the elegance of the hedgehog

Yesterday I stumbled upon several quotes that I had copied from The Elegance of the Hedgehog when I read it about a year ago. The book explores narcissism at times, and while narcissism is by no means the emphasis of the book and, in fact, did not detract from my enjoyment of the book (as it did for Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections), I still found that these passages leapt off the page when I read them.

The first reminds me of myself in my twenties, when, despite having some issues with my mother, I still believed that her general controlling approach to parenting was the right way and that touchy-feely "gentle" parenting methods were "lax" and "permissive" (you must say these words with a sour sneer, as if picking up soiled underpants from the floor). At that time, I thought of discipline as synonymous with punishment. I thought of children as unformed creatures who had to be trained and broken.
"The problem is that children believe what adults say and, once they're adults themselves, they exact their revenge by deceiving their own children. 'Life has meaning and we grown-ups know what it is' is the universal lie that everyone is supposed to believe. Once you become an adult and you realize that it's not true, it's too late.  The mystery remains intact, but all your available energy has long ago been wasted on stupid things.  All that's left is to anesthetize yourself by trying to hide the fact that you can't find any meaning in your life, and then, the better to convince yourself, you deceive your own children." (page 22)
When my first son was an infant, I still clung to the belief that my mother's childrearing practices were mostly good. I was not yet ready to put myself in my son's place and consider the possibility that I was raised in a way that was often unkind and injurious, and denied my autonomy from birth onward.

This next passage immediately called my mother to mind:
"She cannot feel safe if she hasn't crushed her adversaries and reduced their territory to the meanest share. A world where there's room for other people is a dangerous the same time she still needs them just a bit, for a small but essential chore: someone, after all, has to recognize her power...she would like me to tell her, while her sword is under my chin, that she is the greatest and that I love her." p 84
For some reason this reminds me of my mother speaking scornfully of anyone who didn't do things the way she liked, like a woman down the street, who worked with my mother, and who had a pair of sons with whom we liked to play. These children sometimes forgot to be perfect please-and-thank-you automatons, and were accustomed to calling adults by their first names. The woman, who was also a single mother, was held up by my mother as an example of all that was wrong with permissive parenting. She was a failure, a bad person. Her children were beneath us. We were discouraged from playing with them and I believe my mother stopped having a friendly relationship with the mother. My mother seemed really hung up on the fact that the boys had a hard time remembering to call her "Mrs. Clairesmom" instead of by her first name. 

Everything was a fight to determine who was right. Her parenting was the right way. Her religion was "The One True Church." Her ambitions at her job reflected the only correct way to run the place, and heaven help those who stood in her way.
One more quote gets to the heart of the matter:
"If there is one thing I detest, it's when people transform their powerlessness or alienation into a creed." (page 85)
Yes, that explains so much. It's very true of my mother, that she took all the faults she found in herself or with the world and turned them into a moral code, a set of absolutes. Nothing was ever a grey area. Nothing. I can sometimes feel the same tendency in myself, stemming from my own alienation from her, from the world, from myself. Again and again I fight that tendency, and struggle not to pass on the universal lie to my own children.


  1. Do we have the same mother? Wow, when you said "One True Church" that gave me the creeps. That is exactly what my mom says. I hope and pray I am not the parent my mom was. But I think it is about respect, which my mom does not have for anyone.

  2. I take it your mom's a Catholic, Holly? I think growing up pre-Vatican II may have had something to do with many boomers growing up in a way that fed any potential narcissism. I also remember CCD (catechism, Sunday School) teachers that I had when I was about 8-10 years old drawing a diagram in which the Roman Catholic Church was this constant, "true church" presence and all the protestant churches branched/broke off of it. I believed it for too long.