For victims of narcissistic abuse, Sam Vaknin is the man you love to hate–or the man you hate to love. He’s a controversial figure in the field of narcissism. He has ardent fans within the community as well as seething haters. Just taking a quick scan of the comments under his many Youtube videos will give you an idea of just how polarizing Sam Vaknin really is.
Vaknin, self-professed malignant narcissist and possible borderline psychopath, is in the unlikely and highly ironic position of being a guru and hero for countless victims of narcissistic abuse, and remains one of the most famous voices on the subject.
Until narcissism became a thing a few years ago and blogs by survivors of narcissistic abuse began to proliferate like wildfire, Vaknin was one of the only voices on the Internet who delved deeply into the subject of narcissism and its effects on victims, outside of mental health professionals and psychologists–and not even many of them paid much attention to the problem of narcissistic abuse. Sam was a voice in the wilderness and offered hope to many who felt they had no hope at all. And yet Sam was exactly the kind of person they were trying to get away from.
Sam is a conundrum. If he’s a malignant narcissist who is also a self-professed misanthrope and psychopath, why on God’s green earth does he feel the need to write self help books for victims of abuse and run forums and discussion groups for them? Why does he warn us against people like himself?
When I first found out about Sam Vaknin, there was no way I thought he could be a real narcissist. I was already aware of his books and already knew he was a self professed narcissist, but other than that, knew very little about him. Later on, after watching “I, Psychopath,” I decided he was a narcissist wannabe who more likely had Borderline personality disorder (BPD) with some narcissistic and schizoid traits, and I wrote this article stating my case.
Sam found this article and apparently really liked it, because he disseminated it all over social media. It wasn’t particularly complimentary. I nearly accused him of being a huge fraud, and yet Sam began to visit this blog and share some of the other posts I wrote about him. I read in one of his interviews, that Sam loves to be hated and feared. He doesn’t like to be liked or thought well of. He hates to be loved. But he does like to be thought of as a guru and an expert. Maybe he liked the fact I was critical of him in that post, although I did say some nice things too. Whatever the reasons for his approval and attention, I was inadvertently feeding his narcissistic supply and in return, he was helping give my new blog much needed visibility. This quickly became a mutually beneficial arrangement (though due to his being much more famous than me, I’m sure I benefited more than he did).
Going back to the film “I, Psychopath,” Vaknin’s behavior toward the filmmaker and others, including his submissive, endlessly patient, high-empathy wife Lidija, was as whiney, argumentative and petulant as a three year old who needs a nap or maybe a spanking. He seemed impossible to please. Ian Walker (the filmmaker) who was also in the film, seemed to be losing his mind and it was clear there was no love lost between them. I wasn’t sure how much of Sam’s childish and explosive behavior was an act for the camera to appear more narcissistic than he actually was, but when Walker secretly filmed Vaknin at one point to prove it wasn’t just an act, Sam’s behavior remained just as abusive.
Walker, for his part, seemed to have bit off far more than he could chew in making this film, and seemed nearly destroyed by Vaknin’s abuse. (I read it took him two years to recover from the experience). But to be fair, Walker had chosen to make this film about a self professed malignant narcissist and possible psychopath, so what did he expect? Candy and roses?
Vaknin became petulant when one of the psychological tests he took (the one that scored in all known personality disorders) had him scoring higher in schizoid and avoidant traits than narcissistic ones. In fact, his N score wasn’t really all that high. Other tests he was given gave him much higher scores, and Robert Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist (the test that’s given to criminals to make sentencing and judging decisions in courts of law) gave Vaknin a whopping score of 18 in psychopathy, which is extremely high, even for conscienceless criminals.
An intelligent man like Sam, of course, could be faking the answers. Having a lot of knowledge of personality disorders and general psychology, he could have answered the questions in the manner a psychopath would have answered them to get the results he wanted.
The brain scans were more telling. He was definitely missing some essential connections that people with a conscience possess. But I still didn’t buy it. I didn’t believe he was a psychopath and if he was a narcissist at all, he was a very weak one.
Sam seemed to be all over the place, but his behavior in the film, while mostly unpleasant, still didn’t scream “narcissist.” I was initially confused by him–and then I was fascinated, and finally mesmerized. Even though I had never met the man or spoken to him, I was falling under his spell, which I hear is legendary. This could prove he is dangerous.
