A picture is a freeze frame, a moment perfectly preserved. But does that picture represent what is actually going on? Or is it used to manipulate perceptions, and make life seems something different than it is?
In a number of recent conversations about toxic families, the topic of pictures came up. It was all in different contexts, but it made me realize that there is a significance to pictures in the lives of narcissistic abusers, and perhaps also in the lives of their targets. That’s why I wanted to take a look at the different angels and contexts that pictures made their way into my conversations.
A Picture of Perfection
I was telling a fellow survivor that my toxic mother had portraits made of all of us. By that I mean oil paintings. And by that I mean we had to sit, nothing quite so unorthodox as painting from a photo of course. She had the children lined up on one wall, and those of her and my father were next to the mantle in the living room. I absolutely hated that portrait. To this day the whole exercise of those portraits seems odd.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to make portrait painting out to be an evil art or anything. It is about the energy behind my mother’s wish to have us immortalized in oil paints. It wasn’t about the paintings really, it was about how she could show them off, and show us off as some perfect family. It was the cherry on top of the mansion she struggled so much to house us in.
I think that is the crux of the matter. I have heard from many survivors (of maternal abuse in particular) who were taken for family photo shoots with a similar intent as my mother’s portraits. To somehow catch the perfect moment. To show the world how wonderful their little perfect family is. After all, these people are predominately interested in image. Things only have to SEEM perfect, and a snap shot is all you need for that.
The Real Picture
When I first started to come to terms with the abuse, and I began to process my memories, I quite often resorted to my photo albums. I would look through the pictures to see what it had been like. Now I began seeing the little smirks, and remember the weird circumstances surrounding some of these snap shots.
Like the time we attended the funeral of my host mother and my mother insisted we take a family photo because ‘how often do we all get together these days’. I was very close to my host mother, and I was heartbroken at her passing. I was in no mood to take fun family pictures. But the photo was taken nonetheless. I have since gotten rid of it, as I have of many other pictures too.
The Healing Power of Pictures
Going through my childhood albums, and even some videos (I grew up in the 80s after all, so there were camcorders around ) really did help me gain more insight. I know the same has been true for others on the healing journey. Connecting to pictures of ourselves, helps us connect with the feelings we experienced too. It helps us understand that we were young, vulnerable and did not cause or deserve the emotional and mental games that were played.
“After really connecting with these difficult feelings and mourning the loss of their innocence, adult survivors can truly stop blaming themselves for the abuse and begin the ”re-parenting” process. And by re-parenting our child self, we re-parent our adult self.” (from Snapshot of the Past: Effective Tools for Childhood Trauma Therapy by Arlene Drake, Phd, MFT)
The pictures also allowed me to see some of the gaslighting that had been going on. My mother had convinced me that I had been hugely overweight even before I was born. Looking at photos of myself as a child helped me realize I was not actually overweight as a child. I did gain some weight after having been in a car accident at 12, but that is a whole different story. Although this particular line of attack still effects me greatly, it were the childhood photos that first began opening my eyes to this particular line of gaslighting.
Another way I used the photos was to talk to my partner. That helped me talk to him about my past. The added bonus though, was that he could also help me see some of the undercurrent by noticing expressions, or by telling me stories of his own childhood, too.
Contrast and compare can be a useful tool sometimes. It made it much easier to learn that my normal, was not actually that normal, at all!