Over the past decade, we've taken to describing people we don't like as "narcissists", when really they're probably just dickheads. But what would a real, diagnosed narcissist be like?
A few months back I went down to the Maddox Gallery, just off Regent Street, to peer at Donald Trump's micropenis. This fleshy pink acorn was painted by US artist Ilma Gore, who's said she thought it would be "interesting to paint a micropenis onto this prolific figure".
The picture began life as a neat bit of gag art, but after it started gaining wide publicity, Gore received a punch in the mouth from satire haters. In the silo culture bitch-fight that followed, the painting quickly became too hot for any US exhibition. So it was carted across the Atlantic, to sit in the Maddox, downstairs, in a big gilt frame, behind a small, slightly mocking velvet rope.
If you'll remember, the inspiration was that Donald had been waving his hands about in the Republican primary debates, telling reporters there was "no problem in that department". Even in the lalaland of the primaries, this literal piece of dick-waving felt unusual enough to open a bigger press discussion about what Trump even was.
Commentators got psychological. They started openly questioning whether he wasn't suffering from a proper personality disorder. Was this man more than just a shapeless blob of rage and bravado? Instead, could his specific pattern of rage and bravado conform to the classic signs for something called Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
Of course, Donald was only the icing: narcissism was already having its moment. "Psychopath" had long had its day, via Patrick Bateman and Jon Ronson. "Bipolar" had a decent innings, peaking in popularity about ten years ago. But by last year, the psychologising of Trump had given "narcissist" its coming-out party as the go-to term to describe any objectionable psyches around us.
It was an intriguing, rather brilliant category – as a cold-read set of symptoms, the term could mean almost anything in the right circumstances. Show me someone who isn't self-centred. Show me someone who doesn't fly off the handle, use the silent treatment or entertain a few decent delusions about their own value to the human race, and I will show you the sort of feeble-minded vegan few have as a friend.
In a social media age, narcissism was a disease ready-fitted for the hazy yellows of a Nashville filter. Anders Breivik was accused of it, Pistorius was too. Kanye, Tony Blair; even Obama and Steve Jobs have been daubed with the narc brush. By 2016, if someone blanked us on Tinder they were a narcissist. If they broke up with us they were definitely a narcissist, and if their idea of the deep committed relationship in-between didn't correspond to ours, they were a narcissist on toast. That was the lighter side. Beyond the fatuous, a host of people switched on genuine lightbulbs about their eternally selfish estranged dads, or found a social framework through which they could crawl out of subtly abusive partnerships. Or maybe just found a level at which they could express why the fact they were always drawn to strength in the people around them was probably a Bad Thing.
Going to pay homage to Donald's shiitake glans was the start of a documentary I've made as part of VICE's Chosen Ones series, trying to trace this wave of interest in NPD. I've talked to everyone from the YouTube narc-hunter gurus, to the well-varnished girls dating on hotties-only site BeautifulPeople.com, to the IRL world of Narcissistic Victim Syndrome and its support groups, trying to peel the pop back away from the psych and see what's left.
There was only one real hold-up. We had reams of victims, binders of experts, but the hardest bit turned out to be finding an actual narcissist to film. The reason was obvious: true narcissists never admit they're that. NPD is an all-pervasive attempt to keep the darkness out, to never to admit fault in anything, especially not that one is, rather than basically-great, instead labouring under a medically-diagnosable delusion. Except in one case – where a particularly canny narcissist seems to have found a loophole.
Sam Vaknin had woken up in an Israeli jail cell at the age of 28 and forced himself, by dint of his IQ of 185, to accept that his recent losses of both fiancée and liberty might be something to do with a diagnosis he'd been given of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.
In the intervening years, he moved to Macedonia and performed a cunning short-circuit on his hurricane-force narcissism, transforming his status as a walking museum of NPD into a vehicle to make himself famous. He has his own YouTube pulpit, where he delivers pointy-headed, pompous lectures about the subject. He'd written a doorstopper of a book too, called Malignant Self Love. And he claimed to have invented some of the jargon that wept from every pore of the online side of the topic.
As the line to Vaknin rang, I wondered what to expect on the other end. As the line clicked in, I had my answer. Small talk: none. Instead, an instant proposition to strong-arm me.
"Gavin, I am going to make you an offer. If you come to Macedonia to interview me, I will grant you access to my full set of contacts in this area. These will cut your research time by 85 percent. If you do not, then we cannot do business."
