Thursday, December 10, 2015

Jim Jones: The Life and Death of a Narcissist - Part One

NOTE: This article was written as the final project for a college Psychology 110 class. It addresses the topic of narcissism honestly. It is, however, blunt and, in places, somewhat graphic. It is designed for a mature college audience. 

          It was November 18, 1979 in Jonestown, Guyana. Nine hundred fourteen people lay dead, victims of mass suicide. Their leader, Jim Jones, lay nearby, dead from a gunshot to the head. Nine hundred fourteen souls were snuffed out of existence due to extreme religious beliefs encouraged by Rev. Jim Jones. What kind of a madman would encourage his followers to kill themselves? Why was Jim Jones so certain that they had to die for his failed attempt at utopia? What was the root cause of his abuses of power within The People’s Temple?

           Many of the answers to these questions lie in a personality disorder known as narcissism. In this paper, we will explore the causes and symptoms of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). We will then zoom in and explore how each element played out in the life of Jim Jones and the tragic results thereof.

Part One - Narcissistic Personality Disorder

Before exploring the development and symptoms of NPD we must first define narcissism.

The Myth of Narcissus

Narcissism takes its name from the Greek myth of Narcissus. In the myth, Narcissus is a handsome lad who caught the eye of every maiden. His only downfall was him extreme self-infatuation. One nymph, Echo, was particularly lovesick for Narcissus. Sadly, Echo had offended the goddess Hera and was cursed with the ability to only repeat what others had immediately spoken. She followed Narcissus around, lovingly repeating anything he said. He shunned her advances and angrily said, “I will die before I give you power over me.” Out of heartbreak, Echo faded away until only her voice remained. The goddess of revenge, Nemesis, was infuriated by Narcissus’ actions and determined to exact vengeance on him. One day, as he leaned over to take a drink, he fell madly in love with his reflection. He refused to leave to pool and eventually he died and became the flower that bears his name, the narcissus.  

NPD Defined

Like the above myth, NPD is characterized by extreme self-love. The term was first coined by sexologist Havelock Ellis in 1898 as an almost erotic self-absorption (Lunbeck, 2014, p. 83). Freud theorized that narcissism is a normal part of development as everyone is, to one extent or another, in love with themselves. It was not until the early 1970’s that the definition of narcissism was refined and began to bear a resemblance to the modern concept. Heinz Kohut’s work The Analysis of Self: A Systematic Approach to the Psychoanalytic Treatment of Narcissistic Personality Disorders and Otto Kernberg’s Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism brought the issue of narcissism back into the public eye.

           Like Freud, Kohut and Kernberg believed that narcissism was a normal personality type. However, they distinguished this typical Narcissism from pathological narcissism. Pathological narcissism was an extreme and destructive variation of narcissism. It was defined as “the excessive and debilitating forms of self-love exhibited symptomatically as megalomania, egotism, emotional detachment, lack of empathy and feelings of emptiness.” This definition would be expanded upon and incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM-III) in 1980. This definition would be revised in the DSM-IV and reach the current psychological definition in the DSM-5.

Attributes of Narcissism

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders of the American Psychiatric Association Fifth Edition (DSM-5), there are nine diagnostic criteria of NPD. In order to be diagnosed with NPD, an individual must exhibit five or more of the nine criteria. Here are the nine criteria from the DSM-5:

- Has a grandiose sense of self importance (e.g. exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements.)

- Is preoccupied with fantasies unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love.

- Believes that he or she is special and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions.)

- Requires excessive admiration.

- Has a sense of entitlement  (i. e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations).

- Is interpersonally exploited (i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends).

- Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.

- Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her.

- Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.  

The Development of Narcissism

Now that the origins of NPD, the definition of NPD, and the traits of NPD have been covered, it would be beneficial to delve into the manner by which narcissism develops within an individual.
According To Sander Thomaes, Brad J. Bushman, Bram Orobio De Castro, And Hedy Stegge’s article What makes narcissists bloom? 
A framework for research on the etiology and development of narcissism (2009), narcissism is an extreme form of universal self-esteem motivation. As this motivation generally emerges fully at around eight years of age, it is challenging to recognize the seeds of NPD before that point.

At the age of eight, the early signs of NPD can be recognized on personality questionnaires, including an exaggerated sense of self-importance and a desire to dominate others. As for what causes narcissism initially, studies point to inherited temperament as a factor. Approach temperament, in particular, appears to have a link to narcissism. Approach temperament is characterized by being stimulated by positive incentives continuing through life to form an individual driven by impulse, enjoy social situations, and seek out positions of leadership. These attributes are in line with the narcissist’s constant search to validate their inflated views of themselves. However, other temperaments may also have a role to play within narcissism and an individual with approach temperament may not, necessarily, become a narcissist.

            Parental interactions with children also have a role to play in the early development of NPD. Both excessive praise of a child’s achievements and excessively high standards for a child may lead to narcissism later in life. Children with excessively adoring parents learn from an early age that they are special and begin to think of themselves as better than others. On the other end of the spectrum, children with cold, demanding parents learn to rely on the affirmation of their peers for encouragement, growing accustomed to and requiring constant positive reinforcement. While narcissism has a root in the childhood of the individual, it is difficult to determine one universal path of development for NPD. Complicating the study thereof is the fact that much of the information about a narcissist’s childhood comes from the narcissist himself. As those suffering from NPD are notorious for twisting the facts of the past to put them in a favorable light, this proves an unreliable source for information.

          In the next part of the article, we will explore the development of NPD in Jones' life and how it affected his relationships and, ultimately, resulted in the atrocities at Jonestown.

As this was a college psychology essay, it was originally formatted in APA. If you wish to view the works cited, please click HERE

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