I published my draft by mistake. Here’s the completed post:
Because my oldest daughter is 13, we don’t read together anymore, and I miss it. She thinks reading with me is babyish, and I decided a way to lure her back in would be to pick an adult book that would appeal to kids, so I chose White Oleander.
At the start of the book, the protagonist, Astrid, is 12 years old. She spends much of the book in juvenile hall, an institution that fascinates my daughter. We drive by a “juvie” building on her way home from tutoring and she’s always peppering me with questions about it, so perfect, right?
Holy shit, White Oleander is a chilling book. It’s about a narcissistic single mother, Ingrid, who murders her ex-boyfriend leaving Astrid alone to navigate LA’s brutal foster care system. The kind of abuse Ingrid heaps on Astrid is so manipulative and insidious, at times, I felt nauseated reading the story. Part of the mind-fuck Ingrid inflicts on her daughter is she acts as if she’s a free-thinker who encourages her daughter to think for herself and make her own choices as well. Ingrid is a poet. But really, all Ingrid wants is a sidekick, a shadow, an echo, a carbon copy of herself. Ingrid uses her daughter and only connects with Astrid when she can use her. If Astrid is not useful, Ingrid dismisses her.
Ingrid, like many narcissistic mothers, abuses her daughter by “gaslighting.” Gaslighting is a term coined from a movie with Ingrid Bergman, where her partner dims the lights and when she mentions it, he tells her she’s imagining things. Gaslighting is when someone tells you that your thoughts aren’t based in reality to the point where you start to doubt your perceptions. This kind of abuse is often used with partners, but it’s especially horrific if a mother inflicts a child, because she’s so vulnerable to having her reality shaped by a parent.
A big part of a parent’s job is to validate and mirror her child’s emotions. I love this passage in Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time by Stephen Mitchell:
One of the things good parents provide for their children is a partially illusory, elaborately constructed atmosphere of safety, to allow for the establishment of “secure attachment.” Good-enough parents, to use D. W. Winnicott’s term, do not talk with young children about their own terrors, worries, and doubts. They construct a sense of buffered permanence, in which the child can discover and explore without any impinging vigilance, her own mind, her creativity, her joy in living. The terrible destructiveness of child abuse lies not just in trauma of what happens but also the tragic loss of what is not provided– protected space for psychological growth.
It is crucial that the child does not become aware of how labor intensive that protracted space is, of the enormous amount of parental activity going on behind the scenes.
A narcissistic, gaslighting parent uses her child as a receptacle for her thoughts and emotions. When a narcissistic parent is challenged by her child, she either goes into a rage or dismisses her, both are terrifying for a kid. The kid usually complies, becoming what her mother wants her to be, useful, and displays only the traits that her mother wants her to possess. Worst of all, the child believes this is who she really is.
A narcissistic mother dismisses her daughter’s emotions or concerns as petty, not valid, or not even real. To recognize gaslighting, a child has to be confident in her own vision and emotions.
White Oleander is one if the best books I’ve ever read about the complex dance of narcissistic abuse. I won’t tell you how Astrid recovers but thank God she does. At the beginning of White Oleander, Ingrid bets on a horse called Medea’s Pride to win a race. Ingrid is a Medea who tries to murder her daughter’s soul with her self-absorption, all under the guise of her devotion to her kid.
My daughter, by the way, has not stuck with me past chapter one. I’ll have to search for another way to connect.