Lessons in Narcissism and Recovery

An American living in our times would be forgiven for diverting their gaze from narcissism as an odious and rampant practice of the higher reaches of our society. I remember one of my husband’s favorite stories was from when he’d shot the film Doc in Almeria, Spain back in 1971. He’d been on location for several weeks, and after recounting seeing someone kick a dog in the street, was told “It starts at the top with Franco.”

James Greene, 1971 as James McLowery in Doc

Yeah, well, I think we’ve beat the Spaniards on this one. So clear is the directive sent from the upper reaches of our government that the expected trickle down effect has infiltrated every corner of our society, Ponzi schemes, to #MeToo to the latest scandal in college admissions. All are fundamentally based in the tenet that my needs/truth/reality overrides yours or anyone else’s.

I’m here to tell you that sometimes narcissism is healthy if exercised in a confined timeframe. I can’t yet tell you the acceptable outer boundaries of healthy narcissism, because I haven’t yet navigated them, but some examples are:

  • Around the birth of one’s child
  • Around the care of loved ones
  • Around the death of one’s partner

There may be other examples of appropriately prescriptive narcissism. My direct observations have to do with all three bullet points above. Not sure what our Franco-equivalent in the White House would say are the rationalizations for his extreme narcissism, but I’m pretty sure they are none of the above. But then, as a (hopefully temporary) narcissist, no one’s pain is worse than mine, right?

Last Sunday, I had the pleasure of seeing The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 24th Street Theatre, here in South Los Angeles. Running through May 19th, based on the young adult book by Kate DiCamillo, the play recounts the travails of a uniquely fashioned charmingly narcissistic china rabbit. Edward’s miraculous journey unfolds through his travels and travails, and his awakening from narcissist to empathetic being, able to learn to love again after his own loss. The 24th Street Theatre does consistently beautiful work with minimal and very theatrical elements, and again, here they don’t disappoint.

Director Debbie Devine has guided her cast of four, accompanied on a piano throughout by Bradley Brough through the intricacies of this rabbit’s tale (sorry, couldn’t resist). Funny, moving, tear jerking and ultimately satisfying, the afternoon unfolded with a welcoming curtain speech by Co-Artistic Director Jay McAdams, contextualizing this theatre’s imprimatur on the play (first production utilizing spanish supertitles, created for the production, as well as the consciously simple aesthetic which the theatre embraces). From the moment I entered the lobby of the theatre, I found my visit one of inclusion. Awkward in my singleness these days, I’m challenged in going out to see something on my own, particularly on a Sunday afternoon. It was opening weekend of the play, and the lobby was filled with 24th Street Theatre family members, board members, critics, adults, children, neighborhood folks. The step and repeat with a stool and two bunches of carrots was heavily utilized. I enjoyed seeing families posing with the carrots and huge smiles on their faces.

(I’m sorry, Jay and Debbie, issuing a spoiler alert.) If you are in the LA area, please come see this play. If you aren’t, you can benefit from a reading of this magical book.

Like Edward, I’ve been going through my own miraculous journey since my husband’s death in November. In the early phases of his rabbit destiny, Edward is cocooned in the loving embrace of his young girl owner Abilene Tulane. He wants for nothing, so embraced and supported is he. A bunny of privilege, his clothing is stylish, his position in the household secure. Then comes his loss, from which it appears he may never recover. His life pretty much goes to hell. I recognize, wear these phases of bunny privilege, then loss. The life going to hell part is less applicable, unless you describe sessions of unprovoked tears, increased impatience with things and people and a general weariness and disinterest in participating as hell. I don’t afford myself that luxury. I know that it is a process, and as hard processes go, they are not hell. They are opportunities for growth and improvement and learning.

