I’ve been grappling with a bit of a dilemma in the last few weeks. A figure from my past, who I worked hard to forget, has reappeared in a very public forum. He has been tasked by the government with a position of great responsibility, and that rankles with me. Because the person I knew ten years ago was far from deserving of such acclaim.
On several occasions I have come close to outing him – to sharing the details of his betrayal and asking, publicly, whether such a man should be trusted in this role. My decision not to was not an easy one to make: it does not come from a desire to protect him, or the feeling that he should be given the benefit of the doubt. It comes instead out of fear.
Even as I type this I can feel my pulse quicken and a sour taste rise in my mouth. I am furious that, after all this time, he can have this hold over me: but such is the power of the narcissist.
This man did not abuse me, physically. What he did was way more insidious: undermined my self-esteem and worldview to the extent that I did not know which way was up any more, then pulled the rug from underneath me to reveal depths of deception that I had not even begun to imagine. He was an expert manipulator – to paraphrase his brother he was ‘a pathological liar who I would not trust with my own children’. And this is why, after much deliberation, I cannot bring myself to take him on. He has too much to lose, and I am sure he would have no qualms about destroying me in his quest to protect it.
Even at the time, it was hard to communicate to an outsider (or even to myself) what it was that was so toxic about our relationship. On the surface, I was holding it all together – a burgeoning teaching career, an active social life, the ability to turn on a smile whenever it was needed. But underneath it all I was slowly crumbling away. It took me many years to recover fully, and it’s just not a place I want to go back to.
It has got me thinking, though, about how strong women get taken down by manipulative men. I have met several women in the time that has passed who have escaped from similar situations, and each time my response has been similar: “But you’re so clever/pretty/funny/brilliant. How on earth could you let yourself get taken in by such a loser?”
And that’s from someone who’s been there. So how anyone who has not been subject to such skilled manipulation is expected to understand it is anyone’s guess.
This is in the forefront of my mind now as I begin to work on the latest draft of my second novel. Whilst it is not autobiographical, the dynamic of the central relationship definitely plays out along these lines. And the conversation I had with my agent about it last week mirrors my fears about trying to resurrect the injustices of the past. To her, it’s just not believable. The predicament my protagonist wanders haplessly into makes her look impossibly naive. It is the behaviour, she suggested, of a teenage girl rather than a confident woman in her twenties.
I wish I could go back and tell myself the same.
Of course, in the context of my novel, my agent is entirely right. Often events that are pulled directly from real life are incredibly difficult to translate into fiction. Without the anchor of incontrovertible fact the challenge of making someone buy into a story is all the harder. So I know I need to go back to the manuscript and work out how to do that, how to tweak and tease the details of my protagonist’s life and the way I tell her story to convince the reader that she really could be so vulnerable.
And against the backdrop of this ghost from my past being put on such a pedestal, my motivation to get it right is all the stronger.
I may not be brave (or stupid) enough to take this man to task on a public stage, but I can do my damnedest to expose the complex dance of mental disorder that unfolds in a narcissistic relationship. And maybe even, by holding a mirror sharpened by fiction up to the nightmare suffered by its victims, I can open up a dialogue which will enable others to be a little less afraid of confronting the demons in their past.