What was their priority? Well, if you go by their behaviour, it is pretty clear that their priority was not my safety or my happiness: I was plainly afraid of my mother. I flinched when she raised her hands around me (and got smacked for it if she saw me). I cried when I had to be alone with her (and got smacked for that, too). But my presence in their household was a constant reminder to the entire town of my mother’s transgressions, that the daughter of a prominent citizen was the town tramp and as long as I was living there, would remain a living reminder that their daughter had thrown away her own child, a fact that cast aspersions on the entire family and could not be forgotten with my presence a constant reminder.
Their priority was not my father’s happiness, either. He was a means to an end. He could be manipulated with his children: if my grandfather held out a pretty scenario of the four of us living on the beach, all together again, without the constant fear of insolvency hanging over our heads, my father would go for it: he would have his children back and a chance at a real job.
Was their priority my mother’s happiness? Doubtful because my mother clearly did not want me or my father in her life. She had dumped me and walked out on him. But my mother was motivated by money and the sense that she had something better than anyone else had. Her world being very small and insular, the idea of living in California near the beach, a stone’s throw from (ok—a two hour drive to) Hollywood was exactly the thing that would seem glamorous to her and feed her one-upmanship drive. And she could take us along if that was the price of the ticket, and discard us once she got there.
So what was the truth of our move to California? It was always sold to me as a necessary move because there was little work in Oregon—an entirely plausible reason. But my father had been discharged from the military for five years by this time and he had managed to keep body and soul together working at a variety of things. My mother, who saw little Salem (barely 43,000 people!) as the “big city,” seemed content to tempt and seduce her way through a round robin of honkytonks, roadhouses, and juke joints, conquering as many hearts as she could. She was in her element—why would she want to leave for parts unknown, saddled with a man she had already discarded and a kid she didn’t want?
No, there was another hand behind this, someone else who benefitted from the move, and that someone else had to be my grandfather and grandmother. Don’t get me wrong—I am quite sure my grandparents loved me—they made surprise visits on my mother when we lived in California to make sure things were “ok,” they took me in almost every summer from age 7 to 17, giving me respite from her and a place where I felt loved and valued. But the people who benefitted most from sending us all off to California were my grandparents. With the four of us heading out of town as a group and returning only a year or two later as an intact family sporting all the trappings of prosperity, my grandparents were finally able to lay my mother’s scandal to rest, gloss it over with the image of her as having seen the error of her ways and reformed, and all was right in their world again. It was all an illusion, but the rest of Timber Creek didn’t know that and their lives returned to normal, being the respected and admired big fish in Timber Creek’s tiny pond.
My grandparents’ behaviour plainly indicated their priority: restoring their reputations in the town. They brought me into their home because, on the one hand they were horrified at their daughter’s actions, but on the other hand, it would not look good—they would not look good—if I remained in foster care and was eventually adopted. But after a period of time, when my mother had not seen the errors of her ways and “straightened up” and resumed responsibility for me, it began to reflect poorly on them, both in terms of their parenting (they raised the amoral tart who was my mother, after all) and in terms of my presence being a perpetual reminder of my mother’s scandalous behaviour. As my summer hosts, they were just normal grandparents with a grandchild for the summer, but with me living with them, that implied that my mother had gone off the rails again and they did not want to be judged for her behaviours.
My grandparents are but one of a million examples of people living their priorities no matter what they profess to the contrary. If you were to ask my grandparents, they would have said that I was welcome at their house at any time—and they would have meant it. But when I wanted to stay in Oregon at the end of the summers and live with them and not go back to my mother, tension swiftly filled the house. Suddenly, the spectre of the old scandal was again rearing its head and even while they believed what they said about me being welcome at any time, keeping their petticoats clean was their first priority and anything that threatened that had to be held at arm’s length.
People show you the truth with their behaviour. Their behaviour is based on their priorities. And people often are not even consciously aware of their own real priorities: they only face that when they are confronted. I am sure that one or both of my grandparents felt a little guilt at sending me back to my mother but I also will bet that neither of them understood it as guilt. They “felt bad” because they had to disappoint me perhaps but, in all truth, they didn’t really have to, did they? They were wealthy—if my mother was worried about the child support money she would be missing out on if I came to live with them, they could easily have afforded to pass it on to her. Whatever their reasons for sending me back into that snake pit every September, those reasons held a priority in their lives over my well-being, whether they acknowledged it or not.
“How can you say that?” you might ask. “You weren’t inside their heads, you can’t know what they were thinking!”
But that is the whole point here—I can tell what they were thinking based on their actions. If my happiness and safety held the highest priority in their lives, if it truly was their very first priority, do you think they would have sent me back? Whatever you answer, that is what their priority was. And that is the point: people always do what is the most important thing for them to do at any given point in time. If you accept an invitation to go to the movies with your friend and then don’t show up, aren’t you giving whatever you have chosen to do instead a higher priority than the movie with your buddy? Now, sometimes this is legitimate: your girlfriend gouged her hand with a slip of a kitchen knife and you have to get her to the ER—clearly this is an appropriate shifting of priorities since keeping her from bleeding to death is more important than watching the latest X-men or Transformers flick. But what if you don’t feel like getting up and taking a shower and driving all the way across town to see a movie with a friend? If you succumb to the urge to be lazy and blow off the movie, then you are giving your immediate desires a higher priority than your commitment to your friend.
What you actually do demonstrates your priority, even if you do not consciously realize it. The choice you make, the action you actually take, is your priority. Your intellect may tell you that keeping your promise to your friend is your highest priority but if you keep sitting on that sofa eating Rice Krispies in chocolate milk when it is time for you to get up and go to meet your friend, you have clearly shifted your priority. Your priority is whatever you actually do, not what you think your priority is.
So what does that mean in the general scheme of life and things? It means that what you make a priority demonstrates what is most important to you. So if you decide to stay home in your jammies and watch reruns of Friends, eating another bowl of cereal, then indulging your immediate desires is more important to you than your friend’s feelings or your integrity: you just demonstrated it with the choice you made and the action you took.
This is true across the board. The choices a person makes and the actions they engage in tell you where their priorities lay, even when they don't realize they have choices and are making them.
What people actually DO tells you what is most important to them, not the words they say or write, not the memes they post, or the excuses or promises they make. The real truth is in their behaviour because it tells you what they really value, what they really care about, regardless of what they would have you believe.