Ambassador of Narcissism
An Interview with Sam Vaknin
by Bob Goodman
It is important to read the related article "Anatomy of Malignant Narcissism" in conjunction with this interview.
January 5, 2000 |
In Greek mythology, the gods cast a pernicious spell on Narcissus as punishment for his refusal to love others. Peering into a pool of water, Narcissus sees a beautiful being and falls madly in love, never realizing that the object of his affection is nothing more than his own reflection. His love unrequited, Narcissus pines away and perishes, leaving only a flower in his wake.
From this myth comes the term "narcissism." The psychological condition of narcissism in extremis, known as "Narcissistic Personality Disorder," was first given medical credence by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. Those under the spell of NPD share a penchant for compulsive self-promotion, doomed grandiosity, and aggressive avoidance of empathy.
Since the April '97 debut of his "Malignant Self Love" Web site, Sam (Shmuel) Vaknin has created a niche for himself as an expert on the mechanics of narcissism. According to Vaknin, his site drew about 140,000 visitors last year, and he has self-published its contents in a book by the same name. He also maintains a Web-based discussion group for people suffering from NPD, as well as those involved in relationships with narcissists.
Judging by his curriculum vitae, Vaknin, 38, an Israeli-born businessman and writer now living in Macedonia and working as a newspaper columnist and government advisor, would seem an unlikely candidate to be dispensing psychological advice. He has no medical or academic training in the field (his Ph.D from Pacific Western University is in philosophy); he's a childless divorcee; his occupational history is peripatetic (he indicates he made millions through a host of technology-related business ventures); and he's an ex-con, having spent 11 months in an Israeli prison for criminal stock manipulation. (Vaknin says his actions were an outgrowth of his effort to expose government corruption; click here to see the sidebar, "Vaknin's Stock Manipulation," for more details.)
And yet, Vaknin's writing, replete with academic coinages such as SNSS (Secondary Narcissistic Supply) and FEGO (false ego), unabashed condemnation of narcissists as predators, and anarchic free-association, goes places where a dispassionate professional would probably fear to tread. That's because, on this subject, Vaknin has the ultimate credential: he's a full-fledged, and probably incurable, sufferer of NPD, himself.
On his book jacket, Vaknin writes that "Malignant Self-Love" "was composed in jail as I was trying to understand what had hit me. My nine years old marriage had desolved, my finances were in a shocking condition, my family estranged, my reputation ruined. Slowly, the realization that it was all my fault, that I was sick and needed help, penetrated the decades-old defenses I had erected around me." In his subsequent writings and Internet publications, Vaknin leverages the knowledge gained from researching NPD, chiefly his own, to offer an insider's guide to this insidious and misunderstood condition.
Despite his own cautionary advice about the dangers of trusting a narcissist, he appears to have garnered a faithful following. On a Web site entitled "Family By Choice," one reader went so far as to nominate Vaknin for an award with the following remark: "Sam, despite his illness, has resolutely used his insight into his disorder to severely regiment and train his behavior to be solely helpful to others."
Following a brief phone conversation, in which Vaknin, in his heavy Israeli accent, was courteous and formal, we conducted this interview entirely by e-mail over the course of several weeks; it appears here in edited form. Throughout, the multi-faceted persona which Vaknin attributes to himself and to his fellow narcissists -- equal parts guru, confidence man, and enfant terrible -- was very much in evidence.
But our "transactions" did not end there. Prior to the interview's publication in Natterbox, I made a surprising discovery: I had been scooped. Vaknin had gone ahead and published a version of the Vaknin interview on the Vaknin Web site. When I sent an e-mail to clarify who had the right to publish what, I found myself on the receiving end of Vaknin's vitriol, as he fired off two angry e-mails (click here to see the sidebar, "Dueling Webmasters," for the full e-mail exchange). In a follow-up e-mail, dispatched twice the next day, he offered apologies and urged me to publish the exchange as a prime example of NPD in action. I was left to ponder whether there could be anything more narcissistic than a narcissist promoting his own narcissism.
BG: Narcissism is a very misunderstood term. In the popular lexicon, it seems to be used interchangeably with self-confidence or self-absorption. How do you define narcissism?
VAKNIN: Narcissism (rather, pathological narcissism) is the absence of a functioning self (or, to be more precise, ego). It is the constant dependence upon other people to gain self-esteem, to regulate a sense of self-worth and to gain self-confidence. Narcissism is, therefore, other-absorption rather than self-absorption. The narcissist is attuned to input (real or perceived) from other people because in the absence of such constant feedback he feels annulled, non-existent, void (and in many respects, he is). I use "he," though everything I say here applies as forcefully to women.
