The Golden Child

Sometimes in families, there are legitimate, practical reasons to favour one sibling over another, while the parents still love both. To take a convenient example from cinema, consider how, in The Godfather, Michael Corleone is chosen over his older brother, Fredo, to succeed Don Vito as the head of the family business. Feckless Fredo is too weak and stupid to run the dangerous business of a mafia family; his younger brother, however, has proven himself not only strong and smart, but also level-headed, unlike the oldest brother, Sonny, whose hot-headedness gets him killed.

Now, one of course would be hard-pressed to find examples of fairness in families even approaching perfection; but in families with narcissistic parents, sons and daughters are either favoured or slighted based on probably the most illegitimate reason one could think up–how much, or how little, narcissistic supply is given to the ego-driven parent.

Kids often learn early on how to get in the good graces of a narcissistic parent; what they don’t and cannot learn is that these good graces aren’t real love. Normal parents love their kids regardless of what their kids may say or do to frustrate them. The narcissistic parent, however, will hold grudges against his or her kids’ failure to provide narcissistic supply, or worse, the kids’ causing of narcissistic injury.

Narcissistic rage may prompt explosive anger in the pathological parent: all the child can understand is that Mommy or Daddy is angry, and it’s easier to believe that the rage is justified than to acknowledge that the parent is routinely being cruel and unreasonable, a scary thing for a child to contemplate, a child who has nowhere else to go to be safe. Thus, turning against oneself (blaming/attacking oneself instead of the parent) is actually an ego defence mechanism rather than masochism on the part of the child.

The rage may also prompt a vengeful attitude in the narc parent. One effective tactic a narc may use is to engage in triangulation, pitting one kid, or kids, against the offending child by speaking as a mediator between them (i.e., spreading lies and gossip), instead of the kids directly communicating with each other. Here is where narcissistic favouritism comes in. The kids who have learned the rules of pleasing Mom or Dad, at all costs, without understanding how abnormal this family dynamic is, will become golden children. Any kid who doesn’t learn, or refuses to go along with, those rules will be branded as the family scapegoat. Everyone else backs the narc parent in scapegoating the targeted child, partly out of the pleasure of ganging up on one victim, and partly to avoid being similarly targeted in the future.

These labels of ‘golden child’ and ‘scapegoat’ aren’t always absolute: some golden children are more golden than others, and scapegoats who occasionally give narcissistic supply to their disordered parents will enjoy some ‘vacations’ from emotional abuse, or they may enjoy the relief of seeing other family members get an even worse scapegoating. What does remain fairly constant, however, is the power imbalance that the narc parent and his or her flying monkeys have over the scapegoats.

It is truly nauseating, from the scapegoat’s perspective, to see the golden child(ren), GCs, suck up to the narcissistic parent, as I had to put up with in my older sister, J. My older brothers, R. and F., were moderate GCs, and they never really kissed our (probably) narcissistic mother’s ass…certainly not the way J. did, anyway; but Mom never had it in for them the way she did for me, the identified patient of the family. A fault of mine is my brutal honesty, not something our mother took kindly to.

My sister’s allegiance to our mother was cherished, though. She would back our mother up in any situation, and believe any nonsense Mom told her; even if testimony could be given to contradict Mom, J. would take Mom’s side, every time. It was all about proving that she was the worthiest of Mom’s love.

I recall two occasions, back when I was about ten or eleven years old, when J. saw me eating a lot of bad food (burgers and fries, etc.), then accused me of hypocritically “going on and on about following the Canada Food Guide.” I NEVER DID THAT. After I told her so, on the second occasion of her self-righteous accusing, I never heard that nonsense from her again (though I’ve continued, to this day, to eat lots of bad food!).

The question, however, needs to be asked: where did J. get this idea from, that I went around preaching about the virtues of eating right? I don’t think she’d been hallucinating.

In recent years, as I’ve increasingly come to see what a liar my mother was, I found a most likely explanation: Mom and J. had been engaging in one of their many smear campaigns against me behind my back, this time complaining about my bad eating habits, all the while pretending they were worried about my health, when really they were just bashing me for its own sake (on other occasions, J. would sneer at me and snort that she thought I’d eventually become a diabetic, ffs!).

Along with this, I suspect I had said or done something to cause Mom narcissistic injury–perhaps one of my less than enthusiastic reactions (<<<last three paragraphs of Part III) to her having bought me pants, yet presenting them to me (pulling them out of the bag in a dramatic reveal) as if she’d bought me a super-cool toy, one of her many mind games–and Mom wanted to get revenge on me (as all ‘loving’ mothers do, remember) by making up a story about me preaching about following the nutritional advice of the Canada Food Guide, all to hurt my reputation in the family by making me look like a hypocrite. J. has no idea how often she was duped by our mother.

