A Chance to Undo the Damage

“She told me that Henry showed signs of narcissistic personality disorder. For Cathy she suggested a possible diagnosis of borderline personality disorder.  Women with borderline personality disorder are emotionally unstable and intensely needy, and often resort to dramatic gestures to win love and attention.

My mouth hung open…..

Leslie explained that both diagnoses refer to the behavior of people with low self-esteem, usually the result of particular childhood emotional traumas.

“Henry often spoke about his difficult relationship with his mother,” Leslie said. “She idolized him and expected him to take on a lot of the responsibility for the happiness of the family.  That’s a classic situation.”

Leslie described how, as adults, people with NPD are charismatic extroverts, but inside, in private moments, they are aware of the false social persona.  In contrast to the confident personalities they project, they are filled with self-loathing.  People like this can’t tolerate solitude because it forces them to see the true self, hidden beneath the surface.  The false persona might, however, win them many friends, sexual partners, and career success.

“And, sadly, our culture often rewards such behavior,” Leslie said, sighing.  “Deceptive behavior is very common,” she continued.  “I have another patient in this situation.  Patients like this have affairs as a way of testing the people they really love, almost to prove they are unworthy of love.”

I remembered how charming Henry had been when we met, how polite.  I had been suspicious of it at first, but he had won me over.  This same strategy had obviously worked with Cathy and other women.

Henry’s childhood experiences do not justify him being an amoral asshole as an adult.  How much compassion am I supposed to have for him?  I had an unhappy adolescence but that doesn’t give me license to lie, cheat and steal.

Leslie continued.  ” Borderline or NPD adults are both very needy, given to extreme emotional fluctuations and distortions of reality.”

“You don’t pay enough attention to me.” Henry’s frequent complaint.  “You should spend more time paying time to me and less time worrying about Liza.”

Two really messed-up people had found each other, fed off each other. In Cathy, Henry had found a ready worshiper, and in him she had found a love object with an endless need for attention.

Leslie leaned towards me. “Julie, do you mind if I ask you—what would you have done if Henry had told you about Cathy?”

“I would have divorced him so fast his head would’ve been spinning,” I snapped back.  But those were just words. Really, I didn’t know what I would have done.

“I am sorry to hear that,” Leslie said.  She lowered her gaze for a moment.  I saw that she really was sorry.  She had been rooting for him, hoping that he could repair his life.

I wondered if his death had been not a random medical event but rather the direct consequences of his choices.  I left the office with a new feeling about Henry and Cathy.  I was not ready to forgive them—my rage was not burned out yet.  But to my surprise I felt sorrow for Henry.  He had died before he had a chance to undo the damage.”

–Julie Metz, Perfection

When I first read this passage a couple of years ago,  a bell went off in my head. Of course! Of course! There are things we read that help us make sense of things. Reading it again tonight I was struck anew. When you are around people with these disorders, you get sucked into their distorted view of the world. It helps to take a step back and see things how they truly are.


A Weak Husband Living With An Excellent Woman

Greta Garbo ''The divine Woman'' 1928

Greta Garbo ”The divine Woman” 1928 (Photo credit: Movie-Fan)

“I could only wonder what sort of model husband and father he might be if he changed.  But change that elemental would come only if he hit rock bottom, such an unpleasant place for him to regard that I knew he would never reach it.  Opportunities had come and gone and Maureen was no longer willing to sacrifice another day of her future or her child’s to him, in anticipation of the day when he could admit that he was as human and vulnerable as the rest of us, no better, no worse.


He had squandered years of her life.  He had courted and married a rigorous beauty whose spirit and nature proved antithetical to his; facing her day after day must have forced a reluctant and impossible self-examination and created in him an ear-ringing panic.  A weak husband living with an excellent woman–that is enough to scare a man to death and shake him off his rails.  And he had the shame of knowing that anything he truly loved about life, when all the pretense was put aside, had come from her.  It wasn’t his.”




-Kaye Gibbons, Divining Women


Love and Three Tea Cups

sheet new manA woman came into my shop today looking for tea cups. Three tea cups, as a gift for a friend who was getting married.  Actually, remarried.  Years ago, there were three of them who lived on the same street and would get together at least once a week for cups of tea and good chocolate and talk about how horrible their marriages were.  They were all so unhappy and it helped to talk to each other and commiserate about their husbands.  Ultimately, all three of them divorced their husbands, within six months of each other.

This woman’s friend is the first of the three to find love again and since it is her second marriage she’s not doing a big celebration and has no need for all the normal gifts usually given at a first marriage.  So this customer wants to give her a special gift and is putting together a gift basket with tea, three tea cups, and some wonderful chocolate, as a reminder of their special friendship and how they helped each other through a very challenging period in their lives.

And now they can drink tea together, in peace, and happy.

We Don’t Play With Eggs in This House

Orpington chicken head

Image via Wikipedia

“One day my daughter asks me about chicken and eggs.  She wants to know how a chicken does that.  I begin to tell her about chickens, that for them it’s as easy as blowing soap bubbles, but just then Mrs. Dexter comes through the front door, carrying two sacks of groceries.  “What luck!” I say.  All my theories of education include use of audiovisual aids.

Mrs. Dexter sets the groceries on the counter and heads back out to the car for more.  I take an egg out of the refrigerator and when she comes back in I begin to follow her around the house.

As I close the distance, she begins to walk faster.  “What are you trying to do now?” she says.  She pulls a chair out behind her into my path, and begins to run for the bathroom.  I am closer, though, and cut her off.

