Misery is a 1987 psychological horror novel written by Stephen King. It was adapted into a movie in 1990, directed by Rob Reiner and starring James Caan and Kathy Bates, with Lauren Bacall and Richard Farnsworth. Bates won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Annie Wilkes. A theatrical production in 2015 starred Bruce Willis and Laurie Metcalf.
Misery grew out of King’s wish to break free of the horror fiction genre (i.e., his 1984 fantasy novel, The Eyes of the Dragon), yet many of his fans wanted him to stick to horror. He was also struggling with alcohol and drugs at the time, of which the fictional drug, Novril, is a symbol. Since Novril can be seen as a pun on novel, and King once said, “Annie was my drug problem,” we can see how Novril symbolizes both his addictions and his troubled relationship with his fans.
So, the struggle that Paul Sheldon (Caan) goes through with Annie is the same struggle any artist goes through in wanting to grow and be free to express him- or herself without restrictions…yet the Annies of the world keep imposing those restrictions. Give the fans what they want. We have to please the fans. Make art to make money. Produce a commodity that will sell…or die.
Sheldon no longer wants to write his hit romance novel series, the Misery books, about the female protagonist, Misery Chastain. He’s never meant those books to be his whole life. He wants to write something new, in a bid for artistic respectability. So he has killed off Chastain in what’s meant to be the final book of the romance series, Misery’s Child; and he has just finished writing a totally new and different novel, Fast Cars (the new book is untitled in the movie).
The film begins with him having just finished typing the manuscript and smoking a cigarette; then he drives out of his Colorado hotel during the opening credits in the soon-to-be snowstorm (while we hear “Shotgun,” by Jr. Walker and the All-Stars…in the novel, he listens to a cassette of Bo Diddley–page 21) and gets into the accident that breaks his legs.
The novel, however, begins when the accident has already happened, and his legs are in agonizing pain. The pain comes and goes in cycles (page 4), which are compared to those of the rising and falling tide.
Sheldon remembers a childhood experience of being with his parents on Revere Beach. The boy saw a broken-off piling jutting up from the sand; to him, it looked like a monster’s fang. He found the sight disturbing, but as the tide came in and covered up more and more of the piling, he felt better. Once the entire piling was submerged in water, he was at peace.
But then, the tide started going out, and he could see more and more of the piling again.
Now, his broken legs feel like two broken pilings (page 7), and Annie’s pain-killing drug, Novril, is the tide that will submerge those pilings (page 10)…until it wears off, and the pilings reappear from under the water. She controls the tide, so she is the Moon-goddess, “the lunar presence” (page 10).
He finds her body solid, all too solid (page 9), like a pagan idol (pages 9 and 10). How apt for a moon-goddess. It’s important to see Annie as symbolic of a goddess, especially the Moon-goddess. For, just as the goddess that Robert Graves wrote about inspired his poetry (as Graves said, “My thesis is that the language of poetic myth anciently current in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe was a magical language bound up with popular religious ceremonies in honour of the Moon-goddess, or Muse…and that this remains the language of true poetry” pages 9-10), Annie, in her own perverse way, will inspire Sheldon to write.
Of course, her inspiration is a bad one, right from when she finds him injured in his car. Recall that inspire is derived from the Latin inspīrāre, “to breathe upon or into.” Recall how Annie breathes her halitosis into Sheldon’s mouth, which he experiences as a kind of rape. (pages 5, 6, and 7)
He is “raped back into life” (page 7), which perfectly expresses the dual nature of his relationship with her: she saves his life, yet she abuses him as well. She takes care of him, yet she tortures him. Like that lunar-influenced tide that goes up and down, she both relieves and causes his suffering.
This duality is inherent to Annie’s personality: she presents a False Self of wholesome, Christian goodness to the world, but underneath, her True Self is narcissistic, sociopathic, and emotionally dysregulated. We typically hear her use ridiculously childish euphemisms (“cock-a-doodie,” etc.), but occasionally, actual swear-words come out of her mouth, too. It has been suspected that she has bipolar disorder, her manic ups and depressive downs being symbolized by the crests and troughs of her lunar influence on the tide.
Just as Annie presents a false version of herself to the world, so does she love reading fiction that presents a false, fantasy version of the world: romance novels, Sheldon’s in particular, of course. And when he presents her with his down-to-earth, realistic view of the world in Fast Cars (or the untitled manuscript of the movie), with the coarse language of slum kids, she hates it. She hates the reality, the truth, that his new book expresses.
And this lunatic woman controls whether he feels pain or comfort. “She kept the capsules. The capsules in her hand were the tide. She was the moon, and she had brought the tide which would cover the pilings.” (page 24) Recall that the rising tide that covers up the pilings doesn’t make then non-existent–it just makes them invisible. Just as her escape from reality in reading his books doesn’t erase her pain, the dope she gives him doesn’t heal his legs–it just make their fragmentation seem unnoticeable. His novels make her forget her pain; her Novril makes him forget his.
Just as she’s breathed life into Sheldon…as God did to Adam, and he “became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7)…so does Sheldon “breathe life into her [Misery Chastain, with whom Annie identifies and sympathizes].” (page 26) Annie, the Moon-goddess, inspires him, and he inspires her with his Misery books.
Annie and Sheldon are the two characters who, in her lonely house in snowy Colorado, make up the great majority of the story. All the other characters are mere details who only briefly have their appearances. The whole novel is about the dyadic, one-on-one relationship between Annie and Sheldon.
This is a relationship cut off from the rest of society, what Lacan would have called the Imaginary. Annie and Sheldon look at each other’s faces as if looking into a metaphorical mirror. Being Sheldon’s “number one fan,” Annie idealizes him as this brilliant, god-like author (recall how he can “breathe life into [Misery]”). She is the Moon-goddess to him, and he is her god. The idealizing is mirror-like in its mutuality.
We must be careful to qualify this mutual idealizing, though. She idealizes him, but he, of course, far from willingly idealizes her, for this Moon-goddess, as we know, is an evil one. He is merely dependent on her, as a baby is on his mother. His ‘religious devotion’ to her is based on fear and need, not love. She’s his ideal only in the sense that she relieves his pain, and is the only one who will do it.
This idealization must be understood in a dialectical sense, for the shadow of hate always accompanies the light of love. Just as a baby loves what Melanie Klein called the good mother and the good breast for nourishing him, and he hates the bad mother and bad breast for failing to nourish him and for frustrating his desires, so is Sheldon split in his feelings about Annie when she feeds and cares for him, and when she neglects and abuses him.
She experiences similar splitting in her attitude towards him when he succeeds at living up to her expectations as his ideal, or fails to do so. This splitting, or black-and-white thinking, is a common trait in people with borderline personality disorder, a comorbidity presumed to be part of Annie’s personality.
Splitting is also a manifestation of the duality theme in this novel: when the tide is up, and the pilings are submerged thanks to the Novril, Annie is the good mother; when the tide is down, and Sheldon is in agonizing, piling pain because she neglects to give him his dope, she’s the bad mother. The same ups and downs can be seen whenever he pleases or displeases her. Dialectical opposites.
A number of references are made to Annie as a kind of mother figure to Sheldon, all in the split, love/hate attitude, “with that same mixture of sternness and maternal love” (page 31) we expect to see in her.
In chapter 17 of Part I, when she’s about to make him burn the Fast Cars manuscript, he calls her “the devil,” that is, she’s the bad mother. Annie retorts with “Oh yes! Yes! That’s what a child thinks when mommy comes into the kitchen and sees him playing with the cleaning fluid from under the sink. He doesn’t say it that way, of course, because he doesn’t have your education. He just says, ‘Mommy, you’re mean!'” (page 57)
Earlier, when she has finished reading Misery’s Child and realizes Sheldon has killed off her beloved heroine, she goes through a similar flip-flop of splitting by saying, “I thought you were good, but you are not good. You are just a lying old dirty birdie.” (page 46) In the film, her temper tantrum over his killing off of Misery is fittingly preceded by a shot of the full moon just outside her house.
Just as she is the Moon-goddess for him, sometimes good (feeding him, nursing him back to health, giving him Novril), and sometimes bad (obviously), so is he “God” for her, sometimes good (in his Creation of the world of Misery that she loves), and sometimes bad (in killing off Chastain). As she says to him, “God takes us when He thinks it’s time and a writer is God to the people in a story, he made them up just like God made us up and no one can get hold of God to make him explain, all right, okay, but as far as Misery goes I’ll tell you one thing you dirty bird, I’ll tell you that God just happens to have a couple of broken legs and God just happens to be in MY house eating MY food…” (page 46).
In this world, the pagan Moon-goddess is more powerful than God, for Sheldon, in his helpless convalescence, needs her as a baby needs his mother. And nobody knows this better than Sheldon himself, to his “Misery Chastain[-like]…chagrin” (page 73, my emphasis). He may be “Paul Sheldon, the literary Zeus from whose brow sprang Misery Chastain,” but Annie is the Moon-goddess on whom he depends, she whose self-control and kindness waxes and wanes.
This lunar…and lunatic…waxing and waning of goodness in Annie is typical of the cyclical nature of the abusive relationship. The provocations and tension rise between the abuser and the victim until an explosion occurs, then a fake apology is given, then there’s a ‘honeymoon‘ (interesting word-choice) of brief kindness to the victim, then the abuse begins again, creeping in insidiously with small, growing provocations. The effect this cyclical abuse has on the victim is to establish traumatic bonding: one hates and fears the abuser, but one cannot live without him or her.
Another crucial aspect of this emotional abuse is Annie’s use of projection and gaslighting, the former symbolized early on in the novel through her breathing in Sheldon’s mouth to resuscitate him. Her bad breath going into his mouth feels like a kind of oral rape, as described above: in this act, she is symbolically projecting her badness into him.
As for the gaslighting, since this exhaled projection has been accomplished, she can easily blame the victim for her temper tantrums over the profanity in Fast Cars (“Look what you made me do!” page 29, when her agitated outburst makes her spill a bowl of beef soup on Sheldon’s bedspread, then throw the bowl into the corner of the room, breaking it and splashing soup on the wall.)
She continues to blame him for the mess she’s made in the following chapter on page 30. She tortures him by not giving him his medication until she’s finished cleaning up the mess. It’s safe to assume she’s calmed down by now, but her sadism is at its height, given the agonizing pain he’s in. “The tide went out. The pilings were back.” (page 30) “He began to cry soundlessly. The tide had never gone out so far” (page 31).
