“Your parents were so ahead of the times,” my boss gushed. I just looked at her, blankly, puzzled. Ten years later, I finally “git it” because so many parents nowadays are using the same parenting techniques. But she was wrong. My parents weren’t “so advanced” and neither are today’s parents. It’s all been done before, long before, by someone to whom we all owe a tremendous debt of gratitude for hours of high-class entertainment: Louis B. Mayer, motion picture pioneer, co-founder and VP (1924-1951) of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), the studio that gave us such masterpieces as The Wizard of Oz, Lassie Come Home and The Philadelphia story. (L. B. Mayer is pictured sitting between Katherine Hepburn and Greer Garson front-and-center in the photograph above.)
Louis B. Mayer’s approach to child-rearing was as carefully thought out, definitive and supposedly “well-intentioned” as his strategy to running the MGM studio boasting “more stars than there are in the Heavens.” Unlike most narcissists, LB or “Daddy Mayer” as he liked to be called was not self-obsessed to the point of neglect. Rather, he and his wife, Margaret, looked after their two daughters, Edith and Irene, with a “care” that bordered on obsession.
On paper, all this sounds like excellent child-rearing practices. Unfortunately, Irene Mayer Selznick’s 1983 autobiography A Private View tells a different story. Now, before you say “just another bitter child who resented being disciplined,” let me disabuse you of that notion. Irene writers with nothing but admiration, respect and love for her parents. “I admired him and loved him,” she writes, “I wanted desperately to please him.” (page 18) Ditto. But I never could. Not quite. I always felt there was an asterisk-see-footnote to my father’s “I love you’s” said in a tone of “I love you…anyways.”
But even great caring and oversight cannot redeem a narcissist from inadvertently harming their nearest and dearest. In Irene’s case, her parents’ approach to child-rearing was completely objective, with zero attention or regard for the particular child being parented. “He felt children could not only be formed, but molded,” Irene says about L. B. Mayer’s approach to child-rearing. (page 19) He and Margaret would have parented any child, male or female, in exactly the same way, blind to their personality and deaf to their particular needs, interests, skills and in Irene’s case, left-handedness.
After seven years of studying narcissism, I believe it was everything to do with motives. Is the narcissist parenting for the benefit of their child…or themselves? Is it truly to make their child happy, healthy and equipped for life…or for their reputation as a stellar parent and educator? Motives!
In my experience, it’s this disregard for the specific child(ren) being parented that does the damage. It’s all fine and good for a narcissist to devise The Perfect Child Rearing Strategy. It’s their utter disregard for who their child really is that does the damage. In my mid-twenties I read in Gene Stratton Porter’s book, Laddie, that “to a sensitive child a harsh word is like a lash.” Going to my mother I said, “Y’know, I was a very sensitive little girl. You didn’t have to yell at me that much!” Her mouth dropped open in shock. Almost speechless with surprise, she struggled to find the words to apologize.
For Irene, the damage began when she started school. Born left-handed, she not allowed to use her left hand for anything except tennis, like so many lefties back in the day. Sometimes her left-hand was even tied behind her. Unfortunately, in those days it was not known that denying a southpaw the use of their dominant hand often resulted in the development of a stutter. Sure enough, Irene began to stutter. “Strange,” said her family, “she didn’t do it when she was little.” As Irene said, “Gradually, I learned to control this [her stutter] too…[it] was agony for me. And it irritated the hell out of my family. I believe only Marion Davies ever got any mileage out of a stutter.” (page 11)
Ah, now the theme of “control” has already emerged. Daddy Mayer’s iron-fisted control of his wife, children and studio and Irene’s iron-fisted control of herself to meet Daddy’s ideals, suppress any emotions or authentic thoughts, feelings or opinions. “Not a nerve in her body,” her family boasted. “She doesn’t know how to get mad.” Oh, but she did! It took decades for her to finally speak her mind, finally tell her side of the story, finally express her opinions…and bust the whole mess wide open. A Private View is the scream of a child and woman long silenced!
Falling under the heading of “control” was the Mayer’s insistence that “it is a sin to keep a secret from your mother.” Having kept one secret from my own mother as a six-year-old, been busted and then required to narc on myself every single day of my life, I feel Irene’s pain. While other children might learn to be consummate liars to prevent the pain of being punished for being honest about their transgressions, both Irene and I chose to be utterly honest, to our own detriment. Boundaries didn’t exist. Privacy didn’t exist. As Irene said, “Our lives were an open book, and as there were no locks (‘Young girls don’t need locks if they have nothing to be ashamed of’), privacy was not invaded. IT DID NOT EXIST.” (page 76; emphasis mine) But what else would you expect from Daddy Mayer who tracked his leading lady and starlet’s monthly cycles!?!
