Have you ever noticed this? TV shows, books, or movies without disordered people are just boring. What gives a story texture and makes it enthralling is the presence of villains, jerks, and figures you love to hate. Or what we’re calling drama people.
I’ll give you one example. Remember The Andy Griffith Show?
I know, I know. It’s pathetic that I use media references from the Neolithic Era. You may be thinking I need an intervention in which I’m involuntarily committed to an Arizona treatment facility where patients are forced to watch 21stCentury shows for 28 days followed by months of group therapy in which the plots of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or Game of Thrones are discussed. 6-month, 12-month, and 18-month chips would be awarded for maintaining abstinence from the use of phrases like, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” “Gag me with a spoon,” or “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Willis?”
Listen, I feel your pain but as Sammy Davis, Jr. recently sang, “I gotta be me.”
Anyway, back to The Andy Griffith Show. It was great TV but what made it worth watching was Barney Fife. I’d never really thought about this until recently but Barney was a narcissist—a nice narcissist but a narcissist nonetheless. He was thin-skinned, pompous, entitled, and excessively image conscious.
It’s a common error to think of narcissism as being about the excessive love of self but, more precisely, it’s about the love of image. Barney was extremely sensitive (“All us Fifes are sensitive”), high-strung, and became somewhat unhinged whenever the veil surrounding his colossal self-doubts was lifted. Andy’s role in the Barney drama was to keep Barney’s image polished, portraying him as strong when actually weak, brave when actually terrified, competent when actually incompetent. Sure, it was comedic but it was Barney’s disorder that made those episodes so compelling.
Don Knotts (the actor who played Barney) left the show at the same time they transitioned from black and white to color. I don’t know this, but it was as though the producers thought, “With the Barney character gone, let’s just make this show about homespun America.” Lacking that Barney/drama element, the show became, well, boring. It was like watching paint dry. Some of the characters were quirky—irritatingly so, in my opinion—but the drama was gone. Whenever you hear that Andy Griffith Show whistling theme song and see that it’s a color episode, do yourself a favor and find something more stimulating to watch, like C-Span or Olympic curling.
I’d like to spend a few weeks describing various types of dramas. Different types have different requirements but the common denominator is the role-playing obligation. Here’s how they all work: “My role (drama person) is this, your role (drama participant) is that. As long as we play our obligatory roles, we’ll get along.” Relational “success,” therefore, is contingent upon drama participation.
This week, I’ll describe what I call the “master drama.” I use the “master” word not to suggest heightened proficiency but control. It works like this: My role (drama person) is to be in charge, your role (drama participant) is to do what I need you to do and be who I need you to be. As long as we stay inside of our drama roles, we’ll have a good relationship. Any questions?”
If you hear people using terms and phrases like control-freaks, micromanagers, everything has to be her way, or his-way-or-the-highway, master drama people are being discussed.
As disorders go, master dramas are some of the most common. Who hasn’t been under the thumb of a controller at some point? These are the unreasonable bosses, the power-tripping presidents of home-owner-associations, the only-one-way-to-do-it co-workers, or family members who operate according the maxim: “You’ll relate to me on my terms or not at all.”
This power-and-control maxim was superbly depicted in the movie, Ordinary People. (I’ve already used one ancient reference in this letter so why stop now?) I’ve always loved this movie, not because it’s a feel-good experience, but because of the way it portrays family members dealing with family dysfunction. Here’s how I described the movie’s set-up in my book.
The 1980 movie, Ordinary People, won the Academy Award for Best Picture and tells the story of a family that appears to be quite ordinary. Beneath this façade of normality, however, bubbles a witch’s brew of dysfunction. The witch stirring the caldron is the mom, Beth. Beth has little tolerance for anything that’s not spotless, perfect, and trouble-free which includes her less than perfect son, Conrad. Conrad is struggling to find his place in a family where Buck, his greatly revered (perfect) brother, died in an accident. She resents Conrad because he’s not perfect like Buck and continually seems to suggest that the wrong son died. Beth projects her negatives onto Conrad, who is made out to be the crazy one—the source of all that’s wrong in the family. The dad, Calvin, is good-natured sort who views the world through rose-colored glasses, rendering him oblivious to the dysfunction swirling around him. Calvin misses it. Conrad desperately needs him to see it.
Toward the movie’s end, Calvin finally emerges from his oblivion and notices what Conrad has seen all along—the witch stirring the caldron. He verbalizes his newfound realization to Beth, who predictably denies any wrongdoing.
Here’s that dialogue between Calvin and Beth which I didn’t include in the book. I’ll follow it up with some comments.
Beth: Calvin? Why are you crying? Can I, uh… can I get you something?
Calvin: I don’t…
Beth: What did you say? Calvin, what did you say? Tell me!
Calvin: You are beautiful. And you are unpredictable. But you’re so cautious. You’re determined, Beth; but you know something? You’re not strong. And I don’t know if you’re really giving. Tell me something. Do you love me? You really love me?
Beth: I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.
Calvin: We would have been alright, if there hadn’t been any mess. But you can’t handle mess. You need everything neat and easy. I don’t know. Maybe you can’t love anybody. It was so much Buck. When Buck died, it was as if you buried all your love with him, and I don’t understand that, I just don’t know, I don’t… maybe it wasn’t even Buck; maybe it was just you. Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried. But, whatever it was… I don’t know who you are. And I don’t know what we’ve been playing at. So, I was crying. Because I don’t know if I love you anymore. And I don’t know what I’m going to do without that.
There are several notable features about controlling master drama people revealed in this back-and-forth.
- It had just now dawned on Calvin that, after all these years, he was lacking a real relationship with a real person. Notice his statement, “I don’t know who you are and I don’t know what we’ve been playing at.” Dramas mimic life but don’t feel real . . . because they’re not.
- Beth’s relationship with Buck “worked” because Buck was somehow able to meet Beth’s perfectionistic demands. But she couldn’t relate to Conrad, her other son, because he was too “messy.” Relational “success” with a controller is contingent upon being and doing what he or she needs. There’s no grace, no margin for error.
- Drama people are confusing. Notice how many times Calvin used the phrase, “I don’t know.” Drama participants often find themselves asking, “Why does he do that?” or “What was she thinking?” The confusion experienced can be all-consuming.
- Outwardly, Beth was beautiful, strong, and charming. Inwardly, she was weak, demanding, and withholding. There is usually a discrepancy between surface appearances and private realities with drama people. Another reason why they’re so confusing.
Dramas are fun to watch but not so fun when you’re in them. Ordinary People was a compelling drama. But if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a person’s controlling demands in real life, you know how miserable that can be.
Well, I’ve gone from a 60’s reference (The Andy Griffith Show) to an 80’s reference (Ordinary People). That’s progress, is it not?