Sex was a huge topic in the bosom of my narcissistic, cult-like family. What’s even stranger is that they rarely ever spoke about sex. They never laughed about it. “Dirty” jokes were verboden. Sometimes I even wondered if everyone was asexual! Nevertheless, sex was a huge issue in our home.
The former host of NPR’s Performance Today, Martin Goldsmith, coined a great analogy in his book The Inextinguishable Symphony when he wrote about the huge, invisible tree growing in the middle of his childhood living room. No one ever looked at it. No one ever mentioned it. But you could feel it was there nonetheless.
For Goldsmith, this tree was his Jewish parents’ struggle, suffering and love story that played out in 1940s Nazi Germany. They never spoke of it, but the” tree” was there, flavoring and coloring every moment of the Goldsmiths’ lives and their children’s lives.
For other children growing up, the invisible “tree” in their homes and lives might be a parent’s alcoholism or drug abuse. A parent’s struggle with mental health. A parent’s having been sexual abused as a child. A parent’s infidelity. Perhaps even their parent’s previous marriage and ex-spouse. Never spoke of but still affecting everything so strongly, the children feel it every day.
For my family, in my opinion, our invisible “tree” was the topic of SEX. Growing up, I never realized it although I sensed that the unspoken past tread very heavily on the heels of our uptight and ofttimes depressed present.
Now looking back with the help of my Abuse Spreadsheet, the pattern is so obvious I can’t believe I didn’t see it before.
I must’ve been, oh, about nine years old when my father launched into one of his first très awkward, one-on-one, father/daughter sex talks. His Bible was open on his knee to Deuteronomy 22: 20-21. I came away from that sex talk shaken. According the Scripture Dad chose to share that day, my future husband (if one existed) could reject me, discard me and return me to my father as “damaged goods” if, well, you know. (The same standards were, of course, never applied to males which, in my opinion, is yet another example of narcissistic misogyny. And, according to that chapter, it’s not rape unless you scream. What if you’re being choked???)
Just like my Baptist school, the familial message was clear: You can gossip, lie, steal…and God will forgive you. But have premarital sex and you are damned for all Eternity. I now find it interesting that this message was being preached at my school by ordained men who knew about and/or facilitated grooming, infidelity and rape of the teenage female students by their fellow teachers/clergymen.
But this hyper-virtue signaling wasn’t limited to our nuclear family. If my childhood memories are accurate, whenever his adult sisters “shacked up,” Dad was quick to dispatch scathing, Bible-verse-laced, virtue signalling letters to his parents calling out his sisters’ “immorality.” Of course, being persona non grata, I was rarely allowed to read letters to nor from his family. But I got the gist from the little Mom chose to tell me.
“They’re sleeping in separate rooms,” Dad’s mom would innocently write back while insisting that Dad was “a premature baby with no eyelashes” to continue her decades-old, intelligence-insulting farce disguising the fact that she was actually sixteen years old and three months pregnant with my (future) father at the time of her wedding.
At the time, I just assumed that my parents were people of the highest moral fiber. The holiest, the godliest, the most righteous people of faith and that it was therefore incumbent on them to be walking, talking Universal Consciences. That it was their place, maybe even their duty, to identify what they considered to be other people’s immorality and point it out to the “sinner,” Dad’s favorite word always spat out with a snarl.
This message came through so loud and clear, that by the time I started First Grade, I was a jolly good tattletale. “Bossy” the other kids called me. If they did anything “wrong,” even washed play dishes “wrong” in the toy kitchen, I was quick to tell them…or the teacher. Looking back now, what a prig I was!
It’s only now that I’m rethinking everything, especially my narcissists motives, that I realize 1) sex was a huge issue for them but 2) not for the religious/moral reasons I had assumed. That was just a smokescreen. It took almost twenty-five years but one day Mom spilled the beans. Finally told me the truth about Dad before she met him. The “invisible” tree finally came into view, a little clearer, and for all the drama it was actually pretty vanilla. Downright “normal” by today’s belief that cohabitation is a natural step preceding marriage.
I now believe that he didn’t write those letters because of any burning concern for his sisters’ immortal souls. He did it because they were only doing what he himself had done as a young man. His parents had nagged and shamed him for shacking up with his first wife and he was simply demanding his parents hold his sisters to a similar “shame standard.” Maybe trying to assuage his own conscience through Bible-thumping because, after all, he claimed to be a “new creation in Christ” so his past no longer existed.
But it didn’t stop there. Apparently, he also needed to project it all forward onto me. From the age of sixteen, the message was clear to my virgin self: “You’re an almost slut.” Sometimes I wonder if teenage females were all branded as potential temptresses. Or as my mother once told me, “You have bad sexual genetics.” Yeah. I don’t know what that means either but I’m pretty sure the Flying Monkey was merely repeating what the narcissist had told her. Apparently it was based on some great-aunts I’ve never met being “bar flies.” (Their terminology; not mine. And how could that possibly affect me!?! “Sexual genetics” isn’t even a thing!)
And this is where Hand-Me-Down projection comes into play because I absorbed their mindset.
Sex was his issue; not mine. Nevertheless, without using critical thinking, I absorbed his/their attitude about premarital sex and cohabitation. When I saw my friends in happy relationships, making plans to move in with their boyfriends, it upset me.
Maybe my lonely self was a bit jealous. (Mom was quick to shame me. In their world, being jealous of “sin” was just as sinful as actually having sex…or laughing at a dirty joke, tut tut.) Maybe I didn’t understand why it would “ruin your life, Lenora” because it didn’t seem to be ruining my friends’ lives. Maybe it seemed cosmically unfair that they were getting engaged, married and starting families while my life was going nowhere fast despite the celibacy that was supposed to bring me joy and blessings…while my narcissists blamed my aloneness on me.
It was a flea. A very big flea indeed that I’d picked up from my narcissists. Hand-me-down projection. I’m ashamed of my priggish myself, but even more disgusted with them. They had a sex hang-up for their own secret reasons. I picked it up through osmosis completely misunderstanding their reasons for the hang-up in the first place.
It all came crumbling down after Michael and I were married. From that day on, my father treated me like a whore (excuse my language!) he couldn’t bear to look at, speak to or hug. That’s when I realized he had issues. It had nothing to do with morality at all. It’d all been a big, fat lie.
Now it’s your turn. What judgmental fleas did you absorb from your narcissists for “all the wrong reasons”? It takes a lot of deep thinking, pulling back of curtains and daring to challenge the brainwashing but the effort is well worth it.
Thanks for reading and please share your “fleas” and stories in the Comments Section below.