Of all the tragic tales in politics, the pathological need for Anthony Weiner to have women look at his erect penis, at a humiliating cost to his wife and family, is one of the strangest, saddest psychological case studies of all time.
This is a man who desperately needs to be looked at, talked about, filmed, discussed, praised, considered, desired, Googled, reviled, and admired. Nothing else matters to him. Not his infant son. Not his wife. Not the fate of the presidential election. Not the potential for a career rebound.
Weiner represents the living embodiment of a beloved social-media insult (“delete your account”), and the new face of the “exhibitionistic narcissist,” a group described as “grandiose, competitive, attention seeking and sexually seductive.”
The hallmarks of exhibitionist narcissism include arrogance, recklessness, and a need to show off, according to the 1998 book The Destructive Narcissistic Pattern: “Practically everything exhibitionistic narcissists do is designed to bolster their self-esteem by demonstrating that they are better, can do more and are above everyone else,” writes author Nina W. Brown. “Acting as if rules, laws and cultural conventions apply to others but not them is another example, particularly when this is consistent behavior.”
The DSM-V identifies ten personality disorders in three major clusters: Cluster A (“Odd, bizarre, eccentric”), which includes paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal personality disorders; Cluster B (“Dramatic, erratic”), which includes antisocial, borderline, histrionic, and narcissistic disorders; and Cluster C (“Anxious, fearful”), which includes avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. The behavior demonstrated by Weiner, according to several doctors, points toward narcissistic personality disorder in Cluster B. A 2008 study suggests further specificity is needed: a distinction between “fragile” narcissists and “high-functioning/exhibitionistic” ones.
For someone with narcissistic personality disorder, says Peter Freed, a psychiatrist at the Personality Studies Institute in New York, “being average is hell — worse than failure. You know those kids in school who either got A’s or F’s, but nothing in between? It was like they wanted to hug the ends of the bell-shaped curve, just so long as they were never in the middle.” Like other medical professionals in this story, Freed cautioned that he can’t diagnosis Weiner without an in-person evaluation, but he did offer a theory: “It’s possible that as Weiner’s political career started to go downhill, there was a part of him that found an allure in spectacular failure.”
Now, the Democratic golden boy is dead and buried, exhumed and re-buried, exhumed again, cremated and now likely thrown to sea forever. Huma has left the building. The job is gone. It’s too late to crop the baby.
“Narcissists — particularly exhibitionistic narcissists — often behave in ways that reinforce their entitled, self-righteous and grandiose ways of thinking,” says addiction-medicine specialist Scott Bienenfeld. “The lifestyle of an exhibitionistic narcissist is often rife with addictive behaviors like sexually acting out and using others for political or emotional gain — behaviors which result in dopamine surges and have many of the same traits of those suffering with addictive disorders.”
There is a scene in the new Weiner documentary that shows him reacting gleefully to his now-legendarily disastrous 2013 Lawrence O’Donnell segment during his mayoral campaign. Wife Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s top aide and most trusted adviser, is horrified by the shout-fest ensuing. “Why are you laughing?” she asks him. “This is crazy.”
Weiner’s every action has now led to a crowning achievement for exhibitionistic narcissists: a front-page marital implosion during the most heated and divisive presidential race in recent history. But how wonderful would it be for Weiner to finally admit there is something wrong — with how he never sees anything wrong?
“Entertaining the diagnostic category of exhibitionist narcissism makes sense” in Weiner’s case, agrees Manhattan psychiatrist Marianne Gillow, M.D., who says she would first explore psychopharmacological solutions to work on a patient’s obsessive behavior and compulsive tendencies. “This could aid the practitioner in understanding the pathology and work toward helping the patient manage his cognitive distortions as well as learn better judgment.”
Indeed, Weiner seems to function as his own inner Svengali, a master self-manipulator and architect of stunning personal destruction, blind to the demons at the wheel.
“While Weiner shows traits of exhibitionistic narcissism, he appears to have other problematic personality traits as well,” says George K. Simon, author of In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing With Manipulative People. “Like so many others with various types and degrees of character disturbance, that’s the reason he can’t seem to maintain stable intimate relations and commitments.”
Freed says addictive behavior likely plays a role in Weiner’s issues. “What we might be seeing is ‘siloing’ — which is when a person almost has two personas that are insulated from each other,” he says. “It may be that when he’s in Carlos Danger mode, he doesn’t really think it has any implications for Anthony Weiner. Like Batman/Bruce Wayne, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Some people end up just going with this kind of thing. They give up their old persona and adopt the new one. Some people just go with the exhibitionism.”
So maybe this time will be different for Weiner. He could not try another comeback. He could not hire the PR team to write the apology. Instead, he could learn to answer — painfully honestly — the next time Lawrence O’Donnell or anyone else asks him, “What is wrong with you?”