I’m going to start writing a novel about a sociopath. Maybe. Possibly. Perhaps. Maybe not. Erm… yes, I am. I think.
It started off as yer normal writer’s vague interest but in the last few days something strange has happened. Oh, boy. Very strange. They say you should only write about what you know, so what on earth do I know about sociopaths?
Turns out I know a whole lot more than I thought I knew…..
I’ve been thinking about the novel for a while but things came to a head when I found a pile of old papers… usual stuff, old tax bills, contracts, and instruction manuals etc and among them are the invoices sent to me for my father’s night nursing. He had home nursing for the last 7 or 8 years of his life, and as I looked at this wad of paper, wow, it came flooding back.
My parents had retired to a bungalow in Norfolk. Theirs was an unusually close marriage, my father doted on my step-mother, and deferred to her in all things. And I do mean ALL things. She was admired for her devotion, her career had been as a theatre nurse, her approach to life was professional and she still enjoyed giving nursing/medical advice to neighbours and friends. She waited on Dad hand and foot.
So, Gerry and Norah, a devoted love match. Because they were so in love, she had insisted that his children left the house as soon as they were able and we were rarely welcomed back. Even when they retired and Martin (single) moved to just a few miles from them, her rule was that he could visit his father every day, at 4pm and stay for ten minutes. To the neighbours she would say “If Martin visits every day we can make sure he’s looking after himself.” and so she was seen as wonderfully caring. Although their home was regimented, she was selfless, a pillar of the Roman Catholic Church, devout and loving to all. Dad adored her. Her only self indulgences were her beloved cacti collection and her two small dogs, who were as restricted by her rules as everyone else.
By the time Dad began to grow frail, I was earning well as a writer and she began to boast about me, and instead of the monthly visit, I was welcomed more often to their home. When they needed a new bathroom, they sent the bill to me. Then a kitchen, then a remodelled dining room. A new car. Re-roofing. And so it went on. That was fine by me – money is for spending on the people you love, or what’s the use of it? On most visits I would be given an invoice for something ‘your father really needed’. I really, really loved my Dad, and – here comes an embarrassing admission – even as an adult I wanted to love her too, and for her to love me. She had been brought into my life as a mother substitute so I needed to love her as a mother.
Martin and I had always struggled with her demands but for Dad’s sake we bit our lips and accepted her rules and reign. But actually that’s just half the story – the bald truth is that we were both emotionally captured and we couldn’t admit just how callously she was using us. Her only son had died at 6 weeks old and we excused all her behaviour, lies, schemes, nastiness, because we could imagine nothing worse than the loss of a child. We thought that the death of little Anthony had broken her heart. Maybe we even thought that if we loved her enough, one day she would be mended. We were wrong.
Then, on a visit to that suffocating bungalow in Norfolk (pale sickly green walls, carpet, suite, curtains, kitchen), as I saw my Dad going into the bathroom, with my stepmother helping him, I had a sudden horrible suspicion that he was afraid of her, wary and ready for a blow or a shove. I watched them carefully over the next few visits and my conviction grew. I hoped I was being neurotic – after all, the first play I ever wrote was about a father who deeply loved his disabled son but was hitting him in exhausted despair. What if I was imagining it? I went to see Martin, to share my ‘incredible suspicion’ and he said “Thank God. I thought no one would ever believe me.”
It was difficult – if we challenged her, she’d never let us see Dad again, and if we approached some external agency to help, they would have been separated and that would have broken him. Plus, we could barely believe our own suspicions so who else would believe them? We told ourselves that she was worn out and that the situation must be tormenting her just as it was tormenting us. We felt so sorry for her. For her sake as much as his, we had to do something.
I employed a home help for them. Then as Dad became more frail, I took on a night time carer two nights a week so that my stepmother had a break. Soon she had requested carers 5 nights a week. When work permitted I would be the carer for the weekend. The bills were pretty stiff. My husband had died two years after I started writing, so he wasn’t there to be a sane voice in the situation. She had never fooled him and I know that life would have been very different if George had still been around.
Back to the present; As I came across that pile of invoices, I realised that in 8 years I had spent over 200 thousand pounds on my Dad’s care. Flip me! But what made me really rock back on my heels was finding a letter I had written to the care agency. They’d suggested that, to cut down my costs, the night nurses should be on ‘sleeping nights’ instead of ‘waking nights’. It would also make life easier for the two regular carers who were both young mums. There was a spare room in the bungalow, a guest room, and if they could sleep in there, on-call, my costs would be reduced and their lives more manageable. The letter I found was my explanation to the agency that my stepmother wouldn’t agree to it. She kept her precious cacti collection in the guest room and having someone sleeping in there, with the heating on, and breathing moist air, would damage them.
And so I downsized 5 times to pay my father’s care bills (but the cacti thrived).