I sensed we'd found our guy. But we still didn't know if that would be worth flying to Macedonia for, so I sent him a holding email. In it, I called him "charismatic popular and knowledgeable Mr Vaknin" – which seemed, in my untutored view, like the sort of lavishings a narcissist would enjoy. Wrong. Because I wouldn't give him what he wanted, he still slung back a harsh response. The PS gives some of the flavour:
"PS: If you are so dirt-poor that you are unable to afford a $30 air ticket + $30 overnight stay, you can count on my largesse to donate the funds requisite to shore you over."
When we decided to bring him over to the UK, things got pernickety. Now, every bit of his journey seemed to require a lengthy chain of emails to finalise. But he promised us it'd be worth it: "Modesty aside, making a film about narcissism without me is like making a film about the 2016 elections without mentioning Trump."
The narc was already narcing us off, and the greatest tell was that he flagged many of his emails as "high priority" – a big pathological giveaway from the MS Outlook era. Eventually, though, the day dawned: he and his wife were poured out of the red-eye from Skopje onto the streets of London, and the fun was ready to start.
Vaknin's wife Lidija was, he claimed, co-dependent. Neither of them, Vaknin pointed out, was actually capable of real love. But they did have "an agreement" which Vaknin said mutually benefitted them in respect to certain social goods. The best defence of marriage I'd ever heard, apart from, "It makes hotel rooms cheaper."
Lidija's father had been a narcissist, so she was accustomed to being treated as a means rather than an end, and in a deep-Freudian kind of way, she'd decided she actually quite liked it. They didn't have sex, though – Sam was quite clear on this.
In our emails, Vaknin had himself chipped in with a few ideas on how to illustrate the topic at hand. I was heartened to learn that he had evolved the Donald J Trump habit of referring to himself in the third person:
"Vaknin's interactions with mirrors, window-shops, and cameras (reflective surfaces)
Vaknin's use of language
Vaknin's raging envy of successful people
Vaknin's misogyny (Vaknin around women, especially attractive or supersmart women)
Unfortunately we didn't have any supersmart women – just my producer, Lauren. So we decided to start him out with 9/11 footage – the second plane sharking into the tower, the immediate aftermath – none of which jerked out any emotion. "It's just pixels," he shrugged.
I raised about as much journalistic faux-outrage as I am capable of: "People are dying, Sam."
"People die every day. Why should I feel specially about these people?" was the valid but inhuman response.
We began talking about how he treated death in any context, and Sam seemed to reject the idea that all humans had value. "If someone is capable of making a very good symphony, then I would be sad if they died. But most humans are not capable of anything very special." He pointed out that he'd be spared his own bone-meal view of the human race because he had produced – was producing – great works; his book on narcissism, for a start.
Perhaps my favourite illustration of this Great Men of History principle was when he explained how intelligent he was: "I have an IQ of 185. The average human has an IQ of a hundred. Therefore I am more intelligent than the average human, to the same degree that the average human is more intelligent than a chimpanzee." Sam was living in his own Planet of the Apes, and all of us monkey stumblebums were window-dressing for him to conceive of this radical new consciousness, to affirm his date with greatness. And in IQ terms, he certainly had the numbers to prove it. It felt rude to disagree.
As we "hung out" in an east London pub, I tried to figure out whether I liked Sam. I realised I did. But then the way he framed his internal workings to me, it made me feel like I was deluded in any friendly overtures I perceived – that I might as well try to develop feelings for a Cadbury's Creme Egg.
"I don't think I could be a true friend to anyone in the sense that I don't think I would have an emotional correlate," he said. "If I become friends with you there would always be a question of what's in it for me. It would be a contaminated version of friendship. So contaminated that I would sincerely doubt whether it complies with the definition."
I felt a bit like someone talking to the owl who'd lost his woo – or maybe like someone trying to tell a depressive to "cheer up", constantly trying to point out to Sam that he was flesh 'n' blood; that he therefore had the capacity to feel and to join in with the communion of souls. And then he'd find another intellectualised way to tell me he just didn't. That he was barely human – a mask, behind which twitched a lizard-man, who could only get around by memorising, learning by rote, all of the little social graces that make a person work. It sounded exhausting, Herculean, like trying to run a Fortune 500 company with only the use of an Etch-a-Sketch.
