De Profundis: Oscar Wilde on toxic friendship–Part 1

(Here is another blog about this work, which also gives some background.)

I’m currently reading Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis, written by him in prison to his “friend” Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”).

So far, it’s complaining about the volatile relationship they had, a combination of intimate friendship and lover, and a violent temper which ran in Douglas’ family.  The more I read, the more it sounds like borderline personality or some other mood/personality disorder:

Douglas was a leech, a stalker, and a writer of telegrams and letters full of foul accusations whenever Wilde tried to stick up for himself and end the friendship.  Wilde recognized that it was toxic, but kept taking him back, again and again and again.

He kept giving in to Douglas, hoping that he would calm down, only to find that he became even worse over time.  The rages of this Douglas sound so much like Tracy that I really feel for Wilde.

The text you often find for this work is abridged for general audiences, cutting out the personal letter to Bosie, since it’s a massive work and much of it is about general subjects such as suffering, humility, art, things which Wilde wanted the public to read.

But my copy, part of Complete Works of Oscar Wilde published by Collins (HarperCollins) Publishers, is the entire work, 80 pages.  Here I will focus on the private letter and how it deals with toxic friendship and Cluster Bs (often-used colloquial term for people with narcissistic, histrionic, borderline, anti-social, high-conflict personality disorders), and how similar it sounds to my own experiences with Tracy.

On page 984, we read,

But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will power, and my will power became absolutely subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true.

Those incessant scenes that seemed to be almost physically necessary to you, and in which your mind and body grew distorted, and you became a thing as terrible to look at as to listen to:

that dreadful mania you inherit from your father, the mania for writing revolting and loathsome letters:

your entire lack of any control over your emotions as displayed in your long resentful moods of sullen silence, no less than in the sudden fits of almost epileptic rage:

all these things in reference to which one of my letters to you, left by you lying about in the Savoy or some other hotel, and so produced in court by your father’s counsel, contained an entreaty not devoid of pathos, had you at that time been able to recognise pathos either in its elements or its expression — these, I say, were the origin and causes of my fatal yielding to you in your daily increasing demands.

You wore me out. It was the triumph of the smaller over the bigger nature. It was the case of that tyranny of the weak over the strong which somewhere in one of my plays I describe as being “the only tyranny that lasts.”

This certainly sounds like some form of Cluster B personality disorder, especially because it is “inherited.”  Borderline and narcissistic personality disorders can run in families, though it’s unclear if it’s from genetics, or from a psychological response to living with a Cluster B.  The following sounds very much like Tracy:

And it was inevitable. In every relation of life with others one has to find some moyen de vivreIn your case, one had either to give up to you or to give you up.  There was no other alternative.

Through deep if misplaced affection for you: through great pity for your defects of temper and temperament: through my own proverbial good-nature and Celtic laziness: through an artistic aversion to coarse scenes and ugly words: through that incapacity to bear resentment of any kind which at that time characterised me:

through my dislike of seeing life made bitter and uncomely by what to me, with my eyes really fixed on other things, seemed to be mere trifles too petty for more than a moment’s thought or interest–through these reasons, simple as they may sound, I gave up to you always.

As a natural result, your claims, your efforts at domination, your exactions grew more and more unreasonable.

Your meanest motive, your lowest appetite, your most common passion, became to you laws by which the lives of others were to be guided always, and to which, if necessary, they were to be without scruple sacrificed.

Knowing that by making a scene you could always have your way, it was but natural that you should proceed, almost unconsciously I have no doubt, to every excess of vulgar violence….

At the one supremely and tragically critical moment of all my life, just before my lamentable step of beginning my absurd action [suing Bosie’s father for libel], on the one side there was your father attacking me with hideous cards left at my club, on the other side there was you attacking me with no less loathsome letters….

My habit — due to indifference chiefly at first — of giving up to you in everything had become insensibly a real part of my nature….I had allowed you to sap my strength of character, and to me the formation of a habit had proved to be not Failure merely but Ruin.

Ethically you had been even still more destructive to me than you had been artistically.  The warrant once granted, your will of course directed everything.

Wilde writes that, when Bosie talked him into going to trial against Bosie’s father instead of going abroad as his true friends advised, “Of course I should have got rid of you, I should have shaken you out of my life as a man shakes from his raiment a thing that has stung him.”

This is what I did to Tracy when she raged at me, but unfortunately, Wilde did not do this to Bosie.  Part of the trouble was that Wilde kept trying to shake him off, sometimes even going to the trouble of fleeing the country and leaving a fake address with a servant so Bosie would not follow him:

As far as I can make out I ended my friendship with you every three months regularly, and each time that I did so you managed by means of entreaties, telegrams, letters, the interposition of your friends, the interposition of mine, and the like to induce me to allow you back.

Sounds like Wilde was subjected to “hoovering,” the common term for a Cluster B’s attempts to get back the person who has escaped.  And Wilde kept taking him back and forgiving him.  It must be maddening to go through this every three months with the same person.

