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Estranged From My Narcissistic Mom on Mother's Day

A writer describes her struggle with emotionally abusive parents

By Sunni Shepherd

When Nancy Reagan died, I wasn’t surprised to see Patti Davis, her daughter, address 20 years of estrangement from her mom. Playboy covers, behavior designed to mortify her parents, interviews about a tubal ligation in her 20s, Patti was clearly fed up with her parents and took the planet’s stage for a little back-at-ya. n

Same with Christina Crawford, the daughter of Joan Crawford. As Mommy Dearest told the world, Joan terrorized her kids with a sociopathic zeal.

And as an adult I couldn’t put down Lucky Me, the memoir of Shirley MacLaine’s daughter Sachi Parker. Her dry title says it all.

These are the famous daughters of a club I wanted no part of, had I been given the choice. And, if you’re still reading, just before Mother's Day, you might be a member, too.

Emotional Abuse

We tend to call parents who incessantly criticize and attack their child psychos, monsters, or — my term — pterodactyls, but there’s a medical name for the behavior, which applies at least to my own parents: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

People who wear the NPD crown believe themselves to be rare, a higher level of being who can blithely ignore rules (which are meant for the unwashed anyway). They use people and toss them aside like tissue when the victim no longer serves a purpose. The person with Narcissistic Personality Disorder is easy to spot once you know what to look for.

To begin with, NPDers pick on the weak and won’t waste their talons on the strong. They go after children, staff who can’t afford to quit, the waiter, a gentle neighbor, the young assistant who’s shy and so forth.

NPDers love to passive-aggressively attack a victim in front of others. An NPDer will serve veal to a vegetarian friend. An NPD boss will glowingly praise his group and pointedly neglect to include the victim.

But the NPDers are at their best delivering shriveling criticism when alone with a victim. As an adult in her 40s, my best pal once asked her NPD mom, “I have good friends, Mom, why can’t you and I get along?” Her mom’s reply? “They don’t really know you.”

NPDers are also experts at poisoning a victim’s reputation by dropping tidbits of humiliating information when the victim isn’t around. I was at dinner with an older NPD woman who announced that her new daughter-in-law “is essentially a bus driver.” (She actually flies helicopters.)

At another juncture, the same NPD woman told the room that her (other) daughter-in-law suffered from irritable bowel syndrome.

Trying to 'Fix Myself'

As a kid, I suspected my parents were off-kilter, but I wanted to be wrong. I hoped that everything my parents had leveled at me through the years — nobody likes you, blah, blah, blah — was true. I wanted to grow up and fix myself (therapy? Weight Watchers? better lipstick?), and then Mom and Dad would love me.


Nope. The outside of our home sparkled like an HGTV makeover — home in the suburbs, European cars, glitzy vacations — but the inside was a different story.

In fairness, my parents were spot-on in certain ways. They insisted I go to college and they picked up the tab. They modeled a solid work ethic that I (thank goodness) have emulated. They rocked at producing grand Christmases and birthdays. When my dad was in a good mood, his ability to crack wise fell on the Seinfeld spectrum. I picked up some of his humor and my mom — if she was in a good mood — never failed to laugh when I said something funny.

Like the famous daughters in the club, however, I am (happily) estranged from my older parents today, for solid reasons that I won’t bore you with. But let me detail two last dead giveaways to spotting an NPDer: the NPD parent will scapegoat one of their kids and choose another to be the golden child.

The scapegoated kid — having endured years of abuse — enters adult life believing she’s an utter waste of skin. The golden child — having been pampered and sheltered from birth — gets the worse deal: he enters adulthood believing he doesn’t need to change his pajamas for the riches of life to rain down upon his superhero self.

Adult golden children often live for years in their parents’ basement ill-equipped to forge an adult life. They may become NPDers themselves. Like the flu virus, NPDers have figured out how to replicate and live on to continue terrorizing the globe.

A Survivor

Today, I have teens launching into the world, a marriage to a great guy, a small group of good friends, a fantastic job and — most importantly — a car repair guy who keeps me off the side of the road. My point: Life is good. Years ago, my mom sniffed, “I always wondered how you would make it.” Now, I want to explain that champagne is in order because her cruelty had a shelf life. My time with her has expired.

I raise my glass to the survivors of NPDers. Patti, Christina, and Sachi — congrats. Adult children who managed to bloom while being attacked on all sides — congrats to you, too. Congrats to everyone who thrived even while living in the NPD jungle.

Happy Mother’s Day to the many who raised themselves.

Sunni Shepherd Sunni Shepherd is a pseudonym for a writer who lives with her husband, kids, kitty, margarita blender, and a couch potato greyhound in Washington, D.C. She chooses to write under a pen name because she has no interest in rattling the cages of the NPDers in her life. Whether encountered at home or in the workplace, Sunni encourages everyone to #StandUptoNPD. Read More
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