Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Son Says She Abused Him, Stealing His Self-Esteem

Along with many other readers, I was enthralled by Marion Zimmer Bradley’s novel The Mists of Avalon soon after its 1983 release. Living in Berkeley, I knew people who knew Bradley, and when they spoke of attending parties and other events at her house, I envied them.

But now Bradley’s adult children are saying in interviews that their young lives were filled with torment and horrific abuse at the hands of their mother, who died in 1999. In the latest of these interviews, Bradley’s son Mark Greyland describes in terms whose vivid poetry makes them all the more tragic how the trauma of physical and mental abuse stole his self-esteem:

I was ashamed. When you are small you believe stuff, and I felt with my whole heart that I was responsible when she would go bad. … And that made every day a drama, a thick clogged tube of waiting for the dreadful, the un-nameable horror.

And nobody spoke. Everything was always fine and that was my clown suit. I thought everyone knew and that I was such a bad person no one would speak to me. My echo chamber filled me with such fear of exposure I would do anything to make the shadow go away. And I did. The shame paints my world yellow and pink and brown. I don’t want to say these things any more.

Asked how he is faring currently, Mark explained:

I am not doing well. I am filled with frightened images of what everyone is thinking while reminding myself that no one can really tell how I feel even if I shout it from the rooftops. I stop and shiver and remember and try to focus on anything (Look! Squirrel!) that will keep me on the task at hand. I stop and stare and look in the mirror. I make art and write verses. … I see a paper shield with a target on it. I am waiting for the blade to fall, all over again. I worry that my friends will walk away ashamed of me. …

I am discovering that the keeping of secrets to hide shame is poison, and I am trying to recover from the echoes every day. You can too. I have learned it was not my fault when it happened and it is not your fault either. Free yourselves.


Are All Films “Self-Esteem Films”?

I’ve just spent most of the day watching old movies. I started with Gates to Paradise: A lesser-known work of the noted Polish director Andrzej Wajda, it was released in 1968 and is a fictionalized version of the tragic medieval “children’s crusade,” in which hundreds of children set off from European villages hoping to reach Jerusalem.

Then I watched Dreaming Out Loud, one of many films starring the early-20th-century comedy duo who called themselves Lum and Abner and built their careers portraying dimwitted but kindhearted hillbillies. In this 1944 quickie, they strive to identify a hit-and-run driver.

Then I watched Road to Happiness, a 1941 drama about a penniless divorced dad struggling to support his beloved only son. The boy’s mother has divorced the protagonist to marry a millionaire. Dad wants to sing opera — and raise his child. Tears and laughter ensue.

Why did I do this and why am I telling you about it?

Because never in any of those films was the phrase “self-esteem” uttered. These films were all released long before the self-esteem movement began, and before “making people feel better about themselves” was an international mandate.

Yet self-esteem as an unnamed emotional state made its way into all three films. In Gates to Paradise, four young crusaders confess their sins to a priest, who realizes that what spurred them to abandon their families and undertake an almost surely doomed ordeal was not actually faith. All of them were trying to boost their self-confidence or battle self-loathing: One had been abandoned by a lover, another was pursuing the object of her affections, another adored his leadership role, and another was ashamed of feeling like a slut. God played little role in all of this.

In Dreaming Out Loud, the town drunk sobers up after his daughter is hit by a car — and the town doctor is partially paralyzed following a stroke. Lum, Abner and their fellow townspeople devise ways of making these two men feel useful, bringing a very sick child to the disabled doctor (who then saves the child’s life) and giving the former drunk new powers as the town constable (who then makes an important arrest).

In Road to Happiness, the penniless father seeks whatever job he can find — even those that are far below his skill level — in order to support his child. Compared to the boy’s millionaire stepfather, this protagonist feels like a failure. Yet when the stepfather offers to adopt the boy, the boy staunchly refuses — insisting on staying with his dad through thick and thin. Knowing how much he is loved lends the dad a newfound confidence — which helps him land the perfect job.

So although I chose these films to watch at random, all three turned out to be “self-esteem films.”

But is there any film that isn’t?

