He talked about himself all the time. He told us how many people loved him, admired him, and how he changed their lives. He dominated the dinner conversation quoting famous theologians and psychologists as if it was the Word of God. When I was trapped in a room with him, he inundated me with stories of how important he was, how much smarter he was than anyone else, and how he wowed people with his preaching. More people were coming to hear him and telling him that they’d never heard anyone else like him. He was the best pastor they ever had, they told him. He said.
He was able to convince a lot of people to do the things that he felt too important to do. Like mow the lawn. Paint a room. Trim the hedges. These activities were beneath him.
He spent hours beyond his normal church schedule, individually counseling others. Women would call the house and he’d disappear into his “study” and listen to them on the phone. Over dinner, he often shared the stories of people’s lives. How Martha hated her husband and had an affair. Joyce was very bad at managing money and she and her husband were deep in debt. He ridiculed people behind their backs, but to their faces, he was the caring counselor, the wise teacher, the charismatic preacher.
He flew above my childhood and teen years in that black robe with the academic stripes on his wings. He was always above me. He didn’t preach about Jesus or God’s love. He preached about self-help, psychology, the deep meaning and many layers of the psyche, and managed to find a piece of Scripture to go along with his theme. Even Mom said that people’s lives were changed. People didn’t know how they would have made it without him. My father was a very important man.
I have three brothers, all older than me. I’ve said this before. They all went through stuff. Nothing that got them into jail, but they struggled a lot. Depression is a family trait that runs through my family for generations on both sides. We all dealt with it in different ways, certainly not by getting help, real help. We didn’t actually admit we were depressed. My father dealt with his by counseling others, for which he had no credentials. He just read a lot of psychology books. He refused to go the route to get his Pastoral Counseling credentials because that would require him being supervised. He knew more about counseling than those who would supervise him, he thought. So he did it on his own.
He said he took people back to the womb. I didn’t understand why this was admirable. It seemed to me to be going backwards, instead of helping people deal with the present and the future. All four of us kids struggled with how to cope with life, ordinary life. If we wanted counseling, my father would sit down and tell us what was wrong with us. But any other help was not given. Each of us discovered early on–not comparing notes until much later– that church people were much more important to my father than his children.
He got very angry when my brothers stepped out of line. Mark lost his license for wreckless driving, dropped out of high school (he went back later and got his MBA), drank too much, wore his hair too long. I’m sure there’s more that no one told me about. He burned incense in his room, set up black lights and played his electric piano loudly with the windows open during church services next door. Don, the oldest, put his fists through doors, grew his hair long, drank too much, had some encounters with cops, and generally embarrassed my father. Don tried to get out of having to go to Vietnam by getting a psychiatrist to say he wasn’t fit. This infuriated my father. Mark and Don did not make my father look good at all. He was embarrassed. But he didn’t try to help them.
I think my parents were tired after those two. Stan didn’t get much attention, and therefore was free to get on a bus to New York City from the time he was 14 to see concerts.
As a child I suffered a lot of anxiety. I didn’t know how to handle the bullies at school. I was scared a lot. My father told me to talk to them about our problems communicating. I was 9. My southern-raised Mom taught me to be afraid of “black people” and there were a lot in my school, some of whom wanted to “beat my white butt.” I relied on the kindness of teachers to help me through and to avoid getting my butt kicked.
The Church always came first. I spent a lot of time alone. But I was around my father enough to know that women were inferior. We were good for cleaning, cooking, and making our man look good. We weren’t very smart, according to my father, and we were way too emotional. He gave Mom and me pills for that. By the time I was a teenager, I didn’t understand. I knew Church was important. I felt unworthy to be my father’s daughter, because “everybody” loved him and I didn’t.
He made me feel small, unimportant, amusing. He spoke of a natural attraction between father and daughter that disgusted me, but psychology said it. So it must be true. His words were very powerful. I believed every word he said. Even when I argued with him, underneath I “knew” I was too stupid to argue with him and he knew the Truth.
As I got older it puzzled me how a father could feel nothing for his children. He didn’t beat us, sexually abuse us. He just didn’t spend any emotion on us, apart from anger. If we defied him, suggested that we didn’t adore him like his fans did or that he wasn’t as important as he thought he was– he got angry.
How dare we suggest he was just a man. As a child, I believed it was my fault that my father couldn’t look at me with any sense of love. I adored Michael Landon and wanted a father who had an affectionate nickname for me and whose eyes would fill with tears at the sight of me. Who could say, “I’m proud of you.” It must be my fault, I thought. I must be unlovable. I am not a good daughter. I’m nothing special… “nothing to write home about,” as my father would say.
My mother spent most of her energy tending to my father’s many needs and being the exceptional pastor’s wife. She was able to share her gifts in the church on her own, without pay, but she did her pastor’s wife thing with class and creativity. Sometimes, that cheery southern smile would crash and she’d let out all the resentment and sorrow that built up in her. She’d lock herself in the bathroom, and I was charged with getting her out. Or she lay on the couch for days at a time.
But when speaking around or to me, she’d say she was just weak or emotional. She didn’t blame my father back then for running her ragged. For being too important to do his share.
