On the front cover of Neil Gaiman’s book is written ‘one of the most frightening books ever written’. It’s for children. Enticing in its black and silver, the kind of book which can be deliciously devoured in less than two hours, and yet it is one which I don’t yet have the courage to read. Because I already saw the movie and it scared me shitless.
‘Coraline’ is an Alice the Wonderland adventure. Abusive, magical and includes an important cat. It’s the tale of a little girl who discovers a door to a parallel world, where her ‘other mother’ – the ‘beldame’ (archaic French for stepmother and also beautiful lady) and father reside. Initially more attentive, more beautiful and more loving than her own parents but with curiously emotionless flat black buttons for their eyes. It’s a world where at first her other mother seems perfect; happy to let Coraline return to her home without obligation. A mother who is caring, unselfish and wanting to fulfill her new daughter’s every need. She showers her with gifts, until her real motive is discovered. She wants to keep her, transform her into the object of her own fulfillment, trap her in the ‘other’ world… by taking her eyes and sewing buttons in their stead.
The parallel with puppets is too clear to be missed. Coraline will become her puppet. She will give her eyes, she will sacrifice her unique perspective on the world, and lose herself to her other mother’s vision of herself. The other mother believes she is… the perfect mother. Which is what narcissist’s think.
For someone who was adopted by a narcissist, the movie was almost too much to bear. To see my childhood experience put into animated figures, to see Coraline suffer such blinkered self-obsessed control from someone who purportedly loved her, was frightening. But it was above all real. It was my story.
Neil Gaiman says himself, that he doesn’t know where the idea came from. It is known that Alice in Wonderland was a childhood favourite of his (as it was mine). He is, as most writers must be, an avid reader and that from an early age… like me (who used it as a form of escapism). He was educated in the strait jacketed environment of religious Church of England schools (again, like me). As an adult, he’s now in an open relationship (like me). And I find myself wondering whether one of the reasons isn’t because like me, because he longed for freedom denied to him during childhood. He’s a iconic writer of comics and arguably the most famous of his works The Sandman ‘crafted the character from an initial image of “a man, young, pale and naked, imprisoned in a tiny cell, waiting until his captors passed away”… and the parallel vibrates in my core. That young man is trapped and vulnerable.
I don’t know Neil of course. So my musings must be considered pure projection, because when you’ve experienced narcissism you see it everywhere, in the briefest of clues. But to this day, I have never seen it as superbly rendered as it was in the movie Coraline. Neil’s literary achievements have been awarded countless times over and I’m in awe of him already. But if Neil has never experienced narcissism himself, then I can only sit and marvel at his magnificent ability to put himself someone else’s shoes and tell the true story of my other mother.