Nearly halfway through this book-length essay Kristin Dombek admits to using the kind of shallow depictions she is criticizing in other books and articles, but then it is a problem inherent to the form. How does one capture a person in 1,600 words, or even 70,000?
The problem Dombek is exploring in The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on the Fear of Narcissism is a rash of lazy pop psychology online diagnosing pseudo-celebrities, ex-boyfriends, and an entire generation (spoiler alert: it's millennials) of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If Dombek isn't able to adequately sum up the lives of the people she brings into her arguement, it only serves her point. She may not be able to prove someone isn't a narcissist but the takeaway is that it is a very difficult thing to sum up a life, to throw a label around is a dangerous thing to do unless you can really back it up.
The thinness of internet diagnoses is almost comical, but Dombek, being a more serious essayist than myself, gives them an honest hearing and delves into the history of narcissism from the Greek story of Narcissus through Freud and finally to the DSM. It's a troubled history, based on misunderstanding and often reflecting as much on the diagnostician than on the diagnosed.
I could have been satisfied with just her chapter "The Millennial" which goes into the story of Allison, whose callousness on an episode of My Super Sweet Sixteen has become legend in books and essays and in the popular conception of the narcissistic millennial. Except, of course, she has a whole life, almost none of which was the one sentence where she insisted on closing down a street that goes past a hospital for the sake of her birthday party (and I think we've all known since at least 2005 that reality shows have naught but the thinnest relation to the reality they depict, much less any reality we know).
"It takes only a brief Internet search, though, to flesh out a bit more bout Allison's life," Dombek says, as if no one had considered to look past the surface before judging that there was nothing behind it.
She's married, Dombek reports, she and her husband run a foundation to help impoverished school children in Atlanta. She got her bachelor's degree in psychology. She may be a narcissist, she may be a sociopath for all I know, but casting a diagnosis based on one moment, or on any one appearance on MTV, must necessarily be more about our own assumptions about a group than about that group itself.
I don't think our tendency to play armchair psychologist is all that novel or dangerous, but I think Dombek has produced a thoughtful work here that hopefully reminds us that when we decry people who live on the internet we're judging people by what we see on the internet. It's well researched but is grounded in the experience of the writer who has been thinking of these things, witness as we all are to selfies and food pics and the other wonders of social media.
The Selfishness of Others is a slim book for all it contains, it is focused and can be gone through quickly. Be ready for some dense psychology stuff when you get into the thick of things, but it is worth getting through.