Wendy Walker is a talented suspense writer and her new book, Emma in the Night, had me on the edge of my seat the whole way through. In this psychological thriller, Walker uses one of her characters to delve into the mental disorder of narcissism. Not just overblown vanity and hubris but something much more sinister. Walker learned that female narcissists are rare in the real world, but she created one in Emma in the Night and we’ve seen them portrayed in some of our favorite books. In the exclusive piece below, she talks about five of these women…
*Emma in the Night is an editors’ pick for one of the Top 10 Best Books of August
“It’s All About Me!”
Five Female Narcissists in Books We Love
By Wendy Walker
In my latest novel, Emma In The Night, forensic psychologist Dr. Abby Winter must deconstruct female narcissist Judy Martin in order to find her missing daughter. While many people believe that narcissists are strong inside because they have such arrogant and confident personalities, the truth is that they use their exterior personas to hide and protect their fragile and fractured egos. Damaged in early childhood, these people aren’t aware of their condition, and they instinctively learn how to surround themselves with admirers and also how to manipulate and bully those around them to support their facades. Female narcissists are very rare, but here are five women characters who have the condition.
Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest, by Christina Crawford
In this searing portrayal of a narcissistic mother, Christina Crawford lays out a textbook case study of this personality disorder. Parents who are narcissists use their children as tools to support their superior alter egos. When the children are young, they are happy to oblige because the praise and affection the parent offers in return is so important. But as they gain independence, they begin to push back and question the perfection of the narcissist parent – and that is when the wire hanger beatings begin! Joan Crawford uses every technique at her disposal to force her daughter to stick to the script where she is perfect in every way. She insists on being called “Mommy Dearest” and she reacts with violent rage and harsh punishments when she sees any deviation from the scripted lines. Through a combination of fear and deprivation, Joan is able to imprison her daughter and suppress her will, and she does this because losing the admiration of her child would threaten her alter ego and expose the fragile, fractured true ego that lies beneath.
Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
I went back and forth on my armchair diagnosis of Amy Dunne. Is she a narcissist, or a psychopath? Because these illnesses are all on a spectrum and have many overlapping behavioral manifestations, I decided she came close enough to include on this list. What I love about this portrayal is the smaller plot point in the novel that is frequently overlooked – and that is Amy’s own childhood. Her parents made her a public figure and used her for their own egotistical purposes in promoting their writing careers. Without any true sense of herself or the healthy love of a parent, Amy has no chance of escaping her fate as a narcissist. She learns how to become the perfect woman so she can secure the devotion of men. And when they begin to see through her façade and lose interest, she takes extreme measures to remain the center of attention, even if it’s in a negative way. Staging her own death to punish Nick catapults her into the national spotlight, feeding into the image of power and dominance that she needs to survive emotionally. “Love me or I will destroy you” is the essence of the narcissist’s core, and with female characters that usually centers around relationships. In the end of this twisted story, Nick gives in to her power as a means of self preservation, and Amy has secured a permanent source of nourishment for her alter ego.
Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger
This portrayal of a female narcissist is fascinating because the manifestations come out in the workplace. There are no definitive lines between the behavior of male and female narcissists, but in our culture, men have more success acquiring loyal followers at work with narcissistic behavior than women. While abusive men at work are seen as confident and commanding, women are labeled “bitches.” In this novel, however, Miranda Priestly has achieved a level of power that enables her to be verbally abusive, demeaning, and devoid of empathy in her dealings with her underlings, including young intern, Andrea Sachs. However, there are hints throughout that underneath she feels vulnerable and worthy of our forgiveness for her behavior. In the end, Andrea escapes this trap by publicly accosting Miranda and getting herself fired. But whatever damage this does to Miranda’s alter ego, she quickly repairs it by finding a new intern she can bully – which is exactly what narcissists do.
Ingrid Magnussen in White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
I have never read a more intricate and complex portrayal of a narcissistic mother. Unlike Joan Crawford and her wire hangers, Ingrid Magnussen uses even more dangerous methods to acquire and hold onto the affections of her daughter, Astrid. Prior to being imprisoned for killing the man who rejected her, Ingrid plants ideas in her daughter’s head about their unique bond and their superiority in the world. It’s so interesting how she manipulates her daughter to stand with her on the pedestal, rather than admire her from down below. She tells Astrid that they are both more beautiful and powerful than others, and in doing so, she ensures that Astrid will always feel bonded to her, and her alone. Even after Ingrid is in prison, Astrid struggles to find her identity and her behavior begins to mirror that of her mother. Through letters and precise daggers thrown during their visits, Ingrid destroys any bonds that Astrid forms with other women. In the end, she uses the most cunning weapon of all when she accepts more prison time to spare her daughter from having to lie on the witness stand – the weapon of guilt. Lying for her mother would have given Astrid the freedom to see Ingrid clearly for what she is. Instead, she clings to the belief that her mother really does love her. It is Ingrid’s final, and most brilliant, move to ensure her daughter’s adoration.
Barbara in What Was She Thinking? (Notes on a Scandal) by Zoe Heller
This portrayal of a severely damaged and narcissistic woman demonstrates the nuanced spectrum of the illness. While some narcissists have no empathy or genuine feelings of love, others can have varying degrees of these emotions along with their desperate need to support their alter egos. In this novel, history teacher Barbara Covett becomes obsessed with newcomer Sheba Hart, and begins a slow and steady campaign to win her affection. When Sheba is drawn to a young male student, , she not only enrages Barbara, but also gives Barbara ammunition to destroy her. As with Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, narcissists will settle for negative attention when their efforts to secure positive attention fails. Here, Barbara manages to destroy her own career along with Sheba’s, but she does get what she ultimately wanted. After losing her job and being thrown out of her home by her husband, Sheba has no option but to turn to Barbara. Ultimately, Sheba escapes the grasp of this desperate woman. And Barbara does what all narcissists do – she finds another victim.
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