Thursday, September 22, 2011

On The Outside, Looking In

A few nights ago, I was catching up on my reading over at Vanci's blog and I found myself wondering if other ACoNs were like my husband, in that they were constantly surrounded by people who, either out of ignorance or inability, did not see the severe dysfunction by which the ACoNs were surrounded.

The thought prompted me to ask Vanci, "...did anyone you ever met growing up or in your young-adulthood ever tell you that they thought your family behaved strangely or that they were abusive?"

Vanci's newly-minted blog is already ripe with thought-provoking and heart-wrenching recollections of her youth and many of her stories remind me of my husband's. And, being a rather observant person myself, I've never really understood how people on the outside couldn't see what was really going on behind the scenes. Vanci has given me permission to pick apart her most recent post on my own blog, in an attempt to do a comparison/analytical analysis of her thoughtful response to my question.

I would like to first look at the title of her post, "Contagious Blindness," which I think was aptly chosen. Her title created a great mental image for me, depicting the outsiders' ignorance of the ACoN's reality as though it were a sort of disease. In my husband's experience, as a young boy with little to no control over who his parents exposed him to or forced him into relationships with, he was surrounded by a large group of toxic Flying Monkeys who did little but drink the Kool Aide all day. Like Vanci and many, many other ACoNs, my husband had no choice but to maintain relationships with people who either would not or could not step in and help him. I have spent some time examining their apparent blindness to the subtle abuses they were, no doubt, witnessing.

In the first part of her answer to my question, Vanci wrote, "They moved us around every year for a reason. It's entirely possible to maintain a perfectly perfect projection of a facade of perfectness... for a short period of time. I don't know how much of the grand master plan of physical isolation was completely conscious on the part of NM and EF and how much was below surface, but I'm absolutely positive that they knew at some level that if we stayed anywhere too long, people would get close. And when 'outsiders' get close to a family as fucked up as ours was, they see through the veneer. Most 'normal' people, granted, would turn a blind eye (and of the few who did get close to us in one way or another, the great majority did just that,) but those who got close enough to see some of the truth behind the castle gates and might have done anything about it had very little time to act or react. They usually only began to suspect, it seems, as we were loading up the moving vans."

Her answer reminded me that, as children, we relied on our parents to make certain choices for us, like who we spent most of our time with and what kind of experiences we got to have. The younger the child, the more power a parent has over those types of choices. For Vanci, her parents opted to move around often, as an effective means to decrease the chances that their children would be influenced by outside sources. It's my belief that her parents, either consciously or subconsciously made the choice to keep their children away from individuals who might pose any sort of threat to their dysfunctional family system. One of the interesting differences I see between Vanci's childhood and my husband's is that, although my husband did move several times throughout his childhood, his NM, step-father, and EF never moved so far that they had to cut ties, and in fact, most of their friendly and familial relationships, albeit superficial, remained intact. Interestingly enough though, Vanci and my husband still had similar experiences in the sense that, whether or not they were surrounded by familiar people, outsiders said and did nothing to indicate that they recognized, let alone understood, the severe dysfunctions surrounding these children. To clarify, Vanci was constantly surrounded by new and unfamiliar people. My husband was generally always surrounded by the same group of familiar people. Yet both parties rarely (or, in my husband's case, never) heard an outsider say, "What the hell is wrong with your family?"

This observation strengthens my idea that all relationships introduced and encouraged by the narcissistic/enabling parents could only be superficial. It goes without reason that no NP would allow their child access to 'outsiders' who would point out the severity of their familial dysfunctions. Doing so would pose a major threat to the precarious balance between the abusers and the abused.

Vanci writes, "[My parents are] basically professional level liars and manipulators, and they haven't gotten away with it for their entire lives by doing it poorly. They have a system, they cover each other, it works. Unsuspecting non-Narcs who come into contact with them are easily [duped]. How could they not be? The Crazymakers have justifications, rationalizations, revisions of history, explanations and misdirection on their side."

