Read a Sample from Traumatic Narcissism, by Daniel Shaw, LCSW

Traumatic Narcissism by Daniel Shaw, LCSW(Excerpt from Chapter 2, “The Adult Child of the Traumatizing Narcissist: Enter Ghosts”)

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

When Eugene O’Neill had finished his masterpiece, the autobiographical play “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (2002), he gave it to his wife Carlotta with this note:

“Dearest: I give you the original script of this play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood…  I mean it as a tribute to your love and tenderness which gave me the faith in love that enabled me to face my dead at last and write this play –  write it with deep pity and understanding and forgiveness for all the four haunted Tyrones…” (O’Neill, 2002, p. 7).

He instructed Carlotta not to allow the play to be produced until after his death. It stunned audiences when it was first performed in 1956, and it stunned me as a college student when I first saw the film version; but never more so than when I attended a Broadway production in 2003.  That night on Broadway, some four hours after the curtain went up, the brilliant cast took their bows. Both the actors on stage and the standing audience were ashen faced, many weeping. Outstanding performances by masterful actors were being applauded, as the shattered lives of the tortured souls they portrayed were being mourned in the audience=s acknowledgment. Had Eugene O=Neill been alive to take a bow for the writing of his autobiographical play, I imagine he would have been greeted with even greater adulation.

O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night tells the story of his own family, called the Tyrones in the play – his morphine addicted mother, whose only girlhood dream had been to become a nun; his miserly, broken father, once an actor considered a genius, who had ended instead a redundant hack; the charismatic, brilliant older brother who could neither work nor love, nor stop from drinking himself to death; and O’Neill himself, the youngest, ill with tuberculosis, recovering from a year-long drunken binge that had brought him to the brink of suicide.

The play comes to its unbearable end. Now almost dawn, the sleepless family is gathered together. Mother is lost in a morphine rapture, recalling her girlhood dream of becoming a nun. As she croons of the only happiness she can remember – the golden days before she ever met her husband, or had her children – her sons and her husband listen: exhausted, devastated, brokenhearted beyond mending. The question of who is to blame for mother=s addiction, and for the misery of them all, is still unanswered, though each member of the family blames every other member, and all most deeply blame themselves. O’Neill — named Edmund in the play, after his brother who had died of childhood illness before O’Neill was born — will leave that morning for the sanatarium, where he hopes to sober up and cure his tuberculosis. As the curtain falls, each member of the family has in some measure been forgiven by the playwright, yet no one has been spared.

Or so it seems. If we take a closer look at what O’Neill left out of his autobiographical play, written toward the end of his life, a very different, untold story is revealed. Virtually everything about young Edmund that we learn in the play exactly matches O’Neill’s personal history, except for one omitted detail. The sea voyage O’Neill returned from prior to the action of the play (a voyage he memorialized in The Moon of the Caribees (1919) and the other short plays he wrote at the beginning of his career) was embarked upon almost immediately after the birth of his first son, whom O’Neill promptly abandoned and did not lay eyes on until the boy was 11 years old. O’Neill faithfully transcribed his autobiography in his first sea plays and in A Long Day’s Journey, but his son and the wife who gave birth to him were redacted, disappeared.

Reading O’Neill’s biographies (Scheaffer, 1968, 1973; Black, 1999; Gelb and Gelb, 2000) shortly after experiencing the thrilling performance I’ve described, I found myself shocked and disturbed by the story he never told in any of his writing:  the story of his three children, all of whom he was barely willing to see for more than a few weeks a year, never all of them together; and each of whom he eventually erased from his awareness (and his grandchildren along with them), all of whom he disowned and disinherited. One by one, he nursed his bitter contempt for each of them, and he let each of them know it in the cruelest of terms. As adults, his two sons each ended their lives by suicide, one by slashing his wrists, the other, a long-time heroin addict, by jumping out a window. His daughter Oona, who married 56 year old Charles Chaplin when she was barely 18 years old, was 66 years old when she died after years of depressive alcoholism. One person in this autobiographical long day’s journey was, in fact, spared:  O’Neill himself, its author. He presents himself as lost, searching, longing, despairing – but not as the self-absorbed deserter of his first wife and child, whose contempt for them was all he felt they deserved. O’Neill’s portrayal of himself as a tragic hero could not hold up if the inconvenient truth of his traumatizing narcissism in regard to his children were acknowledged.

