Worst parenting book of the year: Esther Wojcicki’s homage to narcissism

Esther Wojcicki wrote her book, How to Raise Successful People, so she could take credit for her daughters’ success: “I raised two CEOs and a doctor. These are my secrets to parenting successful children.” Here are Esther’s five stunningly obvious secrets: trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness.

This book is a case study for how a narcissistic parent destroys the children through gaslighting, breaking boundaries, and emotional neglect. The small group of people who read the book hated it. But I’m thinking this book is important as a university text. There’s a subreddit devoted entirely to how difficult it is to describe the invisible-but-devastating abuse of a narcissist parent. The photo above is one of Frances Berry’s photo distortions and it is a great illustration of the narcissist’s world. Esther’s book is the text-based version of that, chapter by chapter, describing the mind of a narcissist parent.

Esther states, for the record, that Susan is CEO of YouTube, Anne is CEO of 23andMe, and Jane is a doctor at the University of San Francisco. Only she isn’t. Jane is an anthropologist and epidemiologist. The only person who refers to Jane as a doctor is her mom, on the book cover. Because Jane’s identity is an extension of Esther’s and Jane has to be what Esther needs her to be.

Esther says people are begging her to tell them parenting secrets, which is hilarious because even her daughters hate the way she parented. Susan has five kids. She is also the CEO of YouTube. So however Susan handles her five kids, it seems like a pretty clear rejection of her mom’s classically narcissist style of parenting. Susan has a separate identity from her children.

The book is an argument for why education reform could never go far enough and we need to start over from the beginning to get a fair system. The dad was a physics professor at Stanford, which means the girls had a built-in network and mentor. And they experienced the breakfast-table effect, which is the scientific word to explain the outsized benefits of having educated parents. Susan explained  what really made for successful daughters: “We grew up on a college campus, surrounded by academics, mathematicians, and scientists.”

The girls used totally legal back-doors to the Ivy League. Susan attended Harvard as a legacy applicant. Janet attended Stanford as a faculty kid. And Anne attended Yale as a hockey recruit. These three applicant pools each have a 40% acceptance rate to the Ivy League. Esther could have also written a book about the importance of recalibrating the education system, but that would have taken the focus away from her.

The book describes why the Bay Area quickly became a playground for rich kids instead of an incubator for new ideas. Esther’s husband rented their garage to Larry Page and Sergey Brin who founded Google. In the garage. That was lucky. Susan became employee number 16 at Google. That was both smart and lucky, which is how success usually happens.

Anne is the other CEO featured in the title of the book. Anne majored in biology, took the MCAT, and didn’t go to medical school. She married Sergey Brin and he funded her company with $3.9 million in the first year. We should all be so lucky to have a sister with a future billionaire in her garage. Oh. I mean, we should all be so lucky to have a mom like Esther.

The key to being a successful entrepreneur is to come from families with money. Poor kids don’t have access to capital, and poor kids can’t afford to take risks. But kids who grew up in the geographical center of the tech revolution with parents who provided a safety net were more likely than any other kids to be a startup founder.

Buy the book? No. Of course not. But… I believe the three sisters are very hard workers and I have nothing against them. My problem is with the mother mistaking achievement for love. Esther says, “I used [my kids] as an educational experiment, and my goal was to see how early I could teach them anything. It was fun for me to teach them to swim early, read early, ride a bike, know facts about the neighborhood. You can teach kids really early.” For Esther, her kids are a tool to express her talents and receive glory.

Her book is a way to measure that glory with dollars. So I recommend that you find someone who bought the book and buy it from them and then return it to the store. And if you want to read about narcissist mothers read Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers.

51 replies
  1. Rebekah Anderson
    Rebekah Anderson says:

    You nailed it calling the author out on her true motives.
    I can recognize the signs even in the quotes you used.
    Your arguments for the opportunity (thank you for not going down the “white privilege” road) wealthy have vs poor, is statistcally true, too.

    As an INTJ Stay at home mom, I would argue a woman doesn’t need to work outside the home ro have her own identity. But society ridicules us for it.

    Great review. I look forward to more of your thoughts.

    ~ Rebekah

  2. Reichart
    Reichart says:

    Cause and Effect might be in question, but, does beg the question, how many successful driven people had narcissistic parents (or some other issues).