And when she finally gives him his three capsules of Novril, she makes him drink them down with the dirty water from the bucket she’s used to clean up the mess: “…he saw her lifting the yellow plastic floor-bucket toward him. It filled his field of vision like a falling moon.” (page 32)
After promising never to make her mad again (“Anger the moon which brought the tide? What an idea! What a bad idea!” –page 33), she kisses him on the cheek and tells him she loves him. Nasty waxes back into ‘nice.’
While Annie is associated with the moon, she also represents all of his fans, who want him to keep churning out Misery novels. Recall that fan is short for fanatic, an overzealous religious extremist, for example. Annie, who is worshipped as a lunar deity, is also a lunatic worshipper of Sheldon’s deity. That she’s his “number one fan” just makes her all the more fanatical…just like those other women readers of Sheldon’s work, each of whom also claims to be his number one fan (page 36), protesting whenever he takes a break from Misery to write something else.
Here we come against the tension between the wish for artistic freedom vs. the unending demand to satisfy the customer to make more money. This problem is fuelled by the profit motive. The author writes not to fulfill his or her urge to be artistically expressive, but merely to make money to survive.
That Annie bullies him into resurrecting Misery Chastain with the writing of Misery’s Return is symbolic of this capitalist coercion. Sheldon is Scheherazade, desperately fighting to keep himself alive by telling stories. The capitalist commodification of labour forces all workers to sell their labour, to sell themselves, rather like prostitutes, to have money to stay alive. There’s no voluntary choice being made, in spite of the nonsense we hear from right-wing libertarians and ‘anarcho’-capitalists: we workers provide a commodity or service, or we get thrown out in the street, starve, and die.
So we see this two-way, mutual idolizing going on. Annie worships the god in Sheldon as his number one fan, and he worships her lunar, tide-controlling deity to relieve his suffering. But she, as a pagan goddess, requires sacrifices from her devotees; and the sacrifice he’ll have to make is his manuscript of Fast Cars. (pages 54-55) “So he burned his book” (page 60).
This is the first part of her stifling of his artistic freedom; the second part, of course, is reviving Misery. He has to go back to churning out product like an assembly-line worker.
She gives him a Royal electric typewriter (page 76). Just looking at the thing is giving him bad feelings. “The Royal grinned at him, promising trouble.” (page 78) The banked semicircle of keys seem like teeth in an eerie grin. What’s more, he notices “a missing n.” (page 77) The missing n, in the context of the typewriter keys’ smile, looks like a grin with a missing tooth.
The “missing tooth” might remind us of that of Trelkovsky in The Tenant, which I interpreted in my analysis of that film as symbolic of castration, a symbol in itself of any bodily mutilation, or of any lack, which gives rise to desire. Sheldon has experienced the lack of his burned manuscript, and the missing n, one of the most commonly used letters, is symbolic of his lack of freedom to write as he wishes, a restriction of his artistic expression. Annie’s abuse is symbolically a castration of him.
This symbolic castration is carried further when she hobbles him as ‘punishment’ for secretly leaving his room. Recall that in the film, she uses that huge sledgehammer to break his feet at the ankles; but in the novel, she hacks off his left foot with an axe (page 279), and cuts off his thumb with an electric knife.
That the loss of the typewriter’s “teeth” (in the novel, not just the n of the film, but also the e [page 292] and the t [page 285]) and the hacking off of his foot and thumb are symbolic of castration is not just some indulgence on my part. King himself makes such associations in the narrative by juxtaposing them all.
“Sitting here in front of this typewriter with its increasingly bad teeth…he supposed he had been his own Scheherazade, just as he was his own dream-woman when he grabbed hold of himself and jacked off to the feverish beat of his fantasies. He didn’t need a psychiatrist to point out that writing had its autoerotic side–you just beat a typewriter instead of your meat” (pages 302-303).
A little later, Sheldon muses about “…the loss of his thumb. It was horrible, but…think how much worse it could have been.” (page 303)
“It could have been his penis, for instance…he began to laugh wildly…in front of the hateful Royal with its gaptoothed grin. He laughed until his gut and stump both ached.” (page 304)
The hobbling is related to restrictions on his artistic freedom (symbolized by the freedom to move around–to think of ideas to write, Sheldon used to take walks!…pages 153, 154, 155), capitalist restrictions on freedom (i.e, wage slavery). Recall when Annie mentions how the British at the Kimberly diamond mines hobbled native workers (which is historically apocryphal) so they’d continue working without being able to steal diamonds or run away. (pages 276-277)
She restricts his freedom to write anything other than her philistine Misery books, yet she so fails to see the production of such books as a business that she imagines “the talent God gave [him]” to write such books as the opposite of a business (page 94). It’s offensive to her to think of his writing as a business.
One interesting aspect of the story, developed far more in the novel–of course–than in the movie, is how we see the writing process in operation. Sections of the novel give us scenes from Misery’s Return presented with a type font different from that of the Sheldon/Annie narrative, with the missing ns (and later, the missing ts and es) filled in. All of these letters are among the most commonly used, so again, their lack–with the need to write them in–symbolizes Sheldon’s decreasing ability to express himself freely.
Things degenerate to the point where, his writing hand swollen and painful (page 380), some of the final pages of Misery’s Return must be hastily hand-written (pages 363-364) to finish it before the increasingly inquisitive police catch up with what Annie has been doing and arrest her (She’s planned a murder/suicide for herself and Sheldon to escape the shame of the arrest).
The ironic thing about her coercing of him to write a novel he doesn’t want to write is that he eventually comes to regard this new novel as his best work…at least, of the Misery novels (page 253). Her pushing him to rewrite how it is that Misery Chastain survives the death she’s supposed to have suffered in Misery’s Child, to make it more believable, is a case in point. In this sense, Annie is being Robert Graves’s Moon-goddess after all, inspiring Sheldon to write better.
All of this good inspiration must be qualified, however. Perhaps Misery’s Return is Sheldon’s best writing yet…from a technical standpoint. It’s ‘the best’ in the sense that it is a hugely entertaining story that will delight his fans (after all, unlike in the film, in which he burns the manuscript to spite Annie, in the novel, he hides it, burning only a decoy of it, and takes it out of her house to publish it later).
Still, as commercially successful as Misery’s Return will undoubtedly be, it’s still the same philistine schlock that he finds so artistically unsatisfying. Sheldon’s regarding it as his best work is, I suspect, more of Annie’s gaslighting, traumatizing influence on him.
Now, Sheldon has his book, and Annie has hers–her scrapbook, in which she keeps newspaper clippings of all the events in her life that she deems significant. Apart from such mundane things as the announcement of her birth, her graduation from nursing school, and her being made the new head maternity ward nurse in a hospital, a disturbing theme runs throughout these clippings: death.
“FIVE DIE IN APARTMENT HOUSE FIRE” (page 229); “two copies of [Annie’s] father’s obituary” (page 231); USC STUDENT DIES IN FREAK FALL” (page 231); and so many others like these. Sheldon, as he’s flipping through the scrapbook and surmising that she has killed all these people, muses: “This is Annie’s Book of the Dead, isn’t it?” (page 235)
Just as Annie’s maternalism is a cover for her sadism, the white of the moon and its dark side, her “maternal love and tenderness” and “the total solid blackness underlying it” (page 194), so is her nursing career a cover for the serial killer she really is, her true and false selves. As with her Christian posturing, her work as a nurse is just reaction formation, a professed concern for preserving life masking a contempt for it. “Keeping up appearances is very, very important.” (page 117)
Annie, like Dr. Herbert West in Re-Animator, pretends to care about preserving and reviving life, but is really an example of what Erich Fromm called the necrophilous character, one excessively preoccupied with death. “Necrophilia in the characterological sense can be described as the passionate attraction to all that is dead, decayed, putrid, sickly; it is the passion to transform that which is alive into something unalive; to destroy for the sake of destruction; the exclusive interest in all that is purely mechanical. It is the passion to tear apart living structures. (Fromm, page 369, his emphasis)
Now Sheldon knows he’s Scheherazade, telling his Misery story to stay alive. He hates having to continue with this philistine fiction because, like Annie, he has his own narcissistic tendencies. He wants to write serious literature and be admired by the critics (pages 357-358); being a bestselling author of popular fiction–something most struggling writers (myself included) would dream of being–simply isn’t good enough for him. Both he and Annie, when looking at each other’s faces, are looking into narcissistic mirrors.
Yet he’s as addicted to writing the novel as he’s addicted to taking the Novril; writing is as much a pain-relieving, therapeutic activity as taking the pain-killing dope is.
Unlike in the film, in which the local sheriff, Buster (Farnsworth)–prompted by Sheldon’s agent, Marcia Sindell (Bacall), who in the novel is barely mentioned, except to be named Bryce (page 37)–is seen early on investigating Sheldon’s disappearance, it isn’t until late in the novel that police appear (page 316), disturbing Annie’s dyadic, one-on-one, mother/son-like relationship with Sheldon.
In his state of traumatic bonding and learned helplessness, Sheldon at first can’t scream to the cop for help (pages 320-321). When he finally does yell (pages 322-323), Annie kills the cop, then projects her guilt onto Sheldon (page 332): “You killed him. If you had kept your mouth shut, I would have sent him on his way.”
Narcissists typically defend their fragile egos from criticism by projecting and repressing the shameful parts of themselves. Annie knows the police will be back, so she hides Sheldon in her basement (page 337), a terrifying, dark place where the rats are. “Spiders down there, he thought. Mice down there. Rats down there.” (page 336) The basement represents her unconscious, where all of her ugliest, most repressed thoughts lie. “He had never been as close to her as he was then, as she carried him piggy-back down the steep stairs.” (page 337) He finds himself left in the dark realm of her madness. The police, who represent her superego, must never find him in that ugly place.
Her gaslighting of him is working. Sheldon may try to fight it off as best he can, but her projected guilt does get into him. “Did he believe that [he was responsible for the cop’s murder]? No, of course not. But there was still that strong, hurtful moment of guilt–like a quick stab-wound…The guilt stabbed quickly again and was gone.” (page 367)
Two more cops arrive, also representative of Annie’s superego. Sheldon, not knowing their names yet, calls them David and Goliath because of their relative sizes (page 366). Sheldon is out of the basement now, back in his room, so he can see the cops out from his window. He dares not yell; her control of him is absolute. His room is symbolically the preconscious, meaning he’s able to bring the truth to consciousness, to the public, but he won’t, because he’s being suppressed by her.