At the centre of him, he said, was something called "narcissistic rage", a big boiling magma-pot, a sense of all underlying feelings being catalysed into anger, ready to pour out if anyone tried to negate, criticise or counter his exalted sense of self. We tried to test the full extent of his rage via a few pub games, but he refused to play pool. We couldn't drag him near the Monopoly board. Vaknin seemed to have a great deal of awareness for what Sun Tzu framed as "play the enemy on your own terrain".
Nowhere was this unwillingness to step outside of a central comfort zone more evident than in his relationship with sex. Vaknin would, he admitted, sit on the edge of the toilet and masturbate instead to purge the body of excess fluids. He was, he explained, a "Cerebral Narcissist". That meant that his brain was everything to him. The body, he found revolting, and could barely bring himself to cart it around. Hence, he emphasised, the sheer effort of sexing his wife was beyond him. "Besides, to have sex with someone requires an effort of intimacy." In other words, he couldn't stoop to fuck.
Sometimes, though, he went on, he'd switch – he'd turn into a Somatic Narcissist. A phase of hyper-sexuality would ensue, whereby he'd pretty much fuck anything that moved in pursuit of his own gratification. For Somatic Narcissists, the body was ultimate validation, and ceaseless conquest was its own reward. But even this explanation seemed to have a vague air of over-compensation to it.
I looked to Lidija for some kind of confirmation. She seemed annoyed, as though she hadn't been included in this Vaknin power-play. That this was the point where Vaknin's self-diagnosing self-mythologising parted ways with her buy-in. She argued that, at her age, sex was just no longer of interest, but it was hard not to see a discomfort in her response.
Yet, for all that queasy interlude, they still left arm in arm, off for a walk around Old Street. Later, Vaknin said he was going to spend the evening reading The Economist in his hotel, and I could only assume this wasn't code.
It had been an exhausting day all round. Something in following Vaknin around had knocked the stuffing out of both me and my producer, Lauren. What was it? It wasn't one thing. He hadn't been crass or volatile. He'd just been consistently, endlessly trying. It was a sense of being worn down by the unrelenting boggling sense of gamesmanship in every direction. He'd do little intellectual jousts. "I'm just trying to find the limits of your vocabulary," he'd say, after chucking another fifty-cent word into the interview. He accused me of being passive-aggressive. "You, with your little tricks." He'd make little jokes constantly, yet however quick they were, none of them seemed to even admit the possibility of a sense of humour. To be truly funny you have to be vulnerable, I supposed. And he had none of that.
Yet despite it all, and despite Sam's warning that narcissists were "ominous – the stuff of horror movies", I couldn't help but feel more compassion, not less. Earlier, Vaknin explained a bit more about his own childhood. "It was torture. My mother... effectively sought to eliminate me." His mother, he believes, was also a narcissist. She was severely abusive towards him. "I was being assaulted in the home. But at the same time, I was this child genius, who went to university at the age of 11, hence became something of a celebrity in Israel at the time." This daily dissonance had hardened into the impenetrable emotional exoskeleton of narcissism.
Sam had suffered. That was why he was a dick. An extreme case, yes, but one that went to the heart of how narcissists are made. Put very crudely, it's a pathology of nurture not nature. It's a childhood of either over-love or under-love – each will reach the same destination. Either be smothered in icky-pink specialness to the point where they point-blank refuse to take on the outside world's verdict that they're just a person. Or be constantly treated like an instrument – loved only conditionally; a child who then learns that in order to be loved they need to maintain a glassy facade of something: "success", "normality", "attractiveness". Often that can mean families who outwardly seem quite "loving" but aren't very "accepting" can still produce narcissists.
Listening to Sam's story, I began to think about how perhaps this present wave of interest in narcissism could be a new key in a more sympathetic, rounded understanding of why adults visit the same miseries on their children that were visited on them.
That was one upside of narcissism. The other was just Donald J Trump, a man of enormous resources and energy, who is going to not only Make America Great but mash all other nation-states into one big bouillabaisse of shittiness and then wipe out definitions of NPD from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatry, in favour of the inverse disease that cleaves him from 99 percent of the population, NTD: Not Trump Disorder.
I'd learned to love narcissists more. And as Western societal values had begun to merge into theirs, so too had the American public. It was just so sad that the narcissists could never love us in turn.
'Chosen Ones: How Narcissists Took Over the World' is out soon on VICE.com
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