Many narcissists can be quite charming, and Sam, for all his toolish and childish behavior, certainly could turn on the charm. He was intelligent, incredibly so, and sometimes funny. He was self aware and quick to admit how much of a bastard he was. Sometimes he was nice. He was always brutally honest, something most narcissists are not. He was definitely unpredictable and moody. He wasn’t someone I’d want to spend much time alone with, and part of me wanted to protect his sweet little wife Lidija from her unstable husband, whatever his psychological problem was. He was a ticking time bomb, and although he has never been physically abusive, he was clearly verbally abusive and the poor woman seemed to have “settled” for a disordered man who could never really return the love she constantly showered on him, as much as he sometimes appeared to try.
In the film, she said she wanted to have a baby with him but knew it probably wouldn’t happen (partly due to her age but also because they have barely any sex life. Sam is not interested in sex. He lives inside his head). What a sterile, joyless life any normally wired woman would have to endure to be married to him. But Lidija, in her codependent way, seems happy and satisfied. It’s very dysfunctional but apparently works for both of them. She’s his constant supply and she’s more than happy to fulfill that role, or says she is.
So, moving on…I think it’s a very good thing that they never had children. I read somewhere (I can’t find the link now) they mutually decided not to reproduce, in order to protect any potential child from either becoming NPD or a victim of its effects, which to my way of thinking shows a side of Sam that does not want to inflict his disorder on a child–so does that mean he has some semblance of a conscience? In another video, I saw how impatient Sam seemed toward some children playing nearby. “Why can’t they just be born adults?” he said. Clearly Sam would not be an ideal father to a child.
It didn’t take long for Sam’s brilliant but disordered mind became my latest Aspie obsession (we do get obsessed over things). I wanted to find out what really made Sam Vaknin tick. I wanted to get inside Sam’s mind and feel what it felt like to be him, and maybe that would give me some answers in solving the puzzle of him. By now, having read more of his writings and seen his interviews, I was becoming convinced that Sam was really a narcissist, but probably not a malignant one.
I read everything I could about him. Interviews, articles, his own stuff. I read blog posts and articles by both his fans and his haters. I watched his videos. I read the comments under them. I read his personal journals and poetry, which are publicly available on his website
Sam’s poetry and personal journals show a side of him that cannot be detected in his almost robot-like Youtube videos where his face is nearly devoid of expression or emotion. It’s my belief this intellectual automaton he wants everyone to believe is the real him is a mask he wears to fool everyone into thinking he is just a walking, talking brain with no emotions, a person who cannot feel anything, a person with no vulnerabilities. I believe these creative writings are the only windows we have into Sam’s true character–his lost self.
Sam’s emotionality can’t be directly detected in “Malignant Self-Love,” although he does write with passion and there’s an odd underlying mood of darkness and pain I’m picking up that I don’t get from watching his videos. I can’t explain why I feel this underlying anger and pain emanating from the pages because it’s not really present in the words themselves. He’s a powerful writer and it just comes through, whether he intended it to or not. Other people have said the same thing about this book.
It’s taking me longer to read than I anticipated, partly due to its length, but also because I’m finding I need to put it down from time to time, because the rage and hurt I can detect that underlies his intellectual, scholarly prose can make me feel depressed. I feel like I’m being drawn against my will into a dark night of the soul. It’s nothing I can put my finger on, just a mood of bottomless sadness and hopelessness that filters through his words. I haven’t reviewed his book yet but I will say this. In spite of his having written “Malignant Self Love” primarily to obtain narcissistic supply for himself, it’s actually one of the most insightful books on narcissism I’ve ever read. Who better than a narcissist to be able to write about what the disorder feels like and what really causes it? But if you’re sensitive at all, it’s not a fun book to read.
Sam has said even in his videos that he often feels sad and depressed. There are flashes of humanity occasionally too. In one of them he is being questioned about something he did to another boy when they were about 12. He had tried to brainwash this other boy, and the boy was so damaged by the psychological abuse that he had to be hospitalized. When the interviewer asked if Sam felt any remorse, he replied he knew it was wrong on an intellectual level but couldn’t feel any remorse or shame. But his face told another story. For just a moment, Sam’s face changed. It seemed to clench and then softened and he looked away quickly from the interviewer, as if he didn’t want his humanity to be seen. I saw him grimace a little, as if remembering this was causing him a jolt of pain.
His journals and poetry are where I believe is Sam’s true self really comes out. Creative writing is the only form of expression it has. Even with all the honesty and insight he has into his disorder (and what I believe a strong desire to be rid of it too) his true self is eternally dissociated from the hostile, volatile, intellectual mask of protection he shows to the world. I no longer have any doubt Sam is a narcissist on the higher end of the spectrum, if not malignant, but even for such an insightful intelligent narcissist as Sam, a cure is probably not going to happen.
