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You Probably Think This Song Is About You

On the New Science of Narcissism


I had a mean dad. Possibly you did too. I don’t think he was mean exactly on purpose, but most people aren’t anything exactly on purpose. He was sadly mean, self-loathingly mean. He was mean because mean was the way he had figured out to be. Mean was his evolved persona.

I was the youngest by far. I never truly knew my sister until she hijacked an airplane and we got a call from the State Department and local TV stations started filming live in our front yard. Essentially, I met her in jail, where she did thirteen years. A brother was also gone early. At eighteen, he got a girl pregnant and married her. They lived together in a series of freezing houses he couldn’t afford to heat. Even the furniture was cold to the touch. A second brother’s time in our home overlapped with mine, though to say he was there is stretching it. He rarely came out of his room, except to play stiff piano in the 6 a.m. Portland dark. This brother spoke only when spoken to, and even then, there was a 50 percent return rate. His answering was a coin flip.

For most of my childhood and adolescence, my mom supported the family, as a book clerk. I told people she was a librarian because no one knew what a book clerk was. It meant she kept track of textbooks. She had a high-ceilinged office in the basement of a nearby high school. I remember just one of these books, Reflections on a Gift of Watermelon Pickle. It contained what was meant to be poetry.

So, it was me, my working mom, my dad, and a brother behind a door. Really, it was my dad and me, or my dad and a flinching, retreating receptacle into which he aimed the contents of his desperately grandiose and denigrating mind. It took me a long time to start thinking of my dad as what he almost certainly was—a dedicated narcissist—because back then, in the 1970s, existing taxonomies were jejune, and disorders of personality imprecisely fleshed out (the 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes “inadequate” personality, characterized by “ineptness”). I knew people did not like my dad. I particularly knew he did not like people. All day long he was alone in the house after dropping off my mom. What he did was a mystery. I visualize him there, on the torn loveseat, head thick with fantasies of brilliance, revising a factually mediocre past, the future to him already hopeless, pointless.

“I recoil from the crude and tend naturally toward the exquisite.” He got that from a fortune cookie. He told me to put it on his tombstone.


It’s hard to go a day without hearing the word narcissist. It’s tripping off everyone’s tongue, like disco used to do, or mutually assured destruction. The brain loves labels, it always has. They work as swift simplifications or revisionist theories of self, and they go in and out of style. In the eighteenth century, people were said to be “nervous,” victims of the English Malady, a disease of sophistication and refined sensibility marked by hypochondria and fainting spells. These days everyone’s either “on the spectrum” or “bipolar.” But narcissism is different. No one calls themselves a narcissist. They do, however, relish calling others narcissists. 

One reason for this, perhaps, is that people secretly worry they may be narcissistic themselves. The term appears in every newsfeed, alongside lists of symptoms. Plus, on social media, friends post filtered selfie after filtered selfie, and you wonder, Am I like that? Am I similarly self-obsessed? One way of answering no to these questions is to label others narcissists. It’s a way of saying, “not me.” Think of it as a preemptive strike, as in “I’ll label you before you label me.” 

Another explanation for the term’s ubiquity has to be Donald Trump, whose narcissism is so refined, so Platonic, that it becomes pure form, like a Warhol, and therefore virtually stupefying. For a time, and still today, we were nightly treated to farragoes of talking-head experts weighing in on Trump’s pathology. Endlessly, and with fluctuating degrees of accuracy, we heard how narcissism manifested, as well as putative causes rooted in loveless early dynamics (Trump, for instance, was told over and over that he needed to be “a killer”). This became, in the former president’s case, a matter of national security: Will the narcissist in the Oval Office launch a missile because someone called him orange? From there, the armchair diagnosing metastasized. Is my neighbor a narcissist? What about my mother-in-law or the guy in the nearest cubicle? A divorced acquaintance recently started dating again, and he told me that nearly every woman he met chalked up the failure of a prior relationship to her ex’s narcissism. It got to the point where he interrupted one woman to say, not unkindly, “Don’t tell me, he’s a narcissist.” “How did you know?” she replied.

A final reason for narcissism’s grip on the culture likely has to do with a need for sanctioned insults—and a loosely medicalized put-down does the trick nicely. Calling someone narcissistic comes across as civilized, surgical. It’s better than “obnoxious asshole.” When I was a kid, people called my dad “arrogant,” “vain,” or maybe “supercilious.” Now the go-to would be “narcissist.” Not only does it sound blandly clinical, but it’s even a little polite, like saying someone spoke an untruth instead of saying he lied.


