My Mother the Psychopath: Growing up in the Shadow of a monster
by Olivia Rayne
Being a psychopath, myself, I read this book with fascination and trepidation, the former for obvious reasons; the latter because I am used to seeing my kind vilified in books of this type. The subtitle alone, unfortunately, suggested the latter to be the case. Humanity has a sad propensity to demonize whichever members of it’s species other members can’t identify with. Even “monsters” such as Donald Trump couldn’t have caused very much mischief had it not been for large numbers of ordinary voters who put him into office.
In this case, Olivia Rayne tells the harrowing tale of her first 22 years of life growing up in a complicated relationship, not with a monster, but with a complex woman whose intricacies made for a very difficult, often dysfunctional life but from which Olivia survived to grow into a vibrantly stunning young woman. Her best friend, Sofia Nelson, says of her, “Olivia is bright, funny, playful and vivacious. I thought she had an infectious laugh, a warm smile and a quick wit.” Olivia’s mother didn’t seem like a monster either. Sofia says, “I was also struck by what a lovely mother (Olivia) had. When I first met Josephine I observed her zeal, the way she seemed genuinely interested in everything and everyone around her. I noticed her smile, her earnest eye contact, the heartfelt way she talked. On each occasion we met, I thought, what a magnetic woman. Later, I noticed the gifts she sent Olivia that came to the office: designer shirts, dainty gold necklaces, sets of expensive make-up. ‘You’re so lucky!’ I would say to my friend. ‘Your mum’s so generous.’ Olivia would smile thinly and say nothing.”
Before the book, Sofia wrote an article with the same title. Note, it is written as if in the first person although Sofia, not Olivia, was the author. The names were changed as well. Josephine became “Joan” and Olivia became “Katie.” I am not always sure who has written what in the book whether it is Olivia or Sofia because of this. The title page lists both names, Olivia Rayne and S.M. Nelson as author. On the copyright page, it says “Olivia Rayne has asserted her right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.”
Were Olivia’s memories recovered memories? If so, who helped her remember? How authentic are the memories? Most seem like regular old memories most of us have. But one, for her third year of life seems problematic and it is one of the most disturbing. On Christmas Eve she and her family were visiting her grandparents (father’s side)
There was a sinking in my stomach, because I did remember that Christmas. In my mind it was a happy Christmas. I remembered the photo from that day, that for years was pinned to our fridge. It was right in the centre so every time you went to fetch a drink or snack it floated in front of your eyes. The bottom corner was folded u p, and whenever I looked at it, I tried to flatten it down, to protect and preserve it, this precious pictorial proof: proof we’d been happy, evidence I’d been loved.
In the photo are my cousins, my grandparents, Mother and me. We’re gathered in the living room and Mother’s kneeling by the sofa, holding me from behind. Her chin is on my head, her curly hair on my shoulder. She’s beaming up at the camera, at my father standing behind it. My hands are clasped together, my eyes wet, my cheeks pink, my round toddler’s tummy straining against my velvet dress. There’s torn wrapping paper in front of us, jigsaw puzzles and games and new books on the carpet. On the coffee table are glasses of half-drunk wine, chocolate stars wrapped in foil, plates of mince pies with thick smears of cream. We looked full and happy and hearty.
When I looked at that photo I thought I remembered it. I thought I remembered charging around the living room, hot and breathless with excitement; eating mince pies until my little belly stuck out; that my cousins took turns poking it and squealing with laughter. I remembered that — I did. I did.
Or did It? Was it just the photo that made me think I remembered? I knew that I remembered one thing from that day: Mother, gently stroking my forehead. But what else?
‘Do you really not remember what happened that day?’ Granny asked, and I shook my head, squeezing my eyes tight. The memory of Mother stroking my face hovered in my mind but I pushed it aside. What was behind that? At first there was only grainy darkness, but as I dug there were flashes of something else: a floor, a cold floor; pain, heat. I thought there was another memory there — a door, a silhouette? — but it was bleary and it made me feel nervous. What else?
I couldn’t see. I didn’t know.
‘Tell me what happened.’
So Granny told me, and as she spoke the gaping holes in my mind refilled, and my meticulously constructed memories shriveled away as though they were burning.
It’s dark. it’s night-time. I’m locked in the bathroom, lying on cold tiles, sobbing and crying for Maman to let me out. I’m rattling the bathroom door in desperation, pleading and weeping so hard I can’t breathe. Please let me out, Maman, please open the door. I feel sick, I ‘m scared. I’m scared, Maman. Maman! She’s standing outside the door — I can see her silhouette through the glass — but she doesn’t say anything she doesn’t respond.
I’m hot, I’m tired, my head hurts. I press my cheek to the fold floor to cool myself. I’m lying face down, arms spread wide, feet turned out. Sobs hiccup through my chest but still she doesn’t come to me. I call for her, again and again, and I know she’s listening because I see her silhouette turn towards me. Still she says nothing.
This is what Granny told me about the Christmas I thought I remembered.
It was Christmas morning. Granny came into the living room where I’d slept with Mother and Father. She was carrying a tray: mugs of coffee for the grown-ups, hot milk for me. My parents were still lazing on the pull-out sofa, and as Granny came in, Mother sat up with a smile.