O’Neill expressed repeatedly, in plays, letters, and reported conversations, the persistent longing throughout his life and into old age to collapse in the arms of an ideally tender woman and find, with his head nestled at her bosom, a desperately sought relief from aloneness and pain, a paradise long-lost and finally found. The climactic scene of another of O’Neill’s later masterpieces, A Moon for the Misbegotten (1952), portrays the male lead sobbing and confessing extensively while being held to the breast of the female lead. O’Neill took pains to specify in his stage directions that she was to have a deep chest, and large firm breasts. O’Neill’s lifelong yearning for peace at the breast is extensively documented in two papers by Hamilton (1976; 1979). The intensity of O’Neill’s fantasy of peace and redemption at the breast – an experience he was surely deprived of with his mother, who, in the throes of severe postpartum depression, retreated into morphine addiction soon after his birth – certainly makes sense in the context of his lifelong melancholia. Karl Abraham (1973) first noted this intense oral longing and considered it pathognomonic for melancholia. But this longing may also offer a way to explain the contempt and disgust O’Neill felt toward his own children. If there was a breast to be had, O’Neill as father seemed to want it for himself alone; he did not want to have to share it. In the battle for the breast, he came to view his children as his mortal enemies. In denial of his profound competitive envy of them, he contrived justifications for holding them in utter contempt – the more so as they began to achieve any kind of success or recognition for their independent professional accomplishments. He defeated their attempts to know and love him with the cruelest weapon a parent can employ – the withholding of love. By attributing his withholding of love to what he defined as their inexcusable deficiencies, he deepened the wounds.

Once O’Neill had decided his children were worthless, it was for him as if they had never existed. His marriage to Carlotta, his third wife, was his most successful, and fully supported his abandonment of his children. Carlotta had in fact abandoned her only child, Cynthia, shortly after giving birth.  She reunited with her daughter some years later, and the adult daughter, Cynthia, developed a fond relationship with O’Neill. Not surprisingly, Carlotta soon found reason to denounce and disown Cynthia; and then Carlotta helped to persuade O’Neill to denounce and disinherit his own children as well. With Carlotta’s and O’Neill’s adult children out of the picture, Carlotta had no competition for the complete control of O’Neill, and he submitted to her completely.

Many believe that “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” is America’s greatest play, and I have found it to be extraordinarily insightful and profoundly moving. Kohut (1990a) was particularly fond of O’Neill=s plays, and offered his own thoughts about O’Neill’s biography:

“In contrast to most of the students of O’Neill’s life, I would not regard his actions as being selfish in the derogatory sense in which this word is customarily employed but rather as being undertaken in the service of his creativity, i.e., as enabling him to reach conditions in which he could simultaneously live out the pattern of his self most fully and give to others the best he had to give…” (1990a, p. 575).

The story of O’Neill’s family of origin, and especially the narcissism of his parents, certainly helps us understand his drinking, his desperate yearning for the mending of his brokenness, his search for comfort in the arms of a devoted woman, who would be both wife and mother to him. Kohut is correct about what it took for O’Neill to be able to write as powerfully as he did. I suspect, though, that Kohut may not have been fully aware of the extent of O’Neill’s abandonment and cruel condemnation of his children, and that he would be less likely to applaud unambiguously his adaptive use of playwrighting as his personal lifeboat, if he had known that O’Neill had in essence pushed all three of his children overboard, leaving them to drown!

O’Neill was treated psychoanalytically for a brief time, mainly for his alcoholism. He did give up alcohol for the most part, but lived out the rest of his life addicted to sedatives. His biographies do not say if the subject of his children was ever raised in his analysis, but it appears that it was not. As is well known, the traumatizing narcissist can be charismatic and gifted, he can produce great works of art, he can even demonstrate acts of courage and wisdom. But I do not think we as analysts can ever really know these people as patients in the same way that their children know them as parents. According to Aristotle, A…the family is the most tragic site for drama because the greatest horror arises when cruelty is done where the presence of love is assumed (cited in Davis, 1994, p. 154).  The tragedy of O’Neill’s family, his family of origin and the broken family he went on to create, is a tragedy in many families:  where a parent’s love is expected, a child instead finds pervasive rejection, exploitation and cruelty. In extreme cases, the traumatizing narcissist can convince his own children that they have no reason to live. In spite of how damaged O’Neill felt having grown up with such terribly traumatizing narcissistic parents, he was able to survive his own suicide attempt. Two out of three of his children did not.

O’Neill’s story, and the fate of his children gives a grim portrait of the intergenerational nature of traumatic narcissism and its tragically destructive impact.

From Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation, pp. 23-26

Published by Routledge Mental Health