I read a fascinating book, at my sister’s recommendation, Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven. It is an exploration of the Mormon faith, framed by a grisly murder two devout, fringe Mormons committed after one of them got a revelation from God that the two victims (his wife and daughter) had to be “removed.” The book explores the hazy boundary between true religious inspiration and justicially cognizable insanity.
At one point the lawyers for the murderer are making an argument to keep him from the death penalty. The lawyer tells the court that someone who has suffered severe early life injury to their self-esteem sometimes compensates by becoming grandiose. When this happens the person has an overriding need to believe that they are superior, special, perfect, beautiful — on pain of feeling humiliatingly inferior, worthless, fatally flawed and ugly — and constructs a black and white world view accordingly. The condition the lawyer claimed had disabled his client is called Narcissism.
It was an illuminating insight to me, since I’d long struggled against my father’s black and white worldview (a severely limiting view he lamented greatly as he was dying) but never made the connection to what I knew about narcissism. In order to feel superior, you must subordinate others, blame them for your incapacities.
A person who has not suffered enough shame to become a narcissist can admit a mistake, take blame for a thoughtless and hurtful thing they’ve done, sincerely apologize. For a narcissist, these things are almost impossible, since it makes them feel terrifyingly worthless, vulnerable and deserving of not being loved.
What I realized recently, having had an otherwise exemplary father (another recent realization that surprised me, how much valuable parenting my father also did, how much better he did than was done to him) who was narcissistic, is that many of my oldest friends were also narcissists.
I knew I’d been attracted to very smart, sardonic, darkly funny, damaged people (as I myself am), knew that they resembled my father in key ways, knew I was trying to work out problems with him through surrogates.
Having the frame “narcissist” suddenly made a lifetime of conflicts with this same type understandable to me. The end of each of these friendships was inevitable once conflict began to escalate, I see now.
The connection I had with my father was far deeper than with anyone I met and became longtime friends with, a final split with Irv was always unthinkable to me, and in the end, my painful work in therapy paid off in us being able to have an important, candid chat, finally, hours before he died. The mutually blessed talk that last night of his life came about because I understood the awful hand he’d been dealt and realized he’d truly done the best he could, as I kept reassuring him as he whipped himself over having been “a horse’s ass” for his whole life.
We’re living in the Age of Narcissism, it seems to me. A zero-sum game composed of only absolute winners and contemptible losers, where one side plays for keeps and the moral qualms of the other side are easily weaponized for use against them. My new personal stake in it, how it shaped my life now that I see my father was largely this way (though, of course, with a capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism missing from most narcissists, plus a great sense of humor) and being vilified by people who profess to love me, has made me grapple with the larger issue of autocracy/democracy on a visceral level.
It’s easy to recognize in someone like Donald Trump the malignant narcissist, someone so obviously and deeply damaged that their only survival mechanism is belief in an absurdly comical superiority. When this claimed superiority is treated as the grotesque comedy it truly is, these folks, seeing the world as zero-sum and kill or be killed, have no hesitation to do whatever they feel they need to do to prove they are not worthless, weak, pathetic victims.
They all want to be “strongmen.” A psychiatrist who worked with violent felons in prison wrote “every act of violence is an attempt to replace humiliation with self-esteem.” We all know what these types are capable of, and will do if given the chance (look at Putin, destroying the archive that commemorated WWII war crimes on all sides and unleashing legions of raping mercenaries to execute civilians).
Anyway, not to go down the dark, apocalyptic fascism-on-the-global rise rabbit hole. Just to say that I feel my personal learnings, coming sharply into focus during this last hellish year with my old friends, help shine a light for me on the larger forces, the narcissistic, arrogant, mediocre, insanely influential sons and grandsons of wealthy sociopaths: D. Trump, C. Koch, E. Musk, J. Kushner et al.