The narcissist constructs an elaborate, largely fictitious, grandiose image of himself (the "false self"). He then hurls it at people and monitors their every reaction. Reactions that conform to the information contained in the false self generate a flooding sensation of omnipotence, omniscience, brilliance, and perfection. Reactions that negate the false self cause narcissistic injury: a terrible, insupportable, excruciating agony. The narcissist administers mental painkillers to himself by discounting ("devaluing") the source of the hurtful reaction, by dismissing the reaction itself, or by altering the false self to conform to it -- in short, by activating a mechanism known as "cognitive dissonance."
BG: Is there such a thing as healthy narcissism, and at one point would you say that narcissism enters the realm of pathology?
VAKNIN: Narcissism is an integral part of our development as humans. A residue of it survives well into adulthood. It is essential, it keeps us alive. It drives us to achieve things and to seek the approval of other humans. It helps us bond with significant others, motivates us to raise children, to consume, to study, to explore, to discover, to invent, to innovate. It is a powerful engine of human personal progress.
Pathological narcissism has very little to do with healthy narcissism. It thrives on any kind of attention, even a negative one (infamy, fear, hatred), and from anyone: the narcissist has no significant or meaningful others in his life. It is disconnected from reality (fails the reality test). The false self [...] is a concoction, a distorted invention, replete with magical thinking and ideas of reference. It [narcissism] leads to dependence rather than to interdependence, to conflict rather than to collaboration, to sadistic behaviours rather than to tender emotions. It is a malignant form of narcissism because it takes over the host and then kills it.
BG: You make NPD sound like a kind of parasite, both in the way the disorder impacts the narcissist himself, and in the parasitic attitude the narcissist then takes towards others.
VAKNIN: Indeed. Pathological narcissism is parasitism. It is the unabashed, ruthless and unscrupulous exploitation of others as sounding boards, as accumulators of past glories, as servants, as extensions of the narcissist. The narcissist idealizes, then uses, then devalues, then discards. He is the epitome of the society of waste and consumerism -- with other humans as the raw materials. The narcissist colonises, then abandons. His are viral qualities; he leverages the host's own assets to infect and manipulate the host. And pathological narcissism is a viral process: normal development is thwarted by the invasion and takeover of rigid defense mechanisms.
BG: But don't healthy and pathological narcissism both spring from the same source? You seem to be saying that the desire for approval, which in the case of healthy narcissism is a kind of glue that helps create and cement relationships, becomes so overpowering as to destroy them altogether.
VAKNIN: Both healthy and pathological narcissism are part of the same developmental phase. But while the former is not concerned primarily with others, the latter is absolutely other-directed. Healthy narcissism is what we call "self-love," "self-esteem," and "self-worth." It is a constant; it requires no regulation and it is attuned to reality. It does not fluctuate with input from the outside. Pathological narcissism is everything that healthy narcissism is not. It is derived exclusively from the outside, it fluctuates widely and it is self-destructive and self-defeating because it gauges reality very poorly. Additionally, very often, it is connected to strong masochistic urges and to a punishing, sadistic, immature and rigid super-ego (conscience).
BG: I've seen "Malignant Self Love" described in some contexts as a self-help book. Often in this genre, we see authors who have triumphed over some personal adversity and wish to help others do the same. But your approach is quite different. You write that your discovery of your own NPD "was a painful process which led nowhere. I am no different -- and no healthier -- today than I was when I wrote this book. My disorder is here to stay, the prognosis poor and alarming." Do you see the book, then, as more a work of self-literacy than self-healing?
VAKNIN: I never described "Malignant Self Love" as a helpful work. It is not. It is a dark, hopeless tome. Narcissists have no horizons, they are doomed by their own history, by their successful adaptation to abnormal circumstances and by the uncompromising nature of their defense mechanisms. My book is a scientific observation of the beast, coupled with an effort to salvage its victims. Narcissists are absent-minded sadists and they victimize everyone around them. Those in contact with them need guidance and help. "Malignant Self Love" is a phenomenology of the predator on the one hand, and a vindication and validation of its prey on the other.
BG: You are a self-professed narcissist, and you warn your readers that narcissists are punishing, pathological, and not to be trusted. Yet hundreds of readers or customers seem to be looking to you for help and advice on how to cope with their own narcissism or their relationship with a narcissist. I'm struck by a kind of hall-of-mirrors effect here. How do you reconcile these seeming contradictions?
