Looking for books about narcissistic parents
July 17, 2013 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I’m looking for books (fiction and non-fiction) about children dealing with narcissistic parents. The kind of parents I want to read about will present a perfect front to the outside world, but in private will emotionally abuse their children to serve their own needs. These parents are attention seekers, self-pitying, deny that hurtful incidents occurred (gaslighting), play family members off against each other, are infantile and manipulative, are obsessed by others having a positive view of them, undermine their children’s autonomy, disregarding their privacy and personal space (give their possessions away, denigrate them in public, eat food off their plates) – but ALWAYS claim that the abuse is for the child’s own good and are usually seen by other adults as very good parents. The abused offspring I want to read about – both children and adults – become compulsive caretakers, are frequently confused by their parent’s behaviour, learn not to trust their own feelings and experience overwhelming feelings of inadequacy. For a long time they may be duped into believing the myth that their parent is loving and that they (the child) are the cause of their own unhappiness. If possible I would like books that focus entirely on emotional abuse rather than it being part of a broader spectrum of abuse. Thank you!
posted by matthew.alexander to Writing & Language (37 answers total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Toxic Parents is pretty darn good non-fiction one. Not just for narcissism, either.
posted by zizzle at 11:04 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

I highly recommend The Narcissistic Family. It covers a lot of the things you mention and more, deals especially with the more insidious aspects of routinely prioritizing the needs of the parent unit over the needs of the child/ children. It was a revelation to me.
posted by miorita at 11:10 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

What Maisie Knew.
posted by Bardolph at 11:10 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Mommie Dearest
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:11 AM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

There's a good streak of that in Mona Simpson's novel Anywhere But Here--I think you could certainly argue most of those characteristics about Adele August, even though I'm not sure they ever outright call it abuse. She's certainly a narcissist.
posted by dlugoczaj at 11:11 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd guess Flowers in the Attic is pretty canonical here.
posted by LionIndex at 11:15 AM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Seconding Flowers in the Attic, adding Lolita.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:18 AM on July 17, 2013

The Family Fang.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 11:19 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, this dynamic (explored in varying degrees of depth) also characterizes the Turvydrop and Skimpole families in Bleak House and Becky Sharp's relationship with her son in Vanity Fair.
posted by Bardolph at 11:22 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Here's the book of a film that really surprised me by how accurately it depicted a narcissistic, emotionally-abusive parent and the effects of that abuse on her daughter while remaining age appropriate for the target audience.
posted by the latin mouse at 11:28 AM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

You should definitely read Stoner, by John Edward Williams.
posted by lemerle at 11:28 AM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding Mommie Dearest. First book I thought of when I read the question.
Fashionably Late by Olivia Goldsmith would also fit the bill.
posted by SisterHavana at 11:52 AM on July 17, 2013

Wow, hard to believe I'm first up with The Drama of the Gifted Child. It's an early classic.
posted by thinkpiece at 12:07 PM on July 17, 2013 [8 favorites]

The best non-fiction I've read about this is The Narcissistic Family: Diagnosis and Treatment. It is compassionate and has loads of helpful insight. As for miorita, this book was a revelation for me, and I had already read many books on emotional abuse and narcissistic parents. This one really is excellent.
posted by fraula at 12:09 PM on July 17, 2013

It's not a perfect fit for your description but pretty close in many areas:
Mathilda, by Roald Dahl.
posted by TedW at 12:14 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

one of the most helpful for me was this one -

If You Had Controlling Parents
posted by cartoonella at 12:27 PM on July 17, 2013

I haven't actually read it and it's not really *about* narcissistic parents, but maybe check out Attempting Normal, by Marc Maron. The linked review says Maron does talk about his own narcissistic parents, but it doesn't seem to be the main thrust of the book. But he seems to have the background you're looking for so I figured I'd mention it.
posted by Green With You at 12:32 PM on July 17, 2013

Seconding "Tangled" -- the movie surprised me. And creeped me out.
posted by amtho at 12:41 PM on July 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

