Wednesday, September 19, 2007

If a Look Could Kill ...

"It is impossible to confront someone over their tone of voice, their demeanor or they way they look at you, but once your narcissistic mother has you trained, she can promise terrible punishment without a word. As a result, you’re always afraid, always in the wrong, and can never exactly put your finger on why." Characteristics of Narcissistic Mothers

My mother is a virtuoso at what is described above. I'm going to attempt to describe the "look" without the benefit of pictures. I haven't written about this sooner because a picture is worth a thousand words. I've yet to find a picture with the murderous look my mother is known for by those close to her. I've even tried to use Google images to see if anyone has captured something resembling her look. I still haven't found it. So, I'm going to try to describe it both as it appeared and the emotions it evoked and hope your imagination can do the rest. The quote above proves to me that the controlling look is not something that only my mother used.

I'm sure that not only narcissistic mothers use the "look". It can be an effective tool for any narcissist who has had opportunity to privately terrorize another human being into submission. I am certain, though, that the most effective training to fear a "look" is done when one is very young. Before the age of reason.

"Once your narcissistic mother has you trained, she can promise terrible punishment without a word". The terrifying look is terrifying to you because you were trained to perceive it as such. The "look" was accompanied by swift and terrorizing punishment when you were tiny. Like Pavlov's dogs, it didn't take long to associate that look with certain pain, both emotional and physical. Soon, she only has to flash you "the look" and you drop into line. Likely, all this training was accomplished before you could even talk. This means you react to it on a completely emotional, not rational, basis because you were trained long before your rational brain was up and running.

Once you've been trained, the "look" is a subtle form of communication that the narcissist parent uses to keep you in line especially when others are around. Without having to raise their voice, lift a hand, even move an inch out of their chair, you can be instantly persuaded that you are in deep trouble unless you stop what you're doing or saying that very moment. You fear you may still be in trouble even if you do stop instantly...which leaves your little heart quivering in fear for hours.

This being said, all parents are able to communicate with their children with a look. Usually a raised eyebrow. The child's reaction to a parental "look" is a good indication whether or not in privacy that look is followed with terrorism. If a child suddenly looks like they are scared shitless...that look is not a benevolent warning enabling the child to decide to use self-control rather than have to endure discipline. Good parents do not rule their children with terror. They may communicate a warning with a look...a child has a choice at that moment. Proceed and be disciplined. Stop and all is well. Discipline is not terrorism. Narcissist parents do not discipline. They terrify their "subjects" into compliance. They make it so painful to go against them that you'll do just about anything to not displease them. Especially as a helpless child. What I'm describing is the "look" which is backed up with this type of emotional and physical terrorism.

Let's see if I can begin to describe the look my own mother has employed with great effect, not only with myself and my sister, but the scores of children left in her care by oblivious working mothers. If you're a working mother...think about it. Someone like my mother could be caring for your child. My mother was widely considered an excellent day care provider. All her references would have been glowing. Think long and hard. I saw my mother use the below described methods on other people's children many, many times over the years.

Back to the "look". Her entire face tightens. Then the eyes slightly narrow. The nostrils flare subtly. The teeth. The teeth were the major player in her scary face. She would set her front top teeth onto her front bottom teeth which you could perceive was happening even though her mouth is still closed. Then, she moves in on you swiftly. Suddenly, she is right over you, usually with a death grip on your arm. Maybe both arms. Her face is brought within inches of your own. Then the lips unfurl. She is hissing at you through her gritted teeth. She would actually grind them as she was hissing her anger at you. The face is totally demonic. She looks possessed with rage and you feel sure that it is all she can do to not kill you that very instant. As those teeth grind, her face starts to really contort. The bottom part of her jaw sets to the side as she grits and grinds her teeth. The tenseness in her face is entire. She looks like a barely controlled nuclear fission reactor. She never raises her voice. No, the more angry she is the more she whispers. But that whisper is right in front of your eyes. You're face is two inches from the demon woman as she hisses through her grinding teeth. This look is usually followed by an ass pounding. She may use her hand. She may get a shoe. She feels virtuous because she never uses a belt for beatings. Somehow, in her mind, the belt was excessive. Believe me, a rubber-soled sandal can hurt like hell.

Now, this is how she deals with children, not autonomous adults. Keep in mind that the demon-possessed bitch face is saved for the most innocent and the most helpless. This means children, but it can also mean the elderly. I saw her grind her teeth at my dad's father, my grandfather, a time or two. My grandfather had the misfortune of spending his last years under my parent's roof as Parkinson's took him slowly. My mother was in charge of taking care of him. She hated him. She mostly controlled herself when I was around, but I saw the teeth gnash in his presence. Luckily for him, glaucoma had stolen almost 100% of his sight, and his ears didn't work so well either. I am fairly sure most of the subtleties were lost on him, though I'm also sure he knew my mother felt imposed upon by him.

