“Narcissist” has become an easy catch-all term for bad behavior. Real narcissistic personality disorder, however, is an intricate and highly complex illness of devastating vulnerability.
Narcissists use sex to prop up their fragile sense of self. They are frequently sexual predators and involved with several women at the same time. In a study conducted between 1991 and 1993 of 25 clergy referred for assessment for sexual misconduct, 11 individuals were found to have strong narcissistic traits. Three were classified with narcissistic personality, three with personality disorder not elsewhere specified.
In Stalking the Soul, Marie-France Hirigoyen, an expert on victimology and narcissism, explains how a narcissist attempts to appropriate a woman’s identity to strengthen his own. The relationship begins when the envious abuser sees in the woman qualities he wants for himself. “The benefits in question are rarely material,” explains Hirigoyen. “They are elusive spiritual and moral qualities that can’t be stolen, such as love of life, sensitivity, creativity, or musical or literary gifts.” This suggests that victims will be among your congregation’s most gifted contributors.
For the narcissist, the woman is but an object-source for traits he covets. “By invading the psychic space of the other,” says Hirigoyen, “they try to take possession of this gratifying sustenance … but he still cannot find nourishment because nothing exists within that allows him to hold and make another’s substance his own.”
The attack is subtle, insidious and gradual. But from the start his goal is to destabilize the woman, which paralyzes her and prevents her from employing her usual defenses.
When the woman does seek to claim her independence, the abuser panics. His goal becomes to silence her — indeed, to annihilate her.
“The hatred already existed during the ascendance phase,” notes Hirigoyen, “but was diverted and masked to keep the relationship static. What was always there underground now becomes apparent. Contrary to general belief, this is not love alchemized into hatred, but envy transformed into hate. Nor is it love-hate, because the abuser never really loved in the true sense.”
He protects what little inner cohesion he does have by projecting his malice onto her. The abuser turns the tables and blames her for persecuting him, usually quite convincingly so.
“When this strategy works,” Hirigoyen explains, “it calms inner tension; this allows the emotional abuser to act pleasantly in the outside world. This explains the astonishment, or even denial, of people who learn about the abusive actions of a close relation who had previously only shown his or her positive aspect. The evidence of victims, seen in this light, hardly seems credible.”
Anna Salter, an expert who works with incarcerated sex offenders, adds the issue of deception: “People act in accordance with their characters —or so we think. … But ‘character’ ignores the real issue of deception. Even violent predators know enough to keep their behavior in check publicly.”
She continues, “There is a category of liar that is particularly hard to detect, called ‘practiced liars.’ After years of practice, normal signs of guilt and anxiety wear off … you will see no signs of nervousness or fear from a man who has succeeded in fooling others for more than fifteen years.”
Hirigoyen and Salter describe “lay” abusers. When a member of the clergy is the narcissistic abuser, the damage becomes exponential. Pamela Cooper-White reminds us that “religion and spirituality exist at the very frontiers of an individual’s hopes and dreads both about the meaning/meaningless of life and about mortality.” The clergy abuser assaults the victim’s greatest healing potential — her faith.
NORA MACKENZIE is the pseudonym of an Outlook contributor.