I could not tear my eyes away from Helen Naylor’s memoir, My Mother, Munchausen’s and Me.
There was a time when I loved my mother. It’s shocking to imply that I stopped loving my mum because mothers always love their children and always do their best for them. Mothers are supposed to be good. But my mother wasn’t good.
There’s no shortage of memoirs about narcissistic parents, but what makes Helen’s story a little different is that her mother, Elinor, was a narcissist and had Munchausen Syndrome. Helen’s childhood was completely shaped by Elinor’s ‘diagnosis’ with chronic fatigue syndrome, and she spent her days alone, tip-toeing around the house to avoid interrupting Elinor’s naps.
As a teenager, Helen found she couldn’t rely on Elinor for anything, and Helen’s own anxiety and body-image issues grew, fueled by her mother’s deliberate and emotionally abusive behaviour. In her twenties, Elinor was miraculously ‘cured’ of chronic fatigue, but was then diagnosed with the onset of Parkinson’s disease. Cue shaking limbs, difficulty walking, rafts of tests and the need for various medications (and a nurse to help administer).
It was only after Elinor’s self-induced death, that Helen found her mother’s diaries which revealed she had been faking debilitating illnesses for thirty years.
Throughout all of this, Helen’s father was chronically ill, and died when Helen was in her twenties. I mention this as many would view her father’s lack of intervention as condoning Elinor’s behaviour, or even being complicit. Equally, many may wonder why Helen didn’t realise sooner what was happening.
Over and over again, people fail to understand that if you are in an abusive situation, your defense system is in overdrive – you do what you need to do to survive, and for Helen and her father that involved a lot of saying nothing and people-pleasing. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult for children of narcissistic parents to break-away – we are biologically geared to seek security from our parents, and therefore the damage is done over many years.
The extent of Elinor’s behaviour is breathtaking and the emotional abuse directed at Helen, astounding – I won’t share too much, however, Elinor’s reaction to the news of Helen’s miscarriage (essentially that Helen would never be ‘good enough’ to have a baby, with a reminder that Helen herself was never wanted and ruined Elinor’s life) was so terribly cruel. Alongside that, were the situations that would have been maddening – for example, Elinor having ‘falls’ that included conveniently landing on the floor with a pillow under her head and the TV remote in hand – I guess if you’re going to lie on the floor for a few hours until you can be ‘rescued’, you may as well be comfortable.
There was a hint of Helen ‘building her case’, with the countless stories alongside the diary entries, and I pondered if in fact all memoirs are about ‘building your case’. The important part of this story, is that Helen does not describe herself as a victim, but rather a person who was betrayed by the one relationship that ‘should’ have been nurturing.
I received an audiobook copy of My Mother, Munchausen’s and Me from the publisher, Thread Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.