Articles‎ > ‎

Book Review - Traumatic Narrcissism

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 5, 2014, 57-60.

Book Review - Traumatic Narcissism: Relational Systems of Subjugation

By Dan Shaw

Reviewed by Gillie Jenkinson

New York, NY: Routledge (imprint of Taylor and Francis). 2013. ISBN-10: 041551025; ISBN-13: 978-0415510257 (paperback), $37.13 ( 192 pages.

Dan Shaw is a respected colleague whom I met through the ICSA network. I was intrigued when he told me at the ICSA New York Conference in 2010 that he had left his cult in 1994 by being dropped off at a gas station just down the road from the conference hotel. When visiting New York, I have passed this gas station a few times since, and I always think of Dan and that landmark day for him. Having read his book, I now know more of what he had escaped from—the clutches of a traumatizing narcissist.

Shaw is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City and Nyack, New York; he also is a faculty and clinical supervisor in The National Institute for the Psychotherapies (NIP), New York and former cochair for the Continuing Education Committee for The International Association for Relational Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Shaw spent 13 years as a staff member in Siddha Yoga (SYDA Foundation). There he wore many hats, including manager of the residential Manhattan facility, and educator, spokesperson, public-relations coordinator, community organizer, and writer/director of public programs. Shaw exited Siddha Yoga in 1994, published an open letter about Siddha Yoga on the Internet in 1995, and helped create the Leaving Siddha Yoga website (, one of the first Internet websites for former cult members. Shaw has published numerous psychoanalytic papers, including pieces in the Cultic Studies Journal. This book is a compilation of a number of previously published articles.

Shaw’s book is clearly organized and is an important contribution to both the psychotherapy and the cultic-studies fields. He stands on the shoulders of many great psychoanalytic thinkers and practitioners who have attempted to describe the complex phenomena of pathological and traumatizing narcissism, and how to work clinically with its various presentations. Shaw is an original thinker. He has used his own personal experience of being in a cult with a traumatizing narcissist at the helm and his extensive clinical experience as a psychoanalyst to inform this theoretical and clinical contribution.

This book is a must for psychotherapists because it addresses the theoretical and clinical issues of working with both the victims of a traumatizing narcissist (referred hereafter as TN) and with TNs themselves—although he notes that, by nature of their disorder, TNs rarely attend psychoanalysis. Shaw also addresses degrees of authoritarianism and TN in supervision and in therapy, where, in some cases, the therapist has become an abusive TN and in effect a cult leader.

This book is also important for former cult members and their therapists. Shaw’s understanding will help former members who struggle with recovering from the effects of a TN cult leader. His theoretical discussions help to explain why former cult members feel so depleted and abused by such leaders or gurus. Shaw states, “Traumatic narcissism … can be understood most simply as the action of subjugation” (p. 136). He explains that a traumatizing narcissist has an overinflated, entitled, grandiose sense of self. The tragedy for those on the other end of such a TN is that they are weakened; and their subjectivity, their sense of themselves and how they see the world, is suppressed and fed on by the narcissist, all because of the TN’s need for control and exploitation—and because the other’s subjectivity is a threat to the TN. So in order to inflate his own sense of self, the TN needs to deflate and even obliterate the other’s sense of self (p. 137). The dynamics of what may be going on with a TN may be clear in theory, but they are nearly impossible to comprehend when one is in an actual relationship.

I will briefly summarize each chapter in the following subsections:

Chapter 1—The Relationality of Narcissism. The term narcissism has become common parlance (p. 1), and in this chapter Shaw addresses the necessary task of defining the term and exploring its origins and theoretical development in psychoanalysis (p. 11). Shaw challenges that those who “oscillate from inflated to deflated narcissistic states are also called pathological narcissists” (p. 10). He proposes a different conceptualization—that those who are deflated and thin skinned may be children of TNs, and they are those “who in development … [have] suffered severe damage to their self-esteem system, and whose self-esteem regulation is therefore inconsistent…” This contrast with inflated, thick-skinned narcissists is an important one that Shaw addresses throughout the book one way or another. The thesis of this chapter, which has important clinical implications, is that separating these different individual groups is important.

