When you look at patterns within dysfunctional family systems, without fail, you will find the hallmark of a false narrative. The engine of the family system runs on untruths, half-truths, and constructed reality. And it doesn’t start where your story begins. It starts with the stories of your parents.
Abuse flourishes in the fertile soil of past abuse
My parents grew up in similar systems to mine and in many cases, even worse. My parents had the inability to be emotionally available. That may be the understatement of the year. They were totally checked out, unable to meet even the most basic emotional needs of each other or of their children. Even friendships were affected. It screwed up every single relationship in their lives.
They did not know how to express love or encouragement. They did not see their children as separate people with opinions, talents and hopes and dreams. My parents acted out of what they knew. Lest you think this is an excuse for the behaviors they CHOSE, let me absolve you of that notion. I am simply looking at the pattern of a false narrative that grows from the seeds of abuse.
My father was the third child in a huge family of twelve. Born at an awkward time in history, he was too young to serve in World War II and too old to be a part of the cataclysmic changes of the 1960s. This small slice of Americans born in the years after the depression, but before the war, were known as the silent generation. That is an apt description. My father was full of simmering, silent rage. It was the way he dealt with problems. A small conflict would turn into a slow boil.
My mother was usually the one who turned up the heat by dropping sharp comments here and there. Things would escalate into a blistering argument as her comments turned into a steady stream of emotional and verbal harassment. Finally, my father would explode—effectively shutting down any and all opposition. Both parties would retreat to their corners and silence would reign supreme. My brother and I hid during these painful engagements. We knew that after a few days, the silence would dissipate and the usual routine continues, at least until the next round. In my house, any expression of emotion was dangerous. We learned that lesson very early, but my father learned it first from his own family of origin.
I held the pinwheel up and watched as the breeze spun its wondrous colors so fast they turned into a blur. The whirring sound was comforting. I tried to offer it to my brother, but he just shook his head.
“That’s all right. You keep it.” I sighed and continued to watch as the pinwheel spun on its tiny axle.
When we arrived at our grandparents, the cousins ran out to greet us. There was a gaggle of five that were all about the same age. We were the children of the oldest siblings and spent many hours together. My grandmother had made a big pot of vegetable soup and we all trooped into the house together.
My father and his brothers started joking the second we arrived. “Y’all remember how many chiggers we used to get growing up?” (Chiggers are similar to ticks.)
“Man,” said Uncle Devon. “We were covered with those things.”
I had never seen a chigger but often heard my father talk about them. I had heard him talk about a lot of things. As he related the stories of his childhood over the years, he saw himself as Tom Sawyer enjoying exciting adventures. Much later, I realized they were stories of abuse.
How my father could continue relationships with his family as if all the abuse were just a normal part of growing up is beyond me. People accepted things that should not have been accepted and created a false narrative in order to live with it.
“We got boils from all the nastiness of our house,” my father said. “I used to get them on my neck and had to have them cut open.” My father actually laughed when he told me this. “By the time I was ten years old, I was on my own so I got odd jobs around town and bought all my own clothes and anything else I needed. I only came home to sleep. I made sure I was gone early in the morning.” These were stories of my father’s “independence” and proof of how special and amazing he was.
Then, there was the violence. “Daddy had a gun he would shoot in the air whenever we got on his nerves. It didn’t take much to set him off. Sometimes, he would knock you out just for coming into the room. By the time we were teenagers, we spent most of the spring and summer sleeping out in the woods. When it was really hot, we slept on the roof.”
The chaos, emotional detachment, and violence of his home encouraged more abuse from the older siblings. “As kids, we used to walk across a train trestle daring each other to make it before the train appeared. (You would be killed if a train came. The trestle was hundreds of feet high.) Jeremy, hung me over the side by my feet one time. I was sure he was going to kill me.” He told this story with hilarity, but underneath, I could feel his rage. He and Jeremy had never gotten along.
My brother and I laughed right along with the rest of the family. Looking back, the whole thing sounds like a Dickens novel, but at the time, these stories were told as acts of bravery and derring-do.
In addition to all this, my father was born with profound physical disabilities. Born at home, in a time before antibiotics, he developed an eye infection that took his sight in one eye. He was also born with a hernia which his parents never bothered to fix. As a child, he was forced to wear a truss to keep the damage from spreading. He lived his entire childhood like that until in college, he paid for the hernia operation himself.
My Grandmother was a carrier for a neuro-muscular disease called Charco-Marie-Toothe syndrome. It causes muscle weakness, atrophy, and chronic pain. I also have the disease, so I know from personal experience how difficult it is to deal with. He told me as kids, his father forced him and his brothers to stand at the end of a giant band saw and catch lumber as it flew off the belt. Besides being life-threateningly dangerous, just thinking about this poor, skinny, disabled kid being made to stand for hours catching heavy lumber makes me want to sob. It was insanity.
Despite all this, we made the trek to go see my grandparents on a regular basis. No one ever brought up the past except to laugh or brag about it. My grandparent’s marriage was the classic example of an extremely narcissistic and violent man married to a passive enabler. Emotional depth and empathy did not exist in my father’s family. They would have been a liability to survival.
The most astounding thing was the false narrative that grew up around it. Nobody called my Grandfather out for his abuse. In fact, no one ever told the truth about anything. It is no wonder the family my father created would be filled with so much sorrow. He got it honest— as they say in the south.
This brings me to the present. My father’s life is a classic example of childhood with such deprivation and violence, it created deep and lasting scars that turned into narcissistic wounds. By the time he got to me, there was no reaching him. His true personality, sense of humor, and curiosity about life were lost. His many talents and great business sense only fed the anger of the lost little boy inside. I knew all these things about my father and at times, I experienced his good qualities. But none of that made any difference in his abuse of me. In fact, my own empathy was used against me.
I could not reach that broken little child inside him and I shouldn’t have tried. He had made a choice to rule the world like a god and he was going to have it that way come hell or high water. He was going to have it that way, even if it destroyed the people he wanted to love the most.
My father created a false narrative about himself, the world, and about our family. He created a false narrative about me and it followed me almost my entire life. I was deathly afraid of him; afraid to believe I had any worth, afraid to try, afraid to live. I was trash. He told me so. He treated me that way. These false beliefs run deep and must be faced as a part of the healing process. The child inside me longs to be loved and will do almost anything to have a relationship with a parent. Even to the point of putting up with abuse and believing a pack of lies.
I want to caution anyone who has had to deal with a narcissistic parent or a narcissist of any kind. While narcissism exists on a spectrum, if you have felt the confusion, despair, and frustration of trying to deal with such a person, you understand what I’m talking about.
No matter how much you love them, no matter how much you would do anything to get them to understand—YOU ARE POWERLESS TO CHANGE THEM.
You are playing with fire if you continue to try. It will destroy you. The narcissist will sit at your funeral and say, “I have no idea why Rebekah was so depressed. Isn’t it a shame she was just like her mother?” And my father would believe every word to the depth of his soul.
People make choices in life. The greatest gift you can give a loved one is to honor the choices they have made and move on with your own life. When you accept narcissists for who they are and begin to build a life apart from them, you will know you are making the steps you need to heal.
To defy trauma is to see the truth. To embrace joy is to live it out.
Rebekah Brown, a native of the south, now resides in the Great American West. Surviving a complicated and abusive family system makes her unique writing style insightful as well as uplifting. Rebekah is the proud mother of two and grandmother of four.