Lucinda grew up with an abusive mother and married a narcissist. It took her daughter’s plea for her to leave everything behind, including her husband, and start over. She recounts her life, full of abuse but also adventure and comic moments, in her memoir, Walking Over Eggshells.
Tell us a little about your background…
I often describe myself as born in Dublin, dragged up in the Cotswolds and finished off in Liverpool! I was born in a time when it was not allowed to question your elders—the remnants of “children should be seen and not heard.”
I was the only child of a mother with Narcissistic Personality Disorder who was widowed when I was only two, and quite determined to control every aspect of my life. I was only three years old when I ran away from home for the first time and I continued, at regular intervals, to escape whenever I could.
I went to college some distance from my hometown, but was coerced into going home every weekend. This continued when I had a teaching job 30 miles from home, even though I was now in my twenties. I had been so conditioned as a child it was impossible for me to say no. The guilt I felt when I disobeyed my mother was huge.
I met and married—within 12 weeks—a Walter Mitty character (from the movie Catch Me If You Can, an ordinary person with adventurous, self-aggrandizing ideas), who took me to live in Kenya, Libya, Botswana, Swaziland and South Africa. In general, he never held a job longer than 18 months and unwittingly I supported the family by continuing to teach, breed furry animals for pet shops, run a riding school, sew giant teddy bears, and work at the local radio station while entertaining my husband’s business associates and raising our two children.
One failed venture after another saw us move from country to country, often with the creditors not far behind. To my horror, after a successful career in teaching, one year into my latest posting, I was fired from a very posh school in Pretoria, South Africa. To this day, I have no idea why. In desperation, I went for a radio audition at the South African Broadcasting Corporation and, while I failed the continuity recording, the pieces I had written for the drama department were noticed and I was told to “Go home and write.”
The result was first prize in the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) Radio Drama of the Year Award and that led to commissions for radio scripts. This eventually led to my giving up teaching—I had applied for and was accepted at another school—and after several years I moved over to scripting for television and became involved on the production side as well.
I loved the media and for the next 20+ years, I continued working in South Africa for the SABC, large corporate companies and a wide variety of clients, writing and producing programs for broadcast, conferences, educational establishments, and so on. I also contributed regularly in the print media.
Several times I suffered from burnout. I was working 27/4 to earn enough to house and feed one husband—who could not be relied on to bring home a regular salary—two children, a housekeeper, and several household pets including a St Bernard.
We had been in South Africa about 11 years when I moved down to Durban to live on a boat, the prelude to sailing around the world—yet another idea from my Walter Mitty spouse. However, shortly after, my husband skipped the country, returning to England and leaving me with an unpaid mortgage on the boat and a pile of debt.
I had by then found work writing and producing for the local municipality and in 1994 I sold up and followed him back to London. At that time, I was determined that our 23-year marriage was going to work somehow. My biggest wish was to keep the family together.
All this time in the background, my mother was still giving me a hard time, even across continents. There were the constant criticisms, the deliberate attempts to break up my marriage, the cruel stories about my childhood she shared with my children. Outwardly, I was a successful entrepreneur working in the glamorous world of television, while inwardly I was an insecure, miserable wreck.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
The “aha” moment was the day, back in London, when my youngest climbed onto my lap—she was 16 at the time—and said “Mummy, I don’t like it here. Please can we go home (back to Africa)?”
I had never even considered leaving my husband, even if he had run out on me. That old school adage “You made your bed, now you lie on it” had always been part of my belief. I learned later that a woman is not capable of leaving an unhappy situation unless she is given permission. Not knowing this at that time, I went to Relate, a government counseling service in London and, during our discussion, the thought came to me that I should, could, and would leave. I was 46 years old, with two kids (one who was grown and had left home), no life insurance, no pension, no home, and no certain future.
While some people would argue that I had never been sexually or physically abused—if you don’t count some severe spankings in childhood—I had been emotionally battered from the time I’d been born. I’ll never know what gave me the strength to get on that plane with my youngest daughter, say goodbye to my husband, and return to South Africa with less than $100 in the bank. I had nowhere to live, three cardboard boxes full of clothes, a car—I’d left it there to sell and now the payments were months overdue—a stack of bills, and no work.
On the plus side, I was offered scripts to write a couple of days after my return, and I had my sense of humor and, I was told, the ability to write. I think that’s what saw me through. It wasn’t easy, and again I buried myself in my work.