Wilde also was subject to “false nostalgia,” when the victim of a Cluster B begins thinking things couldn’t possibly be as bad as he thinks they are, that he must be imagining it:

On my return to London the next day I remember sitting in my room and sadly and seriously trying to make up my mind whether or not you really were what you seemed to me to be, so full of terrible defects, so utterly ruinous both to yourself and to others, so fatal a one to know even or to be with. 

For a whole week I thought about it, and wondered if after all I was not unjust and mistaken in my estimate of you.

At the end of the week a letter from your mother is handed in.  It expressed to the full every feeling I myself had about you….

She saw, of course, that heredity had burdened you with a terrible legacy, and frankly admitted it, admitted it with terror: he is ‘the one of my children who has inherited the fatal Douglas temperament,’ she wrote of you.

I know the feeling, because I, myself, was subjected to these same feelings many times, during my ill-fated friendship with Richard and Tracy, during the several times I considered breaking off the friendship before I actually did, and even after Jeff and I broke things off with them finally.

Even after I wrote everything down, I still would get these feelings–then look back over what I had written, in my blogs/accounts and to friends, and see that everything I wrote was true.

And since it was all true, and since there was so much crap in there that they did, and since my friends were reading what I wrote and saying these people were not worth the pain I was going through, and how horrible they were–I had to force myself to realize that I was not making it up.

Just as Wilde did, I had to get confirmation from others that I was not “unjust and mistaken.”  Not only did my husband Jeff agree with me about the things that had gone on, but I would e-mail Todd about the situation and find that he had the same impressions I did about many things.

I wrote out the things I had witnessed Richard and Tracy doing, and what Richard had told me was going on when I wasn’t around, sent it to a friend who does social work–and she said they both sound very abusive so please report them to CPS.

From what I’ve read on the Shrink4Men website, false nostalgia seems to be common among victims of Cluster Bs, probably because it’s so hard to believe that someone you love could really be so horrible to you, and because of the gaslighting they often do to their victims.  For example:

The I’ve Never Been Happier Hoover: This Hoover is basically a form of reverse psychology in which the abuser assumes, rightly or wrongly, that your abandonment fears are equal to or greater than her own.

I haven’t been this happy in years since you left. You always brought out the worst in me. I never behaved that way with anyone else. I started dating again and am being treated the way I always wanted to be treated. You have no idea how to treat a woman.

The purpose of this Hoover is to get you to begin to doubt your experiences, feelings and memories of her and the relationship. This kind of Hoover can lead you to wonder,

“What if I’d said or done x instead of y? Maybe it really is me? Maybe I should give her another chance? What if she really is wonderful with the new guy? Why wasn’t she that way than me? I wonder if she’ll take me back if I promise to try harder to make her happy?” –Dr. Tara J. Palmatier, Hoovers: Don’t Let the Crazy Suck You Back In

Wilde tried to let go of his friendship with Bosie, at Bosie’s mother’s urging.  But Bosie kept “writing to me by every post from Egypt.”  Wilde read them, then tore them up.  Bosie even telegraphed Wilde’s wife to beg her to get Wilde to write him back!

Our friendship had always been a source of distress to her: not merely because she had never liked you personally, but because she saw how your continual companionship altered me, and not for the better: still, just as she had always been most gracious and hospitable to you, so she could not bear the idea of my being in any way unkind–for so it seemed to her–to any of my friends.

She thought, knew indeed, that it was a thing alien to my character.  At her request I did communicate with you.

The result is especially noteworthy:

I remember the wording of my telegram quite well.  I said that time healed every wound but that for many months to come I would neither write to you nor see you.

You started without delay for Paris, sending me passionate telegrams on the road to beg me to see you once, at any rate.  I declined.  You arrived in Paris late on a Saturday night, and found a brief letter from me waiting for you at your hotel stating that I would not see you.

Next morning I received in Tite Street a telegram of some ten or eleven pages in length from you.  You stated in it that no matter what you had done to me you could not believe that I would absolutely decline to see you:

you reminded me that for the sake of seeing me even for one hour you had travelled six days and nights across Europe without stopping once on the way: you made what I must admit was a most pathetic appeal, and ended with what seemed to me a threat of suicide, and one not thinly veiled.

You had yourself often told me how many of your race there had been who had stained their hands in their own blood; your uncle certainly, your grandfather possibly; many others in the mad, bad line from which you come.

Pity, my old affection for you, regard for your mother to whom your death under such dreadful circumstances would have been a  blow almost too great for her to bear, the horror of the idea that so young a life, and one that amidst all its ugly faults had still promise of beauty in it, should come to so revolting an end, mere humanity itself–all these, if excuses be necessary, must serve as my excuse for consenting to accord you one last interview.