Touché, Vanci. Reading this spot-on description of your parents' uncanny abilities to manipulate reminded me that for every con-artist out there, there must be a thousand suckers just begging to be scammed. And that's what the easily-duped unsuspecting non-narcs are, after all, just suckers. Or, call them what you will: victims, fools, patsies, saps, stooges, pushovers, sitting ducks, dupes, boobs, fall-guys, chopping blocks, easy marks, schmucks, pawns, puppets, instruments. In the scheme of things, they are useless to the children of narcissists because they are too superficial in their relationships, too blind to reality, and too loyal to the narcissists to be of any help to the ones who really need them.

I look at it this way: Are the manipulators truly good at what they do, are most of the people being fooled just incredibly naive/foolish/cowardly, or perhaps it's a mixture of the two? Narcissists are, by their very nature, highly-skilled manipulators, who perfect their skills over a lifetime of practicing the fine art of double-dealing. One of my favorite authors, Harriet B. Braiker, writes in her book Who's Pulling Your Strings, "Manipulation is used because it works. As long as you allow a manipulator to exploit and control you, he or she will continue to manipulate...under the burdensome weight of manipulation, relationships stagnate into a highly lopsided power imbalance." Braiker, at one point, refers to the manipulated party as the "unwitting collaborator" to the manipulation. I mean, really, if you're not against them, then you're with them. You're either allowing them to manipulate you and possibly helping them manipulate others, or you see through their vulgar tricks and choose not be be a part of their deceptions. I tend to see the following traits, or a combination of some of them, in people who easily fall for the cunning tricks of a manipulator:

1. Naiveté, which means, as defined by, "The state or quality of being inexperienced or unsophisticated, especially in being artless, credulous, or uncritical."
2. Low self-esteem, which is defined by "Heavy self-criticism, hypersensitivity to criticism, chronic indecision, an excessive will to please, and neurotic guilt." (Wikipedia)
3. People-pleasing habits and mindsets.
4. Superficiality / lack of emotional depth.
5. Ignorance.

Essentially, when ACoNs are children, their NPs do a fantastic job of weeding out any of the people who don't have any or all of the traits above, thereby denying the children access to healthier adults and peers, and cementing an unhealthy ideal of "normalcy" in the child's life. In DH's case, he spent years of his late adolescence and early adulthood trying to replicate the relationships his NM had created for him as a boy, while still maintaining ALL of the unhealthy ones that had been there from the start. When he met me, I very quickly realized that he had been surrounded by a plethora of unhealthy and emotionally blind people - some of whom he had chosen for himself, having never been taught to seek-out relationships with stronger, healthier, kinder individuals. Basically, at that point in time, he was merely following-through on his NM's training by only picking people that she would approve of.

Until me.

And here, of course, is where my confusion comes in. It didn't take me long to figure NMIL out. It didn't take me long to figure out her cronies, either. I'm not a rocket-scientist, nor am I a psychologist. I do not have an uncanny sixth sense about people, as my own mother does (and boy do I envy THAT skill...I think of all the stress I could have saved myself in my own relationships during my youth, if I could have smelled out the shit-heads BEFORE I let them walk through the door). What I do have is experience with manipulative people, two relation-shits with Narcs under my belt, and a rather-heavy desire not to repeat my past mistakes. I am also in possession of some fantastic reading material, which I purchased in the hopes of learning more about people in the world around just doesn't do to be ignorant. Perhaps my most wonderful trait though, is my deep-seeded desire to find out why. I have never been content with the basics of life, I have always felt that it takes a particular depth and a desire to find out more that leads to a happier, healthier life.

Apparently though, there aren't many people out there with the same sort of desires. Instead, there are a multitude of people like Pig, and Exhibit A, Toast, and Double Agent. There are masses of people out there who are willing to fall for the tricks of the manipulators. They're easy pickins, in fact. Like Vanci says, their blindness seems to be contagious.

