In the midst of writing an article about witches in film, momentarily sidetracked by memories of the goon squad sent out by the Wicked Witch of the West, I set out to find an image to assure myself that they were as disturbing as I had remembered them to be.
They were and are. Let’s remember that by the time the monkeys arrive, Oz is saturated with color; slippers are sparkling, Glenda is numinous, but the blinking monkeys are trapped in vile carpeting, matted greyish blue quasi-fur. Yes, they wear hats, but that doesn’t make things better. At all. I found that they present the same frozen grimace in every shot; they can fly, swarm, and bark in laughter, but their eyes are dead and their features immobile. All of which would be more than enough to find them off-putting, and then we recall that small actors, largely uncredited actors, are stuck inside that greasy fur, suspended over the Technicolor landscape by wires, and almost certainly not writing home about the part they played in this American film masterwork.
Disturbing then. Disturbing now.
Disturbing also the information that came unbidden as I searched for “flying monkeys”. It turns out that the term “flying monkeys” has been appropriated as an economical way of describing those who act as minions of true narcissists, the idea being that apologists, enablers,those who work to smooth things out, allow the narcissist to persist in abusive behavior. The number of websites dedicated to the protection of victims caught in abusive traps by narcissists and their enabling minions indicates the existence of a problem I had only vaguely understood.
Let me backup a bit. I’ve met my share of bullies and know a number of people whose lives have been affected, in some cases violently affected, by individuals who acted in their own self-interest without regard for others, common decency, or the rule of law. In every instance, I saw well-meaning, compassionate, intelligent people attempt to mediate between the bully and the victim, and the outcome was always the same.
Bullies win. Every time. As long as the response to bullying is anywhere on the normal spectrum of human reaction, bullies win because they don’t play by any rules.
Narcissists are not simply self-centered or self-absorbed; We’re all self-centered and self-absorbed to some degree; even Gandhi and the Dalai Lama had to work to escape the self. Most of us at times hold exaggerated appreciation of our own abilities and our own capacities, and most of behave in our own self-interest for some (ok, most) of the time. But .. .we can summon empathy for others, feel some regret for behaviors that have been harmful, occasionally see ourselves as we are. We may fall into selfish behavior, but we don’t feel great about that behavior when our selfishness is noticed, and although our attitudes may not always be altruistic and charitable, we exhibit a range of responses to the world and our experiences; we aren’t stuck in one persistent and malevolent self-aggrandizing mode of being over considerable periods of time.
Truly malevolent narcissists belong to a special cadre of personality disordered, mentally ill people whose qualities include profoundly exaggerated grandiosity, a grotesque sense of entitlement, and consistent exploitation of others to assure their personal gains. The emotional tapestry of the narcissistic disordered person pulses with feelings of envy and aggression; this person is often fearlessly exhibitionistic, consistently anticipates betrayal, metes out punishment for perceived disloyalty or lack of approval. Words such as dominating, vindictive, contemptuous describe the true narcissist, and relationships with this type of disordered person are characterized by manipulation and exploitation.
One school of psychology focuses on “The dark triad”, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy, the three overlapping traits that describe what can be called the malevolent personality. Leaving conceptual descriptors aside, and bidding a fond farewell to diagnostic markers, the most pertinent reality about malevolent personalities is that they are among us. I’ve heard fictional Jay Gatsby described as a narcissist, and Charles Foster Kane, but despite the all-absorbing and needy ego of characters such as these, despite their grandiosity, they don’t behave sociopathologically; they don’t set out to destroy people they believe to have been critical of them or less than loyal. This is where the earlier reference to bullying comes into play. Bullies want what they want, they enforce an outcome that suits them, and they don’t mind the distress and pain they inflict; they feel entitled to control and disable a lesser person.
I can’t guess at the number of domestic abusers who are narcissistic, but abuse arrives as vindictive and personal violence; no matter whether it is physical, psychological, verbal, financial, or sexual- it’s personal. That is the bald fact of abuse. Narcissist abuse is ugly, often publicly ugly, and yet it goes unchecked. Narcissists invite those in a relationship to play a game they cannot win because the narcissist makes the rules, and the rules only apply to others.
Negotiating with bullies means bullies always win.
I started with flying monkeys and need to tie their behavior to the dismaying reality that narcissists find the people they need to excuse and protect their behavior. While the witch stays out of the line of fire, her minions carry out her evil plans. The difference out here, away from Oz, is that these flying monkeys often have no idea that they are being used. They may feel needed, or endorsed, or emotionally blackmailed so that they apologize for the narcissist, inadvertently spy or carry gossip. The narcissist is expert at playing the victim, turning the tables so that his or her target is blamed for the bad behavior the narcissist is forced to display. When a direct attack might be dangerous or impolitic, the narcissist selects people who have reason or the inclination to attack and send them out to lead the charge. It isn’t hard to know who gets a charge out of gossiping, who is inclined toward resentment, who has grudges or prejudices; they are the obvious foot soldiers. Equally vulnerable are people who wholeheartedly believe in the inherent goodness of mankind.
“There are two sides to every story”, “She didn’t really mean what she said”, “You have to understand where he comes from,” “Everyone snaps a little now and then”, “Don’t you think he brought that on himself?”. One of the many shocking aspects of the recent documentary and filmed series on the trial of O.J. Simpson was that his friends and acquaintances knew that he had brutalized Nicole Brown Simpson over the course of several years, but discounted the possibility that Simpson could have killed the mother of his children. Until the end, they apologized for O.J. and discounted the accounts of his rage and jealousy.
There may be two sides to every story, but we will never get to hear Nicole’s. Apparently he really did mean what he said when he threatened to kill her. Many, many people came from the tough background that O.J. escaped. Snapping now and then does not include double homicide. I’m not inclined to agree that Nicole or the collaterally dispatched Ron Goldman brought murder on themselves.
In the end, however, children are always the most vulnerable to narcissistic manipulation.
Even well modulated parents will occasionally slip, presenting themselves to their children as the better parent. “I know Mom doesn’t let you stay up to watch Saturday Night Live, but I don’t think that’s such a big deal.” Not good. Not helpful. Ordinarily that sort of self-aggrandizing ploy ends up with a conversation between parents, who as partners, are determined to respect and support each other.
I don’t know if my wife’s father was a narcissist. I have reason to think he was somewhere on the spectrum of narcissistic behavior as he compelled his children to testify against their mother in court when he sought a less costly divorce settlement. It’s one thing to throw a partner under a bus, quite another to ask her children to do the throwing.
It is difficult to deal with a narcissist when you are a grown, independent, fully functioning adult. The children of narcissists have an especially difficult burden, for they lack the knowledge, power, and resources to deal with their narcissistic parents without becoming their victims. Whether cast into the role of Scapegoat or Golden Child, the Narcissist’s Child never truly receives that to which all children are entitled: a parent’s unconditional love.
The blogsite, The Narcissist’s Child, encourages children of narcissistic parents to tell their story and find support in the company of others who understand the legacy of growing up with a narcissistic parent. It was on that site, in the entry “Flying Monkeys in your life”, that I found devastating accounts of how the narcissist’s minions operate.
As has been the case in almost all that I write, this piece came to me without my intending to look at the subject at all. A semi-whimsical search for an image carried me far from whimsy to something like comprehension of events in my own life that have long seemed inexplocable.