The Contagion of Diagnosis

Kristin Dombek & Dayna Tortorici

Kristin Dombek’s new book, The Selfishness of Others, takes the idea of narcissism—ever more prevalent in how we define and decipher our relationships—and deconstructs it through research, conversations, and analysis of personal experiences. She sat down with n+1 editor Danya Tortorici to discuss the “narcweb,” millennial girls, and the stickiness of language.

opens in a new windowThe Selfishness of Others

Dayna Tortorici: I wanted to start out by asking you about the origins of this project. What made you interested in narcissism?

Kristin Dombek: A few years ago I started noticing the word everywhere. I thought that people were using it more frequently and that I was reading it more frequently, but I wasn’t sure if that was actually true or if I just had the word on my mind, so therefore I was noticing it. I had had a therapist diagnose, without meeting, someone in my life with NPD—Narcissistic Personality Disorder—and so I had gone into that hole, the research hole, and learned about the almost uncanny power of someone who has no empathy and how they can destroy your life. But I found it unhelpful what I learned there—that I should turn away from this person, go “no contact.” And then I began hearing the word used to describe everyone, to describe all millennials.

And so I read The Narcissism Epidemic, by two social psychologists who claimed to have the data to prove that there is an epidemic. As I was reading the book, I started to notice how the anecdotes they offered to support these studies’ findings were often from Atlanta or San Diego, or so it seemed to me. I had a boyfriend from Atlanta and a girlfriend from San Diego at the time, and so reading this was a very strange sensation. Why is this all about Atlanta? And San Diego? Or am I just noticing these anecdotes because I’ve been to those places and I care about these people? Finally, partway through, I turned the book over and saw the author bios on the jacket—one of them is from Atlanta and the other is from San Diego. This struck me as really funny. It’s funny, right? Because they’re social psychologists doing a lot of work to report objectively about narcissism scores across three decades of college freshmen, and arguing, also, that one of the pieces of evidence that we’re more narcissistic is that we use “I” way more than we used to, and that writers write much more from the “I” than they used to. So in the midst of all this effort toward objectivity, I kept noticing examples from the places where they lived. That’s where I got this joke in my head—it felt like a really profound joke—about how we know things, how we inevitably know from where we stand. It’s funny, but it’s also a problem at the heart of scholarly and scientific method, and speaks to some judgments we make about writing—historically, women’s writing has been dismissed for being personal, too local, for example. When is knowledge from our own perspective valid and useful? When and how do we get beyond our own perspective, and when is it important to do so?

Also at the time, at work, I was developing a pre-college summer class in which students spent a week each in six academic disciplines and scientific fields. In doing that work I became very aware of the rules that different disciplines have for how you write, and how they have moral codes, some of which are around the word “I” versus “we.” I was watching eighteen-year-olds trying to decipher when in an anthropology class should they write from “I,” because that’s going to be more legitimate, versus in a certain kind of sociology paper, they shouldn’t do that. In this way, these secret codes about language and about what counts as knowledge discipline us.

So that combination, those two things coming together, made me think about how we know things in relationships, how we know things about other people, and how we moralize around how we use “I” and “we.” I wanted to write a book that tried to deal with language and how it works in those ways.

Tortorici: The book is in large part about the Internet, about writing on the Internet and the way sociological reports are disseminated through trend reporting on the Internet. You open with something you call the “narciscript”—or the script or the narrative—that circulates on a part of the Internet called the “narcweb.” Can you tell us a little bit about what these are, what they mean and why they matter?

Dombek: What I started calling a “script”—which is more like a movie script, but it’s also a term for a drug prescription—is the story that you learn from many websites, if you’re in a place where you think someone in your life might need diagnosis and might be this particular kind of asshole. At first the person seems particularly charming and warm and real, almost unusually real. Then there is some turn, and you realize they are empty inside, and fake. There’s a whole language around what these people do to you, how they deceive you, “word salad”—

Tortorici: What’s “word salad”?

