Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Friday, July 7, 2017

Friday, July 7, 2017: Maximum Shelf: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal


Plume Books: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite

Plume Books: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite

Plume Books: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal

by Jen Waite

A Beautiful, Terrible Thing is an extraordinarily gutsy memoir that hangs the author's every raw emotion on a proverbial laundry line for all the world to see. Jen Waite is a smart, beautiful aspiring actress when she meets handsome, charming Marco at the restaurant where they work. Their first encounters are like a fairy tale--sparks fly, fireworks burst in mid-air and they both "just know" they have found "the one." Jen's gut tells her Marco is exactly who she's been waiting for. He's so attentive and engaged it feels as if she's known him forever, allowing her to reveal her inner self more quickly than ever before. Marco mirrors her feelings of intimacy and soon the duo is immersed in a passionate and dedicated romance. Jen is not alone in her estimation of Marco, who wins over her family with his charisma and open devotion. Madly in love, within five years they marry and are expecting their first child.

Upon their daughter's birth--what should be a magical time for the golden couple--their perfect path takes an abrupt hairpin turn. Jen stumbles across an e-mail Marco has sent to a realtor referencing a girlfriend and an apartment. Marco vehemently denies an affair. He also claims he must be ill, because he is empty of emotion and when he looks at the wife he only recently adored he "feel[s] nothing." Thus begins Jen Waite's journey through hell. Despite all the signs something is amiss, Marco has an answer for every question Jen poses, every fact that doesn't fit. One morning, deep into the morass of her troubled marriage, Jen turns to Google. The search "husband affair liar personality change" irrevocably alters her life. Reading one of the first results, she is hit with the horrific realization that her husband is a textbook psychopath.

With some sudden clarity to the madness, Jen knows she needs to get her daughter away from the toxic relationship. But breaking ties with Marco is much more complicated than a "normal" separation. Jen struggles for months to reconcile the facts and her emotions, a difficult but common hurdle to overcome when dealing with someone of Marco's pathology:

"Anyone involved in a relationship with a psychopath goes through a long period of something called cognitive dissonance. It is a period of time during which you are trying to merge two realities: that the person you thought was your best friend and love of your life is actually nothing but an illusion; his sole objective was to build you up so he could destroy you in the worst way possible."

As Jen tries to extricate herself from the relationship, the potency of Marco's pull on her and his chameleon-like ability to keep her off balance becomes evident. Despite mounting evidence against him, Marco never ceases in his efforts to impede Jen's ability to get her footing:

"I know that the very fact that I am playing means that he is still winning. But I don't know how to let him go completely.... I went from trusting and loving this person, from feeling adored and protected, to licking bitter morsels off the ground that he is throwing at me whenever he senses that I am starting to break free. Now I understand why sociopaths are dubbed 'human heroin.' I have been shooting pure, unadulterated psychopathic love into my bloodstream for five years. I am coming down from a drug I didn't even know I was on, and the withdrawal has knocked me on my f**king ass."

Written in "Before" and "After" timelines separated by the day Jen finds Marco's e-mail, the memoir is brutally painful from both ends. "After" Jen struggles to reconcile the devoted Marco she married with the man he becomes overnight, which colors all of "Before" Jen's ignorant bliss. Coming to grips with the realization that neither of those men is Marco, that he became what he knew she desired only to destroy her at her most vulnerable, is the journey at the heart of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing.

Waite's experience is haunting and fascinating, her story courageously told. The writing is evocative, so detailed and forthright that the grief and confusion of dealing with someone whose sole goal is to deceive and destroy resonates from every page. By shining a light on how she found herself living in a fiction and came through the experience stronger and empowered, Waite does a great service to those who have likewise suffered, particularly with undeserved feelings of shame. The pointedly honest narrative strips away any potential "That could never happen to me" defense, amplifying the power of her story. Anyone could end up in Waite's shoes, but the path she ultimately decides to walk in them is one of beauty and triumph. --Lauren O'Brien

Plume, $25, hardcover, 272p., 9780735216464

Plume Books: A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal by Jen Waite


Jen Waite: Learning to Trust Your Intuition

photo: Evynne Morin

Jen Waite's world blew apart when she discovered her husband was a textbook psychopath. Her memoir, A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal, written partially in real time, is a candid, in-depth look at what happens when a new mother finds out her life is a fiction. Waite lives on the East Coast with her young daughter.

The memoir is incredibly detailed. Do you keep a journal?

I wrote in real-time, at least the After sections. I felt driven to write everything down, to almost physically move the events out of my body. Writing close to the events freed me from self-judgment. Thankfully, I was still very much in love with my ex-husband at that point. If I tried to write it now I'm afraid it would read as a revenge book. I wouldn't be able to write with the same honesty two years later. I also relied on texts and social media to keep the details extremely accurate.

When did you decide to share your story?

As soon as I realized I was writing a memoir and not just a therapeutic outlet, I felt compelled to share it. From that moment each scene was already formed in my mind. This journey has been about deciding to trust my intuition. I hope my story not only validates experiences with a disordered partner, but also serves as a forewarning of red flags in a relationship.   

Speaking of red flags, psychopaths mirror who we want them to be. Knowing what you know now, could you have seen through Marco?

