What Marriage to a Narcissist Taught Me

My ex-husband was clinically diagnosed as a “borderline narcissist” many years ago while we were still married.  His reaction?

“Borderline?  Borderline???”

If he were going to be something, he wanted to be the biggest, baddest, most flamboyant member of the club.  He laughingly feigned insult, never once appearing to grasp that being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder was something he might want to look into. He thought the whole thing was a big joke, and of course all of his jokes were funny.  Unless of course you had no sense of humor.  And really, didn’t that indicate you were the one who ought to be getting the help?

I don’t talk about my first marriage much because I am embarrassed to admit that the self-confident and highly functioning person I believe I project myself to be got so badly lost and behaved as stupidly as I did. Some of you might want to argue with me about how I am being too hard on myself, but don’t. Even if you knew me then, you didn’t know what  was going on in my marriage because I know how hard I was working to keep it from you.  I was keeping it from myself for the most part too, and when I had glimmers of how bad things were, I was too ashamed to say anything to anyone.

I had never heard the term “gaslighting” at the time, although I spent years spinning in the orbit of a master. You’ve already read one example.  If I protested his behavior, I was the one who really needed help.  I was the one who “used to be fun.” I was the one whose own shortcomings were what we really should be talking about. I was the one who was doing what I was falsely accusing him of.  Classic. All of it.

Inhabiting the White House today is one of the most flagrant examples of a full-blown narcissist ever.  If you haven’t seen narcissism in action, it is hard to understand why he acts the way he does.  If you have, you can see with nauseating clarity.

First, a caveat.  I am not a psychologist, and in fact the only course I ever failed in college was Intro to Psych.  It was the spring of 1969 and the university was on strike, and I was spending most of my time protesting with this really cute guy….. well, I digress. My point is that all I have to go on are my personal observations of patterns of behavior, and I can vouch for how much  my ex-husband and the current US president have in common.

“Normal” people, and I consider myself one, try to understand the feelings and thought processes of others  by analogy to their own.  If they would be embarrassed by a certain behavior, they assume other people would be too. If someone else didn’t seem to be, he or she must be secretly ashamed, or maybe in active denial.  This is often valid, and our ability to see each other in this fashion is part of maintaining relationships and nurturing our own mental health.  When it comes to understanding narcissists,  making such analogies is our first, and most persistent mistake. 

We are all the centers of our own worlds.  The difference is that a narcissist truly believes he or she is rightfully the center of everyone else’s world too and that there is something terribly, fundamentally wrong when others don’t behave accordingly.  Narcissists will do whatever it takes to bring back into line offenders against the proper order of things. They lie, they gaslight, they bully.  They try to ruin and destroy offenders however they can. Often they succeed.  I suspect they never actually believe they will lose any battle with other people, because that simply is the wrong outcome. Any situation is unfair if it isn’t radically skewed toward what they want, and anyone who isn’t utterly devoted to their desired outcome deserves to be reviled. They are supposed to go through life unimpeded and they just have to pull out all the stops sometimes to make this happen.Makes perfect sense to them.

I got to thinking about this because of a post I read from someone who thought the president might be, whether consciously or not,  flirting with getting Covid 19 because it would give him an off-ramp if his chances for re-election got too dismal. The most extreme form of this would be to die without ever facing accountability for all those things he doesn’t think he’s accountable for. A less extreme form would be simply not to subject himself to a vote in November by claiming his health prevented him from continuing in office.

No. No. No. This is not the way narcissists think. They are not defeatists. Why should they be?  They attack, and wait for the world  to right itself  in their favor because they believe it inevitably will.

The president is facing  open and widespread rebellion against his view of himself and his rightful place in the world at a level of insult he could hardly have imagined back in his real estate and celebrity host days, when the most a “loser” could do is fling a few choice words on the way out the door.

