Book Review: A History of a Pedophile’s Wife — Memoir of a Canadian Teacher and Writer, by Eleanor Cowan
Review by Donna Andersen
People born to disordered parents are likely to be vulnerable to psychopaths later in life. I’ve explained this to many, many people that I’ve spoken to in my personal consultations.
Eleanor Cowan’s book, A History of a Pedophile’s Wife, explains exactly how it happens.
Childhood without love
Eleanor was born in 1948 outside of Montreal, Canada, the second child in what would become a large Catholic family. Her childhood was molded by the dictates of the Catholic Church, wholeheartedly accepted by her father, and the disinterest of a personality disordered mother.
Eleanor, who was nicknamed “Norda” by her sister, pined for her mother’s love and approval. She never got it. Although Norda’s mother, Ann, didn’t beat her kids, as some antisocial parents do, she did ignore them, preferring to sleep all afternoon, with the assistance of alcohol and sleeping pills. Or, the woman used her kids, and played them against each other.
As I look back on growing up in our strange and unloving home life, it seems to me that my siblings and I milled about together without getting to know each other very well or forming close friendships. I think we all knew we’d betray each other at the drop of a hat for a moment of attention.
For example, when Mother criticized Maureen for her slumped shoulders or for eating with her mouth open, I’d zero in for an instant of short-lived glory.
“Not me, eh Mother?” I’d pipe up. “I stand up straight and I eat with my mouth closed too. I eat like a lady.”
“Yes, and you lie like a rug, too,” was a typical retort from Mother.
When Norda was in sixth grade, she represented her class in a public speaking contest. She begged her mother to come to watch her deliver her speech. Ann never gave her an answer. The day of the event, Ann said she was “exhausted beyond human belief,” even though she had driven to another town for her own public speaking course the night before, and had slept all afternoon. She never showed up.
In the most poignant story from her childhood, Ann invited Norda, and of the eight children, only Norda, to accompany her to a family party. Norda excitedly packed a party dress and shiny shoes. She wanted to chatter with her mother during the train ride to Montreal, but Ann wasn’t interested.
When they arrived at her grandfather’s house, Ann said that if Norda wanted to stay up late for the party, she should take a nap.
Handing me a pill and a glass of water, she said, “Take this vitamin and I’ll wake you in time for the party.”
“I’m so excited, Mummy,” I said. “I’m so excited my stomach hurts.”
My scheme to lie back on the pillows, enjoy my taffy for a while, and then get up, claiming I couldn’t sleep, wasn’t successful. Instead, I awakened stiff and aching. “Time for the party, Mother?” I asked, stumbling into the kitchen to a breakfast scene of toast and eggs.
“It’s over,” she said. “You slept through it.”
Ann had given Norda one of her sleeping pills to make sure that she would miss the party.
A few weeks later, Norda’s parents, and three of her sisters, left for a two-week vacation. Norda was left home to help care for the babies. Her mother told her that she had already had a solo vacation in Montreal, so it was only fair.
Abusive encounters with men
By the time she was a teenager, Eleanor was dealing with her emotional pain by smoking and eating chocolate. She failed multiple courses before she was able to graduate from high school. When she got older, she took up drinking as well.
Desperate for attention, she became involved with men who used and abused her. On several occasions Eleanor was sexually assaulted. But it wasn’t that she was hanging out with the wrong crowd. One of the men was a college classmate. One was an employer. One was introduced to her by her college professor.
Why did Eleanor have so many abusive encounters with men? Although she doesn’t explain it in the book, I believe it’s the result of the damage done to her by her disordered mother. Throughout her childhood, Eleanor endured coldness and betrayal. As an adult, her relationships again involved coldness and betrayal.
Eventually Eleanor married Stan. She’d actually known him since she was a child — her parents were friends with his parents. It was through Stan’s mother that they reconnected, at a dinner to celebrate his master’s thesis.
Eleanor doesn’t write much about the courtship, but eventually she and Stan married. Then the real exploitation began. Stan offered Eleanor a deal — if she would support him while he completed his doctoral studies in Paris, they would then start a family and she could be a stay-at-home mom.
So Eleanor worked while Stan wrote a dissertation. When the babies came, Eleanor still worked, while Stan did nothing. For 14 years he pretended to look for work, but now he was overqualified. And if he did take menial work, he soon quit or was fired.
And, as Eleanor eventually learned to her horror, Stan sexually abused their children. And they weren’t the first children that he molested.
Cause and effect
Eleanor’s book, A History of a Pedophile’s Wife, clearly illustrates how cold, unloving parenting primes children for a lifetime of abuse. Being starved for love and attention all her life created massive emotional wounds, which made Eleanor a target for predators.
It went on until, to save her children, Eleanor stopped denying the reality of her husband’s disorder and escaped. Then, she worked on healing her life.
In the end, Eleanor attributes the turbulence in her life to religious indoctrination and patriarchy. I think the bigger problem was personality disorders, which she mentions but does not dwell on.
Eleanor’s mother, Ann, appears to be a card-carrying narcissist. Her husband, Stan, exhibits the behavior of a psychopath as well as being a pedophile.
But what’s important is that Eleanor overcame the years of abuse. She writes that she is doing well — and that is a magnificent achievement.