Online with Dr. Karyl McBride: Interview With Koren Zailckas

Peg Streep Interview with Dr. Karyl McBride

Here is a recap of Dr. Karyl McBride's interview with author, Koren Zailckas on Facebook, Monday, November 4th.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Your book is a novel, titled: Mother, Mother. It is an exploration of narcissism in a family where the narcissistic mother who claims to love really tears the family apart. Written in a psych thriller format, it is quite a story. What made you decide to write this book? How did you come up with the title?

Koren Zailckas: Well, this book is a novel, but it was also a very personal project. I grew up in a difficult family, and my own relationship with my mother is a topic that I broached a little bit in my last memoir FURY.

MOTHER MOTHER grew out of a lot of grief and anxiety that I’ve been struggling with in the years since. I guess you could say it was an attempt to process some real emotions in an imagined scenario and a fake family

I can't claim responsibility for the title. My publisher helped me there. But I really love it. Because, at its heart, MOTHER MOTHER is about the way siblings can be raised by the exact same people and still have different parents.

This book is told from two perspectives. One is eleven-year-old Will, who has recently inherited the position of the family golden child from his estranged sister Rose. Will is home-schooled and trying very hard to not to rock the boat, even if that means staying childlike and fending off adolescence. The other perspective is Will’s sixteen-year-old sister Violet. She’s the family black sheep, and I really identify with her in that way.

I think, together, Will and Violet really get at the two opposing mindsets when you’re struggling with childhood trauma and PTSD. You’ve got the part of your brain (the Will half) that’s hyper-vigilant and hanging on to some child-like logic; it’s telling you that your safety is still at risk. And then you have the other part (the Violet mindset), which has a little bit more intellectual understanding about why the adults in your life used to behave the way they did. I hope, together, they give the book a nice yin and yang.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?

Koren Zailckas: Well, I like the idea that the stories we tell each other should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. With MOTHER MOTHER, I really wanted to give people who grew up with loving, affectionate, engaged parents a chance to experience at least an inkling of the confusion and terror that kids like Will and Violet live with daily. And I also wanted to let people who grew up with personality disordered parents know that they aren’t alone. I still remember what a relief it was--getting a therapist’s perspective, reading books like WILL I EVER BE GOOD ENOUGH?--and realizing, wow, there’s a name for this family dynamic I’ve always struggled to describe. And jeez, lots of people grew up with pasts that are similar to the one I’ve been hiding.

When you grow up playing the scapegoat, like Violet, you live with nagging questions, like, “Am I crazy?” “Did I imagine it?” “Am I to blame?” And I guess, in some ways, MOTHER MOTHER was my attempt to tell those kinds of kindred spirits, “No. No. And no. You’re not nuts. You just lived in very close proximity to nuts.” As my mentor Mary Karr (author of THE LIARS’ CLUB and herself the daughter of a very difficult mother) says, “You just got a whiff of cat sh*t is all.” It’s not your fault and, sick as it all was, some positive qualities probably grew out of that bad experience too: it likely made you braver, deeper and more empathetic to other people who struggle.

Dr. Karyl McBride: How much of the book is realistic or informed by your own life and experience with a narcissistic parent?

Koren Zailckas: I think most, if not all, of the action in MOTHER MOTHER is imagined. But my family of origin definitely shares the Hursts’ communication-style. I grew up in clan where people rarely talked to one another directly--much of it got filtered through and dispersed by one person. There was a lot of gossip and gas lighting, lots of whispering in corners and back rooms, a load of false information and pitting people against each other.

That’s a really painful thing. Because, when you have a mother like that, it doesn’t just destroy your relationship with her, it also impacts, say, your relationship with your father, your other brothers and sisters, even any extended family or outside support you might have. Even if you have siblings, you feel like an only child. Everyone in the family (save for the narcissist) live parallel lives.

At its core, I think MOTHER MOTHER is about the pain Violet feels about being unable to know or be close to her sister Rose. And that definitely grew out of my own sense of grief.

