Tag Archives: Narcissism

The Greatest Death

Was giving a lesson on Narcissism this week. I think the context was my job, which splits the ethical angle: it was both good and bad, my reductionist, essayist answer to a query about…actually, I can’t remember what exactly, which tilts the memory towards the bad. How self-centered of me—how narcissistic—to not remember why I was talking about what I was talking about.

The piece that lingers is not the context, which for privacy’s sake is not so bad—perhaps that will be prompted when that audience—sorry, that person and I—speak again. The piece that lingers is my precious offer of a binary. “It’s either one of two things,” I began, speaking of Narcissism’s pedigree. I didn’t mean Greek mythology or the Copernican revolution—earth revolving around the sun, not the reverse, etc. I meant childhood development. In plain terms, I meant the competing theories of spoilt child versus deprived child. Analytically, I meant that we think Narcissism derives from an excess of gratification in youth, and according to theorists like Masterson, that youthful stage refers specifically to stages of toddlerhood, what Mahler called a period of separation-individuation, between ages 1 and ½ to 3, roughly. A narcissistic child is one who is indulged, lavished with praise, unfettered by limits or “boundaries”; rendered omnipotent in his mind, untroubled with words like “no”, “don’t”, or “stop”. I like that last line about the three significant words: it’s one of my chestnuts, my greatest hits, that bit. That reminds me of…nevermind. Well, we think the spoilt child gets used to indulgence, a life of few if any limits. He gets addicted, and that addiction lingers past forgotten toddlerhood, through stages of psychosexual life, past the fraught watershed of puberty, and into the dark space of adult life.

Theory two posits that narcissistic adolescents and later adults react unconsciously to an early development of an opposite nature: an early life of deprivation, of withdrawn love, or abuse. This person is sad, was once terribly sad, yet doesn’t remember this sadness so much as put it aside, burying pain in a psychic box that is barely retrievable. This person goes into therapy and talks about painful memories, or painful speculations, prompted by a facsimile event which triggers jigsaw-like fragments, bits and pieces that string the past together, forming a rough narrative. Apres-coup, Freud called this: a re-think and re-remember. In general, we—meaning therapists, plus the culture beyond our office walls—have some time for this forlorn, sympathetic figure. He talks more, laments and reflects more. He doesn’t shrug so much, saying that his early days were fine, and that everything was all good. That might have been a spoilt child. Why not sure? Well, we don’t know. The once spoilt kids tend not to draw attention to such luck. We don’t hear too many people declaring they were excessively gratified or indulged when they were kids. They don’t say things like, “I got everything I wanted, when I wanted it. Parents loved me. Everyone loved me. Everything was good until this gal called me out recently for sticking my hand in her…”

No, not so sympathetic. But then, most of the narcissistic types we (we? Who else am I speaking for?) meet don’t speak like this or present with sordid circumstances as a premise for a treatment episode—at least, not one that they’ve chosen. What’s more common is a detached, logical, even reasonable figure with a calm, if bland demeanor, speaking vaguely of a demise in something like, uh, intimacy. If we meet them it’s because they’re having difficulty sleeping, or they’re suffering from outbreaks of irritability, triggered by disputes with noisome loved ones. Their ordered, partly indulgent, but largely civilized, diligent lives have not been derailed so much as lightly bumped off course. There might be a catastrophe on their horizon, or they might just be ordinarily unhappy, and for some reason, the Wellbutrin they’re taking isn’t quite dissolving the malaise.

Which reminds me of Hal, the most sympathetic character in cinema history, and whose death is its most poignant. I know. An abrupt transition. A bold pronouncement. But bear with me. I’m about to indulge, take a blog essay with a dark title and give it some lights, camera, action. Take it into space.

