Archives for Narcissism


Citizen Kane: Before We Called It Narcissistic Personality Disorder


A new 70th anniversary edition of Citizen Kane, first released in 1941, was recently issued. I thought I'd take this opportunity to discuss why I think this film is great. When film historians and critics write about Citizen Kane, they mention its innovative camera angles -- the way director Orson Welles plays with shadow and perspective -- or its groundbreaking departure from chronological narrative.

While I admire these features, what I appreciate most about the film is its psychological portrait of Charles Foster Kane. Long before the label narcissistic personality disorder entered our lexicon and people routinely discussed the narcissistic behavior of their friends and family, Orson Welles gave us a character unable to feel empathy for other people; who craves, even demands attention from the entire world, and who becomes enraged when he can't have what he wants. These are the features we have come to associate with the narcissist.

Charles Foster Kane -- or Charlie, as he is known to his friends -- was born to parents who operate a simple boarding house in Colorado. When mining stock given in lieu of payment by a boarder makes his mother (Agnes Moorehead) wealthy, she consigns Charlie to the care of a wealthy banker for his education.

In the scene when she signs the necessary papers, Mrs. Kane at first appears emotionally detached; but when her husband threatens to beat Charlie for pushing the banker into the snow, she says, "That's why he's going to be brought up where you can't get at him." This scene, with an emotionally remote mother and an abusive father, offer the only clues to the origins of Charlie's personality and later difficulties.

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Exploring Mother & Daughter in “Postcards from the Edge”

Further exploring various dynamics of the mother and daughter relationship [For the first part in this series click here], we’ll have a look at a scene from Postcards from the Edge (1990).

This film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Carrie Fisher (daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds). Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep) plays the addiction-prone actress daughter of movie star Doris Mann (Shirley Maclaine). Doris is portrayed as overbearing, controlling, manipulative, competitive, narcissistic and self-absorbed; Suzanne is very much in her shadow.

In a particular scene towards the end of the film [
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Family Dynamics

Exploring (S)mothering in “Terms of Endearment”

In this next series of posts, I’m going to take scenes from a number of films to explore various aspects of mother-daughter relationships. It can be helpful to take stock of how we were mothered, how we’ve complied with and/or rebelled against the woman who raised us (or was supposed to and didn’t). Also it is useful to identify the beliefs and messages that get handed down to us, often coming down through generations.

Not only can these realizations help point the way to our own individuation (becoming fully ourselves), it can also help us to not pass on our “family legacies” unconsciously.
Mothers can give too much, too little, or both in different areas; they can be on a spectrum anywhere from smothering or engulfment to neglect or abandonment. A “good enough” mother is somewhere in the middle. No one gets it perfect. Furthermore, what is optimal mothering for one child is not for another, and what feelings and behavior get evoked in the mother can be different from child to child.
Here is a partial list of types of mothers  (I’m sure you can come up with more of your own!), and of course there can be more than one of these running in the same person:
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Container and Contained in “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter”

"My heart is a lonely hunter that hunts on a lonely hill” ~  Fiona Macleod

“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” (1968) is based on Carson McCullers’ novel of the same name, starring Alan Arkin as deaf-mute John Singer. His best and perhaps only friend is Spiros Antonapoulos, also a deaf-mute.

Due to his growing lack of impulse control because of mental illness, Spiros is institutionalized by his cousin/guardian. Singer moves to a town near the institution to be closer to his friend.

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Mental Health

“Cracks” with Eva Green: Psychological ‘Growth’ by Annexation

If you enjoy smart, well-acted and beautifully filmed British movies where psychological nuance drives the story rather than plot, then be sure to see Cracks (2009), starring Eva Green.

This exquisite film was directed by Jordan Scott, and produced by her father Ridley Scott and uncle Tony Scott.  Based on a novel by Sheila Kohler, Cracks revolves around a charismatic teacher Miss G (Eva Green) at an English boarding school for girls, located on Stanley Island in the year 1934.  Miss G's influence on her "team" of students recalls the way Maggie Smith enthralled and shaped her own young proteges in The Prime of Miss Jean Brody (1969), though with more sinister undertones.

