Drinking From the (Controversial) Well of Narcissism: Kristin Dombek at Greenlight Books

For the launch of her debut book, The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism, Kristin Dombek arrives to the proverbial stage nine minutes late. Is this narcissistic? Her exegesis has us all asking how much we truly read into other people’s so-called “narcissism,” a term, it seems, more easily bandied nowadays than “slut.” Dombek isn’t saying the narcissist doesn’t exist so much as he (or occasionally she) is often more phantom than some of us lead ourselves to believe.

Looking around at the audience in attendance at Greenlight Books, it makes sense to hear an aged, gray-haired man of rotund proportions lean over to his wife and say, “We’re the oldest ones here.” Indeed, because Dombek’s analysis is so heavily focused on that vilified current generation–the millennial–it’s only logical that the bulk of the crowd consists of twenty- and thirty-something tattooed Brooklynites, many with black-rimmed glasses.

Explored in conversation with n+1‘s co-editor Dayna Tortorici, Dombek maintained that the de facto narcissist in the narrative of now is, more often than not, the asshole boyfriend and the millennial girlfriend. As Dombek conjectured with a cautious grain of salt, the narcissist of the modern era has been repackaged as “the bad boyfriend” (as opposed to, in Freud’s day, when it was the female who refused to receive treatment from him) because women are the primary demographic reading self-help books and websites.

But more than a question about age, or even gender, a portion of the audience Q&A served to intensify the matter of examining the narcissist when one member asked Dombek why she felt the only people her book seemed to attract to the reading were white, as he was the sole black person there. From somewhere in the assemblage, a woman shouted, “You’re not the only one!” She then proceeded to piggyback off the inquiry regarding “curation” by noting that much of selfishness is a way of informing racism.

Briefly stumped on how best to provide a reply to a deeply-rooted problem, Dombek was impressed when another audience member soon after weighed in, speaking to the portion of the book that addresses a study on narcissism and its rise by basing the research on the increased use of the word “I” in literature. Smoothing over the dialogue, the woman proffered, “Maybe the real reason people feel more comfortable using ‘I’ is because of how fundamentally broken the word ‘we’ is.” This touching on a lack of unity among races and political leanings acknowledges just how multi-layered and faceted The Selfishness of Others is when it comes to evoking visceral responses stemmed from the subjectivity of personal experience.

A large majority attracted to this book will invariably be so because they feel someone in their own life is or has been the villainous narcissist seeking to drain one of all her empathy. When Dombek asked herself the “point” of the book, however, she stated that it is to propose to the American Psychiatric Association some criteria for diagnosing those with an inordinate fear of narcissists (or, “Narciphobia” as she coins it in the essay)–the symptoms of which somewhat mirror the narcissist himself. In this narciphobic reader’s case, the conviction that my ex–a constituent of the most self-involved sign of the zodiac, Leo–just had to be a narcissist in order to explain away all the reasons why he threw me over is primarily what prompted me to gravitate toward the title.

When I approach Dombek to sign my copy, I request her inclusion of a lion’s head in the signature, a reminder of the zodiac sign that most clearly represents the ultimate narcissist. And, in one of life’s infinite twists of irony, she laughingly (and very good-naturedly) mentions that she is a Leo and today is her birthday.

*Check out a detailed interview with Dombek here.

**Please pardon any perceived over use of the word “I” in this rehashing of drinking from the well of narcissism.

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