Dombek: They might say a bunch of things that are unrelated, to confuse you, and then you are more vulnerable to their deceptions. There are a bunch of terms like that.

Tortorici: Is “gaslighting” one of these? I’ve noticed the prevalence of the word “gaslighting.” It comes from a 1940s movie—it’s not a “real” word—and to “gaslight” someone means to tell them that something they’re experiencing is not actually happening, as a way to mess with their head. Does that word belong to the narcweb?

Dombek: I did most of my research in the narcweb two years ago, and I wasn’t seeing “gaslighting” as often as we do now—“gaslighting” got really popular like a year and half ago, right? But yes, it’s there now, another of the things narcissists do. And in this uncanny story, in the “script,” you are the “empath.” The narcissist’s fakeness helps you know yourself by comparison as real and genuine and empathic, someone who is easily taken advantage of and who needs to start watching out.

Tortorici: When you’re writing about the narcweb, looking on these forums where people write in about the narcissists in their lives, it’s a lot of boyfriends, husbands, girlfriends, moms—people immediately close to the writer. Later in the book, when you write about the history of narcissism as a diagnosis, you note that the profile of the narcissist shifts over time. Can you talk a little bit about that shift and what you think it means?

Dombek: The story tells you, in its current form, to diagnose, to take the role of the psychologist, because there’s objective knowledge that this thing exists, a clinical diagnosis, and there’s objective knowledge about the epidemic, and you can therefore sort of stand outside it. But a story about narcissists or a narcissist is often serving some other function as well. For Freud, narcissists were women who were resistant to therapy.

Tortorici: To his therapy.

Dombek: To his therapy. And gay men. Or there’s a femininity, a gayness thing that he was wrestling with, that got described in his stories about narcissists. Of course, Ovid’s Narcissus was a bisexual male, so it shifts. For Milton, Eve acts like Narcissus. It keeps changing throughout history. Right now, it’s a lot of bad boyfriends.

Tortorici: And millennials.

Dombek: And millennials. With millennials, it’s often girls.

Tortorici: So why are people preoccupied with bad boyfriends and girl millennials?

Dombek: I can’t prove this, but my hunch is that the common narcissist in the script is a male, a straight male, because it’s primarily women that read relationship self-help sites and self-help books about relationships.

Tortorici: Strong hunch.

Dombek: With millennials, with the young, the story is a lot about vanity and superficiality. My hunch about that is that there’s an anxiety about the Internet, where we have to assess each other, split-second, at a scale we’ve never done before. The story is about selfie-posting, and all this kind of stuff that’s used to call millennials narcissistic—especially millennial girls, like the girl in the book, Allison.

Tortorici: Allison from Atlanta, who on My Super Sweet Sixteen says she wants to close down a busy street with a hospital entrance so she can have a parade leading into her party.

Dombek: She’s the quintessential millennial. The authors of The Narcissism Epidemic call her a “sociopathic narcissist.” But they haven’t met her, which is against the standards of the APA. And I argue in the book that they might be very wrong about why she did and said what she did. I think it’s girls because maybe . . .

Tortorici: They post more pictures of themselves?

Dombek: Yes.

Tortorici: As you mentioned, you’re skeptical of this category of the narcissist, of NPD as it’s defined in the DSM-5, and the book provides many good reasons for why you’re right to be. But there is something about the narcissist that does get under your skin. You talk about mass murderers, xenophobes, racists, as extreme examples of narcissists who fall on the same spectrum as the bad boyfriends. If the narcissism epidemic as it’s chronicled in all the trend pieces and studies and social psychology books isn’t quite real or right, what is real? What does this cultural paranoia about other people’s selfishness, this preoccupation with other people’s selfishness, indicate to you? What’s bad about it?