All these visitors, be they the cops, the taxman (“not a cop but someone IN AUTHORITY”–page 185), or “those brats” (page 376–the TV news, actually), represent the Other of society who are invading Annie’s dyadic, one-on-one world with Sheldon. All three of these groups of people are authorities of one kind or another–the news media are understood to be an ‘authority,’ of sorts, on what is happening in the world.
Such authorities are symbolically associated with Lacan’s notion of the nom, or Non! du père, the father who, as a third party, forcibly ends the dyadic mother/son relationship (the other) and brings his son out of the Oedipus complex and into the larger society (the Other). But in the mother/son role-play we see in Annie and Sheldon, it is she–not he–who doesn’t want to be pulled out of the dyadic relationship.
So instead of Sheldon having a transference of Oedipal feelings for Annie (he loathes and dreads her too much for that, of course), she, in her ‘love’ for him, is having a transference of the Jocasta complex. She won’t let go of her narcissistic monopoly on his life, the way a child who Oedipally desires one of his or her parents doesn’t want to give up hogging that parent all to him- or herself.
Annie is certainly childish enough in her narcissistic hogging of Sheldon, and in her temper tantrums and violence when she complains about the taxman, brutally kills the cop (projecting her guilt onto Sheldon), and projects her childishness onto “those [TV news] brats.” In her petulance, Annie is the Bourka Bee-Goddess, with her needle syringe stinger (pages 256-257).
The trauma she has put him through, though, means he’s stuck with the memory of her in his head. He hasn’t been traumatized once, but many times, and in a predicament from which he’s felt he can’t escape. This is the essence of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
After he’s been rescued by “David and Goliath,” and has been brought back into society–with a prosthetic foot (page 411)–Sheldon still can’t get Annie out of his head. At the end of the film, in a restaurant with Sindell, he has a brief hallucination that the approaching waitress is Annie. In the book, he imagines her leaping up from behind his sofa in his apartment. (pages 414-415)
This reliving of his trauma, an inability to differentiate between fantasy and reality, and the inability to put his trauma into words, is the essence of what Lacan called the Real. Because of this intense pain, Sheldon feels he can no longer write.
Eventually, though, he does get his writing Muse back. We see the beginnings of a new story typed in that different font (pages 419-420), but with no letters missing, because this is Sheldon writing for Sheldon, not Scheherazade writing for Annie.
He can express himself through language again, so he has escaped both the terror of the Real and the narcissism of the Imaginary, and reentered the expressive, healthy social world of the Symbolic.
His misery is over.
Stephen King, Misery, New York, Pocket Books, 1987
When I speak of bullies, I’m not limiting my meaning to the big, bad kid at school who picks on kids smaller and weaker than he is. I don’t just mean the muscleman at the beach who kicks sand in the face of a skinny man. I don’t speak only of gossips who spread false rumours to destroy their victims’ reputations.
I speak of anyone who uses intimidation, violence, and manipulation to gain power and control over others. Rape, in this sense, is a kind of bullying. Spousal abuse is. So is emotional abuse, whether in the family, at school, in the workplace, or online.
There is geopolitical bullying, too, in the form of imperialism. For example, apparently, it isn’t bad enough that there are military bases surrounding China in what John Pilger has called “a giant noose.” Nor is it bad enough that there are threatening US navy ships in the South China Sea. Or that the US was giving financial and propagandistic support to the Hong Kong rioters. Or that the Trump administration sold over a billion dollars in weapons to Taiwan to point them at China.
Now, in part because of Trump’s racist blather about the “China virus” and “kung flu,” Asian Americans have been subjected to racially-motivated attacks and hate crimes, including the recent shootings in massage parlours in Atlanta.
Other forms of geopolitical bullying include the Israeli oppression of the Palestinians, the Saudi war on Yemen, with billions of dollars in weapons sold to the Saudis by the US, the UK, Canada, and European countries. The ongoing American military presence in so much of Africa, in Iraq, and in Afghanistan are also examples of such bullying.
Erich Fromm, in his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, discusses what he called the sadistic character, that of someone given to violence towards others not just for its own sake, but for the sake of having power and control over others. “Sadistic character traits can never be understood if one isolates them from the whole character structure. They are part of a syndrome that has to be understood as a whole. For the sadistic character everything living is to be controllable; living beings become things. Or, still more accurately, living beings are transformed into living, quivering, pulsating objects of control. Their responses are forced by the one who controls them. The sadist wants to become the master of life, and hence the quality of life should be maintained in his victim. This is, in fact, what distinguishes him from the destroying person. The destroyer wants to do away with a person, to eliminate him, to destroy life itself; the sadist wants the sensation of controlling and choking life.” (Fromm, page 325)
Bullies gather in groups with a charismatic leader backed by flying monkeys and enablers. This back-up helps to perpetuate the illusion that the leader, typically a narcissist or psychopath in reality, is a good person. On the other side of the coin, these bullies paint a false picture of the victim as a victimizer, or as someone deserving of only contempt.
A historical example of such collective narcissism as a group of bullies persecuting people in the millions was Nazi Germany, with Hitler as their charismatic, but narcissistic leader, with the SS and SA as his flying monkeys and enablers. The Jews, Roma, gays, the mentally and physically disabled or ill, and political and religious opposition to Naziism were all the victims, their victimhood being rationalized by their tormentors as a kind of ‘retribution’ for having somehow ‘victimized,’ ‘polluted,’ or ‘burdened’ the ‘Aryan race.’
The point is that bullies engage in projection, pretending that their victim is the villain, in order to justify the horrible things they do. On the other hand, bullies like to fancy themselves as the ‘good guys.’ They project their viciousness and introject their victim’s goodness. Not a fair trade.
The virtues that bullies assume include a false sense of moral, intellectual, and physical superiority, while they denigrate their victims as selfish, stupid, and weak. To use the political example again, the imperialist bully countries fancy themselves as more democratic, more civilized, more modern and progressive, and more respectful of human rights. (e.g., so-called “American exceptionalism.”)
In my post, The Toxic Family of Imperialism, I compared what the Western imperialists are doing to the people, for example, in the Middle East and China to what a narcissistic family does to the assigned family scapegoat. This comparison is important in understanding how serious a problem bullying is. My political application of the problem is meant to show that bullies aren’t just bad people–they’re the worst of the worst.
The only real difference between a bully in the ordinary world and one in the upper echelons of political and corporate power is a difference in opportunity. Just because a bully at school, in the average lower or middle-class family, or at work, hasn’t terrorized anywhere near as many people as, say, a politician who orders drone bombings, who imposes starvation sanctions, or who engineers a coup d’état to replace a leftist Latin American government with a right-wing dictatorship, doesn’t mean the former kind of bully is somehow less merciless than the latter kind. If given the chance, the former would probably love to exercise power and dominance over a large number of people, because it’s in the nature of the sadistic character to enjoy stepping on as many people as possible.
Bullies enjoy exploiting unfair advantages over others rather than bettering themselves through their own personal efforts. Accordingly, they rarely pick on those their own size and strength, but go after those weaker than them. They like to twist this around and call their victims ‘wimps,’ ‘cowards,’ and ‘weaklings,’ but it is the bully who is the coward for attacking only those whom it’s easy to attack, instead of looking at him- or herself in the mirror and facing up to, and dealing with, his or her own personal problems.
To use the political analogy one more time, consider, for example, how right-wing Americans will denigrate countries like the DPRK, Cuba, Venezuela, etc., as ‘failed socialist states,’ yet fail to see the spectacular failures of their own capitalist state. If we can see this hypocrisy on a political level, we should be able to see it on a personal level, too. Just as the bullied countries aren’t really the failures, and the bullying countries are not only the cause of those failures, but also have many failures of their own, so are ordinary, individual people who are bullied not the problem, but rather, their bullies are the problem, because they’re the cause of their victims’ problems, a projection of their own pathologies.
So if you, Dear Reader, have been victimized by bullying, especially to the extent of having C-PTSD and therefore having a cruel inner critic, you need to stop blaming yourself for having suffered such victimization. You weren’t bullied because you are weak: how weak or strong you personally happen to be is irrelevant; you were bullied because bullies are assholes. Just because they can bully you, doesn’t mean they should.
You don’t need to improve yourself to be worthy of love. You’re already worthy of being loved.
Repeat to yourself these words: “The bullying wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault.” Over and over again.
It was their fault.
Bullies are the worst people in the world.
Victims, for all our faults, are far better than them. Never forget that.
In my post, Absence Makes the Mind Go Fonder, I wrote of how the low emotional intelligence of abusers in the family will cause them to say and do foolish things that go totally against their interests as far as maintaining family unity is concerned, because they value controlling the abuse victim over healing old wounds and trying to rebuild a relationship with him or her.
The abusers’ narcissistic, inflated sense of self, a False Self, causes them to have no sense of introspection. One could call it ‘the Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers,’ where the more abusive they are, the more they’re committed to a delusional belief that they are not only not abusive, but are an especially kind and loving group of people.
I have to be blunt and call these people who they are: pardon my French, but they are assholes. In fact, they are worse than assholes, for they don’t even know they’re assholes. They refuse to contemplate the very possibility that they’re assholes. At least with those of us who are victims of emotional abuse, our cruel inner critic keeps us aware of our faults; the abusers, on the other hand, seem to go through their lives thinking they’ve done nothing wrong.
I discovered this reality about my late, probably narcissistic mother, my golden child older sister, and my two older bullies…er, brothers. This group of emotional abusers actually think they’re an exemplary family.
It doesn’t matter how nice the abusers are to each other, or to their own kids, or to other people they meet out there in the world. If they scapegoat even one family member (in my family’s case, me, as well as my three cousins), they are already abusive assholes from that fact alone, because even a half-decent family would never treat their own flesh and blood, for all of his or her admitted faults, in that way.
They don’t, however, seem to know the truth of their dysfunction. Some kind of mental mechanism, some cloud, must be what they use to protect themselves from ever knowing.
Wilfred Bion, in his book, Learning From Experience, wrote of something he called -K (‘negative knowledge’), which represents a stubborn refusal to gain knowledge. He says that the origin of -K is an infantile form of envy, as Melanie Klein described it–the wish to spoil the good breast of the mother by projecting bad things into it.