I feel I must share more of Vanci's wonderful post with you, because she did such a fantastic job of answering my question. She wrote, "They are just so damned good at the show of it all. They have layers and layers of nice painted on the outside; so many that it's really impossible to tell where one lie starts and another begins. They just seem like such nice people. There's a comment I've heard often, and it's totally true! They do seem like nice people, because they act like nice people, and they're good at this charade, because the maintenance of this farce is absolutely critical to the maintenance of the style of living and life they want to have. If they seemed rotten, they'd never be able to get away with it - if they acted on the outside like the monsters that they truly are, CPS would have taken all three of us kids away pronto...So, unfortunately, no, dear Jonsi, no one ever said those things to me. Most outsiders weren't allowed to be close enough to see beyond the masks. Those few who did make it through weren't allowed access for very long. Of those who did glimpse the reality of the NFOO, most were treated immediately and intensely to the blindingly convincing show of Narc-y Nice Nice. I don't know of any outsider who ever infiltrated to the core, honestly."

Sigh. Big, understanding sigh. My husband, too, knows what it's like to have grown up in a torturous ball of nice. Like I've said, other than myself, no one had ever infiltrated his dysfunctional world, either. Even when he became an adult, he merely went about self-sabotaging his chances of finding people who would be willing or able to do so. And it is here, too, where Vanci and my husband share a common thread. Vanci wrote, "And then, I grew up. I had lots and lots of 'friends' and acquaintances, too, but they didn't really know me. How could they? I learned inauthenticity over my baby food jars." (They must be kindred spirits). My husband didn't break the legacy until he sat down in a little coffee shop over a pile of freshly-printed books and fell in love with a girl who could See...a girl who wanted to See.

There are some of us out there. We'll speak up for you. We'll show you. We'll See for you until you can See for yourself. I think the one thing I disagree with Vanci about is the idea that ALL of those people didn't have a clue what was going on. I think some of them were clueless, but I think many more were not. Vanci wrote, "I think they just fell victim to the sway of the Narcs, who are very good at their brand of hypnosis." Some, for sure, merely fell victim to the Narcs. But I still wonder about the rest...

Many thanks to Vanci at Not My Rock for the superb post.


  1. I was always hearing, "You are so lucky! Your parents are so nice." I figured I was missing something. I do believe that some of the "blind" are people who truly cannot believe that parents would treat their children that way, so it never occurs to them. There's a reason for the saying, "Truth is stranger than fiction," because fiction has to make sense. ACoNs grow up with pathological liars that excel in the art. I, too, had a lot of "friends" and acquaintances. None of them truly knew me, because I'd also learned to lie, with the end in mind of making sure all was "nice." I think many of the "blind" are people who rationalize away what is happening because if they acknowledge there's a problem, then they have to do something. If there's nothing really wrong, then they don't have to do anything. Thanks Jonsi and Vanci.

  2. Spot on. I wanted to believe no one saw... but my mother's psychologist friends were shown comics I'd drawn when I was 4 or 5 about babies getting cruelly whipped. One of them said to me recently, DURING THE SAME CONVERSATION, "He seemed to be the most involved, caring father" AND "You had a sad, abnormal childhood".

  3. "You are so lucky! Your parents are so nice." is my reality too, Judy.

    When I was younger we were very close to my NF's twin who was married to my NM's younger sister. These two were also victimized by my NPs and didn't rock the boat.

    There were two other couples that I recall, one of which we went camping with so they got a good close-up of the dysfunction. Both couples witnessed NF's rages and observed my older brother being beaten. Both A)thought my brother was a trouble maker and deserved it and B)laughed it off as, "There goes (NF's) temper again!" Eventually, both couples had my NPs turn on them for some imagined slight and were instantly out of the picture.

    I'm pretty sure there were others who had an inkling but didn't intervene.

    Even now, I seldom share my story because I'm sick of the excuses offered by people who have never even met them! "They're your parents. They're family. They're elderly. Forgive and forget. That darling old couple?"

    Meanwhile, they apparently still spread the story that I am mentally ill!

    And, yes, like Vanci, we moved A LOT until, when I was 12, we ended up in the country with no neighbours. There was no transportation other than NF's car. Even NM couldn't drive at that point, so we were essentially trapped!

