I want vengeance on my narcissistic mother

She didn't pull the trigger, but I blame her for my brother's suicide.

Published October 6, 2005 8:45AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My brother, age 45, committed suicide this summer. He walked out into a farmer's field on a beautiful summer afternoon and shot himself in the head. Death is so absolutely final. There is no court of appeal. I cannot talk him out of it -- I can't show him that life will get better. He's dead. He'll always be dead now. In his note, he said, "My life has pretty much been a train wreck, and I'm tired of struggling."

Accepting this is hard -- really, really hard. He was put in a boarding school at age 14, then mostly spent time in jail from 18 to 34. But he was a kind, generous guy who could make me laugh so hard I'd pee my pants, and he never hurt a soul. I spent a lifetime bailing him out of trouble, and I don't regret a minute of it. He was worth every dime I ever gave him.

I blame my mother, the most narcissistic, self-centered, evil woman you can imagine. Granted, she did not pull the trigger, she did not force him to take crack cocaine, but she was never, ever there for him. Not once in his entire life. She spent a lifetime telling us how much she didn't want children -- urged us not to have any because "they're just not worth it." My brother never had a chance in this world.

Seven years ago, she went to his work site to demand that he pay her some money -- she almost cost him his job. Then she told lies about him, so that he was pretty much ostracized by the few relatives he had. She hadn't spoken to him in seven years.

When he died, she didn't even miss her regular weekend volunteer gig. I never saw her shed a tear, and found out that many, many of her friends didn't even know she'd had a son who lived nearby.

I'd been there for a visit, seven weeks before he killed himself, and I did not see it coming. My last image is of him waving at me and petting his dog at the same time. I knew his marriage was in trouble, and it scared me. But he'd stayed out of jail for 10 years, and he had a good job and a home. He was a fabulous success story in my eyes.

I'm 49, 17 years sober, happily married and reasonably well employed. I have spent years in Al-Anon and Adult Children meetings; I've done the 12 steps several times. Don't give me platitudes -- don't tell me, "If she knew better, she'd do better." That's not true, and I want to hold her accountable.

I want to give her some payback. I want to lock her out in the snow, barefoot. Maybe, if I leave her on her own enough, she'll be raped. I want to pinch her until she cries, then tell her to stop crying or I'll pinch her. I want to hurt her, shame her, lie to her, make her eat her dinner from the dog's dish. I want to steal huge chunks of her life, and as much of her money as I can. I want to beat her with a belt, an egg turner, a switch -- whatever will hurt the most.

I'm 3,000 miles away, so she's safe from physical harm. But she's right there on the other end of the phone, or I could send her an e-mail and cc a lot of people she knows. I want to tell her about every sin I can remember -- those of omission and those of commission. I want to swear, and rant, and unmask her for the nasty person she is. I want to demand acknowledgment and apologies. I want her to admit her guilt; I want her to feel guilt.

I know, though, that it will never happen. Trying to make it happen will only hurt me -- not her.

How do I get over this? He's gone -- forever and ever and ever. How come she gets off scot-free?

I have one brother left. At the age of 54 he works as a laborer and barely earns enough to pay for rent, cigarettes and booze. Luckily he lives close to me, not her.

How do I deal with this? Just changing my phone number and cutting off contact doesn't appeal. I want vengeance.


Dear J,

What does one do with this? One takes it to the gods, and then one carries it into battle and battles with it until one is exhausted.

To take vengeance on your narcissistic mother you must find fuel in your own perversity; you must wound her symbolically through your own cleansing of trauma.

You know, of course, that you're going to have to settle for something symbolic, don't you? Not forgiveness, necessarily. It can be vengeance. But it will have to be symbolic.

That does not mean it has to be nice. It just has to be legal.

And you know also that she will never feel what you want her to feel, however much you torture her? All your torture would be in vain; only you would feel it. You'd be worse off. But you can wound her symbolically just by doing well in spite of her.

I won't give you AA slogans, but I will remind you of something: We help others. That's how we get better. So you keep doing that: You help others; and you use your towering lust for vengeance as fuel to drive you forward. You do what you have done up to now, but you do it with a new and powerful energy, with the same fury and desperation that fed your drinking long ago. You use whatever is handy -- your own egotism, your own restlessness, your own doggedness or dogma, your own fear, your own thirst for control, recognition and power. You use whatever you have as fuel. You just keep doing the steps, but with a vengeance.

In that way, your every victory over her tyranny thins her blood; your head held high bows hers down; your free action binds her hands; your proud moment shames her; your sober day makes her drink; your prayer strands her from God; your laugh brings tears to her face; your every step cripples her; your every breath makes her suffocate. Your victory in life is your vengeance. Anything else is a sword in your own eye.

Feel free to want vengeance. Just know you can't have it. Not you. Not real vengeance. You can't afford it. It would blind you and maim you and leave you penniless on the street. You know the conditions of your parole: We can't afford righteous anger. I don't need to tell you about that; everything is permitted but the literal taking of vengeance. You've got to content yourself with a dance, a performance out in the field.

If we were coasting easily along in the current, maybe we could say, go ahead, take a swing at her. But an alcoholic is never coasting; we don't have that latitude. We're eking out each inch with screaming labor, we're rowing against a current of grief swollen with rage and wind-whipped with vengeance, rowing against history, rowing against time, rowing against all that light-devouring narcissism we lived with and cried in and grew up in, terrified, desolate; we're rowing, against the towering, tyrannical mother herself, rowing right into her devouring maw, rowing straight up that self-involved gullet and straight out the other side into a freedom in which every conscious action nullifies her tyranny, in which every full breath makes her strangle on its sound.

That is the only vengeance you get, the vengeance of victory over narcissistic tyranny.

So fashion for yourself a stage out in the field where your brother died, a bare wooden stage, unadorned, of dense, dry timber. Build the stage before the noon sun beats down on it, and then, when the sun is setting, take the stage with a spray of wildflowers in one hand and a pistol in the other. Slowly pace the stage, enumerating your grievances, eulogizing your brother and firing occasional shots at whoever passes near. Fire at the stars and the moon and the birds, fire into the earth where he lies buried, fire into the audience that has gathered to see you weep, fire into the trees that surround the field and the highway that runs away toward the city, fire at the house where your brother lived, fire at the past and at the future. Stalk the stage with your spray of wildflowers and your pistol and say what you've got to say about your mother and your brother and this awful thing that's brought you to this place. Tell sun, moon, stars, earth, sky. Whenever you feel the need for silence, fire another shot. If you should feel a sudden tenderness, throw a flower to the audience as it cowers before you. Continue until you're too hoarse and weary and then drop to the stage and sleep with your pistol at your side.

In the morning you can go home. Leave your pistol behind. You won't need it anymore.

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