To be fair, I have no way of proving for sure that the ‘Canada Food Guide story’ was one of my mother’s many lies. Maybe J. got the story from someone else. Maybe the lie was her own invention: like narc mother, like golden child daughter. But given my mother’s well-established track record, and that I’ve never caught any of the other family members lying…only in being too credulous with Mom’s fables…abductive reasoning has served me well so far. That Mom made up the lie is by far the best explanation.

My information on these matters is inescapably limited, so I can’t demand perfect explanations; I have to settle for those that leave the fewest holes. How could the alternative explanations, of all they put me through in my life, be any better than what I’ve concluded? Seriously, am I supposed to believe that an emotionally abusive family loves me, and that all their conflicts with me have been my fault? If so, how convenient for them.

It amazes me how often Mom and J. stuck up for each other. Those two were pals in the eeriest way. She was propped up as an exemplary mother, J. as the ideal daughter, always playing the role of ‘loving family woman’. I could retch at J.’s affectation.

Heinz Kohut wrote of how a narcissistically disordered person results from a failure in parental empathy, which is like nutrition for a child’s grandiosity and exhibitionism. When parents give sufficient empathy, and the child’s frustrations are bearable (i.e., given in small doses over time), the child’s resulting transmuting internalization can help him to tone down his wild grandiosity and develop healthy, realistic narcissism.

When, however, one parent fails to give a child the needed empathic mirroring, the child will turn to the other parent to compensate, perhaps in the form of an idealized parent imago; if neither parent mirrors or merges with the child’s grandiosity, his still-unrealistic, immature sense of narcissism could split vertically (disavowed and–I believe–projected narcissism) and horizontally (repressed narcissism). See Kohut, page 185, diagram and note, for more information.

In The Restoration of the Self, Kohut writes of a patient (Mr. X) whose pathological narcissism resulted from a conditionally empathic merging with his mother, provided that he always be no more than an extension of her (such a parent/child relationship being typical of narcissistic parents), and that he regard his father as inferior, a rejecting of his unconscious wish to have his father as an ideal introjected into his mind. As a result, Mr. X’s self was split vertically, with his grandiose merging with his mother, and horizontally, with his unrealized wish to idealize his father repressed into his unconscious (Kohut, pages 205-219).

I believe something similar happened with J., though she assuredly never developed Mr. X’s pathologies as described in Kohut’s book. I believe J., as a child, was traumatically disappointed in our grumpy, ultra-conservative father, possibly in part from our mother encouraging a derisive attitude towards him, however indirectly and subtly, in Mom’s usual mode (causing her to repress an Oedipal wish to idealize him–horizontal split; I believe Mom also did this to my brothers, R. and F.); then, J. found that the only way she could get empathic mirroring and merging with Mom was by allowing herself to be an extension of Mom’s ego (a vertical split, with J. disavowing and denying a grandiosity I saw her nonetheless display all the time, in proudly presenting herself as the ‘ideal daughter’ and ‘loving family woman’, while sneering in disgust at the conceitedness she saw in–or, rather, projected onto–other people).

I’ve complained before of J.’s sucking up to our mother at my expense, with numerous examples (see here for a few; see also Part IV of this). For other examples of her obnoxious attitude (and of that of my mother and brothers), see here.

I’ll give yet another example. Back in the early 1990s, the family restaurant went out of business, so naturally we were all unhappy about that. Until that time, we’d had a habit of, instead of buying our milk in stores, cleaning out empty liquor bottles from the restaurant bar, filling them up with milk, and taking them home. We joked on one occasion about the neighbours imagining we were “a bunch of boozers” after seeing so many liquor bottles among our garbage over the years. I, in my early twenties at the time of the demise of the restaurant, wanted to revive that old joke, but my timing was poor.

I tactlessly joked, at the sight of all those empty bottles in the kitchen, that we as a family “would make good derelicts.” This was right on the night that we’d closed up the restaurant for the last time, so I know, I know: I opened my mouth and inserted my foot. Mom and J. could have just said, in all firmness, “C’mon, Mawr, don’t joke about such things. We’re kind of down right now.”

Instead, J. gave me the most evil of dirty looks, and Mom told me to “Shut up.” They acted as if I’d meant to be hurtful, when surely they realized that I hadn’t meant to, as inappropriate as my remark obviously was.

I bring this up not to suggest I’d said nothing wrong, but rather to point out another example of J. and her virtue signalling at my expense, all to please our mother.

The phoniness of the golden child, as I’ve said above, is nauseating to witness; but the GC’s position in the family is not without its unenviable moments, too, and this phoney act the GC puts on is at the centre of his or her problem, for the GC is pressured into putting on this act.

Narcissistic parents assign roles like golden child or scapegoat for their kids. Not only do the parents treat their kids accordingly, but they also manipulate their kids into behaving in ways consistent with their roles; this manipulation comes in the form of projective identification.

