Key Words: Malignant Narcissism, Church Leadership
A “Psychological Autopsy” of a
Malignant Narcissist in Church Leadership:
A “Composite” Scenario with Discussion
Charles Zeiders, Psy.D.
86 West Eagle Road, Havertown, PA 19083
email: [email protected]
To illustrate the phenomenon of malignant narcissism in church leadership, this article develops a composite profile of a malignant narcissist. The profile is rendered in the form of an excerpt from a “fictional” psychological autopsy. “Imagined” clinical material, all retrieved from public sources, woven into genuine psychological scholarship, offers a developmental narrative of the pathogenesis of a malignant narcissist embedded in a church culture. Following the “psychological autopsy,” The Journal of Christian Healing interviews the author, discussing pertinent issues. It is hoped that this article will enhance awareness of the manifestations of destructive leadership in religious life.
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When a narcissistic cleric assumes church leadership, the matter is problematic. But, if the leader’s narcissism is malignant, the matter is catastrophic. Such a destructive cleric will injure not only his detractors but also his followers and himself. He will be charismatic and grandiose. He will offer infectious oratory, and he will gain followers. He will become the adored champion of a disaffected group looking for recognition in a world populated by “enemies.” He will employ convincing theological rationalizations to gratuitously and sadistically injure the enemies of his “divine” agenda. His followers will continue to buy in and love him. His grandiosity will delude him to think that Providence has vouchsafed him to be incapable of mistakes. Wildly overconfident, he will engage in criminal over-reach and demonstrate enraged paranoia when he is called to account. To preserve his legend and avoid accountability, he will blame former allies, run away, or commit suicide. If he commits suicide, he will depict his last destructive act as a kind of victory.
The recent preponderance of church scandals, crimes, cover-ups, and malfeasances necessitate a revisiting of the concept of malignant narcissism. While not listed in the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013), the construct offers utility in understanding the charismatic leader whose attractiveness is predicated on his apparent embodiment of the answer to the deep concerns of a beleaguered group. He grows in fame and influence, only to disappoint with criminal scandals, born of grandiosity and megalomania, run amok. Psychology’s great thinkers have concerned themselves with this characterological disease. After World War Two, the psychoanalyst Eric Fromm (1964) introduced the term “malignant narcissism.” He reserved the diagnosis for grandiose, charismatic leaders whose psychopathology accounts for a broad destructiveness that devours their enemies, their proponents, and even themselves. Online reference material (Malignant narcissism, in Wikipedia, 2016) elaborates that:
… Fromm first coined the term “malignant narcissism” in 1964, describing it as a … severe mental sickness … representing … the quintessence of evil … He characterized the condition as … the root of the most vicious destructiveness and inhumanity …
[Others] … described … it as … a disturbing form of narcissistic personality where grandiosity is built around aggression and the destructive aspects of the self, become idealized … (Akhtar, 2009, p. 193).
Kernberg (1970) … pointed out that the antisocial personality was fundamentally narcissistic and without morality … [he] characterized [the pathology as consisting of] narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), antisocial features, paranoid traits, and egosyntonic aggression … symptoms … include an absence of conscience, a psychological need for power, and a sense of importance (grandiosity) (p. 51-85).
Pollock (1978) wrote … [that] … “the malignant narcissist is presented as pathologically grandiose, lacking in conscience and behavioral regulation with characteristic demonstrations of … sadism” (p. 257).
The most recent peer reviewed exploration of this frightening diagnosis was conducted by Goldner-Vukov and Moore (2010). Building on the earlier work, they enlarged the four criteria essential to the diagnosis of malignant narcissism.
The first criterion consists of Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).
The core features of NPD that are recognized in MN [Malignant Narcissism] are a grandiose sense of self-importance, preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power and brilliance, a belief in being special or unique, a strong need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitiveness, a lack of empathy and prominent envy … (p. 392).
The second criterion consists of Antisocial Features. Malignant narcissists:
… are contemptuous of social conventions and show a … tendency to lie, steal and mismanage money. They may commit burglary, assault or murder, and they may even become leaders of sadistic or terrorist groups. They are capable of feeling concern and loyalty for others … but primarily for their disciples or blind followers. They realize that others have moral concerns, but they easily rationalize their antisocial behavior … (p. 392).
The third criterion is egosyntonic sadism.
Individuals with malignant narcissism have a tendency to destroy, symbolically castrate, and dehumanize others. Their rage is fueled by the desire for revenge … (p. 392).
The fourth criterion consists of paranoid features.
The paranoid tendencies in malignant narcissists reflect their projection of unresolved hatred onto others whom they persecute … (p. 392).
When these four elements of malignant narcissism constellate in a single leader, the profile that emerges is that of a monstrous personality who will devolve into an impaired professional and imperil his organization. On the well-regarded website on personality disorders, healthyplace.com, an expert writes
The malignant narcissist invents and then projects a false, fictitious, self for the world to fear, or to admire. He maintains a tenuous grasp on reality to start with and this is further exacerbated by the trappings of power. The narcissist’s grandiose self-delusions and fantasies of omnipotence and omniscience are supported by real life authority and the narcissist’s predilection to surround himself with obsequious sycophants.
The narcissist’s personality is so precariously balanced that he cannot tolerate even a hint of criticism and disagreement. Most narcissists are paranoid and suffer from ideas of reference (the delusion that they are being mocked or discussed when they are not). Thus, narcissists often regard themselves as “victims of persecution.”
The narcissistic leader fosters and encourages a personality cult with all the hallmarks of an institutional religion: priesthood, rites, rituals, temples, worship, catechism, mythology. The leader is this religion’s ascetic saint. He monastically denies himself earthly pleasures (or so he claims) in order to be able to dedicate himself fully to his calling.
The narcissistic leader is a monstrously inverted Jesus, sacrificing his life and denying himself so that his people – or humanity at large – should benefit. By surpassing and suppressing his humanity, the narcissistic leader became a distorted version of Nietzsche’s “superman” (Vaknin, 2016).
To illustrate the phenomenon of malignant narcissism, specifically in church leadership, this article develops a composite profile of a malignant narcissist. The profile is rendered in the form of an excerpt from a fictional psychological autopsy. Composite clinical material, all drawn from public sources, and woven into clinical scholarship, offers a developmental narrative of the pathogenesis of a malignant narcissist embedded in a church culture. Following the “psychological autopsy,” the author discusses pertinent issues with the Journal of Christian Healing. It is hoped that this article will enhance awareness of the manifestations of destructive leadership in religious life.
A “Psychological Autopsy” of a Malignant Narcissist: A Composite Case (Undocumented quotations are “composite” material. All names of persons and organizations are fictitious.)
That Bishop Frederick Ladysmith-Jones committed suicide is sad but not surprising. Rumors were that indictments issued against him by the State Attorney General’s office were damning. A list of charges leveled against Ladysmith-Jones and his Faith Cathedral included defamation, fraud, illegal detention, harassment by communication, and perjury. At the same time his estranged (and excommunicated mistress) provided a damning interview to Dan Truth, an important religion journalist. According to Margot Van Buran, the beleaguered Bishop was a frighteningly insecure child-man who: compensated for his inferiority by cultivating a messianic persona, surrounded himself with yes-men and sycophants, and brutally denounced and injured the reputations and fortunes of his detractors. The interview further exposed Ladysmith-Jones for disbursing Faith Cathedral’s money illegally to finance reckless lawsuits and lavish living. Complicit in his crimes, she turned state’s witness and cooperated with investigators to expose the once popular churchman’s malfeasance.
This religious leader, who felt entitled to speak for God and to control virtually any agenda that interested him, was finally confronted with a situation he could not control. After firing several legal teams (dubiously financed by Faith Cathedral endowment monies to which he was not entitled), Ladysmith-Jones simply had no good options. While the law appeared blind to his “special” status as the self-proclaimed “Reformed Catholic Prophet to the Sacramental Communions of Christendom,” his group of formerly blind followers had recently regained sight and looked upon Ladysmith-Jones with dismayed eyes. The newscasts of his preposterous grandiosity, rhetorical meanness, and cruel treatment of his detractors, caused a precipitous falling away of his flock and a ruinous drop in tithing.
Unable to afford more counsel, on the heels of a grueling, humiliating deposition, Bishop Ladysmith-Jones returned to his rectory, prepared certain documents, drank a half gallon of communion wine, and shot himself in the head. Authorities found his body adorned in his vestments, wearing his Bishop’s cross and ring. His “final epistle” was a rambling document in which he affirmed that God had chosen him for a prophetic ministry to the Sacramental Communions of Christendom. He blamed the failure of his mission on “revisionists in the greater church, atheists in secular society, and Judas Iscariots within Faith Cathedral.”
For a brief time, Bishop Ladysmith-Jones was the darling of the Reformed Catholic movement. He was a charismatic, persuasive speaker who embodied the hopes of Christians from various sacramental denominations who wished for sacramental unity between denominations and affirmation of a conservative, resolutely ‘orthodox’ faith to counter a spiritual lassitude perceived to have crept from contemporary culture into the church. He had been the Golden Boy of theologians, seminary deans, and laity. He was the protégé of the venerable Bishop Augustini.