Dr. Karyl McBride: When your character Violet was in the psych ward, she met a peer there named Edie. Edie seemed to understand the dynamics of narcissistic families. It was like Edie read my book, Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Where did the inspiration for this character come from? What role does Edie play in Violet’s recovery? Do you have any Edie’s in your life? I started called her Edie the shrink!

Koren Zailckas: I think Edie has definitely read WILL I EVER BE GOOD ENOUGH?. No question! And probably committed whole passages to memory!

I think you’re right; Edie is the best shrink Violet knows. Edie is sort of the broken healer--the damaged professor of psychology--and she’s made it her mission to read everything she can about narcissism and personality disorders, even as she’s struggling to finish college and get a handle on her own self-destructive habits.

I was deeply attached to Edie when I was writing this book, and I still am. My editor and I cut out about a hundred pages from the original manuscript, and almost all of it was about Edie’s back-story and Edie’s friendship with Violet.

I think I love Edie because she’s realized that this thing she used to try to hide--this deeply traumatic childhood--is actually a source of connection to other people. Edie’s not trying to numb out anymore. She’s feeling the feelings, no matter how messy. And (a bit like yourself, Karyl) she’s leaving breadcrumbs for people like Violet who are still groping along, trying to find some way out of that early darkness.

Edie is almost like the narcissistic-mother-recovery version of a sponsor in AA. Edie has been, for lack of better terms, “sober” for a bit longer than Violet. She gives Violet the language she needs to process what’s happening to her. Edie lets her know her family situation isn’t unique. And, most important of all, she lets Violet know it gets better.

I definitely have a few beloved Edies in my life. My therapist is one. Mary Karr is another. So is a friend who had to go no contact with her sister, and another who did the same with her mother. I get a lot of emails from Edies. And meet them at book events. There are usually a lot of tears, and gasping, and “that-same-thing-happened-to-me”ing! And a lot of laughing too because you realize so much of it is awfully predictable and darkly funny.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Of the three children in the family, Rose, Violet and Will, how did you see them in the typical roles of children in the narcissistic family? Who was the scapegoat, golden child, etc…? Did you fit one of these roles in your own family?

Koren Zailckas: Well, I think before Rose ran away she was the Hursts’ golden child. Rose is an actress, and her mother Josephine really enjoys the validation and attention that Rose’s stage persona brings to the family.

After Rose’s rebellion, Will sort of inherits Rose’s seat as the GC. His mother decides he’s having problems at school because other children envy his intellect, and she really pushes him hard, telling him he can make something of his language skills. It’s a lot of pressure and it makes Will start to get really neurotic about his word choices, saying the right thing, describing things the “right” way. Will becomes obsessed with unusual and arcane words and uses them in every day conversation, which results in a lot of confusion and awkward moments. It’s sort of a narcissistic use of language. It’s using language to awe and elevate oneself instead of using it to connect. But Will just can’t help himself. Losing his mother’s newfound attention and admiration would feel, to him, like psychic death.

Violet is definitely the scapegoat in this family. She knows, quite rightly, that any choice she makes will be the wrong one as far as her mother is concerned. And so, she’s pretty much stopped trying, not realizing that’s the most obedient thing she can do. When we first meet Violet, she’s stopped trying in school. She’s stopped really caring about her appearance. She’s even shaved her head in an attempt to subconsciously renounce the emphasis her mother puts on superficial appearances. She’s gotten heavy into Eastern Religions and meditating, which is really just like dissociation the way she does it. It’s an attempt to just stop feeling the normal emotions that her family can’t tolerate. Oh, and she’s exploring psychedelic drugs for the very same reason; she sees them as a way to escape her painful reality and create a new one.

I definitely relate to Violet. As a kid, I did a lot of binge drinking in an effort to numb out the family pain. I think, also, it was a subconscious effort to kill myself in a way that could pass for accidental and socially acceptable (at least for a teenager and college student).