My daughter, when she was around six years of age, was around the summer my mother was taking care of her own mother. It was a six week period where my mother was giving her sister a break. Her mother had some dementia due to multiple strokes. My daughter was so shocked to see my mother spanking her own elderly mother that she's never forgotten it. I am sure my mother must have been giving her devil face to her mother. Hopefully, my poor grandmother was unable to comprehend it. Though I have my doubts about that. One of the reasons my mother was so angry was that my grandmother kept escaping from the house and trying to run down the gravel road. Perhaps she was trying to escape from my mother? Thankfully, that was the only time my mother ever took care of her own mother before her mother passed away. So, as you can see, to be helpless in my mother's care is not to be desired. My father is in for a real shock if he ever becomes dependent on my mother's "tender" ministrations.

I was trained to fear "the look". It worked on me well into adulthood. Yes, the horrid woman would use a subtle version of the "look" long after I was out on my own. I would do just about anything to get that look off her face. No more swooping in, grabbing the arm, hissing in the face. No, she'd stop short of that. Just the pre-swoop part of the look. Reluctant for a scene to follow that look, she would get near perfect compliance from me for decades of my life. She was still capable of dishing out punishment in the form of emotional beatings. She was able to take her grown daughter, seal her off in a room alone with her, and dish out the emotional abuse. I suppose my obvious fear of her "look" was a signal to her that I was still her prey. When I stopped reacting to the look....she started to fear me.

Hopefully, I've been able to describe how a narcissist parent may have trained you to respond to a "look" to control your behavior even long after you've grown. You've been trained to react by giving compliance. It is time to stop fearing the look. It is a version of a temper tantrum. The immature narcissist is threatening to throw a fit if you don't give her what she wants. You're no longer that helpless child. You can use your rational brain to overcome the strong emotions you've been trained to have. As you see your parent's attempt to control you with a look, decide at that moment that you are looking at a two year old threatening to throw a full-blown fit if you don't do things his way. Deal accordingly. If the person who has controlled you with a look has been physically abusive to you as an adult...then be careful. Your resistance must take the form of your absenting yourself from their presence. Hopefully, permanently. Sometimes, the "look that could kill" is exactly that.


Anonymous said...

I do not have an N mother. I married into a family with one.

Does this "look" include eyes that go dark? I do not know to this day what color the N's eyes are.

I know that her "look" includes stepping into one's personal space, jabbing her finger perilously close to one's eyes, and snarling threats and accusations. When this first happened, I knew she was beyond redemption.

Anna Valerious said...

Yes, one could say that their eyes "go dark". The N you're dealing with sounds like he/she has the scary face thing down cold. Do they do what you describe to adults?

Beyond redemption. Indeed.

Anonymous said...

My mother has always been a narcissist but has gotten even worse during the past couple of years. She was always exceptionally beautiful in a sort of Natalie Wood way. But turning sixty seemed to drive her to the edge of "crazy" territory. She started getting lots of plastic surgery and botox, and exercising two hours a day to maintain her figure. And her mean narcissistic "look" turned to "crazy eyes". It's a glazed, slightly wild stare. I'm sure she has no idea how she looks when she has the crazy eyes. She thinks she is so good at fooling people, and she thinks she is funny and charming, when in reality she's just getting weirder and meaner.


Anonymous said...

Yes, she did this to me when I was holding my baby.

Anna Valerious said...


I can relate to how much freakier the N gets with age. Your mother sounds like the stuff of nightmares. I have a little fantasy where you catch the crazy-eyed look with a cell phone camera. *click* Then turn it around and show her. "See what I have to look at, ma?"

Anna Valerious said...

Anonymous @ 1:13PM:

I find it especially disturbing that the N is willing to do that kind of thing to an adult. Then, that she does this while you're holding an infant. This is someone with little sense of boundaries or concern about how her behavior is perceived by normal people. I hope you are able to have as little to do with this person as is possible. She sounds borderline dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Your blog has been life sent Anna....I have an NMIL and oh man...have she given me the "look". Since I did not had to deal with her as a child, I have gotten that look when she see's me as "Happy" without her being center of if my friends + kids are visiting and I am playing with kids on the floor, laughing and chatting with friends, she will sit right accross me and stare. To describe that stare would be hard but somehow her eyes will change shape,, it will become round and fill with tears (well almost) and then she will stare stright at me with out blinking....oh man it is spooky. Yikes!! It is hard to percieve the effect that kind of look will have on a child when it freaks me out as an adult.