The news of his suicide made me reflective. How does one account for the rise and fall of a would-be messiah? What extenuating factors in Ladysmith-Jones’ learning history created his sick, attractive character? Why was he successful? Did his ministry have to conclude ignominiously?
Shame, Neglect, and Trauma: The Origins of Narcissism
Fred Jones was born into poor family in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father, Fred Jones, Sr., spoke neither about his own family history, nor his family of origin. He did not seem to want a past. He also possessed no outward signs of piety. But he did insist that his wife and son attend a “Bible church,” despite the fact that his wife was Catholic. Fred, Sr., was often too hung over to attend services with his family. A welder by trade, he spent money as soon as he earned it. He gambled it away, or bought drinks at taprooms near the rundown home he rented in the poor side of town wherein he kept his family. Records indicate police arrested Fred Jones, Sr., on numerous occasions for domestic abuse of his wife and little son. Charges were always filed and always dropped by Mrs. Anne Marie Jones. Ample evidence suggests that Mrs. Jones was afraid of her husband and depressed. She told pastoral counselors that neither her father nor her husband had been any good to her. She could only depend on the Pope and God the Father. She resented her son, Fred, for keeping her in an unsatisfactory marriage. She had no awareness that he was traumatized by his father and neglected by her. She lacked insight that Fred required love, care, and treatment. But while she neglected little Fred for being his father’s son, she also made Fred the object of various fantasies based on imagery from the Catholic faith her spouse forbade her to practice. Volkan (2004) describes a similar, religiously-laden developmental driver of narcissism:
… A Catholic mother fantasized that her son would grow up to be the Pope (i.e., an idealized father to replace the bad father she herself had experienced as a child), while her routine mothering functions left the child deprived of ordinary affection and approval for just being an average child. This perception of her child as unique was conveyed into the developing self of the small child and became the foundation for the child’s future sense of his own grandiosity (p. 313).
As in the scenario described by Volkan, the situation for little Fred Jones was one in which his value depended on unreality. Anne Marie Jones did not value her son for himself. She valued him as a toy religious savior. An early psychological operation of Fred’s would have been to defensively repress the needy little boy he was and develop the persona of the superior religious man. He would trade the reality of the shame of the unloved boy for the glory of spiritually important person. As an adult Bishop Frederick Ladysmith-Jones wore magnificent vestments to cover his unimpressive physique. As a boy little Fred Jones began to wear a grand persona over a shamed, loveless core. What else could he have done when Anne Marie only attended to him when he was quoting scripture with flourishes and credibly imitating TV priests and preachers for her? She only brightened when and praised her son when he played the “minister game.”
Burgo (2015) points out that future cult leaders like Fred Jones develop narcissistic defenses in reaction to the sense of defectiveness sustained from trauma, neglect, and abuse.
… the belief that one is exceptional and superior betrays a defensive sense of self out of touch with reality. In order to escape from feelings of core shame – of being small, needy, and defective – the cult leader takes flight from himself and seeks refuge in a grandiose self-image meant to “disprove “all the damage. I’m not defective. I’m a supremely important person. It comes as no surprise that Charles Manson, David Koresh, and Jim Jones all emerged from horrific backgrounds … In denial of early trauma and the resulting psychological damage, all three men eventually came to view themselves as exceptional and superior, projecting a grandiose self-image that persuaded others to do their bidding (pp. 117-118).
From a developmental viewpoint, it is important to note that the mothers of some cult leaders maintained quasi-delusional notions that their sons were messiahs.
Elementary and Middle School Years
During his elementary and middle school years, Fred Jones performed well in school. He enjoyed praise from teachers for excelling academically. Perhaps due to his practice of imitating preachers at home, he presented with superior verbal ability. His essays were usually excellent, and he enjoyed lead roles in school plays and musicals.
Of special note is the fact that he did poorly in gym class. Not especially athletic, Fred Jones simply refused to play sports at which he was not likely to excel. During this period, he played army with his friends. Inevitably he chose the role of a beleaguered combat commander who vanquished enemies against incredible odds. During this imaginary play, Fred also offered stirring speeches to his playmates, mustering them to charge into combat with him and kill imaginary enemies.
Due to his growing charm, he made friends easily. But he also lost friends quickly due to his social inflexibility and insistence on having his way. He also gained a reputation for occasionally telling tall tales. He said he helped his father invent a medical instrument that saved many lives and earned the family a fortune.
During this period a family friend observed that twelve-year-old Fred would stand before the mirror wearing his mock military uniform, posing for himself for long periods of time. He also read Superman comics religiously and enjoyed collecting the magazine that offered stories of the inadequate, mild mannered Clark Kent transforming into the Man of Steel.
Over this developmental stretch, Fred’s narcissistic character further formed. Academic achievement, combined with starring roles in plays supplied him with social adulation that sustained his sense of specialness. His social inflexibility, however, signified an unwillingness to be vulnerable to another person. His tall tales and mirror gazing evidenced budding grandiosity, which functioned to elevate Fred’s mood above the depression, trauma and shame at his core. His military and Superman fantasies had an obviously narcissistic function.
High School and Early College
At his father’s insistence Fred attended a high school sponsored by a consortium of “Bible churches.” The high school was also a feeder school into a strict Protestant Fundamentalist college. Staff was drawn from male seminarians and pastors associated with the fundamentalist churches.
In one of his unpublished memoirs, Fred noted that the teachers saw him as a threat, especially in matters of religious doctrine. He read precociously and ecumenically and earned enemies among the staff by quoting passages from Church Fathers in class, literature with which his teachers were unfamiliar. To them he sounded “too Catholic” and culturally alien to be appropriate for their school.
Other students celebrated Fred for his ability to hold his own, challenging authority figures in matters of doctrine. This fueled Fred to advance more “Catholic” beliefs in his religion classes to the chagrin of his instructors. Eventually there was a “blow up” between Fred and an instructor in which the student and the instructor accused each other of apostasy and heresy. The students rallied to Fred, but the administration supported the instructor.
To keep order, the administration put Fred under investigation for insubordination and deliberately isolated him from the student body. There was speculation that Fred might be expelled. Without support from other students, frightened for his future, and bedeviled by unredressable resentments toward the school fathers, Fred began to decompensate. He became depressed and showed signs of trauma-consistent hyperarousal. Temporality without the narcissistic supplies necessary to help maintain defenses against the trauma and shame contained within his abandonment depression, Fred became increasingly symptomatic.
Without the support of my friends, suffering mightily under accusatory interrogations with the hawk-nosed headmaster and his inquisitors, I suffered disconsolation and pleasurelessness. My appetite collapsed, and I became gaunt like the ascetics of the early church. I was sure to be expelled, despised by men, and hopeless for a meaningful future. To myself I was as an insect. Nightmares plagued me, and I awoke screaming from images of winged giants descending from thrones to devour me.
Clearly, Fred’s narcissistic defenses were collapsing. Core symptoms of depression were present in his blue mood, anhedonia, and anorexia. Core shame, born of maternal deprivation, manifested in the insect self-imagery. Core trauma, born of paternal abuse, manifested in hyperarousal and nightmares of malevolent authority figures.
Fred’s memoir continued:
In desperate fervor I prayed that in my weary and heavy laden state God would grant me rest. Then, to my amazement, all grace came upon me. In a flash the Great Commander seized me in soothing brilliance. Sorrow turned to joy. My darkness turned to sight of inner light. So close was I held by Deity that I felt at one with the Source who loved me utterly. Nervousness vanished in the face of charismatic streams of divine energy. I understood myself to be of profound importance to the paradisiacal Father who set before me a providential path to advance His kingdom with powerful authority. My confidence completely returned. My sense of myself as unique among men caused me to exalt within my spirit. I told no one about the experience.
This mystical experience drove Fred’s acute psychopathology into spontaneous remission. It was affirming, kind, and reparative. Nothing about the experience is bizarre or suggestive of a psychotic process. This brief unity with the Divine radically rebalanced Fred’s psyche.
Dunn (2013) observes that:
… mystical union suggest[s] an archaic desire for merger with an idealized other “who possesses wisdom, kindness, vast knowledge, unending strength and a capacity to soothe … and maintain emotional balance”… for the Christian mystic – as for the pathological narcissist – the quest for union with the divine … attests to an effort to maintain the wholeness of the self against the threat of its fragmentation (Kakar 1991: Gleig 2010) … (p. 650).
Dunn (2013) further observes that spiritual encounters like Fred’s offer the possibility of mystical re-parenting, a second chance for:
… healthy narcissistic development as God’s empathetic gift of grace, on the one hand, and God’s omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence on the other, provide a corrective to early experiences of parental deprivation … (p. 650).