Even writing my first memoir SMASHED was an active effort to maintain that scapegoat role. It felt comfortable to make myself a cautionary tale and a bad example, so I made myself the kind of “face” of this female binge-drinking epidemic. I’m still glad I wrote SMASHED, don’t get me wrong. But it’s also a little sad in retrospect. What better way to strive without overshadowing the big personalities in my life than to write a book proclaiming myself as a mess?

Dr. Karyl McBride: Violet says in the book, “I wish addiction was the problem, but giving up family, even an abusive family, felt even harder than kicking a drug habit.” Can you say more about this for daughters and sons of narcissistic parents?

Koren Zailckas: Whew. Yes, that’s a personal one for me. In the years after Smashed, I had a hard time defining myself. I’d stopped drinking on my own without rehab, and quite luckily for me, that part wasn’t very tricky. I didn’t have any cravings for alcohol. I didn’t feel like I was supplementing that addiction for anything else--well, anything other than self-denial. For a time, like Violet, I gave up meat, dairy, sugar, caffeine, self-care, spontaneity, fun.

People were always wishing me good luck with my “recovery,” and yet I didn’t feel like I was necessarily recovering from alcoholism. I felt like I was recovering from something I couldn't name. It took me about five years to realize I was recovering from family stress, dissociation, PTSD, etc.

Just like recovery from an addiction to substances, recovery from a dysfunctional family is a looong process. Some would say, it’s a lifelong process. You’re always bringing a new thing from your past into awareness and each time, at least to begin with, that’s painful. Opening those neural pathways--being more self-aware--can hurt. It’s sort of like being in a tight, dark tunnel where you can’t always see the light on the other side. But, no matter how terrifying and uncertain it is, forging forward is way less scary than going backward to the place you’ve come from.

I’ve tried recovery without a therapist, but it’s tough going alone. Therapy is essential for me. Learning intentional, deep breathing has helped too. I’ve had three kids now, and I realized PTSD is a little like living in perpetual labor. Those childhood flashbacks feel like labor contractions. I’ve learned new techniques to breathe and stay present through them, to ground myself, try to figure out the trigger and make preparations for the next one.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Did you find writing the book to be therapeutic for you? Did you learn anything important to your own recovery in writing the book?

Koren Zailckas: I find writing really therapeutic. It sort of began as an early coping mechanism. In a dysfunctional family, where you’re not allowed to talk about what you’re feeling or where you’re called on to pretend you didn’t see what you saw, you learn to squirrel experiences away in journals and notebooks. Writing becomes the best (and sometimes the only) way to make sense of things.

In my adult life, I’ve also found writing is a way for me to first bring the past into consciousness in a way that isn’t too threatening or overwhelming. For instance, I was almost finished with MOTHER MOTHER before I realized Will’s seizures bore a striking resemblance to the fainting spells I used to have as a kid (the ones that only happened when I was at home, never at school, and usually when I was in close contact with my mother). In that way, writing MOTHER MOTHER made me realize just how long I’d been dissociating, how numb I’d been to my own anxiety. Writing Will, especially, put me back in touch with that scared little kid inside me. He made me realize that I associated vulnerability with fear, which was the first step in separating the two.

Dr. Karyl McBride: May I quote something from the book for our readers? “Some mothers cannot love…Ask any farmer, they’ll tell you some moms just aren’t naturals. Having a baby doesn’t make you a mother any more than buying a piano makes you f*cking Beethoven.” Can you say more about this from your own experience?

Koren Zailckas: That passage was sort of born from an experience I had in a yarn store here in upstate New York a few years ago. I was inside, browsing with a friend, when one of the sheep farmers came in wearing rubber overalls and announced her sad morning. Two of the newborn lambs had died, she said. They’d frozen to death because the ewes hadn’t brought them inside to the warmth of the barn. And I realized, wow, this is a regular occurrence in nature: you get mothers who just don’t have the capacity to be nurturing.

