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Book Review: The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America by Dr. Drew Pinsky & Dr. S. Mark Young

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Rarely has a book been more timely than The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America.  We're living in an age where the cult of celebrity has created a generation of self-destructive, addictive Hollywood personalities whose only desire is to be famous.  The media, led not only by the paparazzi but also by their consumers, encourages and feeds the addiction to fame while rarely assuming responsibility for their actions.  Our society is creating celebrities who live, suffer and die entirely for our amusement. 

What the authors of The Mirror Effect — Dr. Drew Pinsky and Dr. S. Mark Young — want is for us to change our perspective as consumers and enablers and instead see the issue from a more human level; instead of seeing celebrities as playthings whose life and death is a part of everyday life, we need to find out what it is that causes these people to seek out the status of fame and celebrity and to recognize them as human beings who are quite often suffering from narcissism.

Narcissism is not simply self-love.  From a medical standpoint, Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a condition in the same category as histrionic, antisocial and borderline personality disorders.  According to mayoclinic.com, people with this disorder tend to feel "… an inflated sense of their own importance and a deep need for admiration. They believe that they're superior to others and have little regard for other people's feelings. But behind this mask of ultra-confidence lies a fragile self-esteem."

It's not a stretch to recognize some of these symptoms in many ultra-famous celebrities, whose intimate details are often on public display.  But instead of our typical response — to dismiss them as "spoiled" or "crazy" — Pinsky and Young want us to understand that narcissism isn't simply a personality trait; it's almost always the result of childhood trauma.  The book goes on to describe the different sorts of trauma and to point out notable examples among today's celebrities.  If we refuse to recognize the underlying cause of celebrity misbehavior, then we'll never succeed in understanding it and may well end up encouraging.

To back up this claim, Pinsky and Young conducted a study of narcissism among celebrities that was published in the Journal of Research and Personality.  They used a recognized diagnostic tool, the Narcissistic Personality Inventory (NPI) to measure the seven main symptoms of narcissism among a wide variety of celebrities from different backgrounds and in different fields.  The study concluded that, yes, celebrities do tend exhibit more narcissitic tendencies than the general public.  The theory that narcissism is not a result of celebrity itself, but rather of childhood trauma, was also reinforced by the study's findings.

This would seem to suggest that celebrities are not just normal people who behave badly or become "corrupted" by fame.  Rather, they are drawn to the celebrity culture that satisfies their already narcissistic desires.

And, as the book points out, it's never been easier for an aspiring narcissist to achieve some degree of fame.  The explosion of reality TV shows, the growing influence of YouTube and other photo- or video-sharing sites, as well as the proliferation of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter, allows people an incredible opportunity to achieve their desired fame.  But one of the main reasons the authors tackled this subject was to expose the unhealthy tendencies that drive us to seek fame and also to argue that this goal — becoming famous — is neither realistic nor desirable.  But you would never know that by looking at today's media.

The authors target the media for propagating the dangerous notion that everyone can — and should — be famous.  While admitting that media exposure can't make someone a narcissist, it does offer a great influence to those who already have the tendencies.  Pinsky & Young present the Mirror Effect; the theory that celebrity narcissism, glorified or excused by the media, is starting to become more common among non-celebrities.  We're starting to exhibit, as an audience, the same symptoms as our favorite celebrities.  Here are some examples: 

  • We use the anonymity of the internet to adopt a sense of authority.  We become self-appointed experts on film, music, appearance, fashion or anything, really.  We become critics to make ourselves feel better and tear down those who fail to meet our expectations.
  • We make fun of celebrities for their sense of entitlement.  Hearing a has-been yell out "Do you know who I am?" makes us giggle at their cluelessness.  Yet we fuel that entitlement by giving anyone with even a hint of celebrity carte blanche to do what they want.  We make fun simply because we greatly envy that sense of entitlement.  For a better definition of the word, or to see it on display among non-celebrities, watch MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen.
  • We reward exhibitionism, no matter how grotesque.  Look no further than Jackass.  We cry out against celebrity sex tapes and the exploitation of young celebrities while said tapes sell millions and create careers (Kim Kardashian).
  • We exploit celebrities, and not just in the traditional sense of the word; we also use them as fans.  So long as they give us what we want, we cling to them.  But as soon as they don't, we will viciously attack them.  And if you've ever visited the comments section of a gossip page, you know just how vicious that can be.
  • Most importantly, and this is the book's central point, we rarely hold celebrities responsible for their transgressions.  And the example this sets may be the most damaging aspect of all to our culture.

The authors present a great deal of data to back up their point that today's children (also known as Generation Me) are more and more likely to see the dangerous or destructive behavior of celebrities as desirable.  They're also more likely to emulate them, resulting in a generation more prone to drug use, hypersexuality, lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement.

And there's very little holding these young people back from developing these dangerous notions of fame and celebrity.  The media expresses its tacit endorsement of celebrity misbehavior by rewarding it with huge press coverage.  Celebrities are held to a different set of standards by everyone from restaurateurs to the legal system.  And too often, parents are either unable or unwilling to establish an effective moral guidance system.  Casual drug use, dangerous sexual behavior, exhibitionism, plastic surgery and eating disorders and becoming more and more just a "phase" kids go through rather than a very serious symptom of a very serious problem.

But the book is not all gloom and doom.  The authors provide a good deal of information on narcissism itself, noting that simplying admitting to the disorder is a big first step.  They offer a guide for concerned parents who want to do what is best for their children without being over- or under-protective.  And they suggest a number of new attitudes that we can try to bring about, not just with our children, but with our society.

Dr. Drew Pinsky (whose voice guides us through the book) has made a name for himself on radio and TV, not just as another "personality," but as someone who brings a serious, sensible approach to difficult issues.  He says that the main reason he started the VH1 reality show Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew was "to humanize the celebrities . . . and to use the show to explain what really was behind the participants' outrageous and inconceivable behavior."

This approach is what helps the book tread through controversy without coming off as moralizing.  Instead of falling into the tired "Free Speech .vs. Decency" debate that discussions of media usually become, Pinsky simply sticks to his sense medical ethics by trying to do what is best for his patients, be they celebrities or not.  He does not excuse celebrity transgressions or brush them aside as harmless symptoms, but neither does he treat them as an isolated evil or, worse, a source of mean-spirited fun.  He urges people to be vigilant about the effect that the celebrity lifestyle — glamorized by the media — has on our culture and to be brutally honest about the unplesant realities behind that lifestyle.

This is a wonderful, well-written book.  The only real issue I have with it is the lack of footnotes or endnotes.  The authors cite many studies and point to a number of statistics, and it would be useful to know where they came from.  At the very least, there could be a list of recommended reading including the books, articles and studies that were primarily used in researching the book.

Still, I heartily recommend this book and can only hope that it will have some effect on a culture that's becoming increasingly toxic and unsympathetic.  As a reader and a consumer of entertainment media, the best thing I can think of is for us to cling to our sense of empathy.  When we feel that pang of shame or guilt while we're browsing through the gossip pages or having a laugh at the expense of Britney or Lindsey, don't block it out.  Cling to that empathy, because it's telling you to treat everyone, including celebrities, like human beings.  Empathy is also a great tool to combat the symptoms of narcissism.  And if this book is even half right, it's a tool we need now more than ever.

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About Aaron Whitehead