To the extent that Fred experienced divine empathy, his mother-wound (born of maternal neglect) would have been addressed toward repair, ameliorating depression and shame. To the extent that Fred experienced divine omnipotence covenanting with him, he would have experienced a repair of paternally inflicted trauma – the divine blessing breaking the curse of paternal abuse.
While the potential for repair and health were implicit in his mystical experience, the encounter sadly informed Fred’s grandiosity. He saw himself as “unique among men” and surely felt superior, special, entitled, and so forth. A spiritual advisor might have mentored the future Bishop to appreciate his encounter as a healing grace that facilitated healthy narcissism. But the paternal figures in Fred’s world reiterated his traumatizing father. No safe authorities existed in his psychosocial universe. He underwent a rare, beautiful encounter with the divine – but he missed its meaning and placed the moment in service to his narcissistic defenses.
From Protestant Fundamentalist College to Reformed Catholic Seminary
Following his mystical experience, school authorities solved the problem of their precocious student by graduating him early. He attended Calvin and Luther College, a protestant fundamentalist school, and majored in Religion and minored in English Literature. He joined the debating team and demonstrated a unique talent for making even the most ludicrous position convincingly viable. He was an excellent student with a quick wit. A fellow alumnus described him as a “riveting monologist with an opinion about everything. People were always around him, because he was so engaging. He never reached out to anyone. They just came to him. I think he took it for granted.”
In the course of his studies, Fred encountered Anglo-Catholic writers. He attended several services and became “hooked” on the liturgy. He was captivated by the pageantry of the ceremony, the solemn intonations, and the authoritative poetry of the Book of Common Prayer. He thrived on the gothic context and the soaring music. But most of all, he was drawn to the priest’s role. The priest wore the most resplendent vestment, read the most important texts, and officiated at the changing of bread and wine into the body and blood of the savior of the world. Fred decided that he would seek ordained ministry.
When he returned to the United States to begin studies at Reformed Catholic Seminary, he was more polished than ever. His pale blue eyes had the arresting knowingness of the mystic, and his Midwestern twang had given way to a slight but durable English accent. Not only did Fred change his voice, he changed his name as well. His new name (which he legally changed) was no longer Fred Jones. At the mixer at Reformed Catholic his nameplate read “Frederick Ladysmith-Jones.” Frederick morphed his persona from a poor American Midwesterner from an alcoholic family into an Englishman with a pedigree and a future in a Church that purported to defend the very soul of Europe and America. Thus, he commenced his divinity training.
Seminary classmates describe Frederick’s seminary years with envy and disgust. Frederick gained notoriety as a brilliant, radically conservative theologian with no tolerance for ambiguity. Widely read and annoyingly confident, he gave no ground in theological debates. He backed his arguments with excellent points drawn from scripture, tradition, and reason. One contemporary noted:
Fred spoke with amazing authority. He came off like some guy from Downton Abbey or the House of Lords. He fascinated people with brilliant linguistic skills while oozing a messianic sense of himself. Faculty and students gravitated to him; they felt they could be junior saviors with him. They gave him a lot of attention and in return he made them feel special and important. His grandiosity was infectious. It was in seminary that his charisma really heated up. The faculty fed into it, too. Fred was easily their favorite student, and he received special treatment. The seminary Dean, who went on to become Faith Cathedral’s Bishop Augustini, began to groom Fred for a big role in the Reformed Catholic movement. What Augustini didn’t get was that Fred was grooming him, too. Augustini didn’t see Fred’s lethal ambition and megalomania. All he saw was this brilliant high church guy who would be invaluable in the Reformed Catholic Movement and win the culture war.
Interestingly, the Seminary Dean was psychologically minded. Prior to receiving Holy Orders, each seminarian endured a mandatory psychological examination. Dean Augustini consulted regularly with Dr. Roosevelt, the Seminary Psychologist, and generally followed the expert’s recommendations.
Dr. Roosevelt administered a battery of standard psychological assessments to priest candidate Ladysmith-Jones. On a well-respected test of character pathology, Ladysmith-Jones scored positive for Narcissistic Personality Disorder and evidenced elevations on a scale of Antisocial or criminal traits. Dr. Roosevelt also felt that Frederick suffered from a latent mood disorder (plus trauma and shame) that he defended against with pathological grandiosity.
Interviewed for this document Dr. Roosevelt disclosed the following
Until I tested Ladysmith-Jones, Dean Augustini and I enjoyed an excellent working relationship. I figured that I’d just tell the Dean that – while brilliant – Frederick really should not be a priest. He tested out as a narcissist, and his clinical presentation supported that. His grandiosity was more pronounced than any I’d ever encountered. So, I compared the way he presented with the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder in the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, pp. 669-670). He had fantasies about becoming a historically important church figure and saving the Western world from spiritual death. He disclosed that Providence chose him during a high school mystical experience. Ladysmith-Jones presented as an exaggeratedly self-important young man, preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success. He indicated that he could only be understood by other culturally and spiritually elite people. He threw the words “high church” and “Anglo-Catholic” around a lot. He was obviously put off that I was not buying into his greatness and providing him with excessive admiration. He made some dismissive remarks about psychology not really being a science. He got under my skin, and I lost my cool, which is rare for me. His sense of entitlement was unreasonable, and he had a reputation for being interpersonally exploitive. His attitude was haughty.
Dr. Roosevelt informed Dean Augustini that Frederick’s character pathology made him a poor priest candidate. Roosevelt expressed further concerns that Frederick’s spirituality was likely to involve de facto self-worship, that he had the personality of a cult leader, and that he had criminal tendencies. Dr. Roosevelt presciently observed that Frederick presented a suicide risk if the “narcissistic supplies that keep his grandiosity charged up over his hidden depression were ever to be interrupted.” Sadly, Augustini simply did not believe Dr. Roosevelt, who went on to observe that
Augustini was childless, and I think he had deeply paternal feelings toward Ladysmith-Jones. He just could not abide my psychological determination about Fred’s psychopathology. No father wants to hear that his son is a malignant narcissist. When Augustini told me he would put Ladysmith-Jones forward for ordination, I flipped and went over Augustini’s head to the Seminary Board. Ladysmith-Jones was an impaired professional in the making and an obviously bad choice for a church leader. He also represented a threat-in-the-making to the credibility of the Reformed Catholic Movement. Frederick had an ability to develop a theory of mind about any person who was useful to him. He lacked empathy, but he could read people. This made him a master manipulator. Despite my efforts, he convinced the Seminary Board that he was as pure as the driven snow. With that fake English accent, he piously announced that I was an apparently well-meaning psychologist, deleteriously enlisting the tools of so-called social science upon a population of holy people called to religious life. He asked the Board if they valued the instruments of nasty secular humanism over the still, small voice that guides the hearts of men to become priests, etc., etc. The Board got all worked up. They fired me. And Ladysmith-Jones went on to ordination.
Speaking in a tone of regret and bitterness, Dr. Roosevelt concluded
I wish Augustini and the Board would have listened to me. Ladysmith Jones went on to destroy Augustini, Faith Cathedral, and the faith of innocent people. Decision makers should listen to their experts.
At Faith Cathedral with Augustini
The second he arrived, he went on a charm offensive with the leaders and the wealthy people. He also made himself indispensable to Bishop Augustini, who was suited to the role of father figure and patriarch but definitely not CEO. Yet, it was kind of irresponsible to give such an inexperienced priest so much power so fast. Nobody knew if he could handle it. But we all learned quickly that Father Ladysmith-Jones was Teflon, so we put up with him and did what he said.
For the next twelve years, the career of Frederick Ladysmith-Jones soared. Throughout the Reformed Catholic Movement he was a household name. His sermons and opinions were all over the internet. Even his detractors acknowledged that he was a brilliant theologian and speaker who could articulate the conservative orthodoxy of the movement. A delighted Bishop Augustini continued to dote on his famous priest. After all, Ladysmith-Jones perfectly espoused the important positions of the movement concerning the inerrancy of scripture, male priesthood, moral theology, social justice, and so forth. He had several well received television appearances that raised the profile and prestige of the Reformed Catholic Movement. One member of Faith Cathedral observed that
… during the twelve years when Ladysmith-Jones was on the ascent, he demonstrated the most astonishing charisma. Every time he spoke, he held us spellbound. His sermons and addresses were always greater than the sum of their parts. Hearing him preach changed the way we felt. He was like a drug to us. The more we adored him, the more he glowed. He shone like a light, and we idolized him. At the time the notion that he was an egomaniac and criminal would have been inconceivable. He articulated everything we believed, and we adored him for it. He had control of our smiles and our tears. Now people say it is obvious that he was bad. But we called him the Fourth Person of the Trinity.
Regarding the mass credentialing of such disturbed characters as Ladysmith-Jones, Burgo (2015) observes
Human beings apparently have an innate need for leaders or role models they can look up to and aspire to emulate. The Grandiose Narcissist who appears to embody our ideals, often by manipulating his public persona, plays into that need by presenting himself as a hero, and by nature, we are easily seduced … (p. 137).
