I don’t propose to wade into the Caitlyn Jenner controversy, especially since my views on the role of shame in transgender identification offend some people, but I’d like to share a few of my reactions to the Vanity Fair cover and the questions it evoked. I’d like to start a conversation rather than to deliver an opinion. I invite you to share your respectful, non-hostile views.
A while back, I wrote a post worrying over the difference between pride and narcissistic self-display. I’ve since made peace with this issue and feel comfortable expressing my feelings of pride in accomplishment, sharing my joy with friends and family members eager to rejoice along with me. I’ve also been helped by a recent example of another author who better demonstrates the true nature of narcissistic self-promotion.
I received a review copy of Alexandra Jamieson’s new book Women, Food, and Desire, and read it with great interest. Advance word suggested it would touch upon food cravings as partly defensive in nature – that is, the ways we eat to avoid dealing with some unacknowledged psychic pain. I address the defensive use of eating in my own book, Why Do I Do That?, so Jamieson’s book naturally appealed to me.
In April when visiting New York City, we had dinner one night with our friend Reed Birney, an actor whose scarily good performance in Harvey Fierstein’s Casa Valentina last season won him a Tony award nomination and a Drama Desk award for Best Featured Actor in a play (House of Cards fans: he also has a recurring role in that series as Rep. Donald Blythe). At dinner, Reed was talking about a 2013 article in the New York Times that dramatically elevated his public profile.
Unlike most of the actors he knew in his youth, Reed did not leave for Hollywood but remained in New York. While he has played many small parts in episodic television, he has spent most of his career as a stage actor appearing in Off Broadway productions, unknown to most people outside the theater world. Then came the lengthy New York Times article that profiled his career and celebrated his return to Broadway, after more than 30 years, in a revival of William Inge’s play Picnic. He was back on Broadway last season in Casa Valentina.
At dinner, Reed was talking about the sense of validation he felt, being profiled in what he referred to as “the newspaper of record.” The phrase stuck with me and I’ve thought of it often since April. For people of our generation – those of us with an interest in ideas, culture, and art – the New York Times speaks with unparalleled authority. To the writers I know, having a book reviewed by the Times is among the highest honors we can imagine. Composers and visual artists probably feel the same way, and not only because these reviews can make or break you. In an era where Facebook and Twitter allow everyone to become a short-form critic with a platform, the NYT gives us thoughtful reviewers whose informed opinions go deeper. When theater critic Ben Brantley has something to say about a new play, it’s most definitely worth listening to.
Writers whose work I admire regularly contribute to the NYT. Articles by Daphne Merkin and Andrew Solomon (author of Far from the Tree) often appear in its pages. Most recently, Ms. Merkin contributed an essay to the paper’s Couch feature, a part of the Opinion section that explores psychotherapy from the point of view of both clients and therapists. Her essay described the way she evoked laughter from her various therapists over the years and made me wonder if any of them were familiar with the concept of resistance. It also made me wonder, at the urging of friends, whether I should try submitting my own contribution to Couch.
I did. And it has been accepted. My essay now appears here in the online version of the New York Times. A shorter version will also run tomorrow in the print edition. Although my editor at the NYT assured me that “the vast majority” of readers will access it online, the experience of having an op-ed in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, print version, means much more to me.
None of my achievements these last few years has been quite so deeply satisfying, although selling The Narcissist You Know to Touchstone Books came close, and I suspect that seeing the book in print when it’s released this summer will be even more gratifying. In many ways, blogging and self-publishing have made me independent: I don’t need anyone in a position of authority – those people I think of as the “gatekeepers” – to validate my work, because readers who visit my blog and buy my books do that directly. I relish this independence but at the same time, if I’m honest with myself and not playing the sour grapes game, I admit that I still crave validation.
And now, like my friend Reed, I have it. I feel deeply validated by appearing in the newspaper of record. I hope you’ll read my essay, share it with others, and leave a comment if you’re so inclined.
Last weekend, our friend and next-door neighbor Gayle invited us to go with her to hear some live music at a local venue here in Grand Lake. We arrived after the band had already started its set and we sat down at a table with some of Gayle’s other friends — two retired couples we’d never met. Elaine, one of the women, sat at my left. After the band had played a few more songs, she started up a conversation.
It began, as many such conversations do, with questions like “Do you live here in Grand Lake?” and “Where are you from?” I naturally reciprocated. I learned that Elaine and her husband spent most of their year in Louisiana, after relocating from their native Florida to be closer to their son and grandchildren. When I asked how she liked living in Louisiana, a pained expression came over her face. In both Florida and Grand Lake, Elaine told me, she had found a sense of community through her churches, but hadn’t managed to do so in Louisiana. The congregations there were of the “holy roller” type and she felt out of sympathy with them.
Now that I’ve gone through all the responses to my last post and done a little more reading on the subject, I feel clearer about heroes and what we expect of them. While a number of people made idiosyncratic or very personal choices, the majority named men and women who tended (1) to have overcome some kind of adversity and (2) behaved in a selfless manner. I’ll be exploring these attributes further in the final section of my upcoming eSingle, The Hero as Narcissist: How Greg Mortenson and Lance Armstrong Conned a Willing Public, available some time during the month of April.
At first, I tried to make a distinction between heroes and role models, but the more I read about their defining features, they didn’t strike me as very different. Heroes and role models both tend to embody our ideals for human behavior. That’s a good thing, I suppose — we need to have ideals we can strive toward. But we can get into trouble when we idealize those people who embody our ideals, when we fail to see them as human beings with some outstanding qualities but flawed and fallible like the rest of us in other areas.