Dombek: I believe that there are people whom the diagnostic criteria for NPD describes very well, and that is a personality type in its extreme version. And narcissism—self-absorption, lack of empathy, manipulativeness, et cetera—functions. We do it, we experience it in others. It is one of our names right now for evil, for what evil looks like. My question is why that word is so frequently being used to describe the shape of the self right now and taken up into this apocalyptic story, and why the worst selves are so often “others.”

Online, something structurally feels like narcissism—because we’re encountering the surface, the words and images others post, and what’s underneath is behind the screen. But we all participate in this, so we’re condemning one another for something we are all called upon, more and more, to do.

The reason I worry about that word and how we use that word is that I think it transforms ethical issues into local mental health issues, and narrows our moral energy to intimate relationships. I don’t know if moral energy is a thing, but I feel like it is, in my life. You have to train yourself to be generous, to turn toward people instead of away from them, to be kind. We don’t feel natural empathy all the time. We have to work at it. I struggle to continue to motivate myself to see outside my position in the world and to direct my moral energy to people further away from me who are really suffering, some of that suffering which I contribute to. I’m always trying to learn how to stay interested enough to keep acting. Do you feel this way? I care, but how do I learn to care in the world in a bigger way? When I tell this very compelling story about evil in my boyfriend, it allows me to identify as decent and good and empathetic.

Tortorici: And morally preoccupied. You don’t have enough moral energy to give, because you’re absorbed in this private drama in which you’re the hero.

Dombek: Right. I can establish the righteousness that I need. And I think that the narcissism script separates it out as if there are two very different kinds of people, heroes and villains, the selfish and the empathetic, but actually, most of the time, these things are very circular in all of us. In fact, in moments when I don’t care, when I contribute to injustice or violence in the world, or am cold to those around me, it’s often because I feel as if those around me are assholes, or someone is being an asshole to me. Or because I’ve given up on someone, or the world, or the whole millennial generation, the future, so I go cold. The script can be a cause of violence in this way. And maybe we see this in the pile-up of hateful rhetoric in comment sections: people start assessing each other’s characters when their views are threatening, and judging each other for their mental health, and that’s an excuse to speak in ways that don’t get us anywhere.

Tortorici: In the book you write that one of the identifying characteristics of narcissists, according to the script, is that they turn “cold,” or turn away from you and try to drop you. And yet the advice the script gives to people dealing with narcissists is, “run away”—in other words, turn cold and drop them. So it’s exactly as you say: the anti-narcissist position is the mirror image of the narcissist one, telling you it’s okay to drop someone for supposedly being a narcissist.

Dombek: Right. It’s a double-bind, I think. But it doesn’t actually make you feel good; it sucks to feel cold. That’s probably why it’s so hard to go “no contact.” If you’re involved with a narcissist you’re supposed to try to go “no contact” or “no contact ever again.” In a lot of discussion on forum boards—and again, much of this must be very important and meaningful and helpful for people who are in really bad relationships, or trying to get out of bad relationships—but there’s a lot of conversation about how to really go no contact. It feels bad to be cold to someone near you. And you’re mirroring them, if what you’re saying is, “Because you are cold and have no empathy I must go cold to you.” When that strategy for dealing with truly abusive relationships spreads toward a general attitude toward the world—when we turn away from anyone online, other than ourselves, who is performing in ways that look vain or selfish from a distance, I worry about it. And then it all just starts spiraling around in my head. We will create this epidemic if it doesn’t exist already.

opens in a new windowThe Selfishness of Others



Kristin Dombek is an essayist and a cultural journalist. Her essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s Magazine, the London Review of Books, n+1, and The Paris Review, and anthologized in Best American Essays and elsewhere. She received a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award for Nonfiction in 2013.

Dayna Tortorici is the co-editor of the literary magazine n + 1.

Announcing John Darnielle’s New Novel, Universal Harvester
A Conversation between Garth Greenwell and Hanya Yanagihara
Biography, Autobiography, Fiction by Jamie James
The Uses of Beautiful Places