VAKNIN: Indeed, only seeming. I may have misphrased myself. By "helpful" I meant "intended to help." The book was never intended to help anyone. Above all, it was meant to attract attention and adulation (narcissistic supply) to its author, myself. Being in a guru-like status is the ultimate narcissistic experience. Had I not also been a misanthrope and a schizoid, I might have actually enjoyed it. The book is imbued with an acerbic and vitriolic self-hatred, replete with diatribes and jeremiads and glaring warnings regarding narcissists and their despicable behaviour. I refused to be "politically correct" and call the narcissist "other-challenged." Yet, I am a narcissist and the book is, therefore, a self-directed "J'accuse." This satisfies the enfant terrible in me, the part of me that seeks to be despised, abhorred, derided and, ultimately, punished by society at large.
BG: Where did the idea for your Web site, in which you first published your theories on NPD, come from, and how has it evolved?
VAKNIN: I did not believe then, nor do I believe now that any publisher would have published my writings. I come on too strongly, I am uncompromising, and I am politically very incorrect. Publishers are commercially motivated and politically constrained. Is it a coincidence that the Internet and e-books evolved in tandem with desktop publishing? It is a revolt against the publishing establishment. The Web site -- and the printed edition that followed -- were acts of desperation. But, in hindsight, it was a blessing. My site has 1500 impressions (about 400 new readers) daily (about 140,000 readers accessed it in the last 12 months). I have a discussion group with 420 members. My book is being sold through Barnes and Noble. I am content.
At the beginning, I simply translated my jailhouse notes, taken from a worn-out cardboard-bound notepad. Then, as people kept writing to me (I get about 20 letters daily), asking the same questions over and over again, I came up with the "Frequently Asked Questions" sections (all 67 of them). Then I noticed that my listmembers were especially attached to certain messages and were asking me to re-post them to the list from time to time. I collected them in 26 (soon to be 27) "Excerpts from the Narcissism List" pages. So, you see, the site developed by default and in response to pressures by my "customers." I want to emphasize that only the print edition of the book costs money. The rest -- the full text of the book, the discussion group (5-7 daily articles) -- are free of charge.
BG: While you say your work is not helpful, don't you feel that at least the "victims" of narcissists might be helped? After all, you're giving away all the trade secrets.
VAKNIN: The victims of narcissists have rarely become victims randomly. It is very akin to an immunological response: there is a structural affinity, an inexorable attraction, an irreversible bonding and an ensuing addiction far stronger than any substance abuse. I, therefore, am doubtful not only with regards to the prognosis of a narcissist but also with regards to the healing prospects of those exposed to his poisoned charms. The inverted narcissists (a sub-species of codependent who is specifically attracted to narcissists) are narcissists -- kind of mirror narcissists. As such, they are no less doomed than the "original."
BG: I'm still curious, though, what your attitude is toward your "customers." It's clear you appreciate the attention from them, but do you consider them foolish for seeking advice from a narcissist such as yourself?
VAKNIN: I am by far the most intelligent person I know, so, the deep-seated belief that others are bumbling, ineffectual fools is a constant feature of my mental landscape. But seeking advice from a narcissist about narcissism doesn't sound foolish to me -- distortions, to the advice received.
BG: In addition to the metaphor of narcissists as drug addicts seeking a fix, you often use terms culled from economics to describe psychological dynamics: narcissists overinvest, devalue, attempt to gain strategic advantage, etc. Are there other ways in which your background in economics informs your psychological theories?
VAKNIN: Surprisingly, these terms are borrowed, not mine. Devaluation, narcissistic supply -- are not my inventions (what a narcissistic injury!). But, of course, economics, physics and philosophy (my fields) inform and form my world of metaphors. Fortunately, I am also a published author of short fiction (in Hebrew) and I even write poetry, so I am not as dry as one might fear.
But there is another angle to it. The narcissist does view the world solely in economic and contractual terms. Deprived of access to his own emotions, the narcissist is a diligent student of other people's behaviour patterns. This is how he get his behavioural cues and clues. The narcissist is a phenomenologist and, as one, his is a cold, detached, observational world in which people transact rather than interact. To the narcissist, people are reducible codes and self-interest and contract-making are the twin keys to their deciphering. The narcissist behaves this way in his own life. He contracts with others, he measures their performance, protests violations, threatens litigation or sanctions. The narcissist is a businessman who is constantly trading bits of his life against narcissistic supply.
BG: You write that a person suffering from Narcissistic Personality Disorder is deeply determined to think of his personality as unique. Yet those with NPD share a common, and sometimes readily identifiable, set of traits. Can you discuss some of those traits, and explain why they add up to a personality disorder -- rather than simply a personality?
