I read an interesting post about Joan Crawford over at Five Hundred Pound Peep’s blog. Crawford was definitely a histrionic malignant narcissist even though most sources say she had BPD (another Cluster B disorder that can mimic and is easily confused with the histrionic form of narcissism). The issue of Crawford’s obsession with cleanliness and order was raised.
There seem to be two kinds of narcissists: those, like my ex, who are complete slobs who refuse to lift a finger around the house and expect everyone else to pick up their mess for them; and those, like my MN mother (and Crawford), who are obsessed with cleanliness and order.
I’m going to talk about the second type.
My mother’s house was like a museum–it was all for show. Even magazines on the coffee table were forbidden because it was “clutter.” Family photos were consigned to bedrooms only because she felt they looked “tacky” in public rooms. She vacuumed, scrubbed, polished and dusted every day, in addition to hiring a weekly housekeeper to keep things spruced up. She invaded boundaries too–every day she came into my room (without knocking of course), and would start straightening up and criticizing my teenage sloppiness. She’d go into my closet and rearrange my clothes, making it hard for me to find what I was looking for (because I had everything in an order that made sense to me). When cooking, she’d wash dishes while she cooked, so there were no dishes inthe sink after dinner (actually, I picked up this habit from her and do it myself).
My mother loved beige, white and eggshell. Everything in the house was in those boring colors, with no bright spots of color to liven things up. I read somewhere once that beige is the devil’s color, not black. I think that person was onto something. I hate beige. It’s the most boring color on the planet. Is it even a color at all?
The glass tables in the living room with their chrome legs and edges were spotless and free of any clutter: what was the point of having tables at all if you weren’t going to put anything on them? The television was tucked inside a cabinet because a visible TV in the living room was gauche and low class and offended my mother’s upper class pretensions.
Even our Christmas tree (after my parents divorced) would be decorated in white lights only, with red and silver balls and bows–no other colors or shapes allowed. She always hated the colored lights, tinsel, and varied ornaments my father bought for our tree when they were still married. Me? I happen to love lots of colored lights. Tacky or not, they seem much more homey and Christmassy to me than the all-white lights you see in offices and banks. Another thing she did after their divorce was refuse to hang any ornaments I had made at school, because again, they were too tacky. My father, though certainly far from perfect, always took pride in my childish little creations, and proudly hung them from our tree, while my mother held her nose in distaste.
When company came over, she became an obsessive basketcase, zooming through the house with the vacuum and duster, and woe to you if you didn’t match her level of obsession and jump in and help out.
But of course, it was all for show, intended to impress. Narcissistic cleanliness is another way they can control everyone around them. I also think it’s an unconscious attempt to hide the “dirtiness” inside them. That’s why they’re so obsessed with it and rage whenever they see dirt or disorder.
I’ve also noticed how many of them (especially women, but some men too) are obsessed with bodily functions. I’ll warn you right now we’re getting into the ick factor here, but I’ll try to spare you too much detail.
I’m acquainted with a narcissistic woman who told me she douches every day. Not just after intercourse or after her period, but every freaking day. I mentioned to her how unhealthy that is and how it can rob her vagina of healthy bacteria that prevents infection, but predictably, she looked at me like I was crazy and said I didn’t know what I was talking about.
I know other narcissists (both men and women) who are obsessed with keeping their bowels clean. They are big fans of enemas, cleansing drinks, diuretics, fasting, and laxatives. They obsess over these things and even talk about their rituals in public, with no sign of embarrassment. If you know someone who goes in for colonic irrigation sessions on a regular basis, and then talks about it to everyone as if they were discussing the weather, it’s a good bet they’re a narcissist. I had a narcissist boss once who made his colon cleansing sessions a regular topic of conversation and would describe the process in the most intricate, intimate detail, even in front of customers. He didn’t care who heard and seemed to want everyone to know about it. The ick factor was off the charts with that one. It made me want to throw up.
They’re also obsessed with their children’s bowel functions. This is a little embarrassing but I’ll talk about it anyway because it’s so typical of the type of abuse (and it is a form of abuse) some children of narcs are forced to put up with.
When I was a child, my mother obsessed over whether I had a daily BM. If I skipped a day, out came the big rust-red rubber enema bag with its snakelike black hose. It was an adult sized contraption and not meant for children, but she’d fill that unholy thing up all the way with soapy water and make me lie down on the bathroom floor on a towel while she shoved that thing into me.
Of course it was extremely painful and my small body wasn’t equipped to hold all that water. If I cried or had an accident, she’d get mad and shove that medieval instrument of torture up me even more and hold my butt cheeks together with her cold hands, her long sharp nails digging into my tender buttocks like thorns from Hell.
It was much worse than the yardstick or any other punishment ever inflicted on me. I developed terrible constipation due to my terror of that thing, but of course that just made the enemas even more necessary and frequent. When it wasn’t in use, that evil device hung on the back of the bathroom door, facing the toilet, like a constant threat of what would happen if I didn’t produce.
You see, I wasn’t a real person, but merely an extension of my mother’s mask of narcissistic perfection, her little baby doll she could do whatever she wanted to with, her mini-me. Like an infant, she couldn’t seem to tell where she ended and I began. She obsessed over my hair, my clothes, my weight. She dressed us in mother/daughter matching outfits. In the morning before school she made me sit at her dresser while she took a hard bristled brush to my fine hair that tended to tangle and form knots. If she couldn’t undo a tangle, she’d angrily yank it out, making me scream in pain while my scalp felt like it was on fire.
When I was five, she decided she wanted my fine, straight hair to be curly. So she gave me a home permanent and while rinsing my hair under the kitchen faucet with a glass milk bottle, the bottle accidentally slipped from her soapy hands and broke. A shard of glass buried itself into my forehead, and I had to get stitches. She didn’t try to perm my hair again after that but always complained about how flat it was and insisted on keeping it short.
I never got to choose my own clothes until my teens. Until I started going to Catholic school and had to wear a uniform, she’d lay out the clothing she had chosen for me to wear the night before. Most of the time it was some frilly frock I hated. But if I complained, I was immediately silenced. I wasn’t allowed to be myself, have opinions, or an identity of my own. All she cared about was the image I presented to make her look better in her own mind.
As a teenager, I rebelled by wearing the sloppiest, grungiest clothes I could find, refusing to have my hair cut and styled (even though I really don’t have the type of hair that looks best when it’s too long because it’s so thin), and even gaining weight on purpose just to spite her. I wore a lot of black even though it wouldn’t be fashionable for another few years (I probably would have been a Goth kid had I been a few years younger) because my mother hated black. Part of this was normal teenage rebellion (and in the ’70’s, dressing in unisex, sloppy clothes such as workshirts hanging over beat up jeans was the fashion) but for me it was also a way to say “fuck you” to my mother’s obsession with image at the expense of my growth as an individual.
Obsessive housekeeping and obsession with their own and their children’s bodily functions is another way narcissists can exert control and dominance, as well as a desperate and sad unconscious attempt to hide or try to “clean out” their own spiritual filthiness.