In college I majored in philosophy. At a place called the Trail Room on Palatine Hill in Portland, Oregon, we discussed Dostoyevsky, Wittgenstein, Sufism, and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony.” There was Honke, a New Ager; Hugh, a rich, Pink Floyd–infatuated Texan with a fondness for Ballantine’s and Dunhills; and Garrett, an identical twin from Beverly Hills who later got so drunk that he blacked out and fell down curved stairs and spent days in a coma. From the very beginning—pre-Socratics to Hegel and Marx—I expected philosophy to wipe away my nameless woes, an amalgam of dread, lovelornness, insecurity, and a whispery depression soundtrack that accompanied my every move, though to others I came across as game and cheerful. What was missing, I figured, was some essential principle or method, or maybe, if I could only find it hidden in my readings, a single explosively transformative utterance of the sort one hears about in Zen. These never arrived. Nothing hatched. 

To this point, I’d been relying on my family’s modus operandi, strenuous denial, so by default I resisted tracing back whatever I was going through to details of family history. But I fell in love with Freud, his focus on childhood and clotted subtextual secrets. And my Personality course, taught by an imperturbable ex-hippie who poured us champagne after exams, utterly captivated me. Slowly, my eyes opened. I connected dots. I always tell my students, “never underestimate the obvious,” and as I read more and more, in grad school and beyond, I could see how obviously my dad’s behaviors shaped me. This wasn’t satori, but a gradual accretion of reliable understanding, a willingness to “go there.” I wasn’t who I was randomly, my conflicts magically uncaused, although uncaused was what I yearned for, a state of being captured by the old-timey word unexampled. Really, I was exampled. I was, I realized, the product of a disfiguring process, of the high-priced permutations of a totally enveloping family structure, a sort of narcissistic nimbus. 

In the field of personality science, there’s a movement afoot, decades old but gaining steam, to radically reconfigure narcissism as a basically normal set of human behaviors, a type of relatively immature defense mechanism, rather than a fixed disorder or sickness. These ideas come from studies conducted by research psychologists like me running controlled experiments aimed at fleshing out the contours of the narcissistic spectrum. One example is a very exciting project called the Comprehensive Assessment of Traits relevant to Personality Disorder (CAT-PD), the product of federally funded research into modeling and measuring personality pathology, overseen by psychology professor Leonard Simms at the University of Buffalo. It forsakes labels, focusing instead on thirty-three problematic traits measured along a continuum of low to high. Different, similar investigations show that narcissism correlates with neuroticism (anxious, vulnerable, angry); disagreeableness (immodest, distrusting, uncooperative); and lack of conscientiousness (unreliable, un-self-disciplined, rule-flouting). Again, such findings aren’t adduced in support of categorization. In fact, they depathologize the concept, suggesting narcissism is a mostly dysfunctional adaptation, a learned habitual self-regulatory response, not something “in your brain.” We all express “bad” tendencies to various degrees, and if they grow florid, especially in combination, they get obnoxious. 

I like this angle, because it renders the narcissist not less like us, in a category all his own, set off and shamed and isolated, but more like us, a person with evolved attributes we recognize but identify as unappealing and difficult to deal with. There are scores of undesirable tendencies out there, after all, and one could conjure disorders from any of them. Greed as acquisitive personality disorder; talkativeness as garrulous personality disorder; nosiness as intrusive personality disorder. Little is gained in doing this. Personalities come in all shapes and sizes. Some have a winning one; others, like my dad, have one that turns people off.

Art by Cat Spilman

My dad’s narcissistic agenda crystallized around being smarter than anyone else, and in that sense, superior. He staked his whole life on this. It was a daily battle.

He got his master’s degree at the University of Oregon with a thesis on Stephen Crane’s imagistic poetry. It was slender, bound in brick-red leather. He kept it in the living room, on a side table. This wasn’t enough for my dad, though. It didn’t elevate him to the height he needed it to. So, he gave himself a Ph.D. He made stationery saying he was a doctor. This was a lie, but in my family, we were taught to honor lies, to a point where they made me feel shaky about what was real. The logic worked like this: My dad could have been a Ph.D, he should have been one, it was a mantle to which he was more than entitled, so he was one.

I say my mom supported the family. She did, because for most of my childhood, my dad could not work. Not so much would not, which suggests defiance, but could not, which suggests weakness. Boss, to him, implied “superior,” and the idea of someone above him or telling him what to do or, worst of all, how to do it, was intolerable. To function in a job, he would need to act as a relative equal, collegially, and show mutual respect. This he couldn’t manage. It nullified his genius. It was a form of abasement. We used to go to the beach a lot, where we’d rent a  home for the weekend. On the drive back, we’d hit tunnel traffic. “Look, Todd,” my dad always said. “It’s all the poor, exhausted factory workers. They never got over the first hurdle in life: being stupid.”

