Title: The Life of I: The New Culture of Narcissism
Author: Anne Manne
Genre: Non-fiction (Adult)
Release Date: August 3, 2015
“Far from being the work of a madman, Anders Breivik’s murderous rampage in Norway was the action of an extreme narcissist. As the dead lay around him, he held up a finger asking for a Band-Aid.
Written with the pace of a psychological thriller, The Life of I is a compelling account of the rise of narcissism in individuals and society. Manne examines the Lance Armstrong doping scandal and the alarming rise of sexual assaults in sport and the military, as well as the vengeful killings of Elliot Rodger in California. She looks at narcissism in the pursuit of fame and our obsession with ‘making it’. She goes beyond the usual suspects of social media and celebrity culture to the deeper root of the issue: how a new narcissistic character-type is being fuelled by a cult of the self and the pursuit of wealth in a hypercompetitive consumer society.
The Life of I also offers insights from the latest work in psychology, looking at how narcissism develops. But Manne also shows that there is an alternative: how to transcend narcissism, to be fully alive to the presence of others; how to create a world where love and care are no longer turned inward.” (Melbourne University Press)
Most people would be familiar with the story of Narcissus: the youth of Greek mythology who was so beautiful that upon catching his own reflection in a stream, fell in love with it thinking it was a water sprite, and died while pining away for himself (that’s the short version). When we think of narcissists in modern society, we perhaps think of those people who ‘love themselves’, especially those who post an unneeded amount of ‘selfies’ on social media, or who can’t resist looking at their own reflection in a shiny surface.
Little did I know that narcissism is actually a clinical personality disorder that goes far beyond loving oneself too much in aesthetic terms; at the extreme end of the narcissistic spectrum there can be violence accompanied by a complete lack of remorse and an inability to recognise any wrongdoing.
In The Life of I: the New Culture of Narcissism, Anne Manne sheds some light on the psychology of narcissism. Through the use of some well known recent incidents such as the doping scandal surrounding Lance Armstrong; the massacre of seventy-seven young Norwegians by Anders Breivik; and even the role of Alan Greenspan in the GFC, Manne uncovers the inner workings of the narcissist, and provides psychological insight that goes a long way to discerning the reason for these people’s actions.
While outwardly these cases appear to have little in common, on a psychological level they are not overly dissimilar from each other, and in each instance, the reasons provided to the world for their actions appear to be little more than a facade. They are instead driven by what Manne calls the “darker core aspects of narcissism” to gain attention at any cost. Manne dissects each of these individuals (amongst others) and uses them to tell a larger story about the society as a whole. Society is, after all, made up of individuals, and it is society who makes us who we are.
The case of Armstrong was particularly interesting as the utilisation of such a public figure, whose life was essentially laid bare for the world to see, provides a fascinating insight into how the narcissist works. Being able to view his childhood and his career in light of the information provided by Manne puts the entire scandal into a whole new perspective, and provides a new way of viewing Armstrong both before and after the scandal broke.
For a reader who isn’t overly familiar with psychology and personality disorders, The Life of I was a little difficult to read at times. At the halfway point I was beginning to feel swamped with information and found myself wondering how I was going to finish, but thankfully approximately the last 40 percent was notes and references.
Despite the information overload, for the most part the book was written in such a way that even a layman like me could understand what I was reading. The level of research undertaken for this book is admirable and although there are perhaps a couple of sources that are utilised more heavily than others, in general the arguments provided are backed up with plenty of reliable data, some of which would make for some interesting further reading.
Reading The Life of I was an illuminating experience both on a personal and social level. I came away from it recognising some aspects of myself that could be considered narcissistic, but also understanding how I have come to be that way which enables me to change. Along with that, I now have a different lens through which to view current events and the way human society works.
Any book that can cause the reader to not only reflect on themselves as an individual can only be a good thing; one that causes the reader to also reflect on society as a whole is a book that needs to be read by everyone.
*This review first appeared in The Australia Times – Books magazine.