Our Inner Critics Are Always Lying in Wait: Be Ready for Them, and Counterattack

Therese Borchard’s wonderful writeup re: Unworthy at is insightful, praiseful (thank you!) but also very moving as Borchard reveals some of her own struggles on this rocky road to recovery. I’m still blown away by this one basic but beautiful fact: Borchard recently swam 4.4 miles through the Atlantic Ocean from Annapolis, Maryland to Kent Island. However, self-esteem issues being self-esteem issues, even in the wake of this dazzling accomplishment her harsh inner critic piped up trying to spoil things. As Borchard tells us, the swim

should have given me enough warm fuzzies to fill my quota for a week. This was huge for me not only because there exists no tiki bar between the two pieces of land where you can hang out for awhile if you need to catch your breath or are feeling particularly parched. It was profound because shortly after the swim last year, I had a physical and mental breakdown from which I’m still recovering. With lingering symptoms and aberrant sleep cycles, I gave my participating in this year’s race a 50/50 shot.

I was basking in my achievement at the post-swim party when I opened my mouth and said something stupid. A guy I swim with told me a few weeks ago that he was thinking of dumping his girlfriend. When he introduced her to the group, I whispered to him, “Is that the one you want to get rid of?” There was no way she could hear, but still.

“No, I don’t. I mean, that’s rude,” he said. “I can’t believe you would bring that up here.”

Ugh. I hate myself. Why do I say such stupid things all the time? The familiar tapes of self-loathing began to play and I fought back tears. However, before I uttered the familiar “And I have failed” like the distinguished high-school teacher above, I got angry. “Look, you damn voices, you get my ear 24/7, let me have this one moment to celebrate victory. Bother me tomorrow if you want. But right here, right now, I did something that I am very proud of. Don’t try to ruin it.” The night didn’t end in a happy dance. My mind was a war zone like usual. However, that’s progress. I didn’t accept the self-hate memos blindly and cower in a corner.

Exactly. We have to take and claim our progress where we find it. Day by day.

And let us not dismiss our vast accomplishments. You need not chisel these in stone, but have you made a friend or raised a child or saved a life or swum four miles across the sea? Revel in this. It’s real.

Kate Upton Claims to Have “Felt Terrible” About Herself

Even celebrities who consistently win “world’s most beautiful person” or “world’s sexiest woman” surveys sometimes experience low self-esteem, or at least claim to have experienced it — which always freaks us out who aren’t celebrities and survey-winners. One of the latest to make such claims is supermodel Kate Upton, who told Elle magazine that she experienced self-loathing after her image appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

What? How??

“After my first Sports Illustrated cover, I felt terrible about myself for a solid month,” [the] cover girl reveals. “Every single guy I met was either married or about to be married, and I felt like I was their bachelor present or something.” …

“I’m not a toy, I’m a human. I’m not here to be used. I am a grown woman, and you need to figure your sh-t out.” Even in professional settings, Upton says she’s treated like a stereotypical “dumb blonde.”

Then again, she kind of contradicted the I-felt-terrible-about-myself message by saying, in the same interview:

“People deal with models like they are children. They think they can pull one over on you. It’s actually funny,” says the model, who covered the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue a second time in 2013. “I’m always like, ‘I’m about to pull something on you, and you’re so focused on thinking I’m dumb you’re not even going to know.’”

Not that I want her to feel terrible about herself. I don’t. But Kate, keep your story straight.

Low Self-Esteem Keeps Women Off Beaches

Stop the presses. The Irish Independent is running a story in its women’s section with this headline:

Low self-esteem causes women to avoid the beach

The story reads:

According to new research, over half of women in the UK will say no to a beach holiday this year because they would rather stay put than wear a bikini.

The study carried out by Harley Street clinic LoveLite asked 1,000 women in the UK how their body confidence issues faired when it came to bikini season – so bad say some 53 per cent of us that we’ll actually say no to that beach holiday altogether.

If the lure of the sunshine knows no body confidence bounds then those of us that do make it to the beach will simply suffer in stomach-sucking silence. 93 per cent of us will constantly hold in our midriff while on the beach, a quarter of us will hide our muffin-top, hips and thighs with a sarong, and that’s after half of us have tried five diets or more to trim down before we’ve even get there.

