If the question is Casey Anthony, it may very well be. Dr. Erich Fromm coined the phrase, but Dr. Otto Kernberg became the expert on it. He defines malignant narcissism as being in the middle of the spectrum ranging from Narcissistic Personality Disorder and full-blown psychopathology.
We are all born narcissistic. As an infant, our world view is that everything and everyone is connected to us and exists to fulfill our needs. Another spike in our narcissistic tendencies occurs in adolescence. It is natural to be self-centered at this point in our development, but we are expected to grow beyond it. Healthy adults maintain a small amount of narcissism, but it stops far short of self-obsession.
That characteristic is clearly demonstrated by Casey Anthony. When she was released from jail in the summer of 2008, she was happy and focused, offering smiles and hugs to everyone. Her immediate focus was on taking a shower and getting a home-cooked meal. It was not on her missing toddler who she had not seen for months.
In the days to follow, she made it clear she was enjoying the attention of being in the national media spotlight. She bragged about the special treatment she received in jail, claiming that everyone there loved her. She suggested signing autographs to raise money for her attorney. She expressed a desire to go on the radio with Howard Stern.
But one subject she never raised was Caylee Marie Anthony — a frightening epitaph for a young daughter.
Looking at Casey Anthony’s life seems like a study of narcissism. She used and took from others, diving her world into two camps — those who had something to give her and those who didn’t. She manipulated the first group and ignored the second. She had an inflated sense of her importance and expected all in her orbit to treat her as if she were an exceptional person, above the rules that constrained all others. At the same time, that feeling of superiority was coupled with an endless need for praise and adoration. Although she could be charming and winsome, it all was a carefully constructed mask designed to hide a storehouse of envy and resentment.
Pathological lying was her hallmark; selective empathy a tool to use to get what she wanted; and manipulative of all those around her — a trait seen in spectacular display when you examine her interactions with her parents. She also presented an inability to tolerate boredom, always seeking more fun and excitement, always willing to do anything to attract attention — from making out with another woman on the dance floor to the provocative consumption of a banana for the camera. She did anything and everything she could to pull the focus off of everyone else and onto her.
One of the indicators that her behavior moved into the realm of malignant narcissism is the escalation in a few short years. She started with a white-lie reputation in her middle teenage years, moved on to grandiose lies to enhance her image in her late teens, and by the age of 21, she was capable of creating complex fantasies about the fate of her daughter. She persisted in her lies in the face of proof of her dishonesty. She told the same stories again and again as if repetition would make them true.
The other characteristic that seems to push her beyond Narcissistic Personality Disorder is the presence of narcissistic rage. It seems evident in a jail conversation with her parents. She grows impatient with her parents’ concerns and their desire to express them. Finally she erupts, pulling the phone from her ear, uttering inarticulate snarls, clenching her teeth, contorting her face and forming tight fists with such intensity, she was momentarily incapable of speech.
Did little Caylee see that rage? Did it lead to her death? With Caylee gone, we may never know with any certainty just as without Casey’s complete cooperation, we may never be able to conclusively fit her into the proper category of personality disorder. There are many overlapping symptoms that make it difficult to accurately diagnose.
But we don’t really need a proper psychiatric label for Casey because no matter where we place her, her actions speak loudly of the presence of evil. We may not be able to accurately define evil, but we know it when we see it. And there is simply no better word to describe the murder and heartless disposal of an innocent child.
Diane Fanning’s tenth true crime book, MOMMY’S LITTLE GIRL: Casey Anthony and her Daughter Caylee’s Tragic Fate, will be released on November 3 by St. Martin’s Press.