How the narcissist changes persona: What this NPR review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman might teach us

I’m forever noticing ways how narcissism presents, and looking for examples to share to help people view the disorder in a slightly different way to view the disease more holistically.

This book review by Maureen Corrigan, NPR book critic, of Harper Lee’s newly released novel Go Set a Watchman (GSAW) is a good find for exactly this.

GSAW follows the main characters—Scout and Atticus, mainly, in the decades after her classic To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM) ends.

It’s the Atticus character, based on this reviewer’s notes, who I want to call your attention to.

Ms. Corrigan writes:

“He’s like Ahab turned into a whale lover or Holden Caulfield a phony.”

Literary criticism (and un-fleshed out drafts) aside, this struck me as an example of how an individual with narcissism behaves. The change in persona is key. Usually we think of narcissists changing to look better, but the Atticus self in the earlier TKAM is far more ethical, humane. It would be easier for us to understand if his nasty self came first, followed by the adaptation of a socially approved mask, wouldn’t it?

But using this thesis of false self without presuming a linear, foward-moving trajectory, the TKAM Atticus might have been showing his false self and the GSAW Atticus might be showing his truer self (based on his anger, which is something that is present but shunned and split off/disowned in the disease).

Perhaps, if we view GSAW as a continuation of TKAM, then Atticus, the narcissistic individual, has been unable to keep up the mask of goodness he projected, and, in older age, is revealing who is truly is. Is he self-destructing? Will he find another persona to step into?

What does this do to Scout? To their relationship?  To her belief in his ideals? To her belief in herself?

All this is hypothetical because this is fiction, but it’s a very useful lesson in narcissism.