Recently, I was talking about one of my most favorite memoirs ever, “Drinking: A Love Story” by Caroline Knapp. I’ve read it multiple times, partly because the inner workings of the mind of an alcoholic fascinated me (both before and now) but also because I completely fell in love with the author. She wrote recognizable words about alcoholism; she made it easy to see that even good, intelligent people can be horribly flawed. I read this in the past and thought, “Okay. There’s a chance PC will hit rock bottom and stop drinking one day…”
Anyhow, I started to read this book again, with the realization that I knew the book by heart. So I started searching, out of curiosity, for books under the search term “memoirs about narcissists.” And I came across “Web of Lies” by Sarah Tate. It only had four reviews (all good though) and was only $4.99 so I thought I’d give it a whirl even though the first couple paragraphs didn’t overly impress me.
Web of Lies? Basically like reading about my life.
Sarah’s story is not exactly like mine. She’s from Switzerland, married a much older man when she was younger, and Bill–her narcissistic husband–is painted as a lot more charming than PC. But in many other ways, the path she follows and the delicate happenings that pull her tighter and tighter into his grip are so utterly recognizable that I could not put the book down. 499 pages read in under 24 hours (sorry kids, its “make your own dinner” night…)
And this tale begs the question…are all narcissists alike?
Wining and dining? In the beginning, Sarah is blown away when Bill gives her the full court press. Money is no object. His interest in her is overwhelming, but flattering. He makes her feel safe and desired. So, Bill whisked Sarah off to European islands and PC took me to the Jersey shore, but same thing.
Money. Its was always about money, when I look back. PC always had it, and in the beginning, he had no problem lavishing me with money. Whatever I wanted. Money was no object. Move with me for this job, and you’ll never have to work. I distinctly remember going on vacation once (and keep in mind we were dating and mostly financially independent) and on the first day PC plopped five $100 bills in my hand.
“This is yours,” he said. “Let me know if you run out.”
Ending of friendships? Then, the book takes a slightly uncomfortable turn. Sarah speaks of a couple, supposedly Bill’s “good friends” who inexplicably drop him over email. Literally this happened to me. And in the book, Bill rages that they are morons and assholes and cites every excuse in the book for why their estrangement happened except perhaps, to look at his own behavior. Sarah tries to encourage talking or reconciling. Bill basically says no, and drops communication forever. Classic narcissism: lifelong friends are so incredibly fed up that they cut you off, and instead of trying to figure out what went wrong you walk away. Because it wasn’t you, obviously.
Following this, Sarah notes the inability of Bill to recognize his social inappropriateness. Sort of how PC would behave when he was loaded and then brush it off as good fun. How he would go on and fucking on about business and himself and everyone would politely listen but inside you just knew they were screaming oh my God shut up! No one cares! And when I, ever the charmer, would try to turn the subject or suggest “let’s not discuss business, come on, it’s a beautiful summer night” he would turn on me. Look at me as if he was a puppy and I’d just kicked him. Look at me with disgust. “It’s always about you, isn’t it,” he would say, and the guilt would rise.
Then rose the next level of mirroring in the book. Sarah began to recognize a pattern within herself. Bill would do something, say something. Act embarrassingly unaware in front of friends. Take a horrible financial risk and fail at it. Have a run in with yet another person who clearly was at fault. Take on another crazy business venture when he was already swamped and she was drowning, raising babies alone and isolated. Sarah would get fed up.
Just like I would get fed up. And just like me, Sarah would lose her shit. She would go off on Bill. Tell him she was sick of it…the money games, the drama, the drinking. And Bill would turn her worries and accusations around and blame her. He wouldn’t have put them in debt if he’d been paying attention to his work, but Sarah always needed him. When she tried to pull on him as a father, he would help, but then would turn around and pin some failing of his on her needy nature. Which translated to her mediocre abilities as a mother. Which Bill then pointed out that he was busting his ass to support them and now here she was, complaining and raging because…what? And Sarah would become confused. Sarah would be guilty and then, in effort to show her husband she was not a failure, that she did love him, Sarah would move forth being the best wife and mother she could. She would show him how much she loved him.
