“A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator”

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In The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke’s latest, the protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, is arguing with his daughter Alafair about a novel written by an ex-con who’s staying with her boyfriend:

“Have you read The Green Cage?” Alafair asked.

“I have. I got it from the library. I didn’t buy it.”

“You don’t think it’s a brilliant piece of writing?”

“Yeah, it is, for reasons the author and his admirers don’t seem to understand.”

She wasn’t taking the bait, so I slogged on. “It’s a great look inside the mind of a sociopath and narcissist and manipulator. Count the number of times the pronouns ‘I,’ ‘me,’ ‘mine,’ and ‘myself’ appear in every paragraph.”

“Somebody must have liked it. Robbie was a finalist in the National Book Awards.”

Robbie?

“Argue with someone else, Dave.”

Needless to say, Alafair later learns how right her father was about the fictional author’s character.  And Dave Robicheaux is always up front about his own flaws, so maybe it’s wryly ironic rather than thoughtlessly hypocritical that Burke’s own basic style is an ornate interior monologue studded with not-strictly-necessary first person singular pronouns. Here’s The Glass Rainbow‘s first paragraph:

The room I had rented in an old part of Natchez seemed more reflective of New Orleans than a river town in Mississippi. The ventilated storm shutters were slatted with a pink glow, as soft and filtered and cool in color as the spring sunrise can be in the Garden District, the courtyard outside touched with mist off the river, the pastel walls deep in shadow and stained with lichen above the flower beds, the brick walkways smelling of damp stone and the wild spearmint that grew in green clusters between the bricks. I could see the shadows of banana trees moving on the window screens, the humidity condensing and threading along the fronds like veins in living tissue. I could hear a ship’s horn blowing somewhere out on the river, a long hooting sound that was absorbed and muted inside the mist, thwarting its own purpose. A wood-bladed fan revolved slowly above my bed, the incandescence of the lightbulbs attached to it reduced to a dim yellow smudge inside frosted-glass shades that were fluted to resemble flowers. The wood floor and the garish wallpaper and the rain spots on the ceiling belonged to another era, one that was outside of time and unheedful of the demands of commerce. Perhaps as a reminder of that fact, the only clock in the room was a round windup mechanism that possessed neither a glass cover nor hands on its face.

The first first-person-singular (“… room I had rented …”) confirms that we’re in Dave Robicheaux’s head rather than someone else’s, though we would have figured that out soon enough anyhow.  But we don’t need to be reminded again who’s doing the seeing (“I could see the shadows of banana trees moving on the window screen”) and hearing (“I could hear a ship’s horn blowing somewhere out on the rive”), or whose bed the wood-bladed fan is slowly revolving over.

I’m not saying that the paragraph would have been better without those extra two I‘s and a my — on the contrary, they tell us something about the character whose voice is telling the story.  But they don’t tell us that he’s a sociopath and narcissist and manipulator, in my opinion — a better analysis was offered by Jamie Pennebaker in his post “What is ‘I’ saying?“, 8/9/2009:

If people are self-conscious, their attention flips to themselves briefly but at higher rates than people who are not self-conscious.  For example, people use the word “I” more when completing a questionnaire in front of a mirror than if no mirror is present.  If their attention is drawn to themselves because they are sick, feeling pain, or deeply depressed, they use “I” more.

Robicheaux’s theory about first-person-singular pronouns is an old one, I suspect — or rather, a natural one that has been re-invented many times. But it was all the rage in the pundits’ echo chamber about a year ago, when Burke was writing this book.

[Update — Reader RB wrote by email:

Besides self-consciousness, speaking in the first person can also be an indicator of respect and boundary-maintenance to others. One of the major tools of mediation and conflict resolution is speaking subjectively — “I feel like X” rather than “X [is objectively the case]”. That effort to separate one’s own perception from universal truth is pretty close to the opposite of being a sociopath, narcissist, or manipulator, yet it involves a higher proportion of personal pronouns.