I’ve spent the last twenty years writing books about haunted, enigmatic artists and why they do what they do. But for the life of me, I have no idea how my dad settled on intellect as the one and only decisive factor in life, by which everyone got measured and was found wanting (in comparison). His dad was a farmer and a chauffeur. I don’t think his mother graduated high school. His half-brother owned a driving range out by the airport and subsisted on day-old baked goods. His biological brother worked with juvenile delinquents. But my dad learned how to read classical Greek. He knew Shakespeare inside and out. He was a font of arcane, specific knowledge. And all this he weaponized, to separate himself, to rise by making others fall. His targets were indiscriminate. The dentist. My mom’s friends. The violinist down the street, whose name was Hugh. He was small, hyperkinetic, a Scotsman who played in the Oregon Symphony. Hugh’s fatal flaw, in my dad’s estimation, was that he could not quote Robert Burns at will. To my dad, there was no point in being a Scotsman if you could not quote Robert Burns at will.

Because I was simply there, in effect an only child, I got singled out for scorn too. Upon receiving my Ph.D., around age thirty, I had my college mentor over for a mini-celebration. Why I subjected myself to this, I cannot recall. It wasn’t to secure any praise from my dad, I do know that. For him, to praise occasioned deflation, and deflation he could not abide. We were seated at the kitchen table, where night after night, as a kid, I ate in apprehensive silence, my dad scrutinizing what I wore (“I don’t recognize your tailor”), how I held my fork, the length of my hair. This particular mentor had a Ph.D. from Stanford. She was, therefore, excused from abuse. I was not, though I’d earned a degree my dad had merely given himself. “I’m frankly shocked Todd managed a Ph.D.,” my dad offered. “I’d always pegged him as too stupid.” A few years ago, I told this story to my therapist. “Why are you laughing,” he asked, because I was. This was a very good question. Why was I laughing?


In a 2022 New Yorker profile, songwriter and novelist John Darnielle says: 

Mercy is the greatest thing that humans are capable of. And that means understanding people who are ignoble, damaged, broken. Damaged people do damaging things—they hurt people. To be able to see those people as whole, as people who didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to be all damaged, that’s what makes—well, I didn’t expect to be going here, but that brings you closer to God.

I’ve been pretty far from God lately. In fact, I’ve started telling people forgiveness is overrated. I can’t say I hate my dad, because it’s more conceptual than that. Despise is a better word, or detest, or on good days, pity. I have no inkling of where my dad’s damage came from, but for all his relish in loudly dressing people down, I doubt he enjoyed it. I saw him cry just once, when his sister died. Feelings—being in touch with them, expressing them—weren’t his medium. Still, he could not have lived in anything but fairly constant torment. He told me once, on the Fourth of July, “The secret to my life is I’ve always needed someone to hate.” Clearly, the first someone he hated was himself.

The recent science on narcissism invites us to see the narcissist (my dad) as whole and thus deserving of mercy, a person in the grip of overcompensating agendas sprung from fear. Babies are born with temperaments. They can be easy or difficult: inhibited or uninhibited, according to groundbreaking research by developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan. But what we call narcissism takes longer to show its face. It’s a slow, delicate unfolding. We’ve all called babies colicky; no one calls them narcissists. This is because narcissism requires a broad foundational framework taking years to begin establishing itself. 

Seeing narcissism as motivated, as a characteristic adaptation some people habitually turn to, was, for me, as simple as it sounds, a game-changer. To get at motives, you need to do a lot of careful, sympathetic reverse engineering. My dad hurt people trying to help himself. The question is not what he “had,” but how he settled on this ultimately catastrophic strategy, one that left him empty, delusional, and friendless.

A paper by Carolyn Morf and Frederick Rhodewalt, “Unraveling the Paradoxes of Narcissism,” does an excellent job of unpacking narcissism’s contradictions. It reads like my dad’s biography. It captures the emotional dead-endedness, the price, of his desperate efforts. The “paradox” in the title refers to a bloated view of self combined with crippling insecurity. One thinks, again, of Trump, whom, predictably, even my dad did not like because he was “stupid.” (Are narcissists drawn to other narcissists? Likely not.)