This infantile envy, as with Klein’s notions of the paranoid-schizoid (PS) and depressive (D) positions, only starts with the baby; these mental states continue throughout life. Just as there’s an oscillation back and forth between PS and D (Bion notates this oscillation more or less as PS <-> D), so can there be an oscillation back and forth between envy and gratitude throughout life.
So this envy, as exacerbated in such dysfunctional families as those run by narcissistic parents, can be the source of a stubborn refusal to learn (-K) from previous mistakes, the low emotional intelligence I mentioned up at the beginning of this article. Now, according to Bion, the acquisition of knowledge (K) starts in the commensal relationship between mother and baby, the soothing container/contained relationship. As the child grows, he or she learns how to do the containing, essentially, for him- or herself, the processing of irritating raw sense data from outside into tolerable experiences and thoughts. (See here for a thorough explanation of Bion’s and other psychoanalytic concepts.)
When one grows up in a family with narcissistic parents, with golden children for siblings (either relatively so in comparison to the scapegoat, as my elder brothers were compared to me, or in the absolute sense, as with my elder sister), and oneself is made into the scapegoat, or identified patient, no such symbiotic relationship of people helping each other grow in K will exist to any substantial extent. No empathy is felt between family members competing for the love of the narcissistic parents, so there’s little containment, or soothing, of each other’s agitations and anxieties.
Instead of soothing forms of communication, which Bion described as a passing back and forth of energy through projective identification, family members pass back and forth negative energy, or negative container/contained projections and introjections. Feelings of anxiety and agitation then metastasize into what Bion called a nameless dread, or what I would simply call trauma.
Instead of communicating, family members fight, which increases mutual alienation and an aversion to learn anything from each other, to grow in K. This mutual alienation has been caused by the machinations of the narcissistic parent, who envies the sensitivity of one of his or her children, and who thus spoils the goodness of that child by using gaslighting techniques and by teaching the siblings to despise him or her.
The contempt that the golden children have for the scapegoat is rewarded with the ‘love’ that the narcissistic parent gives them for their loyalty. This ‘love’ and reassurance causes them to be smug and self-satisfied in their attitude; they never suspect that they’ve misunderstood the scapegoat, and they’re convinced of the ‘morality’ of their despicable treatment of the victim. This is the essence of -K as derived from envy.
As I would extrapolate from Bion’s explanation in Learning From Experience, the abusers, instead of cultivating a superego and having a proper sense of right and wrong, they develop a “super ego,” an inflated sense of their own worth, which makes them believe they’re too superior to learn anything with regards to their relationship with their victim…a relationship of -K and negative containment.
Bion says, “It is a super-ego that has hardly any of the characteristics of the super-ego as understood in psycho-analysis: it is a “super” ego. It is an envious assertion of moral superiority without any morals. In short it is the resultant of an envious stripping or denudation of all good…” (Bion, page 97)
The negative containment “shows itself as a superior object asserting its superiority by finding fault with everything. The most important characteristic is its hatred of any new development in the personality as if the new development were a rival to be destroyed. The emergence therefore of any tendency to search for the truth, to establish contact with reality and in short to be scientific in no matter how rudimentary a fashion is met by destructive attacks on the tendency and the reassertion of the ‘moral’ superiority…” Negative containment “asserts the moral superiority and superiority in potency of UN-learning.” (Bion, page 98)
Anything unpleasant about the abusers is projected outward and onto the victim instead of properly dealt with. This is negative containment, a passing on of negative energy, not in the hopes of having it soothed, but with the aim of making others suffer it, so the abuser doesn’t have to suffer.
The abusers imagine the negativity to be all on the shoulders of the victim, so the abusers can now kid themselves that they are normal, mentally healthy, and fully-functioning, respectable members of society.
Abusers thus don’t even know they’re assholes.
That cloud of willful unknowing protects them from contemplating the truth about themselves.
Ignorance is bliss.
One way this refusal to know things shows itself is in how the abusers refuse to acknowledge the consequences of their own actions. My mother’s lies about my supposedly having an autism spectrum disorder, described in the language of narcissism (an obvious projection of her own pathologies), resulted in the family taking the attitude it had towards me that I, with all of my own faults and peculiar childhood behaviour, was ‘born this way,’ rather than manipulated and bullied into behaving as I did.
Telling me, about nine or ten at the time, that the psychiatrist who’d examined me (or so Mom’s legend went) said I was, apart from being autistic, so extremely retarded that I should have been locked away in an asylum and they should have “thrown away the key,” my mother didn’t want to take any responsibility for the psychological damage she’d done to me. My ‘having grown out of’ this extremely inauspicious mental state was, according to her, “a miracle from God.” (She wasn’t ever religious.)
Instead of confronting how her tactless choice of words had affected the psyche of an impressionable child, she decades later modified her lie with a new and equally phoney, amateur diagnosis (in the early 2000s, when I was in my early thirties) that I have Asperger Syndrome, since it was obvious that I’ve always been far from mentally incompetent. This refusal of hers to learn from past mistakes not only proves my point about her and -K, but it was one of the things that caused my permanent estrangement from the family.
One of the other major causes of this estrangement was her insistence, back in the mid-2000s, that I–having lived in East Asia since the summer of 1996–not fly back to Canada to visit my sister and her then-terminally-ill husband because, apparently, I’m so “tactless and insensitive” that I might put my foot in my mouth and inadvertently say something to agitate and upset the already grieving couple. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to my mom that simply telling me to be careful of what I said would have sufficed; or more accurately, she didn’t seem concerned about how tactless and insensitive her own rejecting words were to me.
That infuriating, estranging incident was followed ten years later, in the mid-2010s, with a kind of reversal of roles for her and me. By this time, I’d realized just how horrifyingly habitual her lies, triangulation, smear campaigns, and divid-and-conquer tactics were that I knew I never wanted to fly home to visit her in Ontario ever again. I told her so, right after she’d told me a string of about seven lies, in a brief and blunt email. As if she’d completely forgotten having had the same rejecting attitude towards me ten years earlier, she put on this melodramatic reaction of having been so “hurt” by my email, which was really just me trying to protect myself from further mind games. Really, though, that “hurt” had just been my having caused her narcissistic injury.
Once again, she let -K come between herself and her last-born son.
My older brother, F., used to bully and terrorize me all the time when I was a kid in the 1970s and 80s. One doesn’t need to be a psychologist studying stress in early childhood to know that bullying children will cause them to develop dysfunctional, self-isolating habits; it should be common sense that constant bullying of a child will make him or her fear the world and self-isolate in order to feel safe. Emboldened by having heard Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ F. many years later, when both he and I were adults (and he, over six years older than I, therefore should have had the maturity to know better), attributed my solitary tendencies to an intrinsic vice I’d been born with rather than admitting to himself that he had always been one of the chief causes of my self-isolating.
-K strikes again!
Similarly, my elder brother, R., and elder sister, J., said and did mean, hurtful things to me over and over again throughout my adolescence and young adulthood, never contemplating the damage they were slowly but surely doing to their relationship with me, abuse usually provoked either by relatively minor things I did to annoy them (slamming doors, eating all the cereal, procrastinating with washing the dishes, or…my idiosyncratic musical tastes, FFS!!) or the desire just to have fun making me feel worthless.
J., as the chief golden child of the family, chooses to blot out all the bad things she did from her memory because of how unflattering it is to her; on the other hand, she magnifies the significance of this or that memory of her having done favours for me, as evidence of her ‘boundless love’ for me…all to flatter herself. The fact is, people tend to remember the hurtful stuff more than the helpful stuff, by a wide margin. Still, it’s inconceivable to her, R., and F. that I would remember their majority of nasty moments over their minority of nice ones.
Because of this skewed perception of how they treated me, they’ll assume my estrangement from them is based on an ‘ungrateful attitude’ on my part, rather than my having no illusions about how ‘helpful’ they’ve all been to me. J. fancies that she, during my adolescence and young adulthood, was trying to help me build self-confidence and assertiveness skills; that she constantly spoke condescendingly to me and barked verbal abuse at me whenever I tried to stick up for myself, to silence me, makes me doubt the sincerity of her ‘intentions.’
This kind of puffing up of their pride at my expense–Mom’s amateur psychiatry, J.’s trying to remake me in her image (as Mom had done to her), and R.’s and F.’s imagined superiority to me–is what I mean when I talk about the ‘Dunning-Kruger effect of abusers.’ The more vicious abusers are, the more they delude themselves into thinking they’re being kind to their victims.
Charles Bukowski once said, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” I’d say the same thing can be said about the relationship between the smug, self-satisfied abusers and the abused, who engage in endless second-guessing.
I say it’s high time that we victims of emotional abuse stopped doubting ourselves and our experience of our tormentors. If they can be cocky and over-confident, blissfully unaware of what assholes they are, then we can be reasonably confident of our understanding about what was done to us.
Just because we may have never told our bullies that they’re assholes, doesn’t mean they aren’t assholes. Their -K, and their refusal to link their mistreatment of us to our natural, estranged reaction to them, is their fault, not ours.
We didn’t deserve to be bullied just because we may have this or that fault. Legitimate anger doesn’t translate into the illegitimacy of abuse. We weren’t bullied because of defects in ourselves, but because of defects in our bullies.
Their not knowing of their defects doesn’t make those defects non-existent. In fact, their cloud of willful unknowing is what makes their defects especially apparent.
Here is another poem by my dear friend, Gerda Hovius, who’s helped me gain access to my pop songs, and an example of whose own musical talents can be heard here on YouTube. As with my discussions of other poets’ work, I’m putting her poem, “Critical Parts,” in italics to distinguish it from my own writing. Here it is:
For the love of me.
Where was I, where am I?
What is occupying me?
Do I listen to this inner voice, that is reasoning with the other parts of me?
Parts forsaken, parts withheld, parts afraid of love untold.
The rejected in me still
Bares their love.
Will it shut me down, or am I
Able to stand up?
Words are spells so use them well.
I am beholding myself.
I just want to be true tears and all, I may rise and I may fall.
As I rise some days are filled with Paradise,
As I fall I witness the darkness of the all.
My need to connect is real, I am allowed to state how I feel.
And now, for my analysis of the poem.
The poet has felt disoriented for a long time. “What is occupying” her are all her internal objects, particularly those of her parents. These are internal, mental images of all the people she’s made contact with in her life; we all have them, and they haunt our minds like ghosts in a house, influencing how we think and interact with others.