Absolutely. The caveat is I had to go through this experience to become enlightened. I always saw the best in people and gave them the benefit of the doubt to a degree I now realize was unhealthy. Accepting I have control over my own reality, while empowering, is also terrifying. It's easier to fall into things without looking too closely. I fell headfirst into my relationship and it imploded spectacularly. Now if something doesn't feel right, I don't have to understand my instincts, I just trust them and disengage with whatever feels "off."

It felt like a switch was thrown when you accepted the truth. Was that empowering, and how have you continued to find your power?

That's a good way to put it--a switch was thrown--though it wasn't actually just one "aha" moment. It was a long period of trying to make sense of the situation; knowing something logically but not being able to accept it emotionally. When I passed the cognitive dissonance phase and truly understood Marco lacks empathy, I began to look at the situation almost clinically. That took over a year. Even at the end of the memoir, I was nowhere near where I am now. The work I did with my therapist toward understanding what drew me to someone who could manipulate me, forming boundaries, and building my sense of self, has been by far the most empowering experience of my adult life. Having my reality shattered forced me to examine where I went astray in living according to my inner compass. It's a fundamental concept that is so easy to misplace, especially in this world of social media, where we're bombarded by opinions and comparing our reality to the seemingly perfect lives of others.

Did feelings of shame play a part in your efforts to prove Marco was the man you married?

When you exit a relationship with a psychopath, there's an intense feeling of being conned. It's very difficult to describe the devalue and discard phase. Because of the gaslighting that goes on, you end up sounding insane, to yourself and others. Also, usually the ending coincides with discovering some kind of horrible betrayal, something you would think impossible to NOT see coming. If someone told me my story before it happened to me, I would think "there's no way she didn't know something was off." The thing is, psychopaths are incredibly convincing, especially if they sense you have a large amount of narcissist supply. For five years Marco was one person and overnight he became someone else. I really couldn't comprehend that; I truly thought we were going to discover he had a brain tumor. There was intense confusion, an inability to grasp the situation, and the residual shame of not having seen it coming. 

Did shining a light on those misplaced feelings of shame play a role in why you wrote the memoir?

I didn't write with any particular result in mind. I was just compelled to share my story. Women don't talk about these relationships; there's shame and stigma to having been "duped," so we tend to keep quiet. A common message I've received from people who have experienced a disordered partner is feeling silenced by the sense of shame. There's power in naming something. Psychopaths are incredibly talented actors who gravitate toward extremely empathetic people. It's important to understand that psychopaths are not playing by the same rules--their intent is to build you up and destroy you at your most vulnerable. They feed on emotional turmoil and derive pleasure from pulling the rug out at the worst moment possible. To remain silent about these relationships only protects the predator and perpetuates the cycle of abuse. 

Marco changed when your daughter was born. Why does the "discard" occur at such vulnerable times?

The simple answer is that psychopaths see others as objects, not people. We are only as valuable as the ego fuel we provide. When our supply decreases, we are worthless. There's also the double incentive that the more brutal the discard, the more pain and emotional suffering caused, which is basically life force for the psychopath.

How should parents talk to their children about toxic relationships? Will you one day encourage your daughter to read your memoir?

This is an ongoing question in my head! She's still really young, so she hasn't started asking "Do I have a dad?" But clearly I've chosen the truthful path, so I'm going to tell her in an age-appropriate way, along the lines of "I really loved your biological father but later realized he doesn't feel love like you and I do. You know that feeling in your tummy when something doesn't feel right? He doesn't have that, and it means he doesn't make good decisions. That's why he's not a part of our life." It's not that simple, but it doesn't serve her to be told the line "Your biological father just wasn't ready to be a dad." I don't want her thinking love is intentions or words. It's clear to me now that love is action. Love is doing, even when it's really hard and would be so much easier not to do. By being open with my daughter, my hope is she will gain a clear sense of who will be a positive force in her life.

When she's old enough I will tell her this memoir is like a preservation of my recollection of what happened when she was a baby. So much pain and suffering stems from families repressing trauma or not acknowledging hurt. I can't always protect her, but with honest communication, she will have a strong foundation to start from and an adult she trusts.

How do clinicians diagnose psychopathy and what signs should people look for?

Robert Hare, a psychologist specializing in psychopathy, developed the Psychopathy Checklist. It consists of 20 personality traits correlated with psychopathy, such as impulsiveness, superficial charm, lack of empathy and parasitic lifestyle. The greater their presence, the higher chance an individual falls on the spectrum. It's extremely difficult to "diagnose" psychopathy because psychopaths are inherently manipulative. I am 100% certain that if Marco walked into a therapist's office and there was no supporting documentation, he would receive a diagnosis of a likable guy.

Once you're aware of the signs it's easier to protect yourself. The biggest and most noticeable are: 1) Love bombing. This is nonstop flattery and amazing, poetic words at the beginning of a relationship. It feels really good until you step back and realize no one should feel that strongly within a few days or weeks. Instead of getting to know each other in a genuine way, the psychopath creates a false sense of intimacy. 2) Words versus actions. Once you learn to objectively judge someone based on actions, it becomes easy to detect a disordered person. 3) The pity play. If you are pursued relentlessly by someone who has a really good sob story about why they keep getting into bad situations, steer clear. Psychopaths use empathy against you by explaining away bad deeds with heart-wrenching stories. Of course, many people have been through difficult or traumatic situations; the difference is they won't use that to excuse bad behavior.

You're a courageous writer; will you keep at it?

Yes, I want to write a novel next. I think I'm done with nonfiction for a bit! --Lauren O'Brien


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