Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Miles Drentell, Don Draper, and the Insatiable Dragon

Last week my pals, Danta and Satish, requested I add more books to the basket in the backseat of my car.  Whenever I'm tooling around town with the boys, they eagerly devour a wide variety of titles, so just for fun, I included a stack of Robert Munsch's picture books, ones the boys loved when they were little.
"Hey, Katie, thanks!" Danta beamed.  "These are great!"
"You're welcome," I said.  "Say, want to read me The Paper Bag Princess?"
"Sure!" Danta nodded eagerly. 
As we made our way home, I listened to the story about feisty Princess Elizabeth who's engaged to handsome Prince Roland.  One day a dragon burns down her castle, all of her clothes, and steals her fiancé, carting Roland off to his lair.  Donning a dirty paper bag (the only thing she can find) Elizabeth immediately sets off to rescue Roland.  She courageously ignores the dragon's zeal in saying he'd love to eat a princess for lunch, but is too tired after demolishing her castle.  Outfoxing him by covertly suggesting he showcase his prowess of burning down forests and flying around the world in less than ten seconds, Elizabeth knows that once the dragon has been worn down, she can sneak into his lair and liberate her beloved.  Soon enough, the dragon is exhausted from showing off and falls fast asleep.
Alas, when Roland sees his brave heroine, he sneers, "Elizabeth, you are a mess!  You smell like ashes, your hair is all tangled, and you are wearing a dirty old paper bag.  Come back when you are dressed like a real princess."
To which Elizabeth cleverly replies, "Roland, your clothes are really pretty and your hair is very neat.  You look like a real prince, but you are a bum."  In the end, she dances off into the sunset, happily free from both the dragon and the man who was revealed to be an ungrateful egomaniac.  
After reading that storybook more than a dozen times, you'd think I'd be inoculated from ever getting involved with a real Roland.  
But no.  
More than one man has entered by life as a seeming savior, only to be revealed as an uncompromising narcissist. 

I suppose I could blame it all on my fascination with Miles Drentell and Don Draper.  
Back in the early nineties, I loved watching thirtysomething, particularly when the main characters interacted with a character some critics called a New Age Darth Vader.  Miles Drentell was an amoral advertising executive who doled out Japanese wisdom like it was Pez, and got away with triangulating, manipulating, and intimidating his employees simply because he held all the power.  Even though he was an expert puppeteer and The Boss from Hell, his employees acquiesced to his every demand for fear of being fired.  Back in the day, television viewers loved to hate Miles, much in the same way we'd eventually love to loathe Don Draper's escapes on Mad Men.
In an episode near the end of thirtysomething's last season, Miles tried to manipulate Michael Steadman into reworking an entire ad campaign.  When Michael attempted to rebuff him, Miles unearthed his incredibly cynical view of advertising, saying in part, "No one wants to be unpopular.  That's the dance of advertising.  We help people become popular.  Through popularity comes acceptance.  Acceptance leads to assimilation.  Assimilation leads to bliss.  We embrace people with the message that we're all in it together...and that there is nothing, absolutely nothing wrong.  That's what we've always done, and in return for our humanitarian service, we are made rich."
Spoken like a true narcissist.
Of course, Michael quit immediately, never to return to the fold of a man who recruited desperate, needy people to feed the insatiable dragon of his ego.  
I know the feeling all too well.
A long time ago I was a client of a local psychologist.  In an attempt to work on my issues in relationships, I thought it would be wise to work with someone of the opposite sex.  Back then I was young, naive, and fragile, all of the things *David could spot on a dime.  I used to put any man who was an authority on a pedestal, so I didn't think it was inappropriate when David covertly groomed me by disclosing his personal history during our first session, nor did I think it circumspect when he eventually revealed that he was engaged to a former client. 
However, things began to unravel over the course of our year and a half together, and I began to see a dysfunctional pattern emerging.  Nine times out of ten, our sessions involved him telling some long-winded personal story that coincided with what I was saying.  One morning when I was talking about how difficult it was to deal with clients and coworkers who had completely blown me off the previous week, David's cell phone rang...and he answered it.  I shut down for the rest of the session, but when I confronted him about it the following week, David came up with some banal excuse, never fully taking responsibility for his actions.
Eventually my therapy became David's therapy, especially during one difficult hour in which I was trying to move beyond my fear of intimacy.  He said dramatically, "In reality, Kate, you will never be able to say you've never been assaulted."
"I'm not being assaulted now," I shot back, angry that David was trying to drag me back into the past. 
He blinked nervously.  "Well, I can never say my grandmother never tried to strangle me."
I leaned forward, looking at him hard.  "She's not strangling you now...unless you want her to be."
The last straw came a few weeks later.  In front of another female client who I knew well and was sitting in on a session, I point-blank asked David why he was so hesitant to help me figure out a way to reconnect with men.   "Is it because your daughter and I have the same name?"  I asked.  "Do you think of me as your child?"
"No, not at all," David replied, flashing me a Cheshire grin.  "It's because if you weren't my client, we'd be dating."
Of course, knowing what I did about his fiancée, his comments not only made me feel powerless (as if I wouldn't have had a choice in the matter), but also left me wondering if he was saying it simply because he had a captive audience.  
Without thinking about it twice, I terminated therapy and never went back.  Unfortunately, my emotional work was left undone and so was I a few years later.

