Reel Therapy

Unraveling the mind through film

Family Theory Explains Dexter's Darkness

Who is Dexter's dark passenger?

Dexter, for those of you who are unaware, is a Showtime series about a compelling, relatable figure who lives two lives. He is a brilliant blood splatter analyst by day, and serial killer of murderers and vermin by night. It's a show that has gained in popularity with each new season, and with its popularity has come thought-provoking questions about the nature of Dexter's psychological makeup, and what makes his seemingly unattractive tendency to kill so appealing.

Many theories have emerged. Experts who speculate that Dexter fits neatly into a diagnosis of Anti-Social Personality Disorder point to genes. Other psychologists note the traumatic event he endured as a three-year old (watching his mother get murdered), and point to PTSD as the underlying cause of his problematic worldview and violent motives.

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But another hypothesis emerged during a reading of "The Psychology of Dexter" that I found to be a superior explanation of Dexter's pathology.

It uses a systems or family therapy perspective to explain Dexter. And although genes and life experience clearly make up a significant portion of personality development, this perspective suggests that the dynamic of one's family plays a deceivingly strong role as well.

To understand how Dexter's family shaped the adult Dexter, we must first understand the dynamics of a healthy family. In a normative, or even sophisticated family system the parent takes it upon him or herself to meet the child's needs and to prioritize that responsibility above all else until the child is developmentally capable of meeting his own needs.

In stark contrast, unhealthy families follow a different trajectory, in which a polar opposite storyline emerges. Instead of serving the emotional and physical needs of the children, the parent decides to prioritize personal needs. This is what happens in narcissistic families.

So where does this "narcissistic family' hypothesis take us? To the doorstep of Harry, Dexter's father. There seem to be many popular interpretations of Harry and his impact on Dexter's personality development. Most of those interpretations have been positive. It's been noted that Harry has functioned as a moral compass, an inspiration and the first witness to Dexter's evil. And the show's portrayal of Harry is, of course, fairly consistent with this account. In recent episodes of season six, for instance, Harry has appeared (Harry has been deceased for many years but Dexter continues to engage with his father in a rich, imaginative inner world) to continue his role as the level-headed, self-esteem boosting guide.  

It would seem that, at least on the surface, narcissism does not fit. But let's consider this alternative, darker view of Harry.

Let's start from the end—does Dexter seem to be suffering the mental consequences that adult children of narcissistic families tend to suffer?

Tell-tale signs include a pervasive desire to please others, a chronic need for external validation, confusion over one's own identity,and difficulties identifying and expressing emotions like anger. Sound familiar? I think it's fair to say that Dexter's inner life contains each of these warning flags in abundance.

Further, there are three common elements to a narcissistic family: skewed responsibility (as the child care-takes for the parent), a pattern of reacting and reflecting parental needs (versus having one's own needs mirrored and met by healthy parents), and problems with intimacy that follow the child into adulthood (getting Dexter to open up is like pulling teeth).

In "It's all about Harry" Dr. Mauro elaborates on this idea, and provides compelling support that Harry may have been a narcissistic parent that possessed twisted needs, put his own needs ahead of Dexter's and, in fact, used and shaped Dexter to meet those needs. Pretty diabolical and manipulative—this is definitely not the Harry that Dexter see's but, then again, children of narcissistic fathers don't hate their fathers for being narcissistic, they adamantly love their fathers and are consumed with admiration and a desire to please.

Using the narcissistic family perspective, if one were to re-examine the show's flashbacks that chronicled Dexter's childhood and his interactions with dear old dad, one would clear note that Harry, in addition to functioning as a hard-working and ethical street cop, also likened himself to a savior. There are scenes that clearly illustrate his intolerance of criminals, particularly those he collared, who circumnavigating the justice system. Before learning of this perspective, and carefully noting these scenes that deliver penetrating insight into Harry's character, I had thought that Harry had simply recognized a source of evil within Dexter and had used unintentionally poor judgment in fostering those violent urges and creating a sense of shame and secrecy around Dexter's basic identity.

Looking at Harry though this new lens paints a more sinister picture. It's clear that the hypothesis of Harry as a well-meaning father whose strategies simply proved ineffective does not quite fit. Harry was too emotionally invested and pleased with Dexter's kills for this hypothesis to be true, and he was too proactive and aggressive in his teaching approach. Harry wasn't a passive victim of Dexter's inevitable and vicious urges to kill, Harry instructed Dexter to kill. Harry may have been a loving father who thought he was sublimating Dexter's violent urges, but he was also being a narcissist who was working to ensure that his own rigidly moral and obsessive agenda was being passed down from father to son.

Harry was the head of a narcissistic family, it would seem. And a tragedy comes with that realization. Dexter continues to kill, and he continues to experience great inner agony because he kills. He seems to think he kills for himself, that he's "addicted," but it doesn't ever feel quite right to him. A very real explanation for his inner turmoil and shaken identity is that he thinks he's serving his own innate agenda, when he's actually carrying out Harry's agenda. If it's an addiction, it's an urge to please his father. And Harry has been gone for a long time.

What's that motto? "It's all in the family..."

Jeremy Clyman, Psy.D., attained his doctorate in clinical psychology at Yeshiva University.

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