In the Nature v Nurture debate, we sometimes find ourselves wondering about narcissism. Some of us can clearly look back up the family tree and see abusive, narcissistic ancestors, people who abused their kids, giving them that “narcissistic injury” that trapped the child emotionally in the pre-logic years, creating a narcissist. But some of us cast an eye over the family gene pool and realize that our grandparents were loving people, good parents, wonderful examples that, for some odd reason, our narcissistic parent(s) did not emulate. How does that happen?
For each biologically inheritable trait you possess, there are two genes. You get one gene from your mother and one from your father.
There are dominant genes and there are recessive genes. Brown eyes are dominant over blue, for example, but a brown eyed person who had an ancestor with blue eyes may carry the blue-eyed gene, even though s/he has brown eyes and so do his parents and grandparents. That blue-eyed gene is recessive and it is the brown eyed gene that is being “expressed.”
But if this brown eyed person has a child with another brown eyed person who also has a recessive blue eyed gene, there is a 25% chance that they will produce a blue-eyed child.
Diabetes works much the same way: the gene for diabetes is recessive but if two people who have the recessive gene have a child together, there is a 25% chance that the child will be diabetic. Now, there are environment factors that come into play with diabetes: some people will be diabetic from childhood…Type 1 diabetes is where the pancreas ceases to function, which is typical of juvenile diabetes. Type 2 occurs when the body becomes resistant to the insulin the body produces. This resistance is usually attributed to obesity, improper diet, and even age. What is left out of most of the articles on this subject, however, is that obesity, improper diet and age are not, in themselves, sufficient to bring about the onset of diabetes. For that to happen, you have to have inherited that gene.
This explains why you may know people who seem to be a normal weight to you and they are diabetic and you also know someone who is morbidly obese and is not. It has to do with the genes. If you have the diabetic gene and you eat poorly, exercise little, and become overweight, given enough time you will develop diabetes. If you don’t have the diabetic gene, then no matter what happens to you, you won’t get it (unless something awful happens to your pancreas, like cancer or disease).
I think narcissism works much the same way. We know it runs in families…we also know that people from normal families develop it, much to the confusion and dismay of their families. My mother’s dysfunction was a cause of concern and confusion for her own family, and in later years, my father and step-mother as well. Her parents were normal, loving, compassionate, civic-minded people who, while acceding to the values of their society (gender equality did not exist in the 1930s and 40s for example), did not abuse their children. My stepmother, having met my maternal grandparents on numerous occasions, did not find them to be unusual in any way, my uncles report a normal upbringing in which my mother was spoilt by their father as the only girl, and my mother’s aunt reports that my mother was always, in her words, “difficult.” A picture of my mother, put together from my own experiences plus the reports of other who knew her in her early years, emerges of an entitled, headstrong, spiteful and wayward child who grew into a woman who retained all those qualities and more.
If neither of her parents were narcissistic nor were they abusive, where did my NM come from? I don’t know much about my great-grandparents, but I do know that my grandfather’s mother was notoriously difficult. She and my Nana didn’t get along, partly because GGM was bossy, tried to infantilize my grandfather, and refused to learn to speak English. GGM therefore had an excuse to carry on extensive conversations with other family members, leaving my Nana out because she didn’t speak German or Russian. When she came to visit, she tried to boss Nana around in her own kitchen, using her few English words to make it very clear to Nana that everything she was doing was wrong, pushing Nana out of the way to demonstrate the “right way” to do something, and generally pretending Nana didn’t exist or, at best, was a scullery maid at her beck and call. It’s not too big a stretch to think that GGM might have contributed a recessive gene for narcissism to my grandfather. On Nana’s side, her sister—the aunt who identified NM as being “difficult”—was a bit of a difficult one herself. Married multiple times in a society that frowned severely on divorce, and so focussed on having a daughter that she gave her three sons androgynous names and, once that daughter arrived, pretty much leaving the boys on their own so that she could focus exclusively on the girl, Auntie was known as the family “eccentric.” She so enmeshed that daughter that the child had a panic attack when it was time to separate from mama and go to school (she was kept out of school for a year due to it), and the daughter did not successfully go out on her own until after Auntie passed away. But Auntie was charismatic, with flaming red hair and grand gestures and a big voice—always the centre of attention and able to turn any conversation to herself, but in a way that made people love her—in small doses.
And so if Nana’s sister was an N—and Auntie had all the hallmarks of it—then obviously her own genetic heritage harboured the gene. And if Nana inherited one copy of the gene from her parents and Grandpa inherited one copy of the gene from his mother, and if their second child got two copies of the gene…one from Nana and one from Grandpa…then my mother would have born with two copies of the gene, which would activate it. And if my uncles got no copies of the gene…or even they only got one copy each, that would explain why they were so normal and their sister was so very, very different from them.
This, of course, is merely speculation. There is no proof that a gene for narcissism exists but if it does, this is how it can be passed down the generations and how a seemingly normal, perfectly functional family can produce a narcissist without any narcissistic injury occurring to the child. Nurture certainly has its part—I have to wonder how different my mother might have been if her father had not spoilt and indulged her as a child, reinforcing her notion of entitlement, and if she had been held accountable the same way her brothers were. But, knowing that my mother dismissed her coddling as her due and was furiously jealous of the freedom her brothers were allowed, it probably would have made little difference. Rather than take into account the social restrictions of girls in that time, my mother chose to perceive her parents as “favouring” the boys over her, and herself abused as a result.
There is a danger, if you believe narcissism is transmitted genetically, to back off and think “oh, the poor thing can’t help it!” That would not be true. Just as the Type 2 diabetic can eat right, exercise, and keep their weight down, the narcissist has control over the expression of the gene. Biology is not destiny, and narcissists fully comprehend what their society expects of them in terms of behaviour and are fully capable of displaying those behaviours, as they often do when it is to their advantage. Narcissists have no less choice than non-narcissists when it comes to behaviours: just as the diabetic can choose to eat chocolate or an apple, the narcissist can choose between lying and telling the truth. The difference is no more than a matter of desire: some diabetics choose to eat the chocolate even though they know they are not supposed to because they want the reward, the taste, the feeling chocolate gives them…and narcissists are no different.
Neither of my maternal grandparents were diabetic, but Nana’s father was…and so was one of her children. Neither my father nor my mother were diabetic, but I am. It is clear that the gene can be carried to the descendants of the diabetics by non-diabetics. I know that families headed by fair, loving, compassionate parents can produce a malicious, vindictive, selfish narcissist because I have seen it in my own family. And knowing how the gene for diabetes can “skip” a generation or two, it would stand to reason that if someday a gene for narcissism is discovered, it is transmitted in much the same way, so that parents who do not express the gene but carry it, may pass it down to their children.
It bears thinking about.