Unsurprisingly, with only one per cent of British women claiming to have no body hang-ups whatsoever, six out of ten of us will go out of our way to avoid holiday snaps in our swimmers too – bingo wings and bottoms to blame for our apparent camera shyness.

Apparently we’re not all going on a summer holiday, just a diet.

I hate lame “studies” which are not actually studies but surveys conducted not by researchers but PR people at for-profit businesses in order to … um … generate stories and headlines such as this one, whose ludicrous second-person-singular pronouncements purport to speak for all of “us.”

Being a Loner Didn’t Steal My Self-Esteem: People Who Disliked Loners Did

I will write more about this later, and elsewhere, but for now and for the record, here’s this:

Upon hearing about the UCSB massacre — and UCSB was my beloved school, and Isla Vista was where I spent some of the happiest days of my young life — my first thought was that the media would soon all chime in saying that Elliot Rodger had low self-esteem. This reminded me of how, after my previous book Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto was published, I became highly conscious of how the media categorizes every crazed killer as a loner. As if that orientation explained everything.

But now, watching in abject horror the creepy narcissistic videos that Rodger (who had very high self-esteem, in my opinion) posted at YouTube, I thought: I’ve written two books about two different modes of outsiderism: intraversion in Party of One and low self-esteem in Unworthy. And I realized that readers of either book, or both books, might wonder how these two forms of outsiderism intersect and interact. Does one cause the other? Does one cure the other?

First truth: Lonerism is not a bad thing. It is not a pathology. It does not, in and of itself, cause depression or anxiety or low self-esteem. What causes depression and anxiety and especially low self-esteem is quite often other people’s reactions to and abuse of loners. In other words, we don’t have a problem with ourselves and our lonerishness. But other people do, so they punish us or try to “fix” us.

And THIS can cause low self-esteem. Not the simple beautiful fact of how we are, but the tragedy of other people messing with us because they can’t handle how we are.

I was born a loner and am still a loner. I am also a person who has struggled for most of my life with extremely low self-esteem — not because I was and am a loner, but because at a young age I was at the mercy of people who took it upon themselves to criticize my lonerishness, to condemn it, to mock it and to pathologize it. My mother, an extravert who feared that my lonerishness reflected badly on her — that it would make others think she had produced a crazy antisocial freak — buffaloed me into attending day camps, taking not private but group music lessons, joining Jewish youth groups and joining Campfire Girls. At school, which I hated because school is a nonstop crowd, teachers pitied or disliked me for my intraversion and deliberately forced me into playgroups and teams. My classmates and fellow Campfire Girls teased me relentlessly.

And this is how my self-esteem was stolen. It’s further detailed in this excerpt from Unworthy:

It’s good to learn music and art. It’s good to learn camping and crafting and life-saving skills. Drama might come in handy someday. But. Learning these things this way, jostled by jeering kids, is brutal for a loner like me. Had I ever been told You are a solitary type, it’s who you are, a lot of people are this way, including famous brilliant ones, and it’s okay, my self-esteem might be intact. But I have never heard any such thing. Instead, I have always been watched—-worriedly, angrily—-by parents, teachers, counselors who dislike the fact that I like to play alone. Sometimes they ask if I am sick. Sometimes they ask why I refuse to share. Sometimes they seat me next to social kids who make me want to disappear.

And every team on which I am the last child chosen, every dance I spoil by being out of step, every giggling clique that points at me and laughs lowers my self-esteem because even while selling myself out, I fail. I should not care what others think of me, but in a crowded world, insults can sear. Every new group activity is one more forced ordeal of inauthenticity, anxiety, pretense, and self-denial.

Allowed to learn some of these camping-crafting-dancing skills alone, or with a tutor or my father or my best friend would have had the opposite effect, making me not just skilled but proud and confident. After twelve years of group activities, I can crochet and play arpeggios and pitch tents and make tourniquets. I also hate my hands, my hair, my feet, my face, my voice—especially when singing or starting to cry.