For Morf and Rhodewalt, the self of the narcissist stays under frantic construction. It never rests or settles; it’s never dependably intact. In his book The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump, Dan McAdams, a personality scientist at Northwestern University, outlines one reason for this, suggesting that narcissism stems, according to a model developed by Christopher Lasch, from “family situations wherein the child feels emotional neglect but is nonetheless told that he is the favorite.” In his head, the child knows his parents believe “he is the greatest show on earth,” but he does not feel this in his heart, because his parents “do not back up their statements with emotion.” The dilemma, then, is as follows: I’m supposed to be special, but I don’t feel special. This was my dad’s total enterprise. Doubting his specialness, he announced it ad nauseum by aggressively labeling others inferior. This was a faulty means of securing feelings of love and care. What’s stunning is the stubborn, fatuous wrongness of the basic strategy: Love me because I am better than you.

As you’d expect, all this leads to specific interpersonal conflicts revealed by scores of studies Morf and Rhodewalt review. For instance, it’s been shown in carefully controlled experiments that narcissists demean those who provide even mildly negative feedback. As no one’s ever adoring 100 percent of the time, the narcissist inevitably scotches intimate relationships, shatters the mirrors he so pitiably depends on. In studies where researchers told subjects the goal was to secure another person’s positive regard, narcissists chose self-aggrandizing self-presentational statements (“People look up to me”) rather than things like “I am friendly and helpful.” In other words, they care about being lionized and inflated much more than they care about being liked. In line with this, the narcissist doesn’t want to know what you think of him, far from it. Instead, as Morf and Rhodewalt put it, he engages in social interaction primarily “to deceive the self into seeing its own grandiosity.” He’d rather be lied to and told he’s spectacular than leveled with and told he’s pretty good. 

A final bit of data is especially interesting because it reveals the almost stunning predictability of both the narcissist’s behavior and our revulsion to it. Upon meeting and spending time with narcissists, we see them, initially, as agreeable, intelligent, confident, and entertaining. (My dad could be all these things, in brief bursts, especially entertaining. Despite themselves, some found his insults thrilling in their impudence, his stored-up, cutting quotes artfully clever and devastating.) Yet by a seventh interaction, a sort of magical threshold, new descriptors begin to emerge—arrogant, hostile, “overestimating of their abilities.” As I said, narcissists tire people out. Being their applauding, enthralled audience gets old. Whatever golden glow they emitted goes sickly green.

Findings such as these make me think of my mostly mute brother. My dad was oddly obsessed with him, like a kid in love with a baseball star. This revolved around a single abiding contention: My brother was a genius. He was mute because he was brilliant. My father rhapsodized often about the size of my brother’s skull, enlarged necessarily by the super-large brain inside it. But for all this, my brother drove my dad crazy. “Why won’t he ever talk to me?” he used to ask. Now I see what was up. My dad created a make-believe genius to reflect back glory. Except, my brother refused. He rejected the role. So, my dad tried harder, praying to an aggressively silent, grinning God. As Morf and Rhodewalt explain, “Narcissists must continuously ‘ask’ others whether they hold admiring opinions” of them. My dad asked. My brother never answered. My dad asked again, and again.

My sister, in vivid contrast, gave my dad what he dreamed of: international notoriety. I’d never seen him so happy or energized. He loved the FBI stopping by, in combed hair and matching cappuccino leisure suits, to ask, according to my dad, dull questions as I listened from the upstairs landing. He loved the phones being tapped, and he made the most of it (“We know you’re listening, you cloven-hooved Satyrs!”). He loved fielding calls from the Times and the Tribune, to whom he gave good quote: “My daughter’s no bomb-throwing revolutionary!” In fact, there was a bomb, in a locker in Grand Central Station. It killed one cop and partially blinded another, who lost an eye and several fingers. The quote held, all the same. My dad blamed the officers. They were too stupid to know how to safely detonate a poorly improvised explosive. To my dad, they blew themselves up.


I doubt my dad would have taken a personality test. In fact, I’m certain he would have refused. He knew what it would say, and that was the last thing he wanted to hear. But there’s a newish one out, centered on narcissism, that captures a few under-recognized elements. It’s called the Pathological Narcissism Inventory (PNI).

To begin with, there’s consensus around the idea that two broad self-regulatory styles of narcissism exist: overtly grandiose, like my dad, and a covert form, which is closeted and distinguished by vulnerability. Think vain bull in a china shop and devious fox in a henhouse. According to psychologist Zlatan Krizan and coauthor Anne Herlache’s brilliant narcissism spectrum model, both pivot around a central essence: entitled self-importance, “a sense of oneself and one’s needs being special and more important than others’.” Given this shared essence, there are shared attributes. Both styles are hypercompetitive, vigilant about their social worth, conscious of their body and image, and alert to esteem threats. Both also lack empathy and fail at perspective-taking. As for key differences, overt narcissists tend to be bolder and confident, as well as approach-oriented. They exploit others, too, and envy others’ success. The stereotypical covert narcissist, by contrast, hides the self, expresses feelings of emptiness and helplessness, and displays more reactivity, volatility, and hypersensitivity to criticism (what some call proneness to “narcissistic injury”). 

