- Powerful figures sometimes avoid accountability using a response pattern identified as DARVO.
- Deny, Attack, Reverse-Victim-Offender avoids self critical reflection and threatens critics.
- We cannot change people who use DARVO; protection comes through recognition of the pattern.
Many commentators have been reflecting on the character deficits revealed by Boris Johnson's letter resigning from Parliament, in response to the Committee of Privilege’s report on its investigation as to whether he knowingly or recklessly misled colleagues when he asserted that no lockdown rules were broken during the Covid-19 pandemic. The outcome of the investigation, which has not yet been released to the public, is assumed to be damning, given the former Prime Minister’s resignation ahead of its release.
Several columnists, and some former colleagues, have called Johnson a “coward” because he is “ducking out” of the House of Commons rather than facing accountability as an MP. He has been described as a schoolboy “scarpering” to avoid the consequences of his wrongdoing. His apparent lack of humility and remorse are noted, but some commentators still believe that somehow, in his heart of hearts, he must be sorry for what he is, or that his true nature must haunt him as he looks into the mirror.
As a psychologist, my take is very different. While I have no special access to Johnson’s private thoughts, I can recognize that his letter of resignation follows a troubling, destructive, and well-known pattern described by the acronym DARVO: Deny, Attack, Reverse-Victim-Offender.  The perfect fit of Johnson’s resignation letter  with this response pattern suggests that there is no private remorse, and no secret awareness of any character deficit. Those who follow this response pattern regularly, when confronted by the prospect of accountability, tend to sport a shiny, gleaming armor that protects them against all criticism.
The paradox of narcissism
The trait of narcissism, in psychological terms, suggests an absence of self, and hence a need to fill oneself up with attention and admiration from others, so that they always come first. Any criticism or constraint is viewed as a crime against a thoroughly good person. Any hesitation or limitation of adulation is seen as proof of a soiled character. Another narcissistic trait involves instilling others with a sense of chaos and threat if they are not on one’s side. Though the reason why causing chaos in others provides a “narcissistic supply” is not fully understood, it is possible that someone who feels threatened by the chaos of a highly vulnerable self might take comfort in seeing others destabilized.
While the root of narcissism lies in the absence of a sense of a viable self, narcissists can be so well protected by the DAVRO defense that they lack awareness of their own vulnerabilities or deficits. The reflection in the mirror looks just fine to them.
Using the DARVO defense
People who are high in the trait of narcissism tend to respond predictably to any suggestion that they have done something wrong. First, they deny it: “I didn’t do it. It didn’t happen. You have no evidence. I am not a person who would do this.” If they are presented with evidence, they will discount it: “What you have isn’t evidence.” Then they segue to attack: “You’re mad, deceitful, vicious, deluded, or ignorant to think I did it,” and “I cannot believe you would say this after all I’ve done for you.” The attack also contains threats of danger, chaos, retaliation, and exposure: “I will make you sorry you ever thought such things,” “I will turn your world upside-down,” or “You are bringing chaos down upon yourself.”
As upsetting as the attack is, even worse follows in the reverse victim and offender stage. Instead of being accountable for their wrongful actions, they present themselves as victims of criticism, while those voicing criticism are the offenders.
Analysis of the resignation letter
This ugly dance of DARVO can be seen with clarity in Johnson’s recent resignation letter. He begins with denial, not only of wrongdoing but also of any evidence of wrongdoing: “They know perfectly well that when I spoke in the Commons, I was saying what I believed sincerely to be true….” While others see the evidence as crystal clear, Johnson sees nothing: “They still have not produced a shred of evidence that I knowingly or recklessly misled the Commons.”
Following denial comes attack: “Their purpose from the beginning has been to find me guilty, regardless of the facts. This is the very definition of a kangaroo court.” And with attack come threats of what’s to come: “I believe that a dangerous and unsettling precedent is being set.”
The letter then moves to the “reverse-victim-offender” stage, whereby the victim and offender are reversed. The person who has offended is the victim. The committee outlining Johnson's lying offenses becomes the offender and the liar. The committee members, he claims, “know perfectly well” that he did not lie and “have willfully chosen to ignore the truth.” He is transformed into the “naïve and trusting” victim of the “members of the Committee…[who] had already expressed deeply prejudicial remarks about my guilt before they had even seen the evidence… I am not alone in thinking there is a witch hunt underway…” Johnson blames others for the erosion of the popular majority he once won and warns that a “properly Conservative government” is at risk of disappearing. In other words, in making him accountable, they are ungrateful and squandering his great gifts while generating political chaos.
We see such figures strutting the world stage, causing havoc, and deflecting blame from themselves onto others. We sometimes see them close up in personal relationships, where their response patterns lead us to doubt ourselves: Are we really unfair accusers? Are we causing genuine offense and victimizing someone capable only of good? Does our sense of grievance stem from our own distorted perspective? What disasters face us as a result of our reckless accusations?
Those who hope that an expert practitioner of DARVO will listen to reason and catch sight of their own deficits are bound to be disappointed. The best defense we have against such responses, in either public or personal life, is to recognize the DARVO response for what it is.
Harsey, S., Zurbriggen, E., & Freyd, J.J. (2017 -- published Open Access). Perpetrator Responses to Victim Confrontation: DARVO and Victim Self-Blame.Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, & Trauma, 26, 644-663.