Growing Up Queer With a Narcissistic Mother Was Its Own Special Hell

This review contains spoilers.

Elle Nash’s novel Deliver Me should come with a barf bag tucked inside the jacket.

Things get too real when Nash connects the dots between growing up with a narcissistic mother and how the resulting, ever-crumbling personal boundaries push a teenage queer crush off a cliff into obsession. If you’ve been put down and ignored your whole life by your mother, what’s going to happen when another girl shows you attention?

In the present day of the novel, Dee-Dee is a thirty-something white woman working at a meat-packing plant and living with her alcoholic ex-con, illegal-exotic-insect-raising boyfriend (referred to as Daddy) in the Missouri Ozarks. Raised Pentecostal by a mother who is at once overbearing and neglectful, Dee-Dee’s early life is laced with shame: shame around her weight, her looks, her outsider social status, but most of all, the queerness she keeps a secret.

Or, well, that she tries to. After all, much like my own school experience, queerness proves to be something other kids can sniff out. And when Dee-Dee reflects throughout the book on her past and especially her high school days with her best friend Sloane, she recalls that the other girls had started rumors about her making out with Sloane. Above all, more than anything, Dee-Dee wants to get pregnant with Daddy — because then her mother, Momma, would love her, Daddy would truly be hers, and she would feel like an object worthy of appreciation, a sacred and exalted vessel, as opposed to the plain woman she feels herself to be, who’s all but ignored by everyone around her.

The book opens with Dee-Dee reflecting on the meat-packing plant as a fertile body, a space containing possibility and a sense of a future. This reflection takes place while Dee-Dee uses her pneumatic scissors on the line to cut chicken breast after chicken breast apart, a completely alienated, mechanical violence. This philosophizing, also, is one I found difficult to agree with, that she could find anything but death in a place like that. Like so many of her internal leaps, it’s a stretch.

That’s Dee-Dee’s spun out worldview. She’s not a person whose perspective you can trust to align with a more agreed-upon reality. Why would she even think that pregnancy would change so much for her, when nothing else ever has? The answer is quickly revealed to us, when Dee-Dee reflects on Momma’s treatment of Sloane after she became pregnant in high school and came to live with Dee-Dee’s family. Within that dysfunctional family structure where Dee-Dee’s father is dying of cancer and is discarded by Momma, where Dee-Dee has long been the object of ridicule and disgust alongside her father, she witnesses Momma make Sloane into the golden child, a favored and beloved houseguest growing new life within her young body.

“I keep hoping one day Momma will tell me she loves me, that she’ll say it aloud,” is the quiet, disconcerting follow-up to a lifetime of inconsistent parenting that was about the parent’s mood, about requiring obedience, and not about actually raising another human being. It’s no secret. Dee-Dee repeats these thoughts about love and pregnancy to herself again and again, like she’s praying, repeating affirmations, casting spells. Reality is malleable — nothing is necessarily true, or else how could it be reasonable that her mother would reject her for her whole life but then shower love and trust and affection on another girl?

Dee-Dee says when she was small: “One minute I’d be playing happily with my toys, my little stuffed animals and dolls, singing songs to myself, then there’d be a sudden flash of red, and Momma storming in, telling me to shut up. I’d cry, which was the opposite of what she wanted, so then she’d yell at my father to pull out the leather belt…” And in response, Dee-Dee says “I learned to lie, not about my faults but about everything.”

***

I went through a lying phase. I remember it from time to time because it’s strange, because I’m not a good or practiced liar these days. There’s not much to lie about. But that was the thing. What was there to lie about then?

I got so used to lying as a kid because I needed to tell my mom whatever I thought she wanted to hear, whatever would prevent her from scorn or yelling or punishing me in some way — but also, this was unpredictable, almost random, so it became best to lie about most things when talking to her. It didn’t take long for the habit to start bleeding out into other areas, spreading without control, coloring every conversation with her or my dad, and anyone who could report back to her. I remember surprising myself one day, just lying to her about something as simple as having history homework instead of English. I remember wondering why I’d just lied, but the fact was, in a way, I think that if personal attacks could come out of anywhere, out of anything, that if the things being attacked weren’t quite hewing to the truth, then it mattered less. I didn’t fully understand this impulse until I read an essay about lying by Rachel Kincaid.

This is a horror book. I realized this only after getting through about two thirds of it, needing to vomit, being unable to actually vomit, and turning to the blurbs on the back. But the horror of it, so often, lived in the ways this novel took me through my relationship with my mother, and how her neglect while I was in her care compounded with my queerness and gender queerness when setting me apart from the other kids, other “girls.”

In the book, Dee-Dee remembers being 6, her mother shaming her for her weight by making her wear a training bra that was too tight for her body, by slapping the welts it left in her skin when she took it off at the end of the day. Later, in high school, Dee-Dee is still wearing training bras, not real bras. The ever-precocious Sloane, on the other hand, shows off her new, colorful, fashionable bras to Dee-Dee. Dee-Dee wrestles with both her desire for Sloane being inflamed by the sight of her breasts in a bra, and also with her own longing for the kinds of clothes that other girls just seemed to get and receive.

