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?
Dombek spent the first part of her life in Philadelphia, where she was homeschooled by her parents, affable-sounding Jesus freaks she has described as “long-haired, corduroy-bell-bottom-wearing, antiauthoritarian biblical literalists.” When she was nine her father became sick with a host of terminal illnesses and the family relocated to a farm in Indiana, where they lived with a lot of animals: according to one (maybe exaggerated) list there were “not only about twenty cats and a dog but a half-dozen roving demented geese and two ornery pebble-shit-spewing goats and a couple dozen hysterical hens and a tyrannical rooster named Sam.” After high school Dombek attended Calvin College, a Christian Reformed (Calvinist) school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She struggled to fit in with her classmates, who had all grown up in suburban neighborhoods.
As a freshman, Dombek became politically active in the fight against abortion—a practice she firmly believed, along with her parents and many of her friends, was not only murder but “a first step toward state-run infanticide and euthanasia.” At church, she and her friends watched films of months-old fetuses writhing in pain as machines snapped them apart piece by piece. Dombek would describe the anguish of those images in “The Two Cultures of Life,” her first article for n+1. The essay, which questions the left-right polarization of the abortion issue, contains many of the hallmarks of Dombek’s later work, including her attempt to bypass either-or distinctions by staging an argument on the page, and her insistence on directing empathy toward those viewed as incapable of returning it: the fetus, the animal, the murderer.
The year after she participated in an anti-abortion march in Washington, Dombek picked up smoking, started wearing flannel shirts and declared herself a Marxist. But her belief in the importance of empathizing across ideological and (sometimes) ontological boundaries seems to have persisted, along with her certainty that, as she writes in “Two Cultures,” “if it looks like violence, it is.” Studying literature at NYU after college, she emphasized persuading secular people to be “more empathetic toward fundamentalists, even those who conduct or support great atrocities.”
Her dissertation, “Shopping for the End of the World,” drew on the ideas of the French philosopher and literary theorist René Girard, who was interested in the ways that violence emerged within social groups. We tend to believe that violence happens when people don’t understand or empathize with one another, but Girard argued, first in Deceit, Desire and the Novel (1961) and later in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), that violence springs just as much from our similarities. We think we desire things and people for their particular qualities but, according to Girard, this is an illusion; all desire is in fact an anticipatory mirroring of the desires of those closest to us. When two people reach for the same thing at once, as they inevitably will, not only are they hurled into conflict over that thing; they are also each confronted with disturbing evidence that their deepest self is little more than a bundle of imitations. Desperate to destroy the bearer of such news, they lash out. And because violence, too, is mimetic, it spreads through the community in a destructive, destabilizing feedback loop.
According to Girard, archaic societies developed a stopgap solution to these epidemics of violence: ritual sacrifice. (All archaic societies, apparently: Girard, who based his theory of sacrifice on readings of ancient myth rather than direct anthropological research, had a tendency to overgeneralize.) The group would select a scapegoat, and the selection itself was a significant decision. Ideally, this being—whether human or some other animal—would be enough like the sacrificers themselves that destroying or exiling it would satisfy the sacrificer’s need to banish what they hated. At the same time, the scapegoat needed to seem, or be made to seem, inhuman enough that everyone could safely assume its suffering didn’t count. This is how Dombek’s interest in empathy led her to the narcissist—the being our society often claims is too inhuman to truly suffer.
The first people labeled as narcissists, writes Dombek, were almost exclusively homosexuals and women—and for Freud, who popularized the label, almost all homosexuals and women were narcissists. Beautiful women, whom Freud compared to children and “certain animals which seem not to concern themselves about us,” seemed to him particularly resistant to therapeutic practice. To his mind, the abnormal resistance of these women to transference—love, basically—appeared to be a form of regression. Normal, healthy people start their lives in a similar state of selfish inaccessibility, he reasoned, but eventually they develop the capacity for empathy and love. The narcissist, for Freud, was the person who maintained or returned to this self-sufficiency.
Dombek’s criticism of the Freudian interpretation of narcissism draws from another work by Girard. In “Narcissism: The Freudian Myth Demystified by Proust,” Girard compared famous passages from Proust about desire with Freud’s vaguely moralistic theorizing about his desirable patients. The similarities he found were remarkable. Both writers ascribed to their subjects an inhuman autonomy, compared them with children and animals (specifically birds: large birds of prey in Freud’s case, seagulls in Proust’s) and marveled at their indifference to those around them. The difference was that Proust didn’t present his descriptions as true. “There is no such thing as a ‘real,’ objective narcissism for Proust,” Girard writes. It’s just less painful, when someone doesn’t feel about us like we feel about them, to believe that they’re incapable of feeling. What looks to us like someone else’s arrogance, according to this line of thinking, is actually our own inverted neediness.