Often this “inner voice” is the censorious inner critic, reminding us of our faults, but sometimes it’s doing good, “reasoning with the other parts of” us. Tracing the voice back to its origin, we find it can be that of Klein‘s good mother or father, who give us what we want and need, or the bad mother or father, who frustrate us.
Afraid of the feelings we’ll find, we repress the “Parts forsaken, parts withheld, parts afraid of love untold.” There is ambivalence in the poet over the split parts, the good and bad mentioned in the previous paragraph, the wish for reparation; for “The rejected in me still/Bares their love.” She feels rejected and loved by those voices at the same time; to sort out this ambiguity is difficult and painful.
The poet doesn’t know if confronting these voices will be good for her, or bad: “Will it shut me down, or am I/Able to stand up?” Will the confrontation harm her, or will she be able to face her feelings, and carry on if they hurt?
“I am beholding myself.” She sees herself, as in a mirror. Is this really her, or someone else? She “just want[s] to be true, tears and all,” not some phoney person trying to look happy all the time just to please everybody.
Her moods go up and down, sometimes “Paradise,” sometimes more like hell. She needs to connect with others, and to express who she really is. She should be allowed to be her real self, happy or sad. Her critical parts shouldn’t be inhibiting her free expression, as they shouldn’t be inhibiting that of any of us. Pain must be felt and expressed freely in order to heal.
One thing that the family scapegoat, or identified patient, may find remarkable–when comparing his (or her) relationship with his toxic family to other people’s relationships with their far healthier families–is the conspicuous lack of affection the former has for his or her family, as against the healthy affection felt in normal families.
Now, something that the scapegoat has, which the flying monkeys of the toxic family don’t have, is an honest view of the lovelessness of that family. The narcissistic parents and their flying monkey sons and daughters boast of how ‘loving’ they are as a family; but such boasting is really just reaction formation, used as a cover for the family dysfunction that is their reality.
We scapegoats know that love is not just something in words–it’s mainly in actions. The toxic family can say they ‘love’ the scapegoat over and over again until they’re blue in the face, but the scapegoat who is wise to them won’t believe a word of it.
The reason we don’t believe these empty professions of love is because those who have ‘loved’ us so much keep dragging us down. Yes, even the best of families have their share of conflicts and frustrations between members, but there is no systematic degrading of one member by the others.
One way I often got dragged down by my family was that I was constantly infantilized by them. They would talk down to me as if I were an idiot, speak condescendingly to me as if I–for a long time already an adult–were ten years old, and treat my attempts to stick up for myself as if I was being ‘mouthy.’
This is one way a toxic family can retain power over the scapegoat: by making him or her feel like an eternal, overgrown child. This way, the victim feels overawed by the victimizers, never able to see past their illusory authority, and never able to fight back and free him- or herself.
If your family truly loves you, they want to help you rise as high as possible. They celebrate your every success, and they empathize with and comfort you whenever you experience a setback, failure, or otherwise heartbreaking moment.
When toxic families do these good things for you, it’s the exception, not the rule, which is, as I’ve said above, dragging you down. Healthy families dragging you down, on the other hand, is the exception to the rule…which is raising you up.
No, no family is completely good or completely evil; but the healthy ones are predominantly good, and the toxic ones are predominantly evil. So, when in an argument with your toxic family, if they mention their good moments with you, which they’ll do to manipulate you, confuse you, and guilt-trip you into falling back in line and believing their b.s., remember that those ‘good moments’ are the minority, and that they fade into insignificance compared with the many more bad moments.
Instead of celebrating my successes, my late, probably narcissistic mother tended to find ways to drag me down. Back when I was in grade four, and I was getting my first As in school, I was naturally proud to tell my parents about my new achievement; but this was around the time she started spouting off about my supposed autism. (Read here to learn about my mother’s autism lie in detail, and how I came to the conclusion that my childhood ‘diagnosis’ was all a fabrication of hers.)
In the form of a kind of back-handed compliment, she would claim that my new academic success was a manifestation of a “miracle from God” that I’d been pulled out of a state of extreme retardation (associated with ‘my autism’) to become a reasonably intelligent person. Her plan had always been to make me feel, somehow, behind everyone else. It was gaslighting at its most brutal.
Even if I really had an autism spectrum disorder, be it a mild one like Asperger Syndrome (AS) or the more severe kind she’d claimed I had, any reasonable mother who loves her child would never tell him or her that this academic success was a “miracle”: she’d just say she was proud of him. She wouldn’t prate on and on about psychiatrists recommending locking him or her up in an asylum and throwing away the key (as my mom did to me), even if the shrinks had really recommended that! My mother would have known that the psychiatrists were wrong in their judgement, and she would have tried to encourage me as best she could.
She wouldn’t have said that she wasn’t sure if I would have made a good garbageman, as she did (I’m actually a teacher). She’d have had the common sense…and the love for me…to think to herself, He doesn’t need to know what they said about him. Telling him what they said would be harmful to him.
But none of what my mom said to me was about love (though she certainly pretended she was speaking out of love!) or about common sense. It was about tricking an impressionable child into believing he was inferior to his siblings and to everyone else around him. The “miracle” had just made me a little less inferior…and I should be thankful to God for that, apparently.
Her intentions were all about dragging me down, for she didn’t want me to get any higher.
Now, that one time in my childhood was the first major time that my mother dragged me down when I was rising up. The second major time she did this was twenty to twenty-five years later, when I’d proven myself a successful, capable English teacher in East Asia, and I was about to marry my Taiwanese girlfriend, Judy. Mom decided to revive discussion of ‘my autism’ in the form of AS.
Since my life had already improved to the point where she couldn’t reasonably sustain an argument that I had ever been mentally incompetent, and since talk of miracles from God would have sounded inane to the ears of a man in his early thirties, my mom knew she had to modify her lies to make them plausible in the context of my new life situation. Hence, she shifted from talking about classical autism to the mild, socially inept form of Asperger Syndrome.
Still, it had the same effect of dragging me down: she could remind me of how awkward I was as a kid, reawaken those old feelings of pain and insecurity in me, watch me get upset, then enjoy her new source of narcissistic supply.
God forbid that I should ever cross the line and build self-confidence! The very idea that I should ever feel as though I fit in with other people was anathema to her. Small wonder she smiled like a Cheshire cat when she said that I, as a teen, had the maturity of a small child, as a young adult, had the maturity of a teen, and as a then-33-year-old, had the maturity of a 23-year-old. I was infuriated; but I’ll bet she thoroughly enjoyed making me feel that way.
The fact that I was going to marry Judy and never go back to live in southern Ontario must have been at least a huge part of Mom’s motive to drag me down like that. By no longer living near her and the rest of the family, I would no longer be controlled by them, the way they’d once controlled me, back when I was a kid living in Canada.
Mom wanted that power and control back, as did my older sister, J., Mom’s golden child and ‘mini-me,’ so using AS to stir up my old insecurities and make me feel emotionally dependent on them was a desperate, last-ditch attempt to hoover me back into the dysfunctional family relationship.
Mom, of course, wasn’t the only one in the family to drag me down. As I said above, J. was a huge contributor to the problem, always rationalizing her attitude, as Mom did, with claims that she was ‘only trying to help‘ me.
During a visit to Canada that I’d made with Judy back in about the late summer of 2001, we were all at a picnic. I had made a preference of drinking one particular drink (orange soda, as I recall), and J. decided to nag me for drinking so much of it that there’d be too little left for anyone else. I don’t think anyone else there really cared, but J. couldn’t resist making 31-year-old me feel like a 10-year-old.
As I discussed in a previous post (scroll down to Part VI), on that day at the picnic, J. also expressed distaste at the idea of me marrying Judy. Did J. think her disapproval was going to deter me from marrying the woman I love? Does J. think my marrying Judy has been the decisive factor in my not returning to Canada, when it is my family’s toxic nature that is the real decisive factor?
By hoping I wouldn’t marry Judy and would return to Canada, J. was trying to drag me down. She failed.
Another dragging-down that I experienced, back in my teens, was because of my eldest brother, R. I’ve written before of the long rant he gave about our father supposedly loving us more or less based on our academic performance. It was an absolutely nonsensical belief R. had (he having been in his early to mid twenties at the time, so one would have expected a more mature attitude from him), one I suspect our mother planted in his head when he was a kid; Dad was just trying, in his dysfunctional way, to push us to work harder at school (by shaming us, sadly, if we failed), and getting disappointed when we didn’t do better.
Anyway, as an ego defence against R.’s belief that we all thought he was “the idiot of the family” for having quit high school back in the mid-70s, he claimed that he’d known many who got high marks at school, and who were “absolute idiots.” Now granted, it was a fault of mine at the time to allow myself to be unduly influenced by the opinions and flippant attitudes of others, but I was just a kid then. R. made me believe that there was no reason to take any pride in my academic success, so I lost much of my motivation to work hard at school, thus limiting my job prospects after graduating.
My doing well at school was one of the few things I had in my teens to feel good about, and this was with Mom’s nonsense about ‘my autism,’ and her supposed worries of having to continue to take care of a ‘forty-year-old moron’ (yes, she described me with that last word) in the far-off future. R’s bruised ego was more important to him than his youngest brother’s already fragile self-confidence, and he dragged me down even further, as Mom had been doing.
The times that my other elder brother, F., dragged me down were too numerous to count, and so varying in their bullying and sadism that I hardly know where to begin listing them off. Trauma tends to make one forget many of the bad memories, so I tend to repeat the same ones over and over again. Suffice it to say, along with all the verbal abuse he (as well as that of Mom, Dad, R., and J.) had subjected me to on a regular, almost daily basis, F. was the one who got physical with me: hitting me, spitting on me, threatening beatings or (on one night) to throw me outside in the Canadian winter cold (remember that I was a kid at the time: he was much bigger than I), and so many other degradations that to him were “fun.”
The long-term psychological effects of bullying and childhood adversity have been extensively studied. The research shows that children subjected to this kind of emotional abuse suffer all kinds of problems, not only a lack of self-esteem, but also from problems relating to other people, trust issues, emotional dysregulation, and escape in such forms as maladaptive daydreaming.
The family would attribute these problems of mine to ‘my autism,’ with no empathy for me, but instead with a judgemental attitude, never taking any responsibility for the huge role they played in causing these problems. (To be fair to them, no, they weren’t responsible for all of the problems, but they were responsible to enough of an extent that they should have, but of course essentially never, acknowledged their role, and should have shown a sincerely apologetic attitude.)