There is a book called The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne-Jones. It's kind of a fantasy but the central dilemma for the protagonist is how to escape from being drawn into an abusive situation. The denouement happens through metaphor but the background is realistically observed - in fact the book is autobiographical.
posted by glasseyes at 12:41 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Came to suggest Drama of the Gifted Child, but thinkpiece beat me to it. That said, if you're studying narcissistic parents, read this first.
posted by Sophie1 at 12:43 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

This book is about mothers with borderline personality disorder, who can display many of the traits and behaviors you mention, and it also talks about how families and children of the mom with BPD can understand and cope. It's excellent. So expensive, though. I got it from the library when I was studying personality disorders during grad school. I highly recommend it.
posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 12:54 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just read The Family Fang, and it is a perfect fit for fiction of your description.
posted by maxg94 at 1:56 PM on July 17, 2013

The People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck.
posted by gentian at 1:58 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

I thought Patti Davis' autobiography was insight into what it must be like to have narcissistic parents. Especially insightful for that weird dynamic where the parents are so close and protective of each other they exclude their children.
posted by cda at 2:02 PM on July 17, 2013

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:16 PM on July 17, 2013 [5 favorites]

"Summer of My German Soldier" and its sequel, "Morning is a Long Time Coming" by Bette Greene. The primary plot of the first book is about the girl's friendship with a German soldier (near a POW camp in Arkansas), but both books deal extensively with her coming to terms with her narcissist parents. (The sequel, to me, seems like one long therapy session.) It meets most of your criteria, with the added bonus of the grandmother going "what the what?!" about her daughter.
posted by Melismata at 2:36 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead might seriously be the best novel in the English language about the effects of a grandiosely narcissistic father upon his family. It is by turns disturbing, intense, hilarious, searing. Written in the late 1930s or early 1940s I believe and totally holds up today.
posted by third rail at 3:37 PM on July 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

How about a musical? Gypsy (the version with Bette Midler, not the one with Rosalind Russell) definitely fits the bill.
posted by Wordwoman at 3:40 PM on July 17, 2013

Also White Oleander by Janet Fitch is really spot on for this. I think the novel explores the impact of the mother's narcissism more astutely than the film.
posted by third rail at 3:45 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

King Lear
posted by phoenixy at 4:18 PM on July 17, 2013

Seconding Glass Castle

It describes how children come to view abuse as normal and will protect their parents from the consequences of their actions.
posted by BlueHorse at 4:30 PM on July 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

Will I Ever Be Good Enough by Karyl McBride

Mean Mothers by Peg Streep

Difficult Mothers by Terri Apter
posted by rglass at 4:54 PM on July 17, 2013

Seconding The Narcissistic Family, but note that the authors seem to shy away from labeling the parents as clinically personality disordered.

The comedy writer Merrill Markoe has a few chapters about her late narcissistic mother in her book of autobiographical essays, Cool, Calm & Contentious, with a blog version here. There's also this post where she responds to others' stories.

I would also add Trapped in the Mirror, a nonfiction book of case studies by psychologist Elan Golomb, and Will I Ever Be Good Enough?: Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers by Dr. Karyl McBride.

I haven't read the screenplay it's based on, but the movie Splendor in the Grass seems to me among the best depictions of families led by a dominating narcissist with his/her enabling spouse, and how the children's lives are wrecked as a result.
posted by ziggly at 11:48 PM on July 17, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for all these fantastic answers, they're extremely helpful! I guess I'd better hit Amazon and start reading...
posted by matthew.alexander at 2:13 AM on July 18, 2013

Also you could probably close your eyes and pull out any book from a pile of memoirs, and there'll be a decent chance that it'll be a good match for the topic here (Glass Castle's a great example) -- but one of the most vivid childhoods shaped by a narcissistic mother is, for me, always going to be the one portrayed in Running with Scissors (by Augusten Burroughs.)
posted by third rail at 7:10 AM on July 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Try Children of the self-absorbed: A grown-up's guide to getting over narcissistic parents, by Nina W. Brown. A friend has found it immensely helpful.
posted by feelinggood at 11:08 AM on July 18, 2013

I think The Chocolate Money by Ashley Prentice Norton would fit the bill for you.
posted by meggan at 6:12 PM on July 18, 2013

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