And that, my friends, is how narcissists mold people into pawns, how they entangle someone else into feeling like a piece of shit for no good reason. It is exactly what PC did to me. I cannot tell you the countless times that we stood in the garage, late at night, PC growing more inebriated by the minute. Me, trying so hard to have an adult conversation and express my feelings. Him, taking every single feeling and dismissing it like a piece of garbage. Him, reminding me that he made the money, that I had the “luxury” of staying home, that I had no room to complain. He would often point to my car and remind me that “you’re driving a $30,000 vehicle. That I PAY FOR!”
And he would then spin it into how no one else had to deal with such an ungrateful wife and you think you’d be more supportive of me. And I’d go to bed confused. I’d wonder where I’d gone so wrong. I’d tuck my feelings away and awaken fresh. I’d apologize and we’d have some words about not fighting. And I’d up my wife-and-mom game for a while. Until the same uncomfortable feelings would start bubbling up again, and the scenario would repeat. Again and again and again. For years.
PC never, ever considered that maybe, just maybe, I was right. That my feelings or thoughts on a matter concerning our marriage or our life might just be valid. Not once.
“Web of Lies” just goes on and on and on with the similarities. The way he lied about money, and considered shady and illegal business dealings completely okay. The way he was 100% convinced he was more intelligent than other people. His delusions of grandeur. His excess: in everything; food, alcohol. His obsession with far-flung ideas that were going to make them millionaires. His infidelities, which, even when caught, he didn’t feel he’d done anything wrong.
His favoritism of one child over the other. His dishonesty about his past. His strained relations with his family which, of course, were not his fault. His refusal to explain when Sarah became aware of an issues (banks sending collection notices or lawsuits from former employers) and Bill explaining without explaining. Telling her he’d take care of it and then ever-so-subtly expressing that it if wasn’t for her, he wouldn’t be in this mess.
My God, that resonates. I keep going back to that…so many times that PC would fuck up and somehow, some way turn it around. The time he blew up our stove because he passed out and left the oven on. It was my fault because “you should have been here”. The shoddy replacement job he did wasn’t his fault either. “You’d think your Dad would have offered to come help.” When our friends ditched us, broke up with us. “You know, I hate to tell you this, but they never liked you. I don’t know why, but they only put up with you for my sake. They couldn’t stand you.” When I showed up for a long-awaited ENT appointment with my daughter only to be told “We called and left a message to reschedule?” I texted PC furiously and he told me I was overreacting (even though it meant waiting another two months for our poor, ear-infection-ridden toddler to be seen.)
“How could you forget to tell me? Do you know how important this is?”
“I’m sure I did tell you. Don’t you remember what was going on then? You were a little preoccupied. You forgot.”
What was going on then, you ask? My niece was in the NICU, battling her life. That was what PC used to excuse his inability to reschedule an appointment or at the very least tell me. Even though he initially stated that he forgot to tell me, he then morphed the story to convincing me that he did tell me and it wasn’t his fault I couldn’t handle dealing with a critically ill family member and remembering to reschedule appointments.
The way Bill stood over Sarah, critiquing her cooking. How he was the cook, and she just “prepared food”. How when the kids were sick he raged at her to call a doctor even though she, as a mother, knew a doctor was not necessary. How he put her down and questioned her mothering, the very core of her being.
I could go on and on here. The title of her book is the perfect summation of life with a narcissist, however. They lure you in with money and promises and whisperings of sweet nothings and then you’re stuck. And unbeknownst to you, they’re winding layer upon layer of guilt, of lies, of gaslighting, of a lot of freaking bullshit…all around you until you can’t even recognize the person you used to be, let alone the person you are now. You can’t separate yourself and even if that little voice inside of you is screaming, the way out seems impossible.
The end of the book was very different from my story, however, and it once again reminds me to be grateful.
Because if you’re lucky, he’ll leave you and the ability to break free will be presented. Not as an easy walk, not as a clean slate, but as a glimmer of possibility in which the voice in your head says, “Yes. Yes, this is it. This is what you’ve been waiting for.”
If you’re lucky, he’ll leave you before he completely breaks you down.