My father, though not really part of the narcissist collective that the other four made up, was a seriously flawed man who dragged me down in other ways than they did. He rarely defended me against the attacks of the other four, and rarely sympathized with me over the problems they caused for me. His biggest fault, though, was his right-wing thinking, with all the attendant bigotries; and he taught me, in my youth, to think in those ways, from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s.
So while I didn’t directly suffer narcissistic abuse from him, I did suffer emotional abuse from him in the form of psychological corrupting–in this particular case, him teaching me his prejudices. Though I, in my initially liberal attitude, resisted, I eventually succumbed to an agreement with his mean-spirited attitude, through having heard an ongoing repetition of his slurs on blacks, women, socialism, etc. Those fifteen-odd years were truly lost years for me, his having dragged me down to such a base way of thinking that I now deeply regret.
His death back in 2009, I must say at the risk of sounding terribly unfilial, was a liberating moment for me, since I no longer felt I needed his approval for my beliefs. Consequently, I did something I never thought I’d ever do: go from the political centre-right to the far left, as you can surmise from my other blog posts.
So my message to you, Dear Reader, is this. Do you find yourself sitting on the fence with respect to your relationship with your family? If you feel frequently hurt by them, but you’re still not sure if the bad times are such that you consider the good times not worth putting up with the bad, ask yourself if the times they drag you down are the majority, or just the minority. Is their dragging you down more significant than their raising you up, or vice versa?
The answers to these questions should determine whether or not to go no contact with them.
Sean Veil (Evans) has been falsely accused of a triple murder and, while acquitted, he is still being hounded by police and a forensic profiler who, insisting he’s guilty, want to pin the blame on him for this and other crimes. So traumatized is Veil by this continued persecution that he films himself “24/7/52,” as he says–so he’ll always have an alibi.
The film has received some praise. Critical appreciation went to Evans, who had previously played comedic roles. David Rooney of Variety said Simpson’s direction was “executed in the style of early David Fincher,” and said Evans’ performance was “gripping.” Debbie Wiseman’s score, cinematographer Mark Garrett’s choice of cameras and lenses, and Simon Thorne’s “sharp editing” were also mentioned. Kevin Crust of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Freeze Frame is a “stylish and dystopian allegory concerned with Orwellian surveillance and intrusive government.” Crust called Evans’ performance “riveting.”
Here are a few quotes:
“Off camera is off guard.” –Sean Veil
Detective Mountjoy: You seem kind of relaxed, if you don’t mind me saying. For a man who’s about to spend the next 30 years sucking unwashed dick.
Sean Veil: You seem kinda jealous, if you don’t mind me saying.
The 24/7 surveillance of the film makes comparisons with Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four inevitable. The difference is that, instead of the authorities watching everyone everywhere, and all the time, one victim is doing it to himself. BIG BROTHER IS HAVING YOU WATCH YOURSELF.
In other words, Veil has internalized his persecutors, rather like how Winston Smith is made to internalize the worldview his tormentors impose on him, and their shaming of him. The irony of Veil’s name is in how a veil hides one’s identity, gives one privacy, yet Veil would put himself permanently on display for his protection.
To make himself easily identifiable from a distance, he even shaves his head. The combination of these idiosyncrasies of his–strapping a camera to himself whenever he’s outside, his shaved head, his paranoid mannerisms, and his pale skin–make him look, ironically and in spite of his not intending it, like the kind of freak the police would want to go after.
So in Veil we see the kind of psychological damage done to a scapegoat. A man who, though acquitted, still has had his reputation and his life destroyed by the narcissism and malevolence of his persecutors, destroyed so thoroughly that his personality is transformed from normal to the quirky, socially awkward sort that makes others suspicious.
Indeed, Saul Seger (McNeice), the forensic profiler who has written a book on murderous psychopaths called Darkness Invisible, is too proud and too solicitous of the preservation of his reputation to admit even to the possibility of being wrong about Veil. He’d commit to ruining Veil’s life just so he can continue to sell books.
Seger’s narcissism is on full display when he does a public reading to promote his book…on the tenth anniversary of the triple murder that Veil’s reputation has been stained with, the killing of three members of the Jasper family (the mother and two daughters). Seger speaks with as much self-righteousness as he does would-be authority on the inner workings of the criminal mind.
Allied with Seger’s narcissism is the sheer malignancy of Detective Louis Emeric (McGinley), a malignancy so consummate that we see him physically ill, coughing blood, throughout the movie (he is dying from lung cancer). It would seem that his malevolence is turning back against him and, as a form of bad karma, making him slowly destroy himself. He is so determined to pin a crime on Veil that he boasts of the efficacy of visualization, mentally seeing Veil do something wrong to help him catch him. This is what victimizers do: project their own viciousness onto their victims.
…and when the victimizers project, they manipulate their victims into introjecting. As Seger says to Veil when the latter is protesting his innocence at the book promotion, he is in Veil’s head. This manipulative kind of projection is what Melanie Klein called projective identification, in which one does more than merely imagine another to embody one’s projections; rather, one causes the other to manifest the projected traits.
Hence, when Veil, troubled by the police in his home about a new murder accusation (that of a prostitute from five years ago), discovers certain tapes of his are missing from his vaults (i.e., those video recordings of his that would prove he has an alibi for the new murder discovery), he is forced to flee from the police, as an actual perpetrator would. Also, just like a perp, he breaks into Seger’s home and threatens him with a knife, hoping to find evidence of a conspiracy to frame him. The guilt has been projected onto him so completely that Veil is acting like a genuinely guilty man.
A young reporter named Katie Carter (Stirling) has offered to help Veil prove his innocence, though he has refused her offer, fearing that her video recording of him will be manipulated to create the illusion of his guilt. It turns out, though his own tapes (and those of someone he’s paid to follow and record him) have proven his innocence of the prostitute murder (and a faked one of Seger), that it was Carter who accidentally killed her after a failed attempt by Carter to have the prostitute steal some of Veil’s tapes in his home during an intended sexual encounter with him there. Carter thus has attempted to frame Veil, too, and she is just as untrustworthy as everyone else around him is.
Now, just because someone is scapegoated, doesn’t mean the scapegoat always acts blamelessly; and just because someone is intensely suspicious of people doesn’t mean people are not trying to persecute him. The fact is that scapegoating changes the victim, the projective and introjective identification of guilty traits makes the victim almost believe, at least partially in his unconscious mind, that he’s indeed guilty of what he’s accused of…hence, his social awkwardness, for this is what happens to you when you feel hated and despised by the whole world.
So, when we see film of him holding a pistol (not realizing at first that it’s part of a video game in an arcade), when we see a video fragment, seen out of context, of him holding a pistol he hasn’t used to shoot Seger, Emeric, or Carter (who used it to shoot these two men and herself), and when we hear him repeat, in sobs, “I didn’t do nothing” (a double negative that technically means, ‘I did do something‘), all these things come across as Freudian slips suggesting at least an unconscious belief in one’s internalized guilt.
A faked murder of Seger is set up to accuse Veil of it, since he was in Seger’s house the night before. Later, after the tapes of Veil’s hired follower provide his alibi and free him, Carter catches Seger, takes him to Veil’s home, and there with Veil, she tries to accuse Seger of killing the Jaspers (of whom she’s secretly a family member, taking her murdered mother’s maiden name to disguise her identity), since Seger had the murder weapon in his home as a souvenir.
Seger, however, insists that it was sent to his home by Mr. Jasper, her father and the real killer of her mother and half-sisters, since they were the offspring of her mother’s trysts with another man (Mr. Jasper also killed himself on learning of the acquittal of Veil, thus making him a suspect). Seger’s choice of words, in identifying the real murderer of the family, are particularly cruel. He says that the blood of the killer runs in her veins, implying she has as much of the killer instinct as her father; it’s Seger doing projective identification of his own viciousness onto her.
Now, Carter already knows what Seger has said to be true; she has just been trying to hide it. Her claiming she was sleeping over at a friend’s house the night of the killings was, I suspect, a lie. Going by her mother’s surname instead of by Jasper is a rejection of her father and his murderous nature.
Afraid of the scandalous truth of her family being made public, Carter has been trying to set Veil up with new, fabricated evidence of his supposedly murderous proclivities. Her hiring of a prostitute, Mary Shaw, in 1998, to tempt Veil with sex and have her steal some of his tapes, failed when Mary peaked in his home and saw all the cameras and newspaper clippings of murder cases in one corner of his room, terrifying her.
This collection of clippings is of unsolved cases he’s afraid of being accused of, so he must analyze them. Their being in his home is symbolic of, once again, his introjection of the scapegoating and shaming that Seger and Emeric have imposed on him. The judge threw out the Jasper case against him ten years ago because, instead of being based on hard fact, it was a matter of trial by tabloid.
So Carter’s duplicitous pretending, on the one hand, to help Veil to win his confidence so he’ll let her, on the other hand, betray him, is a case of taking advantage of an established scapegoat in order to protect oneself from such scapegoating. In dysfunctional families, one can see this kind of despicable, cowardly behaviour in golden children towards their scapegoated siblings; if one sides with the narcissistic parent against the family victim, one needn’t fear being victimized oneself.
Carter is so committed to framing Veil that, having shot Seger in the head with her father’s gun (after having thrown it into Veil’s hands so his fingerprints are on it), she knocks Veil unconscious and, when he wakes up, she’s masturbating her now-tied-up victim while on top of him so she can rape him and, once he’s come inside her, she has ‘proof’ that he’s raped her.
In this rape we have another example of projection. She’s raping him so it will seem he’s raped her: after all, sexual stereotypes are favouring Carter over Veil in this situation. With his arms and legs tied up like this, Veil is frozen in this supine, spreadeagle position on the floor, helpless in her framing of him.
It would seem fitting now to discuss the name of the film, and what it means. Apart from the obvious pun on frame (a frame of film, and Veil’s being framed), there’s also a multiple meaning in the word freeze. When the police arrest somebody, they point a gun at him and yell “Freeze!” Also, there’s one’s reaction to a danger: fight/flight/freeze/fawn.
Veil cannot fight the police and government authorities, especially without any help–they’re too powerful. He would appear to have nowhere to flee. He cannot fawn and charm people committed to hating him. So all he can do is freeze…lie there and be helpless (as he is, tied up by Carter), hoping they’ll go away one day. Those who are scapegoated often feel this helpless and disempowered; imagine how Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning must feel, accused of treason when all they did was expose the crimes of the narcissistic powerful.