  3. ElleKM
    ElleKM says:

    Thank you for saying what we are all thinking!! It gets obnoxious to continually read about parents who “made” their kids successful, when they had everything at their disposal to make those kids successful. Hey, good for them….but not really worthy of a book!

  4. Tom Payne
    Tom Payne says:

    This makes perfect sense to me. Jane followed in her father’s footsteps. The other two benefited from the incredible luck of having two of the most successful entrepreneurs in U.S. history land in their garage, and Esther gets the credit for their success. I see the causal connection. Esther is a parental genius.

    • Lauren
      Lauren says:

      Does Esther get the credit? Or does she take the credit. Those are two very different things. Narcissists often take credit… far more than the people in their lives would ever give them (if they’ve done any work to individuate and heal – lord knows I used to give my mom TONS of credit because she had brainwashed me into thinking she deserved it).

  5. Allison Scott Majure
    Allison Scott Majure says:

    Mic drop! Calling the play and going no further is the truest, most effective and empowering way to help others come to certain conclusions. You nailed it and didn’t spoon feed it. Thank you.

  6. MBL
    MBL says:

    Haven’t finished the post yet, but that photo/image is astonishing. Truly spectacular. And to link it to a narcissistic personality is brilliantly insightful.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I love the connection too! At first I felt like maybe I’m overstepping by linking the picture to narcissism. But all the photos in the series are like this — and it’s all women. For me this photo is a great example of visual art providing a path to understanding that we can’t get from words.


      • Lauren
        Lauren says:

        It really captures narcissistic personality disorder at such a visceral level. Thank you for making the connection and sharing it with us!

  7. harris497
    harris497 says:

    This article really depressed me. It wasn’t written from your usual paradigm of no matter how shitty life is, it gets better and here’s why.
    It made me wonder how I can increase the probability that my children can be successful humanistically and materially without selling their souls to the ideology of things over people. They are great kids, but it may already be too late for them despite the fact that they are still in college.
    We have no money, so they are all in debt to their eyeballs for their college educations. Their friends in college all seem to be doing well, while they struggle with classes and work/jobs (because I didn’t/don’t know how to guide them to smooth graduations and internships).
    Penny, I want my children to have it better than I did, but there is no blueprint and when you’re not monied, and doubt your abilities, and have others looking up to you, sometimes life can be overwhelming. Just saying… please continue to write for us and don’t depart permanently.

  8. Johannes
    Johannes says:

    Can anyone say sour grapes? I’ve made it on my own. I own my own company and have zero financial worries. That said – I’d have given anything to have earlier access to those things you disparage in this rant. Let’s face it – all parents are narcissistic why else would they think it a good idea to bring yet one more human into the world to suffer, eventually lose everything they love and die? That’s the reality we all live in.

    • MJJ
      MJJ says:

      I grew up with a narcissist mother – the kids that weren’t mentioned were 99.9% not mentioned because they aren’t glorious enough looking to strangers. I hope that they have distanced themselves and have wonderful lives of joy and self-esteem, and don’t have to hear about how disappointing it is that they are not [CEO, doctor, lawyer, millionaire, etc.]

  9. Rachel G
    Rachel G says:

    I have read your blog for so long. My mind is exploding that you’re now talking about daughters of narcissistic mothers.

    • CM
      CM says:

      Me too Rachel! I’m so glad she talked about this! Have you read the other book she referenced in the post (will I ever be good enough?). It’s life changing but it’s also really interesting to see Penelope’s point of view on it.

      • Lauren
        Lauren says:

        It’s SUCH a good book. I didn’t even really realize my mom was a DSM narcissist until I read that book. It made *everything* click and got me on the path to healing.

  10. Lucy Chen
    Lucy Chen says:

    I really loved this post. The theme of the post aside, it reminds me to be mindful of what I read – just because it is published in a book, does not mean that it’s a gospel to follow.

  11. Ann Bradley
    Ann Bradley says:

    I haven’t read the book so I will refrain from commenting. I will say that I am disappointed you neglected to include the contributions made by Wojcicki to the local high school where she has been a successful educator for decades. http://www.moonshotsedu.com/palo-alto-high-school
    As such I would say she has an identity away from her parenting also, just as you say aof Susan because of her work: “Susan has a separate identity from her children.”

