Kristin Dombek on the New Narcissism

Talking Selfies, Psychology and God with the Author of The Selfishness of Others

For more than five years, Kristin Dombek has been a steady contributor of terrific essays for n+1, as well as serving as its chief advice-dispenser in her column “The Help Desk.” I’d always been excited to see her name in the table of contents, rightfully suspecting that I’d be in for a piece of nonfiction as clear-eyed as it was deeply intelligent. Dombek is that rare writer who seems exceedingly, almost eerily capable of diving headfirst into any given subject and coming up with an informed perspective uniquely her own, still with some breath left in her lungs. It’s an exciting occasion, then, to have a longform document one can hold in one’s hands that bears witness to Dombek’s determined curiosity and intellectual vigor. The Selfishness of Others (FSG Originals, 2016) is a book I devoured in one sitting, taken in by its masterful handling of its subject and the multitude of vantage points from which Dombek provides view.

Talking with Dombek by email only served to further cement my belief that this is just the first limb in what I venture will be a vital and vast body of work.

Vincent Scarpa: Perhaps the most obvious question — why narcissism? What prompted you to write a book length essay on narcissism, on the selfishness of others? You write in the first section, “But it won’t surprise you to hear that I have a personal stake in the subject, too. I’m an essayist; I write the word I all day long, and I’m nervous when I do.” But I imagine there must have been more that sparked your interest than this concern, no?

Kristin Dombek: It wasn’t narcissism that sparked my interest so much as fear of narcissism — the scary story that I started hearing everywhere about this contagion of toxic self-absorption. About how selfies and the popularity of memoir mean the end of the world. It seemed funny that the story was always about other people — the pathologically selfish who prey on us, and “we” the innocent victims. That’s the oldest story in the world, but the way the word “narcissism” was being used, this psychological diagnosis, felt new.

There are a couple of pages in Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer where she argued that sociopathy and narcissistic personality disorder are myths in the first place. When I started hearing the new narcissism end-of-the-world story, I remembered those pages and wanted to investigate whether she was right or not, and to figure out why these particular “myths” are now used to explain not just the worst among us, but more and more, all of us.

I’ve been writing about apocalyptic stories for a while, though. I’m obsessed with tearing apart their nonsensical oppositions — in this case, it’s self-absorbed millennials vs. generous boomers, and even the vanity of people who write about the “I” vs. the maturity of writers who focus on “you” or “we.” When I meet a sketchy opposition like that, I always want to explode it, and then dig our real lives out from the rubble. To try to get into language what things are really like.

In this case, it’s self-absorbed millennials vs. generous boomers…When I meet a sketchy opposition like that, I always want to explode it.

VS: I wonder, too, if, beyond the impetus to write this book, you can talk about the experience of it, its coming into being. What was the research-gathering process like? Reading the book, it seems as though you came across such disconnect and diametrical opposition from one piece of research to the next. Was that frustrating, or productive in proving a point about just how misunderstood narcissism is, how reductively we use the term? You also write, “Any book you write is its own asylum, but a book about narcissism is like the padded cell inside the asylum,” which made me wonder, too, if having finished it felt like an escape from the world you’d constructed in order to write it.

KD: I wrote it like that to try to evoke the feeling of what it’s like to try to get knowledge from the internet these days about minds, personalities, relationships: the overflow of information; the contradictions, every day, on the newsfeed; the uncertainty and complexity of the work of science behind the lightning-quick, certain summaries we get online. The way the kind of knowledge you get changes depending on the methods of the disciplines or scientific fields that are producing it, whether you realize it or not, and what a mind-fuck that is.

The weirdest part about the process was that the longer it took, the more psychology I read, the more people around me started acting like narcissists. Which challenged my belief that the epidemic and maybe even the diagnosis is a total myth at the same time as it confirmed my belief that the language of diagnosis can be uncannily powerful, and thus really harmful to relationships. Anyway, I can confirm that spending too much time immersed in the language of psychological diagnosis makes you crazy and also self-absorbed. I really hope every book I try to write won’t feel as much like going crazy as this one.

But there’s something there that’s very deeply funny, in this topic, and that’s what kept me going. If you meditate on the feeling of accusing others of narcissism, for more than a minute, it gets funny. Narciphobia is a joke that is always on you. Right under the apocalyptic feeling there’s this sweetness. If it’s all of us, it’s also none of us. Sometimes, at least, I think maybe it’s really that simple.

VS: Among many things, I was fascinated to learn about the industry built around narcissism, and the community it’s created. How specific it gets; that there exist such niche websites and forums and books purporting care, like You report on this — calling it “the narcisphere” — mostly without judgment, but I do wonder if you can talk about what you make of it. I couldn’t help seeing it as anything but spiritual capitalism — itself a kind of narcissism, perhaps — at its finest, and was reminded of Gustave Le Bon’s work on crowd theory; the narcotic attachments made to that which sells itself as knowledge, and the way that spreads among and is buoyed by the congregating of others. But maybe I’m wrong, and there’s actually nourishing, productive, healthy, informed wisdom being given in these communities. Even if you do have to shell out cash for “bundles” of self-help advice.