She turns and runs for the bedroom, beginning to squawk now.  “Notice the panic,” I tell my daughter.  “That is why chickens are called chickens.”

She gets to the door and turns around in time to see what I am carrying.  Suddenly she becomes very serious and confrontational.  “Peter,”  she says, “put that egg back in the refrigerator.  We don’t play with eggs in the house.”  She says that like it’s store policy, like there is a sign over the door that says WE DON’T PLAY WITH EGGS IN THIS HOUSE.

As soon as she says it, though, Mrs. Dexter sees that she made a mistake.  She sees a man with no respect for law and order.  She tries to run, but I’m too close now.  I grab her around the waist and lift her a few inches off the ground, and carry her back into the middle of the living room.  She is kicking and biting and flapping her arms.

“The most important thing about getting chickens to lay eggs,” I tell my daughter, “is to keep them calm.  So what you should do is rub her on the beak and tell her we’re all part of the same team.”

“This is sick beyond words,” Mrs. Dexter says, and so—gently, to keep her calm–I put her back down on the floor, pull out the waist of her jeans in back, and drop the egg into her pants.
“What we’ve got now,” I explain to my daughter, “is a loaded chicken.  And what we’ve got to do is keep her from getting away and hiding her egg.  She’ll try to lay it where no one can find it, and we want her to lay it here, so we can eat it.”

My daughter says she doesn’t want to eat any egg that’s been where that one’s been.  And she no sooner says that than Mrs. Dexter runs off towards the bathroom, reaching behind her into her pants.

She steps into the bathtub and turns around, out of breath, her arms still in back trying to get the egg out.  “Look at those eyes,” I tell my daughter.  “She’s protecting her young now, and you don’t ever want to get careless around a mother hen.”

For half a second after I say that, Mrs. Dexter relaxes, and in that half-second I make my move and grab her again.  She begins pulling my hair out with her teeth.  Gently, to keep her calm, I carry her out of the bathtub and put her down on the floor.

Then I give her a little pat on the back and say, “Easy now.”

And then my daughter gives her a little pat, a little lower, and says, “Easy now,” too.  And in that moment, Mrs, Dexter quits biting my hair and jerks away.  She loses her balance and sits down on the closed toilet seat with a sound that I fear will haunt the marriage for a long time.

She stands up slowly, all the panic gone from her face.  I pull back the waist of her jeans in back and look down there.  It’s hard to believe one egg could cause that kind of mess.  My daughter looks down there too, and begins a hysterical kind of laughing  that will leave her with the hiccups the rest of the day.

Mrs. Dexter’s face seems to settle on a look somewhere between controlled anger and profound regret, although what the woman could have to regret is beyond me.

“Get out of here,” she says—not the voice you get when you call Eastern Airlines, but not unfriendly either, just sort of cool—and after my daughter and I leave the bathroom, she opens the door once and tosses out her jeans, and again to toss out her undershorts.

She takes a shower, wraps herself in a towel, and comes out of the bathroom.  I look at her face and think all is forgotten.  It might be forgotten, too, except she looks down and sees one of the dogs licking the egg off her underwear.

She sees that and turns crazy.  And when I tell her, “Hey, it’s supposed to give him a shiny coat,” she turns even crazier.  And I think for a moment she’s going Lizzy Borden on me.  She doesn’t, but the damage is done.  This is, after all, my kid’s role model.  I mean, I understand that women have their moods, but right there in front of the child?  Whatever happened to old-fashioned dignity, anyway?”

Pete Dexter, Paper Trails

We lay our sleeping lives–quote

“She asked nothing from those she loved except to be able to trust them.  Perhaps that is not nothing, perhaps it is a great deal.  I don’t know, I can’t say.  She only wanted to feel she could surrender herself, her heart and mind, into the loved person’s keeping and be safe there, not be betrayed…..they have the most power to hurt us, those we love.  We lay our sleeping lives within their arms.”

–Ruth Rendell,  The House of Stairs

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men–quote


    ” He rode with the sun coppering his face and the red wind blowing out of the west.  He turned south along the old war trail and he rode to the crest of a low rise and dismounted and dropped the reins and walked out and stood like a man come to the end of something.

There was an old horseskull in the brush and he squatted and picked it up and turned it in his hands.  Frail and brittle.  Bleached paper white.  He squatted in the long light holding it, the comicbook teeth loose in their sockets.  The joints in the cranium like a ragged welding of the bone plates.  The muted run of sand in the brainbox when he turned it.

What he loved in horses was what he loved in men, the blood and the heat of the blood that ran them.  All his reverence and all his fondness and all the leanings of his life were for the ardenthearted and they would always be so and never be otherwise.

He rode back in the dark.  The horse quickened its step.  The last of the day’s light fanned slowly upon the plain behind him and withdrew again down the edges of the world in a cooling blue of shadow and dusk and chill and a few last chitterings of birds sequestered in the dark and wiry brush.”

—–Cormac McCarthy,  All the Pretty Horses

Love Seeps into the Machinery of Life–quote

   “Love is an ancient delirium, a desire older than civilization, with taproots stretching deep into dark and mysterious days…..Love, like truth, is the unassailable defense.  Whoever first said  ‘love makes the world go around’ (it was an anonymous Frenchman) probably was not thinking about celestial mechanics, but the way Love seeps into the machinery of Life to keep generation after generation in motion.  We think of love as a positive force that somehow ennobles the one feeling it.”

—Diane Ackerman,  A Natural History of Love