  12. CM
    CM says:

    As the child of a narcissistic parent, The book ‘will I ever be good enough’ absolutely rocked my world and changed my life. My sisters and I all read it at the same time years ago and refer to it all the time. It’s crazy how high functioning children of narcissists are. My sisters and I always talk about how we could have easily ended up on an episode of ‘Hoarders’ or ‘Intervention’. We used to watch those shows together all the time too and try to figure out how the stories of the people who become really messed up differed from ours. ‘Why are we not all on heroin or stacking thousands of pizza boxes in the bathroom?’
    As I got older I realized that although my own personal story was painful and felt like it was truly unique it was in fact textbook for children of narcissistic parents.
    Thanks for touching on the subject it’s very meaningful to me.

    • Sarah
      Sarah says:

      I’ve been reading a fantastic paper on mothers with BPD (cousin to narcissism). I’ve often had this question too, and the paper suggests it’s because the kids were able to create a separate narrative of their mother’s story, the child had separate interests, and there was an outside influence that encouraged individuality. For me, I had a large number of people tell me this, “four more years until you are 18… your mother has a complex history that has nothing to do with you…” and of course, the families of my friends who kept the door open for me to show up at odd hours and for days on end when I needed space.

  13. MJJ
    MJJ says:

    NAILED IT. I grew up with this kind of mother. Heard nonstop that I was so brilliant, so amazing but IF I took a single misstep and did not turn into a MD, JD, CEO, millionaire I’d be a “dud and a loser.” Nothing about love of my happiness or health, just a relentless focus on how I’d look to strangers. Then I did get a professional degree and recently an executive job in a global company – good old narcissist mom doesn’t understand what I do (she’s poorly educated, not interested in learning, and not very smart in general) so she’s telling people with an exaggerated pout and whine that I used to be a professional but I’m not any more. Because corporate officer and board member is a step down?

    Narcissist parents are just nuts, period. I’ve realized how pathetic they are too – lives invested in living through something and someone else. My parents had ample money and my mother had nothing but time. She could have done things with her life and she fought like a wild woman to NOT be pushed to do anything, accomplish anything, or even finish anything. She would not have a life other than one trying to live through her children’s accomplishments. That is sad, people. Sad piteous pathetic sad. Tragic. I’m not really up to compassion for her yet but damn, that is pathetic.

    So good job on this one.

  14. Ash
    Ash says:

    Thank you Penelope! I started the book and hated it so much, even though I wanted so badly to like it. It’s all name dropping (James Franco was my student at high school) and taking credit for all her successful high school journalism students and leaving out important bits eg that Sergei and her daughter got a divorce. I could also see too much of the mom pushing (Eg swimming at 18months or something – er, no, kids can float, but they can’t properly swim till 3.) And the luck aspect also jumped out hugely.
    That said, she does have some good points.
    I recommended The Formula above, that might be a better book on parenting, though my kiddo is still young. He was also born with many natural advantages, knock wood. We’re still at the “How to Listen So Kids Talk and Talk So Kids Listen” stage, which I think was the best parenting book I’ve read so far, I think it’s also helped me empathize a lot with my kiddo.
    Would love to see a post or reading list on books you’ve loved, sorted by categories, eg parenting, health/fitness, etc.
    And I’m sorry about your parents/childhood but so happy you’re doing well as an adult and able to raise such good sons. I’m pretty sure I’ve been reading your blog at least 10 years now so I’ve seen the ups and downs and I’m sure there are a lot more ups heading your way.

    • Not that Melissa
      Not that Melissa says:

      Thank you for the book recommendation! How To Talk… is such a great resource for my family, so I really appreciate your take on another parenting book.

  15. jack
    jack says:

    Most people do not realize how much of impact that the legacy college application process has at the elite colleges..