Chapter 2—The Adult Child of a Traumatizing Narcissist. Shaw explores the complexity of how TNs become TNs—are they victim or victimizer? These are difficult questions to grapple with, and ones he handles well. His use of classic literature illustrates these ideas and grounds them in reality and real people’s lives. In an interesting discussion on the adult child of the TN, he looks at the life of Eugene O’Neill, the acclaimed playwright and author of such works as Long Day’s Journey Into Night. In O’Neill’s plays, the uncomfortable truth that the child of a TN has become a TN himself is illustrated in an interesting (and poignant) way.

Chapter 3—Traumatic Narcissism in Cults. This is the chapter in which Shaw illustrates TN in cults through his own cult experience (a group based on Hindu ideology). He argues the point that, although his Guru used all of Lifton’s mind-control techniques (p. 58), there was more to the Guru’s “use of power to intimidate, seduce, coerce, belittle and humiliate others” (p. 47) than mind control, and that one can explain these attributes and abuses more fully by understanding about TN.

Shaw illustrates another harmful cultic group by looking at the Sullivan Institute, an abusive psychotherapy cult. He notes that there is a lack of research into cultic psychotherapy and states that “Perhaps the concreteness of sexual violation makes it easier to grasp and repudiate than the dynamics of sadistic control and domination between therapist and patient, which can be enacted more subtly and be therefore less obviously transgressive” (p. 55).

In this chapter, he also explores political issues and “radical elites” (p. 57) under the subtitle “Nationalistic Exceptionalism.” Additionally, there is a summary of Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform (p. 58), although Shaw uses the term mind control in his chapter.

Chapter 4—Narcissistic Authoritarianism in Psychoanalysis. In this chapter, Shaw explores authoritarianism. He illustrates how the power imbalance in supervision or psychotherapy can go too far, resulting in trainees not being supported to grow and learn to make their own “unique, personal, individual contributions to the progressive evolution of the profession” (p. 70).

He explores the motivations of those of us who become psychotherapists. He notes that we often have idealistic aspirations, but that any of us may unconsciously be drawn into the dynamics of “the dark side of the analytic frame” (p. 65), such as using our professional status as a means of establishing ourselves “as the healthy one” (p. 65). These are important points, which are ethical issues within the psychotherapy profession and ones worth taking on board.

Chapter 5—Traumatic Narcissism in Couples: Invisible Violence and Clinical Morality. This chapter helpfully illustrates how a psychotherapist might work with couples when one of the partners is a TN. Shaw highlights the differences between “battered spouses” and a couple with one TN partner (p. 71), wherein physical violence may or may not be present but the dynamics of the relationship will be deeply harmful.

Chapter 6—“But What Do I Do?”: Finding the Path to Freedom. Shaw notes that insight is not enough to bring resolution to those who have been subjected to TN, and he quotes a client who poignantly asks, “But what do I do?” He explicates a number of strategies we might adopt that may be less than helpful. The first strategy is forgiveness: “I observe that forgiveness-in-theory, which is how I see this one-sided forgiving, is usually ephemeral, ending up redounding either to self-blame or dissociation” (p. 93). The second is hating, and how this approach inevitably turns back on the self and is ineffectual in bringing freedom (p. 95). The third strategy is indifference, wherein individuals try to convince themselves they have been angry long enough and so deny their pain. The fourth strategy is “The Sacrifice Solution” so often found in religious settings (and cults), in which individuals deny their needs by sacrificing themselves for others.

