People in the throes of a relationship with a narcissist may have difficulty labeling and understanding the experience. The subtle invalidation of emotions, the continued challenges to perceptions, the covert undermining of thoughts can all contribute to a toxic erosion of self-knowledge and self-worth. Internalization of blame can be painful and paralyzing. Public dissemination of information about narcissistic personality disorder through personal memoirs, research summaries, and other fact-based means can be helpful to individuals struggling to make sense of what they are going through with the narcissists in their lives.
I would argue that fictionalized accounts of narcissism and its effects on relationships are also helpful. Fiction may be emotionally resonant and less threatening than other modalities of information transmission. It may reach a wider audience, or different audience. People reading a novel for its own sake may be exposed to important information about this disorder. And knowledge is power, whether the ultimate beneficiary of that knowledge turns out to be the reader him/herself or a loved one.
In Blue-Eyed Devil (2008), Lisa Kleypas explores narcissism in both a romantic and a professional context. Oil heiress Haven Travis defies her family’s expectations (and explicit objections) to marry Nick Tanner. In short order, Nick allows his loving mask to slip and his malignant self-absorption to show. He forces Haven to quit work and devote herself full-time to his needs. In typical narcissist fashion, Nick is obsessed with his appearance and image; he demands that Haven spend hours ironing his clothes and he becomes enraged when she does not meet his impossible standards. He begins calling her Marie because he finds it more sophisticated, paying no regard to her own preferences. Nick is markedly inattentive to Haven’s sexual needs but becomes furious at what he perceives as her “frigidity.” When he crosses the line into physical violence, Haven is finally able to begin to identify the experience as abusive.
After a cataclysmic assault in which Nick rapes her and dumps her on the doorstep, Haven walks barefoot to a nearby grocery store to call for help. She is taken in by one brother, and offered a job by another brother. She enters therapy to begin her recovery from the months of abuse she suffered at the hands of her narcissistic husband. Haven learns:
“A bully or someone with a personality disorder needs to keep their victims confused, off balance, perpetually unsure of themselves. That way he-or she-could manipulate you more easily. Gaslighting could be anything that made you doubt yourself.”
“Yes…I knew how to handle a narcissist. You could never disagree with one. You had to look awed by everything they did, and miss no opportunity to flatter or praise them. Basically, you had to sell out in every conceivable way, until there was nothing left of your dignity, self-respect, or your soul.”
“And I knew Nick for exactly what he was, a narcissist who was incapable of caring about anyone but himself. I could never change him, or make him aware of his own flaws. Nick wanted what he wanted…he didn’t understand himself any better than a shark was aware of why it wanted to kill and eat.”
Unfortunately, Haven’s job with her brother’s company comes with its own problems-a narcissistic boss named Vanessa. Vanessa is intolerant of any achievements that might outshine her own, and takes pains to sabotage Haven’s chances for success (giving the wrong time for meetings, filling her work time with menial tasks, and so on). Because of her experiences with Nick and her ongoing therapy, Haven is able to identify the toxic behaviors almost immediately and take steps to protect herself, instead of condemning herself.
Despite what she eventually learns, it is worth emphasizing that Haven initially blames herself and her perceived “inadequacies” for the emotional abuse. Only when Nick becomes violent is she able to begin to question whether she is truly at fault. Of course, many, many individuals with narcissistic personality disorder may gaslight, control, or otherwise devalue without ever becoming physical. This underscores the importance of raising public awareness of narcissism and its manifestations.