    Harvards class of 2022 (currently sophomores) was 36% legacy applicants. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/07/harvards-freshman-class-is-more-than-one-third-legacy.html. They accept around 1/3 of legacy applicants. Their overall acceptance rate was 4.59%. (1,962 of 42,749 candidates ). https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2018/3/29/harvard-regular-admissions-2022/

    36% is 706 students. 1/3 acceptance means 2118 applicants for the legacy slots. Subtracting legacy from these totals, and it comes out to 1256 enrollments from 40,631 applications or 3.09%. 17.3% of the total enrollments were 1st generation college students. Athletes that can make the top 50% academically have 70%+ acceptance rate.

    Applicants that have college educated parents, and are not college level athletes probably have an acceptance rate of around 2%. E.g. 35k applicants for 700 or so spots. Harvard is not unique. These type of numbers help explain the reason for the bribe scheme scandal.

  16. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    I’m also very curious…are her kids miserable? I’d assume they are like most high-achieving, gifted kids, but I obviously don’t know them.

  17. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    As the (very high achieving) daughter of a narcissistic mother, I have to second your book recommendation. Will I Ever Be Good Enough was a central part of my healing. That and lots of therapy!

  18. jessica
    jessica says:

    Esther Wojcicki, is she an ISFJ? ISFJ’s are all about everything she wrote. I don’t know if it’s narcissism as much as family above all else. Their kids are always scheduled to the hilt.

  19. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    Enough people bought the premise of her book that Esther received the Maverick Spirit Award from Cinequest last year. (It is an annual film festival in San Jose and Redwood City.) Your points about the book are well taken. But, she is an English and Journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School since 1984 and a number of her students have been very successful including James Franco. Of course, “Paly High” is literally across the street from the Stanford Campus so it isn’t hard to imagine that her students were also influenced by being around a highly educated group of adults. Palo Alto is a community that takes education seriously, and wealthy parents buy expensive but very modest homes so they can live in the district. She has also written a book entitled, “Moonshots in Education, Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom.” Looking forward to reading that also, and it might apply to homeschoolers also.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Silicon Valley is a bubble. People do not care about Esther’s ridiculous education initiatives in one of the most well-funded public school districts in the world. And, people don’t care about a film festival in Redwood City. I mean, that is laughable. The only reason there’s a film festival there is to get funding from tech people who want legitimacy in the arts.

      Also, in San Jose when you give Esther an award you get closer to having access to her kids. Well connected people in Silicon Valley giving awards to well-connected people in Silicon Valley is exactly why that place is an echo-chamber for the self-congratulatory.


  20. Freddy Goldberg
    Freddy Goldberg says:

    You nailed it. For her to even claim that she knows what success is would be nothing short of hubris. It’s a shame really, the things she has done to her family. Disgusting.

  21. Lara
    Lara says:

    As far as narcissism takes one to know one. You’ve taken credit for everything your kids do. And you should. Partial anyway. You hired all the tutors. You pushed your son to cello and drove him far to what you felt were the best teachers. My concern is your older son won’t function well in college without all of your support. If you use tutors all through college why even go? And I knew kids like that. Honestly I’m sure the book is a giant yawn though I admit I did like parts of tiger mom. Face it you’re a tiger mom. So was this woman. It’s ridiculous not to note the luck of hosting google! Big bill gates mom opened his first door. Luck matters. I just don’t get why you’re so jealous of successful women. They’re not your competitors ya know? Why isn’t it enough for you that one boy is awesome at cello and another aces ap physics? You want them to be ceos because you weren’t? You are so painfully unhappy as a human being because you measure success materially. You rail
    Against inequality and what’s worse? An Ivy League legacy or a mom who can afford around the clock personal tutors? You’re so unaware of your hypocrisy and dependence on capitalism because what you really want is not equality but to have your competitors pushed down a notch and your non competitors elevated. Anytime someone threatens your ego by succeeding, they, the system are the problem.

  22. Lara
    Lara says:

    My contrarian shit probably won’t get published but in summation
    1. Yes luck matters duh.
    2. Being affluent helps. Somehow Penelope isn’t affluent but miraculously has the life perks of the affluent.
    3. If you don’t like self love Egotistical books don’t read them
    4. Parents do affect their kids a lot. Sometimes not for the better.
    5. I prefer parents who raise good kids to parents who raise woke (re: pretentious) kids and successful (money wise) kids but who cares about good anymore? Just pay lip service saying you’re enraged about all the unfairness. Heaven forbid you actually just be a good human.

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