To wander far afield for an analogy, Godzilla went on his rampage because of confusion, fear, and anger about finding himself in an unfamiliar environment  he didn’t understand.  The president similarly found himself  in new territory when he unexpectedly won in 2016,   and he has rampaged accordingly from the moment he realized he wouldn’t have a free ride in office.  We should not expect from a narcissist any more self-reflection, or glimmers of realization that other lives than his own have meaning, than we would from Godzilla. If  you want to understand or predict the incumbent president, better to ask “what would Godzilla do?”  than “what would I do?” This may sound like a joke but it isn’t far off the mark.  

And by the way, he won’t get Covid 19 because Covid 19 wouldn’t dare. And if he did, he wouldn’t die or even get terribly sick because that kind of thing only happens to people who don’t matter. Suckers.  Losers.   

Here, based on bitter experience, is what I think lies ahead for us.  First, he will do anything to win the 2020 election.  Anything.  Because that is what is supposed to happen.  Second, he will continue to believe he is going to win the election, despite polls or any other indications to the contrary.  Third, he will be stunned if he doesn’t win, and he will not accept the results because it is not possible for his efforts to have failed, or for a process to be fair if it doesn’t not favor him.  Fourth anything bad that happens will be entirely the fault of others, and fifth, he will believe absolutely and unequivocally, that the right response to a “fake” loss is to do whatever it takes to remain president, because that’s what’s supposed to happen.

And that’s if he loses. If he wins, that will simply be proof to him that he is right, always, about everything, and that punishment is appropriate for anyone who dared disturb the universe by crossing him.

My personal story is small, limited to one marriage, and it was in my hands to solve it by divorce when I woke up.  Our national one feels more like Godzilla with the cameras still rolling.


Welcoming Back the Muse

In 2014 my fifth book, The Mapmaker’s Daughter, came out, and I was thoroughly done with it all. Though it is one of life’s big thrills to hold a book in your hands that has your name on the cover, I was exhausted by the whole process, disheartened by the difficulties of getting any real recognition by my publishers, and absolutely nauseated by the idea of going through the whole process again.

In between the time I finished the manuscript of Mapmaker and the date it came out, my life had been turned upside down. My husband Jim died, and to my surprise, within a year I had met Dan, the man I am still partnered with today. I could see, from the perspective of  elapsed time,  how all-absorbing writing a novel is, and could recognize that one of the main reasons I was able to publish five  books between 2008 and 2014 was that Jim and I were both in constant overdrive together, he to produce his legacy papers on metaloproteins in molecular biochemistry, and me to wrestle these four ideas for novels out of my head and into print. We worked like dogs all the time and it was perfect.

When Jim died, there would have been nothing to stop me from continuing working in the  driven way I had been, except for my disinclination to do it.  When I started having a more normal social life, centered around friends and boyfriend, I realized how untenable it would be to embrace that all-encompassing state of mind it takes to birth a novel. Sure, I had ideas all the time—dozens in a year— but not a single one passed this simple test: Is it worth it to give over my life to this?  The answer was always no.  Writing a novel places a huge strain on relationships as well as  health, and I just wasn’t interested in that trade off.  Maybe I might have been, if an idea was giving me that electric sensation that Diane Ackerman has described as “ coming down with a book,” but nothing was.  I got immense pleasure about thinking what the plot, the characters, the voice would be for any number of ideas for novels, and then I would set it all aside because that pleasure was enough, and I liked my life the way it was.

And there I left it until 2020. Shortly after I got back from what I hope won’t be my last cruise assignment ever, Dan and I watched a documentary on Alfred Loomis, a Wall Street tycoon turned physicist who was central to the development of technologies like radar that helped the Allies win World War II.  I love the history of science enough to have written a novel, Finding Emilie, about a brilliant but largely forgotten female physicist in the French Enlightenment, so I was following the documentary with a typical level of interest until it got to the part about how this very dignified and proper gentleman scientist becomes besotted with  the wife of one of his scientific collaborators, and they begin a secret affair. The story takes another turn when he tries to have his wife committed to clear the way to marry his lover. His children prevent this so, shockingly at the time, he gets a divorce  from wife one and marries wife two, after which they live a happy and peaceful life for several decades until his death.

