20 October 2007

"Luella Miller" - Narcissism in a Velvet Gown

I first read this story as a teen, and it has haunted me ever since. The older I get, the more I see in it; it's not just a ghost story, it's not just a horror story, it's a case study, and one of the most psychologically literate things I've read since Charlotte Perkins Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper".

I'm not sure how widely known this short story is, or the author, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman; but it and she both deserve to be very widely known indeed. Especially by those who have been subjected to covert emotional abuse, and the kind of manipulation that poses as helplessness even as it takes total control of the helper. There is a cautionary tale here for Rescuers and Enablers; not even the most perceptive person in the story manages to escape, in the end.

Here, then, is a link to the Literary Gothic web site's page on "Luella Miller". Read. Enjoy. See what you find in it. And please respect the site owner's wishes; don't copy the text online.

Is there, was there, a Luella in your life? I know there was in mine... Luella Miller is a psychic vampire. Ms. Freeman had clearly known and observed at least one of these creatures in her own life. Luella Miller epitomizes them - their affectations of helplessness, their entitlement, their total self-centeredness. One after another, she uses people, and uses them up, until they literally die - not quickly, either, and certainly not painlessly. Their suffering doesn't register with her at all; their deaths leave her absolutely unmoved, except for concerns that she won't get her coffee in the morning if her current victim is too busy dying to make it for her.

This is a classic portrait of narcissism - the sugar-coated kind; the kind that dresses in velvet, wears lace gloves, stamps its dainty foot and puts its little nose in the air when facing someone who sees its essential evil. But the tantrums Luella throws when she thinks a victim is about to get out of her clutches show an amazing degree of 'strength' for such a helpless li'l ol' thing.

Reading this now, I see both my mother and myself, our lives and our fates.

In her youth, my mother had the Luella act down pat. Strikingly beautiful, she knew exactly how to bat her eyelashes and croon, and people fell for it - over and over. She fooled them, she used them, and they came running back for more. It wasn't until she was long past middle age that she began to lose the knack of fooling people; partly because she no longer cared so much about fooling them - she wasn't willing to work at it anymore. But there were quite a few people she fooled until the very end.

At least some of those people, I think, took over from her at some point, and generously took on the burden of fooling themselves on her behalf. This was doubtless less painful for them than facing and truly admitting the kind of person she actually was: malicious, vindictive, calculating, deliberately distorting and withholding information to demonize anyone who refused to worship her - including her own child. Better to stay soothingly unaware...

After her death, there were some waves of awareness / revulsion among her few remaining friends and acquaintances; some even contacted me, embarrassed, remorseful, to make amends for wrongs I had never known about. There were so many lies she had told, so much she had confabulated, to keep these people from ever wanting to know me - so that they would never be able to see through the confabulations and lies. It was almost unbelievable. I thought I had seen through her years ago, but at the end of her life, I found myself amazed at the things she had done to me almost from the minute I was born.

Luella Miller's fictitiously fantastic indifference to the condition of those who served her, even as they were dying, is also neither fantastic nor fictitious. I saw it in my mother during my father's final illness. Not merely indifference; absolute, blind, infantile rage, that he would dare to get sick when that was - and always had been - HER privilege.

She was similarly self-centered when her own daughter needed surgery for a life-threatening condition. I carefully scheduled myself into a hospital that was far enough away for her to be unable to visit me. She had pulled Munchausen's by Proxy stunts on my sick and dying father, and she wasn't going to pull any on me. The nurses though it odd that she never even called... knowing what I know about enabling, I never even tried to explain to them.

For my part, I see all too much of myself in Lydia. I remember how hard I fought to get free. How determined my mother was to fasten on to me, financially and emotionally, and drain and destroy me just as she drained and destroyed my father. And I know very well that although I escaped alive, I did not escape unharmed.

I am very grateful, and will always be grateful, to the therapist - and the elder law attorneys - who supported me through the last two years of my mother's life, and after her death; they had seen enough similar cases to know just how destructive these people are, and they were able not only to believe me, but to understand. Yet I still find myself drawn into helping those who give in return only indifference, further demands, or outright harm. Like Lydia, I find myself all too often confronting and denouncing narcissists in velvet gowns, while trapped in the cottage next door.

Lately I've wished that when I first read this story as a teen, I had understood it then as I understand it now - that I had seen through my mother much earlier, and escaped emotionally when I first escaped physically, thirty years ago. But that's not what happened, and we all have to play the cards we're dealt. I can be grateful, at least, that now I see what was.

And that, almost a decade after her death, I have finally written her eulogy.

May she rest in peace... and may peace rest in me.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home