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Kiss of the Spider Woman


Maris was destined from birth to assume a prominent place in Seattle society. Her wealthy family must have assumed that she would marry into even greater glory, and it is easy to imagine their horror at being presented with an impoverished medical resident as a future son-in-law. The pair met after Niles's graduation from Yale Medical School while he was serving the internship year of his psychiatric residency. One day on a visit home to Seattle, Niles was driving past the gates of Maris's family mansion when he spotted a slight figure pounding on a set of imposing gates with a tire iron. Though not yet at home in the most exclusive part of Seattle, good Samaritan Niles stopped to help and was instantly drawn to this enigmatic woman.

Maris clearly knew she had found her knight in shining armor. In Niles she saw a willing and loyal partner who was awed by her family's wealth and society connections. She soon learned he had been well taught by his strong mother and overbearing brother to make every effort to please. As it turned out, he would spend the next decade doing just that.

In the beginning the marriage seemed a perfect match. Maris as much as Niles had trouble functioning in the everyday world. In Maris's case, her father's money filled the space that in Niles's life had been occupied by Hester and Frasier. In their own ways both Niles and Maris were isolated from everyday problems and convinced that their limited worlds were far superior to reality. Maris's society connections encouraged this view; her friends had no more interest than she in dealing with the real world.

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Frasier: "Maris lost again?"
Niles: "Yes. She wandered into the kitchen by mistake. I had to talk her back to the living room."
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Together Niles and Maris operated like acrobats in a well-rehearsed marital trapeze act. Where Maris was emotionally brittle, Niles used his psychiatric skills to keep her functioning. Where Niles lacked initiative and drive, Maris provided the necessary spark of ruthless social ambition. And they were equally well versed in the art of manipulation. Each had learned over the years to compensate for personal weaknesses through persuasion and outright deception.

But they were poles apart in their ideas about ethics and personal responsibility. Martin had devoted most of his efforts as a father to instilling in his sons a firm sense of right and wrong. Maris's ethics seem always to have been strictly situational. Where Niles had ideals, Maris had pragmatism. Niles was also a true romantic whose family, whatever its flaws, had included genuine love and support. If Niles gave Maris his heartfelt loyalty and love, she provided him with little more than a secure financial base. She had been raised mainly by nannies and butlers, housekeepers and governesses. When she said that she loved Niles she believed it; the only trouble was that she had no real experience of love and could never quite deliver. She treated Niles as she had always treated those who lived with her -- as a paid employee. Yet in spite of the abuse Niles truly loved Maris. On one memorable occasion he even challenged a fencing champion to a duel when he thought the man was trying to seduce her.

During many years of his marriage Niles was cut off from his family in any meaningful sense. His mother had died, his brother was living a continent away, and his emotionally remote father might as well have been. He had fallen hard for Maris, and to seal the bargain she was also his first lover. It is worthwhile to note that survivors of domestic violence often report a predictable pattern of isolation and deprecation, an on-again, off-again flow of love and kisses that changes to abuse at a moment's notice. Though never actually violent, the verbal damage Maris inflicted on Niles's emotional health was striking. Her mood swings, her sexual kinks, her constant insistence that Niles re-make himself again and again to her specifications robbed him of any backbone he might once have had.

By the time his brother returned from Boston Niles was in sad shape indeed. The one bright spot in his life was his psychiatric practice. He was a skilled and compassionate therapist who took great satisfaction in helping his patients even though his own life was emotionally barren. He was so accustomed to loneliness that he never perceived anything was wrong. It certainly never crossed his mind that his life could change as dramatically as it would over the next few years.

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