The tears, weariness and disinterest describe the immediate aftermath of a loss, even if you are lucky as I have been, to have the consistent support of family and friends. Eventually, after the public grief cycle has “ended,” after the memorial, the funeral, the life celebration, the next phase begins. It is one of solitude with a lot of acting involved. To sustain the Edward Tulane metaphor, this might be construed as the “scarecrow” phase. Utilized as a deterrent to others, surrounded by shiny objects, the grieving widow/er is still out there in the field, showing themselves to be fierce, smiling, but feeling emotionally empty and suspended. This might be why I chose to purchase the bracelets and distribute them to my grieving friends. Upon receipt, their thank yous were heart-felt, but also tinged with a recognizable sadness and fraught with questions I don’t have the answers for.

How do you keep f&*king going?

I can keep f&*king going, but why should I?

And for me, the moment one night 34 years into my sobriety, five months into my solitude, this week, I stood in front of my cabinet in the kitchen and looked at a corked bottle of red wine left over from one of my recent visits by friends, thinking to myself, “well, no one would even know if I had a glass of red wine right now.” I promptly uncorked the bottle and poured the remaining wine down the sink. It really scared me.

The one reassuring element of this scarecrow phase is that I find myself surrounded by other scarecrows. I’m not alone in the field. Nor are any of us. I want you to hear that.

None of us is doing this human thing alone.

I’m reminded of that every day, yesterday in the hallway in the DRC as I greeted a colleague who has been on leave for several months. We clung to each other sobbing amidst the coming and going of our colleagues. In her I recognized her challenges and loss; in me, she recognized my loss and challenges.

If you were to read my bed-side table stack now, you’d be worried but really, I’m in a research phase, to prepare me for the work ahead. Because of my loss, my bunny tale, if you will, people have been reaching out for support during their own challenges. I want to say when they do, “I don’t know any more about this than you do!” And I’m certainly not an authority on caregiving, death, or anything related to human loss. And yet, I do have the capacity to listen and hear and try to help. In my own limited scarecrow capacity. As do you. And certainly my friends do.

Emotional Check in this morning with my Pals via Skype – three different time zones. So sustaining.

From now through May 19th, if you live in Los Angeles, you can and should see The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane at the 23rd Street Theatre. It will help you in your recovery. Aren’t we all in recovery from Narcissism?

Getting Into College without the Strings and Tutorial 2.0

There are things that are predictable in the cycle of a university year, which is distinctly seasonal. In the late fall, High School seniors create their applications, visit the campus to see a production, determine whether they will throw their hat in the ring. Months pass, and with the advent of spring, the acceptance and rejection letters go out.

Today at the Open House, I had the privilege of meeting many prospective students, who have been accepted to USC School of Dramatic Arts where I work as Head of Production. They visited the campus to participate in workshops in acting and production, and to meet the faculty they may study with over the next four years. As I looked around the room this morning at my colleagues on the Production/Design Faculty, and at the freshly scrubbed faces of stage managers, technical directors, and scenic designers, I flashed on the hours of collaborative work we’ve engaged in this year with our current students. How quickly we traverse the distance from this pre-matriculation meeting to the next workshop I hosted, the portfolio presentations by the designers of the Spring Musical, all seniors this year. The years fly by.

Those of us who are involved even peripherally in college admissions these days are sensitive – one could say feeling bruised by the admissions scandal. As the miscreants parade across our news feeds, those of us who go through the sincere process of reviewing, assessing, encouraging applicants to our programs feel like we’ve been sucker punched. We forge ahead because we know the rewards at the end of the rainbow.

The most heartbreaking thing for me about the big tacky admissions scandal is the lack of faith in their children these parents demonstrated. It’s clear that not everyone is cut out for college or needs it to succeed. My son eschewed the college experience. When I began working at USC, he was fourteen, and I had high hopes of taking advantage of the tuition remission. While I was initially heartbroken that he wouldn’t follow in my footsteps by going to college, I knew that the route he’d chosen would be hard but that he’d be okay. He worked for several years as a commercial fisherman. The only strings I was able to pull there were asking my brother to help him get work in that field. He embraced the work. I was humbled by his commitment and hard work and what he learned during those years of backbreaking work.

