Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others begins by introducing three characters. There’s Allison, one of the stars of the MTV reality show My Super Sweet 16. (For her birthday parade, she had an entire block of Atlanta shut down, right in front of a hospital: “They can just go around,” she said.) Next is Tucker Max, the celebrity whose books and blog posts about “getting wasted and sportfucking” made him a hero among pickup artists and men’s rights activists. And then there’s Anders Breivik, who in 2011 killed eight people with a car bomb in Oslo, Norway. After that he proceeded to a summer camp, where he shot and killed 69 more. He would later claim that the massacres were a publicity stunt to promote his 1,500-page manifesto deriding women and Muslims, and featuring pictures of him smiling in Knights Templar costumes.
If Breivik seems like an outlier—if the comparison with two relatively harmless figures strikes you as inappropriate—this is intentional. The millennial girl, the bad boyfriend and the murderer: these examples show the range of our obsession with narcissism, a condition we hear more and more about these days. As I write this, half the country is still reeling from the election of a self-absorbed millionaire (or billionaire, if you believe his boasts) whom numerous psychologists have publicly diagnosed as a narcissist, while an online petition calling for the Republican Party to #DiagnoseTrump has been signed by more than thirty-four thousand people.
Dombek begins her own discussion on more personal ground, in the depths of what she calls the “narcisphere.” This is her name for the metastasizing cluster of blogs, vlogs, quizzes and support communities where self-described victims gather to vent and to discuss the behaviors of their personal “narcs.” One website, the Web of Narcissism, quotes Dracula and employs gothic castle imagery; its members, who call themselves “keyboard faeries,” trade recommendations for media about sociopaths and vampires, enacting narc victimhood as a kind of underground subculture. There are many gurus and experts to choose from in the narcisphere, but their advice converges on one remedy. If you find yourself in a relationship with a narcissist—and you’ll know because they withhold care and attention, or do not seem to love you with the exclusivity you deserve—then the only solution is to cut your losses and get out. The narcissist can’t love you, and trying to change them is hopeless.
What’s tempting about this “narciscript,” as Dombek calls it, is that it reduces a complicated situation (e.g. the average relationship) to a heavily weighted binary: Do I continue to extend an imprudent empathy, or do I go cold, the way the other person already has, in the interest of self-preservation? Clearly the latter course is the more “reasonable” one, but the moment I take it—go cold, withdraw, run—is the moment I can no longer safely distinguish my own behavior from the narcissist’s. “The script confirms itself,” Dombek writes, “and the diagnosis and the treatment confound the evidence, until it gets harder and harder” to tell whether the word “narcissism” describes anything at all. This is why, although The Selfishness of Others seems to promise an investigation of whether the “narcissism epidemic” (as it’s been called) is real, the book’s main interest derives from Dombek’s posing of another question, which may shed new light on our urge to #DiagnoseTrump: What’s at stake for us in believing it’s real?