When I arrived in Paris, your tears, breaking out again and again all through the evening, and falling over your cheeks like rain as we sat, at dinner first at Voisin’s, at supper at Paillard’s afterwards:

the unfeigned joy you evinced at seeing me, holding my hand whenever you could, as though you were a gentle and penitent child: your contrition, so simple and sincere, at the moment: made me consent to renew our friendship.

Two days after we had returned to London, your father saw you having luncheon with me at the Cafe Royal, joined my table, drank of my wine, and that afternoon, through a letter addressed to you, began his first attack on me.

As written here, this is

The Psycho Hoover: The Psycho Hoover is the FOG Hoover on steroids. It includes threats of suicide and/or violence. Basically, the abuser is just escalating their guilt and/or intimidation tactics to keep you in the relationship.

The Deluxe Hoover: This is the Hoover in which she morphs from abuser to super sweet, sexed up, Stepford wife. In reality, it’s nothing more than a return to the honeymoon and or love bombing stage of the relationship.

In other words, she turns on the charm or whatever it was about her that attracted you to her in the first place. It can have the effect of resurrecting your hopes that the woman you fell in love with is real and that maybe, just maybe, you can go back to the way things were “before.”

I promise things will get better. I love you SO much. We were great together at first. We can get that back! Please just give us another chance! Remember the good times (or time)? Don’t you want to have that again? We’ll both go to therapy. We’ll make it work.

More often than not, the abuse behaviors resurface once you return.

In other words, you broke up with this person because they’re nasty/crazy/whatever, but they do whatever they can to get you back and make you think things will be better this time.

But it’s all an act, because as soon as they’ve got you back, the old behaviors resurface.  Yet more ways that Bosie’s family curse seems to be a Cluster B personality disorder.

Wilde then describes a time when first Bosie, then Wilde came down with a nasty flu.  They were away from home at the time, so had to depend on each other.  Wilde took care of Bosie very well, while when he got better and then Wilde got it, Bosie just kept disappearing to go have fun, leaving Wilde without anyone to care for him.

Bosie, of course, being a leech, is doing this on Wilde’s dime.  Wilde tries to get him to stick around, but Bosie never comes around except for money.  One night at 3am, Wilde goes to the sitting-room in desperate need of water, and finds Bosie:

You fell on me with every hideous word an intemperate mood, an undisciplined and untutored nature could suggest.  By the terrible alchemy of egotism you converted your remorse into rage.

You accused me of selfishness in expecting you to be with me when I was ill; of standing between you and your amusements; of trying to deprive you of your pleasures.

You told me, and I know it was quite true, that you had come back at midnight simply in order to change your dress-clothes, and go out again to where you hoped new pleasures were waiting for you, but that by leaving for you a letter in which I had reminded you that you had neglected me the whole day and the whole evening, I had really robbed you of your desire for more enjoyments, and diminished your actual capacity for fresh delights.

Wilde left in disgust, went back to bed, but lay awake for some time, full of thirst.  At 11:00 Bosie came in.  Wilde thought Bosie was going to make excuses and ask for forgiveness like usual, the forgiveness

that you knew in your heart was invariably waiting for you, no matter what you did; your absolute trust that I would always forgive you being the thing in you that I always really liked the best, perhaps the best thing in you to like.  So far from doing that, you began to repeat the same scene with renewed emphasis and more violent assertion.

I told you at length to leave the room: you pretended to do so, but when I lifted up my head from the pillow in which I had buried it, you were still there, and with brutality of laughter and hysteria of rage you moved suddenly towards me.

A sense of horror came over me, for what exact reason I could not make out; but I got out of my bed at once, and bare-footed and just as I was, made my way down the two flights of stairs to the sitting-room, which I did not leave till the owner of the lodgings–whom I had rung for–had assured me that you had left my bedroom, and promised to remain within call, in case of necessity.

An hour passes, during which the doctor comes by, finding him “in a state of absolute nervous prostration,” and worse fever than he had been before.  Then Bosie comes back, grabs some money from the dressing-table and mantelpiece, takes his luggage, and leaves.

Actually, this also reminds me of Richard, in the final weeks when I tried to confront him over things he had done that were mean, and his reaction each time was to blow up at me.

And it reminds me of my abusive ex Phil, who–along with his brother and his girlfriend–accused me of being a “party pooper” who didn’t want Phil to have any fun–because I had a concussion.  Because I did not want to go dancing with a concussion.  Because I wanted Phil to care for me instead of dancing while I had a concussion.

Bosie’s narcissistic/borderline rage episode produced the same effect on Wilde which Tracy’s rage episode had on me:

Is it necessary for me to state that I saw clearly that it would be a dishonour to myself to continue even an acquaintance with such a one as you had showed yourself to be? 

That I recognised that the ultimate moment had come, and recognised it as being really a great relief?

This is an 80-page work with lots of ground to cover, so I will break this off now and continue it later.

Part 2