This morning while on the elliptical trainer at the gym, I noticed a program on the monitor above me featuring several young women with long dark hair, driving a Range Rover around parts of Los Angeles that I happened to recognize. On the crawl, I read the name Kardashian, along with many first names that began with the letter ‘K’. I am not so entirely out of touch with popular culture that I haven’t heard of the Kardashian family, but I’d never actually seen one of them on TV. I’m under the impression that Kim Kardashian is famous for no other reason than that she is famous. At first, I removed my glasses and focused more intently on my iPod music; eventually, I put the glasses back on when I thought I saw Bruce Jenner through my blurred vision; I recalled that he’d won a gold medal for something or other a long time ago, during my 20s. I hadn’t seen him in years.
With the aid of my corrective lenses, I saw right away that Mr. Jenner has had way too much plastic surgery. Frankly, I thought he looked bizarre and somehow pathetic. As the episode unfolded, the girls, all moderately attractive without being truly beautiful, spent a lot of time talking on their iPhones, snapping pictures of one another and emailing them, and driving around in their big expensive car. One of these girls, it turns out, has a fear of spiders; walking through the arid Calabasas hills, Mr. Jenner torments her with a spider he has found. Later in their kitchen, he shows her a jarred spider he has captured, then pretends to throw it at her. She appears to be traumatized and runs away.
Another one of the K girls decides that she needs to have a therapy session. Erica, her therapist, actually comes to their home and conducts the session on camera, making such brilliant remarks as, “It’s okay for you to feel that way.” The K2 girl is talking about her mother, who long ago had an affair (presumably while married to the actual father) and K2, now a mother herself, is processing some anger about it after all these years. “I could, like, never do anything to hurt my own children,” she tells Erica, “the way Mom hurt us.” (The K girls all use the work “like” a lot.) She wipes away her tears and Erica says, “That’s a hard one.” They both agree that the mother-daughter relationship is fraught with difficulty and that often, even if you don’t mean it, there can be some, like, competition going on between you and your mom.
All of this fills me with contempt. I am scornful of this vapid type of celebrity — celebrity for its own sake, not because you’re a gifted actor, musician, writer or singer, but simply because you have money and a TV show. I am deeply scornful of a therapist who would utter empty platitudes on national television just to have her 15 minutes of fame. Given that one of my recent posts was about contempt as a defense, I began to wonder if my contempt for the Kardashians and Erica the therapist were also defensive, or whether there might be some things that truly are contemptible. Are there people who deserve contempt for the things they do and the choices they make?
Several weeks ago, I was at a dinner party where one of the other guests found a way to make every single conversation center around herself. This Jessica talked non-stop about (1) her recent Caribbean vacation, during which she seemed to have been drunk most of the time and ate way too much; (2) her scintillating career selling real estate; (3) the size of her enormous house; (4) her son living in Paris who writes music no one has ever heard of; (5) her passion for spending far too much money on ostentious jewelry; and (6) her self-complacent opinions on such wide-ranging subjects as her husband’s wardrobe and how to “stage” your house when putting it up for sale. She monopolized the entire evening and said not one single thing of interest.
Do you find this sort of narcissistic person contemptible? I certainly do. I understand better than most people the insecurity and shame that lie behind such behavior, but that doesn’t make me feel sympathetic toward it at a dinner party. If Jessica had been a client during session, I could have said something about her behavior and tried to help her understand the need constantly to put herself in the limelight. As it was, I could only listen in utter boredom and be as polite as I could, out of respect for my friends who hosted the dinner. But another guest at that party may have permanently alienated the hostess when he told her, in the privacy of her kitchen, that Jessica was the biggest bore he’d ever met.
At the airport yesterday, before our flight home, a woman in the waiting area was talking so loudly on her cell phone, for so long, that we finally had to move seats. Self-absorbed people with no respect for others, who conduct idiotic conversations in a public space, oblivious to everyone around them — such people fill me with contempt. If he or she were my client and wanted help, I wouldn’t feel that way; but I have no respect for the person who always chooses the narcissistic defense and doesn’t look inward or try to grow, who has no real ability to understand or respect the feelings of others.
In the end, I think my contempt actually is a kind of defense: it “pushes” these people away from me, it puts them at a remote distance because I find it such a lonely and painful experience to be in contact with them. Jessica must be an extremely unhappy person, but I don’t really want to feel her pain; she has virtually no interest or ability to understand me as a separate person who is more than just a member of her audience. The Kardashians obviously lead lives of staggering emptiness and are totally adrift in a world where celebrity is the only value, but I don’t care to know anything more about the void at the heart of their lives. I find it alienating that such people hold “important” positions in our culture and that other individuals actually admire and look up to them. It makes me feel so alone.
Which is yet another reason why I’m a therapist.
What makes you feel contemptuous and do you think your reaction is legitimate?