In his book The Inextinguishable Symphony, former NPR Performance Today host Martin Goldsmith writes,
“In the house where I grew up…
there was also an enormous tree growing up through the roof,
its great trunk dominating the enclosed space.
In many ways we shared a perfectly ordinary family life.
My father spoke to my mother.
My mother tucked me in at night.
My brother and I played with each other, when we weren’t fighting.
But none of us ever acknowledged the tree.
The tree wasn’t real, of course.
But its impact on my family was overwhelming.
The effort it required for all of us not to take conscious notice of it was huge.”
The fictitious tree Goldsmith refers to is the effect of his grandparents’ Jewishness and the implications of their miraculous escape on the last train out of Nazi Germany. No one spoke of it, yet it affected of all of them deeply, fundamentally, intrinsically.
Even though it’s been a decade since I read The Inextinguishable Symphony, the concept of the huge tree stuck with me. Now I know why. Those of us who’ve lived in a narcissistic household, rubbing shoulders daily with narcissists we call family, also had an enormous, yet ignored, tree growing in our homes.
The tree is the original wound that conceived narcissism in our loved one. It’s rarely (or never) mentioned. Barely acknowledged. Yet it affects every facet of their lives and, by default, also our lives. So what is this original wound? Here’s two ideas.
Binge-watching Downton Abbey has made me aware of just how scandalous illegitimacy was considered in the past and how many lies were told to disguise illegitimacy. Even if the parents of the unexpected child married, were happy together and never spoke of the “reason” they “had” to get married, yet unguarded words, vibes and attitudes deeply affected that child…even if they didn’t realize it at the time. Too often, the wound that became the seed of narcissism was sown in the heart of illegitimate children.
Or maybe their parent(s) came right out, blaming them, shaming them for being born. Perhaps their parent, in the words of Loretta Young, called their child “a mortal sin.” Maybe their parent shamed them for being the “reason” they were forced into an unwanted marriage. Sometimes the child bore the brunt of their parent’s frustration over unrealized dreams.
Too often, they were never told the truth. In fact, their parents may have lied to them, claiming they were born three months premature.
But the child knows. Even if they don’t know what it is they know, they know they’re different. They know something doesn’t add up. The seed of their narcissism was sown when they owned a shame that was not theirs to own. The seed was sown when they observed how differently their younger brothers and sisters were treated and wondered what set them aside as the family pariah.
The seed was sown and the tree of narcissism began to grow.
Several years ago, my co-worker shared a story that had just happened to her. She was going through a box of old stuff her grandmother had collected and stumbled across a marriage certificate. The bride’s name was her grandmother’s. But the groom’s name was not her grandfather’s.
“Grandma,” she asked, “who is this?”
“Oh, him,” her grandma replied nonchalantly. “Just somebody I was married to once.” My co-worker was shocked.
Nowadays, divorce is so common that it’s barely interesting. C’mon! Brangelina’s split was so expected that it barely stayed on the DailyMail’s headline for twenty-four hours. But “back in the day,” divorce was saddled with shame and whispered about behind gloved hands. Yet, even today, it sows the seed of narcissism.
And that’s why older narcissists, steeped in the old ways of thinking and feeling about divorce, don’t like to talk about their divorces. Whether they were the innocent party or not, they find it too mortifying to discuss. And although they may hide the story, they can’t hide the massive ways the divorce has affected them. In fact, the trickle-down ramifications of the shame of being rejected by an ex-spouse affects their new family, just like that huge tree growing through the roof.
When Charlotte Brontë wrote Jane Eyre in 1847, she wove a tale of a wealthy, unattached and mysteriously miserable man, Mr. Rochester, who falls in love with a lovely governess, Jane Eyre. Although Jane senses that something is wrong, she joyfully accepts her employer’s proposal of marriage. Just as their wedding commences, a stranger shouts that “There is an impediment!” Mr. Rochester drags Jane upstairs to the “unused” wing of his mansion, revealing that his wife is imprisoned there, raving mad.
Like Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, it feels like a narcissist’s ex-spouse is still present, locked in the attic….symbolically speaking. Oh, they may have been physically out of the picture for decades, nonetheless, they haunt every moment and every room. Sometimes I wonder if that’s why Jane Eyre is the favorite movie of those who were emotionally destroyed by a divorce. Is it cathartic?
Even their very emphasis on ignoring the existence of an ex-spouse makes the “haunting” more real. They may never speak the name of their ex-spouse and, while never saying what it is, also demand that their new family never speak it either. Anything that reminds them of their ex-spouse is banned, including hairstyles, hobbies, pets, etc.
For a narcissist, the wounds of illegitimacy and divorce never heal. They remain fresh for a lifetime, informing and fomenting their narcissism.