I have read that narcissists live in an “eternal present,” that they do not experience the passage of time the way we do. A slight we experienced in childhood, for example, loses its power to hurt us over time, as we gain perspective and experiences. The buffer of time tends to soften experiences and our reaction to them: I still, in some ways, grieve the death of my previous husband, for example—he was a terrific guy and deserved to live more than a few months past his 54th birthday—but the acute, heart-rending grief I experienced in the early days of his death has largely gone. It’s too bad he didn’t live longer, but my heart no longer feels shredded into tatters at the thought of his permanent absence. Time has healed the wound and I now remember him fondly, can tell stories about him, and remember him and our marriage with a quiet kind of joy.
Narcissists, on the other hand, apparently do not experience the buffering that the distance of time can provide us because they live in an eternal present. They have a perception of time in which an affront suffered ten years ago feels no less acute today than it did when first delivered. I cannot provide citations for this assertion, however, because I cannot find anything in the literature to verify it, but I can attest that if this is true, it would explain my malignant narcissist of a mother in ways that nothing else has ever been able to.
For example, my mother was always very hard on me with respect to grades: I was expected to get straight As, no matter what the subject. If I didn’t, I got berated but if I did I got harangued anyway: “See, I knew you could do it. You were just goofing off with those Bs you got last semester, weren’t you? I knew you weren’t applying yourself. It had better not fall below an A from now on because now I know what you are capable of…” Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t.
My report cards were mailed to my grandparents and in the return mail I would receive a small amount of money, my reward for getting those As. I occasionally overheard her bragging to people on the phone about my grades and excusing my brother when his were not up to snuff: “Oh, he’s a boy, you know how they are…”
And yet, when junior high and high school rolled around and there were assemblies and awards ceremonies and presentations, my mother was mysteriously absent. I was the tenor soloist in the school choir: she never attended a concert. Two years in a row I received a letter (the kind you sew on a letterman’s jacket or sweater) for excellence in music (the choir)—this was the only way a girl could get a letter so it was a BIG deal—and she was mysteriously absent from the awards banquets. She even skipped my graduation. And even though I expected her to ignore my accomplishments, the fact that she sent all this information to my grandparents and she occasionally used it to win a one-upmanship contest with another parent, confused me. If she was proud enough to inform her own parents and brag to other mothers, why did she avoid attending any of my events?
I graduated from high school exactly three months after my 17th birthday. On my 18th birthday I was discharged from the hospital following the birth of my first child, nine days earlier. It never seemed odd to me that my mother had married young and had her first child young—her mother did the same, marrying at 16, just as my mother had done. All three of us had our first baby when we were 17. For more than 50 years I puzzled over my mother’s unwillingness to attend my school events, the mixed message of hearing her brag about my accomplishments juxtaposed with her obvious lack of caring as demonstrated by her absence. And then one day it struck me—my mother had never graduated from high school herself!
She had not skipped a grade in elementary school as I had, so she still had at least a year of high school to go when she eloped with my father. Her parents both went only as far as the eighth grade, that being the limit of publicly funded education in rural areas a hundred years ago, so they had graduated from their respective schools…but my mother had not! Somehow the fact that I had graduated and had a baby before I turned 18 got enmeshed with my mother’s history and I just assumed she had graduated, just as I had. She had never told me she had dropped out of school, she allowed me to assume that she had graduated, like my father, her brothers, and I had done. But once I had that information in hand, things began to fall into place.
She was jealous that I was gathering all of these awards because she didn’t have any. She was embarrassed that she had not finished high school and I had. She was angry, in the way that narcissists become, that I had something she could never have because even though she could get a GED, it still was not a high school graduation with cap and gown and smiling parents and photographs and graduation presents, was it? And because she couldn’t have one, neither should I. She couldn’t stop me from graduating—I had earned that. But made it as difficult on me as possible to participate: she refused to give me a ride to the graduation ceremony (I rode with my boyfriend and his parents), she refused to attend, and so I had no one applauding for me (except my boyfriend’s parents), nobody taking pictures, no gifts, no cake, no special dinner—nothing. It was just like any other uneventful Sunday at her house.
Why? Was it spite? I suppose that was part of it—she was a very spiteful person and even prided herself on her capacity for vindictiveness. But I think it went deeper than that. I think each event of mine, each solo in the spotlight, each academic award, each ceremony or rite of passage in which I was a participant, she was stabbed with the same intensity of feelings of being deprived and left out that she had when her friends went to the prom, graduated, received gifts…while she was stuck at home with a colicky baby.