I found this story enthralling because here is this man of extraordinary substance caught up in the simplest and yet most complex of emotions—love—and wanting to keep his life intact but still be able to be with the woman he knows he is meant to be with. He knows that a scandal could upend work essential to winning the war, so he and his lover decide to live side by side in their respective marriages for over a decade, and successfully keep their affair a secret. So many layers, so much hurt, so much deception, so much at stake.

And there it is—the story that got me.  But what put me over the top is that it is crying out to be a stage play, not a novel.  I’ve never written a play, and it’s a new challenge to have only two means to convey everything—body language and dialogue. It’s a challenge to have at the most two hours to tell the whole story. It will be a new experience to have the end product not something I send off to my agent, but something that will see the light of day live on stage.  Though my chances of having a major production are about as good as having a best selling novel, even small staged readings will let me see my work realized. There is no specific outcome I require to make me feel it was worth the effort. It’s the creativity and learning that matters at an age where I have nothing left  to prove, and care only about continuing to grow.

I eased into this project, thinking in terms of IF I would take it on.  I said nothing about it even to friends and fellow writers because—and this may sound odd—I  didn’t want to be burdened with their encouragement.  I don’t want ever to feel that I owe this play to anyone, including myself.

Today  I finished the first draft of the first act, about a half an hour running time.  It’s rough but it’s there.  My play now officially exists as a work in progress. But I am a completely different writer than I was. I tiptoe around my computer warily, not wanting to get too sucked in.  I don’t wake up dying to go to work to see what happens next. But when I do sit down for a little while every day, I feel the old thrill of characters’ lives spilling out in what they say and do, and I know I am right where I should be right now.  “Thank you for waiting,” I say to the Muse, and she smiles.


Little Somethings

Since this pandemic began, I have kept a to-do list on my refrigerator door, reminding me of a basic framework I want to have for these endless, formless days.  I have replaced the list several times as I have come to know myself better.

The first list represented an  old version of me that, in the best analogy I can think of,  was like the clothes at the back of the closet that are never going to fit right again.  To continue the analogy a little further, there are newer versions of the list  that I recognize as “early pandemic me.” These are like clothes that still look good but I don’t feel like wearing.  Then there is the ever-changing “today me,” which in clothing terms ranges from shapeless comfort to “pretend life is normal” wear.

I make no apologies for ignoring any phantom presence suggesting what I ought to do at this point, any more than I think I need to justify  why today bare feet, old shorts, nice sleeveless blouse—and of course (the only invariable) cute earrings—feel like the right sartorial plan.

But back to the lists.  Geez, I am easily sidetracked these days.  I have a two-day-old list on my fridge that seems to make sense, as long as I don’t have to get all crazy about slavishly following it. Here it is:

Share Something

Build on Something

Nurture Something

Learn Something

Clean Something

Exercise Something

I can share anything— from inviting Dan for dinner to an interesting article in the news.  Building on something is so wide open it is fun to think about.  I can build on an idea I have had for a piece of writing, or just make a little progress on a jigsaw puzzle.  I can nurture a friendship by calling or writing a friend, or by taking food to the park for the birds.  And how could I possibly make it through a day without learning anything?  Ugh!  What kind of a life is that?

What I like about this list is that  I naturally want to do these things.There’s just enough of a hint about laying the groundwork for a more interesting and open tomorrow,  without the pressure to work on it as if life is a job. I can come out of this with renewed friendships, new ideas for projects, and a sense of well being.  All of this can happen if I do the little somethings  that matter to me.

And, just as a little aside, my condo is spotless.  I even washed the windows this week!  Since I am here all the time, I notice dust so much more, and why not do something about it? Exercising means getting down on the floor for some stretches and crunches, and whoa!  I was shocked at how many dust bunnies lived under the couch.  No more—nurturing does have its limits, and when I start talking to dust bunnies as if they were  pets, the top item on my next list will be doing something to restore my sanity.