Sam’s journals, short fiction, and poetry are so filled with sadness, rage, hopelessnes and pain it takes my breath away. It’s almost too painful to read them. His writing, as emotional as his videos are intellectual, makes you feel like you’ve been punched several times in the gut. People have accused him of being a fake, but there’s nothing fake in the raw emotion he is able to express in his creative writing and journals. No one could fake that.
His words tell what it really feels like to have NPD–from the inside of a sufferer who really does suffer and at the same time is all too aware of it. And it’s pure hell, worse than anything you can imagine. Knowing you can never escape, wanting to be human but not knowing how. Knowing you can never give or receive love like a normal person. That you long to be good but don’t know how. That you feel superior and worthless at the same time. That you want to be hated and feared because deep inside you feel like you don’t deserve any love because of what was done to you by your mother as a child. That you hate and envy others for what you want but can’t have. It’s like being possessed. Maybe it is being possessed. Maybe when one chooses to become a narcissist (Vaknin said he chose to become one at a very young age to protect himself from further hurt) you are drawn into darkness, and once you’ve entered you can’t ever escape.
I read an interview where he admitted he has memories of himself as a very young child, and these are indicative of a person who may have been an empath had he not been subjected to horrific abuse. I think Sam is actually a deeply emotional man with very sensitive feelings but these are unfortunately limited to just himself. Any ability he once had to feel empathy and love for others was cut off like a leg that was amputated for no good reason other than his mother’s malignant envy of him. Sam’s overreaction to a slight on this blog proved to me just how sensitive he actually is. It’s tragic that sensitivity was not allowed to develop into empathy for others. Here is an excerpt from that interview (because I found it posted on another blog with no link, I don’t know where it came from or who was interviewing him):
Q: So can you remember not being a narcissist?
A: That is a really good question. I do remember a period before I became a narcissist, that must have been around age 3 or 4, I do remember forming my narcissism as a conscious effort. I remember I’ve been diagnosed with 180+ IQ, very high, which allowed me to achieve results which were not age-appropriate, advanced. Also my memories are unusual for a child of three, I remember as a child of ¾ inventing the narratives, the stories that became my narcissism later. Inventing the stories of my omniscience, how I knew everything, and inventing fictitious figments of me that are very powerful. Telling myself I would not feel pain if I told myself not to. I remember assembling it like Lego. Before that, I remember being a spoiled child, admired and loved because I was achieving things that were not typical for a child, the entire neighborhood was there first, then the whole nation. So I became a spoiled brat. Later I was subjected to horrific physical abuse up until the age of 16. The answer to the question is yes – I remember the exact moment where I decided to be a narcissist.
Q: So you remember the empathic abilities you have lost in this process?
A: No, I was too young to develop real empathy.
Q: A little compassion, do you remember that at least?
A: I remember being compassionate, that I cried when my mother was sad, that I was a good-hearted kid, I used to give away my things, tried to understand other peoples emotions. But these are just flickers of memory, they have receded so fare. It’s like the shades on the wall of Plato’s cave. I do not relive them, do not have access to them. I just know of them.
Sam is a paradox, an enigma, a person too complicated for anyone to ever be able to really understand, and he is just as flummoxed by his complexities as those who try to understand him. I believe he’s a good person trapped forever in a disordered mind that betrays him and makes him lash out at a world that never gave him a chance to become fully human. Having so much insight just makes it all so much harder.
Do I think he’s dangerous? Yes, without a doubt. Even if he doesn’t want to, he can draw you into his illness. He can infect you with his misery and darkness. I don’t think it was necessarily Sam’s abuse of Ian Walker that made him feel the need to symbolically wash himself clean at the end of the film and that changed him for the worse for two years hence. After all, Walker chose to make that film and knew what he was getting into. I think it was the darkness that surrounds Sam that infected Walker and threatened to engulf him. Sam has to live with that every day of his life and can’t free himself from it like Walker can.
When I think about Sam Vaknin, I’m reminded of “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. The protagonist is warning us of his malignancy.
Sam is warning us too. That’s why I don’t think he should be demonized and dismissed as a fraud or someone with malignant intentions, even if they’re primarily self-serving and intended to procure narcissistic supply for himself. There’s a good core in Sam that wants to separate himself from the rest of humanity. That’s why he went into exile by moving to Macedonia and lives a life as a near recluse. He knows what he has become and I think he hates it. But he’s helping people. People look up to him for advice about how to deal with their abusers, and the advice he gives is good. So does it really matter if his primary motives are selfish? I don’t think it does. Just don’t get too close.