The Ambassador of Narcissism: An Interview with Sam Vaknin
By Bob Goodman
January 5, 2000 |
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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.<!--FOOTER NAV --!>