That this was the result of her own choices was not relevant to her: she had long since decided that everything that was wrong with her life was my fault. If I hadn’t come along her father could have had her impulsive elopement annulled and she could have returned to school in the autumn with her classmates and her life, without me, would have been “different,” a word she clearly equated with “better.” And so here I was, usurping all those things that should have been hers all those years ago, all of the attention, the accolades, the awards, the speeches of praise. I had not only denied her those things in her life, I was exacerbated it by getting them myself and then “rubbing her nose in it” by expecting her to tag along as a spectator. It was 18 years later, but she was just as angry and resentful and bitter about it as when she was cleaning up baby puke while her friends were dancing the night away at their proms, and crossing that stage in caps and gowns to receive their diplomas. The passage of time did not soften the sting of her privation: judging from how angry she was at each of my events, the way she sabotaged some of them so I could not go (once even refusing me permission to go to a concert I had been practicing for for more than three months and which the school was depending on my solo to put us over the top in a competition), judging from her grimly restrained anger each time I had a date or a school dance or extra-curricular activity, she was reliving her resentment of her classmates’ activities because I had had the bad manners to be born and keep her stuck in that unfortunate marriage. Her resentment of me and how my existence denied her those rites of passage was renewed each time I did something she had never been able to do, like go to a Homecoming Party or sit for college entrance exams—or collect a high school diploma.
My parents were married in May of 1946 and by early 1949 they had split up. Two years later they reconciled and we moved to California where they separated again sometime in 1955, reconciled briefly, then split permanently in 1957. I was ten and by the time I was twelve, my father had remarried and had a daughter by his new wife. In total, my parents were married and living together for no more than eight years.
My mother resented my stepmother, which I always found puzzling. The separations and the ultimate divorce were her idea, yet she acted towards my stepmothers as if she had been my father’s illicit paramour. She referred to Patsy as “that cheap chippie,” an epithet that described her own self far more accurately than Patsy (who had a university degree and came from a family that had both wealth and breeding) and other unsavoury terms. She resented Patsy as if she had been my father’s mistress and the cause of the end of their marriage when, in fact, my mother told my father that she was tired of being married to him, she was going to start seeing other men (she was actually already doing that while he was working his second job), she might bring one or more of them home with her, and if he didn’t like it, he could leave. He left and she divorced him on the grounds of abandonment and mental cruelty and walked away with new car, the house and everything in it except Dad’s clothes, mechanic’s tool, and hunting and fishing gear. And then she would get mad when he shows up to collect me and my brother for our visitation because there was a woman in the car with him.
She acted like he was cheating on her, and like Patsy was the “other woman.” She was in the process of stripping him of virtually everything he had worked for over the past six years, she was bringing strange men home (as she had said she was going to do—I found them asleep in her bed with her when I came in to wake her up to go to work, that being my job because the only alarm clock in the house was in my room), but still, she was angry with him for having a new girlfriend. So incensed was she that she instituted a bunch of rules—with a bunch of new ones at the end of every visitation—to govern how we were to operate. We were to remember and tell her everything about what was going on—what was their living arrangements, what kind of furniture did they have, where did they live, etc. We were not to tell either of them anything about our lives and especially nothing about her and what she was doing. And when the babies started being born I was soundly admonished not to refer to them as brothers and sisters. If I had to refer to them at all, I was to refer to them as half brothers and sisters, so that nobody got the “wrong idea.”
This animosity against my father and his wife did not abate with time. Years would pass and if anything about my father or Patsy found its way into conversation, she would instantly screw up her face and start spitting epithets. She was just as angry twenty years after the divorce as she was when it happened, despite she was the one who wanted it and instigated it because she was “tired of being married” to my father. (My personal guess is that she was actually tired of sneaking around, afraid of getting caught, and was resentful because my father moved out, taking his income and her respectability—divorce was scandalous in 1957—with him, rather than stay in the house and the marriage as a cuckold.)
But it doesn’t stop here. Remember, my parents lived together for a grand total of eight years or less. Twenty five years after my father married Patsy, a letter in the mail from my mother arrived at their house. By this time they had been incommunicado for better than fifteen years because my brother and I had been grown and gone for at least that long and there was no longer a reason for them to communicate. The letter was not addressed to my father or to the two of them, but specifically to Patsy. When she opened it she found eight pages of my mother’s crabbed handwriting telling her how she should beware of my father, that he had a volatile temper and he was dangerous when provoked. She specifically told Patsy to watch out for the cords in his neck to stand out and the veins in his temples to become prominent because that indicated when he was dangerously angry.
Patsy showed me the letter and it was absolutely appalling. By the time this missive arrived, Patsy had been married to my father three times longer than my mother had been. Twenty five years had passed and suddenly here was a letter from my mother describing my father as he had been twenty five years in the past at a time he was married to a person very different from her. But to my mother, those years had not passed. To my mother, my father was still the person she had been married to, the man who went livid when he found that during the hours he worked a second job to give his family extras, his wife was spending the money hanging around bars picking up strange men. To my mother, there was no difference in their situations, Patsy was the same as she, and no time had passed. She was literally living in the past in the current day.