As I re-read this letter, the scales fell from my eyes with an almighty clang. At last I realise that in her heart, instead of love, there was brutal calculated pragmatism. She didn’t care about the two young nurses looking after him, or Martin, or me. Maybe because I was already planning to write about a sociopath, it occurred to me to ask ‘Could she have been a sociopath?” That’s when I ordered two well respected books on anti-social personalities and read them both, cover to cover, sometimes exclaiming aloud with recognition. I knew a lot of the stuff, as we all do, but they clarified the essence of the sociopath (aka psychopath, personality disorder, those with no conscience). Through this, I’ve met Norah, my stepmother, all over again.
I see now that she was a classic sociopath. She fills and overflows every criteria. I blink with surprise that we never saw this when she was alive. I think of how my husband disliked her, about the fear of her that both Martin and I had, about our other brother who had cut himself off from her completely, and I wonder… why didn’t we realise who she was? When I was a child she would go to Mass, devoutly clasping her hands, head bowed, when just moments before she had twisted my wrist and whispered, spitting with hatred for me, ‘Loathsome. Loathsome.’ The woman who found a ten year old child loathsome, would then kneel beside me, praying to the God of love.
Could she have had a conscience? I don’t think so. Why had I never seen this?
Are you wondering how my relationship ended with her? A few years after my Dad died, I was working on a TV Soap, living in Wales, a 6 hour journey from her home, and I still drove to see her every month and phone her every day. This day I’d been at a script conference in Manchester and I arrived home after a 5 hour drive across the mountains, weary, hungry, stressed. Before I had even taken my coat off, standing in the hall, I phoned to make sure she was OK. The river of invective, the outpouring of bile and rage, gave me no chance to speak at all, and I stood under this onslaught of spite for what felt like ages. Suddenly something was turned off in me, as if someone else had flicked a switch. I said, simply, and without any upset or emotion “I’m going to hang up now, and I’m never going to speak to you again. Please don’t contact me again, ever. I’ve had enough.’ and I put the phone down. I wasn’t upset, I wasn’t angry, or vengeful. It was unpremeditated and it surprised me, but the feeling of relief and liberation was fabulous.
That was it. I never spoke to her again. I believe she died about 4 years ago. I have no regrets, no feelings at all. Which is very odd.
But she is still in my head. When I see a friend I love and care about, someone I am deeeeelighted to see, do you know what sometimes happens? I hear that word, whispered and venomous, “Loathsome.” It blots out the world, swamps my thoughts. Then I know I shouldn’t be there, that I am repulsive. Get out, get out. Run. Get in the car, foot down. Thank God you have the sports model.
It’s hindered friendships and limited my life. It doesn’t happen often now, but it still happens. This is her legacy.
This is her legacy and I reject it.
I can reject it now, call it out for the lie it is, because the world I know now is full of love. Good, kind, selfless, real love. Love that supports and encourages. It’s not perfect, and often it fails, but it comes from a good place and the people I know now have shown me this:
God loves me. God loves you. God is Love. I am loved. He has always loved me. Before I knew Him he loved me. Even as Norah was hissing ‘Loathsome’ God was saying ‘Loved’.
Here’s the thing, my little bloggies, if you feel unlovely sometimes, unlovable, and unloved, please know that this a lie. Don’t live with the lie. Reject it, right now, before it poisons your tomorrow. I allowed it to poison so many tomorrows. If you grew up with someone who told you that you were unlovable, if you are with someone now who tells you that you are unloveable, break free. Break free. This is not what God wants you to believe.
There’s a song I recorded at church a couple of weeks ago and I’ve listened to it a whole lot as I’ve been working through this. It’s more than a happy happenstance that this was the song the worship team had chosen when I had my iPhone recording. These words are there to console me, sung by people I love, to the God we know and adore. ‘You alone are my strength, my shield, To you alone may my spirit yield.’
There’s only one voice we should listen to and believe absolutely and without question, only one we should entirely trust and obey. God. And He has told us, over and over again, and with every dawn and every sunset, that we are loved. Not loathed. Different spelling.
Thinking about my stepmother, and seeing the havoc she wreaked for everyone who met her, and yet how easily she held them – or most of them – in her thrall, I want to write about someone like her but I wonder if it’s possible to do this with any degree of compassion. Am I really going to write this thing? Will it work?
Hey, imagine a little village like mine, and into it comes a successful intelligent sociopathic man with a great deal of ambition…. or maybe he comes into a church…. ooh. Imagine the ruined lives in his wake, how will he be treated, how will the story end? If he comes into a small welcoming church like mine, how will we greet him, what will he do, how will we react? The murderous sociopath is rare. Most of them live among us, unrecognised but malignant and self obsessed, not into murder but crushing the hopes of others, seizing and hugging control, exercising power. Pretending love. How long will it be before he’s rumbled, if ever? Will the simple trusting love of a Christian Community mean that he can run riot, or will wisdom and discernment win the day?
‘Meeting’ my stepmother again has made me realise that for all her prayers and Masses, candles and Rosaries, she didn’t know Love, so she didn’t know God. And yes, today, this minute, I am sorry for her. I am.
To go through life not knowing God is the most terrible tragedy I could imagine, and I find that I am sorry for her.
It may not last long, but maybe God put that little seed of sorrow in me.
“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. Whoever puts his trust in God’s Son will not be lost but will have life that lasts forever.”