Like so many kids, Edith and Irene, had roles assigned to them. Edith was the Golden Child introduced as “our little lady.” Irene was assigned the role of Scapegoat, teased unmercifully as she fought back tears and introduced to strangers as “our tomboy.” The roles were not earned; they were assigned. Silently, Irene longed for the curls and beautiful clothes Edith enjoyed. Instead her hair was cut in a Dutch Boy style (yes, a bowl was used for cutting her bangs!) and she was dressed in simple clothes, sans ruffles and bows. As they grew, these assignments became more and more ingrained and pronounced. While Edith insisted on expensive haute couture, Irene reacted with thrift and severe tailoring.
“Three A’s and a B were not very good,” writes Irene. “Why did I have a B? Three A’s and on A plus still did not meet expectation. She [her mother] would brag behind my back, but not a pat on the back lest it turn my head.” (page 15) Ah, ye olde perfectionism. I know it well! At sixteen, I diagnosed myself with shell-shock (PTSD). At seventeen, with OCD. And at twenty-one, I attempted recovery from perfectionism. “Your father is definitely a perfectionist,” my mother agreed. Oh, the misery it brings to life!
But, sometimes, it’s just the culture of the home that does the most damage. I cannot improve on what Irene says so beautifully on pages 20-25. Emphasis is all mine.
“Believing was the thing I did best. I swallowed everything, hook, line and sinker.
I believed that all public servants were models of learning and justice
long after I should have known better. I believed in my school and
my city and my country. Above all, I believed in my home.
My home did not have to be ideal; what was important was what I thought it was.
I was just the luckiest girl in the world. and, of course, I believed that my parents were perfect.
My father was not only omnipotent, he was omniscient.
In a curious way, I got him mixed up with God, because of the word Almighty.
Fortunately, I was saved by the Ten Commandments; many of them I didn’t understand, but the first Commandment said, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me,’ and I clung to it.
If it hadn’t been for that, I would have been afraid of my father.
If ever there was a master in his own home, Dad was it.
Our day was geared to his homecoming. Excitement, eagerness, usually accompanied
by a bit of suspense. What was his mood?
Whatever it was, we met it. If he was upset, we girls made ourselves scarce…
Mother led the rapt admiration of this hero….
Never mind other people’s standards, he intended his to prevail.
Thus we were not only informed but indoctrinated.
We learned not to interrupt or comment—
no spontaneous conversation out of us….
I marveled at how he bore his responsibilities.
It never occurred to me that other men had equal pressures…
My father…was not given to small talk,
so there was no idle chatter at our supper table…
The truth was, there wasn’t any room for [my] temper;
they had used it all up…Yes, there was plenty of temper around.
My father was terrifying and I dreaded it. Mother’s advice was,
‘Do not speak up when your father’s angry.
let him get it off his chest….
My idea of heaven was no raised voices ever, nobody upset, peace, peace….
they seemed in such terrible shape after losing their tempers
that my sympathy was misplaced and I pitied them instead of their victims…
I devised a very private system whereby I would always be in the wrong,
otherwise I might get mad too. It was easier to blame myself;
to find yourself at fault is a splendid technique for controlling anger.
If I felt rage, I didn’t know it, it just got swallowed.
When I finally learned anger, it was too damned late for it to come out in temper….
Edith didn’t think our home was paradise…Much later she dismissed my viewpoint
by calling me brainwashed. I guess I was, but happily so.
Edie not only spoke up for her rights
(rights? I didn’t know I had any), she felt a need to express herself.
It never occurred to me that I had a self to express.”
In the end, Mr. Mayer’s private domestic paradise came tumbling down and so did his professional paradise at MGM. Despite his best effort to keep his daughters high, dry and isolated, somehow they managed to get married anyways. Mrs. Mayer’s mental and physically health eventually broke down and she was institutionalized. Edith and Irene stopped speaking for many years. In 1947, Mr. Mayer divorced Mrs. Mayer and was free to openly pursue the starlets he’d been secretly bedding all along. In 1951 he was ousted from MGM and six years later died from cancer. Years later it came out that, while his own daughters were isolated from even respectable suitors, L. B. Mayer had been shamelessly molesting Judy Garland at the studio. Can you say “hypocrite”!?!
In the final analysis, perhaps it’s the narcissist’s know-it-all elevated false persona, their impractical dogmas and their demands for blind worship that damage their trusting children the most.
But then again, I’m only on page seventy-six of Irene Mayer Selznick’s excellent (if excruciatingly painful to read) autobiography…a must-read for every child of a narcissist.