I think, as a society, we think women have kids and some kind of mothering instinct naturally kicks in. And, yes, that’s the case most of the time. But sometimes--because of genetics or early life trauma or both--it just doesn’t work that way. You’re born to a personality disordered sheep. When you’re the kid who gets psychologically left out in the cold, it feels really personal. But it isn’t. The narcissistic ewe isn’t thinking of you. The narcissistic sheep isn’t thinking anything at all when she automatically seeks out warmth for herself and leaves little you behind. It’s mindless. Her thought process is like the static station on the TV.

Being in that yarn shop was really an emotional, ah-ha moment for me. I realized some of the things my mother did and does aren’t intentional. They’re just a fact of life. And I also realized that I’ve been shown lots of maternal love from friends, teachers, colleagues, in-laws and extended family. Even though they didn’t birth me, they were maternal (even some of the men!). And they’ve taught me a lot about how to mother my own kids.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Violet, in the book, realized she had a difficult time having innocent fun. That is an interesting factor for adult children of N parents. Learning to be real, and have joy and fun in their lives. What is your experience with this? Have you found ways to bring innocent fun into your life? Does Violet in the book?

Koren Zailckas: Oh yes, this is something I became painfully aware of when I had kids. My kids almost had to teach me, day by day, how to be silly and playful. My oldest is four, so there’s still a lot of magic in our lives and I get lots of practice having fun.

I didn’t often have that in my own childhood, growing up. When you did normal kid-things in my family of origin, you were hushed or punished, called names or told off for getting dirty. But it feels amazing now, as a mother, to get muddy, sing loud, play with all the toys at once, and find my own line between rules and permissiveness.

That said, I was horrified the day when a therapist suggested I needed to really concentrate on tolerating joy. That’s how she put it, “tolerating joy.” And my initial thought was what kind of monster thinks joy is something she has to grit her teeth and white-knuckle her way through?

But there are times when being happy (or expressing it outwardly) still makes me feel really vulnerable and scared. I expect some invisible fist to come down and take me down a notch. Sometimes, I find I have to breathe and slow down in joyous moments the same way I do in difficult ones. I have to catch myself when I feel scared that I’m feeling too happy, and (here’s the hard part) I have to try hard not to judge myself too harshly for it. Because of course, anyone who grew up the way we did might struggle to be positive, sunny and spontaneous. There was a time, long ago, when that kind of attitude put us at risk.

It takes lots of time and practice, but I think MOTHER MOTHER’s Violet will get there. She’s learning to trust herself, which is the first step. Once you trust yourself, feelings of safety follow, and when you feel safe, it’s easier to have fun.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Edie, the faux shrink in the psych ward, says the following about getting narcissists to leave you alone, “Almost impossible…they almost never give up anyone who’s given them narcissistic supply. If you ignore them, they come on stronger. First with the charm offensive, and if that doesn’t sway you, they’ll settle for stalking you.” Can you share anything about this from the book or your own life? I think our readers will relate.

Koren Zailckas: About a year ago, I asked a couple of people in my family to stop contacting me, and experienced the same kind of backlash Edie describes. There were inevitable ambushes. Angry voicemails from anonymous numbers. Family showing up at work engagements. It makes me really anxious to set boundaries under the best of circumstances, so having no contact violated over and over (while predictable) was and is really upsetting.

But at the same time, it made a lot of things crystal clear. If a friend came to me, and told me she was seeing a man who’d demonstrated safety issues with her kids, who’d showed up at her house after she told him not to, who showered her with gifts after an abusive outburst and reacted with name-calling and extreme anger after she refused his advances, I’d tell her to stop seeing him immediately and seek out a restraining order. I think anyone would. Why? Because that kind of behavior is scary and wrong. Somehow that’s easier to say when you’re talking about a romantic partner. But the same thing applies when your parent is the hypothetical “ex.”

Dr. Karyl McBride: The book is quite amazing. It is like you took the major dynamics I talk about in Will I Ever Be Good Enough? and wove them into a page turning, unstoppable novel that tells a story about all the real dynamics of narcissistic families. I have never seen anything like it. Where can our readers find you and the book? Can you give us links to purchase? Are you speaking anywhere that our readers may come to hear you?