Unlike Dee-Dee’s early introduction to constricting underwear, my mom neglected to get me any kind of a bra for far too long. I had to beg my grandma, who also couldn’t be trusted not to embarrass me, for something she would term a “boob wrap” while we were back-to-school shopping. I wore this pre-training bra every day I could manage, doing what I could to hide the fact that my nipples showed through my shirts, until, months later, my mom finally took me to buy some training bras. She would never replace these, except for when she bought me some sports bras for cross country running by the time I was in high school.

I still remember a rainy day before that when I didn’t yet have a sports bra and my male cross country coach laughed at the way I crossed my arms on the way back inside the locker room as my wet tee shirt, one I’d been wearing since I was seven, clung to my chest and my breasts bounced, completely exposed as far as I was concerned, by the wet cloth. It wasn’t until I was working at a restaurant, taking home my own paychecks for amounts I had never known before, that I was able to buy real, actual bras, that I was able to buy clothes I thought were cute, that fit me.

Our mother was so repulsed by my sister’s body and mine that by the time my sister got her period and I’d long since moved out of the house, she refused to buy her period products, instead leaving the middle schooler to walk to the dollar store and buy her own with her few dollars allowance. It had started with me. She’d stopped buying me toiletries at one point, and I remember, in high school, thinking that the girls whose parents still bought them shampoo, conditioner, razors, anything were just spoiled little brats. I bought my own dinners a lot of the time. It was that, or the smiley-faced potato things and microwaved mixed vegetables that still haunt me. That, and bland chicken.

***

While reading, I felt Dee-Dee’s training bra on my ribs, and felt the hunger of both craving the touch of a girl’s body and also the being of her. My mother was never ready for me to be a person, just like Dee-Dee’s mother was never ready for her to be a person, and that, somehow, also, led to the secrets of girlhood, of womanhood being less accessible, too. Other girls had sparkly hair clips, delicious and delightful outfits, underwear that was more mature than they were. They were shown how to do things — ride bikes, roller skate, snowboard, sled. I was given semi-broken hand-me-down versions of these things and scolded for not figuring it out. It was early on that I began to want to avoid these girls who knew more, because they would dominate me, mock me, and I became exhausted with it.

I’ll never forget not inviting a neighbor girl who had been my friend to my birthday party because she’d made fun of me one too many times while we were playing. She gave me a gift on the country school bus while we rolled the half hour ride to school. It was a pre-packaged tray of hair accessories: scrunchies, clips, all a 90s kid could want. I had unruly hair, 2-in-1 Suave shampoo hair, cut at home by my mom who seemed to hack at it until it was shaped like you wouldn’t believe, as if she did it on purpose. Looking back on this gift, I imagine Megan with her mom, her mom and her picking it out, her mom reaching for it with a sort of sense that she knew I didn’t even have these things. They didn’t give me a present that was fanciful or fun. They gave me basics.

When I brought the gift home, my mom mocked me, asking me how bad I felt for not inviting my friend who had given me a gift to my small thing and telling her I had no party. (Never mind that her mom clearly would have bought it?) I remember my dad imploring my mom to stop asking me if I felt guilty. She asked me again how guilty I felt, telling me how expensive the gift looked. My dad eventually said, “She feels bad enough. Stop.”

I remember opening up the gift. I’d never had so many options. Icicles of guilt hit my stomach when I braided my hair and tied it with the scrunchies given to me by the girl who I’d not wanted at my birthday party — after we’d played “juvie” when her brother went to juvenile detention, after she’d intentionally told me lies just to see if I’d believe them, after we made up spells out of weeds and dirt. She had an older-sister-ness to her, despite being my age, and she would tolerate nothing less than being the leader 100% of the time. It was probably something related to her lying, or teasing me for being naive, or being stubborn and refusing to concede that had made me want to retreat from her. Years later, my mom would send me her mugshot. It was like she needed to feed on my shock, or misery, was fishing for a reaction without consideration for how the news was delivered.

I think that if Dee-Dee could have taken Sloane’s life, skinned it, and put it on herself, that she would have. That’s because a similarly neglectful mother left me vulnerable to the instructions of more “worldly” girls who were simply afforded luxuries like shampoo that wasn’t 2-in-1, especially in my early teen years. Then, when I was 14, I first kissed a girl who was older, 17. Sloane mothers Dee-Dee, acts as stand-in older sister, and Dee-Dee’s crush, then, too, starts to feel incestuous, especially after Sloane moves in with her, becomes a part of her family through her pregnancy, confronts her mother. When she returns, having done jail time, and apparently in the mood to steal Dee-Dee’s boyfriend, Dee-Dee’s had over a decade to process her resentment, and at the same time, she’s not over her desire to be Sloane.