VAKNIN: The last part is easy. Pathological narcissism is self-defeating and self-destructive on a consistent and long-term basis. A pattern of behaviours, cognitions and emotions that leads one away from happiness is a personality disorder-- not a personality. Narcissists are often dysphoric and (as recent research demonstrates) ego-dystonic (or, in plain English, they are often sad and malcontent). Their lives are a mess and often characterized by frequent losses (divorces, dismissals, failures, conflicts with authorities and the law, bankruptcies and so on). Hence the word "disorder." It is indeed comic that narcissists should think about themselves as unique. They are the most rigid, predictable and automatic group of humans I know.
BG: Do you think there are certain kinds of traumas that result in NPD, or are there certain kinds of people whose reaction to trauma results in NPD?
VAKNIN: NPD is a new phenomenon. It was first recognized as an autonomous mental health disorder in 1980 (DSM III) [The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders]. There is almost no research about any aspect of pathological narcissism: epidemiology, etiology, dynamics, prognosis, nothing. Most of my correspondence has been with victims of narcissists or people who have been interacting with them. Thus, I studied narcissism both first hand (I am a narcissist) and second hand. But the first sample, myself, is quite biased and the second one both biased and unreliable. Narcissists tend to deceive their environment [...] by massively and frequently re-authoring their life narrative and biography.
But, I think that the following common strands are rather "safe": narcissists grow up in emotionally dysfunctional (though not necessarily abusive) families with no unconditional love, no validation, no affirmation, insecure parents, emotional liability of family members, capriciousness and unpredictability of conduct and a perturbed process of socialization and so on. Narcissists have been either utterly ignored, neglected, misunderstood and abused in childhood, or pampered, doted upon and stifled in their formative years. Narcissists are often the offspring of narcissistic parents (narcissism breeds narcissism). There are more male narcissists than female ones. That just about sums up what we know today about the etiology of narcissism.
BG: You've written that when you were a prisoner, you began to study your fellow inmates and came to see yourself in them. At the time, did that recognition take you by surprise?
VAKNIN: Not really. I have a long history of associating with criminals and personal brinkmanship. All my adulthood I have been a vicarious delinquent, observing with awe and admiration and humour the circles I moved in. What did astonish me was the close resemblance of narcissism and addictive behaviours (drugs, gambling, etc.). It was then that it dawned on me that narcissism was an addiction (to narcissistic supply).
BG: Do you remember any specific prisoners with whom you found something in common?
VAKNIN: I befriended all the murderers without exception. There is something profound and occult in breaking this frontier taboo -- I have the same feeling about incest. I am attracted to these people not because I have anything in common with them, but because I strive to understand them. It is through human wreckage that I hope to reconstruct "being human." Devoid of empathy, I need sharp, unmitigated, grotesque, and horrific experiences to jolt me into a vague recognition of the denominator common to myself and to all "others." This, by the way, is an important strand in psychology: it is through the study of aberrations, deviations, perversions and pathologies that it strives to fathom "normal" human nature.
BG: Prior to your trial, conviction, and process of self-discovery, when your business ventures were going well, what did you imagine your life was going to be like?
VAKNIN: I am a man whose central dream came true. Even as an infant I used to imagine the Internet. It had no name, no technical specifications, no being. But I knew what it would do for me. It would give me access to unending libraries, gigantic storehouses of data, to free everything: books, music, movies. I couldn't wait. I collected every shred of evidence that my dream was becoming true. And it did and here I am, happy as a lark to have lived in this terrible and magnificent century. Through the gate of my laptop screen, I submerge in the warm waters of knowledge. What a cool, dazzling feeling! I know you will find it incredible but this has been the central hope, driving force and aspiration of my life--this and a side daydream of becoming a monstrously vicious dictator, feared by all, loved by none, almighty and held in awe.
BG: Your parents were immigrants from Turkey and Morocco, right? When had they come to Israel?
VAKNIN: Both emigrated to Israel in the early 1950s. My mother was a child and her family escaped growing anti-Semitic sentiments in the predominantly Moslem population of Turkey. My father escaped his family: a tyrant, drunkard of a father and a submissive mother, tortured by her inebriated husband. He left Morocco in his early teens, illicitly, by sea.
BG: What did your parents do professionally?
VAKNIN: My mother was all her life a wife to both my father and to her house. As a consequence, she had very little time left for us, her children. She was also fighting what I now know to have been severe mental disorders. Later in life, she healed spontaneously and developed a minor career as a caretaker, looking after the disabled and the geriatric. My father, a clinically depressed person if I ever saw one, climbed the corporate ladder to become a regional construction site manager. But he was never too gregarious or obedient and so, hated by the management and admired by very few co-workers for his professionalism, he was booted out. He spent eight years wallowing in self-pity until he found a menial job in a warehouse, way beneath his qualifications. He likes it there. It validates his view of himself as a martyr.
