By Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.
In the biography of celebrated actor Montgomery Clift, we see a striking example of some of the features found in the backgrounds of homosexual men. One background feature found rather often (though not universally) in homosexual men is the Triadic Narcissistic Family System.
Monty Clift was a broodingly handsome, classical actor who is considered to be one of the greatest screen stars of the Golden Age of film. He led a tormented life, dying prematurely after many years of drinking, drugs and a long string of affairs with men, as well as a few with women. An enormously attractive screen presence, he portrayed a haunting vulnerability and sensitivity that was evidently as much “who he was” offscreen as it was onscreen.
In Clift’s biography, we see the classic maternal (over-involved) and paternal (withdrawn) parenting style in the lives of homosexual men, with Monty as the “good” son who does not rebel -- which would have been the healthier response-- but instead becomes the perfectionistic high-achiever, growing up unable to trust his own feelings. He and his siblings harbor a family secret that something was very wrong behind the perfectionistic family image, but they are not sure what it is. The same-sex-attracted (SSA) son was the sensitive child, the one among the siblings who absorbed the expectations of the well-meaning but narcissistic parent; and the child whose restless drivenness and inability to trust his feelings gradually leads, in adulthood, to his self-destruction.
The Family Secret
A common feature of the Triadic Narcissistic family system is the existence of some unspoken secret that was kept from outsiders, and even from themselves. Beneath the normal, even “ideal” family image, there is "something wrong," something too weird to discuss even among siblings. Perhaps it is the secret that his parents actually didn’t love each other, or else (as Montgomery Clift’s siblings suspected), perhaps their parents weren’t the happy people they presented themselves to be.
Adult children from narcissistic family systems who enter treatment often speak to their siblings to confirm their own perception of some kind of distortion: “Was it true,” they ask their brothers and sisters, “that it really happened that way?” When they do share their tentative impressions, they are often surprised to discover they shared the same, "strange" impressions. The family’s conflicting messages were too confusing to sort out, making it easier to retreat to the belief that "everything was OK."
As Montgomery Clift’s brother, Brooks, said,
“Psychologically we couldn’t take the memories…so we forgot. But at the same time we were obsessed with our childhood. We’d refer to it among ourselves, but only among ourselves. Part of each of us desperately wanted to remember our past, and when we couldn’t, it was frustrating. It caused us to weep, when we were drunk enough…”
The client from the Narcissistic Family rarely recognizes the pathology in his upbringing. At the start of therapy he may report a very normal family life-- despite his inability to feel and express anger, his low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy in relationships, depression, cynical and pessimistic moods, and difficulty in making decisions. There is often no obvious parental dysfunction; the malattunement was subtle-- not easily detected. Things in the family "looked normal,” yet somehow, “felt strange."
The Allure of Theatre and Acting
The child of the Triadic-Narcissistic Family must develop a coping mechanism to survive. He does so by creating a False Self, which we see in his role of the "Good Little Boy." This allows him to bury his "bad" self and adapt to the demands of his environment. But in doing so, he must necessarily sever his connection with his own emotional life.
In compensation, he often develops a fascination with fantasy, theatre and acting, taking on the emotional life of someone else. If he was born with the temperamental traits of creativity and sensitivity, he will find it especially easy to retreat to fantasy.
As Montgomery Clift’s brother said, when Monty played someone else, he was at last freed from his old role as the good son, and he no longer had to live up to the image his mother imagined for him. Without guilt, he could wrest himself free of the “good boy” and claim the persona of someone else.
Another place where we often find gay men seeking meaning and spiritual solace is in the reality-denying and gender-blurring archetypes of New Age philosophy.
Failure to Emotionally Connect Leads to a Sense of Existential Meaninglessness
The child of the Narcissistic Family simply does not know himself because his parents confused their own needs with his needs. The child can never fully satisfy his parents’ perceived needs, so he feels like a failure. He feels inadequate, immature, unprepared for adult responsibility, and unready to assume control over his life. He continues to look to the expectations of others. He has grown up without knowing “who ‘owns’ the ‘should,’" because he never received accurate mirroring; that is, accurate parental attunement to who he was, separate from the parent.
Because he cannot maintain genuine emotional connectedness with himself or others, he suffers from a pervasive sense that life is empty and meaninglessness. One homosexual man explained it to me his way:
"Life is just so …[searching for a word].... petty!"