I didn’t ask to be confronted with a view of my middle and high school relationships refracted back to me through some kind of evil prism. But here, Elle Nash captures something about my queer longing in those years that goes beyond the usual shame of feeling like a predatory bisexual, which I’ve tended to do in my adult life. It was the sense I was somehow unworthy of the attention of my girl crushes. Though most didn’t return my feelings because they were straight, I also understood myself as fundamentally unlovable, and that became a part of it. That might have made it easier to accept my bisexuality, too, to be honest. I was already frightened of everything inside of me, already sure that each of the budding feelings inside me arriving with hormonal changes were unwelcome, uninvited, evil, that it came as no surprise that I would also be gay, that I would find myself located in yet another category inviting scorn and disgust and rejection. I was already asked, most days — whether it was from something my mother said or from my Catholic after-school classes, from teachers and other kids — to confront why I was fundamentally a bad person, so, in a way, it made it easier to look, to analyze.

Dee-Dee, too, understands herself to be some kind of sinful thing, and when her desires for Sloane emerge — sweaty, peach-scented, her hand on Sloane’s leg while she thrashes on the floor pretending to be possessed — it’s no surprise to her that she’s also wicked in this way, that there’s yet another reason for her mother to be disappointed in her.

***

There is a certain kind of mother who is afraid of her daughter’s body. I use daughter here, not because I was or am one — I’m not — but because it describes how my mother perceived me, and Dee-Dee’s, her. There is a budding dykeyness in Dee-Dee, in the way she mentions sitting like a boy while smoking cigarettes with Sloane in the girls’ bathroom in high school. This, her weight, anything she did that her own mother would have found repulsive in herself, is taken by her mother to be a reflection of her. Dee-Dee is not another person to her mother, and to her mother, appearances are everything.

We get a sense of Momma’s vanity early on, in the heat of the sweaty tent revival service. Dee-Dee tells us the pastor was clear about what he wanted from the women who attended these services: “No trousers, skirts only. No makeup, so you didn’t stink of pride.” But Momma is wearing White Diamonds — an infamously floral fragrance by Liz Taylor — and later, Dee-Dee focuses in on Momma’s red Avon lipstick. Dee-Dee, notably, does not mention wearing makeup in the book. Her approach to her appearance is single-minded. She wants only the glow of pregnancy, to wear clothes that show off her belly. She sees the signaling of appearance but does not appear to have learned how to use makeup, unlike Sloane who wears black lipstick to school that she scrubs off before returning home.

My own mother’s closet was a thing of wonder. I would stand in front of it as a kid, filing through hanging outfit after outfit, mesmerized by her collection that threatened to push out through the folding doors on either end. The entire closet floor was littered with her shoes, endless permutations of heels she wore daily, even as her bunions grew worse. She routinely applied makeup, went to the salon, and started getting acrylics in the 2000’s. Whether we had the money or didn’t, she’d buy clothes for herself. My sister talks about her anger when she realized how affordable kids clothes actually were, that she maybe didn’t have to be so itchy, look so unfashionable in school. Was it neglect, or was it an outright act of not wanting her daughters to outshine her? Like having the Evil Queen from Snow White as mother, angered by our youth and at once obsessed with keeping our bodies thin because anything else was failure.

Dee-Dee eats and eats as part of her ploy to fake a pregnancy, to conjure a pregnancy via force of will. She also describes this as a single act of rebellion against her mother. It’s understandable. I don’t know how much or how often I rebelled, or what parts of my personality are distinguishable, these days, from that initial rebellion. What part of me enjoys disappointing my mother, if any? Mostly, I still live in knee-jerk fear of her criticism. I do know that the sum of growing up like this, largely ignored, having my weight be the subject of conversation when adult houseguests were over, wearing decade-old clothes that itched, stealing tampons from my mom’s supply rather than facing her annoyance that I needed more — all of it is still with me in my thirties. Dee-Dee’s inability to escape this is too relatable. Her anger as seed for the ensuing horror of the book, her cruel and vicious actions that are at odds with her meek persona is something that I can find, in what I have to hope is a less unhinged way, inside me.

Dee-Dee’s loneliness aches through the pages. For me, it’s toward the end of the book, when her ruse doesn’t seem to be up, that it becomes apparent no one’s felt her belly. No one’s reached out to her with intimacy. So no one knows it’s a fake. But also, she’s gone through an almost entire fake pregnancy with no one wanting to touch her belly, not her friend, her mother, her boyfriend. Dee-Dee’s been dehumanized for so long, and Elle Nash takes the original wound of being the child of a narcissistic mother, specifically someone in the role of daughter, and extrapolates on that, letting it grow and reverberate into the intensity of a work of horror with events that are, unfortunately, violent things that can happen, disturbing things that have happened to people, and tragic things that will happen again.

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Nico Hall

Nico Hall is a Team Writer for Autostraddle (formerly Autostraddle's A+ and Fundraising Director and For Them's Membership and Editorial Ops person.) They write nonfiction both creative — and the more straightforward variety, too, as well as fiction. They are currently at work on a secret longform project. Nico is also haunted. You can find them on Twitter and Instagram. Here's their website, too.

Nico has written 229 articles for us.

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