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Elizabeth Benedict

Elizabeth Benedict

Posted: January 18, 2011 06:26 PM

News flash: The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother wasn't the original title of the memoir du jour. The publisher wanted The Helicopter Mom from Hell, but rumor has it that author Amy Chua had a temper tantrum, and that was that.

When the publisher offered another, The Battle Hymn of the Narcissistic Mother with Borderline Tendencies, Amy declared, as she does in the book, "There are all kinds of psychological disorders that exist in the West that don't exist in Asia." Since Chua dwells in the fantasy that the ways of the West don't not apply to her, even though she was born in the U.S., that title was toast too.

I'm kidding about the titles -- though they would be apt for this repellent little book -- but the above quote belongs entirely to Amy Chua. It reveals that Chua never lets the facts get in the way of her opinions. And now that her book is out and her phone is ringing off the hook with charges of child abuse and more, she is claiming in the New York Times that the monomaniacal memoir "was meant to be ironic and self-mocking."

Like the textbook narcissistic she appears to be, Chua is now trying to rewrite the narrative and wants us to buy into another version of her demented reality. The narrative of her memoir -- which she describes now as a journey to enlightenment after having been "humbled" by her rebellious 13-year-old daughter -- is that the Chinese mother in her had a responsibility to raise her daughters to be "successful," which excuses and explains her chronic screaming, tantrums, threats, hysteria, bullying, deprivation, shaming, and belittling them. All was for a higher purpose: so the girls would inspire admiration and adulation, so the girls would win music prizes, get straight A's, and be good Chinese daughters, as Chua herself was raised to be.

Somewhere in the family is a long-suffering husband and father, Jed, whose opinions Chua values as much as she values her children's. He objects plenty to what she says and does, but from the available evidence, he seems to lose every match in the first round.

The excesses of narcissists never fail to amaze me, and Chua is a master -- a master manipulator and brainwasher. In a defense mechanism called splitting, she sees the most complex enterprises as good/bad propositions, and forces those around her to submit to her views. The Chinese way is good. The Western way is bad. Success equals Harvard. Violin is good. Sleepovers bad. Missing a single day of practice is a catastrophe. Any grade but an A is a crisis.

When her children were sick, she stuffed them with Advil and Tylenol with Codeine so they would not miss a day of practice. She turned family vacations to exotic countries into major meltdowns by forcing the kids to practice before -- and sometimes instead of -- seeing the sights and eating meals. She shoved back at them hand-made birthday cards, claiming they had not worked hard enough on them. She forced her daughter Lulu to play the violin at her own bat mitzvah, and said she could not have a party if she refused. She spent money like a madwoman, even planning to liquidate her retirement account for a new violin, despite Jed's objections.

The only creatures she seems to have any compassion for -- to view as not her property to control as she wishes -- are her dogs. They are lucky dogs indeed.

Chua's tyranny over her family -- despite protestations by even her horrified parents -- remains intact until her 13-year-old daughter rebels on a trip to Russia. Finally, Chua has to pay attention, lest the child continue to embarrass the family in public and in the community - by telling the truth about her mother. And by refusing to do what Mom demands.

Chua calls this "being humbled by a 13-year-old" and wants credit for having seen the light. But many fathers who beat their families eventually stop -- right about the time that the son, now tall enough to deck his dad, issues a warning. Chua pulled back because she had come to the edge of the precipice. Her abused daughter set a limit, a boundary -- and when Mom saw that the boundary was immovable, she had no choice but to relent.

She claims that her memoir is the story of her journey from being a Chinese tiger mother to being, well, accepting of her children's autonomy. Instead of stage managing every minute of their lives -- including routinely taking them out of school early for lessons, and lying to the school about why -- she now secretly texts her daughter's tennis teacher, "with questions and practice strategies," and at breakfast or when she's saying good night to Lulu, she'll "suddenly yell out, 'More rotation on the volley swing,' ... And Lulu will plug her ears, and we'll fight, but I'll have gotten my message out, and she knows I'm right."

Perhaps that's irony and self-mockery?

I wish Amy Chua didn't remind me so much of another public figure, plucked so recently from obscurity, who keeps rewriting the narratives that excuse and explain her bad behavior -- Sarah Palin. Can it be that Amy Chua is Sarah Palin with an Ivy League education? Palin with a lust for social and educational status, with a few degrees from Harvard, and without the rifle in her arms?

For those who must dwell or have dwelled in hurricane households like Chua's and Palin's, some of these books and websites can be useful places to begin, or continue, the long process of healing and self-help.

For men in relationships with domineering women, A Shrink for Men is a resource.

For anyone needing clarity on narcissism, borderline and other personality disorders, Out of the Fog is a supportive place to connect and vent.

Stop Walking on Eggshells and Understanding the Borderline Mother are two books that can help make sense of a family member's or friend's baffling, hurtful behavior and propose coping strategies.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of five novels, including
Slow Dancing and Almost, and is a freelance book editor.