Impairment of the Child’s Gender Maturation
The boy who grows up within the Triadic-Narcissistic Family will develop trust issues which center around the gendered self -- i.e., he will fear that men will "diminish" and "degrade" him, while women (like his mother) will manipulate and control him, and drain him of his masculine power.
In Montgomery Clift: A Biography, author Patricia Bosworth describes Monty’s father Bill as passive, good-natured, and very dependent on his charismatic wife, Sunny. A successful man in the business world, Bill nevertheless deferred to this strong-willed, opinionated woman at home. “My father would do anything in the world to please Mother,” Monty’s sister Ethel said (p. 23). “She made everyone—including her husband—feel that no one with any brains could possibly disagree with her and still be a person of consequence” (p. 31).
Indeed, Sunny was known as a vibrantly attractive and intelligent woman. She was “energetic, sometimes venomous, always triumphant in any situation” (p. 284).
Sunny herself had been adopted as an infant into a family that apparently abused her, and she was never able to locate her birth parents. She had been told, however, that her bloodlines made her a “thoroughbred.” She became obsessed with tracking down her genealogy, and she poured all her energy into it. Her primary goal in life, biographer Boswell says, was to raise her children as “the thoroughbreds they were” so they would never know the insecurity she had suffered in her life. She gave birth to two boys (Monty and Brooks) and one girl (Ethel). Sunny did not seem to respect their biological gender differences-- “”Monty and the others were being raised as triplets, given identical haircuts…clothes, lessons, and responsibilities, regardless of age or sex.”
Brooks, the tougher son, rebelled—fighting and talking back to his mother when he was told he must dress like his younger brother and sister. “I wanted to be myself,’’ he explained later. Brooks (who grew up to be heterosexual) was married and divorced several times. However, “Monty appeared the most docile, the most obedient of the three children. He did precisely what he was told…” Biographer Bosworth notes that his “independent impulses, his drives, were curbed again and again” (p. 31) by his mother.
In spite of the intense pain the relationship brought him, Monty--his brother Brooks later recalled-- “had a secretive relationship” of mutual specialness with their mother which Brooks and his sister “never intruded upon.” (p. 50). In contrast, Monty and his father “rarely communicated about anything” and in the morning, they would both read the paper while sitting at the breakfast table, “rarely exchanging a word” (p. 55) .
Isolated from his male peers, the sensitive and gentle Monty also developed an intense closeness to his sister Ethel. “Throughout his life Monty relied on Sister for comfort and advice…Their insecurities made them inseparable. By the time they were seven they were sharing every secret, every fantasy” ( p. 26).
All three children complained that they were lonely because they weren’t allowed to play with others in the neighborhood, but Sunny never explained why: she just forbade it. When Brooks later confronted his father Bill about their isolated childhood, Bill told him that he shouldn’t feel bad about it -- it was for his own good--because they were special, just like their mother was:
“Everything she did for you she did because she believes you are thoroughbreds. If only I could convince you of your mother’s greatness—she is a great, great woman. She wanted you to have every advantage—and all the love she never had.” (p. 49)
“You Be Happy, So I Can Be Happy”
In the Clift family, there was apparently no room for anyone but Sunny to vent anger or express opinions. The father deferred to his wife in family disagreements, and did not defend the children. “‘Ma was always right.’ She would tell them that her entire life was dedicated to, and sacrificed for, her children, so “the least they could do” was to behave and keep her happy.
Indeed, Sunny’s happiness was understood to be essential to keeping the family together. Monty’s father, on a business trip, described himself as “miserable” whenever he was away from his wife. He wrote his son a letter, reminding him who gave the Clift family its identity:
“Your mother is the heart of the Clift family. All our hopes and ambitions center around her. We love her better than all else, and we are ambitious because of her. She is the very lifeblood of the family…” (p. 38)
Sunny tutored the children at home; her plan was that the children “would be beautifully educated but they would have to associate only with each other, ‘with their own kind.’” (p. 19)…Their father, who was often away from home, “came and went” between business deals in Manhattan and Chicago.
When the children were old enough to appreciate culture, Sunny took them to Europe for two years. Their father, says Clift’s biographer, “had worked weekends and 14-hour-long days trying to given them the creature comforts Sunny had insisted were their right, by heritage.” (p. 22) They stayed at the best hotels, but were always expected to keep to themselves.