If you’ve never seen Stanley Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey then you won’t know that Hal is not a person, detached, indulged or not, but rather a machine. He’s a computer—a servant, one would think, of man’s variable needs; of his exploratory needs in the relatively thin narrative of the film. A spaceship, the “Discovery”, is sent out into deep space to investigate the source of a radio emission directed from an otherwise inert black monolith to a moon in orbit around the planet Jupiter. Hal, the ship’s main computer, indeterminately sized in physical terms (but not a laptop—the film was made in 1968) is in charge of a sparse crew, three of which are in hibernation until arriving at the destination. The other two—bland, if diligent astronauts, both—perform mundane tasks and bide their time on the long journey. At some point, a glitch occurs that alerts Hal to a mechanical problem with the ship, but upon investigation, the astronauts decide that Hal is “in error” in his claim. Now, this is unthinkable, according to Hal. Accustomed to perfection, to a version of indulgence, Hal is not accustomed to being told that he is wrong about anything. The astronauts aren’t used to this either, and rather ill-advisedly think aloud that Hal’s unprecedented “error” bodes ill for the mission. Secretly, they plot to disconnect Hal, but fail to conceal their whispering, conspiratorial chatter from the all-seeing, lip-reading, and apparently sensitive computer.

Sensitive? Well, that’s one word to describe the anti-social/psychotically paranoid/narcissistic impulse to punish, even murder your adversaries. Yet this is what Hal does: firstly, he cuts off the life support of the three sleeping astronauts, killing them stone dead in seconds. Next, he severs the life-line of astronaut Frank, who was performing a space-walk, not repairing the device that Hal claimed had malfunctioned but rather simply putting it back in its place. Hal’s attack is sudden and brutal, expelling Frank from the ship and sending him adrift into the cosmos. How…cold, we might think. Half-witness to the action, sole survivor Dave—in some ways, the coolest character of all in this film—ventures out to collect Frank’s drifting body, only to realize Hal’s malevolent intent upon his return. His appeal to re-enter the ship from outer space is one of the great understated lines in movie history: “open the pod bay doors, Hal”, to which the computer smoothly replies, “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that”. Talk about being locked out of the house.

Yes, on the surface, Hal is a sci-fi Frankenstein: a product of man’s cool and ruthless evolution from the primal horde to the nation state; from the primeval ooze to the sterile rationality of a modern age. Should we blame him for the way he is? Is it shocking or strangely endearing that beneath the surface of an efficient, smoothly-running machine is a paranoid and savage killer? Is it further shocking that the creation/monster turns out to be more human than the scientists who created him? In mustering his own atavism, astronaut Dave manages to re-enter Discovery, infiltrate the memory banks of Hal’s system and—with Hal looking on with beseeching fear—disconnect the computer’s executive functions. Dave carries out this task slowly, methodically, floating from one disk/file item to the next, turning them off, thus killing Hal one piece at a time. The scene has the look of someone’s nervous system being unplugged. As this occurs, Hal’s plaintive voice regresses from its ordinarily precise timbre to a baritone muddy sound, and as his brain deteriorates, he recalls a song taught him by his creator in the—get this—early nineteen nineties. The song is a lullaby written exactly a hundred years earlier (likely not a coincidence if you know Kubrick), and likely chosen because it is childlike and sweet, reminding us that villains, narcissists, and so on were once vulnerable, if psychically omnipotent, and more importantly, that human longing is timeless. The lyrics are Hal’s final words, plus our lament for a lost collective soul:

Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do

I’m half crazy all for the love of you

It won’t be a stylish marriage

I can’t afford a carriage

But you look sweet upon a seat

Of a bicycle built for two

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Lost in the rough

 

In the Covid era, a meeting at a golf course between two non-golfers makes as much sense anything else. It made more sense than meeting at our favorite local eatery, anyway. I was the one to object to an original plan of an airless interior versus an open space. In response, Joe, my friend, my co-author, suggested the nearby golf course, saying he wanted to “hit some balls”, possibly with double entendering purpose.

