• Dr. Stephanie Kriesberg

BOOK REVIEW: NOVELS TO READ IN QUARANTINE IF YOU HAVE A NARCISSISTIC MOTHER

Updated: Jun 2

Family History (2003)

Black and White (2007)

by Dani Shapiro


In January of 2019, Dani Shapiro published her acclaimed memoir, Inheritance. Shapiro reveals how a simple decision, on an ordinary afternoon, recalibrates her sense of who she is in the world.  Shapiro swabs her cheek and, without a worry, sends it off for DNA testing.  Her husband is doing the same for a work project.  So why not?  When she gets the test results, she discovers her beloved father is not biologically related to her at all.


Read Inheritance for the beautiful writing.  Read Inheritance to learn how Shapiro uncovered the story of her conception, and how she came to reckoning with her new normal


.Then, as I did, listen to Family Secrets, Shapiro’s podcast, which grew out of Inheritance. Shapiro’s guests share their own family secrets: how they shaped them, how they discovered them, how they reckoned with them.


I come away from each episode feeling strengthened by the guests’ resilience and compassion, from the man who learned his father was a Catholic priest, to the woman who accepted her father’s long-time mistress.  As it states on the Family Secrets website: “while the discovery of family secrets can initially be terrifying or traumatic, often these discoveries have the power to liberate, heal, or even uplift us.”


As a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with daughters of narcissistic mothers, I also recommend you read two of Shapiro’s earlier works, the novels Family History (2003) and Black + White (2007).  A client of mine once said that daughters of narcissistic mothers are like “a secret society.”  They don’t talk about their problems with their mothers, which feel shameful and incomprehensible to others.



In Black +White, Clara Brodeur has not seen her mother, Ruth Dunne, for years.  Clara fled Manhattan before she graduated from high school, escaping the notoriety created by Ruth’s famous nude portraits of her.  Starting when Clara was three years old and into her teens,  Ruth photographed Clara naked in the tub, in a fountain, on a rug, then displayed the photos to the world.  Her daughter was Ruth’s most infamous and lucrative subject.  


In one scene, Clara sits beside Ruth’s bedside.  Ruth reveals the imminent publication of a book:  CLARA.  


Clara protests immediately.

Ruth responds:“Oh Clara…it’s my work.  It’s not about you.  It was never about you.”


Mystified, Ruth insists that Clara is over-reacting to “ancient history.” She is unable to see Clara as a separate person, with her own perspectives and needs, let alone acknowledge them.


Clara now lives in rural Maine with her husband and daughter, in a community where no one knows about her past.  No one knows about Ruth Dunne and the “The Clara Series.” Robin, Clara’s sister, calls and reports that Ruth is dying from cancer.  Clara travels to Manhattan to see Ruth and revisit their raw relationship.


Clara thinks back to how difficult it has always been for her to connect with her feelings: “instead, she has moved past her feelings as if they were scenery seen from a moving car.  Anger, sadness, regret, loneliness—she kept going, and her painful thoughts remained stationary, like dusty signs on a road.”


Daughters of narcissistic mothers often feel as Clara does—cut off from their emotions.  We learn to identify and value our emotions when our parents and early caretakers value them first.  It’s no wonder that Clara is so cut off from her feelings.  As a child and teen her body belonged to Ruth, her feelings cut out of the picture. Fiction can help us understand lives outside our own and ourselves.  If you’re the daughter of a narcissistic mother, reading Family History and Black + White might help you feel understood, connected, and that the “secret society” is a little less secret.  



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If you would like more information or to seek help, contact Dr. Stephanie Kriesberg at www.drstephaniekriesberg.com or email her at drsk@drstephaniekriesberg.com. Follow her on Twitter at @drskriesberg.










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© 2020 by Stephanie Kriesberg. Created by Stephanie Gerber Wilson.