Having explored these mechanisms to cope with pain, Shaw then looks at a solution: “Bearing the Pain.” He notes the importance of bearing loss and the resulting pain, and he states that this approach is potentially the way forward (p. 97). He also notes that “Psychological growth involves the tempering of one’s [own] narcissism … toward a balanced, realistic sense of self such that one can continue living creatively and productively, bearing well enough one’s own history, what has been, and bearing well enough life’s vicissitudes, what is to come” (p. 97). Individuals must find their own intersubjectivity and loosen the grip of the TN (p. 98). Shaw once again uses literature to illustrate his point; he explores the life of British aristocratic author Edward St. Aubyn, whose series of Patrick Melrose novels (p. 99) is based on the author’s painful and moving path to, and achievement of, recovery from two TN parents.

In this chapter, Shaw again illustrates a necessary recovery task, that of helping patients find a way to separate their own subjective self from the traumatizing other (p. 115).

Chapter 7—On Therapeutic Action of Analytic Love. In this chapter, Shaw explores the theory of analytic love as a means to aiding recovery in a psychoanalytic setting; he states, “I wish to join those analysts who see love as central to analytic work, and identify a lineage of psychoanalytic forebears who place love at the center of their theories of development” (p. 119). Research supports that the relational aspects of psychotherapy are the most potent, and Shaw’s exploration is an important contribution to this discussion.

Chapter 8—Analytic Love Revisited: Narcissists ‘R’ Us! Shaw ends this chapter stating that analytic love “cannot spring from a traumatizing, narcissistic relational system” (p. 148). He notes that some therapists will be very persuasive as to how and why they know best what their trainees and clients need and should do—but they will not be aware of their own delusional ways of relating. Shaw states that, as an antidote, “analytic love is what happens when we do our work with the awareness and acceptance of our own vulnerabilities and fallibility; and with the willingness to acknowledge shame, at least to ourselves, when that is what we are feeling” (p. 148). This book is peppered with illustrations of Shaw’s ability to take this stance, to be self-critical and to do his utmost to ensure he does not act in the harmful ways he is exploring in this book (p. 140).
Further Critique

Shaw is a relational psychoanalytic psychotherapist, and his thinking and writing are steeped in psychoanalytic theory. I am a psychotherapist trained in the United Kingdom in Gestalt and other humanistic approaches, and I am familiar to some degree with psychoanalytic theory but not steeped in it; as such, it took some effort for me to understand many of the terms and concepts he uses in the book. Having said that, reading it was well worth the effort. I suggest that, if the book is reprinted any time in the future, a glossary of terms be added for those not from the psychoanalytic community, so readers do not need to have Google or a relevant dictionary open to remind them of the terms whilst they are reading the book! This addition will make the book more accessible to a wider audience.

As a therapist who works predominantly with former cult members, I was really looking forward to reading about Shaw’s thoughts on the traumatizing, narcissistic cult leader. Shaw’s view, from a psychoanalytic perspective, of cult leaders or gurus through the lens of them as traumatizing narcissists is interesting, illuminating, and worth taking on board; and it is a helpful contribution to the field.

In the chapter on couples (chapter 5), I was disappointed that Shaw did not explicitly comment on one-on-one cults; although with his having summarized group/cult dynamics, it is clear that these will apply as well to the one-on-one cultic relationship in which the victim is often in the thrall and control of the TN partner.

I also was disappointed that Shaw did not explicitly address the issue of second-generation adults (SGAs) in his discussion of the cult leader being a TN. I wondered about the experience of being the child of a cult member who is in the thrall of a TN, who in turn acts as an abusive parent to both the dependent and depleted cult-member parent and the depleted and dependent second-generation child. The child is doubly abandoned and abused. I would have liked Shaw to have commented on this issue.
Reviewer’s Bias

I am a former-cult-member psychotherapist reviewing a book by a former-cult-member psychotherapist, but I do not believe there is a conflict of interest. I am based in the United Kingdom, and Dan Shaw is based in New York. I was a member of a Bible-based cult, not a Hindu-based cult.