The Narcissism of John Edwards: Impostor Success or Failure?

In my first preview of one of Kipling’s two impostors, triumph, I casually nodded to hubris as the most obvious mechanism that turns success into disaster, then went on to give another example that I thought was a bit subtler.

And now John Edwards forces me to come back to hubris. In case, you’ve been behind the moon, we now know that he cheated on his wife. More interestingly, we have now heard why he thinks he cheated. The key phrase in his mea culpa to ABC’s John Woodruff, was this: Becoming a “national public figure”, he said:

fed a self-focus, an egotism, a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want, you’re invincible and there will be no consequences.

We always knew, of course, that Edwards had a narcissist in him, at least since we watched him preening here:

Narcissus, at least in Ovid’s version of the myth, was the handsome youth who fell in love with his own reflection as he bent down to drink from a stream, and then wouldn’t touch the water lest he ruffle the beautiful image in it, and so died of thirst. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say. Impostor beauty, as we might paraphrase.

So narcissism is slightly different from hubris, although Edwards conflates the two. Hubris is the classical Greek notion that power and success make people arrogant, and that this arrogance then invites disaster. Think Ken Lay, Eliot Spitzer, et cetera. And now, John Edwards?

Maybe, maybe not. I’ll give you one contra and one pro. The contra is Steven Berglas, a specialist in “narcissistic disorders” at Harvard Medical School for many years, who writes here that Edwards is kidding himself, and that it was in fact Edward’s failure to become Vice President in 2004 that is to blame:

I feel that Edwards had a need to re-assert his power and his masculinity (via an affair) because of his history of believing that his entire self-worth derived from success. Had Edwards not “proved his potency,” I feel he would have suffered ego-annihilation when he failed.

The pro comes from research by Cameron Anderson at Berkeley’s Haas School and Adam Galinsky at Northwestern, who found that perceived power does make people excessively optimistic and blind to risk. In one of their experiments, they discovered that those participants who were more powerful were less likely to use condoms. Who says academics never have fun?

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The treacherous First Person

I’ve been meaning to share a tidbit of a conversation I recently had with my colleague at The Economist, Tom Standage, while we were having lunch at Zuni in San Francisco. Both of us are writing books, both of which are not traditional “histories” but have a strong element of history, and indeed assume a reader intellectually curious about history and open to seeing its timeless legacies in the world around us today. Tom’s is about food throughout history and to our own day. Mine is about life, specifically success and failure, throughout history and to our own day.

The interesting tidbit for writers, however, was our spontaneous and passionate agreement on a matter of literary fashion: the First Person. We were not entirely against it, but extremely skeptical.

American publishers tend to push writers into “personalizing” their non-fiction stories. Journalists, especially columnists, are increasingly doing the same thing. Personalizing can indeed be a good thing, in the sense that good stories need characters, and writers need to present them colorfully. The problem is that “I” tends to be the wrong character to put into the story.

If you are writing a book about an earth-shattering event, conspiracy, cover-up, war, disease or what have you, and you were genuinely a protagonist in that story, by all means, personalize away. Tell us what happened to you. That is the story.

But if you’re just telling a good story, and then looking for ways to use the word I, please stop. Why do we have entire paragraphs in The Atlantic (otherwise one of my favorite magazines) whose sole purpose is to say that so-and-so “told me” such-and-such, which was probably utterly banal? Well, because the writer wants to prove to us that he was there, you see. At The Economist, we believe that readers already assume that we were there and, besides, don’t much care either way, because they just want a cracking good story or analysis. So by I-ing and me-ing, you’re really just getting in the way of the story. You’re turning sophisticated readers off.

Once you try writing without the First Person, you may find it surprisingly difficult. Which is why it is such excellent discipline! Without the I, you can’t fake it. You can’t give us the three-paragraph “color” opening about how “I was walking into his office on a sunny March day” and so forth. You actually have to deliver a detail or observation that is telling. Much harder to do!

So I kept telling my students at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism to try leaving the First Person out. They kept ignoring me. Through blogs and email and all those columns, it has seeped into our writing culture. It’s just so much easier.

The result is reams and reams of writing that is narcissistic. I could highlight one or two high-profile books and articles, but I know better. (Also, I admit that some of them do become best-sellers, which may be why publishers push the First Person so hard.) But next time you’re reading an I piece, try stripping out the First Person and seeing what content or substance is left. If a lot, good article. If not a lot, it was a narcissist.

But I did say that neither Tom nor I was* completely against the First Person. I’m using it in this blog, obviously. (Then again, a blog is by definition an ultra-personal medium.) And I’ve also, after agonizing about it, decided to use it in my book, which I am–yes–“personalizing.”

The challenge I see is to do this without being narcissistic and interrupting a cracking good story for the heck of it. In short, it is about finding an authentic voice or tone. That, of course, is true whether you’re using the First Person or not.

(*Bonus: did the was surprise you? Did you think it should be were? Nope, was is correct. More to come in future posts.)
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