To be fair to Carter, though, she isn’t as single-minded in her determination to frame Veil. She is conflicted about it, and feels some genuine remorse. She is in tears during her last moments with him. The malignancy of some victimizers isn’t as extreme as it is in others.
Emeric demonstrates the extreme of his malignancy upon entering Veil’s home one last time, assuming that Veil’s struggling with Carter over the gun is him trying to kill her, when really he’s trying to stop her from killing herself. Emeric shoots Veil in the arm, and Carter, acknowledging he’s the only innocent person in this whole affair, redeems herself by shooting Emeric before putting the gun in her mouth and blowing her brains out.
Veil has needlessly picked up her gun, weeping and saying he “didn’t do nothing.” This is yet another example of an innocent scapegoat internalizing all the guilt imposed on him. Though his three persecutors are dead, and even Detective Mountjoy (Salmon) is convinced, by Veil’s tapes, that he’s innocent, Veil ends the film still filming himself, so consummate is the scapegoat’s unconscious introjection of a guilt he shouldn’t be feeling.
Off-camera is off-guard.
One of the ways that a toxic family justifies their abusive treatment of the scapegoat, or identified patient, is to characterize themselves as more moral, wiser, stronger, smarter, more mature, more giving, etc.,…you get the idea…than their chosen victim. Accordingly, they imagine that all their taunts, insults, scolding, condescension, verbal abuse, manipulation, and even physical threats are meant ‘to correct’ the family scapegoat, ‘to help‘ the victim to see the error of his or her ways.
Personally, I’d love to know how bullies, liars, and gaslighting narcissists can actually be in any position of moral authority, let alone be better than the scapegoat, however flawed he or she may be. Still, the victimizers manage to continue deluding themselves that they’re superior.
What’s worse, the victim has been so thoroughly manipulated into buying into the toxic family’s narrative that he or she constantly engages in second-guessing; for no matter how clear that narrative’s falsity is to see, the family’s constant lack of validation of the victim’s experiences of their mendacity is a blinding fog that causes endless pangs of self-doubt.
One thing to remember about the toxic family’s pretensions to moral superiority is they are just that–pretensions, an outward show meant to impress others. This is part of the agenda of collective narcissists. Such theatre is especially obvious in the family golden child, whose False Self of outward goodness is often a carbon copy of the False Self of the narcissistic parent.
I experienced emotional abuse from my family in the form of gaslighting: my late mother, who I have good reason to believe was a malignant narcissist, lied about me having an autism spectrum disorder in order to project her own faults onto me, to control me, and to undermine my ability to develop self-confidence–the link at the beginning of this paragraph gives the full story. Another form of the abuse I endured was bullying, a few examples of which are given in this link, as well as some from my elder siblings, Mom’s flying monkeys, <<<given in this link .
Then there was the family’s explosive rage and verbal abuse in response to usually rather minor offences of mine; and there were smear campaigns Mom made against me and my cousins, as well as her use of triangulation to replace direct communication between my siblings and me–that is, efforts made by my mother to divide the family against each other. Some loving family.
Because of all these awful things that she and my older brothers, R. and F., and my older sister, J., did to me, they who felt no empathy for me and rarely if ever respected my boundaries (and my siblings’ abusive actions were almost always defended by our mother, as hers were by them), I grew so fed up with them that I, like so many other family scapegoats, reduced all contact with them to a minimum by the 2010s, and since Mom’s death in 2016, I’ve had no contact with my siblings at all.
To them, my refusal to be involved in any way in their lives is further ‘proof’ that I’m selfish and uncaring, that I’m ‘crazy’ for imagining that our mother could ever have had any malignant intent or have lied to her family, and that, in going no contact, I’ve refused to respect the notion of preserving the ‘sanctity’ of the family unit.
Now, here’s a question for them: if we were to look beneath their surface goodness, would we see them as really being any better than I am (presuming I’m as bad as they say I am)? How is gaslighting and bullying a family member not selfish or uncaring? How are explosive anger and yelling verbal abuse, over usually little more than trifling offences, not at least temporary insanity (ira furor brevis est)? If accusing one’s mother of lying and abuse (charges far from being implausible) is crazy, surely blowing up at someone over minor provocations is much crazier.
And finally, and most significantly, NO CONTACT as a refusal to respect the need for family oneness is a two-way street, as far as my relationship with my family is concerned (i.e., they’ve been almost as no contact with me as I am with them…not that I’m complaining about that, of course!). Almost fifteen years ago, my mother claimed that I hadn’t “earned” the family’s respect because I virtually never emailed my siblings–R. and F. in particular–since my having moved from Canada to Taiwan.
What my mother conveniently omitted to mention is that R. and F. hardly ever emailed me, either: does this mean they haven’t earned my respect? I feel no affection at all for my “brothers” because their (and Mom’s and J.’s) constant, almost daily bullying of me as a child, teen, and young adult back in Canada, including countless examples of verbal abuse, insults, physical threats, and other demeaning acts on me alienated me from them. F., the physical abuser, could be particularly sadistic. Given this train wreck of a relationship, why would I want to communicate with them?
More importantly, the division between my older brothers and me (as well as that between me and J.) wasn’t so much to do with my faults as it was the fault of my triangulating mother, whose half-truths and verbal manipulations stirred up all the resentment needed to keep us all apart. Hence, she was being a hypocrite to blame the problem all on me.
R.’s, F.’s, and J.’s preservation of family unity is hardly any better than mine. They fancy themselves to be so much more loving to their respective families than I am to them. (Bear in mind here that I’m being charitable to them by assuming this goodness; for, since I know just how low they’re capable of being, who knows what ugly things they may have done, behind closed doors, to their kids over the years?) In fact, they’re only loving to those within their inner circle, not to those in the wider family.
Theirs is a conditional love–love for them is just obligation to care for others. They’d much rather love those family members who are easy to love, like F.’s daughter, who I suspect has been groomed to be the golden child of her generation. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an easy person to live with, let alone to love…but isn’t family love supposed to be unconditional? Safety from abusive treatment shouldn’t be dependent on being ‘easy to love.’
There are ways of expressing frustration with family members, being frankly angry with them, without being cruel or contemptuous; in fact, showing contempt towards those who frustrate you tends to increase, not decrease, the undesirable behaviour, because constantly harming people’s self-esteem puts them on a downward spiral of self-sabotage, not an upward one to self-improvement.
As they are with me, my siblings feel nothing but contempt for our cousins; for as I’ve discussed in so many previous posts (many of whose links are given above), our mother bashed her nephews constantly, and R., F., and J. uncritically accepted all of her bad-mouthing of our cousins. Our middle cousin, S., is suffering from paranoid delusions and hallucinations (probably brought on by an excessive marijuana-smoking habit, among other drug use, which he started in his teens), but the family won’t lift a finger to help him.
Helping the mentally ill is a daunting task, to be sure, but the family won’t even try; they certainly didn’t after I tried to help S. by confronting him with the problem directly, and after I begged Mom and J., in all futility, back in the mid-2010s to help him…yet I am the “self-centred” one.
If it upsets R., F., and J. so much that I have “given up on” them, if I’m such a low form of life for holding on to grudges, and if they’re so much better than I am about ‘doing what’s right,’ then why can’t they actually be the better people, and make efforts to patch things up with me? That is, not just try to suck me back into the family and treat me the same as before, but actually open their minds to my side of the story, and take responsibility for the role they played in our mutual alienation? Sometimes being better means admitting when one has been worse.
This doesn’t mean that I want them to contact me, of course; for though it’s only natural that I, like anyone, would want to heal family wounds and have a normal, healthy relationship with my own flesh and blood, I know that their trying to contact me would only be another attempt at hoovering me. It would be a formidable task for any of them–my three elder siblings, my nephews and niece, or anyone else in the family–to convince me that their wish to be reconciled with me is on the level.
Regardless of whether or not I’d want them to try to contact me, though, an effort far more vigorous than the two times J. tried to do so (after Mom’s death) would be needed for them to prove that they really care about me. It’s always only J., the golden child, who tries to fix things with me, and that’s only because Mom obligated her to be the ‘perfect daughter/sister/mother/aunt/etc.’ Neither R. nor F. will give the slightest thought to contacting their younger brother. Honouring the memory of our late Mom and Dad–and unlike me, R., F., and J. consider her memory more than worthy of being honoured–would demand a reconciliation of them with me, but they won’t do it.
As I said in my post on the coronavirus and its impact on them, they showed no interest in finding out if I’m OK. Granted, I didn’t contact them either, of course, but they’re supposed to be so much better than I am when it comes to caring for family. They’re supposed to have the maturity that I lack to rise above the long-held grudges, to be willing to do whatever it takes, and ‘to do what’s right.’
Don’t misinterpret my meaning. I didn’t want them to contact me then, and I still don’t want them to contact me now–I never will: I bring this all up merely to prove my point. They never loved me. And if I’m such a bad person for not loving them, they’re no better than I am. They’ve no right to judge me.
So if you, Dear Reader, find yourself traumatized by a toxic family that claims to love you, yet blames you for all (or most of) your family’s dysfunction, don’t let them shame you or guilt-trip you for choosing to distance yourself from them. You aren’t being selfish: you are protecting yourself.
Bullies and gaslighting, lying narcissists have no moral authority over you, no matter how much they posture as if they do. If all they ever do to you is make you feel bad about yourself, they aren’t loving. And if they aren’t loving, they aren’t better than you.
In fact, for all your faults, you’re probably better than they are.
Absolution a myth
Created by man
To make me into what I never was
A sinner a winner
A child like wonder
Bursting stars in my eyes
Only pain can penetrate the lies
As deliverance has fallen short
Like an angel who is a forgotten
Figure in my mind and my eyes
Listen to the wind
And sift through the lies
Am I worthy to be redeemed?
Here we find the poet struggling with feelings of shame, guilt, and low self-esteem, brought on by such demeaning authority figures as those symbolized by the Church.
There’s the hope of absolution, though it’s a hope never realized. Ostensibly, it’s meant to make one a better person, but what it really does is try to make one into what one never was: an obedient follower.
“A sinner” is supposedly redeemed and made into “a winner” and “a child like wonder” reminding one of Matthew 18:3: “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
Note how childlike is split into two separate words, indicating how far one really is from being the sweet, innocent, childlike ideal that religious authoritarianism claims it wants for us, but is really a kind of code word for obedience and conformity.