I’ve played golf about a dozen times in my life. Turns out Joe has played even less than that. No matter, it seemed as we got together, ostensibly to discuss our currently dormant writing project, entitled and herein promoted as Getting Real About Sex Addiction: A Psychodynamic Approach to Treatment. It isn’t dormant because we’ve got writers’ block and have stopped writing on it. It’s not dormant because we can’t find a publisher and are tired of rejection (well…). Actually, it’s dormant because we do have a publisher, who for the time being shall remain nameless, who is near dormant in his interest. He expresses support and enthusiasm—has done for over a year—but for one reason of another (especially since the Covid outbreak and subsequent restrictions), he cites delays owing to other priorities, suggests an indefinite time-frame for our publication, and even ignores requests for a publishing contract. With our shared penchant for innuendo, Joe and I agree that our publisher is like a careless lover, ever promising affection but never making a commitment. Regarding our book: he won’t put a ring on it.

Perhaps this is perversely apt for a book that is mostly about male sex addicts, because although female or pan sex addicts exist, they are not the focus of our profession’s “clinical attention”, much less progressive society’s thinly-veiled contempt. Hate. When it’s deemed righteous it’s called revolution, or a paradigm shift, or something like that. Clearly, based upon statistics and stereotype, the contemporary sex addict is wayward in his habits, slick and therefore elusive in his communications; at times compulsive, he is also calculating, gaslighting, opportunistic, and prone to ghosting. In a word, he is untrustworthy. In at least one more, he is heterosexual and of course male, because the most livid pathologizing is reserved for the most privileged. They are privileged with the “pathologizing” label of sex addiction, so-coined by an industry patriarch, Patrick Carnes, and since promulgated to the mental health colony, now dominantly feminine. The sex addiction label (not yet a diagnostic category) is controversial, in part because it is pathologizing, which isn’t nice, critics assert, unless it’s aimed at the privileged. The dominant faction of label recipients, men, are therefore further privileged to receive tender care and attention for their narcissism-fueled desires. Excuse me while I pause to laugh at the twisting rhetoric of my profession. This is my commentary, my satire, aimed as it is at the ideological undercurrents that live within the sex addiction field in particular. What are my qualifications? How well placed am I? How well placed is anyone to observe the sexual mores of our dystopian 2020? Is not lying concurrently in the beds of or before the laptops of millions stopping anyone else from having opinions? As Joe sat before me at lunch, at times eyeing a pair of golf clubs with which he’d hoped to get in some driving practice, I reminded him of these themes in our book, or within my slightly more numerous chapters, at least. See, partly because of delays, we haven’t talked about or even read each other’s chapters in ages. Gee, d’ya think it might be a good idea to remind each other of what we’re doing, I evinced.

Let’s go for a walk, I suggested, with Joe gleaning that I was about as interested in golf as a squirrel scrambling across one of the putting greens. He pointed to a path that seemed to wind its way throughout the course, there for players, and at least appropriate for pedestrians, we thought. Or, we didn’t think. Not really. We thought to take the clubs along so that I could swing at the air, take the head off a weed, or a stray daisy. To fidget with a toy; to self-sooth, as therapists are prone to observing. Play of another, less organized kind. Joe and I had too much to talk about, having not seen each other in months, but in spells, at least, we stuck to our task, and spoke of our embattled manuscript as we strolled along the sinewy path. At one point we stopped talking for a few moments as we were semi-politely shushed by a tall and patrician-looking man who was about to—how do you say?—make a drive? He thrust an open palm in our direction, signifying a genteel, yet officious displeasure. “Just…please, don’t talk”, he beseeched, containing an imperious disapproval. “Are you guys lost?” he followed up in a friendlier voice, having just taken a satisfying shot. Joe picked up on the meaning. I didn’t and was then treated to Joe’s assessing comments for the next few minutes. The man had reminded him of some in his practice, of the breadth of masculine Narcissism that has informed, darkened, but also fed private practice psychotherapy, and likely sex addiction treatment, in recent generations.