My daughter and I celebrated the day we could afford to buy a bottle of orange juice as a treat and I cried on the day I bought a second plate so we could eat at the same time—and the damn thing broke the first time I used it!
Sometime later, my elder daughter joined us and I began to make some headway with the bills, moved us to a larger flat, and began to get back on my feet. Slowly I gained my independence and learned that I could cope, that I had been coping all those years and holding it all together. I had believed my Ex when he told me it was all down to him.
I believe I made history by handling my own divorce. By now no one knew where my husband was, and even his mother had become unlisted after threatening phone calls to her from people trying to find out her son’s whereabouts. In the end I had to serve summons on both his mother and the last girlfriend of his I had knowledge of. Although I had absolutely no plans to ever get involved romantically again, a few years later, I met my present husband, Dave.
I made several attempts to make the peace with my mother, but nothing worked. She continued to harass me and, despite my best efforts, she eventually disinherited me and left everything to my children and a young fortune hunter who appeared on the scene a few years before she passed. It’s ironic that I was the only one with her when she died, but there was no “Hollywood moment” before she drew her last breath. She said not a word.
In the meantime, life was becoming more difficult in South Africa; our domestic help was shot outside our house, crime rose, all our children had left, the cost of medical aid was soaring, my new husband had been made redundant at work and, worst of all, my video production company was being sidelined—all work was now going to black South Africans. My husband and I decided to retire to Spain, where we now live a simple life in a small rabbit hutch overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.
What is your next act?
After years of “writing to order,” I have discovered a whole new career and am writing what I want to write—I admit to spending most of my days on the laptop! Amazon has offered so many of us the opportunity to share our work with the world, and I’ve now published six books. After the hurt of putting my memoir together and baring my soul to the whole world, I think in a way I was taking control back when I decided to write my first full-length novel. I chose a heroine and for once I was in complete control—no client to tell me what to write or what stats to include, but a character I could torture or make happy, absolutely anything! I wrote my first novel in six months; the result was Amie: An African Adventure, which came out in 2014.
Next, I decided to write about my life in the media before I forget what I’ve done, and that came out in two volumes in the Truth, Lies & Propaganda series (in 2014 and 2015), followed by a second Amie book (Amie and The Child of Africa, 2015).
Not only is it fun writing, it’s invigorating learning about blogging, tweeting, and other social media, along with more marketing techniques that hopefully bring in sales. I am busier now than I have been since I stopped work formally and I am passionately happy doing it.
How did you come to write your memoir?
After years and years of working non-stop, I thought retirement would suit me, but it was at this time that my mother became senile and eventually passed away and by an amazing twist of fate, twice in one day, I heard about Narcissistic Personality syndrome. It explained so simply why my mother had behaved the way she had, what motivated her, and why I had been knocking my head against a brick wall for years hoping I could get her to love me. If your own mother doesn’t love, you who can? What is wrong with you? Even though I had seen how cruel my mother had been to my stepfather, I still was unable to make that transition into thinking it was about her and not me.
The revelation that a form of mental illness had been at the root of so much trouble—making me a nervous wreck for over 60 years and influencing an unwise choice of life partner—kept me wondering if only I had known… I first wrote the manuscript for Walking Over Eggshells for my daughters in the hope it would mend fences and explain my actions. They were born in an age when children are not only seen and heard but express their thoughts forcibly—it’s the “me” generation. I wanted them to understand my generation.
It was at that point I reasoned if I couldn’t help them, maybe I could help the millions of others caught up in relationships with Narcissists. I had gone on a lot of online forums and chatted to other women in the same situation as me and I learned that 9% of the population suffer from one personality disorder or another. So I hauled out the manuscript, brought it up to date, and decided to publish it under a pen name. I told no one; only my present husband was aware of its existence. I uploaded it to Amazon and there it sat for a year, selling only 12 copies.
At some point, my children found out about the book, I have no idea how, and that’s when I decided to promote it. I had also read another book, The Secret Life of Captain X: My Life with a Psychopath Pilot and if I compared my ex’s behavior, I had married a psychopath. That explained a lot as well. More puzzle pieces fell into place.
How supportive were your family and friends?