KD: Wow — yeah. That’s a great way of describing it. I don’t doubt that people find comfort and fellowship and useful help on those forum boards. But what you say seems right to me, too — that the narcisphere replicates the thing it critiques, creating attachments and dependencies by offering a kind of new “knowledge” that’s actually an erasure of your own, even while it purports to help you build your self-esteem. How else could your life coach make money, but by getting you to need her?

How else could your life coach make money, but by getting you to need her?

The prophecies of a narcissism epidemic — Chris Lasch’s, and Twenge and Campbell’s The Narcissism Epidemic — are critical of that kind of self-help, too. But more deeply, they seem nostalgic for old-time religion, when we were all just better people, deeper, more generous, more dedicated to our communities, less likely to wear jeans when we’re forty. (That’s an actual example of the narcissism epidemic, forty year-olds wearing jeans.) But the kind of religion I grew up in, at least — evangelical Christianity — gave me exactly the story of the narcissistic boyfriend. There’s a guy, he’s the most beautiful and overwhelmingly powerful, and you’re supposed to realize you’re created in his image, that all you do has got to glorify him, etcetera, etcetera. It’s just that in religion, the guy is God. And that was a good thing, if that story scared us into doing our duty and being humble?

Anyway, the websites are trying to help you get out of the kind of situation where your boyfriend or your boss or your mother thinks they’re God. But I worry, like you, about the ways in which they situate readers as victims, and convince them that they need more and more knowledge about the diagnosis, and more and more support, and end up giving the story of their victimization more power than it should have.

VS: I think you make an excellent point about “the narcisphere,” too, when you say that they will “help you replace your own language for what until this point may have seemed a nebulous and hazy selfishness.” That installation of a specific vocabulary, a lingo for talking about what was once “nebulous and hazy,” seems like it also has the capacity to run roughshod over one’s experience in its replacement of that previous language. And one of your book’s many strengths, I think, is that it’s written with, and arguing for, a kind of knowledge and analysis that, to borrow from Eve Sedgwick, will “pluralize and specify.” I see you as making room for multiplicities of meaning regarding the definition of narcissism — questioning the fundamentals of how we get to that definition, questioning even the utility of definition and diagnosis — and making an equal amount of room for the ways in which one might go about labeling or interacting with a narcissist. The narcisphere doesn’t seem to me to be making that same kind of room; any site or self-help practitioner’s success is surely predicated on the assurance that the knowledge being dispensed therein is unequivocal.

KD: Thank you so much. I think that’s what I was after here, as well as always in The Help Desk advice column I write for n+1. It’s hard to talk about what things are really like these days without reckoning with the language of psychology. It has so much influence on the way we think about selves and relationships and even public life. And I’m as addicted to that language as anyone — to Buzzfeed or PsychCentral objectivity, to websites that claim to translate the latest studies into action items for improving my own personal mental health, or for understanding others. I love slash hate the totalizing, uncanny, spiritual thrill of having a psych post explain everything, rationalize my pain, affirm that I’m the good one, and my ex-boyfriend, or father, or whoever, was pathologically selfish, or secretly bipolar, or an undiagnosed whatever. The opposite of good therapy — to become obsessed with labeling everyone and everything. And for me, at least, it’s very hard to learn to trust my own ability to interpret my experience and change my life, and actually love people with all their particularities and surprises, when I’ve got those uncannily powerful stories in my head — like “cisdudes are like vampires, which explains everything your boyfriend does.” So I want to use that language, because it’s what we have, but slow it down, make it more multiple, or as you say, “pluralize and specify it.”

VS: Having done the research and analysis you’ve done, do you come away from this project believing there is, indeed, an epidemic of narcissism, or that narcissism has always been as prevalent as it is now, and all that’s different is the multitude of arenas in which that narcissism now has access to play out? Or are those multitude of arenas — the second life of social media, say — exactly what’s coaxing out a narcissism that the self might not otherwise be performing? And do you feel any closer to an answer for what I think of as one of the book’s fundamental questions: “Is this thing called narcissism something some people are, or something they do?” These are a lot of questions.

KD: No, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about an epidemic of narcissism. Of course we’re doing things differently, posting more images of ourselves more quickly, speaking more personally. But the second life of social media — I’m convinced this can be as much a force for good as for evil. I wanted the reader to, by the end, be absolved of anxiety about narcissism, and of fearing the epidemic. To remember that we need and long for the individual, secular, idiosyncratic, complex stories of real people, lots of them, for lots of good reasons: to know the world well, to stretch outside our limited local experience, to cultivate care for others — even others we might never meet — and to remember that this is a reason people write their stories, and post selfies, and so on: because we ask them to, we need them to, in order to know the world better.

Remember that this is a reason people write their stories, and post selfies, and so on: because we ask them to, we need them to, in order to know the world better.

VS: I’d love to know what you’re bringing your analytical prowess and deep, human curiosity to bear on now, or next, and what, if anything, about the process of writing this book was instructive in such a way that you feel you’ll carry that knowledge into your future work.

KD: I’m working on a book that’s an expansion of an essay published in n+1 called “How to Quit.” I’m pretty sure it will be shelved as memoir. Answering your questions has led me to a resolution for this book: less internet research. More life, close as I can get.

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