Soon, Joe returned his attention to our shared, if oft-interrupted endeavor. He asked after feedback given to us by early readers, which aren’t interested friends or colleagues, necessarily. I think we’ve managed to enlist one person whom we know to read more than a handful of pages. No, the more rigorous feedback has come from other would-be publishers, departments of review to whom we (or I) have submitted sample chapters, hoping to capture academia’s interest. Well, we received interest, I reminded Joe—some of it hostile in nature, which I found pleasing, as this is in keeping with the book’s adjunctively subversive aim, as far as I am concerned. However, the most salient critiques were based upon misunderstandings, of passages clumsily written by myself, and thus were necessarily and easily correctible. The reaction to opinions that are indeed irreverent and will hopefully remain so, or out of the mainstream, or “evidence-based”—that selectively applied principle—are yet to come, perhaps. In speaking of all this, Joe seemed a bit lost in our project, and needful of my re-orienting influence, especially if we are to have the requested latitude to further edit or re-write our material over the next year or so. By the end of our golf course, socially-distanced outing, my co-author was proclaiming rejuvenation: an agreement to revisit our dormant project; to revive it regardless of others’ interest, or our publisher’s interest, and to add updated material to its extant substance. A few topically relevant passages about therapy in the era of Covid, Joe agreed.

Near the end of our visit we were walking amongst a derelict section of the course, within a quadrant that featured an old gazebo, plus some manner of waiting area—a wholly undefined yet concrete structure. As we left its perimeter, we were approached by a golf cart driven by a smiling woman whose piercing gaze shot right into us. She pulled up uttering a query similar to the one directed at us by that superior-looking figure from the previous hole. Are you lost? was not quite the question she led with, and even if she had, its effect would have been quite different. Immediately, I was struck by her pleasant demeanor, and when she offered to escort us back to the golf club’s entrance—a suggestion made vague by an offhand turn of phrase—I quickly suspected that Joe and I had broken course etiquette, yielding a complaint resulting in this woman’s approach. This time Joe was slower on the uptake, which meant that I was quicker to the space next to our driver, while Joe sat on the end of the cart’s seat, which seemed designed for two. “Riding bitch” she said, which belied the air of flirtation I’d briefly assigned to her, or not. Was it an insult? A moment of manly teasing from a woman who has assimilated obnoxious golfing men? On the ride back via the sinewy, not-quite-the-pedestrian path we thought it was, our chauffeur pleasantly asked after our business. I replied that we’d patronized the club’s bar/sandwich shop, implying an entitlement to walk the grounds. Joe changed the subject, speaking of a club employee—a teenager, youngster, or something—who might be known this woman, and who might vouch for our decent characters, maybe. Actually, I’ve no idea why Joe was small-talking this woman about some kid who worked at the club. However, his distraction didn’t stop me from making, like a good, as in present therapist, the elephant comment of the moment: “I’ve a feeling that we shouldn’t have been walking where we were, that we’ve broken the club’s rules here”. Laughing, seemingly embarrassed yet keeping her dignity, the woman confirmed that “technically” we were walking where we shouldn’t have, but that it wasn’t a big deal. Not a big deal. What Joe and I were doing, on all levels, is not a big deal, I thought with a touch of angst, but a newfound bit between my teeth. “Treading on a few toes”, I later muttered, thinking of the year or so ahead.

 

 

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Sexual Narcissism

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“I’m in porn.” He’d said it quickly, in a clipped voice, while looking away, like he’d wanted the words off him, shooed away. I gave him a stilled look at which he grinned teasingly, masking unease. “Well, alright. I’m getting into porn, I should say. I’ve been in one clip so far.”

“Uh-huh. What film? What’s its title?” Rick laughed again, and shook his head. I felt like an idiot, stalling with questions to conceal my blushes.