The parents today at lunch bemoaned the entire process of the admissions process. How much more complicated the process seems than when I’d gone through it! I applied to two colleges, one early admissions, and one back up school. How different my life might have been had I ended up there. It’s not unusual for our current students to have applied to more than a dozen colleges, made multiple college visits with their beleaguered parents, who want the best for them.

We have some extraordinary senior designers and stage managers and technical directors who are exiting our programs with their degrees in about a month. They are scenic designers, sound designers, lighting and projection designers, stage managers, costume designers, and budding production managers/TDs, a self-proclaimed costume designer and sewist.

Listening to them recount their design and stage manager processes to the incoming students today made me feel as proud as the parents who’d accompanied our guests to campus today. These students have worked hard to earn their degrees and build professional portfolios. Through their diligence they have also assumed the roles of ambassadors to our next freshman production/design cohort.

USC School of Dramatic Arts performance of “Sunday in the Park with George” on Mar. 27, 2019, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Nicholas Gingold/Capture Imaging)

Recently when I posted the picture of the bracelet I bought to keep f***ing going, Chris reminded me of my “warm and fuzzy” response to him when he called me once during his fishing days.

13 stitches in my leg, in the middle of the ocean complaining about shushing 2 tons of ice to you (to which you said) “You’re either a winner or a whiner? Which one are you?”

We hung up shortly after and I didn’t go to bed until the job was done.

While there was a time when we lost a lot of sleep about how our son would turn out and considered concerted intervention in the trajectory of his life, I no longer worry about the choices he makes. He’s the head coach of a prestigious elite hockey prep team and demonstrates daily to his players about the importance of life choices and the skills and practice they continue to refine under his and his colleagues coaching. He utilizes discoveries he’s made finding his path as a powerful teaching tool. Just as our college designers do. Strengthening their practice through self-examination, sometime failure and recovery and building collaborative relationships.

As I make my way in this new single life I’ve been thinking a lot about the closed circle that is a marriage. Often to the withering of long standing friendships. Add to that working in the theatre where the hours are already a severe deterrent to having a social life. Married couples tend to socialize with other married couples who are similarly distanced by their own bubbles of connubial bliss. What happens when a marriage ends, either through divorce, or the death of one’s partner? How do you re-enter the world? Re-activate relationships that were important to you? How do those people respond to your attempts to re-activate? Is this a healthy exercise? Too nostalgic? Should one be looking forward to forming new relationships instead? Is it fair to expect that people will be willing to re-activate long dormant relationships?

These are some of the topics I’m considering. They coincide with my increasing nausea about social media. This week I’m convinced it’s a matter of days before I unplug. I’ve already removed the book of Face from my phone as an initial step.

Then, there’s the Tutorial reboot.

I had what I thought was the brilliant idea to reach out to reconnect with a group of my high school friends, who shared a very special moment in time and mentorship with our Theatre Professor from 1977 – more than forty years ago. We called them our Tutorials, weekly gatherings where we sipped our tea, listened to the radio and talked about the problems of the world before trundling off to chapel.

Utilizing the old fashioned medium of email, some internet sleuthing and the promise of revisiting a special and formative time in our young lives, I invited the group to have a zoom tutorial. Scheduling this online group chat was one of the more challenging scheduling problems I’ve tackled (even as a life-long stage manager). All was set for tomorrow morning at 6:10AM PDT, 9:10AM EST when the participants started dropping like flies. The excuses were among the more creative ones I’ve ever encountered.

The yoga class that I teach with incarcerated men has been changed to Sunday morning.

And I’m thinking I can’t even bend at the waist any more….

I’ll be in the Louvre at the time of our call and will try to make it work.

Can you stand in front of the Mona Lisa to prove this outrageous claim?

I’ll be in Sydney and it will be 11:10PM and I may need to get to sleep.

For crying out loud! We have four time zones to coordinate here.

Clearly these are interesting and worthwhile connections to resuscitate; it may take olympic level scheduling skills work out the next chat. That and the willingness of the others to re-boot these friendships.