From documentary and interview data it is clear that a reciprocal relationship existed between Ladysmith-Jones’ adoring co-religionists and his grandiosity. His radiating rightness and messianic self-confidence was cause for his culturally beleaguered followers to shower him with ever more adoration – which fueled the fires of his sense of election and infallibility.
Volkan (2004) affirms that:
It is generally when a large group’s identity is threatened and when the group is regressed that the “fit” between a community and an individual with exaggerated self-love is likely to be the strongest: the leader’s belief in his or her own omnipotence … creates comfort for followers in search of a savior (p. 193).
Moreover, integral to understanding the phenomenon of Ladysmith-Jones’ success is the profundity of spiritual experience that some of his followers experienced. Occasionally during his ritualistic healing services followers experienced streaming energy that correlated with psychosomatic relief which they attributed to a divine force flowing through to Ladysmith-Jones. This caused them to complement the minister’s specialness all the more, and the minister absorbed these narcissistic supplies into his ever increasing grandiosity.
A Jesuit acquainted with this element of his ministry observed that:
Ladysmith-Jones possessed something uncanny in terms of his person and ministry … His moving healing rituals combined elements of Roman Catholic and Anglican healing liturgies which he celebrated incanting soaring liturgical poetry accompanied by stirring music. People loved it. As a celebrant the man was a rock star … so it’s not surprising that suggestible people benefitted … he choreographed these events with himself as the central, amazing figure who eventually anointed supplicants with oil while dramatically droning ancient prayers of healing. Don’t get me wrong, I know that God can work through a broken vessel. And I definitely believe in the legitimacy of healing. But I’m sensitive to the fact that cult leaders can engender healing experiences that mimic genuine charismatic healing. After Ladysmith-Jones fell from grace, I re-read Feet of Clay (1997) by the famous British psychiatrist Anthony Storr. The chapter on Jim Jones made it clear that a self-obsessed cult leader, who is undoubtedly headed for destruction, can inaugurate electrical sensations in followers that are construed as divine transmissions from the cult leader to the people. It’s documented.
This same interviewee remarked that Ladysmith-Jones appeared to create dependent personalities among his followers, a phenomenon not uncommon to cult leaders.
The Dark Side
Among the noteworthy elements of Ladysmith-Jones’ ministry was his ability to eloquently identify enemies of the good with the “perfect” theology he espoused. A review of his writings, sermons, and numerous YouTube posts, indicate that he explained the anxiety and unhappiness that so many of his followers suffered, as being born from various embodied evils. These included critics of the Reformed Catholic movement, Muslims, immigrants, billionaires, women, homosexuals, the media, pornographers, the lazy poor, secular globalists, theological revisionists, and so forth. Elaborating on the defensive function that such extremism plays in the psychology of narcissistic defenses, Virtanen (2013) writes:
Certain kinds of personality structures may be supported by ideologies that seem to cure the narcissistic wound. An extreme ideology coupled with low self-esteem may cause inflation of the ego. Ideology is the answer to the narcissistically wounded ego – the pain, frustration, fury and hatred find an explanation and reason. And, most importantly, ideology helps the wounded ego to find an enemy. Extreme ideology is what fills their existential vacuum and provides some sense of meaning and purpose (p. 672).
Exploring narcissistic extremism, Volkan (2004) asserts that it possesses properties born of the pathological leaders secret defenses.
It can be recognized in the hatred of uncertainty; the revulsion against anything imperfect, impure, or bodily; the rage and violent retaliation against perceived attack, unbearable humiliation and shame; destructive envy and the arrogant disregard for humble limits … the evasion of vulnerability; the presence of self-deception and the denial of the harm that one has done to others; the moral condemnation for those who do not share the same beliefs; and ultimately in the negation of love (p. 160).
Because they learned who Ladysmith Jones despised, followers of Ladysmith-Jones learned who God despised. Implicit in the minister’s sermons and fireside chats was the message that God had elected Ladysmith-Jones and his followers to live out divinely revealed truth and to flourish in pure metaphysical security. Those outside the parameters of Reformed Catholic belief represented an existential threat to the people of God. This was a threat to the pure and the good, a threat to truth expressed in the world through Ladysmith-Jones and his followers. But this threat would ultimately be destroyed. God would not allow His elected people to be destroyed by evildoers. With gratuitous punishments, God would destroy them in this life and the next. All of this was divinely ensured and supported by reasonable theology. The God of Reformed Catholicism would roast the impure in endless, ever-burning infernos, while the elect would enjoy protection, prosperity, and divine congratulations in this life and the next.
Analysis of his rhetoric heightens understanding of the malignancy of his narcissism and accounts for his tenure of success as a social phenomenon. Ladysmith-Jones evacuated his sense of core inadequacy via the projective defenses. Once he identified the object of his projections, he feared their return in terms of some kind of attack that would injure the perfection embedded in his grandiose self-fantasy. To the extent that Ladysmith-Jones experienced anxiety, it was paranoid anxiety. He conflated internal threats to his psychic balance with his external enemies. To quell the fear that he would be devoured by externalized enemies that bore his projected inferiorities, he cultivated sadistic fantasies of gratuitous torment for them, the plausibility of which he upheld through theological rationalizations and apocalyptic imagery. The public adulation he received strengthened his grotesque psychodynamics – the ongoing operations of which caused a reproduction of his grandiosity, projective identification, and sadistic, scapegoating defenses among a large cross-section of the Reformed Catholic movement.
A disillusioned follower of Ladysmith-Jones, Daniel Dickenson, who later became director of the Shaker Committee for Human Rights, inveighed that
Initially Ladysmith-Jones organized our upset and disappointment in terms of an orthodox Christian worldview. We believed in him and his message. He told us we were the light of the world, and he pointed to where the spiritual, cultural, and economic darkness resided. He gave hope to those of us who felt betrayed by our institutions. But ultimately he was toxic. His message contained far too much in-group flattery and a mean message to hate the out-groups. Plus, his enemies consisted of a lot of terribly vulnerable populations that would have benefitted more from ministry than vilification. When I watched a documentary on European dictatorships of the thirties and forties, I realized that Ladysmith-Jones was cut from the same cloth, so I left. Demagoguery and fascist psychology have no place in a Christian movement. Somehow I knew that the guy was an impaired professional, and a tyrant, and that he would fall apart.
Daniel Dickenson’s intuition about Ladysmith-Jones was prescient. Ladysmith-Jones career indicates that the narcissistic supplies he received from his followers swelled his grandiosity to the point where he believed he was incapable of making mistakes. At that juncture, the criminal element of his character may have begun to be expressed. Regarding what she calls the “tyrant,” Glad (2002) writes:
His grandiosity and his skills in deception, manipulation, and intimidation are an advantage to him in securing power. But as he moves toward absolute power, he is apt to cross moral … boundaries in ways that place him in a vulnerable position … the problem … resides in the tyrant’s character and the ways in which he exercises power … the tyrant is one who exercises powers for his own rather than the general interest … (pp. 1-2).
Glad further writes:
For those [leaders] with the malignant narcissistic disorders noted above, the achievement of absolute power can act as a kind of narcotic. As Volkan (1980) has noted, the narcissistic leader in certain historical circumstances may be able to structure an external world that supports his grandiose claims (pp. 138-139). Unlike the ordinary narcissist who experiences repeated frustration of his grandiose claims in a world he does not control, the tyrant can minimize his frustrations and thus the experiences that can lead to depression. In short, he can construct a world that provides him with temporary relief from his internal conflicts. But … this structuring has long-term consequences that are apt to prove detrimental to his psychic balance (p. 25).
This was most certainly the case with Frederick Ladysmith-Jones.
After 12 years of unusual success, the priest was at the height of his success and influence. Convinced of his infallibility he embarked on his sad and destructive days of overreach. A Cathedral bookkeeper with whom he was having an affair, remarked to Ladysmith-Jones that despite his celebrity and ability to raise vast monies for the movement, he had not received any advancement in his ecclesial rank. Further, the benign Bishop Augustini laid claim to the bishopric, while Ladysmith-Jones was the de facto leader – but without a prestigious title. Her point was not lost on the priest.
For some time Ladysmith-Jones had worked to consolidate power both within the cathedral administration and in the world-wide Reformed Catholic Movement. For years he had quietly purged influential board members who objected to his heavy handed control of cathedral administration. Eyewitnesses describe his leadership style as increasingly tyrannical and intolerant of power sharing.