Miss Brody was narcissistic and self-deceived; Miss G suffers from crippling agoraphobia and takes flight from reality into grandiose fantasies of herself as a world traveler.  While she inspires her students to believe in themselves and their potential, she also relies upon their adulation and belief in her lies to sustain those delusions.
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Defense Mechanisms

Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ Music Video and Her Triumph Over Shame

Lady Gaga's music video for Born This Way begins with a creation myth about the origins of an imaginary Manichaen world.  Her voice-over, accompanied by stunning visuals and set to portions of the magnificent Bernard Herrmann score for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, tells of the "infinite" birth of "a new race, a race within the  race of humanity.  A race which bears no prejudice, no judgment, but boundless freedom."  On the same day that this "goodness" came into existence, evil was also born.  Lady Gaga's preamble concludes with a cryptic line:  "But she wondered, 'How can I protect something so perfect without evil?'”  Not from evil, mind you, but without it.

If you parse the prolog, this "she" must refer to a kind of Mother Goddess, the eternal womb that gave birth to good and evil.  "She" seems to believe that evil is existentially necessary in order to preserve perfection.  If so, it would imply a kind of
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Sarah Ferguson on ‘Oprah’: The Persistent Narcissistic Defense

This week, the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times features an interview with Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, promoting a documentary that will begin airing June 12th on the new Oprah Network.

This six-part series, entitled "Finding Sarah: From Royalty to the Real World," supposedly traces Ms. Ferguson's journey from the "gutter" into which she fell during the last few years, to a place of new-found understanding and self-acceptance -- "getting Sarah right," as she describes it.  If the documentary bears any resemblance to the New York Times interview, however, Sarah Ferguson has learned little from hitting bottom.
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Going Nowhere in Sofia Coppola’s “Somewhere”

SOMEWHERE (2010) is a film where nothing happens, either internally or externally.  With no dramatic action to speak of, no climactic moments or twists, the plot could be summed up in a few dull sentences.  Likewise, nothing goes on inside the main character, Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff), a hard-living actor who lives at a full-service hotel in Hollywood.

Despite random sexual encounters with beautiful women, a couple of parties and a trip to Italy for the opening of his latest film, Johnny has no passion or interest in anything about his life.  As far as we can tell from the outside, he has no interior world.  Throughout the film, except for one scene toward the end, he expresses the same flat geniality, shifting his lips from own "engaging" smile to another while conveying no emotion whatsoever.   He doesn't seem particularly 
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‘Love and Other Drugs’: Narcissistic Love

Several months before Love and Other Drugs had its theatrical release, I wrote a post about serial romantic relationship addiction on my After Psychotherapy site, inspired by the movie's title.  Now that it has come out on DVD, I've had a chance actually to see it.

Director Ed Zwick has given us a tale of two narcissistic people who take no trouble to hide their manipulative behavior from others but who are saved from utterly empty and selfish lives when love redeems them.  Although the redemptive power of love is one of my favorite themes (see my two-part post on Groundhog Day), in this case the transformation wears the Hollywood imprint a little too heavily.

As in so many romantic comedies, the happy ending feels contrived.  Even so, the film has some interesting insights about what drives narcissistic people and the nature of their attachment when they fall in love.  Along the way, it offers a shallow critique of Big Pharma that gets lost in the graphic sex, snappy dialog and plot twists.

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Anger and Hatred

‘Mildred Pierce’ (HBO): How to Make a Monster (Part Two)

In Part One of this review, I discussed the ways that Veda Pierce is the carrier for all the frustrated ideals and aspirations her mother Mildred cannot achieve.  From this point of view, we might say that there are some narcissistic aspects to Mildred's love for her daughter: if Veda were to rise in station and become someone of stature, Mildred would regard it both as a reflection upon herself and a fulfillment of her own frustrated longing to shine.

Using different language, we might say that Mildred has some merger and separation issues and is unable to see Veda as a completely distinct and separate person.

This dynamic becomes clearer as the story progresses. When 17-year-old Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), demonstrating all the features of
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