‘Morning, Jean!’ she said brightly, ‘Merry Christmas!’
‘Merry Christmas, Josephine!’ Granny replied. ‘Merry Christmas, Clive!’ She glanced around the room, looking for me. ‘Where’s Olivia?’
‘Oh,’ Mother said, and there was a pause. ‘She’s in the bathroom,’ she added, picking up her coffee and sipping it slowly. Granny glanced at the bathroom door adjoining the living room. Her bookcase, that old, heavy mahogany bookcase, was dragged across the door like a barricade. Granny’s head flicked back to my parents. My father was making a great show of blowing on his coffee, staring straight ahead at the wall. Mother was watching Granny steadily, unflustered, smooth as silk.
‘Why is she in the bathroom?’ Granny asked. She remembered that her voice quivered, but she didn’t know why. Mother sighed, shook her head like she was in pain.
‘She kept her father and me awake until the early hours. She wouldn’t stop crying, howling for attention like a little madam, so in the end we had to lock her in the bathroom for the night.’
A doctor finally examined her. It turned out Olivia had a severe ear infection and a fever. The grandmother said, “Well, I suppose we know why she was crying.” Josephine shot back, “None of us are mind readers, Jean. If Olivia doesn’t tell us what’s wrong, how are we supposed to know?”
That certainly is a story of great callousness towards a sick three-year-old. The grandparents look like credible witnesses in any case. I would like to know if the child’s health was neglected to the same extent through out the rest of her childhood but there are no other anecdotes of a similar nature to compare that one to. Josephine’s pattern involves an extraordinary degree of engulfment. She didn’t seem willing to let Olivia have any privacy in which to develop a private or separate identity. She seemed more narcissistic than psychopathic, constantly demanding exhausting quantities of supply.
Josephine would alternate between acts of kindness and acts of cruelty. She seemed to think her extravagant kindness required extreme shows of gratitude from Olivia which were never good enough. “Her voice was sweet, but her words sharp as a blade. She has a thing for pet names. I was alternately her darling, her love, her sweet angel face — or a fucking bitch, a stupid whore, a sad disaster of her past. I was her sweetheart, her flower, the love of her life, but also a slut, a pervert, a cockroach ripe for zapping. One week she was my best friend, teaching me to paint, reading me my favourite stories, spending hundreds on me to paint, reading me my favourite stories, spending hundreds on baking kits so we could make cakes together; the next, she wouldn’t even speak to me.” She reminds me of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie or Joan Crawford. Olivia goes through the checklist, hitting every psychopathic trait and citing it in her mother’s behavior.
|Glib, superficial charm?||check|
|Lack of empathy?||check|
|Need for stimulation?||check. She was always moving to another country|
|Criminal tendencies?||check. She stole from a couple she worked for|
|Impulsivity?||check. She fled the country to avoid theft charges.|
|Pathological lying?||check. Made up a story smearing the people she had stolen from accusing them of causing a boy’s death.|
|Cunning and manipulative?||check. She wanted to move from a beautiful place but her family wanted to stay so she picked a fight with next door neighbor. Then she poisoned a pond she had created and stocked with fish that were pets of Olivia and pretended the neighbor had done it.|
|Early behavioral problems/Juvenile delinquency?||check. Her parents confirmed wild, delinquent behavior when she was a teenager.|
|Sexual promiscuity?||check. Parents confirmed.|
|Grandiosity?||check. “Aren’t I just the best mother in the world?”|
Of course these are traits of psychopathy. The restlessness, the constant moving to new and more interesting places. But don’t they also apply to narcissism? What else, in addition, do narcissists need? Validation of their superiority. They need to be reassured over and over that they are adored and appreciated and worshipped. We psychopaths just want to get what we want. Our self-esteem doesn’t depend on what others think of us. Some things about Josephine I find really psychopathic.
For example, the way she locked a sick child in the bathroom because she was weary of hearing her cry and demand attention. Yes, we can be really selfish and insensitive. Not that we will.
Poisoning her child’s fish to expedite her will to move is pretty damn low but a psychopath could do it. What wouldn’t a psychopath do? Put all that energy into getting her daughter to dress a certain way. Or to go with a certain boy friend. I think she would have to be a narc to do such things.
And what of Olivia? Her submissiveness was hard to take. I understand it, of course. She was trained to submit from an early age. So much pain at the hands of this larger person combined with intermittent acts of kindness and love. But despite my understanding, I still wanted to shake her. Nevertheless, I still did notice she had a true talent for happiness despite everything. Josephine would take her away from all her supports, her friends, her loving grandparents, a school she loved and Olivia would find her new situation a new source of joy. A true survivor. Or was the intermittent nurturing Josephine gave her enough to foster an inner health. Olivia even acknowledges gratitude to her for making her the person that she is today. Of course, that was a process. Before she broke completely free from Josephine, Olivia fell in love with Sean, a man who really was a psychopath (as well as a coke freak). He had a strange relationship with Josephine by which he kept bringing her (and her money) back into Olivia’s life. But when Olivia was finally finished with Sean and Josephine, Sean was wise enough to realize it and let go long after Josephine was still stalking and damning her daughter for freeing herself irrevocably.
Whether Josephine was a psychopath or a narcissist, she was certainly a Cluster B and an interesting person.