Felix Benjamin, Esquire, the former Faith Cathedral Chancellor and chief legal advisor, describes his tenure under Bishop Augustini and Father Ladysmith-Jones as follows:
When Augustini was ordained bishop, he called and asked me to be his Chancellor. As a religious and cultural conservative, I jumped at the chance to contribute to the Reformed Catholic Movement. For me it was a vocation. But I became increasingly frustrated with Augustini’s shirking of meaningful leadership. He kept shrugging things off to this very young, cocky priest who operated almost independently of supervision. At first, I tried to make the best of it. But then, I had to speak up, because genuine matters of law were involved. Ladysmith-Jones was impulsive and impatient with the checks and balances of Cathedral administration. Like any large institution with a not-for-profit-status, the cathedral administration and the board of directors have to abide by procedures that are determined by by-laws, and state, and federal laws. Departure from those statute-determined procedures opens the institution to lawsuits. For instance, when a donor tithes big money to Faith Cathedral, he has a reasonable expectation that the donation will be used for an expressed purpose, like missions. Once we get a donation, we can’t divert the cash, say, to buy the popular priest-in-charge a better car, or remodel his residence, or increase his discretionary budgets. But that is exactly what Ladysmith-Jones did. He trampled all over due process as it pertained to authorizing his access to money. He was having an affair with the cathedral bookkeeper, and she set up all kinds of “discretionary funds,” the monies of which had been diverted from of the board-approved budget. He would also hustle extremely large sums from philanthropists for an expressed purpose, like the cathedral school, which he promised to name after them; then, he would spend it for another purpose, like hiring a minor army of IT workers to promote him all over the internet – or produce his videos. It was unethical and illegal. When I alerted Augustini and the board, I thought they would sack him. Little did I suspect that I myself would lose my job and my reputation.
Documents indicate that Ladysmith-Jones paid several IT workers to utilize social media to decimate Mr. Benjamin’s reputation. Assuming fraudulent identities, the IT workers spread allegations on LinkedIn and Facebook that Mr. Benjamin was under investigation by the State Bar Association. They mentioned felonies and misconduct. Then links to the slanderous and libelous allegations were sent to Bishop Augustini and the board of directors. Alarmed that the cathedral chancellor faced immanent indictment, Augustini asked the board to dismiss Mr. Benjamin. They readily complied, and Ladysmith-Jones had thusly purged the one person in cathedral governance that might have checked his larcenous overreach.
He continued employing social media to injure his enemies both within and without the cathedral. Sadly his benefactor and boss, Augustini, was to fall victim to this criminality. Sally Lightfoot Tipton, a former cathedral administrator recalls:
Father Frederick had just received a huge check for a Christian Education Building from Grover Vancouver, chair of the Vancouver Custard Foundation, when several panicked board members entered his office. They were upset and asking for advice. They said they saw a post from a mother with a baby – they did not recognize her name – who was appalled to see Bishop Augustini in the cathedral garden acting strange and confused and exposing himself. They had also received email from several parties indicating concern that the Bishop was demented. Father Frederick affirmed that he had been covering up for Bishop Augustini out of loyalty, but now, because the old man’s impairment was so obviously advanced … he had to take action. I don’t know what happened, but the Bishop just went away – it happened fast – and Father Frederick was acting head of the cathedral.
After Ladysmith-Jones’ suicide, investigators learned that the priest had placed a stack of official papers before the Bishop for signatures. Augustini, who eschewed the work of CEO, signed the documents perfunctorily and thanked his protégé for his excellent administrative work. Unbeknownst to the Bishop, he had effectively signed his powers of Cathedral governance over to Ladysmith-Jones – and had legally granted the priest power of attorney in all his financial and medical affairs. A lead police official remarked:
There were illegalities in numerous ways. Augustini had been tricked into signing documents that caused him to lose his job but also his liberty and civil rights. Once Ladysmith-Jones had power of attorney, he retired Augustini to a monastery affiliated with Faith Cathedral, where he kept the old man imprisoned and drugged. Every week a nervous looking neurologist – a man blackmailed by Ladysmith-Jones with information about illegal drug use gleaned from a sacramental confession – would come, inject the patient with a mind numbing drug, and write bogus notes about the bishop’s dementia. Finally, a nun trained in nursing transferred to the monastery and recognized that Augustini had medically induced delirium, not dementia. She alerted the authorities. We investigated and sorted it all out, but it was too late. Augustini’s mind was chemically wrecked, and Ladysmith-Jones had committed his crimes. Ladysmith-Jones was the bad actor, but Augustini does not get a pass. He was asleep at the switch.
Ladysmith-Jones’ trespass against Bishop Augustini eventually came to light, but at the time of Augustini’s loss of power, the priest lost no time in pursuing more power and rank. He arranged to purchase an ordination as bishop.
Seized email correspondence between Ladysmith-Jones and the Reformed Catholic Archbishop of London reveal that Ladysmith-Jones diverted $600,000 from the Vancouver Custard donation to the London Bishop’s UK foundation. Correspondence further shows that the London Archbishop was also “tithed” $100,000 for his personal “discretionary fund.” It is believed that the Archbishop of London was all too happy to sell the rank of bishop to Ladysmith-Jones. Poor financial management of his UK foundation combined with a variety of expensive personal problems – likely born from his poorly treated bipolar disorder – made him Ladysmith-Jones’ willing confederate.
Ladysmith-Jones’s ordination ceremony and celebration took place at Faith Cathedral. The event was impressively luxurious and expensive. Important media outlets covered the event and Ladysmith-Jones’ IT men utilized the event to plaster social media with positive propaganda for their master. On the outside, the moment appeared as another predictable triumph for the Teflon prophet of Reformed Catholicism. But events began to unravel the minister’s momentum.
Just prior to Ladysmith-Jones’ ordination Felix Benjamin, Esquire, Faith Cathedral’s disgraced former Chancellor, filed suit against Ladysmith-Jones, Faith Cathedral, and board members for defamation and numerous damages that all but wrecked his reputation and legal career. The suit was all the more alarming in that Mr. Benjamin’s own attorney was a former Provost from an Ivy League law school reputed for his relentless aggression in matters of civil litigation. During this period, several of Ladysmith-Jones’ IT men left Faith Cathedral as a matter of conscience. They had come to regret their complicity in the destruction of so many reputations and livelihoods on behalf of their boss’s relentless ambition. They provided Mr. Benjamin’s legal team with damaging depositions, plus evidence on flash drives and damning memoranda, as part of discovery. Bishop Ladysmith-Jones dismissed the veracity of the evidence and promised to submit to a deposition with fanfare and bravado.
Coevally, Daniel Dickenson published a critique of the Reformed Catholic Movement in the popular Shaker Committee Human Rights’ blog. Calling for a different approach to the solving of the problems of postmodern Christendom, he chastised Ladysmith-Jones for teaching against Christian baptismal vows. He wrote:
Bishop Ladysmith-Jones fails to call for “serving Christ in all persons and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.” His scapegoating theology does not “strive for justice and peace among all people” and it fails to “respect the dignity of every human being” (Episcopal Church, 1979, p. 304). To the contrary, to the extent that he calls us to despise our neighbor but love ourselves, he calls us to participate in the life and doctrine of Antichrist. The Bishop’s doctrine is uncharitable and is therefore unsupported by the gospels into which we were baptized.
Dickenson’s post went viral and an avalanche of similar critiques followed. An alarmed Bishop Ladysmith-Jones saw tithing go into free fall.
Next, threatening inquiries arrived from attorneys representing the incensed Vancouver Custard Foundation. Grover Vancouver wanted an accounting for the small fortune his fund donated explicitly to build a Christian Education Building on Faith Cathedral’s campus. A disillusioned insider tipped off the philanthropist that the donated monies were spent on Ladysmith-Jones’ phony ordination and his team of expensive lawyers.
Then concerns about the handling of the Augustini matter broke. Federal and state authorities opened an investigation and Ladysmith-Jones was a person of interest facing serious charges. Bishop Ladysmith-Jones hired another team of the best and most expensive attorneys. To pay their fees, he raided Faith Cathedral’s endowment fund without board authorization.
In the midst of this fury of changing fortunes, the bishop had a falling out with his long-term mistress, Margot Van Buren. When she learned that her hero had become dissatisfied with her recent weight gain and had spent a weekend “spiritually advising” a young triathlete from a Seven Sisters college, Ms. Van Buren grabbed her laptop and marched into the State Attorney General’s Office. For immunity, she turned state’s witness. She also gave several damning interviews to Dan Truth, an important religion journalist who followed Ladysmith-Jones and the Reformed Catholic Movement. The interviews depicted Ladysmith-Jones as self-deluded, a con man, and a fraud. Of Bishop Ladysmith-Jones reaction, a Faith Cathedral intern said the following:
When Ms. Van Buren gave her interview, the bishop lost it. Against the advice of everyone, he went on TV and excommunicated Ms. Van Buren. It was so bizarre that the media coverage proliferated into a circus. Story after story about his crimes came out. The Bishop could not manage the damage to his office and ministry. I think he turned to heavy drinking – but this only fueled his erratic behavior. In his public rants, he accused lots of people of disloyalty and heresy and anti-Christian conspiracies. He insisted God would get them. And he kept proclaiming that he represented the authentic soul of the Western world. He looked desperate and silly, declaring holy war against – well everybody – while insisting on his virtue and importance.