Second truth: I prefer solitude to crowds — not because my low self-esteem renders me shy or afraid of people or because I think I’m not good enough company to be around others. I prefer solitude to crowds because I was born preferring solitude to crowds, which is a fine and normal preference. I would prefer solitude to crowds whether my self-esteem was low or high. As I progress on my path toward self-acceptance and leave more and more of my self-loathing behind, I will still prefer solitude. I could become the happiest, most serene and ecstatic person on earth. And I would still prefer solitude.

Living With Self-Loathing (and Trying to Stop It) Takes Courage

There is trauma and there is TRAUMA. These days, everyone seems to be engaging in a race to out-victimize each other, what with all these “trigger warnings” I keep hearing about. Is self-loathing a form of trauma? Yes. But how can we get the non-self-loathing, high-self-esteem public to understand and acknowledge this?

I know that I have suffered, and my mother suffered, but we suffered at our own hands, because basically we were crazy, if pointless lifelong self-loathing is insanity. But what right have I to sob about my suffering when I know how many people have suffered, and are still suffering, much more obvious and visible traumas such as physical illness or destitute poverty? Here in my middle-class life, with my pleasant husband. Ooooh, I have suffered.

Yet I have. This is my current quandary: trying to understand, and explain, that for some people — in this case, people who hate themselves — courage can mean just getting out of bed, getting dressed and walking out the door. Courage for soldiers or the seriously ill is one thing. Courage for us is another. But it’s still courage.

Beyoncé’s #WhatIsPrettyProject: Do You Feel Pretty Yet?

I can’t help it, but I get suspicious whenever multi-jillionaire celebrities launch alleged self-esteem-raising campaigns. As if it wasn’t just about trying to sell more units … which is an understandable goal, of course, but often these same celebrities promote the exact opposite message in much of their product. Thus Beyoncé offers her #WhatIsPretty project, encouraging fans to post images reflecting their personal answers to that question at Instagram. Yeah, that’s the same Beyoncé who has made countless girls feel ugly, inferior and asexual while watching her videos.

I wrote about this project and my response to it at Psychology Today yesterday. And I remain really torn: These things are decent ideas, and maybe they get people thinking more positively about themselves, and being helmed by celebrities they definitely get a lot of press. But uh … in the long term … do they have any lasting effects?

Ask Me Anything at Reddit!

I’m doing an “Ask Me Anything” Q&A about low self-esteem at Reddit right now. So — seriously — ask me anything. Bulimia, jabbing myself with a knife, being incapable of expressing anger, allowing myself to be bitten by 200 fleas within 24 hours. Anything!!

Click here to start the conversation:

I hate myself and you probably hate yourself too without realizing it. My new book exposes America’s self-loathing epidemic. AMA

Sarah Silverman & I Are on the Same Page (in the Chicago Tribune)

Chicago Tribune writer Heidi Stevens conducted an insightful interview with me, asking exactly the right questions. The result is an excellent article in which sometimes-self-effacing comedy star Sarah Silverman also makes an appearance. Here’s an excerpt from that article:

“Selfie” isn’t just the latest addition to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. It’s shorthand for all-eyes-on-me narcissism, brought on, we’re told, by everything from social media to participation trophies.

In her new book, “Unworthy: How to Stop Hating Yourself” (Tarcher Penguin), journalist Rufus is less interested in how we came to be obsessed with ourselves and more interested in the dark reality that, for many, this obsession manifests itself as self-loathing.

“Low self-esteem and narcissism are both forms of self-absorption,” she told me. “Low self-esteem is very paralytic. To even look at another person, to look someone else in the face, is an achievement. …

“There are so many people, and always have been, who struggle with dire self-loathing, either to the point of suicidal thoughts or just struggling with the daily grind of ‘I can’t look in the mirror’ and ‘Oh, God, what did I just say,’” said Rufus. … “It’s not so much a question of why, because each person is different — who did you have the misfortune of meeting one day, in which classroom were you picked on, which magazine did you flip through at a vulnerable age?” …

I’m reminded of comedian Sarah Silverman’s recent quip to Glamour magazine.

“Don’t talk (expletive) about yourself,” she said. “You’ll start to believe it.

“Instead of droning on and on about how the tops of your strong, working thighs touch,” she continued, “why don’t you ask your friends how they’re doing, huh?”