Ghosts, victims, collaborators: (l-r)The President's sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau; his mother, Mary Trump; Donald Trump; and Melania Knauss, later Trump. Credit: Davidoff Studios/Getty

July 21, 2020   5 mins

“Daddy, Mom’s bleeding,” is the opening line of Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough. It is apt. She is the niece of Donald Trump and she is writing about her grandmother – his mother Mary.

This book tells the story of this family’s shocking, though still prosaic, cruelty: it is a truism that true horror is domestic. Much will be written about the men — though the women, and certainly the author, are no less interesting for their collusion.

There is her grandfather, Fred Snr, who she calls a sociopath; and her father, Fred Jnr, the oldest son. He was destroyed by his father’s expectations and died of alcoholism at 42. Then there is Donald: “Fred’s monster – the only child of his who mattered to him – [who] would ultimately be rendered unlovable by the very nature of Fred’s preference for him”.

Mary Trump is a clinical psychologist; perhaps she became one to understand her family and herself. She could be silent when Donald was only a Reality TV star and a bankrupt property developer, but now he is President, “I can’t let him destroy my country.” The personal and the patriotic collide in this book, though it will do no good. I doubt Trump fans will read it; and they know what Donald is. They like him anyway.

Mary Trump believes Donald meets all the nine criteria for narcissism, and possibly has antisocial personality disorder and an undiagnosed learning disability “that for decades has interfered with his ability to process information”. His mental illness – his condition – begins and ends with Fred Snr, a man I believe hated all his five children: except Donald the braggart, who mirrored Fred Snr’s spite back at him, and so was loved. Donald would not go the way of his sensitive older brother Fred Jnr, so he became “the killer” his father required. I understand him now, due to Mary Trump: a man who lies always is telling a kind of truth.

“Every time you hear Donald talking about how something is the greatest, the best, the biggest, the most tremendous,” Mary Trump writes, “you have to remember that the man speaking is still, in essential ways, the same little boy who is desperately worried that he, like his older brother, is inadequate and that he, too, will be destroyed for his inadequacy. At a very deep level, his bragging and false bravado are not directed at the audience in front of him but at his audience of one: his long-dead father.” This is not that unusual for male politicians. I sense a similar yearning in Boris Johnson for the approval of the appalling Stanley.

Donald was, of course, an abandoned child; and the abandoned child finds it hard to grow up. If his father was a monster dedicated — obliviously — to the destruction of his children’s self-worth, his mother was a ghost. The Trump women inhabit this book dimly. Mary (or “Gam” to her granddaughter and namesake) collapsed with “serious post-partum complications” after the birth of her youngest child Robert. Bearing her husband’s dynasty destroyed her health. The (probably unnecessary) removal of her ovaries caused osteoporosis, and she was in agony for the rest of her life. This was Donald’s first abandonment: by his mother to a series of hospital stays, and her own private anguish. He was two years old.

Mary was, her grand-daughter writes, “unstable and needy, prone to self-pity and flights of martyrdom”. And so, “when it came to her sons, she acted as if there were nothing she could do for them”. She became “a bystander” in a family “split deeply along gender lines”. She was “depleted”. As they grew, her younger sons Donald and Robert repaid her with contempt. She made roast beef at Christmas, and they wanted roast turkey. They harangued her, and “Gam spent the whole meal with her head bowed”.

One Thanksgiving, she choked on the meal. “You okay, Mum?” Fred Jr — the sensitive, the alcoholic — asked. “As she continued to struggle, a couple of people at the other end of the table looked up to see what was going on but then looked down at their plates and continued eating”. Fred Jnr took her out to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre. “When they returned, there was a desultory round of applause. ‘Good job, Freddy,’ Rob said, as if my father had just killed a mosquito.”

Fred Snr’s cruelty was extraordinary. He employed Fred Jnr but gave him no responsibility; when he became an airline pilot instead, he belittled him. Fred Jnr’s sister Maryanne was “a smart, ambitious girl in a misogynistic family. She was the eldest child, but because she was a girl, Freddy, the eldest boy, got all of her father’s attention. She was left to align herself with her mother, who had no power in the house. Ultimately, she did what she was supposed to do because she thought her father cared.” He didn’t; rather he kept her in poverty, though he was already a millionaire, and he helped to destroy her marriage.

Maryanne married David Desmond, who was soon unemployed. Despite a trust fund from her grandparents — the family wealth was founded on prostitution, and this is apt too — she survived on Crisco cans filled with coins from the washers in Trump buildings. Her mother gave them to her for ‘laundry’. It was called ‘laundry’ because Fred Snr’s cruelty could not be openly acknowledged. He gave his children nothing from the trusts, which he administered; and he went through all the cheque stubs. His daughter lived on coins. “Without them she [Maryanne] wouldn’t have been able to feed herself or her son, David, Jr”. Later she hinted to her father that her husband would appreciate a job. He gave him one: as a parking attendant. Even so Maryanne told her niece: “I never challenged my father ever.” There was no point.

The family was similarly cruel to Mary Trump’s mother Linda Clapp. The family could not blame themselves for Fred Jr’s death, even as they had seen such petty cruelties as his father refusing both to mend his son’s uninhabitable flat — which Fred Snr owned — and intervening to prevent his getting a mortgage when he tried to move instead. He could not be allowed to be free. When Fred Jnr died his children were disinherited: death is a failure in this family, and failure must be punished. (They challenged the will in court and received an undisclosed amount.) Not one member of his family was at Fred Jnr’s bedside when he died. Donald was at the movies. Instead, they blamed Linda for his death. Donald later told Mary: “I think we made a big mistake continuing to support your mother.”

Trump women survive with silence and collusion. Ivanka appears as a child climbing on her father for kisses. Mary Trump remembers her uncle Robert — a mini-Donald — saying Melania, Donald’s wife, barely spoke. Perhaps, Mary Trump suggested, her English wasn’t good? “No,” Robert replied, “She knows what’s she there for.”

Mary Trump was likewise silent; until she decided to speak.  She told her grandfather she wanted to return to school after a year out. “That’s stupid,” he said. “Just go to trade school and become a receptionist”. She replied: “I want to get my degree.” Fred Snr replied, in language he bequeathed to his son: “that’s nasty”. She never told her family she is gay. She did not tell them she was getting married. Donald hired her to write a book and failed to pay her. She grew up to be a watcher, and superficially pliant.

She says her uncles always called her “honey bunch”. “I sometimes wondered,” she writes, “if either of my uncles actually knew my name.”

She is suffocated by that name. Staying in a Trump hotel she writes: “my name was plastered everywhere on everything: TRUMP shampoo, TRUMP conditioner, TRUMP slippers, TRUMP shower cap, TRUMP shoe polish, TRUMP sewing kit and TRUMP bathrobe. I opened the refrigerator, grabbed a split of TRUMP white wine, and poured it down my Trump throat so it could course through my Trump bloodstream and hit the pleasure centre of my Trump brain”.

I wonder if being disinherited from a great fortune saved Mary Trump; if you don’t get the fortune, you don’t have to collude anymore; and now she can honour her father. I also wonder if, with the publication of this book, her grandfather Fred Snr would be pleased with her at last. On publication day she sold almost 1 million copies. Would his cynicism extend that far? I think it would. She proved herself — and I write this smiling — a killer too.

Tanya Gold is a freelance journalist.