“Bursting stars in my eyes” suggests a blinding by the celestial light, the poet’s eyes exploding, being destroyed by the authority that would see for him. Learning the truth of this abusive authority is inevitably painful, hence “only pain can penetrate the lies.”
“Deliverance has fallen short” because the promises of redemption made by the authority are never kept. This having “fallen short” is like a new Fall of Man, a second falling from grace.
He feels “like an angel who is a forgotten/Figure in [his] mind and [his] eyes.” Would this forgotten angel be Lucifer, the one who used to be a great angel, but is now so disgraced as to be the Devil, his former goodness no longer remembered? Is the poet’s shame so extreme? Has the authoritarian structure harmed him that badly?
An interesting moment of ambiguity comes at the end of this last quote. “And my eyes” could end the passage about the forgotten angel, or his eyes could–in a surreal sense–“listen to the wind/And sift through the lies.” Perhaps this means that he hears a wind, the breath-like ruach, which he can’t see, because the Spirit of God is only believed to be there; it’s actually nonexistent.
In spite of the obvious unreality of the authoritarian narrative, be it literally religious or otherwise symbolic of some other kind (i.e., the authority of family, politics, etc.), he still feels the trauma of unworthiness that the narrative has imposed on him. Hence, “Am I worthy to be redeemed?”
I think he’s worthy enough not to need redemption. The question is, can those who so shamed him ever be worthy of redemption?
I have my doubts about that.
Much has been written about the troubles of living in a toxic family, by writers including myself. One parent, if not both, is a narcissist who bullies and manipulates the sons and daughters into playing roles that satisfy the narcissistic emotional needs of the parent(s), who fancy themselves to be the very personification of parental virtue.
The idea is to make the children into extensions of the parents, to receive projections of the (perceived to be) best and worst aspects of the parents’ personalities. One child may be pressured into being an idealized version of the mother and/or father (the golden child), while another child (the scapegoat) may be bullied into introjecting all of the aspects of the parents that they hate about themselves. Other children tend to be emotionally neglected (the lost child).
What exists in the microcosm, as it were, of human relationships also exists in their macrocosm, the world of geopolitics, which is what I’m focusing on here. I’ve discussed elsewhere the way capitalism brings out the narcissist in people, and I’ve also discussed how they manipulate the public to love and hate whichever countries they want to be loved or hated, something I’ve called ‘political gaslighting,’ a deliberate misrepresenting of the facts about those countries…a.k.a. propaganda.
I’d like to expand on these ideas here, while using the toxic family as a handy metaphor to describe the hegemony of US/NATO imperialism, and its deleterious effects on the rest of the world.
II: The Narcissistic Imperialist Parent Countries
Just as the narcissistic parent of a toxic family perpetuates the myth of being a loving, altruistic parent who is only concerned with the well-being of his or her children–a moral model to the community–so do the Western imperialist countries (the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the EU) imagine their rule over the world is for the benefit of everybody. They euphemistically call themselves “the international community,” rather than the plunderers of the Third World.
They fancy that they’re promoting ‘freedom and democracy,’ yet the US has by far the highest incarceration rate in the world, jailing more people than the Gulag (which even the CIA secretly acknowledged wasn’t so bad), many of the incarcerated being ‘guilty’ of smoking or selling a plant (on top of this is the use of these prisoners for what is essentially slave labour in private prisons). Then there’s the Australian military helping their police to enforce the wearing of masks and self-isolation, all because of a virus that is nowhere near as deadly as it’s made out to be.
Similarly, the IMF and World Bank claim to be helping the Third World by giving them loans, which of course the poor countries cannot pay back, leaving them in perpetual debt and giving the Western powers a convenient rationale to continue exploiting them.
And they call it democracy.
III: The Golden Child Countries
All those countries that have found favour with the Anglo-American empire include, of course, the NATO members, many of whom used to be Warsaw Pact members, but have since the 1990s been so invidiously absorbed by the capitalist West.
The stark contrast between these last-mentioned countries and the scapegoated ones is clearly shown in the buildup of NATO troops along the Russian border. The mainstream media portrays these East European countries as the victims in need of protection, and Russia as the aggressor, when anyone with eyes to see knows that the Anglo-American NATO alliance is mobbing Russia.
A similar situation is seen between, on the one side, the ‘golden child’ areas of East Asia such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and on the other side, scapegoated China, where it’s assumed that the latter is bullying and oppressing the former two, when in fact these former two are fed imperialist propaganda from the US, which uses Hong Kong and Taiwan as sticks with which to beat China.
Mike Pompeo, fond of issuing threats to any scapegoated country that defies the American empire, and even joking about having lied while in the CIA, speaks warmly of his golden child island, Taiwan, whose government has for years been obsequious to the empire, gleefully imbibing all the anti-China propaganda out there without an atom of criticism. I know this because I’ve lived here in Taiwan since the summer of 1996, and the locals bash China all the time.
Little thought is given to the fact that all of this hostility to China only pushes us closer and closer to a disastrous war, which could escalate into WWIII if Russia and Iran are involved, and which could in turn go nuclear.
IV: The Scapegoat Countries
In the toxic family, the scapegoat is the child who dares to blow the whistle and expose the family’s dysfunction, which must be kept a secret to prevent embarrassing the narcissistic parents, who otherwise would fly into rages. The same applies to the world of politics, but on a much larger scale.
The countries of the world are expected to bow before the empire. If they do, as such golden child countries as those in NATO do, they won’t fear the dangers of invasion, economic sanctions, and demonizing in the media. But if they dare chart their own paths, aspire to self-determination, or–egad!–adopt ideologies even distantly redolent of socialism…
The US was happy when Russia was weak in the 1990s, when unpopular Boris Yeltsin beat back attempts to restore communism in 1993, and when the US helped him get reelected. The West felt no discomfort when the Russian economy fell apart and millions were plunged into ruin; Russia was even allowed to be a part of the G8. But when Putin made Russia great again, so to speak, the Western powers grew indignant.
Similarly, when China was the factory of the world, supplying cheap labour to foreign businesses, all was well, in the opinion of the West. But now that China is about to overtake the US economically…
There are those countries that are scapegoated now, and there were those scapegoated countries of the past, particularly those of the past one hundred years or so. These include the much-maligned USSR, Mao‘s China, Ho Chi Minh‘s Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, East Germany, and the rest of the Soviet Bloc. Space doesn’t permit me to go into detail about these countries, so if you’re skeptical, Dear Reader, of my defence of them, please check out the links provided.
More recent casualties of imperialist smear campaigns and coups (attempted or successful) include Bolivia and Venezuela, where Morales and Maduro are portrayed in the bourgeois media as dictators, even though they’ve held perfectly democratic elections, they are loved by most of their people, and the right-wing opposition (including its violence and sabotage of these countries’ economies) is backed by the US, the OAS, and the super-rich (who covet the countries’ oil and lithium). The same kind of imperialist aggression is seen in the Hong Kong protestors being backed by the US and UK, and Taiwan receiving American weaponry with which to threaten China.
As far as the faults of these scapegoated governments were and are concerned, these faults, though they shouldn’t be denied, should be understood and dealt with in the same way a scapegoat’s faults should be in the context of a toxic family. Their right to be safe from abuse mustn’t be dependent on their perfection or near-perfection.
There’s much to criticize in the current governments of Russia, China, Vietnam, Venezuela, Syria, and Iran, just as there was in the Libyan, Bolivian, Iraqi, and Soviet governments. But none of this gives US/NATO imperialism the right to impose their way of doing things on these criticized states, just as the toxic family has no right to impose their way on the scapegoat, just because he or she has a list of irritating faults.
Whatever is to be corrected in the scapegoated countries is to be done by the people of those respective countries, not to be imposed from outside. Similarly, even the voices of the Western left, often smug in their disdain for states whose socialism isn’t deemed sufficient, should not be in any way aiding the toxic countries’ wish to overthrow these states, as a Trotskyist might want to do.
Just as the toxic family isn’t helping the scapegoat, neither are the Western powers helping the targeted countries.
V: The Lost Child Countries
These are the countries whose needs aren’t acknowledged, and are left to fester in poverty and misery. The media has far too little to say about the suffering of the people of these countries. They’re just as controlled, exploited, and manipulated by the toxic countries as are the ‘golden’ and scapegoated countries; but their masters don’t show appreciation for their subservience. Still, the ‘lost children’ are far less defiant to their masters, so they aren’t so demonized in the media.
They’re just treated as if they don’t exist.
This is the Third World.
A huge foreign, especially American, military presence has been in Africa for some time now (the rationale being counterterrorism, though the obvious solution to terrorism is an end to imperialism), but it gets little media coverage. Yemenis are starving and suffering a cholera epidemic thanks to a war waged on them by Saudi Arabia (with weapons sold to the Saudis by the US, Canada, the UK, France, etc.), but these horrors don’t get enough acknowledgement in the media.
So, what is to be done?
I ended my post, The Narcissism of Capital, with a recommendation of going NO CONTACT with these sociopathic leaders, but I didn’t mean that to be taken literally. I just meant that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be influenced by them anymore. Much more will have to be done than just ignoring them, if we’re to save ourselves and our planet.
When the Western powers speak of the need for regime change in the scapegoated countries, they are like the toxic family who project their faults onto the scapegoated children. The toxic countries narcissistically fancy themselves to be the guardians of freedom and human rights, yet someone like Assange is persecuted for simply exposing their crimes, as all journalists should be free to do.
The toxic countries project the guilt of their human rights abuses onto the scapegoated countries, while being allies and business partners with other corrupt human rights abusers like Saudi Arabia (more ‘golden child’ countries). Since the toxic countries demand regime change for those countries onto which they project their faults, then we can say, with a clear conscience, that it’s high time for some ‘regime change,’ if you will, for the toxic countries. It’s time for revolution.
Taking the power from the toxic countries doesn’t mean we, the revolutionaries, are ‘no better’ than they are, as one idiot commented on my conclusion in this post; only if we replaced the toxic regimes with equally toxic ones would we not be better. We must replace them with workers’ states, effecting a transition from bourgeois rule to real democracy.
If words like ‘communism,’ ‘Marxism,’ and ‘socialism’ make you uncomfortable, Dear Reader, then call the new system ‘daffodils’ instead. There, that doesn’t sound so ‘totalitarian,’ does it?