Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Mary Trump's Book: Too Much And Never Enough




It is just so sad. That's my reaction to reading Mary's book. My God, the anguish that everyone in this super-dyfunctional family has had to live with! No one escaped. Mary's father, Fred Jr., “Freddie,” tried to escape and failed. He succumbed to a heart condition and alcoholism, divorced, solitary, poor, living in a spare small room in the garret of the Trump House in Queens (“The House” Mary calls it, the center of pathology from which no one could really escape) where he lay ill and dying for weeks when no one even called a doctor or took him to a hospital before he finally died at 42. Mary loved him, but being only 16 and infected by the family dysfunction, she accepted the family judgement that it was his own fault, that he hadn't measured up, that he had gone off on larks like being a commercial pilot and marrying a flight attendant (Mary's mother Linda) when his father had wanted him to succeed him as head of the Trump Company and keep the family business thriving as a good first son should and he couldn't make it. So he died for his alleged sins.

Mary grieves for her father now, probably thinking “if only I knew then what I know now.” All the others suffered, too, each in his or her own way. Her grandmother, Fred Sr.'s wife who was also named Mary, was chronically unhappy and suffered the misogyny of Fred Sr. The middle child of the five Trump children, Elizabeth, has been an introverted and depressed ghost. The eldest, Maryanne, succeeded in being a lawyer and a judge, but she also participated in the Trump hallmark dishonesty. She was part of the tax evasion fraud of wealth transfer in the family documented in the New York Times, and she joined the three-sib plot to defraud Mary and her brother Fritz from any semblance of a rightful inheritance. Robert, the youngest sibling, was the agent assigned by the other two after Fred died to get Mary and Fritz to sign the papers that would consent to the inheritance plan. The three Trump siblings stuck together in telling Mary and Fritz that the nearly $1 billion estate was only worth $30 million. The deluded wife of Fred declared him virtually devoid of funds in what seems perhaps to have been a gaslighting event. When Mary and Fritz delayed signing the documents, the sibling trio cut off Fritz's baby son's health insurance as he was being treated for infantile spasms, a very severe neurological disease of childhood. It was perfectly legal to do so. The lying about the value of the estate? Not so legal. As though there wasn't enough to go around. Trump Family Values. Just win, baby.

The original villain of the piece, of course, is Fred, Sr., who we learn grew up in a German-speaking family – so one would have thought that the Trumps' immigrant status should be palpable to them. Or perhaps because Fred became very wealthy, they learned the wrong lessons. He was a man out of time and maybe out of place: cold, authoritarian, wearing a three piece suit at all times and asserting control through absolute denial of the validity of feelings of others, even his wife's while she was severely ill – “You're fine, aren't you Toots?” Then she goes to the hospital for surgeries and recuperation for months on end. We don't know how Fred got to be that way, and Mary is probably in no position to know about this, and that's not part of her mission here. We just know how he was, and how his dominance forced everyone to adopt his point of view. When he finally deterioratd into dementia, it appears he received little family support. It must have been pathetic and even funny, the way Lear is funny wandering at the end, but ineffably sad. It was dog eat dog chez Trump.

Fred was the typical absent father who ran his company obsessively. The mother was in charge of raising the girls and the father the boys, but his being at work all the time limited his fathering chores, which it appears he was unsuited for, anyway. Even in this killer of a family, everyone strives for his favor. His success in business was largely from government-funded housing in the outer boroughs, Brooklyn and Queens. He got the jobs through “political connections,” the substance of which we are left to imagine. His large complexes featured impressive lobbies that bespoke luxury, but the apartments themselves were cramped and maintenance was lackadaisical. The Trump brand then was glitter outside, decrepit on the inside, and neglect after the deal is done. Fred's crucial insight was to retain ownership and carry no debt, which made them huge cash cows.

Although an effective money-maker, Fred was narrow and gauche and could never penetrate to the higher social ranks in Manhattan – he was Queens all the way. As his wealth grew, it appears he didn't know how to spend it, so accumulation itself appeared to be the purpose, and the personal control that accumulation conferred.

