Last week a disturbing case was heard in the family division of The High Court in London. Three teenage boys were removed from their mother’s care and sent to live in a children’s unit because of neglect. Now, sadly, this is not an unusual occurrence in any of the world’s most developed countries, but the reasoning in this case was astounding – the boys had developed a narcissistic cult mentality.
They saw no reason to go to school, believed themselves superior to those around them and two of them even spoke in a made-up language or code to keep their intent secret from those around them. There were other issues which contributed to the decision to withdraw the boys: the mother had mental health issues and there had been neglect both physical and social. The mother had operated a system of high expectation and rewards were always contingent on compliance with that.
The judge had noted:
“There was an elaborate and quite rigid structure to their interactions predicated on an achievement and award system,” he said. “Achievement of particular tasks enabled time on the computer or an opportunity to pet and stroke the cat.”
Two psychologists and had made the diagnosis, I suspect with the extreme caution usually observed in these cases where labels are usually applied sparingly, that they were suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. What made this case so unusual was that there were three of them. We know that parenting is often the root cause of narcissistic personality disorder but frequently it only affects the favoured child or a child for whom shame is the dominant feeling associated with “not being good enough”.
Narcissistic Teenage Cult, More Than “Look at me!”
What is also striking about this variant on what could be described as the growing narcissistic culture amongst young people is that it wasn’t social. The teens, by all accounts didn’t engage in social media which is the more usual platform for the “Look at me I’m special” variety of narcissistic behaviour we are more used to in the beginnings of the 21st century. What is worrying is their narcissism appears to be more pathological and potentially more dangerous than the one which requires social checks and balances to hold it in check. Whilst I personally either laugh or groan at the narcissistic behaviour of friends who photograph their meal and share it with the world, tell me how many miles they have cycled, run or even hopped on one leg for, or who post impossibly glamorous enhanced pictures of themselves; I know they are mostly harmless and they don’t scare me. But these boys do and this is why.
On 20th April 1999 two teenage students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into their school and shot 13 student dead and injured 24 more and then turned the guns on themselves in the school library. The school, Columbine High in Colorado is now synonymous with the consequences of the US liberal attitude toward gun control as espoused in Michael Moore’s, Academy-Award-winning, excellent and chilling documentary “Bowling for Columbine” but I believe this narrative, focussing as it does on a whole country’s culture, beating its chest and tearing its clothes in grief, misses a trick. Eric and Dylan had formed a narcissistic cult of two which descended into a spiral of social isolation which led inevitably to the events of April 1999.
The Genesis of a Massacre
Both Eric and Dylan were loners at school and bullied. They were smart, but socially awkward and despite being physically attractive, lacked the skills to fit in with the crowd at high school. Both boys were intellectually able. Eric was by all accounts an excellent computer programmer and Dylan had been part of a programme aimed at high achievers in primary school. The pair were bullied however and in the days before social media “punishment” they had to endure physical insults such as being pelted with a cup of faecal matter and tomato covered tampons. Their shared pain forced them together. Their intelligence led them to develop a fantasy world in which they were powerful and others weak and less important than them. They had their own language and code written down in the pages of Harris’s journals. And as part of a school project for drama and media, they even made a film which showed them in mock violence shooting unarmed people.
Psychologist who analysed their behaviour and character after the event, labelled Harris in particular as having a personality disorder, which led him to believe he was superior to everyone else, lacking remorse and with a strong desire to punish those he considered inferior. It is suggested in some accounts too that Harris’s father, a US air force veteran pilot was a hard task master for whom Harris could not be “good enough”. Isolated, rejected, with only each other to cling to in a storm of teenage emotions the two were almost forced into a narcissistic spiral to protect their psyche and this perhaps was the main cause of the Columbine High Massacre.
Prevention is Better Than Cure
We do not yet know what will happen to the three teenage boys from London but the parallels are chillingly obvious. The care system in England is notoriously bad at putting therapeutic interventions in until it is too late. What is certain is that they need to be separated and taught how to interact with their peers and encouraged to abandon their narcissistic cult. Failure to commit resources for this could bring the ravages of a Columbine-style massacre to the shores of Europe.
Let us hope that the Judge has a wider understanding of the implications of the cases before him and makes it so!