Are these insights about scapegoating and the “narcissistic illusion” (as Girard called it) helpful for understanding today’s “narcissism epidemic”? The claims that narcissism is becoming pathological on the level of the whole culture go back to at least the late Seventies, when Tom Wolfe’s “The Me Decade” (1976) made the cover of New York and Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism (1979) became a national best seller. Despite Lasch’s scattershot approach—sections of The Culture of Narcissism are devoted to confessional writing, radical feminism and the use of AstroTurf in sports stadiums—his account of “the new narcissist” remained firmly rooted in psychoanalytic theory: specifically, Dombek notes, that of the analyst Otto Kernberg, who modified Freud’s theory by positing that the narcissist’s performance of self-sufficiency was part of a compensatory attempt to fill a vacuum of self-esteem.
Just as Lasch’s book was published, however, scientists began laying the tracks for the more clinical conception of the condition that prevails today. In 1979, two social psychologists developed the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI), a diagnostic tool that reduced Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) (enshrined in the DSM as a mental illness the next year) to a set of eight traits. The NPI is a forced-choice questionnaire, which means it tests NPD by asking subjects to select from a pair of statements—for example, “Sometimes I tell good stories” or “Everybody likes to hear my stories”—which it then correlates with clinical traits. The resulting numerical score tells you next to nothing about the individual test-taker, not even whether that person is a narcissist (as the test’s creators readily admitted). But it makes it much easier to generalize across large sample sizes.
In The Narcissism Epidemic (2009), for instance, social psychologists Jean Twenge and W. Keith Campbell reported that because millennials scored 30 percent higher on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory than ever before, they were likely the most self-involved generation in history. But according to Dombek, the study the book was based on actually only revealed that a “slight majority of students in 2006 answered, on average, one or two more questions in the narcissistic direction than did those in 1986.” Another caveat is that the people surveyed in Twenge and Campbell’s study were not just American college students, but specifically freshman psychology students, participating for course credit—an extremely common form of institutional bias which leads Dombek to wonder how much of popularly reported psychology research “would actually be more accurately framed as an understanding of what young psychology students think about themselves.”
The problem is not just that studies using this paradigm mask an absence of real knowledge, although this is a problem. More importantly, by presenting narcissism as a diagnosis with a firm empirical basis, journalists quoting social psychologists often make it seem like a condition someone—or a whole group of someones—just has. For researchers, this sort of shorthand isn’t unusual—it’s more or less how most sciences operate. But such research isn’t usually being cited to support sweeping claims about entire generations, nor to explain the behavior of our bad boyfriends, murderers and politicians.
The fact that, with narcissism in particular, such labeling has become so common, speaks in favor of Dombek’s suggestion that the narcissist occupies a special place in our social imagination. For Twenge and Campbell, millennials play the role of arch-villains in a story about our culture’s refusal to grow up. More recently, many of us have focused our attention on a villain who looks very different from a millennial, though we call him the same name we call them. Which makes one wonder what, in this case, is the underlying sameness that we’re hoping to purge.
It’s likely no coincidence that one of the terms commentators often used to describe the political divides of the 2016 presidential campaign—“echo chamber”—brings us back to the Narcissus myth. In the classic version told by Ovid, Echo is a girl who, cursed by Hera, can only speak by repeating what others say. In the forest she falls hopelessly in love with the beautiful Narcissus, but when she tries to embrace him he reacts fearfully, with angry words that she can only whisper back to him; then he abandons her in favor of his own reflection in a dark pool. In our modern rendition, the term “chamber” is supposed to suggest a technological component to the problem, but the basic story is the same. In it, the other side of whatever divide—political, ideological, demographic—is imagined as being trapped in the echo chamber of “fake news” and bias-confirming feeds, while “we” play the role of Echo. We want to communicate, but the only way our voices can carry across the divide is if we repeat exactly what the other side already believes.
Although the echo chamber presents itself as a tragic picture, Dombek can help us recognize its flattering features. We, the ones who bemoan being stuck in our chamber, desire earnestly to reach out to the other side. They, the narcissistic ones, refuse to leave their chamber and meet us halfway. Scapegoating has always been an effective political tactic, and it is one Trump used ably, if offensively, during his campaign. But if Dombek and Girard are right that narcissism functions today largely as a scapegoating technique—a way of justifying coldness, maybe even violence, toward the one we label the narcissist—then it is Trump himself who emerges as the ultimate scapegoat, precisely because of his refusal to even pretend to care what his adversaries think.
Other presidents, after they win, at least make a show of reaching out; our narcissist-in-chief just keeps insulting us. Apparently he’s seeing other people, or maybe he really does just look into his reflection on TV all day. In any case, a better pretext for our own unapologetic anger and hatred could hardly be imagined. Which is a relief, in a way: all that empathizing can be exhausting.
The problem is only that, as Girard believed, scapegoating could never truly end violence or hatred, because, in misidentifying its source, it leads us to think we’re outside the dynamics responsible for it. “The moment you begin to find that the other lacks empathy—when you find him inhuman,” Dombek writes, “is a moment when you can’t feel empathy, either.” We say, this is how things are, fair or not. Either they burn, or we do.