The above observation of the Bishop’s behavior under duress is not inconsistent with the narcissistic coping style under pressure. In a study of narcissism and the use of fantasy, Raskin and Novacek (1991) found:
… narcissists cope with stressful experiences by imagining themselves in more ideal situations. In particular, narcissistic persons who are experiencing higher levels of daily stress tend to experience (1) power and revenge fantasies in which they see themselves in a powerful position able to impose punishment on those who have wronged them, and (2) self-admiration fantasies in which they imagine themselves and others admiring their fine qualities of competence, consideration, wisdom, greatness and attractiveness (p. 496).
Bishop Ladysmith-Jones was suddenly in immense trouble. His public airing of revenge and self-admiration fantasies did not help his reality testing. Several teams of attorneys wanted him to keep a low profile and adhere to sensible legal strategies. Heated arguments ensued and the Bishop fired several excellent, incredulous teams of top legal advisors. One attorney put it this way:
Whenever we discussed with the Bishop the realities of his legal disadvantages, he either embarked on violent declamations that devolved into rambling non sequiturs, or he accused us of not being for him, so we were against him. Eventually he fired us, which was remarkably stupid, because we’re among the profession’s best, and we really could have helped him – not to escape reality, which he apparently wanted – but to get a very good deal.
Two events precipitated Bishop Ladysmith-Jones suicide. First, he rushed unprepared to a deposition with the attorney’s working on behalf of Mr. Benjamin’s civil suit. Meticulously prepared, the plaintiff’s side asked questions to which they already knew answers. Besides appearing arrogant and hung over, the bishop answered several questions in such manner that his perjury was obvious. Secondly, the religion journalist Dan Truth invited Bishop Ladysmith-Jones to participate in an interview to rebut the interview given by his estranged, excommunicated mistress. Ladysmith-Jones made the mistake of allowing Mr. Truth to film the interview. Once released, the video offered audiences an exhausted, furious man incapable of providing clear answers to reasonable questions. Dan Truth said:
I gave him ample opportunity to clear himself. Why wasn’t he a hate monger? Was he having an extramarital affair? Was he a serial cyber stalker? Where did the Custard donation go? What really occurred in the Augustini matter? Was it false that he purchased his bishop’s ordination from the Archbishop of London? Etc. If there were reasonable explanations, Bishop Ladysmith-Jones did not provide them. He ranted, alluded to enemies and showed lots of anger. Then he referred to himself as the Reformed Catholic Prophet to the Sacramental Communions of Christendom. That was quite a big title for a very naughty boy to give himself. Ladysmith-Jones was a cartoon. My readers laughed him off the web.
As noted in the introduction of this psychological autopsy, Bishop Ladysmith-Jones left the interview, returned to his rectory, adorned himself in his vestments, prepared documents, drank communion wine, and shot himself in the head. Authorities reported that the final thing that Ladysmith-Jones wrote about himself was that he was a martyr “who died for an unutterably beautiful vision of what the world could be.”
It is a matter of psychoanalytic wisdom that the trapped malignant narcissist will employ suicide in service to their grandiosity:
They become suicidal during crises and when, as masters of their own fate, they see suicide as something triumphant. (Kernberg in Goldner-Vukov & Moore, 2010, p. 394).
Cotter (2009) writes that:
… the powerful dynamics of cognitive and paranoid degeneration the … [malignant narcissist] … is caught up in is proof that the … [defenses] … he resorts to are inadequate … [His defiant attitude] … is, in the end, always defeated by the forces he himself has unleashed. Martin Luther King once wrote that “evil contains the seed of its own destruction” (King, 1986, p. 506).
On a final forensic note, blood spatter evidence on an open comic book in the rectory study indicates that Ladysmith-Jones was strangely reading from a section of a Superman comic at some point prior to his suicide.
Final Notes on the Psychological Autopsy
Excerpting a recent study of the dimensionality of narcissism can begin the obituary of Bishop Ladysmith-Jones. The researchers found that the narcissist brings to the world a host of tendencies which:
… involve a grandiose view of the self, a strong sense of entitlement and superiority, a lack of empathy, and a need for social admiration, as well as tendencies to show dominant, charming, bragging, impulsive, and aggressive behaviors … research has revealed a complex mix of … [narcissistic features] … including traits such as extraversion, self-esteem, need for power, and dominance, but also disagreeableness, aggressiveness, low need for intimacy, and hostility … With regard to interpersonal behaviors, narcissism is related to charming, self-assured, and humorous behaviors…but also to selfish, hostile, and arrogant behaviors …. Narcissism is related to popularity … and leadership and celebrity status … It is, however, also related to negative evaluations in long-term acquaintance… and conflict in romantic relationships …(Back, Kufner, Dufner, Gerlach, Rauthmann, Denissen, 2013, p. 1014).
Certainly, the late Bishop Ladysmith-Jones was all that these researchers say. He did indeed demonstrate the bio-psycho-social-spiritual problems that narcissists inflict upon their relational domains. But what separated him from manifesting merely annoying and unremarkable narcissism was his malignancy. Overwhelming evidence supports that his personality contained criminal, sadistic, and finally paranoid features. His tenure as a prominent minister in the Reformed Catholic Movement destroyed reputations, careers, tithing, institutional credibility, relationships, and faith. That police, social workers, and pastoral counselors did not effectively rescue him from the paternal abuse and maternal neglect of his childhood is sad. His childhood necessitated the narcissistic defenses that drove the socially winning grandiosity that accounted for his disarming charisma. That his seminary mentors and Cathedral bosses did not address his identifiable and escalating psychopathology is a tragedy on a level not easily calculable. While Ladysmith-Jones is easily identifiable as a malignant narcissist and a criminal, perhaps those who might have interrupted the formation of his destructive character and his entrance in to ministry share culpability with the grandiose suicide for his pestilential leadership.
JCH Interview with the Author
JCH: What factors contribute to persons being willing to blindly follow? What needs are played on?
Dr. Zeiders: Several types of people get pulled into the dark orbit of malignant narcissism.
First, normal people in a group that has legitimate concerns will find that a charismatic, confident leader can articulate their concerns and possesses the ability to make the world more as they would like it to be. The “normals” are the first to go. Possessing an adult sense of appropriateness they disillusion quickly as they see their values subverted by the leader’s self-serving behavior. If they are important enough, they will be vilified for leaving.
The second group will stay with the leader, because he will lead them into temptation by allowing them to share in his grandiosity and also benefit as a co-conspirator. This group tends to be comprised of insiders. The leader will bond with insiders though a shared sense of mission. Anyone who threatens the leader’s agenda, or alpha rank, however, will be purged in some real or metaphorical manner.
Then there are followers with dependent traits. Lacking ego strength and an adult sense of appropriateness, they remain for a long time. They believe that the leader is wise and will remove their anxiety and neediness. If they remain thus fixated, psychological adulthood is lost to them.
Finally there are the true believers. They find their own narcissism, criminality, sadism, and paranoia successfully expressed by the leader. They identify with him and see him as their voice in the world. Because they maintain an aggrieved stance, they have a sense of destructive entitlement to commit violence against agreed upon “victimizers” regardless of the fatuity of the actual harm the despised group represents. True believers see themselves as righting a wrong done against them. They become furious when invited to mediation with an out group; forgiveness of real or imagined trespasses done against them, strikes them as actually dangerous; loving one’s enemy is inconceivable. They will become suspicious of co-religionists who seek to solve tensions with other parties via the explicit teachings of Christ. They tend to be the rank and file of the organization that stays until late in the movement’s destructive downfall. Even when the leader overreaches and succumbs to final stage malignant narcissism in a great crash, people from this group defend themselves and the leader’s obvious moral grotesqueness.
JCH: What about the so-called authoritarian personality? Do you see a relationship between that character type and the rise of potentially narcissistically malignant religious or political movements?
Dr. Zeiders: Utterly. During the Second World War a group of American scientists sought to understand the type of personality that would support extreme totalitarian movements with charismatic leaders, urging war and genocide. Recently, Annalee Newitz of Ars Technica (2016), an online periodical of ideas, asked Federico, an expert in authoritarianism in contemporary America, to summarize the top finding of this research published in 1950 (Frederico continues the work of Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Sanford, R. N., who published The Authoritarian Personality in 1950. A link to the relevant website is found in the references).
Above all, [The Authoritarian Personality] was correct in its key argument: that there are personality differences among individuals in the degree to which they prefer clear lines of social authority, strict social norms, and social uniformity as opposed to diversity. It was also correct in arguing that individuals who score high on authoritarianism in this respect tend to be more intolerant of those who are different (e.g., racial, ethnic, or religious minorities) or those [who] appear to deviate from traditional social norms (e.g., LGBT folks). They are also more likely to gravitate toward political figures (e.g., Donald Trump in present times) which embody intolerance and willingness to attack minorities who are believed to pose some kind of social threat.
A critical mass of authoritarian personalities in a political or religious group may constellate a malignantly narcissistic leader to advance their social norms and opposition to diversity. Theologically informed social psychology needs to explore how Christian groups maintain equanimity and uphold the dignity of every human being while simultaneously maintaining faithfulness to God during rapid social, economic, and political change – in the midst of war and during a confusing knowledge explosion. Can healthy leaders be raised up to offset circumstances friendly to malignant narcissism? This needs to be studied.