Anna Valerious said...

"It is hard to percieve the effect that kind of look will have on a child when it freaks me out as an adult."

Even though you say this, I think the fact that you've conceptualized this statement shows that you have at least some inkling of what it may do to a child.

I have had an adult relative and an adult friend testify to their feelings about my mother's "look". Even though they are adults, they were quaking inside at what they were seeing. Both used the term "demonic" to try to express their perception of my Nmom's "look". You are right. For a child it is almost infinitely worse. I did not use the words "terrify" or "terrorism" lightly. They are accurate descriptors of a child's experience.

I'm sorry you have an NMIL. I hope you're keeping the kids way away from her.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anna,

I had to LOL at your cell phone comment . . . oh, it would astound my Nmom to see how horrible her face looks when she has that expression!

This is the strange thing about my childhood . . . I have always accepted the mythology of our perfect, happy family. I have told people how happy my childhood was. But almost every memory, with a couple of exceptions, was of me being afraid, watching my mother as she screamed and broke my toys in front of me, that kind of thing. It has taken until I am 42 for me to push away the mythology and acknowledge the truth. I was terrified for most of my childhood. She controlled me with her rages, and also with the look.

My 6 year old daughter has my mother's brown eyes. But my daughter's eyes are soft and happy. That gives me such joy.


Anonymous said...

Interesting your mom was a day-care provider Anna, mine was a Nanny in England, and then when she went back to work, a day-respite carer for disabled kids. It reminds me of that awful teacher in 'Matilda'.

How incredible, that you should put this post up. You know I had an 'a-ha' moment as I read this. When my children were little, I could never work out what I was doing wrong. They didn't respond to me in the same way I used to respond to my mother when I was a child. Didn't matter what I did, my kids wouldn't simply fall into line quickly and quietly. God, this is all making sense now.

My siblings and I were model citizens, and compliant, subserviant at home. We were like emotionally and mentally retarded teenagers because we were too scared to step out of line, and all it needed for a sense of wrongdoing was a 'sigh' of frustration from my mother. That was it. Of course, we were'nt actually doing anything wrong as such, it would usually be over being too happy, and laughing and giggling, or wanting to do something like shave your legs, or wear make-up when you got to be a teenager. So you ended up with no maturity and no sense of self-esteem.

If we went out anywhere, like to a restaurant for a family meal, I couldn't eat my stomach was so tied up in knots. We NEVER did anything wrong, yet we always felt like discipline for wrongdoing was just a 'look' away and my father just reinforced my mother's 'disappointment' with us.

Anonymous said...

My late Nmom had "the look." Sociopathic - like snake eyes - dead & angry.

I have "a look" too but I have NEVER EVER used it on my children. EVER!

Anonymous said...

anonymous @ 2:19:00 PM

My MIL is a sociopath. Just friggin' nuts and dangerous. I have it in my divorce petition that my NH loses all contact with the children if he brings them anywhere near her.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting topic (as always) even though I, thankfully, never had to experience this as a child.

My N was my ex girlfriend and we were only dating for a short period of time. But I'll never forget that Look. Pure hatred in her eyes, "demon-possessed bitch face" is a very picture-like description (I remember thinking "this is Evil" when I saw that look).

It was most effective the first time she gave me that look. I was so scared and confused that I just ended the argument/fight and surrendered. Then we reconciled. The strange thing is that I cannot even remember what the argument/fight was all about.

Anonymous said...

In the dark, while watching movies with the guy I had been dating for a week, we were playfully (I thought) fighting for the last chips. I mock acted some character, which set him off. In an instant, his countenance changed and eyes hardened which was scary, especially in the dark. Demonic and malevolent, I heard "how dare you!" with my mind's ear, felt rage and I knew that I was seeing the face of a rapist. It scared me, but I was in a group so I was ok.

Regarding my mum, your post set off an ah-ha moment in me also, but I am unable to articulate this presently. I feel this is important for me to explore further. Thank you.

Slightly off topic, I thought about the impact of the voice, which I am more sensitive to. I have my Nmum's powerful voice, but I use it to sing, not yell down people. Once, in my early 20s, my mum was yelling at me at close range and I was so stressed out and naively begged her to stop. It was as if I was being knifed by sound and the volume was too loud for my ears, so I cupped them and kept yelling at her to stop, but she wouldn't. I walked to the front door to walk out, but she had locked it, so I walked out into the courtyard with her tirade following me and climbed over the fence. She opened the locked gate and was unrelentless, while I kept telling her to leave me alone. Starting from a go away, moving up to stronger and stronger admonishments. Finally, I yelled out "mother, will you just F*** OFF!!!!" She backed off and went inside. Later, my mother carried on and on about how embarassed she was in front of the neighbours(!) and all my idiot-enabler father could say was, "If you can't say anything without swearing, then there is something lacking in your vocablulary."