Fred is not the only father who envisioned his oldest son, and if not his oldest then one of the others, taking over the company and making him immortal, with nothing ever to be sold, like a shrine. When Fred Jr. dropped out of that fantasy, Donald was ready to take it up. He aped the old man, and then he entranced and gulled the old man with strutting, swagger and lies, which the old man was more than willing to gobble up and fund, even as the bailouts got bigger. But, after all, Donald did crack Manhattan as Fred Sr. had never been up to doing, got a lot of press, was a somebody, which Fred couldn't be. Fred was not the only father to let his fantasies run away with him. And Donald was not the only son to gull his old man and to try to fulfill his fantasies, to try to do what the old man would have loved to have done himself, to have cracked Manhattan and the world. The difference of Donald from others who inherited and then make themselves bigger – compare Ted Turner, for instance – is that Donald didn't really make or do anything, he just blew himself up with air and hype and tried to push it for all it was worth. It was worth a lot to Fred.


This book is written with a clinical eye, which I as a pediatrician appreciate. It can't be an accident that Mary became a PhD in clinical psychology. When you are one of the victims of a toxic family, what better expertise to acquire than that of a PhD clinical psychologist, studying family dynamics and family therapy? She could not only learn to understand herself, but she could help others who find themselves lost in similar situations. Relatives of gun victims, relatives of drunk driver victims, relatives of those stricken with diseases do the same – let at least some good come of this horrible event, let's get some legislation passed, let's fund research and treatment. Good for Mary! As she helps others in her work, so she tries to help the country with this book.

Mary's way of thinking is not so different from what we pediatricians are familiar with. Mary declares her family's affliction not rare, but uncommon. That's clinician talk. When confronted with a case like Donald's, we clinicians think, what happened in the mother/child dyad, what innate characteristics of the child were at play, and what were the family dynamics that caused this monstrosity? Something caused this.

For the mother/child dyad, Mary focuses on Donald when he was two and his mother had her major illness and was effectively removed from Donald's life for a year and replaced by … nobody. Mary tells us that this is the stage of a child's life when their emotions are sensed by the intimate caregiver, reflected back to the child, and the child comes to sense what his or her emotions are, and learns how he or she can be comforted. That's what parents, and archetypically mothers, do. When Donald had nobody to mirror and comfort him, his reaction must have been to deny his feelings, she says, to be cold, and in not recognizing his own feelings he was unable to recognize anyone else's, and so became cruel. I'm a little rusty on my first year med school Erik Erikson's stages of development, but I'm willing to go along with her analysis as being at least a good part of the truth. I have to admit that I have always thought less dynamically that Donald might have had the syndrome of oppositional defiance, which doesn't specify a cause, but many assume it comes at least partially from the innate nature of the child.

But whatever the origin, these developed characteristics of Donald's, the self-centered win and don't look back, don't worry about the feelings of others, and then the bonus of grandiosity – they lit up Fred's eyes as he saw his successor. This brings in family dynamics. I was introduced to the developing field of family therapy as a pediatric resident at UC San Francisco in the 1970's. I so vividly remember my astonishment when, rather than simply meeting with individual patients, we learned to treat the family as a unit, as a system within which all the individual component parts (the people) interacted and affected each other. Meeting with the family in the room, not just individually, was key.

In that family therapy rotation I remember being confronted with an elementary school-aged boy who was being aggressive at school and disrespectful to and uncontrollable by his mother. At the meeting we saw the mother express her understandable distress, and we saw the father agreed verbally, but we could also see, when our instructors pointed it out to us, that the father's facial expressions and body language said something completely different. They said non-verbally how proud he was of his son for being a “manly” little boy. The confused boy receiving this double message looked at his Mom giving society's party line, but he was not at all unaware of his father's pride in his “spunk.” He sought to please his father. It was complicated. The father of course had his own history, and there could have been a fair amount of misogyny involved. It was a classically dysfunctional family.

A further concept we learned in family therapy was that of the “identified patient.” The family comes in with the medical complaint that relates to one family member – she won't stop eating junk, he is bullying everybody, etc. Everyone in the family sees the squeaky wheel. But what the family therapist sees is how the pathology of the family system is expressing itself in this one member. If Fred Jr. had presented to a doctor with depression and the doctor referred him for family therapy, the therapist would have called Fred Jr. the “identified patient.” The family certainly thought there was something wrong with him. Today, we all might view Donald as the identified patient. But family therapy says, yes, those are the visibly ill ones, but they are expressing the illness of the whole system.

Donald and Fred, of course, would not be caught dead in family therapy. But if they had been seen, Fred would be clearly not giving the double signals that the father of our family at UCSF did. That was minor leagues compared to Fred. Fred would be seen giving one large unambiguous signal, giving it to everyone, and everyone would be seen as trying to win his approval, or to duck and not be seen. He would brook no opposition, he of the three piece suit and imperious demeanor.

