‘This Never Happened’

A Funny and Wildly Original Memoir About Growing up With a Narcissistic Mother

Anyone who didn’t grow up with a narcissistic parent may be baffled in encountering them. Why’s Joe so infuriated by everything his mother says and does? She seems so charming.

However, anyone who did grow up with a self-centered parent knows that there’s no road too low, no lie too bald-faced, no mirror too dingy to repel them.

Liz Scott knows this like gospel. Her memoir This Never Happened details many of the hundreds of horror stories she lived through because of the narcissistic monster who was her mother. At the beating heart of Scott’s book lies her attempts to cope with that mother, and with the legacy of self-erasure she bequeathed. “This is where I live—somewhere smack between pity and rage, between empathy and indictment. And as hard as I look, I still can’t find a place between mercy and pain.”

 

But Scott’s memoir goes far beyond describing family dysfunction in a relatable way. This Never Happened manages to be a thorough explanation of narcissism and its lasting effects, a daring series of experiments in collage memoir, and an addictive read, all at once.

First, Scott has creatively assembled the text. It bursts with bulleted and numbered lists, correspondence, and photographs, which tell Scott’s family history from as many angles as possible without belaboring the narrative. Second, Scott freely admits that she doesn’t have as much to call upon as many writers of memoir: “This is not an autobiography. It is not a coherent, reliable story of a life.” Scott knows next to nothing about her family outside of her mother, father, and sister. She notes that her memories of childhood are thin and poor. Yet she constructed a thoughtful, entertaining, cathartic, and candid book-length work out of these scraps. That’s a third boon. Scott’s fresh, immediate, and often biting style never turns off the reader.

Scott’s mother, Lee, stands, sadly and appropriately, at the center of the book.  Lee clawed and cheated to be the center of everything. She stole Scott’s enjoyment to put herself first in her daughter’s narrative innumerable times, in elaborate ways. One year, she actually prevented Scott’s long-planned guest attendance at the Academy Awards for no reason at all. Scott captures the miserable seesaw of life with a narcissistic parent with both brevity and clarity:

Each time she is a normal person for a minute, the tight grip I have on my guard releases a little bit…I am reassured. I am just a little consoled. I am hoodwinked. She stabs into her last bite of pancakes, turns to me, and says “You know, your sister and I have always been the best-dressed in this family.”

Other elements of This Never Happened include Scott’s absent father and his off-the-charts bitterness, Scott’s multiple bad marriages and difficulties with happiness, and Scott’s sister, who tries more patiently to understand and accommodate their mother. The book incisively depicts a family that’s not a Running with Scissors-type horror, but is certainly dysfunctional. It analyzes parents who’ve left a mark of misery that Scott, having buried them both, raised two children, and built a long career in psychology, cannot scour away.

But a lot of the success of This Never Happened owes itself to Scott’s sense of humor. You can only possibly react to some personalities with laughter or madness. Near the end of the book, Scott reveals that in her mother’s “Valuable Photos” folder, she found pictures of Benito Mussolini. “Fucking Mussolini, naked, hung by his feet, upside down, dead…Fucking naked Mussolini, glossy eight by tens, what the fuck!” At this, Scott and her sister laugh, and then “my sister comes in even closer and says ‘Do you think she had anything to do with it?’”

Scott had a mother so outrageous and unknown that her daughter could, in seriousness, ask if she helped bring down one of the last century’s vilest dictators. When it comes to narcissistic parents, you never know for sure.

(University Of Hell Press, April 2019)

 

Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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