Horror has never shied away from the political. From Night of the Living Dead to Get Out, Red State to The Purge and beyond, horror fiction has dealt with issues of race, class, power, and inequality, and questions of what in American politics constitutes the monstrous. I myself have dipped into this well more than once – my short story ‘Stuffed,’ featured in American Cult (available now from Madness Heart Press) is just one example of what I’d call “political horror” that I’ve written. Here’s an interesting question, however: how often are we presented with a nonfiction political book and memoir that constitutes a bona fide, real-life horror story? One in which all of us – Americans and citizens of other nations alike – are the potential victims?
Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World’s Most Dangerous Man is a new memoir by Mary Trump. Mary is the niece of the current President; her father, Freddy, was Fred Trump’s oldest son and Donald’s older brother, a pilot, bon vivant, and tormented alcoholic who was essentially bullied and humiliated into his grave by Fred and Donald (with ample assistance from the other Trump siblings, Robert and Maryanne). Mary and her brother, Fritz, were disinherited by Fred in a highly questionable will alteration late in Fred’s life – as the daughter of the “black sheep” of the Trump clan, Mary had a front-row seat for much of the intense and horrible psychodrama that constituted life in the Trump house. As though that were not a compelling enough premise, Mary has a PhD in clinical psychiatry, and has both taught and practiced, giving her a professional (as well as personal) perspective on the subject, although she is appropriately cautious about clinically diagnosing Trump’s pathologies.
Our President may as well have grown up in a haunted house. Fred Trump’s house – a cold, emotionally abusive place – is referred to throughout the text with proper noun capitalization (“the House”). Instead of a malevolent spirit, however, the Trumps were cursed by something far worse: Fred Trump Sr., an anhedonic sociopath whose only two evident pleasures in life were accumulating wealth and humiliating people. Although there is not the faintest whiff of the supernatural about the House (the Trumps hardly being avid churchgoers), it was haunted by the wraithlike figure of Fred Trump’s broken wife, Mary, and its halls were prowled by monsters in human guise.
While it’s tempting to compare Too Much and Never Enough to The Haunting of Hill House’s take on family tensions and the long-lasting ripple effects of childhood trauma, I think that there’s a clear literary forebear to Mary Trump’s horror story: Brett Easton Ellis’ masterpiece of shallow, narcissistic evil, American Psycho. American Psycho’s central character is Patrick Bateman, a wealthy, powerful New Yorker who gossips, preens, and flaunts his status by day and butchers sex workers, coworkers, and other random victims by night. American Psycho is remarkable for the glimpse it offers inside the mind of a true sociopath; studies have shown, by the way, that sociopaths are drawn to positions like Bateman’s in addition to their other, darker passions. In Bateman’s world, everything is surfaces – glittering, razor-sharp, and punctuated by horror, but never deeper than the reflection we see in a dark mirror.
The parallels between American Psycho and Too Much and Never Enough are plentiful and chilling. There’s the obsession with status, the contempt for weakness, the back-stabbing, social climbing, and flashy, ostentatious peacocking that hides an essential emptiness. Above all else, there is the cruelty: from the casual to the carefully planned, the petty to the mortal. Fred and Donald Trump, like Patrick Bateman, seem to only really come alive when they can torture and humiliate someone. Brett Easton Ellis gave us a monster who seemed to emerge from nothing, a cypher born of emptiness and bearing only pain.
Mary Trump has given us a picture of a monster that is more nuanced. We see the origins of Trump’s narcissism, and how the ruination of his brother Freddy doomed him from the cradle to become, in imitation of Fred Sr., a real American psycho. Raised to be “a killer,” we should note that the extent of Trump’s murderous cruelty, his shallow, dimwitted brutality, is more diffuse – but much more widespread – than the evil perpetrated by Easton-Ellis’ creation. At 214 pages, Too Much and Never Enough is a quick read. Ably written, fascinating, and chilling, it provides us with a Rosetta stone with which we may begin to decode the real-life horror story in which we find ourselves.
American Cult Anthology
A collection of 6 stories of alternative history and distinctly American horror.