Why We Need to Talk about Narcissism: Tony Jones Edition

Why We Need to Talk about Narcissism: Tony Jones Edition February 3, 2015

I have grown increasingly uncomfortable with the Tony Jones situation over the last week, and I’m afraid I’m going to have to weigh in again. By word of background, Tony is a leader in the emergent church movement, a branch of evangelical Christianity strives to be less judgmental and more open, works to create space for women and LGBT individuals, makes use of new styles of worship, and focuses on personal connection with the divine. Recently, Tony’s ex-wife Julie has gone public with allegations of abuse.

While Tony and Julie’s divorce was finalized back in 2009, Tony has systematically silenced her and it is only in recent months that her story has become well known. Julie alleges that Tony was diagnosed as a narcissist and that he physically assaulted her, that he cheated on her before they divorced and that he has made efforts to avoid paying child support. Most emergent church leaders have closed ranks, defending Tony and portraying Julie as a mentally unstable harasser. I wrote about this in a blog post several weeks ago.

Some have argued that a couple’s messy divorce should be private, and that it’s wrong for Julie to make these things public. I would agree, except that Tony is in a position of leadership and spiritual authority. Further, this isn’t just about a “messy divorce.” Julie is alleging that Tony abused her, both physically and emotionally, and also that his associates—other emergent church leaders—aided him in this. In other words, she speaks of a systemic coverup of abuse that touches leaders at the very foundation of the emergent church movement.

Last Wednesday, Tony released a 12-page statement refuting Julie’s allegations point by point. Nestled in that statement was this:

As part of the divorce proceedings, Tony and Julie under went psychological examinations. Tony was diagnosed with an Axis I diagnosis of NPD (DSM-IV 301.81). Tony took his diagnosis seriously and immediately commenced therapy. Tony is still under the care of the same therapist, and she has recently diagnosed him with Acute Stress Disorder (DSM-V 308.30). 

In other words, Tony acknowledges that he was diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD. I have to wonder whether his defenders—and they are many—are familiar with narcissism. Narcissists see the people around them as objects to be used. They are often literally unable to feel empathy.

There is no “cure” for narcissism. A narcissist may manage their condition through talk therapy, but the condition itself does not go away, and it is extremely difficult for a narcissist to get to the point where they actually acknowledge they have a problem, because believing they don’t have a problem is part of their disorder.

According to the National Library of Medicine:

Narcissistic personality disorder is a condition in which people have an excessive sense of self-importance, an extreme preoccupation with themselves, and lack of empathy for others.

Here are the diagnostic criteria under DSM-IV:

In order for a person to be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) they must meet five or more of the following  symptoms:

  • Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
  • Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
  • Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
  • Requires excessive admiration
  • Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
  • Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
  • Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
  • Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
  • Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes

NPD is a very serious diagnosis. If Tony was schizophrenic we would point out when he was having delusions in order to prevent him from hurting himself and others, and we would tell others about his diagnosis, both for their own good and for Tony’s good. NPD also involves delusions—delusions of grandeur—and like sociopathy, it involves a lack of empathy. NPD is an Axis II diagnosis, along with borderline, sociopathy, and other personality disorders. Depression, bipolar disorder, and other mood disorders are Axis I disorders. 

I understand that there is a lot of concern about linking mental illness with abuse, especially when the mentally ill are more likely to be abused than other individuals. But not all diagnoses are the same. Unlike other conditions, NPD displays itself in hurting others, often those most close to the individual, often in subtle and manipulative ways. At the same time, a person with NPD is extremely charming and likable, making it extremely easy for them to deny or hide their abuse. If we want to help people with NPD, we need to call out these patterns and hold them accountable. If we avoid talking about what NPD is for fear of creating a stigma, we are both putting ourselves at risk and not doing people with NPD any favors.

I have several friends whose parents were narcissists, and the abuse they received at their parents’ hands is the ugliest thing you can imagine. In each case, their parents’ likability enabled them to fool not just friends and relatives but even therapists. The end result is that it was very difficult for my friends to get anyone to believe the severe emotional abuse they received—abuse that still affects them today. Remember that narcissists lack empathy and see those around them as tools to be used. It is extremely easy for narcissists to cause a lot of damage, especially to those closest to them, such as family members, and they rarely show remorse.

Tony says he went immediately into therapy after his diagnosis and has been in therapy since. In other words, he says he is managing his narcissism. I understand why people don’t want to question this, but I actually don’t think it’s helpful to a narcissist to accept their claims of reform at face value, because of the way their condition works. When we find out someone has been diagnosed as a narcissist, even if they are now in therapy, we should scrutinize their actions and words carefully, and not just for our own wellbeing, but also to hold that person accountable—and a reformed narcissist should want this.

Which brings me to our next point. In his statement, Tony claims he was diagnosed with “an Axis I diagnosis of NPD,” and then links to the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But there is no such thing as Axis I NPD. Narcissism, by virtue of being a personality disorder and not a mood disorder (such as depression), is by definition Axis II. Now, we could write that off as a simple error rather than an attempt to downplay his condition’s seriousness, but then, this is not his only error.

