A couple of months before the movie "Tangled" came out I had come across the story of
Rapunzel, again. Having grown up in Germany, I had heard it before but did not remember any of the
details. The movie is a very changed version of the original; it is so changed that none of the
ingredients that make Rapunzel's psychological challenge so pronounced are present any more. In
"Tangled" Rapunzel is a spunky, self-assured young woman. She is a worthy role model for girls but
she is not what the Brothers Grimm had in mind. They were trying to teach girls the particular
patterns, pitfalls, and tasks involved in growing up with a mother who is both abandoning and
imprisoning, needing her daughter emotionally but rejecting and devaluing her at the same time.
For some time I had been searching for a description of a type of narcissism not usually talked
about. When we hear the word narcissism most of us think of the exhibitionistic kind. We think of
"Mommy Dearest", the type of narcissist who is so obviously self-absorbed and flamboyant that she
molds her daughter into an idealized extension of herself. If there are multiple children, she will
reject the other ones, but with the first one (usually) she will stay fused or try to stay fused for
the rest of her life. But there are other types of narcissism, not so obvious.
In recent years professionals in the mental health field have started to distinguish between those
other types of narcissism. There are so many subcategories at this point, both among clinical as well
as lay publications, that it can be quite confusing. So, when I listened to the original Rapunzel
story, I experienced a moment of wonderful recognition. The Brothers Grimm, over two hundred years
ago, described my mother and my journey and the mothers and journeys of many of my clients! The best
diagnostic label for these mothers is "closet narcissists".
Narcissistic mothers, whether "closet" or otherwise, are not bad people; they are adult children
who have been deeply wounded and traumatized at a very early age. In my mother's case, she was
orphaned at age 1½ and grew up with relatives who were not very capable parents. She described her
childhood as that of Cinderella. She had her own fairy tale to live through. However, without her
having inner and outer resources for healing herself, her trauma became generational and it was passed
on to me.
Next page: What causes the narcissistic injury?