It was not long before the Clift brothers soon began to be cruelly teased by other boys. At times, a “mob” of boys would chase them home on their bicycles.
Then, the stock market crash bankrupted the Clift family, and Bill Clift became deeply depressed. His wife, always strong through adversity, bolstered her husband and “gave me courage,” Bill said, “when nobody else would.” (p. 35) The children later recalled that both parents acted as if nothing was wrong-- the children continued to “sleep on silk sheets” in the dark, dingy room they rented, and no one talked about their dire circumstances.
Hazy, Uncertain Memories
“As an adult, Monty refused to discuss his childhood with anyone—not even his closest friends” and both his brother and sister reported a similar “amnesia.” “Once they left home and began living their own lives,” Monty’s biographer said, “they blanked out much of those years” (p. 35).
Monty’s brother Brooks noted that, “Psychologically we couldn’t take the memories…so we forgot. But at the same time we were obsessed with our childhood. We’d refer to it among ourselves, but only among ourselves. Part of each of us desperately wanted to remember our past, and when we couldn’t, it was frustrating. It caused us to weep, when we were drunk enough…” (p. 36). “All three children felt profound anxieties they could not comprehend” as Sunny tried harder and harder to “cast everyone in their assigned roles, and deny their individual needs” (p. 38).
Acting as Release from a False Role
By the age of 12, Monty had found the one love of his life-- becoming another person through acting. He became fascinated with the spectacle of the circus and with theatre. His brother Brooks said acting was the perfect release for Monty because when he played someone else, he was at last freed from his old role—the one created for him by his mother: “Now he [Monty] no longer had to live up to the image Sunny imagined for him,” (p. 44) Brooks said.
“You’re Special, I’m Special”
Although Sunny was fiercely devoted to her children, on a deeper level, the relationship was evidently narcissistically driven. Returning from an acting job one time, Monty teased his father, saying everyone thought Monty looked Jewish onscreen (his father disliked Jews). They began arguing. But instead of trying to make peace between them, Sunny’s question to her son was, “Monty, dear, why are you doing this to me??” (p. 285). Says his biographer:
“The sound of that question brought back memories of his boyhood when every time he attempted to be independent-- to make choices, decisions -- she told him he was wrong and she was right; and when he disobeyed her anyway, she would cry, “Why are you doing this to me? “ (p. 285)
Monty was 18 and working at an acting job when a fellow actor, Pat Collinge, noted that Monty’s male roommate had to move out and make bed space for Sunny to share Monty’s room whenever she visited him. “Everybody…thought it was rather odd,” Collinge said, “for an 18-year-old boy to share his bedroom with his mother” (p. 58). Collinge noted of Sunny, “I found her bewitching and charming, but a killer too. She stifled and repressed Monty by not allowing him to give vent to his enthusiasms or his deep needs” (p. 58).
At 17, Monty went away for the summer but he received a phone call from his mother every day. She discouraged him from dating and told him to conserve his energy for his career.
It was not long before Monty began dating men. One of them described Monty as a “beautiful darling boy” who was “incapable of growing up” (p. 66). Monty slowly began to make a life apart from his mother. However, his closest lifelong friends (most notably, Elizabeth Taylor) were, like his mother, magnetic, strong-willed women with whom he became enmeshed in intense (platonic) relationships. “As time passed, Monty slept with both men and women indiscriminately in an effort to discover his sexual preference, but his conflict remained obvious” (p. 67) says his biographer.
The rest of Montgomery Clift’s life was marred by alcoholism and depression. The hostile-dependent relationships he developed with platonic women friends caused him recurrent distress: “Some days he would threaten to stop seeing Elizabeth Taylor – then, the thought would make him burst into tears.” (p. 369) No doubt Clift enjoyed the sense of mutual specialness such relationships created, in a reenactment of the sense of specialness he had shared in the hostile-dependent bond he had had with his mother.
Later in life, he had a near-fatal car accident when he was driving home drunk from a party, which left him with permanent facial disfigurement, and started him down a yet deeper spiral of depression.
The death of this brilliant and magnetic actor – in a tragic end, alone at age 45 in a hotel room -- was said to be brought on by complications from his longtime drug use and alcoholism. Yet there is no doubt that this sensitive child of a narcissistic family system, growing up with the resulting ill-effects on sexual orientation and personal individuation, had been simply unable to cope with the demands of life.