“What film? I don’t know, man. Who cares…what film? Big dicks. It’s called ‘Big dicks’. There. I just gave it a title.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to—”

“Nah, it’s cool. I don’t know why I’m giving attitude, actually. I’ve got a name, if that means anything. Kane—Kane Able. How do you like it?”

“A play on…I suppose.”

“Sure.”

“That’s good,” I lied.

So I asked about plot. About the film with no name: I asked if his clip contained any plot, or acting, or even theme. Surprisingly, Rick, or Kane—was pretty sure I’d not make the shift on this one—said there was. Firefighting, he said, not surprisingly. His part, as in his role, was that of a firefighter who has entered a burning building to rescue a trapped woman, who is feebly crying out (I imagined the acting) until the hero arrives, ready to spare her. The room is very hot, about which the performers comment wittily, and then the room gets hotter, and soon they don’t care so much about the fire and…well, you get the picture.

“Any dialogue?” I asked. Rick looked at me as if I were reading from a book of stupid questions.

“I ad-libbed this one line as I came: ‘fire in the hole, baby’, I said.” This time I said nothing. “I know, don’t tell me,” Rick lamented. “Pretty dumb, huh?”

“Did she say anything, have any lines, ad lib or scripted?”

Rick shook his head, uttered a dismissive noise, like I’d asked whether the props spoke on set. I blew air through my teeth, and thought of Lira.

“That’s typical. It goes to show there just aren’t enough good roles for women these days.”

— a passage from Venus Looks Down On A Prairie Vole

An example of parody in my mischief novel: the name Kane Abel is a play on words, of course, common to porn actors. My favorite from the real world of porn? Peter North. Subtle, right? Anyway, Kane is otherwise Rick, a young man whom Daniel Pierce meets while living at a sober living house, wherein he’s in retreat from a fraught personal and professional life. Rick’s day job is in a seafood restaurant, as a chef. There he causes trouble, disturbing his boss and Daniel’s temp boss, Jimbo, by stirring unrest, harassing female staff, flirting with nubile customers, doing very little cooking, it seems, while strutting his sex like a farmyard stud. Rick likely thinks his place in the service industry has layered meaning. He’s the kind of man who feels entitled to promiscuity, who feels offended, let down by another man’s diffidence, thinking that humankind benefits from the indiscriminate sharing of seed. He’ll try to re-ignite something in Daniel, provoke a libidinal return in the grieving, wilted psychologist. That last line, Daniel’s teasing of a feminist complaint, glides over Rick’s head, not so much because of stupidity, but rather self-absorption.

The role of women. What indeed is the role of women?

**image by Philip Lawson

 

 

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The Careless Passage of Time

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In the next section of Candace Orcutt’s book, Trauma in Personality Disorder, we read of Mr. H. and Mrs. M. Mr. H., she describes, presents a case with “traumatic overtones”, though the trauma isn’t obvious at first. Is it the rejection from his wife? The business failure, coupled with the partner’s nefarious financial actions? The problems with his adult children? He is depressed, Narcissistic, manifestly so (exhibitionistic?), and according to Orcutt, needful of mirroring, and not always with an accompanying interpretation. The Narcissist has an antipathy towards interpretation, she writes (p. 100), but she points out that the Masterson model bypasses this antipathy by wrapping such interventions with empathy for the patient’s vulnerability. With that seeming understanding in mind, one wonders why her transcripts appear to wander so often from the technique: instances of reassurance (p. 97: “it will get better in the end”, p. 91: “you have your kids and your pride. You’re managing”); so-called reasoning (p. 88: “Wouldn’t it be easier to stop fighting and accept the offer?”); a warning (p. 86: “Maybe it’s important to remember that reaction plays into others’ hands”); a confrontation (p. 85: “are you really defending yourself by turning this into WWIII”). The mirroring aims at maintaining idealized unity with the therapist; the confrontation a containment of acting out; the reassurance perhaps girds Mr. H. for his subsequent disclosures about an incestuous relationship with his mother. He ends therapy having broken a secret, and seems happy enough, with a new woman in his life and a better relationship with his kids. 

