Fixating on Demons

Dombek makes this case elegantly, and by heavy implication: If you are strongly averse to something, won’t you inevitably have trouble recognizing it within yourself? The religious fear of evil can itself lead to evil—a desire to protect unborn children, for instance, can cause a callous disregard for women’s lives. The fear of being inconsistent about one’s feminism often leads one to be inconsistent about one’s feminism. Fixating on any demon necessitates a deep familiarity with it, and today my fear of narcissism derives from intimate acquaintance with the many evolving ways a person can bend her life into a flattering mirror online. In the book’s opening section, before giving up the first-person pronoun, Dombek writes, “If using the word I_ _turns out to be a symptom of narcissism, you won’t hear from me again.”

As a reader, I resisted this notion: there’s a plain responsibility to the “I” when it’s used well, an admission that human experience is often too specific for a “we.” But as a writer I know exactly where Dombek is coming from. This fear of appearing narcissistic—of being_ _narcissistic, deep down—is where a particularly elusive form of the disorder may live. I am disturbed by the idea of being narcissistic, and yet I find other people’s self-absorption merely embarrassing. If that disturbance stems from an abiding suspicion that I can’t see myself clearly, well, what greater proof of overwhelming self-concern could there be?

Jia Tolentino
@jiatolentinoJia Tolentino is a staff writer at The New Yorker whose work includes an exploration of youth vaping and essays on the ongoing cultural reckoning about sexual assault. Previously, she was the deputy editor at Jezebel and a contributing editor at the Hairpin. She grew up in Texas, attended the University of Virginia, served in the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, and received an M.F.A. in fiction from the University of Michigan. Her first book, the essay collection “Trick Mirror,” was published in August, 2019.

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