My good friend Ryan Stollar has obtained and read both court records and private documents, and he had this to say of Tony’s statement:

1. Jones’s statement is chockfull of half-truths and outright falsehoods.

I have spent hours upon hours, rolling into days now, finding and reading all the public records and court documents about the Jones/McMahon situation. There are a lot, as evidenced in Jones’s own statement. There are court-ordered psychological evaluations, custody battles, claims of domestic violence, etc. And after reviewing as many as I could find, this much is clear: Jones is not telling the whole truth. The public records and court documents indicate a damaged and broken marriage between Jones and McMahon, and Jones’s statement consistently underplays the real, documented damage he inflicted upon both his former wife and his children.

Whether intentionally or not, he misquotes many of the documents, making certain issues appear less significant than they actually are. He omits to mention various documents that would make him appear in a less-than-stellar light. And most importantly, he blatantly lies. For example, in his statement, Jones said the following:

Abuse was never mentioned in any divorce settlement, mediation, custody, or financial discussions. Tony and Julie have had nearly a dozen appearances in Family Court, and never once has Julie or her attorney alleged abuse in any form.

This is completely false, and there is a plethora of documentation that reveals it to be. The records include paragraph after paragraph about allegations of domestic abuse — from both Jones and McMahon. The records also indicate there are numerous parties that corroborate McMahon’s testimony of being assaulted by Jones.

I have an enormous amount of respect and trust for Ryan, whom I have known for years, and whom I have worked with ever since he launched Homeschoolers Anonymous. Ryan has shown me excerpts from some of the documents he has obtained, and these verify his account: In his public statement, Tony is both blatantly lying and omitting important details.

I am not a therapist or a mental health professional. I understand concern about trying people in “the court of public opinion.” But I am completely flabbergasted by how implicitly so many people are believing a man diagnosed with NPD. Tony and his associates have warned interested parties against contacting Julie, saying that if they do she will harass them, but are they stopping to think about what this means—and about the fact that any non-public documents they may be given access to are filtered through Tony, whom we know has NPD?

While the divorce was going down, and even before it, Tony was the chaplain for the local police force. That’s right, the police force that was writing the reports Tony claims exonerate him of any wrongdoing. Last week Brian McLaren, a friend and associate of Tony’s, stated that he is now preparing to sue Julie over her allegations. David Hayward, who runs the Naked Pastor blog and allowed Julie to comment there, sharing her story, has also been warned to prepare.

I will be frank: I have been nervous about writing this post, both because I don’t want to be slapped with a lawsuit and because I don’t want to stigmatize mental illness. But if I had a diagnosis of NPD and truly believed I had a problem and was in therapy for it, I would want people to double check my words as well, both for their own safety and to ensure that I would not fall into old patterns and relapse. After all, wouldn’t we do this for someone with schizophrenia? How can we help those with mental illness if we avoid raising awareness of it for fear of creating a stigma?

But then, if I had a diagnosis of NPD and was doing my best to manage it through therapy, I would avoid lying to those around me (both through blatant falsehood and through omission), and would own up to and apologize for past wrongs I had done people.

I’m not here to hold court on Julie’s allegations or specific questions of abuse. I’m here to point out that glossing over Tony’s diagnosis of NPD in order to not stigmatize mental illness does absolutely no one any favors here. In fact, it strikes me that a desire to avoid ever talking about mental illness and abuse in the same sentence creates a perfect environment for narcissists to exploit. NPD, remember, is not like other conditions. We’ve talked before about how redemption narratives can lead to evangelicals overlooking, say, an individual’s past sexual abuse. I think there’s something similar going on here with NPD.

The simple point I’m trying to make here is that narcissists who are managing their condition through therapy don’t need a clean slate, they need accountability. They don’t need people to ignore their NPD, they need people to remember it, and to be willing to bring it up. A willingness to gloss over an NPD diagnosis is not helpful to anyone, least of all individuals with NPD.

I had wanted to avoid blogging about this further. I used my last post on the topic to point to a bigger issue—how we respond to abuse allegations. But as I’ve watched this situation drag on and Tony’s list of defenders grow, I’ve felt more and more heartsick. I had hoped that scandals like that of Sovereign Grace Ministries were limited to more conservative circles where the dynamics of abuse and silencing are less understood, but I see now that I was wrong.

I suspect one reason so many people have sided with Tony is that Julie is not a perfect victim. But then, there is no perfect victim, and people who care about the dynamics of abuse and understand things like victim blaming should be aware of this. Requiring Julie to be the perfect victim before we recognize her abuse is not unlike asking what a rape victim was wearing, or what she was doing alone at a bar late at night.

I see now that this sort of abuse and coverup can occur anywhere, including in circles ostensibly devoted to defending the abused and the victimized.

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