Padre Sandunguero was one of the best and most real SVU eps of Warren Leight’s run, and, IMO, one of the only instances of a personal-based episode (as opposed to case-based) being well done.
One thing this episode absolutely nailed was the dynamics of a family with a narcissistic parent. As a person with a narcissistic mother, a lot of the episode details resounded with me. Even the ones I didn’t experience personally, I could relate to other people I’ve talked to in that situation.
Here are some traits and behaviors that prove Nick’s dad as a narcissist. (Also, please note that while some of the characteristics could apply to abusers who aren’t Ns, in the interest of time I won’t make that distinction. Other parts of his personality prove he’s committing narcissistic abuse specifically, not just “regular” abuse.)
1: Scapegoat/Golden Child
Nick’s father was horrible to him, but his sister escaped unscathed. N-parents are well known for their way of picking a child or children to be the Scapegoat, the one responsible for ALL their problems, and a Golden Child, the one who can do no wrong. The roles may be picked from birth for any reason or none at all, really, and the N may not even do this consciously.
The Scapegoat will be berated, abused, manipulated, insulted, and belittled for every little thing, while the GC will be lavished with gifts. (For an example of this dynamic, think of Harry Potter vs Dudley Dursley.) This is explicitly stated by Nick about himself and Sonya. While Nick would get beaten with a belt, Sonya got her extensive college debt paid for.
The SG is also infinitely more likely to realize the wrongness of the dynamics they were a part of, while the GC doesn’t see anything wrong with it, because they personally were never harmed.
This adds another benefit for the N-parent, because it pits the children against each other. While the kids fight, this leaves the N free of guilty, and they get to revel in the drama going on in their life. They will often encourage the siblings to fight.
FLEAS is a term that comes from the expression “lie with a dirty dog and you’ll get fleas”. It is, in short, the variety of harmful behaviors a person might have from growing up with an N-parent. This could be single traits like an affinity for manipulation, or even such identical features that they are a narcissist themselves.
Nick’s FLEA is his uncontrollable anger.
His sister, on the other hand, has the same skill at manipulation and using people, and lack of boundaries. For example, her stunt with Zara, promising she can be the flower girl before asking Nick’s permission, so that there is no way Nick can say no. She later tries to turn Zara against Nick to guilt him into not testifying.
GCs often have significantly worse FLEAS than SGs because while an SG usually realizes what happened was wrong, a GC often won’t, so they don’t try to resist the bad behavior they see. (Think about Dudley in Harry Potter, when Dumbledore says what they have inflicted on him is even worse than what they did to Harry.)
This is possibly the most important, defining trait for Nick Sr.’s narcissism. The term gaslighting originally referred to a way to try and drive someone insane by slowly moving their living room furniture just a bit until they doubted their perception of reality so much that they became insane. But it’s easy to see how the term can be broadened and used more metaphorically.
Instead, gaslgihting refers here to any attempt to make a person doubt their own judgment, and narcissists are NOTORIOUS for it. In Padre Sandunguero Nick’s father did it blatantly, telling Nick his memories of being abused were all in his head, or that he was overreacting. His sister engaged in this too.
Nick’s dad also intentionally triggered him. This is a similar behavior, trying to destabilize Nick. He wants to break Nick down so that he will see that only Nick’s dad can be in the right. All of Nick’s family joins in attacking him mentally because he’s the one who isn’t going along with their lies.
It is puzzling why his mother did this, but she is an enabler. Even though she was being abused by him as sure as Nick was, the abuse made her align with Nick’s dad as a way of protecting herself, and this continued well after he left them. The enabler parent can also be dragged into the scapegoating behavior of the N, leading to…
4. Denial/Blame of the Whistleblower
Nick was the only one of his family willing to say that what happened, happened and that it was wrong. This made him a target for his family. Ns and their non-SG family live in denial that what’s happening is wrong. The others don’t have to admit they are living with a dangerous person, and the N doesn’t have to admit their behavior isn’t normal. So when someone forces them to confront the truth, that person is blamed. It’s their fault for making waves, not the fault of the N for making those problems to begin with.
Ns really cannot handle a reality where they can’t control the people around them. In their minds, the world doesn’t revolve around them: they ARE the world. And the inhabitants of it are not their own people with their own wants and needs, but the N’s toys.
This is why N’s have no sense of boundaries. THEY get to decide your boundaries, not you, and if they decide you don’t need them, you ain’t getting any boundaries. N parents are notorious for banning closed/locked doors for this reason.
This is the reason for scapegoat/golden child dynamics. The scapegoat, for either obvious or impossible to see reasons, threatens them in some way. And the GC reinforces it. This is why the GC often goes along with the N’s plans. And why the scapegoat will often only be treated kindly when they DO act as a problem child. It reinforces that the N is right about the world.
So, as a means to their end, Ns are determined that the world will match how they see it. Even if they have to do a bit of “rearranging” to make it fit. When they violate boundaries, it’s their way of reminding others how important they are, in addition to creating drama, which they feed off of. It’s their way of reestablishing that THEY are the only thing that matters in this world and everyone else is damn lucky they’re allowed to live in it.
So, that last scene with Nick and Nick sr.? With all the gaslighting and invalidation of emotions? That’s an N hissy-fit. He can’t handle that Nick is right. He can’t handle that Nick won’t admit he is right. So he tries one last time to make Nick see he is “imagining” it. Then he tries to make Nick forgive him. Then he tries to tell Nick he’s just like him. Because Ns can sense like no other people what will upset someone. And he knows that with how much Nick hates him, there is nothing worse in the world for Nick to think about than being like him.
And then there’s the KISS. With that one little thing he has WON. He gets the last word. He shatters Nick and triggers him yet again. He invades his boundaries and establishes that those are for him to decide, not Nick. He gets to force his affection on Nick even when Nick has spent the whole episode trying to escape it. The look in Nick’s eyes after says it all. He’s completely defeated.
Nick’s father isn’t just abusive, he is a narcissistic abuser. And that’s why he was able to charm so many people despite being so horrible, and why he was so utterly manipulative the whole time.
I have to wonder if someone on the SVU writing staff might have been in this kind of situation themselves with one of their parents.