BG: What was your family's attitude toward religion?
VAKNIN: My parents vacillated between ridicule and disdain and bouts of devoutness. On the average, we were a mildly traditionalist family: selectively observing a few religious commandments and rites. Two of my brothers flirted with fundamentalist Judaism (less derogatorily known as Orthodoxy) only to come full circle to being dedicated atheists. I am agnostic. I simply don't know and I do not waste my time on questions which are, in principle, non-answerable.
BG: You must have served in the Israeli army. How did you find that?
VAKNIN: I served more than three years in the Israeli army. Halfway through, I became a famous national figure which allowed me to manipulate the army command, my co-soldiers and the army structures to accommodate themselves to my "special needs." The first half was a voyage of discovery of "what's out there": Israel, guys, gals (no sex), the company of others. The second half was an hallucinatory and unmitigated ego trip.
BG: Was your fame at this time based on your business success?
VAKNIN: Oh, no. I did own at the time 25 percent of a retail outlet which sold computerized astrological predictions to the gullible, using the state-of-the-art monsters which then passed for computers. But I became famous first as a "genius" physicist and philosopher of science. There were later waves of fame: as an angry member of the Sepharadi minority, as the right hand of a Jewish billionaire, as a stockbroker and, finally, as a criminal.BG: Can you recall any specific instances of discrimination or oppression that you or your family members faced as Sephardim?
VAKNIN: It was not state policy; there was no Israeli apartheid. But it was in the air, in the fact that we lived in segregated neighbourhoods, in linguistic ghettoes. We rarely inter-married and Ashkenazi officials always made disparaging remarks about Sepharadim and their (lack of) culture in public. It was in the humiliating Israeli anti-Sepharadi slang [that was emerging], and in the fact that, barring some token Sepharadim, there were none in any elite: the military, the political, the academic, the literary. In other words, it was a glass ceiling put very low.
BG: I understand you're something of a nomad now, hopping from country to country and job to job. Do you ever long for a more settled existence?
VAKNIN: Never. You are describing a morgue, a cemetery. My life is colourful, adventurous, impossible, cinematic. Sure, I pay a price--who doesn't? Is there no price to be for a sedentary, predictable, numbing existence? When one is 90 years old, all that is left is memories. You are the director of the movie of your life, a 70 years-long movie. Now, sit back and begin to watch: is it a boring film? would you have watched it had it not been yours? If the answers are negative and positive, respectively, you succeeded to live well, regardless of the price you paid.
BG: You've written that narcissists suffer from terrible bouts of depression (or dysphorias) when they are running short of narcissistic supply. How do you cope with these periods?
VAKNIN: These dysphorias are always reactions to the diminishment of narcissistic supply. Such diminishment can be the result of the objective disappearance or attrition of sources of supply, or of the devaluation of trustworthy and available ones. In the past I used to react by frantically groping for new sources of supply. Lately, I react by withdrawing completely from the world while I try to cultivate new sources of supply which will not require contact with humans in the flesh (this interview, my mailing list, my sites, my books, my articles, other interviews). The older I become, the more my schizoid features emerge at the expense of my narcissism. I might end up being a bitter recluse. My political columns are definitely authored by a cantankerous hater and despiser of mankind.
BG: In "Malignant Self Love," you write: "The Narcissist does his damndest to avoid intimacy. He constantly lies about every aspect of his life: his self, his history, his vocation and avocations, his emotions. This false information and the informative asymmetry in the relationship guarantee his informative lead, or 'advantage.' " It seems from this statement that the narcissist is a poker-faced card player who refuses to show his hand. In light of these statements, should your remarks in this interview be taken with a grain of salt?
VAKNIN: Is this interview intimate in any sense of the word? I wasn't aware of it. To me, this is the exchange of bits and bytes for a mutual benefit. I fill in the forms (respond to your questions), and you get to add an interview to your site. A transaction. But your question is pertinent because the narcissist is a pathological liar--that is, a liar who lies for no discernible gain. Additionally, the narcissist suffers from cognitive distortions. He views the world in a unique manner, imbues it with transcendent meaning, populates it with creatures of his psyche, re-orders it in accordance with his highly idiosyncratic scheme of things, attributes to people motives they never had, lashes out against the inhabitants of his paranoia, and so on. In short, the narcissist is more often in the fantasy land of his grandiosity than with us, here, on earth. I did my best not to lie in this interview (it takes a conscious effort on my part). I cannot spot the cognitive distortions, needless to add.