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Narcissists as Chameleons
An interview with author Radhia Gleis on malignant narcissists and why we find them attractive
Thanks for joining me, Radhia! I enjoyed your book on your experience as a member of a cult, Buddha-field, and a follower of the guru, who has adopted many names but was born Jaime Gomez. Would you like to tell us why you decided to write the book?
I left the Buddha-field group in 2006 and by 2016 the movie Holy Hell came out. It's on Amazon now and I invite people to look at that movie before you read the book. It's real archival footage of us in our natural habitat.
I went to the Sundance Film Festival and that was the first time I saw and heard the details of my brothers’ abuse. The guru was a homosexual, so the women had a totally different experience than the men. There was all this stuff going on behind closed doors that we just didn't know.
I'm sitting there in an audience of hundreds of strangers, seeing my life played out on the big screen. I thought to myself: I need to understand this. I need to understand how this happened. I need to understand the details of this guy.
This was 2016. Donald Trump was elected president in the US and I saw some definite similarities in terms of narcissism. I'm a researcher by trade. I'm a clinical nutritionist, biochemical analyst and an educator. I do a deep dive into the research and then I translate it into kind of usable information. I thought in this case I would do a deep dive on what a narcissist is, particularly a malignant narcissist or a dangerous authoritarian leader, whether it's in a small group ours, with 150 people, or a country or anything between.
I've been interviewed many, many times and people always say to me, wow, Radhia, you seem so intelligent. I think what they’re really saying is that they expected me to be stupid and gullible. Because who would fall for this kind of thing? And it has nothing to do with intelligence or education. It has to do with human nature. So, in my book, I started way back from the very beginning and looked at myself as a human and started to analyse from there.
From reading between the lines of your book, I got the feeling you were more attracted by the community than the leader, who attached himself to this community.
Absolutely! When I was writing the book, its working title was Duped. After I started doing a deep dive into this guy and what his story was, I realised that he was a total fraud from the beginning. He was a pathological liar and a trickster. Yes, we were duped. We were lied to. But the story is about the followers, so I changed the name because I realised that we created him. He was a narcissist in an embryonic stage and we turned him into a monster.
I realized that we, the followers, have to take responsibility for what we did. It wasn't him. Oh, we weren't just these innocent victims. Well, we were, to a certain extent, and I talk about that. In a cult, members can be innocent victims or perpetrators. And in this case, we were both. We participated in the growth of this illusion and I think that as followers we need to take responsibility for that.
It is the followers that enact the atrocities on behalf of malginant narcissists, whether it's genocide or war or what have you. We have to take responsibility for ourselves. I drew the parallel between my life and my little community, and the larger picture of what's going on in this world, what's going on in our country right now. It's not about size, it really is the same human characteristics, whether it's a small or a large group of followers.
I think what came across very well in the book was that you were talking about your own experiences on this small scale, applying it to people like Trump on a much larger scale and then throwing in some of the medical literature on narcissists. What's particularly interesting to me is why we find narcissists so attractive. I’ve talked about the attractiveness of certainty on my blog. Trying to tell people about uncertainty and doubt is much less attractive!
Yes. The book is written in three parts. The first section is about my life up to when I got to the Buddha-field. The second section is called the Buddha-field, which is my 20-some years [in the cult]. The third section is on my reflections on malignant narcissists.
Trump doesn’t care about the United States. He only cares about himself and whatever works for him. Remember, he was a Democrat his whole life, but he found a base. He found a group of people who could feed his narcissism. So, he figured out what they wanted and all of his policies made a dramatic change.
This is not all about Trump, although I do a comparison with him. I'm also talking about other leaders, whether it's Jim Jones or Charlie Manson or Kim Jong-un or Vladimir Putin, who also have all of these characteristics that I'm talking about. I’m interested in the pathology behind that, not their policies.
Narcissists are like chameleons. They'll become whatever you want them to be. So, when you say, why are people attracted to narcissists, my short answer is that it's because they figured out what attracts you and then they become that.
What an excellent answer! However, we also see an uglier side, such as Trump refusing to accept his election loss or Putin invading Ukraine. Do you think there is a tension between the chameleon-like manipulation and the ugliness when the illusion can't be sustained?
Interesting question, Rupert. The sociopathic, narcissistic leader does not have the ability to empathize or feel shame, so you cannot disconnect or deter them from their own delusion of themselves. They are such skilled pathological liars that they believe in their own pretence, and it takes a lot for the fool’s gold to fall off the chameleon’s facade.
The purpose of titling my book The Followers, as opposed to its original name, Duped, is I came to realize that the fallout of narcissism is never about just one man: It’s the followers who do the leader’s bidding, including the cover-up. This is an important point. Focusing solely on the leader takes the responsibility away from the followers.
The leader fortifies his illusion through his cohorts. In the case of Jaime, it was the people in his inner circle—many of them his sexual victims—who were treated as special and provided lots of perks, in order to keep his secrets and maintain his charade. In the case of Trump or Putin, the perpetrators are not only their inner circle, their cabinet ministers, political opportunists, and ranking military personnel, but also their powerful propaganda machine.
The base rarely ventures out of their groupthink-inducing echo chambers. American broadcasts such as Fox News, for example, or Russian broadcasts, or the now dangerous, out-of-control social media organs are happy to propagate their lies for profit and gain.
I was listening to a podcast interview with Garry Kasparov, the famous Russian chess champion. He talked about “propaganda fatigue.” The populace becomes so overwhelmed by a blitzkrieg of lies that they stop using critical thinking. [Podcast host] Charlie Sykes says: “The goal is not just to obfuscate, but to annihilate truth.”
As I explained in my book, when narcissists gain control over our mind by constantly manipulating reality—manipulating our emotions, desires, and fears—they keep their followers in the palm of their hand. The followers are already drawn to the leader’s chameleon character, whether it’s the appearance of an enlightened master or a big, strong tough guy who promises them a better life and/or gives them a feeling of safety. The leader portrays himself as their messiah, championing those who feel like the underdog. The follower sees themselves in the leader, like a kitten seeing a lion in the mirror. So the “ugliness” you refer to is filtered through the fog of cognitive dissonance.
We also see an increased desperation and willingness to take extreme actions as it becomes harder for the narcissist to maintain their self-delusion. Trump must find ways to cope with the knowledge that he lost; Putin must face his nation’s poverty and diminished dominance on the world stage, as well as his own increasing isolation and relentless aging. The ugliness increases as the image in the mirror begins to waver.
Thanks for joining me, Radhia. It has been very insightful!
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The comments are open. See you next week!
The Followers by Radhia Gleis
Sharpen Your Axe is a project to develop a community who want to think critically about the media, conspiracy theories and current affairs without getting conned by gurus selling fringe views. Please subscribe to get this content in your inbox every week. Shares on social media are appreciated! If this is the first post you have seen, I recommend starting with the first-anniversary post, which includes links to a free book.
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