The son or daughter who is meant to embody all of the narc parent’s worst qualities is made to introject those bad traits; my mother did that to me with such things as her autism lie, describing ‘my autism’ in the language of narcissism, and making me feel totally separate and alienated from the world. The GC is made to introject all the ‘virtues’ that the narc parent imagines him/herself to have; this is done partly by flattering the GC accordingly, but also partly by pressuring him or her to embody those virtues. Our mother did this to J., who’d suffer Mom’s wrath if ever she failed to measure up.

I’ll give a crushing example of J. displeasing our Mom. When she was about twenty or twenty-one years old (I would have been fifteen or sixteen at the time), she was dating a young man with long red hair, wearing jeans and a jean jacket. This was in about the mid-80s: he was a ‘metal-head’ or ‘rocker’, not someone my parents would ever accept as a boyfriend for J.

I remember seeing him with my sister on the living room sofa, getting in the mood, when our parents weren’t at home at night (J., studying in secretarial school, was still living at home). Obviously, I had to make myself scarce.

My bedroom was in our basement at the time. From there, I could hear my mother screaming, “I am ashamed of you!” repeatedly at J. on one of those nights; for our parents had come home unexpectedly early and found the young fellow lying naked in her bed. I don’t think you need any more details about what he and J. had been doing.

Along with Mom’s screaming, I could hear J.’s weeping and shame-laden attempts to explain herself. J. had failed to be the perfect daughter she was supposed to be, even though all she’d done was something that had become pretty standard among young adult dating couples by the 1980s…not that that made any difference to our socially-conservative parents, of course.

What is interesting about this is how our father reacted. Naturally, he didn’t approve of J.’s behaviour any more than our mom did, but his anger and shock at J. were much better controlled, as I recall. He focused more on the foolishness of what J. had done (i.e., risking pregnancy or disease), and less on the ‘shameful’ aspect of it. The unkindness of his words went to this extent: “What a donkey!” he said, twice, of J. Our near-hysterical mother, in contrast, seemed to be displaying narcissistic rage at J.’s failure to be her G.C.

Years later, J. was in a relationship with the man who would become her husband (he later died of cancer–<<<scroll down to Part VII). They were living together, and I doubt it was a platonic living arrangement. Though their relationship was getting serious, and the man was a clean-cut, respectable sort that our parents would have approved of, technically they weren’t yet married, and thus they were ‘living in sin’.

Our conservative father was the only disapproving one this time, though he grudgingly tolerated J.’s living with her then-boyfriend, acquiescing to how “that’s the way people do things these days.” Dad was playing the role of protective father, while our mother was all proud, in her smug and superior attitude, of being a ‘progressive thinker’, as against Dad’s sexist double standards for J. (while having allowed R. and F., my brothers, to live with any then-girlfriends, something I doubt our father approved of, either, by the way). This was an example of Mom doing a minor smear campaign on our father.

Mom’s hypocrisy is notable in how narcissism motivated both contradictory attitudes. Her daughter had ‘shamed the family’ by giving herself to a long-haired ‘punk’ (who, for all we know, could have cut his hair and become a ‘respectable’ member of society within a year of his breakup with J.); but now, Mom was a ‘good feminist’ for approving of this modern living arrangement with a man who–though he would prove himself a genuinely worthy husband–could have gotten J. pregnant and run off on her, for all we knew at the time.

Mom’s ‘feminism’ was nothing more than bourgeois progressivism; as long as bourgeois prejudices about ‘respectability’ weren’t challenged, J. and her not-yet husband could bonk away in bed as often as they liked. Years after J.’s ‘shame’ with the ‘punk’ in her bed, she spoke to me of the bad dating mistakes she’d made back in the 80s, with a frown of shame on her face for having displeased our mother.

J.’s haughty, self-righteous attitude toward me should be seen in light of her need to conform with our mother’s expectations of her. In my private thoughts, I always sent J.’s contempt of me back at her whenever I contemplated her chronic need to conform socially (while requiring me also to conform); now I can understand her psychological motivations for doing so. J.’s phoney virtue signalling was indeed an act she was putting on, the False Self she was required to adopt to fulfill Mom’s need for her to embody all the virtues Mom deluded herself into thinking she had. She needed J. to manifest them publicly, so Mom could watch and identify with her, and thus smile with pride at her daughter, her ‘mini-me’.

Similarly, I as the identified patient was also playing a phoney role our mother required of me, so she could be exorcised of her narcissistic demons by projecting them onto me. The scapegoat role is a False Self that I must dispel from my life; I must rediscover the real me that the family never wanted me to be.

Also, Dear Reader, if any of these issues apply to you, you must work to dispel the False Self you were required to be by your disordered parents or ex-partner, be that phoney role the scapegoat or the golden child (the good role of the idealize phase, or the bad one of the devalue/discard phase, respectively, if it was your ex who abused you). You get to decide who you really are, remember, not those people who programmed your brain for their not-so-noble purposes.

Stay authentic, my friends.

11 thoughts on “The Golden Child

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