This was an unexpectly long post, which felt good to get off my chest.


Anonymous said...

I love your posts Anna.

I too have a NMIL. I'll never forget the first time I saw her 'devil face'. She was raging at her daughter and her face was pure evil. I felt seriously afraid. I didn't think she'd turn on me, but still, the look was enough to scare the hell out of me. She did this in front of several adults. She seems to have no problem, regarding who is around to witness it.

My husband some what acknowledges that his mother 'isn't right', but doesn't seem to have a problem enduring her abuse. The two of them joke about how she used to dig her fingernails into his arm and drag him. Or how she used to beat him. I really don't understand what's wrong with him that he still associates with her (I no longer see her). Maybe you should post an entry about when people are in denial if you haven't already.

chickwithbrain said...

I found an evil eye picture complete with the pointy finger of doom.

Anonymous said...

OMG - the look - it was terrifying as a child . Those eyes would narrow into slits and
her voice would change. I knew at 5 I was dealing with a seriously dangerous person.

Anna Valerious said...

My heartfelt condolences. You've obviously been terrified and controlled by "the look". You are right...the incipient and barely concealed violence in this "look" is not lost on the child.

Anonymous said...

When my N ex-girlfriend switched from the sweet "16 year old" to the indifferent nastiness of the Terminator's daughter, I knew that it was time to hide under the bed, again.

Kissing that other personality goodbye for the 200th time always left an emptiness in my heart.

After too many years and 10 times the break-ups and re-unions, for the first time, I finally ended it for good. She didn't know what had hit her. She tried to cling to me but I had nothing left for her to cling to.

I will never forget the "evil" that she could become when I crossed the line to getting too close to her. Her snarling face could make a pit bull retreat.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much! I just finished a writing long story about my mother and "the look" several months ago, before I realized that she was an Nm. I'm grateful you have validated what has been intuitive to me all along.

Anonymous said...

My mother gives that look but no nashing of teeth. Actually I have acquired a look unfortunately that I sometimes give her. It means she has gone to far and I won't listen. Makes her nervous. I just say no when she asks something very ridiculous and take whatever punishment she can dish out.

Still under her care. (under age 18) I knew something was wrong my whole life and just figured out that there is a name for it. I think that I have been gradually setting up defenses since over the age of five. Saying no and meaning it. Also not believing a word she says when she critisizes me.

Anonymous said...

ah, the teeth. my NM got furious at my F and gritted her teeth so hard during her tirade that she broke her front tooth in half. she doesn't think she has an anger issue.

rexicat said...

We even have a name for it in my family. It's called the "Hazel Look" after my mom's grandmother. My mom put the fear of god into our hearts with just one look. My stepfather says he can feel it even when he isn't in the same room. Unfortunately, I am also able to make this look but since I am aware of the power of this look, I have always been very careful not to use it on another human being. I did use it on a dog once that I caught eating some cheese on my kitchen table. The dog yelped; jumped off the table; and ran into the wall.

Unknown said...

Hi, Anna. I know this blog isn't regularly updated anymore, but I'd like to say all your posts have helped me figure out my MN aunt. My aunt would bully my grandmother (who was a saint), and she barged into my home on St. Patricks day after shoving past my grandma. She wanted to give us a "gift", but my mom (who wasn't home) always enforced boundaries around my aunt and her bad behavior, did not want my aunt in her home. Ever. So I very calmly told her that it was a bad time, thanks for the gift, don't let the door hit you in the a** on the way out. I repeated this ad nauseum before she got her butt in gear, but while I was walking her out, she stopped and turned on the stairs and said "I would never hurt you, Maggie."

I can still remember how she said it. Some other commenters talk about "snake eyes" or "icy stares", but when I looked at her eyes, I felt like I was looking at soda with no bubbles in it. Flat. I've been told when I'm angry, my eyes are firey and sparkly, no doubt because I feel firey and sparkly when I'm angry. Even when I'm calmly angry, my eyes look like that. I still get the willies thinking about that stare. A corpse has more expression in their eyes than she did.

It was even creepier that she brought up "hurting me" when nothing in the conversation implied I was afraid of her. Up until that point, I wouldn't even dream of her hurting me. It scares me that she was an RN, not just because of that incident, but because she HATES sick people. She was a bitch to her own mother when she was sick with cancer, and I can't imagine a stranger has a snowball's chance in hell to be treated any better.