Can't Touch This!

Why did van der Sloot yawn?

Posted Jan 18, 2012

Joran van der Sloot, scheduled to plead guilty to murder earlier this month, wanted more time to "reflect" on the deal he would make. He seemed to think that the court should accommodate him, and even yawned widely to punctuate his arrogance. Certain offenders display a perplexing resilience. It's called narcissistic immunity, or "Teflon narcissism." They think they're special.

You might see this attitude in a risk-taking CEO, a celebrity athlete, even a musician, but you'll definitely find it in many extreme or repeat offenders. They rebound easily from setbacks, because they're confident of their invulnerability - even when evidence is clearly against them. That's because narcissistic immunity is entrenched in their personality; it's a survival mechanism that's devoted to blind self-protection. Van der Sloot said he wanted to give a "sincere confession," which he knew was a doorway to a reduced sentence. It was another ploy in a life of manipulation.

Even the murder van der Sloot committed expressed his sense of entitlement. He was with Stephany Flores in a hotel room in Lima, Peru, in May 2010. He'd just met her and when she snooped in his computer, he said, he flew into a rage and broke her neck. Then he fled in her car. When caught, he blamed a stress disorder, but this wouldn't explain why he stole her money, car, and credit cards. "Stress" also does not explain why he extorted money from Beth Holloway to pay for information he never provided about her missing daughter Natalee. (He's a suspect in Natalee's 2005 disappearance as well.)

When van der Sloot wrote an outline of his "life story" for a psychologist (released January 18), he made Natallee some vague "American girl" and avoided the murder that got him arrested. To him, his victims are faceless individuals who have made his life more difficult.

The peculiar resilience of narcissistic immunity derives from arrogance and disdain. Narcissists develop a smug sense of superiority that allows them to thoughtlessly exploit others for their own gain. It's more than just overblown self-esteem. It's a clinical disorder that distorts reality, because excessive narcissists are enveloped inside a thick cocoon of their own concerns that buffers them from what others think or feel.

Narcissistic immunity is akin to magical thinking, a distorted belief about how the world will - must -- support them. They believe they're "protected" due to their special status: something will always save them. They have a "destiny." They won't get caught, but if they do, then they won't be convicted. If they are, then they'll win an appeal. If they don't, then they'll escape. Their self-investment is so certain in their minds that they cannot conceive of paying the same price for their deeds as "ordinary people" do.

Often this psychological shield is a reaction to a world that feels too capricious, dangerous, or harsh, but narcissists would never admit such weakness. "I'm not accountable," they think, "and nothing will stick." They pride themselves on duping people and believe that no one is clever enough to see through their manipulation.

The irony is that while they believe they're set apart from others, they desperately need others to affirm their superiority. Unlike the myth that features the self-loving Greek figure Narcissus, isolated mirror-gazing is not sufficient. They must hear from others how great they are. Their egos are quite fragile, so they respond badly to being challenged or humiliated. They harbor grudges and fiercely defend their perception of themselves.

In fact, van der Sloot's plan is on track. He received a sentence of 28 years rather than life, and can still appeal. In just sixteen years, he could be eligible for parole. It's not full immunity, but it's sufficiently light to affirm his ego.