While living in Big Sur, I was briefly involved with a man who turned on the charm, then turned the screws on me once he got what he wanted.  Actually, *Raji immediately triangulated our relationship by saying, "I wonder if I should tell the woman I'm casually involved with about you."
After initially keeping my mouth shut and hoping Raji would return to being the man I had met months before, I eventually realized I couldn't listen to him talk about other women anymore.  I tried to connect with Raji after he left Esalen, but when he didn't answer his phone, I wrote him an email saying that what he did was his own business, but that it was difficult for me to know about, especially since he wasn't interested in anything else with me.  Raji wrote back with some psychobabble, saying he understood how I felt.  Yet when he returned to the institute, he tore into me with vicious intensity, turning the tables, trying to make me the one who was being unreasonable.
For the first time in my life, I stood up for myself, telling Raji he could take his game playing, mind screw elsewhere.  Then, of course the next woman he had bedded after me showed up on campus and he made sure I knew I had been easily replaced.  Then there was another.  And another.  And another.  I couldn't walk through the lodge without hearing someone talk about Raji and his revolving cycle of women.  After being betrayed by a counselor who revealed my affair with Raji to the powers that be at Esalen, I was utterly humiliated when Raji angrily began a very public campaign to paint me as just another crazy woman in his long line of paramours.  It didn't work for long, but the damage had already been done.
The entire experience broke my heart, but in the shattering I discovered how resilient I could truly be.  In the end I stood up to Raji's diabolical behavior more than I cared to, yet never again fell for his charisma, charm, and good looks.   Even now I will never be thankful for having been involved with a man like him, but I am forever grateful that he was the last one.
I've had a few opportunities since then, but have kept my desires in check, for I've come to understand that men like Raji will initially sell me a cleverly crafted line, only revealing their light, keeping their inner dragon chained up in a darkened dungeon until his hunger becomes overwhelming.  Kind of like how I wanted them to stay all bright and shiny and didn't want to trust my gut when their actions spoke louder than their words. 
Enter Don Draper, yet another manipulating ad man.

I've watched every episode of Mad Men at least four times.  At first I was fascinated by the parallels between Don and Betty and the main characters from a novel I had written five years previous (A Tapestry of Truth).  Now I know that the underlying attraction was in recognizing parts of my father in the main character.  Both Don and my dad were chain-smoking, high-powered businessmen.  Both carried a lot of social clout.  Both had a wife and three children.  Both had lost their mothers, Don at birth, and my father at age seventeen.   
Perhaps the most spine-chilling scene that revealed their innate similarities was the one in which Don visits Peggy in the hospital after she's given birth to a child she has given up for adoption.  "Get out of here...move forward," he tells her.  "This did not happen.  It will scare you how much it didn't happen."  This gaslighting technique is one with which many of us are all too familiar.
While Don Draper was a womanzing narcissist, when he was with his children, he did his best to be a kind father.  My Dad called me Hippo or Piggo from the time I was a little girl.  Even when I was struggling with an eating disorder and my weight plummeted, I was still Hippo to my unrelenting father.  Ironically, he would sometimes call me Elizabeth, my middle name, but I have no memory of him ever calling me "Kate" or "Katie" until I was in my mid-twenties and demanded that he stop calling me by those horrible nicknames. 
Like Don, Dad was a distant father, yet always worked hard, providing us with an abundance of food and clothing, annual vacations to the beach, and the gift of a college education.  Still, I would have traded all of it to have had a personal identity in his eyes, not some projected caricature he created to avoid the intimacy of calling me by my name.   That explains why in every man after him, I searched for the kind of person I had wanted my father to be:  genuine, attentive, able to love and accept me as I am.  And it explains why all of them could never fill those shoes because they never existed in the first place.  
Every single one of the dysfunctional, narcissistic men from my past eventually showed me all of who they were, but as Don Draper skillfully reveals in an episode from season four,  I ignored it because I wanted them to be who I wanted them to be.  In the end, they all probably wanted the same things from me that Don looked for in his clandestine endless supply of ego boosting, selfless compassion, gregarious generosity, and unwavering support of their paradoxical choices, no matter how much they blew me out of the water.  Because I wasn't aware that I was trying to placate their crazy-making in order to feel safe with them, I was able to provide what they wanted for a time.  
Once their inability to want me beyond their own selfish impulses was eventually revealed, I cut my losses and moved on.

I imagine many of the metaphoric Rolands from my past continue to wrestle with their insatiable dragons.  As for me, I know that no amount of love, sympathy, or heroic gestures of kindness will ever be enough to tame the beast that lies within each one of them.  They alone hold the sword that can ultimately slay it, and the choice is theirs to do so...or not. 
Now I can finally let go of needing to be right or justified or anything else that ties me to people who cannot see beyond their limited perception of my worth, and I no longer believe I have the ability to rescue anyone but myself.  Like the Paper Bag Princess, I can dance into the light silently saying to the unhealthy men from my past, "Thank you for the opportunity, however unconscious on your part, that allowed me to discover the missing pieces of myself so that I can now be whole and free."

*Names have been changed.

You can read part two of this blog here:  Growing the lotus

If you or someone you know has been challenged by being in an unhealthy relationship, go to for more information.