Like most of you, I fantasize about the “good old days.” Ladies fashions, hair and make-up were so gorgeous in the 1940s ad 50s, I long to live back then. Most men I’ve known wish they’d lived either in the Wild, Wild West or in the 1920s with a flask of hooch in the pocket of their snappy pinstripe suit.
Oh, I know the peace and all-togetherness the past projects never really existed. Yesteryear was harsh and uncomfortable (girdles!) with plenty of its own scandals, poverty and wars. There were narcissists back then too, but it’s still fascinating to watch “How You Should Live” films from the 1950s. There are films about good habits, politeness, dating, marriage, cleanliness, hair care, make-up and how to have a good family life.
In the first Family Life film, what jumped off the screen and slapped me upside-the-head was how the children were equals in the family. Part of the core, the nucleus, not merely valance electrons circling sadly, outside and excluded. But I laughed it off. Maybe it was a fluke. After all, we’ve been told how disgustingly patriarchal and misogynistic the 1950s were.
But when the second Family Life film again portrayed the children as equals to the parents, core members in the nucleus of the family…! No, this was a thing…a thing I’ve never quite experienced.
The 1950s family was portrayed not as parents vs kids, Us vs Them nor as Male Dictator Lording it Over Cowering Voiceless Peons. It was a cohesive whole. Everyone was on the inside, in the know, in the nucleus. Everyone had a voice. Everyone was listened to and their suggestions respectfully considered. Everyone had equal responsibilities and thus equal privileges. The 1950s family, idealized on film, was an organism that swam or sunk together as equals in every way. (At this point I nearly fainted dead away. The shock!)
It wasn’t the parents’ house. It was everyone’s house. This meant the children had responsibilities and pride in keeping up their house. In exchange, they got to enjoy their house by entertaining and having friends over.
The same went for the car. It wasn’t the parents’ car. It was the whole family’s car. The teenage son in the film was responsible for cleaning and upkeep of his car which in return he used on Saturday night to drive his date to the movies.
I think back to my teens and twenties with some shame. I wasn’t the best Citizen about refilling the ice cube tray and suchlike and apologized to my mother in 2011 for that. But then again, I was never an equal Citizen and it was never my house/home in any sense of the term.
But I’m not unique. All we children of narcissists will snort with derision at the concept of being Equals to our parents. That was never happening. “Everything that goes wrong around this house is always ‘my fault’,” I once complained to my mother. She smirked and agreed. From plugged drains to stains on the rug…Blame! It Must be Assigned!…to me!
The same was true of Michael growing up in an alcoholic home. Whenever his father misplaced anything, which was constant in his drunken state, Michael was always blamed. “That little sonofabitch stole it,” was the frequent refrain. The reality was and is, of course, exactly the opposite. I could a tale unfold! (Michael still talks about being shocked when he was allowed to visit friends and saw how kindly those families treated each other. He thought they were putting on a show. Pretending to be Leave It To Beaver. That’s how cruel and vicious his home life was.)
Just like cults present an Us-vs-Them relationship between the cult and the outside world, so to do narcissistic families have Us (the narcs + Golden Child) and Them (the non-narc spouse, scapegoats, other children.) The narcissists et al are at the nucleus. You are just a lonely little valance electron grasping at whatever family information they may decide you are allowed to know.
I believe one teling sign of being Them is when Us withold family information from you. The exact phrase used is, “We weren’t going to tell you, but … ” Or sometimes, they just don’t tell you at all!
I’ll never forget coming home from 2nd grade and finding my parents talking about, “Going to the hospital.” I was confused and alarmed. Why were we going to the hospital!? They’d completely forgotten to tell me that Grandpa’d had a heart attack.
Again when I was fifteen, my parents were talking over lunch one day about someone called “Stella.” Stella, Stella, Stella. Who the heck is Stella? With no cushion or ado I was bluntly told, “Your grandmother’s sister.” Freaky! As far as I knew Grandma only had one sister and she’d died in 1962. Apparently, Great-Grandpa had another family but it never occurred to Us (parents) to break the news gently to Them (me!). I’ll never forget the horrific tension headache I got that day! Sadly, we never really acknowledged nor met Stella who was a very talented artist and so excited to finally have two new brothers and a new sister in her late 70s.
Yet another sign is when Us talks about Them right in front of Them’s face in the 3rd person. How well I remember being discussed as though I wasn’t even present. As if I didn’t exist! What struck me forcefully is that they didn’t talk about “Lenora.” They talked about “she.” She, she, she, she, she, she. Even as a “stupid kid,” it made me very angry. I was never a person to them; I was merely a Project.
What if we tried running our families like the 1950s? Oh, I know it’s idealistic, romanticized and theoretical, like Barney Fife’s “perfect child” but let’s try on the idea for size.
Instead of angry teenagers who feel like their parents are disgusted by them, what about Young Adults who Are Respected Equals in the Family. Dad looks his son in the eye and treats him like a fellow man. Mother looks her daughter in the eye and treats her like a woman. You take responsibility, you get the privileges that come with it. It’s not The Parent’s house. It’s everybody’s house to enjoy. To me, that thought is so novel I have to sit right down and catch my breath!
The 1950s may’ve spawned a lot of narcissists but maybe they had the family thing right, at least, on paper. A cohesive whole. No one excluded. No one more equal than the others. Everyone included pulling together toward one goal: a happy, enjoyable life together.