Law and (Narcissistic Personality Dis)Order

It started last night. There was a headache and my throat was a bit sore at dinner. By the time we got home after the movie, my sinuses were burning. And today: just miserable on the couch, sniffling and snoozing. I had my flu shot this year (a sensible choice given several consecutive years with 4-6 month bouts of bronchitis) but it doesn’t protect me against every little cold.

As it was a day of indolence, I quickly became very bored with the internet and reruns of Law & Order. I feel like I’ve read literally everything on the internet that is worth reading. I got very little actual work done, but did get to read a takedown of Clinton’s dissembling press conference and yet another person’s psychological assessment of why Trump is unstable. It’s all very depressing, really.

One thing that has piqued my interest this week, however, is how often people throw around the word “narcissistic” when describing Trump. This is a lay diagnosis, of course. I’m unaware of any psychologist who has given him a formal, clinical diagnosis, although of course they would be bound to silence by patient-doctor confidentiality (See? I have been watching too much Law & Order). Narcissism is not a mental illness – it’s a part of all of us, just more amplified in some people. In a few, probably less than 5% or us, it becomes a full-on disorder. However, I’d concur that it seems to be a much better fit than those who describe Trump as a sociopath or psychopath. Psychopaths are generally better at hiding their nature. Narcissists are the guys who get publicly upset because they think someone just insulted the size of their penis.

Yet, for many people in New Zealand, the term “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” still brings us chills. That’s because, in this country at least, it’s forever linked to a particularly grisly murder and a rather beneficial law change.

When we think of narcissists, we think of Clayton Weatherston… and the fact that he thought his beautiful, intelligent girlfriend breaking up with him was such an assault to his ego that he felt completely justified in stabbing her over 200 times in the presence of her hysterical mother.

Now ordinarily a case like Weatherston’s would be the definition of open and shut. He arrived at Sophie Elliott’s house with a knife he brought from home. He stabbed her in front of an eye witness. He didn’t even leave the room, and was still with her body when the Police arrived. But Weatherston’s feelings about the murder became the centerpoint of his trial, on account of a twist in New Zealand law that allowed him to argue that he was provoked into killing.

Provocation was a defense that had been used successfully in another trial that ended just a few weeks earlier. Ferdinand Ambach (31) had argued that he was so frightened by Ronald Brown’s sexual advances that he beat the 69-year-old to death with a banjo and left the neck of the instrument shoved down the dead man’s throat. The jury convicted him of manslaughter, obviously concluding that a fear of rape was enough to make the crime something less than murder. The public were somewhat outraged, but it took the same argument coming from the smug, condescending Weatherston, to force a law change that revoked the right to argue provocation in murder trials.

See, Weatherston was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (link is well worth a read if you want to know how that manifests). He was controlling and abusive in his five-month relationship with the young Elliott (his former student), and when she left he felt deeply humiliated by her exit. Whether his humiliation was reasonable or deserved apparently never entered his mind – she unknowingly threatened his ego and he lashed out to punish her. The catalog of slights he later described in court seemed so obviously the creation of a fantasist: he said she had cheated on him and lied about him, he said she tried to stab him. This was clearly a paranoid mind at work, but Weatherston also seemed utterly tone-deaf to the fact that his story was drawing no sympathy. He felt wronged. And his reality was the only thing that existed in his little world.

Now that’s not to say that everyone with NPD ends up murdering their ex, but Weatherston’s trial certainly did shine a long, harsh light on NPD for everyone who was here to see it. What was massively evident was that he saw the world in a very different way to other people, and that he was completely unrepentant about what he’d done. There was no way to “fix” him or talk him out of his viewpoint. When he was convicted of murder, he appealed. He still thought that he wasn’t guilty. He probably still does.

So while narcissism doesn’t sound anywhere near as scary as psychopathy, it’s no less volatile or dangerous. Narcissists have big buttons that are easy to push. They are remarkable unsuited to stressful or uncontrollable circumstances. They can feel threatened by even the gentlest of jibes. And they respond by going to great lengths to prove their superiority – even if that is through violence. Nobody could truly help Weatherston as he swung wildly between waves of massive egotism and massive insecurity. The problem was quite entirely in his head.

Yet it was other people who suffered. Even with a conviction, this is no justice in a case like that.

In the years following her daughter’s death, Sophie Elliott’s mother started a foundation for educating young people about abusive relationships. She believed that, if she and her daughter had recognized the signs earlier, she would have better been able to keep herself safe from Weatherston. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20, but there is still much credit to be given for any program that teaches young people that threats and jealousy and a codependency of ego are the opposite of love.

If only we could all learn…





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