When you're caught in the situation with a family like this, there are no magic bullets. There will be some survivors like Mary – barely, it seems – but most will continue to be sociopathic as they learn to exist in the system of the family, and in time it will be gradually diluted out by marriages, changing circumstances, and new generations emerging with less direct experience. In the meanwhile, one has to hope just that it won't come to one big blowout. Lacking the ability to go back in time and nip it in the bud, one can only seek to control all the collateral damage by the sociopaths.  Mary's most plaintive sentence in the whole book is this: Donald has never been loved. But so terribly sad as that may be, everyone needs to be warned, and that is what Mary is doing.


I have another memory from my first year in med school that is applicable. Our class was in the old Peter Bent Brigham Hospital auditorium on a Saturday morning, and beloved psychiatrist John C. Nemiah interviewed a patient in front of us. Under Nemiah's sensitive and friendly questioning, the patient told his florid story of how resounders had been placed in his brain, and how he got explanations of the world and orders to act through them. The statements he made had some verisimilitude to a possible reality, if you ignored that it was resounders delivering the news. After he had left, Nemiah asked us freshmen med students how we would describe the patient. Those of us headed for psychiatry took the lead, describing his paranoid ideation in detail, noting his affect, commenting on irregularities in his logic. I was impressed by their observations and expositions. Then Nemiah took charge and said, look, those are interesting and good observations, but let's just look at this guy, OK. What do you see? He's crazy! He's nuts! The shock of recognition grabbed us and we laughed hard, to the last person. Forest, said Nemiah, forest – not the trees. (He probably didn't say that, but that was his message.) I loved Nemiah.

So, our forest is the Trump family. They are totally nuts. A crazy father raised a crazy family. Just because you are rich and financially successful doesn't mean you can't be nuts. “High-functioning,” yes, incredibly able to raise money in the first generation and to spend it in the second, but nuts. A family constantly conspiring against each other, filled with terror and lies, yet reassembling at The House like clockwork for the birthdays and holidays and such. A family where the divorced spouses were induced to be part of the assemblage, until Marianne and Blaine, Robert's wife, asserted that they would no longer come if Freddie's ex-wife Linda, Mary's mother, were to continue to be included, thus exiling her. Forget Mary's feelings. “Feelings?” Good luck with that. A family where secrets and plots and illegalities were rife, where paying taxes was the ultimate sin, where the celebrated son and heir commerced in lies, damned lies, and false statistics. We can focus on the trees, which are astounding to behold, but let's take Nemiah's way and look at the forest. This is crazy town.

As to scion Donald, the self-proclaimed very stable genius, if there's one thing he isn't, it's “very stable.” But we should take the claim of genius more seriously. How could someone so unqualified, so ignorant, someone with probable dyslexia and ADHD and therefore someone who can't read well and can't concentrate well, someone so florid, so unmoored to the reality we commonly agree on, so full of constant easily-refutable lies, so totally cynical, how can such a person actually take over not only one of the two great parties of the republic, but the apparatus of state as well? How can someone whose schtick is best described as Borscht Belt fear, hate, and diminishment; whose taste is lower working class; whose vocabulary is elementary; whose greatest achievement was to be a third rate reality TV host; whose businesses were disasters, frauds, and hoaxes; whose ability to empathize seems totally absent; whose habits are publicly disreputable; whose inclinations are publicly gangsterish; who is obvious in his search for thieves and knaves to serve him – how can someone like that rise to the pinnacle of power in a well-established democracy? If that is not genius, what is?

Geniuses have their own individual ways. If there ever were a crazy genius, it is not some mad scientist making a Frankenstein monster in some home cellar, it is not an evil genius in the labs of Wuhan creating a lethal virus, it is not a James Bond villain. The crazy genius is someone who has found a way of seizing power and orchestrating destruction of government, someone who is seen by conventional society as a clownish and fraudulent would-be gangster, someone nurtured and enabled by a crazy but high-functioning family, who manages to disrupt the country and the world.


That's the forest. That's what Mary is telling us. She is saying, don't fall for his bullshit, he has always pulled this stuff, he has always blustered his way through things, he has always lied and manipulated, and he was selected for these characteristics and promoted for them and enabled for them by a very sick family with an immense amount of money. Here's how he lied, here is how cruel and acquisitive he has been, and please, people, see it for what it is. He's just doing what he has always done. You can see the end result as it appears now, but I see its long history, how the process has worked, how it came to be this way, how it has been this way for a long time, and I see how dangerous it is. America, don't fall for it.

Budd Shenkin

1 comment:

  1. A 150-watt bulb illumines a forest full of 100-watters. Thank you.