Gaslighting For God, Part 2
Discovering the Spiritual Narcissists in My Midst
Credit: The Wittenburg Door. Used with permission.
Despite my attempts at spiritual direction, therapy, and a range of self-help modalities to deal with the aftereffects of my extended family's history of alcoholism, I had no awareness of their narcissistic streaks until 2009. That was when I picked up on Merrill Markoe's work on this subject while penning Jesus Died for This?
Markoe describes narcissists as people who "cover up feelings of shame and worthlessness inflicted during their own screwy childhoods by doing whatever it takes to maintain a false sense that they are very special and therefore not bound by ordinary rules." She offers an insightful explanation for why people like my late father tend to act in this manner:
Narcissists essentially live in a world that is one person big because they never fully outgrow a phase of infantile behavioral development in which baby thinks he and Mommy are the same person ... When you are with a narcissist, their needs must become your needs. It’s not enough for a narcissist to be the center of his own world; he must also be the center of yours.
Imbued with the spirit of self-righteousness, narcissists like my late Episcopal priest and sociology professor father deceive themselves into believing their desire are in sync with Jesus’ call for their lives. The Lord’s Prayer asking God that "Thy will be done" is replaced by "God bless my will." Ever the enabler, my late mother joined him on this journey until she too died from her addictions leaving her three minor children to fend for ourselves.
Welcome to my extended family’s party of one where I assumed the role of the unwelcome guest. For my entire life, they chose to float down the river of denial as I pointed out the white elephants, asking why so many of my relatives were drunk. Instead of answering my questions and engaging with my observations, they gaslight me by telling me they were "resting" and other euphemisms designed to conceal the stone-cold reality that most of my family was pretty much passed out.
Furthermore, my mother’s stoic Yankee family (the ones related to the Pilgrims and Roger Williams) blamed dad for killing mom while dad’s North Carolinian country club crew displayed their upper crust sensibilities by focusing on looking good rather than extending a compassionate hand. It was almost as though Monty Python’s "Dead Parrot" sketch was being reenacted right in front of me.
Gaslighting is the psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator.
Yep that pretty much sums up my childhood. No wonder I became a religious satirist. With this kind of familial baggage, it's either cyanide or satire.
Whenever The Wittenburg Door would satirize a given individual or ministry, those with healthy egos would welcome the critique knowing a true mark they had made it as a Christian thought leader was when the satirists starting coming after them. They knew from playing this God game that was geared more for promoting platforms not issuing forth prophecies, and appeared to be willing to at least acknowledge their role in this whole Jesus for Sale racket. Some like Jerry Jenkins, co-author of the Left Behind series, actually agreed to sit down for a Door interview.
Other let their narcissistic flag fly and their true colors shone once they got under the glare of the media spotlight. Being blocked by unbiblical bullies became par for the course. Some comments I relished such as the time the late Fred Price's assistant asked me if how I'd like to be burned alive in hell for daring to critique his prosperity gospel excesses. (Answer: As a former Southerner, I'd have to go with BBQ). However, interactions such as the Abortion TV folks trying to locate my personal information so they could connect with me freaked me out enough to where I began taking safeguards to prevent these faith freaks with firearms from using me as theological target practice.
When I began writing for The Wittenburg Door, my work attracted an amass of like minded folks who loved Jesus but hated how the American church marketed and monetized his message. They took take delight when I would sling my arrows at the weird world of Christian media (aka The Christian Industrial Complex) and its kissing cousin the institutional church.
Then Jim Wallis' God's Politics became a best-seller in 2004 along with movements like the US emergent church being seen as the next big thing before de-evolving into a missional mess. Next thing you know, those elect few elevated to the media spotlight as holy hipster gurus proved to be just as thin skinned as their more conservative and well coiffed Christian counterparts whenever we called their spiritual sh*t on the carpet.
The more I satirized the progressive church's sacred cows, I could feel my body recoiling from the un-Christlike comments that came from those I once considered to be my peers. Whenever a progressive Christian author/speaker type developed a cult like following within the Christian Industrial complex, I'd satirize them only to be met with names such as mentally ill, mean, and my favorite, wingnut.
Unfunny, I get. We all have our own unique sensibilities and some just don't find satire amusing. But these comments went well beyond simply agreeing to disagree and veered into spiritual slams and worse. While I had developed a hard skin and relied on a community of supportive souls to help keep me focused on the prize, I got stung when a person I thought was an ally proved to be pompous once they got under the glare of the media spotlight. How could someone I thought was a companion on the journey prove to be more vicious than virtuous?
My initial WTF?? response when I got attacked by those I thought were buddies not bastards did not represent my best moments. I can clearly understand now why some thought I was indeed crazy. But no. Instead, I was exhibiting signs of being re-traumatized because these current attacks brought up memories of being raised in an extended family riddled with alcoholics and addicts with extreme narcissistic tendencies. While I had done considerable work unpacking my familial alcoholism, my work on the narcissistic branches of my family tree was just beginning.
After penning Jesus Died for This? came out I finally said enough and left the professional world of Christian publishing. I thought I found the answer to exploring spirituality in secular settings in 2015 when I connected with a mindfulness therapist who was both a practicing Buddhist and trauma specialist. Here was someone where I felt we could engage in collaborative work designed to help connect people to their spirituality sans the baggage of both the professional Christian and humanist communities.
Wrong. When our professional and personal relationship imploded about a year later, I found myself shaking my head. How could I have missed the obvious red flags that this person possessed narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies? Clearly the problem of spiritual narcissism extends well beyond those who market themselves to the "Christian" market.
Furthermore, while I could avoid connecting intimately with those who possessed alcoholic and addictive energies, why did I continue to attract with those who possessed such odious traits buried beneath their seemingly calm and charming veneer? Simply put, how could I stop this deep inner need to help people (read "enable"), who like my father presented with the "potential" to heal the world but instead used and abused me?
Determined to break this cycle once and for all, I began researching the world of narcissistic personalities. Here I discovered Dr. Craig Malkin’s book, Rethinking Narcissism: The Bad—and Surprising Good—About Feeling Special. Malkin coins the term “echoism” to describe the pattern of enabling, which he based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a work that contains the myth of the cruel shepherd boy Narcissus and the forest nymph Echo.
Narcissus and Echo
In this story, Echo is cursed by Juno, the Roman goddess of love and marriage, to be an echo chamber for others. After seeing Narcissus hunting, Echo falls passionately in love with this beautiful youth, though due to her handicap, she can only repeat the words of others. When they meet he rejects her. In despair over the loss of her unrequited love, Echo wastes away until only her voice remains. Meanwhile, Narcissus goes to quench his thirst in a stream. When he bends over and sees his reflection, he falls in love with this image not realizing it’s just a reflection of him. Once he recognizes his mistake, he too wastes away. Echo sees his demise and joins Narcissus in his final lament.
Sounds familiar? Yep. In Malkin's summary of this myth, I saw myself laid out bare butt and all. Finally, I could decipher the connections between alcoholism and narcissism that wove throughout my family tree. No wonder I kept saying my life "stinks." My family tree was rotten to the core.
Now, I finally could grasp the seemingly over the top responses I got over the decades satirizing American Christianity for The Wittenburg Door. In my next piece in this Gaslighting for God series, I will unpack how my research into narcissism informs my work as a religious satirist. Stay tuned.
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