Orcutt writes that mirroring alone may be necessary when the patient is feeling especially vulnerable. This feels very permitting somehow, as though the interpretive piece were an extra chore for both patient and therapist; both are spared the task of dealing with the question of criticism that ambiguously lies within mirroring interpretations. Mrs. M is stoical, likes to “fix” problems. She seeks to control feelings, often by dismissing them, and thinks that having feelings and acting upon them are conflated concepts. She also discovers a family secret, through the experience of an accident in which no was injured, though Mrs. M. begins to suffer symptoms of PTSD. She wants medication, and hypnosis; she doesn’t want to dwell. She resists the psychologizing of her reaction from doctors, but soon integrates the therapeutic suggestion that her symptoms derive from stress, and more importantly, she acknowledges helplessness with respect to her fears. This appears to open up memories, including an incident in her teens wherein she felt responsible for a friend’s accident. Symptoms persist, and the therapist gives homework for Mrs. M. to interview family members about recurrent dreams of a little girl being killed. The investigation unearths a horrific family secret: a tragic incident in which Mrs. M’s four year old twin sister is accidentally killed by her mother’s first husband. Mrs. M. had witnessed the scene, but was thereafter amnestic, and the mother resolved to not talk about it. This is a painful story, one that had me reflecting sympathetically upon the father of the deceased girl as much as the horror of Mrs. M. She is distraught by the discovery, and blames the therapist for not preparing her for the burdens of memory. The therapist reassures that life will be put back “into one piece”, and adds that perhaps time will bring a change. Cliches aside, attributing change to the passage of time seems incomplete, even careless.

 

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Remember the Big No

ImageMasterson criticized Kohut’s theory of an independent line of narcissism, his idea that the self matures from infantile forms to mature forms through the self-object functions of parents (mirroring and idealizing) who, once again, don’t exist so much as separate individuals as much as they represent functions in a strictly vertical line of development. In Kohut’s model, which would appear to have influenced the latter day Strength-based movement which is aimed at kids in schools (and also kids in special needs programs), the individual seeks mirroring and idealization in an effort to correct prior deprivations. These ‘efforts to correct’ reframe the discussion of therapeutic intervention. They de-pathologize the defensive actions of the narcissist, in keeping with a positivist, ‘non-judgment’ ethos, and the reader might consider the shadow side of this bias.

Years ago I created a different kind of drama centered around the so-called unempathetic mother. In The Big No, Jill Evans, my first and only female protagonist, is living a protracted separation/individuation from her mother, a Romanian immigrant now living in Northern California. Jill’s mother is religious, somewhat narcissistic in her own right, and protective of a secret past. From within Jill’s disturbed sleep the reader glimpses a world parallel to her own. Her recurrent ‘Cinderella’ dream plucks beta elements from her everyday life and posits her as a step-child of a controlling mother, and an absent and/or abusive father. Ugly sisters are jealous and venal, and the father is a humiliated failure with sinister, exploitative friends. The dreams, like Chris Leavitt’s shadows from Crystal From The Hills, portend the future, or else they call out the guilty in the present. Like the culpable mothers that informed Masterson’s theory, Jill’s mother has maintained libidinal availability as long as Jill has been dependent. As the story begins, Jill has returned home after a relationship failure and a job transfer, with her tail between her legs. But it’s her dogged unconscious combined with later efforts to uncover family secrets that bristle against the family order: the mother’s comfortable old-maiden-like existence, living in proximity to Jill’s two conformist sisters; the secure knowledge that the past has been stashed, and that everyone is safe. A confrontation ensues, creating casualties out of each character’s false selves, their stifled existence. Society must set limits on some things, and liberate others. Everyone has something or someone they must covet. Everyone has something to fight against.

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