  4. I'm convinced people don't *want* to address the N-level in other families. A few years back, a casual friend invited my family to her holiday open house. While there, I saw a friend of hers (a woman I had never met) banish her 5-year-old to the dark, unheated back porch for the crime of not doing a better job of taking care of her toddler brother (who was running around shrieking and destroying things like a GC). I wasn't supposed to overhear this, but I did, and as the child of an NFOO, I understood instantly what was going on. I took the hostess aside and showed her the child shivering in the dark and was told quite emphatically to mind my own business.

  5. Jonsi-
    This is a fantastic piece of analysis (not to mention writing) and an excellent read! Thank you for your thoughtful insights.
    I do want to provide a little clarity on my statement that most 'outsiders' were swayed into not seeing through the lies of the Narc's facade. I am not excusing the behavior of people who did, somehow, get close enough to know what was going on in my NFOO and chose not to act or chose to throw in with the Narcs (see my posts re: Uncle Minion.) If they saw, they should have tried to help; their inaction makes them complicit in the crimes.

    I do, however, think that a great majority (not neccesarily ALL) of the people who developed superficial or social relationships with the NFOO (teachers whose class I was in for a year or less, short-term neighbors, Girl Scout leaders, etc...) probably never saw enough evidence of abuse to really know what was going on behind closed doors. Maybe they saw glimpses or had intuitions about something being 'off,' but we are a society that protects the rights of parents (no matter how bad) before the rights of children, so I would imagine that those folks didn't want to create a ruckus over insubstantial 'evidence.' At any rate, we were never allowed to know any of those outsiders for more than a year, year and half tops, so I'm guessing that if we'd stuck around any of those people, they would have had to act eventually. (And I like to sleep at night, so maybe I just have to tell myself that they would have!)
    But I do believe that this lack of any long term contact with outside responsible adults was designed and constructed by the Narcs to specifically prevent any 'outsider' being able to see the mess for what it was and potentially 'interfere.'

    Again, NOT an excuse for those who might have known what was going on and did nothing. That's abhorrent.


  6. The isolation imposed in a variety of ways (be it physically changing locations, keeping "acquaintances" at arms length, the "rules" of a narcissistic foo-the child can NEVER disclose to 'outsiders' what happens in the foo etc.) ensures the child remains quarantined from the very people that MAY have been able to assist us-given a chance. However, the "nice people" persona presented to the world at large also is a huge impediment to the child speaking the truth.....who is the 'outside' world gonna believe? The child? Lets get real. Vanci has nailed it.

    Because the 'love' of a narc parent is so conditional and such a precious commodity we are again thwarted from speaking up by that which is so essential to our very survival: Love and Protection. To speak the truth as a child is way too risky. Even conditional love/protection is better than nothing-or worse, incurring the wrath/annihilation by the nparent. In that respect, I have stated categorically I colluded with my MNmother. As a child there was no other recourse. As an adult terminating the relationship was the most life affirming decision I have ever made. Twenty seven years later (and old enough to be most of the folks here parent/grandparent) it continually amazes me that this young woman so beat down found what ever it takes to walk away and STAY away despite the crap that ensued.

    It is challenging minimally to attempt to explain to someone who grew up in a non-n family to fully explain the global impact these experiences have on our lives as children and later as adults. Many of the behaviors/world views we hold have been shaped by these experiences. To others, these may appear maladaptive etc. but in reality IMO they're not....they are fundamental survival mechanisms. What we came from was screwed up....but that doesn't mean we are.

    We were just trying to survive. That we did is a testament to how resourceful we were and continue to be despite it all. Even now speaking our truth isn't likely to engender a whole lot of support from the world out there and that's OK with me.

    The world 'out there' wasn't there while growing up. I don't expect others to 'be there' now. I survived and ultimately thrived without any kind of confirmation from others in general. But I want to honor my late DH and his acceptance and unconditional love as instrumental in supporting me on this journey. He didn't have to understand it....just validate my experience and personhood.

    It made an indescribable difference.