The Uncanny I: An Interview with Kristin Dombek

Usually an essay begins with an argument, for me. Not a linear argument, in the sense of a line of reasoning, but an argument as in two people or groups shouting at each other, but in my head. The dumber the disagreement, the more I want to kind of explode it and discover what it covers up, find better language for what life is really like. In this case, the disagreement was narcissism is the opposite of human—i.e., a total lack of warmth, empathy, “human” feeling—versus narcissism is everybody. Usually, what’s next is scene, where the language of the essay gets discovered, and the idea. Often an editor helps to lay bare the structure that will let the idea happen, rather than being told to the reader.

But in this book, at least in its final version, I wasn’t working in scenes but rather channeling kinds of Internet and academic language that aren’t really my own, and kind of sculpting that language like material. So there is so much telling, summary, which is painful for me to read. There wasn’t a reasonable progression of ideas, but on one axis, a progression of kinds of language, and then on the other, a slow panning out from the trapped, limited perspective of fearful, solitary, listicle-fueled diagnosis to a broader view, and poetry. 

.. The word narcissism was everywhere—this diagnosis of everyone’s ex, condemnation of the personal-essay trend, fear of the coming selfie apocalypse.

.. I had been wondering why people who seem evil to us, or who break up with us or just disagree with us entirely, can begin to seem “empty” and “fake” and uncanny, even inhuman. And as a nonfiction writer, and a reader, I’m always puzzling over the mysteries of ethos, when and why we trust and distrust whom we do, in life and in writing.

.. I suspect some of the things we condemn as narcissistic in others might be more accurately defined as how everyone has to perform—in capitalism, or online—doing things formerly considered vain, things we feel guilty or anxious about.

..  Like the journalist she writes about, and the murderer, too, the narcissist is bad because he fakes an “I,” rather than being an “I,” he charms you rather than being genuinely interested in you.

.. Arguably, nonfiction writers always fake an “I,” even if we don’t use the word, creating ethos, so the reader trusts the text. Maybe anyone who writes does, any Facebook poster does. But an “I” can feel generous or self-absorbed, to the reader, and so can a more “objective” voice. Maybe the ease with which we dismiss one another as narcissists these days is partly a symptom of how much it’s changed, and speeded up, the way that we determine how and when to trust writers, now that almost everyone’s writing publicly all day long online.

.. This question of when we trust texts is related, in my mind at least, to this everyday problem of when and why we judge others as so self-absorbed as to be beyond empathy, and to write them off or turn away from them. Of course, sometimes we have to separate from people. Sometimes maybe even judge others as selfish. But if we believe that, on the whole, others are becoming more selfish and self-absorbed than ever before, how willing would we be to trust each other enough to work on the great injustices, the inequality and environmental catastrophes of our time? Is the well-being of future humans even worth fighting for, if all millennials are assholes?

.. Your various chapters, as I read them, follow a surprising, slyly circular design—you often start with an observation that looks true, even self-evident, and then complicate it, such that the opposite of that initial observation is ultimately just as compelling, maybe even more true. How did you arrive at that shape? Did you see that circular design as echoing the way narcissism operates, or perhaps is said to operate?

.. And fear of narcissism. “He didn’t ask me a single question about myself. What a narcissist.” This is René Girard’s idea, that narcissism and fear of narcissism mirror each other.

.. People started dropping the word casually into conversation when they were around me, as if they were worried I thought they were one, and so they wanted to show me they knew what the word meant. I started wanting to exorcise this fear, so I think, I hope, the circular design lets the reader alternately suspect others and herself and me of the disorder until she’s just exhausted and stops worrying so much. Anyone who would pick up a book with this title is probably worrying too much.

..  E. M. Cioran’s great phrase—“thinking against oneself.” The Selfishness of Others is always thinking against, or away from, something you just wrote. I’m remembering a complex sequence early on that at once recognizes and deflects what you call your “personal stake” in the topic.

.. a complex sequence early on that at once recognizes and deflects what you call your “personal stake” in the topic. As you remark—“I’m an essayist; I write the word I all day long, and I’m nervous when I do. More than anything, I don’t want you to think me self-absorbed. So I will try to take up the topic of the narcissism epidemic objectively. If using the word I turns out to be a symptom of narcissism, you won’t hear from me again.”

.. I was joking! But yeah, the experiment was initially to outlaw use of the “I” for most of the book, and then have it turn into memoir, to kind of investigate why we read memoir, what we want from writing about the “I.” The last third was memoir, in the original draft. Anyway, yes, to take on this topic is probably grandiose, if that’s what you’re saying. It was supposed to be an even smaller book than it is, and my editors persuaded me this was too much.

.. I tried to keep a sense of an uncanny “I” moving under the text, without ever using the word, but it’s not really “me,” it’s fraudulent. At least until the last few pages. For example I’ve never had a boyfriend who I feared was a narcissist.

.. There is so much scholarship on the history of psychology and narcissism, and even in my reading I only skimmed the surface.

.. what do you think is our most dangerous misconception when we talk about narcissism?

.. One way to view narcissism is that the diagnosis is a symptom of a privileged portion of civilization—those of us who have time to go to therapy and sit online reading how to diagnose others—turning on itself, “thinking against itself,” maybe, but kind of blaming the problem always on someone else.

.. We’re called upon to curate our lives, share them, focus on ourselves and self-brand and compete for money and stay mentally healthy and say positive affirmations to raise our self-esteem, and then narcissism is the word we use to condemn others who do exactly these things.

.. And because the word names a lack of empathy, using it can create a certain narcissism of decency, I think, where we fetishize our own empathy. It feels new, but it’s also the oldest problem of the self. It’s tragic or it’s comic. Shakespeare was obsessed with it and David Foster Wallace exhausted it, to the extent that there was probably no need to write about it.