The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pages, $13
WebofNarcissism.com is an online forum peopled by victims of narcissism. It contains a trove of resources. There are threads on coping techniques for past traumas at the hands of “Narcs,” threads on the best methods to enforce the “NO contact” policy for escaping Narcs, and cautionary articles on topics such as “Narcissism and Internet Pornography.” There is a virtual library for book recommendations—fiction or nonfiction, but always therapeutic—and a “theater” forum with a host of narcissism-themed film recommendations (August, Osage County; Black Swan; Wall Street; Rope), the common message of which is that narcissists are dangerous. What sticks out most to Kristin Dombek is the gothic theme: “Vampire is a common word in the narcisphere.” This is a region of the internet permeated by horror of narcissism.
Any mention of “narcissism,” by this time, should cause in most thinking people a kind of Inigo Montoya reaction: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The concept has been shapeshifting since Sigmund Freud popularized it over a century ago, and the last few decades have seen anxious jeremiads portending its rise and studies and thinkpieces illustrating its toll. It has become a kind of verbal warhead—like relativist or neoconservative—that we launch at anyone who irks us.
One could easily spend a book-length essay on that point alone. But Dombek’s 138-page effort is more interested in the “narcisphere,” a subculture unified by fear and loathing of narcissists. On message boards, support groups, and self-help courses, members of the narcisphere speak in their own jargon (“narcdar” detects narc behaviors) and see the world through their narc-obsessed moral framework.
The Selfishness of Others is a personal essay, a reported feature, a cultural critique, and, at careful intervals, a moral treatise. It makes elegant use of multiple forms of nonfiction while leaving behind, say, the Technicolor moralism of Tom Wolfe and the permafrost polemics of Christopher Lasch, whose writings in the 1970s helped take narcissism out of psychoanalytic labyrinths and into the public arena.
It explores the “epidemic” of how empty people—alleged narcissists—make victims of those with whole, empathetic selves. How charm, innocence, and charisma turn into petulance, entitlement, and rage. But it is also about how trauma and hurt can morph into a kind of empowerment gone nuclear, a mania for deploying the term “narcissist” against other people. The diagnostic criteria that make up narcissistic personality disorder tell less of a disorder than of a villainous antagonist:
[Y]es, your loved one has the same disorder as the murderers, a new selfishness different in scope but not in quality from those characters who are the very incarnation of what we mean when we say evil. You’ll read … a story that can change the way you see everything, if you start believing in it, giving you the uncanny but slightly exciting sensation that you’re living in a movie. … You’re the hero.
According to the narcissism “script,” every encounter boils down to the same scenario: “[O]thers are fake, and you are real.” The therapeutic morphs into the “apocalyptic,” as the damaged become the demonic.
Dombek separates contemporary narcissism into several variants, with real-life examplars: A chapter titled “The Bad Boyfriend” centers on manosphere godfather Tucker Max; “The Millennial,” on My Super Sweet 16 star Allison Mathis Jones; and “The Murderer,” on Norwegian mass killer Anders Breivik.
Dombek seems most interested in “The Millennial,” given how often Allison Mathis Jones, the only subject Dombek interviewed directly, appears throughout the text. Allison was featured in My Super Sweet 16 in 2007. Little remembered now, My Super Sweet 16 was in the mid-’00s one of MTV’s worst shows, shot almost exclusively through a carnival-sideshow lens. Allison was no exception, preening like a Caudillo in miniature, insisting that a section of a major Atlanta road, which contained a hospital, be closed to make way for a parade in her honor. Her notoriety was cemented with a prominent mention in the study The Narcissism Epidemic, which called her particular brand of narcissism “sociopathic.” “Allison begins [that] book,” Dombek writes, “because she looks like the future.”
However, Dombek’s interviews with Allison reveal—or rather, confirm—the disingenuousness of MTV’s programming. Allison’s father had already planned the party, much of the action for the show itself took some directorial nudging, and even the parade (which only closed one lane) was not actually her idea. Allison, then, has been misdiagnosed as a narcissist—one casualty of an epidemic of narcissism overdiagnosis.
The Narcissism Epidemic, published in 2009, asserted that millennials were the most narcissistic generation. But this assertion contradicts previous clinical ideas about narcissism—so flagrantly, that we must wonder whether the authors were slightly biased against millennials. The book’s quantitative studies show millennials scoring high for both narcissism and self-esteem, contradicting previous theoretical assertions that narcissism was a shield for low self-esteem. Instead of questioning whether what they had was actually narcissism, the researchers conclude that “one hundred years of qualitative research had been wrong”:
[R]ather than [a] cover for a shattered, insecure, and empty self, narcissism must be exactly what it looks like—overly high self-esteem. … [Narcissists’] problem is they actually think they are better, feel more special, and genuinely believe they are more important than anyone else.
Yet in spite of the new results, the social threat remained the same: “When … prophets of the epidemic in the field of social psychology talk about … the whole millennial generation, they draw on the power of the older version, our fears of the uncanny mask over an empty, vulnerable self.”
Dombek breaks through the statistical noise by actually speaking to Allison. “This is going to sound narcissistic,” Allison admits, but “I think you should call us the caring generation. … We care more about strangers. We care about the experiences of others. … I care about the girl I don’t know who’s writing a blog about how she and her husband packed up, as newlyweds, and traveled the world. I want to read it; I’m glad she’s sharing it. And maybe she wants to read my story, too.”
The Selfishness of Others reveals a psychological discourse that is more narrative than therapy. That discourse talks of scripts, apocalypse, and evil rather than disorder, treatment, and cure. It talks about a “religion of mental health,” of which “narcophobia,” while pretending to sympathy and unselfishness, is the most hellfire-obsessed and condemnatory form. Those who suffer from narcissistic personality disorder are not meant so much for treatment or cure so much as for exorcism. But seen from the outside, narcophobia is less a religion, or even a therapy, than an emotional McCarthyism, “looking for narcissisms where they might not otherwise exist.”
Kristin Dombek is not a moralist, but her endgame cannot be otherwise than moral. Self-help programs and Manichean consolations have done their damage. When reexamining the original narcissism script—the one written by Ovid—Dombek finds less “a portrayal of pathology or evil” than “a case of mistaken identity”:
Narcissus does not realize that he is looking at is own face; he thinks he is looking at someone else’s. Echo, who does not have her own words but must live off the words of another, mistakes control and capture for love. Echo has no substance but the other. Narcissus’s other has no substance but himself. … By adding Echo … Ovid shows us that narc and victim are interchangeable … unable to see beyond the time they’re in or even who’s who.
Throughout the allusions, the metaphors, and deep research, Dombek’s point is a simple one. In remembering and correcting bad deeds, we also achieve empathy by doing “empathy’s work.” Otherwise, we are left with a selfishness that goes both ways.
Chris R. Morgan writes from New Jersey.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.