I had no support from friends or family at all, and my children were very angry with me. But I felt that if I could help even a couple of dozen women or teenagers then this would outweigh their disapproval. I have received many emails from readers telling me the book has helped them and how much they relate to the feelings and emotions. Those letters are very precious to me. I always reply. We are fellow sufferers through no fault of our own.
My current husband is a bit bemused by it all. He expected a quiet relaxed retirement, but I am now passionately into a new career and very determined to succeed. I have always been driven. He supported my publishing the book, but I did wait until both my mother and my ex mother-in-law were deceased before I released it.
What challenges did you encounter?
While writing and editing the book was cathartic in a way, I find it impossible not to cry when I read it. I made every attempt to make it as light-hearted as possible but the memory of all the hurt, all the suffering, all the despair hits home all over again.
In the book, I include some letters I had written home while living in Botswana and South Africa. On one occasion while staying with my mother, I walked into my bedroom to find every Christmas and birthday present I had ever given her. She wanted nothing from me and insisted I was to remove them from her house. Beside them were the piles of letters I had written home, which she also wanted me to take. I was so hurt but tried hard not to let it show.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
When I ran my own production company and received accolades for my work, I had confidence in that arena, but I had no confidence in myself as a person. It was only after the discovery of my mother’s NPD, chatting with others on the web and with an old friend who knew my mother well, that I began to believe in myself. I still have to work at it though. I still have to reassure myself that I’m OK, at 67 years old.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I was lucky, in a way. Going through a divorce and alienation from my only parent, all alone in a foreign country, I had no time to sit and feel sorry for myself. I had to go out there and work and put food on the table. I think that’s what saved me.
Any woman will tell you that when you have children to feed, clothe, and educate, you keep going no matter what. If I was no use as a daughter, then maybe I could be a better mother, or wife. I needed to prove myself as just an OK person and I tried time and time again. I had attempted suicide when I was a teenager, but that was the only time I tried to end it all. I just had to keep on trying again, and again, and again.
Since I now know that there is no cure for Narcissism and the only way to protect yourself is to end contact, I should have cut myself off from my mother as soon as I left home. Having said that, I did everything in my power to be a good daughter and my conscience is clear. I’m not sure I could have coped with the guilt had I cut all communication. My mother’s parents too would have been most distressed and put tremendous pressure on me to play the dutiful daughter.
When we retired to Spain, I was expecting long, lazy days in the sunshine pottering about the house. I still wrote a few scripts and articles for clients in South Africa, but it didn’t take too long before I began to get bored. I’ve always had a lot of extra energy, and I taught myself how to do PowerPoint presentations and gave history talks to interested groups. I was asked to speak at a couple of functions, but they were always funny anecdotes about my life—no mention whatsoever of my early days. I then began writing in earnest.
I made many friends when we moved to our present house in Spain and I was surprised to learn there were many others who had also had a difficult start in life. I often think that if you are dealt a challenge in life, there are only two ways to go: over or under. I remember a girl at my school whom I’d really admired, especially as my mother was constantly comparing me unfavorably to her. She was pretty, popular and all the boys loved her. We both trained to be teachers but only two years after qualifying, she committed suicide. I was knocked sideways—I remember telling myself that whatever happened in life, I was not going to let it beat me, ever.
Apart from all the writing and marketing, we have a close group of friends and have the odd dinner party, or sundowners and chats, and there are masses of restaurants in our area as it is a year round tourist destination.
I facilitate a group of people who have all lived in Africa and we get together once a month for a meal. I also visit at the local hospital and co-ordinate the visitor list for volunteers. We go to check on the English-speaking patients and make sure they have visitors and know where to go for help—Spanish Social Services are not as active here as they are in the UK.
I also continue with my monthly column, a political satire, which is certainly not meant to be taken seriously, and I’ve two more history talks coming up soon.
And, like everyone else you can add to this the cooking, cleaning, shopping, washing, ironing, polishing, sweeping and all the other really boring mindless stuff we have to do in our day to day lives. Why, if we can send men to the moon, can’t the scientists tell me how to keep dust out of my house!
One reason for my writing is to make a few pennies so we can travel, which is something I love. There are so many places to see and people to meet – but I’m a little too old now to backpack!
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife? What would you say to women in an abusive relationship?
Believe in yourself and realize that we are much, much stronger than men. So often we have such little faith in ourselves. Take one day at a time, set out to accomplish one goal, and mentally reward yourself when you have achieved it. You CAN do it.