Indeed.  Just after the passage I quoted, Jamie Pennbaker wrote:

A common misperception is that I-use is associated with arrogance and dominance.  Studies consistently find the opposite: people higher in the social hierarchy use “I” words less.  The secure boss is surveying her or his kingdom calculating how to get more goodies.  The insecure underlings are trying to control their behaviors so as not to offend the leader.

And a bit later:

Not all I-words are alike. The graceful-I, often associated with the use of hedges, is one where the person is subtly acknowledging multiple perspectives.  Phrases starting with “I think that..”, “I wonder if..”, or “It seems to me that..” are all examples where the person is implicitly or politely making a request or an observation.  “I think it’s cold outside” (as opposed to “It’s cold outside”) is actually saying “I know that there are many views on this matter and I may, in fact, be wrong.  Indeed, when you go outside you might find it a bit warm but I personally felt that it was a bit cold outside. But I don’t want to intrude.”

I thought about quoting those passages as well, but originally decided not to, because it seems to me that that Burke’s pronoun-enriched interior monologue relates more to the “sick, feeling pain, or deeply depressed” reason for self-consciousness, and less to either the “social insecurity” or the “acknowledging alternative perspectives” dynamics.]



10 Comments

  1. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » “A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator” [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 12:17 pm

    […] Language Log » “A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator” languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2533 – view page – cached In The Glass Rainbow, James Lee Burke’s latest, the protagonist, Dave Robicheaux, is arguing with his daughter Alafair about a novel written by an ex-con who’s staying with her boyfriend: Tweets about this link […]

  2. Caesar said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 3:53 pm

    Caesar likes this post.

  3. Jair said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 6:00 pm

    It seems strange to draw conclusions about the author of a work of fiction from the number of first-person pronouns. If anything, wouldn’t that tell you more about the narrator?

    In any case, what stood out to me about the quoted passage was not so much its pronoun use as its ham-handed, self-proclaiming literariness. Perhaps this was the intended effect, but somehow I doubt it.

  4. Jair said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

    Reading the post again, I see my first two sentences echo a point you’ve already made.

  5. Nathan Myers said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

    “A sociopath and narcissist and manipulator walk into a bar. ‘Where is everybody?’, he asks.”

  6. John Cowan said,

    August 9, 2010 @ 10:37 pm

    The passage beginning “The room I had rented” has 238 words, three tokens of I, and none of the others. I checked the first 238 words of Huckleberry Finn, up through ” how dismal regular and decent the widow was in all her ways; and so when I”, and it has three tokens of I and three of me. Somehow, I don’t think that makes Huck a sociopath, narcissist, or manipulator.

    [(myl) I was trying to get away from mere counting — not that I’m against counting things, as you know — by asking what each FPSP adds to the text. From this point of view, I think, The Glass Rainbow and Huckleberry Finn look rather different.]

  7. Kerplunk said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 3:35 am

    Don’t know if this relevant at all, but Alafair Burke is James Burke’s daughter in real life.

  8. Cyndi said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 1:27 pm

    I have a hard time not prefacing my thoughts with a personal statement because of all the “effective business communication” training I’ve been through. I don’t speak for a group – I speak for myself – because my experiences are my own.

    Using a different point of view when writing or blogging is very tricky. There are too many voices in my head saying “oh yeah?” or “how’d you know that’s true?” Those voices are also the reason I don’t edit wikipedia and that last bit of attempted humor was my self-conscious way of ending an awkward comment.

  9. stephen said,

    August 10, 2010 @ 10:07 pm

    How common was it for European royals to use the “royal we” to refer to themselves? Did other nobles and aristocrats really do that? How did Eastern rulers refer to themselves? Do any rulers or aristocrats still do that?

  10. Debbie said,

    August 11, 2010 @ 9:43 am

    As a yet unpublished author, I’m just a little fearful about what will be determined about my psychological state as revealed in my writing. I’d have to agree with Jair, that the analysis should be on the narritive (author’s voice) rather than on the author. What about POV? Is it possible to write first person and never refer to self?

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