Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cultural Narcissism and Toxic Fame

Mental illness often has a biological, inherited component. Though I am not usually a person inclined to self-promote, my own personal story of disability has been featured in a recent book. In it, four pages are devoted to the intersection of bipolar disorder and religious belief. While the book was being compiled, I wrote out, and then submitted a summary of my life. About half of it was used in the final version. As a society, the way we perceive of mental illness shows up in truncated fashion, often because we haven’t felt comfortable connecting the dots.

Much of our popular understanding of mental illness comes from works of narrative fiction. Authors like Ken Kesey and Sylvia Plath documented their own symptoms and struggles in novel form. Their books were emotionally powerful because they lifted the shroud of secrecy and shame. In their time, honesty on this scale was profoundly shocking and often disturbing. Mental illness was never to be mentioned in public for any reason. One side of my own family has regrettably taken this same approach.

I’d much rather confront a different sort of brain disorder, one not necessarily confined to depressive episodes and histrionic displays of mania. Most people who do not have mental illness, or who don’t have family members with it find it harder to completely understand. I’d rather shift the focus to an illness upon which we might all be able to relate. Namely, I’d like to talk about the long term psychological impact of a life spent in the public eye.

Periodically, our attention is consumed by another celebrity coping inadequately with substance abuse. More recently, it was Whitney Houston. In time, it will be someone else. Rather than referencing an underlying psychiatric diagnosis like depression or bipolar disorder, I’d like to propose that celebrity itself is toxic and unhealthy. We’ve given that idea lip service for a long time, but have never really examined the problem in the detail it deserves. The amount of money and number of basic livelihoods involved in a billion-dollar industry likely extinguishes any debate before it even has a chance to get started.

What follows is a very real personality disorder, one which is a learned behavior, not an inherited biochemical disease.

Acquired situational narcissism (ASN) is a form of narcissism that develops in late adolescence or adulthood, brought on by wealth, fame and the other trappings of celebrity.

ASN differs from conventional narcissism in that it develops after childhood and is triggered and supported by the celebrity-obsessed society: fans, assistants and tabloid media all play into the idea that the person really is vastly more important than other people, triggering a narcissistic problem that might have been only a tendency, or latent, and helping it to become a full-blown personality disorder.

"Millman says that what happens to celebrities is that they get so used to people looking at them that they stop looking back at other people."

In its presentation and symptoms, it is indistinguishable from narcissistic personality disorder, differing only in its late onset and its support by large numbers of others. "The lack of social norms, controls, and of people telling them how life really is, also makes these people believe they're invulnerable," so that the person with ASN may suffer from unstable relationships, substance abuse and erratic behaviour.
No one is born with ASN. Though a person might be inclined to some of these symptoms beforehand, celebrity makes them much worse. We shoulder some of the blame. Though we do not sell drugs to those in the public eye, nor encourage their worst qualities, we are nevertheless their enablers. Every time we placate people who have an already inflated and exaggerated sense of themselves, the problem gets worse. Don’t get me wrong. We should hold sympathy in our hearts. Still, efforts to make needed changes are limited unless we back them up with accountability.

Lashing out verbally or in written form is a popular form of civic discourse. That is not what I mean. All we’re really doing is taking part in a cultural version of Orwell’s Two Minute Hate. Celebrities often only exist as a popular, easy means to project our own hopes, desires, and frustrations. We might feel better afterwards for having vented, but the cycle never ends. A celebrity does something foolish or says something foolish, an outpouring of boos and cat calls are heard, and we’re right back where we started. Entirely rethinking the idea of fame is the boldest proposal of all.

For all of the hate and disgust they produce, we allow celebrities to act recklessly because they stand in for us. Daily life for most of us is full of relatively bland responsibilities like a job, children to raise, and bills to pay. Our criticism is as much envy as it is disgust. Ours is a love/hate relationship, and the pendulum swings freely and frequently.

Even with all the wealth spent every year for promotion, even with the constant rumors about pregnancy, even with the massive speculation about sexual orientation, even with spurious rumors in the tabloid press, even when great opulence and financial gain completely eviscerate someone’s privacy, we have no reason to take the bait. This conduct of ours feeds a dual addiction. The mass of us live lives of quiet desperation. Our co-dependent beliefs must come to an end. Until then, we’ll be burying another star who was overwhelmed by the pressure cooker of fame.

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