JCH: Has healing of this condition ever been reported and if so what seemed to be the key factors?
Dr. Zeiders: The prognosis for character pathology like this is grim. Churches and their consultants would do best to identify at-risk characters at entry level and weed them out.
While the idea of healing is theoretically possible, it seems unlikely. But we can never rule out a Pauline type of miracle. The early career of Saul of Tarsus may have elements in common with the phenomenon we are discussing. We do not know what happened to him developmentally, but he certainly seemed to have been employing narcissistic defenses by projecting some despised inner problem onto the early church which he mercilessly assaulted. Inflicting theologically justified injuries upon the faithful may have reinforced Paul’s sense of greatness’s. He may have even sadistically enjoyed injuring Christians whom he saw as enemies of God. Paul, however, did not enter psychotherapy; Our Lord simply grabbed the man, and shut down his evil activity. When Paul describes himself as the worst of sinners, he just might not have been thinking of himself hyperbolically.
JCH: Could you address the spiritual dynamics of malignant narcissism?
Dr. Zeiders: Yes. Langberg (2016) has written powerfully on the subject.
Think what a weary task it must be for someone with NPD [Narcissistic Personality Disorder] to wear the Shepherd’s dress and have to borrow the Shepherd’s voice and ways without truly having his heart. What a burdensome charade! Leaders can call themselves Christian; they can say they are shepherds and learn to speak in ecclesiastical words and moving tones and, yet, be imposters. As strangers to God’s pastures, how can they direct or feed His sheep? Instead, they feed on their sheep. Such a leader is self-installed. Not God-ordained, and we are easily seduced by his or her deified gifts, fed by our own hunger and longings for great things. Yet, in fact, this person is a hireling, more concerned for his or her ego and own starving self … skillful at shearing, but not at feeding (p. 61).
JCH: Langberg is eloquent about the pathetic and repellent nature of narcissism in church leaders. But the narcissistic leader always interrelates with parishioners, a church, and God. Can you speak to that?
Dr. Zeiders: When a narcissistic character uses “vocation” in service to self-worship, the church is contaminated by idolatry. For the “successful” narcissist and his spiritual children, this is a spiritual disaster. It is an abomination that will eventually cause desolation. This desolation will befall the cleric, the individual congregant, and the institutions involved. When Jesus Christ cleansed the temple, he vented his fury upon the people who elevated an object over his Father’s divinity. Christ is the same today as he was yesterday. He will not allow a spiritual leader to self-deify. Nor will he indefinitely allow admiration of the charismatic clergyman to metastasize into worship. He has commandeered us to put nothing in the place of God. When this abominable sin occurs, it is analogous to the End of the Age. In Mathew 24:15-16 (Barker, New International Version, 1985), Jesus warns us, “So when you see standing in the holy place the abomination that causes desolation … flee to the mountains.” In other words, break with the leaders and institutions that choose themselves over God. Flee the destruction that will surely come. To participate in this sort of evil is to court calamity. If a spiritual leader, no matter how attractive, leads people to himself and not to God, he leads the people astray.
JCH: Malignant narcissism unleashes primordial powers and principalities. Who is reflecting on that?
Dr. Zeiders: Robert Cardinal Sarah (2015) uses the life and scandal of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, whose notorious career reflected character pathology consistent with malignant narcissism, to meditate upon the spiritual forces that contended over the conflicted life and legacy of the talented, destructive clergyman.
Of course there is always one burning question. How could a man as corrupt as Father Maciel fool the Roman authorities and the popes themselves for so many years? I think that the founder of the Legion of Christ betrayed the graces that heaven had given him. Little by little the devil took hold of his soul and inspired in him all the despicable acts that we know about now … it seems obvious that he constantly rejected the help that the Son of God could have given him … Indeed, this man built up a work of God while at the same time carrying in his own person the seeds of its destruction. There certainly was a battle between good and evil; God gave much, while secret, maleficent actions never cease to spread their diabolical poisons. While God was building a magnificent work, the devil did his upmost, in ever more hideous ways to ruin the work down to its foundations. It must not be forgotten that the Legionaries of Christ have made an enormous contribution to the Church over the course of the last fifty years … after so many difficulties and attacks by the Evil One, I am certain that the better side will triumph (pp. 218-219).
Cardinal Sarah’s thinking strikes me as appropriately complex to the phenomenon. He knows that the problem of certain clerical characters is not simply psychiatric or psychological. The problem is deeply spiritual. Embedded in Cardinal Sarah’s thinking is the assertion that the destructive priest ruined his soul by choosing the idols of his perversity. But the Cardinal commendably reminds us of the larger Christian reality that God plants seeds of sanity that grow to choke the weeds of madness.
JCH: In the psychological autopsy you cited Martin Luther King’s remark that the pathology carries the seeds of its own destruction. Is there a predictable pathogenesis?
Dr. Zeiders: Power and malignant narcissism interact in such a way that a meta-trajectory can be theorized to describe the likely unfolding of the career of an afflicted person (Glad, 2002).
- Grandiosity and ability to employ antisocial tactics provide advantages in securing political power in certain situations.
- Political power [is] used to buttress grandiose self-image, defend against external criticism, provide company, [and] bolster splitting and paranoiac defenses.
- But consolidation of absolute power is apt to lead to a vicious cycle:
- Orchestrated adulation and friendships feel false.
- Grandiose plans lead to rash behavior; this and ruthless political tactics create new enemies …
- Project overreach and [the] creation of new enemies leads to increasing vulnerability, a deepening of paranoiac defenses, and volatility in behavior. (p. 6)
Glad notes that the overreach increases the list of real enemies, while draining away resources to contend with increasing vulnerability. Despite furious, destructive efforts to maintain control and impulsive gambles born of desperate grandiosity and magical thinking, the malignant narcissist exhausts his options. He wrecks both himself and his movement, and even his enemies find significant shambles about them.
JCH: What rules would you give to people to help them deal with the dangerous narcissism early in the game?
Dr. Zeiders: The same thirteen rules that Harvard psychologist Martha Stout (2005) offers for detecting and dealing with sociopaths – whose destructive characteristics overlap handsomely with malignant narcissists – apply in this case.
- The first rule involves the bitter pill of accepting that some people literally have no conscience … [and] they look like us.
- In a contest between your instincts and what is implied by the role a person has taken on – educator, doctor, leader, animal lover, humanist, parent – go with your instincts … your best self knows … that impressive and moral sounding language do not bestow conscience on anyone who did not have tit to begin with.
- When considering a new relationship practice the rule of Threes … three lies says you are dealing with a liar … cut your losses and get out.
- Question authority … especially [authorities] who claim that dominating others, violence, war, or some other violation of your conscience is the grand solution to some problem.
- Suspect flattery … [it] involves an intent to manipulate.
- Redefine your concept of respect. Too often, we mistake fear for respect, and the more fearful we are of someone, the more we view him … as deserving our respect.
- Do not join the game … resist the temptation to compete … protect yourself.
- The best way to protect yourself from a psychopath is to avoid him, to refuse any kind of contact or communication.
- Question your tendency to pity too easily … do not be afraid to be unsmiling and calmly to the point.
- Do not try to redeem the unredeemable.
- Never agree to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character … Other people deserve to be warned more than sociopaths deserve to have you keep their secrets.
- Defend your psyche … do not allow someone without a conscience to convince you that humanity is a failure … Most human beings are able to love.
- Living well is the best revenge (pp. 156-162).
JCH: What should religious organizations do to prevent malignant narcissism from afflicting their ranks?
Dr. Zeiders: Sensible policies regarding the mental health of clergy need to be enforced. Prior to priest candidacy, aspirants should be extensively interviewed and psychometrically evaluated. They should be given the MMPI-2 and the MCMI-IV. Ideally, statements from family members, peers, and professors should be obtained. A full picture of the postulants functioning and attitudes in the following domains should be obtained: love, sex, work, friendship, past, present, future, intellect/emotions, body, and spirit. All metrics should be scoured for elevations in clinical scales. Metrics related to overconfidence and criminality would be especially relevant to positive finding for the problem discussed. Every five years all clergy should be thoroughly retested. Thorough background checks need to be conducted at every interval. Three sixty feedback must be gathered. A line item in the diocesan budget should dedicate funds for this ongoing process. “Physicals” occur every year. Church officials must undergo a “psychological” every 5 years. Weeding out or treating psychically challenged clergy is much less expensive than attorneys’ fees; it is better for the church, and mercifully preventative of injury to the faithful and scandals.
JCH: What else?
Dr. Zeiders: Professional formation needs to involve education and indoctrination into the inviolable nature of church governance, polity, and policy. These exist to help members of the church share power, so that no one person becomes so powerful that they are unaccountable. When clergy degrade their accountability structures via devious political moves – by elevating unquestioning incompetents to important positions, or by surrounding themselves with mesmerized or blackmailed coconspirators – forceful measures must be taken by remaining responsible parties to restore healthy polity and fiduciary organizational behavior.