As I got older, after college, I started to question. I’d suffered depression that went undiagnosed for years. What would I have to be depressed about? Our local doctor was a parishioner and adored my father. He kept testing me for mono and slapped me on the back, sending me on my way. But I always wondered, how can a father feel nothing for his children? Could we all be that bad? And how could he fool so many people into thinking that he was so kind, caring and compassionate when he made fun of them behind their backs? How could a human be so self-centered that he couldn’t actually feel any empathy toward another human being?
Everything was always about him. My father had to be the focus of attention at all times at home. How we behaved or felt or thought had to make him look good. We got punished if we made him look bad. Nobody sat me down and told me not to have sex because I could get pregnant, or get a disease, or because sex was a gift you didn’t just share with anybody you met. I was just told, “Don’t do it. And if you do do it, I’ll know.” In other words, it would make my parents look bad if I got pregnant “out of wedlock.” Or I’d just be a slut.
I was never told not to drink or smoke. But I learned from my brothers that if I got in trouble out “there” there would be dire consequences. I had my own various reasons for not wanting to do either. I hated to throw up for one thing. I also had an aunt with emphysema.
I didn’t have a lot of guidance in life growing up, the main rule was not to embarrass my father. Or to actually make him look better by achieving great things. But I felt too stupid and inept–after all, I was “just a girl,”–to do anything impressive.
Then, when I did do good things… I won a full-tuition scholarship in seminary! I passed my ordination interviews with high marks and praise from the committees. I published a sermon in a preaching journal. I got married to a really impressive human being. No matter what I did, it was never good enough. My father could not make a big deal out of anything I did. Instead, he had to prove to me that he was always better. He wasn’t impressed by the scholarship that was from the same school in which he got his doctorate. He wasn’t impressed by my grades, or my ordination “success.” He didn’t say a word about my being published in a the journal, and in fact, lost his copy of it.
It was always about him. The big events in my life were even about him. He controlled my entire wedding. He insisted on presiding. It had to be at his church. He told me where the reception would be, and 3/4 of the congregation were his friends. When I gave birth to my child, my parents invited my cousin who lived a few hours away to come visit them when they were there. The same day I gave birth, my parents visited in my hospital room with a cousin I had met only once, completely ignoring me and my need to rest.
My father is incapable of celebrating another human being, and I could never understand that. I tried so hard to impress him. But the more I tried, the more he had to assure me that he was always better. When I was a child, my mother was able to throw great birthday parties for me, but as I got older, she joined in with making my father the more important person. They couldn’t celebrate me. Somehow that took away from my father’s ego.
I went through a lot of therapy, read a lot of self-help books and still could not understand how parents could be so detached from their children. I thought I was unique. It wasn’t the therapy that got me through or any of those self-help books, but the other adults that happened across my path throughout my life. The ones who saw something good and beautiful in me, who took me seriously, who, like Sandie, even delighted in me. Ed, who taught me that God loved me. Not because I was my father’s daughter, but because I was me.
My father even went to a lot of trouble to take that away from me.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that a friend of mine casually suggested I look up Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Holy Enlightenment, Batman! Oh. My. God. My father fit the symptoms of NPD exactly. There was not one symptom that didn’t apply to him. I read more and more about it. I got books on the children of Narcissistic parents.
They had the same experiences and symptoms as me.
These people also grew up with my father.
I’ve come a long way. It doesn’t change who my father is, but it changes how I respond and relate to him. Dear God, it’s not me. My father, for whatever reason, is incapable of having empathy or real love for another human being because it takes the focus off of him. He is incapable of celebrating good things that happen to someone else, or taking seriously the pain that other people go through. I realize that in spite of himself, he was able to help other people in his ministry. But he didn’t and couldn’t help any of his children. He managed to alienate all four of us.
We all have our own personal struggles. We all share low self-esteem and depression and anxiety. But all of us have managed to build good lives despite all that. But at 52, I still struggle to trust myself to make important decisions or to forgive myself when I make even small mistakes. I’m still intimidated by people in authority and suffer from general anxiety. I struggle with depression.
I was a pastor for 19 years and I do believe I was called to it. I think I was even good at it. But I was never able to make a livable salary and the inherited need to be liked and to please people could kill you in the Church. In my father’s eyes, I failed. It’s taken me almost ten years to realize I did the best I could. I can’t go to church without feeling pain and rejection, so I stay home. I struggle to have a healthy relationship with God, and my brothers have given up on that.
My parents are 89 and declining. They’ve always seemed to believe that if they were good enough, impressive enough, and did all the right things that they would never die. When people got sick, my parents thought they must have done something wrong. When they died, it was somehow a failure. The other day my father told my brother, “I’ve decided it’s ok to die.” As if the universe was awaiting his approval.
My father has no inhibitions at 89. He blurts out his judgmental and superior thoughts quite loudly now in public places, embarrassing only himself now. But he doesn’t know enough to be embarrassed. He never did. My mother’s dementia is a source of shame and failure to him, and he has no compassion for her. We all do our best to do what we can for them.
But in the end, the emperor is naked. And he doesn’t even realize it.