But why the letter? Part of the narcissist’s hunt for Nsupply: if there were any cracks in Patsy’s marriage to my father, who better to commiserate with than an ex-wife who presumably knew his flaws? If she could engage Patsy, not only would she be getting a massive infusion of Nsupply, she would be in a position to regain some power over my father, this time through his current wife. He was just as much hers, in her mind, as he was when she told him she was going to be bringing strange men home with her. My guess is that she was in a particularly powerless position for one reason or another, and was mounting one of her little manipulative games to remedy that. But what is really the point here is that time had not made any inroads into my mother’s sense of entitlement where my father was concerned and she thought it completely appropriate to try to step into his marriage and warn his wife of twenty five years about his “temper” and how “scary” he was, as if no time had passed at all, as if the past was still the present.
By contrast, I divorced my oldest son’s father when he was two. The man was a drunk, abusive towards me and he would threaten to abuse the children as a way to control me. He couldn’t keep a job and when he had one, he cashed his pay checks at a neighbourhood tavern and drank up half of it before he ever got home. I left, moving clear across the country to put a safe distance between us. When my son was 16, he began asking about his father and our breakup and did I think we might ever get together again. As gently as I could, I told him that his father and I were too different and that we just didn’t get along. When he asked me what his father was like, I told him that I did not know, that too many years had passed, and that who he was back then was not necessarily who he was now. I experienced no anger, no fear, no anxiety, no desire to paint the man black to the child he never supported, the man who, in fact, consented to the divorce on the condition that I would not ask him for child support. It had been more than ten years and I had moved on and had no emotions about him any longer, and certainly no desire to insert myself into his life and start stirring up shit. My mother, on the other hand, was experiencing the same intensity of emotions—and desire for vengeance for her imagined hurts—twenty five years after she initiated that divorce.
The thing about narcissists is that momentous events—at least events that had sufficient impact on them to stick in their memory—they believe they recall in detail. The fact that along the line some of these details are actually fabrications gets lost in the mists of time and they keep a bright—if improved—memory, one that has considerable immediacy, in their heads. When one of these memories comes under discussion they will recount it in excruciating detail—with the embellishments incorporated into their sense of reality—and they can even tell you, verbatim, who said what to whom. It is as if these events happened just yesterday, not two or three or four decades in the past, and their emotional intensity with respect to these memories is no less powerful than it was when the event first occurred.
I can remember my mother telling about when someone rear-ended her car. As she told the story she grew angrier and angrier at “the idiot” who “wasn’t paying attention” and hit her, denting the bumper on her brand-new second-hand car. If you were listening to the story you would be forgiven for thinking the accident had happened just last week instead of fifteen years in the past…
And while that kind of recall may seem impressive, it has two flaws: one, all of the embroideries and trimmings and flourishes that her imagination has added to make it a better story somehow become remembered as the truth. The driver wasn’t an ordinary person but has transformed into a professionally-dressed, immaculately coiffed woman who didn’t care about her car because she could afford repair bills where my poor mother couldn’t. Instead of being apologetic, this tall, cool Grace Kelly doppelgänger was haughty and dismissive. Everything that could show the hapless other driver as the antithesis of my mother’s image of herself as the socially conscious Everywoman, this woman became. Truth fell by the wayside in the wake of this tale of my mother being victimized by a rich bitch and then how she put the woman in her place: first victimized, then triumphant—and all but the tiniest sliver of it, untrue.
The second problem with this kind of intense pseudo-memory is that is convinces the tale bearer of the invincibility of her memory. When that happens you end up in a situation where, if she doesn’t remember it, it didn’t happen: you are making it up! Or if she does remember it, she remembers it differently from the way you do, and because she has this fabulous recall you are unquestionably wrong. Despite the fabrications and bias of their recall, they will be convinced of the accuracy of their memory of an event solely on the basis of its power to evoke their original emotions many years hence.
As I said before, the notion that narcissists do not perceive the passage of time like we do, that they live in an emotional “eternal present” is not something I have found to be supported by studies and the literature. But it certainly explains a lot about my mother and how she operated. It explains how she could feel mad at me for spoiling her plans for decades after those plans were irrevocably spoiled. It explains how she never “got over” anything and how she could convince others that her lies—some going back decades—were true and immediate: her passion in her recall could be very convincing. It explains why narcissists never “get over” anything, why an insult received twenty years ago has the same power to wound—and anger—as it did on the day it was delivered.
If my mother is a valid archetype then there just might be something to this “eternal present” narcissists are purported to inhabit because it sure fits her.