Cloud’s (2010) advice to CEO’s and board members regarding how to protect their organizations from malignant narcissism is apt here.
With evil people … [the protective strategy] is lawyers, guns, and money … The bottom line with evil is to stay away, create the firmest protective ending that you can, and get real help to do it. Use your lawyers, law enforcement (that is the guns part), and your financial resources to make sure that you will not be hurt by someone who is trying to destroy you or the things that matter to you (pp. 143-144).
JCH: In that quote Cloud used the words “evil people.” From the vantage of biblically informed psychology might the pathology of malignant narcissism correspond to a specific type of person known to theologians?
Dr. Zeiders: Yes. In 1 John the writer makes clear that first century Antichrists were leading the people astray. To the writer of the epistle, persons with this terrible character type would continue to mislead the people until the final Antichrist is defeated. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994):
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the mystery of iniquity in a form of religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh (p. 194).
Here are some arguable correspondences between The Antichrist and malignant narcissism:
- The Antichrist injures the church by enshrining “Not God” as Lord. Pathological narcissism functionally finds ultimate value in the self,
- The Antichrist self aggrandizes over God. Implicit in narcissism is this same spiritual madness.
- The Antichrist looks for salvation other than in Christ. In malignantly narcissistic movements, salvation implies aggrandizing the leader and the fulfillment of his program.
- The Antichrist implies abandoning love, embracing the world, and criminal destructiveness. So does malignant narcissism.
- Because Antichrist cannot conform behaviorally to the teachings of Christ, he models selfishness and hate, rather than humility and forgiveness and loving enemies. Malignant narcissism models the same.
- The Antichrist is predicted to leave destruction in his wake. The malignant narcissist does as well.
- The rhetoric of The Antichrist will be spiritually obscene, because it will not contain redemptive value. The same applies to the ideology and theology of the malignant narcissist.
JCH: In the psychological autopsy of Bishop Ladysmith-Jones, you offer a composite of a fragile narcissist whose malignancy is obvious. Could you discuss variant presentations of the pathology?
Dr. Zeiders: Because the subject of the psychological autopsy was an extreme case, he was likely to eventually overreach and fail. Many clergy, however, closet their narcissism. Their grandiosity is not obvious, and they remain vigilant throughout their careers to conceal their malignant behavior. Some will attain and remain in high church offices. They will be highly manipulative, politically adroit, and ruthless – while presenting somewhat credibly as servant leaders. Any organization needs to protect itself from such actors. That is why institutional accountability structures need to be established and upheld. Plus, psychological testing should be conducted at regular intervals. Churches should also invite consultants to conduct audits of institutional health to independently assess the presence or absence of closeted pathology.
JCH: Is malignant narcissism a male-only pathology?
Dr. Zeiders: Likely not. According to the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association, 2013) 50 to 75 percent of people diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are male (p. 671). But there is a literature of malignant narcissism among females. In People of the Lie Peck (1983) offers several convincing case vignettes of malignant narcissism among females. He makes the point that they frequently gravitate to church positions. The case of ‘Charlene’ is especially interesting. She had been fired as a religion educator by an Episcopal Church and spread chaos and destruction into virtually any relationship she entered. Peck tried to get to the self-idolatry at the core of her destructive behavior. Utilizing a risky confrontational style, he began:
“You were raised in the Christian Church. You spent almost two years as a professional teacher of Christian Doctrine,” I went on goading her. “Surely you are not so dumb as to be unaware of what Christians say is the meaning of life, the purpose of human existence.”
“We exist for the glory of God,” Charlene said in a flat, low monotone, as if she were sullenly repeating an alien catechism, learned by rote at gunpoint. “The purpose of our life is to glorify God.”
“Well?” I asked.
There was a short silence. For a brief moment I thought she might cry – the one time in our work together. “I cannot do it. There is no room for me in that. That would be my death,” she said in a quavering voice. Then, with a suddenness that frightened me, what seemed to be her choked back sobs turned into a roar. “I don’t want to live for God. I will not. I want to live for me. My own sake!”
It was another session in the middle of which Charlene walked out. I felt terrible pity for her. I wanted to cry, but my own tears would not come. “Oh, God, she’s so alone,” was all I could muster (p. 168).
For the female with this pathology, as with the male, no submission to a power higher than themselves is psychologically possible. Thus, their behavior will not be governed by an unselfish conscience, and they will secretly bring unchristian values into leadership positions.
JCH: Can you recommend a resource from literature or the arts to help readers develop an imaginative model of this destructive phenomenon?
Dr. Zeiders: The psychotherapist Peter Devlin (2016) does a wonderful job summarizing the contribution of a contemporary English novelist in this arena.
The Patrick Melrose Novels (2012) are a string of four novels—Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk—by Edward St. Aubyn. The novels are a Bildungsroman of Patrick Melrose, the eponymous hero or anti-hero of this series. The novels begin when Patrick is five years old and end in his middle age. The novels are both horrifying and comedic in their portrayal of a human being’s descent into psychic destructiveness in the aftermath of childhood rape and emotional torture. The torturer is Patrick’s own father, David Melrose, an English aristocrat, who rapes the five-year-old Patrick at their French country home.
The rape takes place in the first novel, Never Mind (St. Aubyn, 2012). The novel happens over a single day and ends in a dinner party. Before the cocktail party, Patrick’s mother Eleanor is also introduced. She is an alcoholic who has been also raped repeatedly by Patrick’s father, David. Once, he forced her to kneel down and eat from a dog bowl. She, moreover, dissociates from everyone including Patrick, perhaps a feat of psychic survival.
David Melrose is portrayed as a sadist and narcissist. He is “the kind of narcissist who exploits and controls others, inflating himself by deflating those he surrounds himself with … he needs others desperately, but … disavows dependency, which he views as weak and shameful” (Shaw, 2013, p. 2).
The second novel, Bad News, happens just after David’s death. Patrick is in his early twenties now and a consumer of any type of drug available to him: heroin, cocaine, pharmaceuticals. He also travels from England to New York City to pick up David’s ashes (David had moved to NYC after alienating everyone around in England). In New York City, with his father’s ashes in an urn, Patrick begins an epic drug bender through the underbelly of New York City. He realizes during his self-destructive, nihilistic jaunt: “it was the first time he had been alone with his father without being buggered [raped], hit, or insulted” (St. Aubyn, 2012, p. 259).
Devlin points out that St. Aubyn writes the Melrose family in such a way that the reader gets to experience the impact of the pederastic, alcoholic aristocrat David Melrose on his immediate family and on his grandchildren – even after his death. These novels depict a generational legacy of malignant narcissism as a curse that keeps on cursing. St. Aubyn explores different possibilities for healing from this malignant legacy via Christian forgiveness and Buddhist detachment. But the principal character has no mentors and makes little progress.
JCH: It sounds like Patrick and his mother both developed psychiatric disorders and substance abuse issues secondary to their exposure to David’s malignant narcissism. Of course David himself is portrayed as exhibiting symptoms consistent with paraphilic and substance use disorders. What sorts of disorders are comorbid with malignant narcissism?
Dr. Zeiders: Disorders comorbid with malignant narcissism might be substance use disorders, pedophilia, sexual sadism, and mood irregularities. It is known that Hitler took amphetamines not only to elevate his mood but also to increase his charisma. Certain priests known to my practice have combined pedophilia with sadism. An important megachurch bishop appears to experience hypomania during and just-after his well-received sermons. When a minister is tense from narcissistic rage or paranoia, they may abuse alcohol for anxiolytic effects.
JCH: This phenomenon is not simply limited to church situations, is it?
Dr. Zeiders: Not in the least. Arguably, malignant narcissism inflicts the most societal damage when actors with this affliction assume leadership in the corporate world and political office.
JCH: What are your final words on this phenomenon?
Dr. Zeiders: Use psychological assessment to prevent people afflicted with this psychopathology from entering or remaining in church leadership. If the situation cannot be redressed, leave the institution at once, and quarantine your affairs against the actor and his minions. Have no god but God. And think for yourself.
Malignant narcissism is an extreme form of character pathology that may afflict clerical leaders. This article presented an example of malignant leadership, offering a composite in the form of a mock psychological autopsy. The pathology is defined by core narcissism, criminality, sadism, and paranoia. One presentation involves a longitudinal course of success, grandiosity, overreach, decline, and possible suicide. Durably successful clergy with this issue will closet their narcissism and not engage in overreach. Clergy with this pathology may be male or female. For the individual and the group, narcissism is idolatry and therefore a dangerous abomination that is best to flee if amelioration cannot occur. This phenomenon can no longer go unaddressed in the greater Christian church.
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Charles Zeiders, Psy.D. is a Clinical and Forensic Psychologist who practices in the greater Philadelphia area. He teaches at several graduates schools, including Eastern University and Reformed Episcopal Seminary. His books include The Clinical Christ and Wall Street Revolution. He is an expert in the psychology of religion and psychological assessment. Correspondence may be sent to [email protected] or www.drzeiders.com.