If you feel you are in an abusive relationship, seek out those who are in similarly abusive relationships. While the media appears to understand physical and sexual abuse, emotional abuse can be just as damaging if not more so. There are so few outward signs. I was brought up in a good middle class home, attended a private school, was taken to ballet lessons and well clothed and fed. Yet my childhood was a living hell, every single day with a mother who never once told me she loved me, never gave me a hug, and destroyed my psyche and my self-confidence, and left me with no coping skills for adulthood.
What advice do you have for those interested in writing a memoir?
Since I was a small child, I remember reading, even if it was under the bedclothes. My one ambition was to write. I had a massive career change at 37 from teaching to writing. It doesn’t matter what work you do, you have to have a passion for it, then it’s not work. If you can jump out of bed and cry “Yes! It’s Monday” you can cope with so many other things.
Sit down with pen and paper or a keyboard and just write. No one can teach you how to write but once you have your story on paper, there are people who can help you get it into shape. Write with passion, write to tell your story, as a form of catharsis but also with the idea that you will either entertain or help or comfort the reader
What resources do you recommend for women who are victims of abuse?
My first lifeline was a small group of people who met to discuss their week and give each other help and guidance. I didn’t realize it at the time but our leader was a trained counselor and for the first time I learned that men had feelings! It made it so much easier talking to people who were also going through relationship issues.
I also found a website called Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers and I had many chats on there. I checked out the list of symptoms and behavioral traits of the syndrome and the friends I made on there were a huge help.
Then the site imploded, there was a lot of bitching and backbiting and the site went down. I was devastated. I was losing so many close online friends all at once. There is another site up now by the same administrator but I would only find it useful for definitions of the disorders; there is no forum.
I did find another forum, which is still up and running and has been for several years, Charlotte’s Web of Narcissism. There are some really nice people on there who helped me through a particularly difficult time with my children.
Toxic Parents: Overcoming Their Hurtful Legacy and Reclaiming Your Life by Susan Ward gives examples of adults who had toxic parents.
What about resources for would-be writers and memoir writers?
There is an excellent Facebook group called We Love Memoirs. you are not allowed to promote your book on their page, but the administrators will do that for you. There is an offshoot, WLM Authors, where you can ask questions and get advice. Indie Author Support and Discussion is also excellent, again for general chat and answers to technical problems. The author members are always willing to help other authors and we have warm and friendly communities.
I write a blog each week to make friends, not necessarily to spam my book, and by connecting to other blogs there is a wealth of help and knowledge out there. It is so different than working in the corporate world where we are friends, but rivals. The writer community is always willing to support and advise. There are also books to help, too numerous to mention here, but you will find them on blogs and Facebook posts and you can ask if they were helpful and provided value for the money before you buy.
I rarely read memoirs, especially by famous people, but my favorite might be Margaret Eleanor Leigh’s books, like The Wrong Shade of Yellow and Everything will be Just Perfect!. They are written with a wry sense of humor, which I love. Also Valerie Poore’s books, especially the first one, African Ways, about living in Africa not too far away from where I was, although we only met on Facebook years later. I also love Ghost No More: a memoir by Ceecee James and The Secret Life of Captain X: My Life with a Psychopath Pilot by Mrs.XNoMore.
What are you working on next?
My latest book, Unhappily Ever After: A Fairy Tale for Grown-ups, will surprise many of my readers who think they know what to expect, as it’s a fantasy satire set in Fairyland. I’ve revisited it 200 years after that memorable Ball when Cinderella lost her shoe, to find that, raised on the wrong side of the tracks, Cinderella has had quite enough of the prim and proper Prince Charming. She wants a divorce.
The other royal families are also having problems. Snow White is refusing to please her husband Harold and go where every woman has gone before, while Sleeping Beauty and Augustus have the opposite problem: a brood of 28 they can’t afford to feed.
Enter the Green Giant who’s been sent to foment unrest among the peasants and disrupt this year’s ball.
It’s a little politically incorrect for this modern day and age, but as it is an historical account, I hope people will understand. I have no idea how many will buy it, but I’ve had a lot of positive feedback from early readers who laughed all the way through.
Laughter is so healing and many of our most famous comedians have had very sad private lives. Makes you think.
Contact Lucinda E. Clarke at firstname.lastname@example.org