Tommy Gilbert Jr.—a 30- year old Princeton graduate—shot his father in the head. The apparent provocation was a reduction in his living expense allowance. He went to his parents' NYC apartment, asked his Mom go out and buy food, murdered his father and tried to make it look like a suicide. His Mom returned within fifteen minutes because she sensed something was wrong, but it was too late.
The father, an industrious entrepreneur, was trying to launch his own hedge fund. He and his wife had cut down on their own expenses as well. The affable, well-regarded Mr. Gilbert supported his troubled son for many years both emotionally and financially. It seems that Tommy had difficulty with relationships, couldn’t hold a job, frequented shooting ranges, may have committed credit card fraud and struggled with addiction. He had been treated for a psychiatric condition.
In 2010, Tommy was suspected of setting fire to a mansion owned by family friends. After an altercation with his childhood companion, Tommy beat him up, violated the subsequent restraining order and then tried to make amends. He was rejected. The battered friend, sensing further fury from Tommy after he rebuffed him, was worried that Tommy would “kill him.” The fire followed.
Why does a person who has it all murder a parent? If pedigree, private school, beauty, talent, funds, social register status and supportive parents do not protect, what does? The question of mental illness versus utter baseness arises. Sometimes lack of concern for others is part of the illness, as in certain personality disorders. Though one cannot diagnosis a person one has not treated, speculation might be useful for understanding the possible underpinnings of such extreme aggression.
Five diagnoses come to mind in the above case:
Some characteristics of Malignant Narcissism:
Malignant Narcissists will go to great lengths to achieve their aim. They can be intelligent, high functioning (hold an important job for example) soft-spoken, charming, tearful/seemingly emotional, gracious, well mannered, kind and have the ability to form relationships. They may lie, falsely accuse, dramatize, smear, cheat, steal, manipulate, accuse, blame or twist to get what they want and feel justified in doing so. Because they are entitled, egocentric and desperate, they do not experience it as wrong. They are determined to gratify their wishes and furious if thwarted. Their desire can be so consuming that there is little comprehension of, respect for or ability to empathize with the other. They lack guilt or remorse and tend to feel or pronounce that it is they who have been mistreated. They can be of any gender, race or social class.
The combination of subtle paranoia, lack of conscience and sadism in Malignant Narcissists renders these individuals scary, dangerous, and ruthless. Because they have not internalized the capacity for restraint, revenge for imagined assaults can be cruel, excessive and unfathomable. Their wish to humiliate and destroy can be extreme.
The brutality can be directed at a specific person and hidden from others. They may torment someone in private and claim that it is the other way around, as masters of this classic form of “projection.” They pinpoint those with gullibility and goodness who might trust too much or be incapable of fighting back with similar measures. For many people, it is not psychologically possible to return the lies, manipulations, deceit, and emotional violence. A modicum of mental health and basic decency preclude this option. Unfortunately, if the Malignant Narcissist is an effective storyteller, unknowing, well meaning others will support his or her destructive actions, and contribute to a horrid, wrenching mess.
Being the target of such a person can be terrifying. Psychologist Erich Fromm who invented the term Malignant Narcissist described it as a “severe pathology, the quintessence of evil and the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity.” We might ascribe this to terrorists, dictators or sadistic historical figures but it can be one, even two people in one family who cause a lifetime of heartache. As one personality disorders expert told me while I was in training, “These people terrorize their families.”
How does a person become a Malignant Narcissist? Most illnesses have biological underpinning shaped by environmental influences but exact etiology is not clear. It is clear that loving, kind, good parents can produce very disturbed children. Parents can suffer more that anyone. Helpless to control the situation, the fear, confusion, disbelief, denial, self blame and shame they live with takes a toll. The parents need support but they may not seek it.
That said, there are more and less helpful ways to respond to a person with this affliction. Early awareness that such a character is budding may help a person with these tendencies internalize self-control. This can save them from severe consequences and protect others from them in the future. If someone in your midst is so afflicted, here are
12 Approaches to the Problem:
These suggestions may seem simplistic. Though they are easy to understand, they can be hard to implement. That is where the work needs to be done. Some parents find it impossible to withhold, say no, not give. It goes against their nature. Perhaps they were once deprived. Perhaps they feel unkind or even immoral for not stretching to the point of suffering and exhausting themselves. Learning to give less emotionally or practically can be a huge challenge. But living the truth, confronting the problem and not indulging can be the most empathic gesture. It can be the greatest support of mental health for all concerned.
One parent told me she was always “scared” of her daughter.
“From a young age, she lied. She walked down the street and told a good friend of mine I was abusing her. My friend called me, troubled by my daughter’s “disloyalty.” I was so hurt, embarrassed. She has always done that, told people that a boyfriend or a boss or family member is mistreating her when they aren’t. People believe her unless they are astute somehow. I don’t know why she does it, maybe to gain sympathy or attention or love. I don’t understand. I have never been able to understand.
My husband and I gave her money, therapy, great schools, emotional support, almost everything she needed or asked for, but she was hostile, angry, so vengeful if crossed. Once she burned all the gifts a friend had given her after a fall out. No matter how we tried to stop her, she did whatever she wanted: left the house in the middle of the night, brought home boys, friends, drugs when we were gone. I came home after a trip and I could see that my bed had been used. She, said cutting things about our bodies, looks, told us she hated us. She was cruel. It was terrible. She did not care, no matter what we said. We begged, yelled, threatened. She laughed in our faces. She screamed and said F--- Y--. It was almost as if…she terrorized us.
Are some people untreatable? Maybe we gave too much. I tried to hide this from others, say all was well, put up a good front. You don’t want to tell people, friends or other family members what goes on behind closed doors. You try to pretend it isn’t as bad as it is, she will change, but it goes on, worsens. You try to stop it, control it. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. I felt so helpless. I wanted to run away from my family, my life. My work saved me, took me away from the stress at home.
My son was so much easier, easy going, helpful. I think he suffered too from her excesses. She gave him alcohol, drugs when he was very young, hid her stash in his room. I found out later that she exposed him to things….I can’t even talk about it. But he is ok now, has done well.
My daughter is smart but does not understand what she does, how she hurts people, the impact she has. Or she does and it does not matter. When she gets what she wants, she is wonderful. If she doesn’t she becomes hysterical and threatens. I just can’t fight her anymore. I am weak, walking on eggshells, isn’t that what they say, I did all I could do, and well I’m tired.. I just so crave those moments when she is kind.
From early on she created so much tension, in the family, between me and my husband. She didn’t seem to care about anything but…but her pleasure, her own pleasure. It was somehow hard to believe that this was my child. I was ashamed of her promiscuity, her drug use, her suspensions, calls from teachers, the waste of her talents, her brain. I was ashamed to be ashamed. I had so much hope for her. I loved her imagination, whimsy. Sometimes she was just so funny. I just don’t know how it all went wrong…, “
The above is a paraphrased expression from an anonymous client.
A page turning memoir, The Splendid Things We Planned by @BlakeBaileyOn describes a frightening, disturbing older sibling of similar ilk.