Koren Zailckas: In addition to Facebook and Twitter, you can find me at my website, which has links to booksellers and upcoming events. I’m also at the Miami Book Fair this November and hoping to add a few more events in 2014.

Dr. Karyl McBride: Where do you get the support and encouragement you need to be such a successful writer in spite of your childhood experiences?

Koren Zailckas: I spent a lot of my childhood in a small town with few friends within walking distance and very little access to outside families. I loved books, initially, because they shielded me from my parents’ view. (It’s hard for someone to start trouble with you when you put a copy of HALF MAGIC or THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA between yourself and them.) But books also seemed to hold all this empathy the rest of my home life didn’t. Books gave me a chance to walk in a character’s shoes, and on magical occasions, a character really seemed to get where I was coming from as a reader too.

As I got older, I found so much comfort and solidarity in memoir. Especially coming-of-age stories like THIS BOY’S LIFE and THE LIARS’ CLUB, which featured a larger-than-life parent and authors who hadn’t been allowed to take center stage in much of anything, their childhoods included. When I went to college, I got the chance to study with Mary Karr, author of the latter. In addition to being one of the most talented living American writers, she was such a warm maternal presence especially to those of us who struggled in our home lives. She was the first person who ever told me it was possible to make a living writing creatively and telling the stories I wanted to tell.

That said, writing (and any creative pursuit, really) is an exercise in vulnerability. You have to be prepared to hear “no” a million times over. And you have to be ready to devote years to something and have people innumerate all the ways you’ve fallen short. No effort without error, and you can never please everyone a hundred percent of the time.

Goodness knows, criticism can cut deep with us DONMs, which is exactly why I think it’s good to put ourselves out there creatively. You get to learn the difference between constructive critique and the other kind (the kind we grew up with). You get through it, get over it, and find new ways to calm and comfort yourself. I find creative criticism gives me lots of practice for when I come up against criticism in other parts of my life.

Dr. Karyl McBride: You are a young and talented writer, Koren. I applaud you! I am wondering if you are also a mother. If so, was having children a turning point in knowing you were going to parent in different ways than your mother or family? I see this a lot in my practice.

Koren Zailckas: A million times yes. I’m a mother of three kids under five. And becoming a mother was really scary to me. I felt like I was going into it without any sort of handbook. I didn’t want to parent the way my parents had, but I didn’t want to unthinkingly do the opposite either. I felt a lot of self-doubt. What if I accidentally perpetuated the same cycle as my mother, and her mother, and her mother’s mother? To top it all off, my mother had always told me from a really young age (like, I was still playing with dolls) that I wasn’t maternal. Now, I see that as a weird projection. But when you’re little, you don’t know. You take these things as fact.

It’s been really nice proving my mom wrong in that way. And I’m so glad I didn’t let the past rob me of the experience of being a parent. I’ve learned I have my own maternal instincts and I can trust them.

My therapist calls it the “dirty little secret of parenting:” that we have kids in order to enrich our own lives. And it’s true. My kids are so joyful, they’ve taught me joy in turn. They’re so pure; they’ve awakened me to my own goodness (a big thing for the family black sheep who was once convinced she was bad). My kids have also taught me how to separate their experience from my own childhood, which has really helped me live more fully in the present.

It isn’t always easy. Talk about embracing vulnerability. Never are you more vulnerable than you are when the little people you love more than anyone out there, stomping around, falling off bicycles, scraping elbows and knees, having triumphs and disappointments, learning things in their own time, in their own way. But I’ve found leaning into that vulnerability makes the anxiety subside. It does more than deepen maternal love, it makes that love limitless.

koren zailckas interviewKoren Zailckas is an internationally bestselling writer, and has contributed to The Guardian, U.S. News & World Report, Glamour, Jane, and Seventeen magazine. She currently lives with her family in the Catskill mountains of New York. Find Koren online: Website, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon


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