Speaking practically, overt narcissists believe they are better than you and unreluctantly, tactlessly announce that fact (this was my dad). Covert narcissists also believe they are better than you, but deny the belief, disclaim it, affect an insincere humility. You might find the covert type saying things like, “To be honest, I think I am a little overrated” or “I used to be so much better at x than I am now,” but they do so with the expectation that you will object to such pronouncements and fulsomely, obligingly assert the opposite. They excel, that is, at currying adoration. They get you to say what they want to hear by expressing ersatz disbelief in their excellence. All things being equal, the covert narcissist is less grating in the short term, less easily identified, probably because he’s simply savvier about being a narcissist. In time, however, his guarded, disavowed superiority grows corrosive. We get hip to his tactics. We weary of his fishing for compliments.

The Carly Simon track “You’re So Vain,” a sort of Narcissism 101, makes for an interesting case study. To me, the antihero of the song is more covert than overt. He preens. He’s self-regarding (“one eye in the mirror”). He’s entitled. But he’s not explicitly braggy or self-lionizing. He’s simply “where he should be all the time” for maximum exposure. He draws attention but he doesn’t beg for it. 

A final point is this: While the overt/covert styles do seem to be meaningfully distinct, they also vacillate, depending on the situation. Though rare, my dad might pretend to be unimportant secondarily, but only if praise came early and abundantly in an interaction with someone. Likewise, the covert narcissist may proclaim superiority now and then when efforts to elicit adoration fail. It’s almost linear in the covert case, in fact. As you withhold the needed praise, covert methods get replaced by overt ones. 

In all, the PNI posits seven total facet scales derived from answers to fifty-two questions. One of these is particularly clever, and you see it in both overts and coverts. It’s called “self-sacrificing self-enhancement,” and it involves “the use of purportedly altruistic acts aimed at supporting an inflated self-image,” as in “please notice and applaud and admire me for my conspicuously pursued good deeds.”

What the PNI offers is more complexity—and if people are anything, it’s complex. My feeling is that if you start with subtlety and dynamism, your empathy increases. In some ways, we all enjoy denouncing the narcissist as an asshole and leaving it at that. Seeing him, instead, as damaged and sensitive, his bloated self a desperate defense, humanizes him.


Only once did my dad let his guard down with me, which, as far as I know, is one more time than he let it down with anyone else. Not once did he tell me he loved me. But this was better. He was trusting me to hold his truth.

I remember exactly where we were standing, at the green-and-white-tiled kitchen counter where, for decades, around ten in the morning, he took what he called his “bracer,” a Bud Light and a shot or two of cheap scotch. My mom was either at the library or walking around the park reservoirs. “I can’t live in the world sober,” he used to tell me. “I need to be a little aslant.”

This kitchen housed for me a surfeit of hard moments. I found myself in it upon getting the news my older brother had died in a car crash, along with a girlfriend. It was his birthday. He was coming to see me. At the sink, a lopsided farm-style basin, I was sobbing-—privately I assumed. Then I noticed my dad beside me. “Doctor, heal thyself,” he said, emotion disallowed, a sign of weakness. His eyes were dry, and they stayed that way, as did my mom’s. All he could offer with respect to my dead brother was, “The poor bastard, he never had a chance.”

The later and otherwise unremarkable day of letting his guard down was different. Near the bread box where my dad stored his muffins from a health-food store down the street, he blankly said, “All my life has been destroyed by a massive inferiority complex.”

The words took a second to sink in. I felt a surge of pity, a weightlessness. I said something like, “It’s not too late to get over that.” But of course it was. It was too late. By this time, he was eighty-five. The days of changing, if they’d ever really existed, had receded beyond reach.

Studies show narcissists are particularly bad at giving gifts, for reasons that ought to be clear by now, but my dad’s confession was one. I already knew it, but hearing it said out loud is the difference between holding an object in your fist and seeing it dangled brightly in front of you. 

My dad was mean. Possibly yours was too. He hurt me, as yours maybe did. He was a narcissist, and I am the adult child of a narcissist. Saying the term isn’t enough, though. It’s lazy, a form of avoidance. Really, my dad was scared, alone, at best tolerated, and fragile. He could have helped it. I won’t say, like others do, it wasn’t his fault.

In the final line of Stephen Crane’s story “The Open Boat,” he writes, “They felt that they could then be interpreters.” That’s what I am now, an interpreter.

My dad loved to say, “Never apologize, never explain.” That morning, in the haunted kitchen, he did both. 


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