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The Case of Claire Underwood

Narcissistic personality disorder?

Two weeks ago, I used the character of Frank Underwood from Netflix's House of Cards as a “case study” to illustrate the misunderstood psychiatric diagnosis of Antisocial Personality Disorder, and many of you asked: Well, what about his wife, Claire?

Good question! You asked, and I will do my best to answer.

SPOILER ALERT: For those of you who have not yet watched all of Season 2 yet, consider yourself warned.

Source: Image: Netflix

Clinical lore would certainly support that Claire, herself, must have a personality disorder of some kind—a sort of fatal attraction, where a couple is drawn to each other because there is something in their personality patterns that is complementary and reciprocal.

She does appear to have mastered the art of turning a blind eye to Frank’s more antisocial exploits. She is a highly intelligent woman, and she must have some inkling that her husband may be involved in the death of Zoe Barnes and Peter Russo. But if she has an inkling, she does not show it.

Claire, from what we know, does not engage in outright antisocial behavior. Unlike Frank, she has not murdered anyone and we have not seen her engage in very reckless or impulsive outbursts.

However, she rarely shows emotion—her smiles seem fake, her laugh empty, and her expressions are bland. She is more restrained and guarded than Frank, and she does not reveal her inner thoughts to the viewer the way Frank does so it is much harder to know what could be going on in her mind.

Still, I think I have seen enough to venture forth with an assertion that she may have a Narcissistic Personality Disorder and is capable of traumatizing those around her.

What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of nine criteria.

Below are the five criteria that I think apply to Claire:

1) Has a sense of entitlement (i.e. unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations)

She expected Galloway to take the blame for the photos that were leaked and eventually claim it was all a “publicity stunt,” thus ruining his own reputation and image. She expressed no regret that her ex-lover was cornered into having to do this, on her behalf, and no remorse that it almost ruined his life and his relationship with his fiancé. She was entitled to this act because she is “special” and expects that people will fall on her swords for her.

2) Is interpersonally exploitative (i.e. takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends)

Claire manipulates the first lady, Tricia Walker, into believing Christina (a White House aide) is interested in the president. She pretends to be a friend, wangles her way into becoming the first lady’s confidant, and persuades her to enter couples therapy with the president. All of this is actually part of an elaborate plan to help Frank take the President down so that he can become president and she (Claire) can usurp Tricia as first lady.

Another example: Claire is pressured by the media into revealing that she once had an abortion, but she lies and states that the unborn child was a result of rape (presumably to save political face). Again, she shows no remorse about her lie and instead profits from it, gaining much sympathy and public support.

Source: Image: Netflix

3) Lacks empathy: Is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

This was best seen in the way Claire deals with her former employee Gillian Cole’s threat of a lawsuit—she pulls a few strings and threatens the life of Gillian’s unborn baby. In fact, in addition to the obvious lack of empathy was the simmering rage she had toward Gillian for daring to cross her. Again, entitlement, narcissistic rage, and a lack of empathy would explain that evil threat she made, to Gillian’s face, about the baby.

4) Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

I think part of the reason Claire was so angry at Gillian was because, deep down, she was envious of her pregnancy. We know that, in parallel, Claire is consulting a doctor about becoming pregnant and is told that her chances are slim. This is such a narcissistic injury to Claire that she directs her rage at Gillian. I don’t think she was even consciously aware of how envious she is of Gillian for being pregnant.

Another example would be the look on her face when Galloway indicates he is madly in love with his fiancé and wishes to make a life with her. For a second her face darkens—a flash of jealous rage—which then translates to indifference and almost pleasure at his eventual public humiliation.

5) Shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

Correct me if I am wrong, but Claire just does not appear to be that warm or genuine and has an almost untouchable air about her. Furthermore, we only ever see her with people who work for her (i.e. have less power than her) or with people more powerful than her (i.e. whose power she wants for herself). Other than Frank, where are her equals? Her oldest friends and colleagues? Her family? People who might not be influenced by her title or power?

One last comment: In Season 2, Claire certainly comes across as more ruthless and power hungry than the Claire in Season 1—whether she is now showing her true colors and is dropping her facade or just becoming more lost in Frank’s world and hence looking more like him is unclear to me…

I suppose we will find out in Season 3!

Copyright: Shaili Jain, MD. For more information, please see PLOS Blogs